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As a community, one of our unique qualities has been our willingness to consider issues from the point of view of an outsider. One of our most repeated doctrines is that faith in the group can never take the place of faith in God.

We drum it into our members over and over that they must constantly examine their motives to be sure that what they are doing is a genuine act of faith in God and not simply a response to peer group pressure.

We have often discussed the benefits of backsliding, and how some people, like the prodigal son, learn to appreciate what they have only after they have lost it all. Backsliding can be a humbling experience, and one which makes some people more sensitive to the weaknesses of others.

But too much emphasis on this one aspect seems to have glamorised backsliding into some kind of spiritual cure-all. The story of the prodigal son leaves no doubt in the mind of the reader that the runaway was definitely running away, rebelling, heading into sin.

He would have never learned the lessons that he learned if he had not been conscious of the fact that he was wrong in what he initially set out to do. (Luke 15:17-32) Sure, there is a lesson to be learned from the older brother, who was smug and complacent about his faithfulness (and we have tried to teach that and practise it), but how much worse to become smug and complacent about backsliding! Yet each time another individual or couple leaves our community, they piously announce that they are heading out to "find God" or to make some other great spiritual discovery.

Paul talked about people who were teaching that we should sin so that God's grace would become more apparent. (Romans 6:1) He said that this was a monstrous distortion of the truth. The same is true of the trend in our own fellowship to backslide in order to "grow spiritually".

Let's start by looking at the facts regarding those who have left our community in the past. Where do they go to "find God"? Isn't it always to worldly relatives, worldly employers, and worldly institutions? While it is true that we have maintained friendly relations with a few of them, they have virtually all returned to working for money. A very high percentage of them now profess to having no faith in God at all.

Many of them are bitter toward God, toward ourselves, and toward community living. Almost all are paranoid to the point where we cannot make contact with them much less discuss Christian topics without them running away in fear. They are spiritually pathetic individuals. But most did not look pathetic when they set out for the big city with their inheritance in hand, boasting about what they were going to do with it. Most left with talk about getting out a lot of tracts, starting their own community, furthering their education, reaching out to the Third World, etc. But little by little, under the insidious influences of a godless society, they gave in to the pressures and conformed.

Sure, it's possible to be an exception. But it will take more discipline, more prayer, more faith, and more critical self-assessment to succeed spiritually on your own than it does within a community that is dedicated to following God. One could theoretically follow God without a Bible too, but does that mean we should throw our Bibles out to prove how spiritual we are? We need to seriously question any voice that tempts us to jump off such a 'cliff' to prove ourselves. Unless we find or create something better, there is no good reason to throw out what we already have.

Strangely, at the same time that people refer to their departure as a spiritual quest, they also express bitterness at disciplines that they have had to endure as part of a fellowship. This, of course, is an attempt to put the blame on the group for their own backsliding. The longer they have been with us, the harder it is to convince themselves that they spent all that time doing something that they didn't want to do. This is why "brainwashing" arguments are so appealing. Group leadership is recreated in the mind of the backslider as superhuman monsters, who exercised such total control over their will that they had no freedom to think for themselves.

Our community is such a tiny one that every member has a great deal of influence on all decisions that are made. At the moment we are virtually all leaders. If one person wants to distribute tracts, another wants to run a health clinic, and another wants to participate in political demonstrations, we are quite likely to do all three in an effort to keep everyone happy. People need only ask. It is nothing for someone to propose that we alter our schedule, or reassess our goals or priorities, and to have that proposal accepted. Nowhere in the systems outside of our group do we know of such instant response to the wishes of the individual members. And yet the backsliders argue that the group which they helped to create was dictatorial and oppressive.

When a person backslides and then returns to the fellowship, it can never totally erase the damage done by their departure. Most of you who have backslidden were part of a small team that was carrying a great load of responsibility. Everyone on the team was experiencing more or less the same stress that you felt. But you decided that you would pull out and leave the load to the others, because it was getting too much for you to carry. How do you think it makes the rest of us feel? Your departure was part of a chain reaction, as the load became progressively more difficult for those who were left to carry it. Can you see how hard it will be for those left with the burden to trust you with responsibility in the future?

People want leaders whom they can trust, who will not run off and leave them when things get tough. A true shepherd does not flee when the wolves attack. When you backslide, you destroy your own credibility.

Sure, we will welcome you back, because we love you and want what is best for you. But we would be stupid to overlook the fact that you dropped your bundle when things got hot.

Even the story of the prodigal son seems to have been misunderstood with regard to the older brother. It is true that he had his own lessons to learn, but as the father pointed out, "All that I have is yours now." (Luke 15:31)

The younger brother had thrown away his inheritance. He was more or less a son in name only after his return. You can't just spit the dummy and then come back to take up where you left off. We live with the fruits of our sins.

You may be very gifted in many areas, but if you are not faithful in your service to God, your gifts mean very little. May God bless the tiny handful who have stayed faithful through this present falling away. And his blessings for exactly that are the greatest benefits of not backsliding!

When the Son of Man comes will he find any faith at all left on the earth? (Luke 18:8)

(See also The Fall.)

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