Chapter 5: “Next Christmas, We’ll Get a Tree”
Eric Wilson spent nearly twenty years with the Assembly, a network of Christian fellowships with headquarters in Fullerton, California. Melodie was there eighteen years; Elizabeth Walsh, fourteen. They all mourn lost years and what might have been.
The Assembly congregations, founded by George Geftakys, are located primarily in university towns because student ministry has been a major focus of their work. Eric and other former members’ experiences in the Assembly have a familiar ring: hierarchical leadership, an authoritarian style, a demand for unquestioning loyalty, control over family life and marriage relationships, rigorous discipline, and an often frenetic schedule of meetings, Bible studies, and church work.
Eric was initially drawn to the group through Bible studies and the participatory style of the worship services. He quit college, joined the Assembly, and eventually helped to start a brothers’ house, where single men could live together-and where a rigorous set of rules governed their lives.
“When we started the house, the members were told to write down what we thought the purpose of the house was. The other brothers wrote things like: to learn discipline, to be more Christ-like, to receive help with various behavior problems. I wrote down as my objective: to learn more about the Lord and to grow in grace.”
After Eric married, his wife joined him as a leader in the brothers’ house, and they continued to live there after they had children. Eric worked at whatever jobs he could find that did not interfere with the Assembly schedule. If schedule conflicts arose, he was counseled to find another job. Then, as their children approached adolescence, Eric and his wife felt they should seek a job transfer, move out of the brothers’ house, and live on their own. Eric informed the leaders of their plans, but also said they did not want to leave the Assembly. The leaders would have none of it.
“The brothers told me I could no longer lead the prayer meeting that I had led for many years. Then they told me I would have to step down as ‘leading brother.’ Next, they told me that I couldn’t preach on Sunday afternoons since I was no longer a leading brother. During Sunday morning meetings three brothers would usually speak. The last speaker was the main one and summarized and commented on the two previous speakers. Now they would not let me speak last. At that point I had not said a critical or negative word about the group. However, I felt that they had made some bad decisions and were not doing what was right.
“On my last Sunday I was the second speaker. I talked about knowing the will of God individually, based on the gospel of John, where Jesus tells Peter to follow him and Peter says, ‘What shall this man do?’ The Lord said, ‘Don’t worry about that. Follow me.’ I talked about the need for us as individuals to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. There was nothing in my talk that could be considered divisive. I didn’t mention anything that would contradict any doctrine taught by the Assembly.
“The last brother followed me and preached on unity and standing together. He said Satan misleads us and tries to get us as individuals to go out on our own. ‘. Afterward, people came up and said, ‘They were saying you were of the devil. What’s going on?’ I made excuses for the other brothers. I was protecting them to the very end.”
“THE GOSPEL IS NOT ABOUT A LIFESTYLE”
The turning point came soon afterward. Eric was eating lunch in a restaurant and preparing a Bible study for the Assembly. “An old man started to tell me about his own troubles, a story filled with sorrow and pain. I was impatient because I felt I didn’t have time to listen to him. He had bad health, his wife had just died, and just before she died, she had joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses and had wanted nothing more to do with him. His daughter was a transsexual. He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I never talk to complete strangers.’
“I don’t know if the man even heard what I said to him, but God used the occasion to speak to me. This man was in pain and needed me, and I realized that the gospel of Jesus Christ was meant to meet the needs of people like this guy. The gospel is not about a lifestyle that requires being faithful to a system or a group. God got my attention that day and showed me that he cares more about individuals than a system.
“That night I spoke about that experience to the group, and afterward a brother asked me, ‘Do you really think it is more important to talk to people in restaurants than it is to be prepared for the meetings? What values are you communicating to the saints here when you say something like that?’ I had no answer for him. In my heart I knew, however, that something was wrong. They weren’t preaching biblical Christianity.
“When I left the Assembly, I was very confused. I felt numb. I felt as if I had made a very big mistake. For twenty years I had set aside my concerns because I felt that Brother George’s teaching was truly God’s message from the Throne and therefore my concerns were, no doubt, of the flesh or of the enemy. After all, if you are being given ‘God’s message’ from ‘God’s servant’ who has ‘God’s anointing’ for ‘God’s work’ concerning ‘God’s testimony how can you really question it?
“It has only been since leaving the Assembly that the fog of deception and the fear have lifted and we have begun to see what we were involved in and how emotionally and spiritually damaging it has been. But the road to recovery has not been easy. For example, my wife and I found it hard to enjoy ourselves because we would remember all the activities that we used to be involved in almost every night. We felt guilty because we were staying at home when we should have been out doing something. It was as if a load was lifted from me, yet I wanted some of it back. I didn’t know where I was without the parameters that the group provided. I had enjoyed the feeling that I was needed by people in the group. It was hard to realize that they didn’t really want ‘or need me. I still love them very much. I’d like to restore a loving relationship with them, but I won’t do it at the expense of the truth.
“The most important thing in my recovery has been the need to get the proper balance between the heart and the head. In the Christian life, the mind is not something to be subjected to the heart. It is false to say you cannot know or understand the Word of God unless you have the proper inner attitude, or unless you surrender and submit, and that only when you get to that place will God break through and show you the way. Instead, the gospel is clear and easy to understand. It is not a puzzle that we have to put together. We place our faith in what the gospel teaches, then the emotions will follow, and we can have the proper emotional balance in our lives.
“We have benefited greatly from the writing and scholarship of many evangelical writers who speak clearly about the grace of God. A friend gave me commentaries and other books about Scripture to read so that I could find out on my own what the Bible really says. I still believed much of what George taught, but I had to set my emotions aside for a while. I couldn’t devotionally read the Bible any more because I kept hearing George’s blaring voice saying that I was evil, out of the will of God, and not going the way of the Cross.
As I began to read and to understand what Christianity is really about, I was able to control my emotions.”
THE COST OF SPIRITUAL CONFUSION
“My wife is still angry,” Eric relates. “She doesn’t understand why God led us into this group in the first place. She feels cornered, and she’s not going to give up that independent spirit that they were always trying to get out of her. In her heart she knew they were wrong. She wants to see justice done.
“They hurt her as well as me. The Assembly shunned her. The acceptance she wanted from them was withdrawn. She would say hello to a brother and sister, and they ignored her. After twenty years of service, my family and I were treated heartlessly. We were rejected, viewed with suspicion, shunned, and humiliated.”
Alienated and abandoned, they search for a church where they can feel at home, but it proves elusive.
“We have been to four different churches in the two years since we came out. I liked the first church we went to, but my wife and daughter didn’t like the ‘worldliness’ of the congregation’s lifestyle. They were different from what we were always told the committed Christian should act and look like. My family wasn’t comfortable there.
“I had a chance to talk to the pastor of the second church we visited. This pastor emphasized commitment, but that was all I had heard for the last twenty years. I think Christians need to hear about the nature of God and his grace. The pastor said that his people knew that already, but it was something I hadn’t heard much preaching on.
“We finally settled into a little independent Baptist church. A few months ago the pastor and an elder paid us a surprise visit. My first thought was that we had done something wrong, but because I had given the pastor a copy of the letter I had written to the Assembly, he thought we had been in a cult and weren’t saved. That has strained our relationship.
“I have come to the conclusion that we will never get what we need from a church. It is going to be our family and the Lord, and we have to get that relationship right. There is not going to be a church suited for people who have our background. They won’t change their ministry to meet our needs.”
The Wilsons’ youngest daughter is trying to adjust to the changes by blending in with her peers and being a bit rebellious, arguing and complaining.
“Our eldest daughter feels more comfortable in a strict environment. She doesn’t want a TV and would probably like to go back to the Assembly. She knows, however, that the Assembly is wrong. She would probably fit in better in another conservative group that has a more legalistic orientation. She has come back from youth group meetings in tears because the other kids are not being serious about the youth pastor’s message.
“My daughters are being home-schooled because my wife is fearful of their getting involved in public schools. And we’re still nervous about the youth group.
“We are so thankful that the Lord has brought us out of the Assembly. It takes time to heal; it is difficult to face having to begin all over again. We feel depressed sometimes, yet not hopeless. We once again have a full salvation and all the joy that goes with it, as God intended.”
MAKING EVERYTHING A SPIRITUAL ISSUE
Melodie spent fourteen of her eighteen years in the Assembly in a sisters’ house, which, like the brothers’ house, was governed by strict rules. Among the problems she encountered in the Assembly are spiritual intimidation, blaming the victim, and hypocrisy.
Melodie recalls being served something for dinner that she really disliked and that everyone else knew she disliked. She was told that she had to be willing to do whatever God wanted. “They spiritualized everything. My problem was not being humble before God, but I demonstrated humility in eating something I hated. This happened frequently. Once I was irritated at some minor thing and my roommate told me I couldn’t leave until I had the joy of the Lord. We argued, and it became a spiritual issue. Finally I just said, ‘Okay, I have the joy of the Lord now,’ and left. They give little things eternal significance.
“Problems are swept under the rug. You are told to take everything to the Cross and identify yourself with Christ. What would Christ do in this situation? Would he cry, get angry? If you had been abused or raped, you were told that it was all in the past and that the Cross was taking care of it. As a result, people did not experience true emotional healing. They say the Lord will meet all your needs, but they cut off the means that the Lord has given us to meet those needs. They have a very narrow and distorted view of who God is and what he requires. You don’t complain to the Lord’s people.
“They always put the problem on the person. If you are upset at being told to do something unreasonable, you are being stubborn. Christ would do it, why won’t you? The leaders would tell you that there is no reason for you not to do something unreasonable. You must be willing to be nothing and go the way of the Cross. If you are having problems with something, you are looking at yourself and should look to the Lord. That approach can be guilt-producing.
“They teach that if you are disobedient, you can forfeit your eternal ‘inheritance’ and miss out on the kingdom. You feel that you must always be doing more to please the Lord and, therefore, you are afraid of what will happen if you fail. When you leave, you lose your friends, but you wonder if you have lost the Lord too.
“Leaving was very difficult. All ties with friends who remain in the Assembly are severed-by them. My best friend returned a gift I had sent her. We know she has been counseled not to have contact with me. We are the enemy and when we contact members, it is a demonic act. They hope that defectors will feel the pain of rejection, repent, and return. I can’t remember anyone leaving with their blessings. If you leave, it is because of some sin in your life.”
FULL OF ACTIVITY, BUT EMPTY INSIDE
Elizabeth Walsh was another member of the Assembly who was eventually compelled to say no. Attracted to an Assembly congregation in Chicago while in her late teens, she was initially impressed with its emphasis on commitment and its desire to “be like the early church.” After a time she moved out of her parents’ home and into the sisters’ house; she quit college because of the rigorous schedule of meetings and work set for her. Eventually she discovered that the wrong rules and too many rules can lead a person away from God rather than to him.
The Assembly limited Elizabeth’s relationships. When she joined the group, she was told to give up her friends on the outside. She struggled to gain acceptance and friendship, but even after ten years she still felt alone in the crowd.
“Even though my life was full with activity, I was empty inside. People told me that if I worked for God, God would give me that perfect husband I was waiting for. Nobody cared or noticed me. I realized that I had developed emotional problems. I would laugh for no reason at all. I was giddy. I was unable to interact with people in a normal social manner. I felt like I was waiting for reality to come. I was in a temporary purgatory that I had to go through until I got to whatever my real life was going to be.
“As time went on, I got bitter. I got especially bitter about the roles of the ‘workers.’ Workers were considered holier and better than the rest. If George acknowledged you as a worker, you were at the top. Before you reached that pinnacle, you advertised your good deeds so that they would be remembered, and this news of your great spirituality would get back to George and then he would make you a worker.
“Over time, I began to get another view of the workers. I discovered that they were not better than the rest of us, they were not the holy people that folks said they were. They treated others horribly. They lacked kindness and compassion. In the Assembly, we never learned how to be kind.
“The biggest problem was my weight. The Assembly labeled me a glutton. Every meeting they would check my weight. ‘How come you haven’t lost the weight yet? God hates gluttons, sister.’ Because I wanted to be married, they told me I lusted too much after men. I wanted to be a wife and mother, and I knew I wasn’t ‘lustful.’
“At the age of twenty-four, I finally made friends with two black people who joined the Assembly. I was told that there was something wrong with me because I had ‘lowered myself’ to have black friends. None of the white women wanted to be my friend. Black members never knew what the rest of the group thought about them.”
ON FORGIVING AND FORGETTING
Elizabeth asked to be transferred to the Assembly in Champaign, Illinois, but she found that the labels and criticisms followed her there from Chicago. “Nothing was ever forgiven and forgotten. A small indiscretion would haunt you forever and be blown out of proportion.
“At age thirty I was asked to live in my own apartment because I had a reputation for asking questions. It was the first time I had lived on my own without others looking at everything I did. I didn’t know what to do with that kind of freedom. Nobody made any effort to befriend me or to spend time with me. I have never been so lonely. Yet, paradoxically, because I lived alone, I was finally able to face my loneliness. I cried and cried for days when I was not in a meeting.”
Elizabeth began to witness to a man she met at work and she led him to the Lord. She sought help from the Assembly in discipling him and was rejected. Eventually she had a brief, but guilt-ridden affair. Then she had an affair with another man. Her self-image changed. “I felt good about myself. I grew ten years in six months. Every Christian man I had ever met treated me worse than this non-Christian man I eventually married.”
After Elizabeth and her husband moved to California, she began to think again about her relationship with God. “One day I got on my knees and asked God to restore me. I knew I had sinned and was separated from God. So I came back to God and renewed my walk with him. I thought, ‘I’m going to make my life right with the Assembly and go back into fellowship there.’ I convinced my husband to go with me to a Sunday afternoon meeting.
“It was upsetting that no matter where I was or what Assembly I visited in California, there would be somebody who knew me from Chicago. They would come up to me and say, ‘Is this the man whom you had the affair with?’ or ‘Are you really back with God?’ They were asking these questions in front of my husband, who I hoped would come to Christ through these people who were supposed to be so godly.
“When I looked at some of the people in the group, they didn’t look happy. They seemed very rigid. I realized that they were still holding things against me that had happened years before. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable again. While we were in California, I attended off and on for two years, but I felt pulled down every time I went. No one reached out in kindness or friendship to us while we were there, not even to go out for a cup of coffee.”
AN INTIMIDATED LIFE
Elizabeth’s weight problem became more serious. “I became bulimic, so I went to a Christian counselor. I also began to have violent nightmares about the Assembly. The dreams were about things that had happened to me while I was in the group but I had repressed. I had forgotten much of what had happened to me in Illinois. Those memories surfaced after some counseling.
“I remembered that in the Assembly they had treated me as if I weren’t fully human. I began to weep for my lost youth and how I had let someone take over my life, how I had allowed people to become so entrenched in my life that it wasn’t mine anymore. I was angry that I had to be brought to the point of sinning with a man to have my eyes opened and see that I had been deceived, hurt, and used.
“I have tried to put the pain behind me. I finally decided that I have to enjoy my husband and daughter, enjoy the life I have now. I lost a lot of my life. I always think about what could have been.
“I feel sorry that there are Christians right now living that kind of intimidated life. If you want to go to meetings twenty-four hours a day, you should be able to, but no one should intimidate you into going. If you are too sick and too tired, God is not keeping a scorecard. God is not saying, ‘She fell asleep in meetingshe’s out of the kingdom.’
“You should never be in a church or fellowship where you have no time to think. Nowhere in the Bible does it say, ‘Thou shalt have crowd control or mind control. You shall all walk alike and talk alike.'”
Elizabeth noted that she and others left the group after they had had time away from the constant activities due to illness. “I didn’t have any real doubts until I stopped living in the community and wasn’t watched all the time. I had time to think.
“I suggest to people who are still part of a group like the Assembly to take a hard look around and ask yourself some hard questions. When people there talk to you, is it always negative and critical? Are you intimidating another person so that you will feel better? Instead of demonstrating care and compassion, do you have intimidation sessions? If people are constantly putting you down, that is not being holy.
“Now I have hope in my life. I have a desire for a future and a tomorrow. I don’t want everyone tearing me down all the time. Maybe that is why I am afraid to go back to Christian fellowship. I don’t want to go through all that again. When you leave a church, you should not be made to feel like you are committing spiritual suicide. You have to break all ties with the rigid lifestyle. God wants us to put holiness in our lives, not rules and regulations.
“I feel as if I am missing a spiritual hormone. I feel sad because my husband and child need me to be strong so that they can come to Christ, but I am a spiritual invalid. The Assembly promised closeness to God, but the end was spiritual confusion.”
As a result of that spiritual confusion, Eric Wilson, Melodie, and Elizabeth Walsh had to struggle long and hard to find true freedom in the Christian faith.
Perhaps the freedom these former members now experience is best represented in Christmas. Melodie had told me, “The Assembly doesn’t celebrate Christmas or other holidays. Members are kept from their families on those days by being kept busy on outreaches during those times. The children of members wonder why their parents are going to Juvenile Hall on Christmas to cook dinner for the kids there, or enact a Christmas play and make a gift with them and then refuse to celebrate Christmas at home. They see the hypocrisy.”
When Eric Wilson told me about his children, he said, “We still don’t celebrate Christmas. I told them, ‘Next Christmas, we’ll get a tree. We will celebrate Christmas.'”
[This chapter does not have footnotes]
The full text of Recovering From Churches That Abuse has been placed online at Apologetics Index by permission from the book’s author, Dr. Ronald M. Enroth.
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