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The testimony of this book is that battered believers can recover. But is rehabilitation possible for churches that abuse? Can a spiritually abusive system be changed? The answer is yes, even though in reality many churches do not experience significant change. Sometimes the modifications are only cosmetic or superficial, perhaps in response to pressures from the membership or out of a desire to gain legitimacy and acceptance from the larger Christian world. Transformation usually comes slowly. The mind set of the typical authoritarian leader is to resist succumbing to calls for change rather than admit failure or weakness.
But some do answer these calls, and as evidence I will cite two groups described in Churches That Abuse.
The network known as Great Commission Association of Churches (GCAC) claims that it has taken significant steps in the direction of reform and reconciliation with disaffected ex-members. They have published and circulated a "Statement of Errors and Weaknesses" and have discussed the issues raised in that statement in several elders' conferences. The leadership believes they have made sincere attempts to seek reconciliation with disaffected former members. The group has taken steps to encourage accountability to others and has sought advice from several ministry consultants, including leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals and leaders of Campus Crusade for Christ, concerning the errors and problems of the past. They have also encouraged their staff and pastors to pursue additional seminary training, and they have instituted a Council of Reference, individuals to whom the GCAC leadership can go for counsel.
Dr. Paul Martin, director of Wellspring and a former member of Great Commission International (as the group was formerly called), concurs with the opinions of many other former members:
Some encouraging reforms have occurred in recent years after the founder, Jim McCotter, left the movement in the late 1980s. However, the current leadership has not yet revoked the excommunication of its earlier critics. The admissions of error so far have been mainly confined to a position paper, the circulation of which has been questioned by many ex-members. Furthermore, Great Commission leaders have not yet contacted a number of former members who feel wronged and who have personally sought reconciliation. There has been some positive movement in that direction, but most ex-members that I have talked to are not fully satisfied with the reforms or apologies and feel that the issues of deep personal hurt and offense have not been adequately addressed.
GCAC leader David Bovenmyer indicated in a letter that "we have not been able to achieve reconciliation with all, yet our sense is that some of our most severe critics will not be pleased with us unless we fully vindicate them and join in their denunciations of Jim McCotter, something we cannot in good conscience do."
A former member sees in such an attitude a pattern that "protects unequivocally the prophet-leader, keeping him in holy light, irregardless [sic] of the realities of distortion and problems seen from those not under the spell. The implication is, then, that they, even though having made significant moves, are still under 'the spell.'"
Another group that responded to charges raised in Churches That Abuse is the Word of God community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Well-known in charismatic Christian circles, the Word of God community exerted considerable psychological and spiritual influence over its members after its founding in 1970. In an extraordinary "family meeting" held on June 2, 1991, Ron Ghormley admitted that the pastoral care system had major flaws. He mentioned that the system had become "too controlling," that "immature and dependent Christians" were often the result of the faulty system, that people were often treated more like children than adults, and that the system fostered an unhealthy elitism. Ghormley stated, "We, the leadership of the community, need to repent to all of you and especially to those who have been hurt by what we all thought and hoped would be a wonderful approach to achieving a wonderful Christian life."
According to the Detroit Free Press, Ralph Martin, the popular leader of the Word of God, confessed that the community's failings included "legalism," "self-importance," "disdain for other Christians," "secrecy," and "authoritarianism." The Free Press quoted Martin:
The Word of God community began in a genuine encounter with God in the power of the Holy Spirit. We wanted to give our whole lives to him and be fruitful in his service. To a large extent, this is what happened. But ... a gradual shift occurred which we scarcely noticed at first: We moved from primarily trusting in and exalting Christ to focusing more and more on "our way of life," "our teaching," "our leaders," "our approach," "our community."
As a leader during this time it's been humbling, embarrassing, and a cause for grief to see the different ways we've gotten off the track, and the ways in which we've grieved the Lord and our brothers and sisters in Christ. It's been a time for repentance, for soul searching, and for change.
I have suggested to leaders of the Evangelical Covenant Church that the Word of God community might serve as a model for change in Jesus People USA in view of the testimonies of former members. There has been much correspondence between leaders of the Covenant Church and JPUSA and me since I began to do the research for this book. They have questioned the integrity of my reports, the reliability of my respondents, and my sociological methodology, but I have conducted more than seventy hours of in-depth interviews and telephone conversations with more than forty former members of JPUSA. They have also largely discounted the reports of abusive conditions past and present in the JPUSA community. One denominational official wrote to me in September 1993, "You need to know that we have investigated all charges against the Jesus People and have found them to be unsubstantiated or false." Another Covenant administrator claimed that the characteristics I had identified regarding JPUSA were "untrue," "misleading," and "unsupported."
JPUSA pastors and Covenant administrators have reconceived my research findings as "accusations," "charges," and "allegations." Unfortunately, this inaccurate redefinition of scholarly research may give some the impression that I am personally bringing complaints against a Covenant congregation. It unfairly casts me in an adversarial role, something I reject.
Former members have also confronted denominational and JPUSA officials about their concerns, most notably living conditions within the community, spiritual elitism, authoritarian control over members, the failure to nurture members toward maturity and independence, and the difficult exit process. Repeatedly these members have felt their experiences and concerns were ignored, discounted, or rationalized away. But in late 1993, under the auspices of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a select group of former JPUSA members met with key JPUSA leaders. A mediator from the Alban Institute led this first formal attempt at reconciliation. It remains to be seen whether the process will continue or where it will lead. But one former member present later expressed the hope that it would prove to be "the beginning of the beginning."
Can JPUSA change? Will JPUSA change? There is evidence that some conditions have changed. But there also appears to be an unwillingness or inability on the part of the leaders to admit that serious problems persist.
The December 1993 meeting involving about a dozen former JPUSA members together with Evangelical Covenant Church leaders and JPUSA pastors should not be interpreted as a formal acknowledgment of spiritual or emotional abuse within the community. However, the leaders have expressed some sympathy with the complaint that leaving JPUSA can be a difficult process. They have initiated steps to facilitate departure and subsequent life adjustment for those members wanting to leave.
Significantly, however, the leaders view problems of leaving largely in terms of transition from a communal setting to a non-communal one. By limiting their concern to practical and utilitarian matters such as securing housing and opening a bank account, the leadership overlooks the painful interpersonal and psychological hurts that often accompany departure. For example, one woman who had been a member for nearly twenty years said that following their decision to leave ("we were told we had sixty days to go"), no one spoke to her husband for weeks. He became, she said, "the invisible man." In a letter to a JPUSA pastor the husband wrote, "Do you have any idea how difficult it has been to adjust? What our kids have gone through? Do you care? As a pastor, can your concern for others reach beyond your agenda? Do you have any idea how it feels to be part of something for so long, and then be treated as if you were never there at all?"
Leadership shortfalls in Christian organizations are not easy to acknowledge, but spiritual wholeness and renewal cannot be achieved until unhealthy behavior is recognized and dealt with. Unless abusive behavior is confronted and confessed, the likelihood of real change is diminished.
Unwilling to admit serious deficiencies and insensitivity in their pastoral style, the leaders of JPUSA have instead sought to discredit the former members who have cooperated with my research efforts. As Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton remind us, it is often the case that "anyone who rebels against the system must be personally attacked so people will think the problem is the person, not the system."
JPUSA may well be an instance in which a significant distance has developed between the official teaching of the organization and the reality experienced by many rank-and-file members. This is what sociologists describe as the differences between "ideal culture" and "real culture." Leaders may sincerely not recognize that their leadership style and policies are experienced by many members as a spiritual elitism and an authoritarianism that borders on "speaking for God." They do well to regard the words of this former member of JPUSA: "I believe that the leaders themselves have become victims. I have spent a lot of time with some of them, and many really do love the Lord, but I believe that they are deceived themselves. They have no idea how much pain they have caused in hundreds of people's lives."
But JPUSA has also had a wonderful ministry to the margins of society in the inner city of Chicago. The organization has had a positive impact on the Christian world through Cornerstone magazine and REZ band. Ironically, though, many of its own members have been marginalized in the interests of "the ministry" and "the community." I pray that through the good services of the Evangelical Covenant Church and the Alban Institute, JPUSA will become a shining example that reconciliation with former members and genuine change are possible.
Epilogue: Can Churches Change?
1 Paul Martin, Cult-Proofing Your Kids (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 38-39.
2 Letter from David Bovenmyer, 24 September 1993.
3 Personal correspondence.
4 From the text of an unpublished talk by Ron Ghormley, 2 June 1991.
5 David Crumm, "The Rise and Fall of a Heavenly Empire," Detroit Free Press Magazine, 20 September 1992, 18-19.
6 Letter from Herbert M. Freedholm, superintendent, Central Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church, 29 September 1993.
7 Letter from John R. Hunt, secretary, the Evangelical Covenant Church, 30 September 1993.
8 Stephen Afterburn and Jack Felton, Toxic Faith (Nashville: Oliver-Nelson Books, 1991), 260.
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.
© Copyright 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth.
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• Churches That Abuse - online book, also by Dr. Ronald Enroth
• Research resources on abusive churches and spiritual abuse
• Guidelines for selecting a counselor/cult expert
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