Chapter 10: Discernment and Response
Abusive Churches Present A Warning
- Chapter 1: A View From Within
- Chapter 2: Fringe and Fanaticism – Abusive Churches Can Go Over The Edge
- Chapter 3: Abusive Churches Are Not New
- Chapter 4: Abusive Churches Misuse Spiritual Authority
- Chapter 5: Abusive Churches Use Fear, Guilt, and Threats
- Chapter 6: Abusive Churches See Themselves As Special
- Chapter 7: Abusive Churches Foster Rigidity
- Chapter 8: Abusive Churches Discourage Questions
- Chapter 9: Abusive churches make leaving painful
- Chapter 10: Abusive Churches Present A Warning
- Chapter 11: Abusive Churches Will Always Exist
- Churches That Abuse: Introduction
- Notice & Disclaimer
- Contents / Audio Version
- Publishers Information
- Preface & Acknowledgements
A central theme of this book is that spiritual abuse can take place in the context of doctrinally sound, Bible preaching, fundamental, conservative Christianity. All that is needed for abuse is a pastor accountable to no one and therefore beyond confrontation. Witness Bonnie Mason’s fifteen-year experience in Midvale Bible Church (not the church’s actual name), an independent, Midwestern, Baptist-oriented church with a pulpit-thumping, fire-and-brimstone preaching, fundamentalistic pastor who believed himself to be beyond question-until the day he died, which was the day Bonnie and her family were freed.
Bonnie and Keith Mason came to know the Lord the day before they met Pastor Carl Plummer (the names of the pastor and his wife are pseudonyms). Although Keith had been raised in a Christian home, he had never made a commitment of faith and had spent his years becoming an accomplished rock musician. Bonnie, on the other hand, had had no exposure to Christianity whatsoever. Together they saw a Christian film so powerful in its impact that they wanted to commit their lives to Jesus Christ. The next day, on advice from friends, they called Carl, a new pastor in town. He came over immediately, and the Masons received Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
Keith immediately asked Carl if he thought he should quit his career in music. Although Carl never came out and openly stated that Keith’s career was ungodly, Keith felt from his statements that to remain in rock music would be to somehow “compromise his witness.” Keith gave in to Carl’s oblique suggestions and counsel. This type of indirect “wisdom” from Carl was to control the Masons’ lives for the next fifteen years.
Bonnie fell completely under Carl’s influence. She felt she had been saved by Pastor Carl Plummer, and she began looking up to him as a father figure, one who could answer all of her questions about her new life. Carl responded, again with oblique comments, expressing general “concerns,” preaching in pointed generalities from the pulpit, so that, without ever having to say so directly, he communicated to Bonnie, and to others, that his way of doing things was the right and godly way. Bonnie was never taught that there is diversity in the body of Christ, that differences of opinion are allowable and healthy, and that one can follow the Lord in a number of different contexts and different churches. This “missing ingredient,” as Bonnie calls it, kept her doubting herself and in literal slavery to Carl and his family until he died.
A wall began to form between Bonnie and Keith as they became more and more involved in the church in which Carl was serving as pastor. On one hand, Carl would tell Bonnie to love and obey her husband. On the other hand, Bonnie knew that if Keith did not do things exactly as Carl did them, he was obviously not being committed to God. He ought to be living his life exactly like Carl. The distance between them widened when the church split and Pastor Carl took those loyal to him to form Midvale Bible Church. Although Keith protested, Bonnie convinced him to go along. Up to that point, Carl Plummer had not served in any given church for more than two years without leaving for one reason or another.
From the beginning, Carl preached on submission to authority. He told his people that a pastor is responsible to speak for God and should not be questioned. As their pastor, he was extremely burdened because of the sins of God’s people, and, when he fell ill from heart disease, he told them that it was their responsibility because of the great load he bore for them before God. Over time, this guilt and pressure mounted to intolerable levels.
During the first few years, Midvale met in a series of motels and homes, never constructing a building of their own. Meanwhile, the Plummers were given a large parsonage on six acres. At this point, three years into this ministry, Carl began rebuking the women of the congregation from the pulpit for not befriending and reaching out to his wife, Eileen. Why had they not been meeting with her? Why had they not asked her to go shopping?
Bonnie, by this time fully under Carl’s influence, responded immediately. Up till now, she had been emulating Eileen and her children in every respect. Since Eileen wore no makeup or earrings, neither did Bonnie. Since her children wore a particular brand of clothing and had their hair styled a particular way (even though they were years older than Bonnie’s kids), Bonnie had her children dressed and coiffed in like manner. Now the opportunity had arisen to do an even more godly thing. She began taking Eileen shopping (Eileen couldn’t drive). And, she even begged the Plummers to allow her to help clean their home when they knew that Eileen’s sister was coming to visit. The Plummers had been so good to her, had instructed her in the faith, and helped her to grow as a Christian. It was the least she could do.
This was the beginning of Bonnie’s becoming the “handmaid” to Eileen Plummer and her family. The onetime assistance grew into a daily ritual. She began to deceive her husband, who knew nothing of the extent of her bondage. Bonnie would go over to the Plummer’s home at 11:30 A.M. and arrive back home in time to prepare dinner and meet Keith at the door. Her children became “latchkey kids,” since Mom was away taking care of the Plummer children. Keith knew nothing, and Bonnie believed that she was serving God. She felt she was working out her salvation because she was not loving “son or daughter more than me … ” (Matt. 10:37). To be enslaved to the Plummer family was to love God.
Meanwhile, because the children were getting older and because money was getting tight, Keith began talking to Bonnie about going to work to supplement their income. However, Carl would speak to her about how much her children needed her at home, even while knowing that she was at his house, caring for his children. He would praise her from the pulpit, holding her up as an example of servanthood.
Bonnie’s confusion grew, and she began crying out to God each day, praying that Eileen would not have another task for her to carry out. She wondered why other women, with fewer responsibilities at home, were not offering assistance. She found out that two others had offered, but were turned down by Eileen, saying “Bonnie will do it.” Her reputed example of spirituality caused the other women of the church to hate and envy her. Meanwhile, she was in emotional agony.
Bonnie felt that she had to confide in Carl Plummer about every aspect of her life. Using Psalm 51, Carl had preached that not exposing one’s sins to the world was trying to hide them from God. Consequently, Bonnie told all, including the most intimate details of her life. She knew that she had already told God herself, but Carl never said she didn’t need an intermediary.
When Bonnie’s father was dying of cancer, she felt guilty when she would take time to go see him, only fifty miles away. She felt that she was putting her father before God, and putting her family’s interests before her commitment to the Lord. Plummer did nothing to discourage such thinking. She knew it was a sin to visit her father on Sunday, and she asked her pastor if he would go visit him. He refused, saying he didn’t want to infringe on another pastor’s territory. When her father died, the Plummers comforted her by telling her to come back and throw herself into servanthood. It would be the best therapy for her.
Bonnie became so confused that she stopped wanting to follow Carl Plummer, no longer wanted to listen to him preach, and stopped wanting to attend the mandatory meetings-even though she knew she would be castigated from the pulpit for lack of commitment. She began to realize that there was no consistency in what Carl taught. Why did he allow women to get permanents but not color their hair? Why did he allow necklaces and finger rings, but not earrings? What was wrong with open-toed shoes? Why were her daughters not allowed to share clothing since they were the same size, and how did such sharing cause jealousy? Why was the assistant-pastor’s wife allowed to wear the same dress that Bonnie had bought for her daughter but had had to return because it was “inappropriate”? Why was Carl allowed to break every one of his own child-rearing mandates with his own grandchild? Why were the children not allowed to visit other churches, and why were families not allowed to visit relatives during the holidays? What was so wrong about missing one church service?
Bonnie began realizing that Carl’s interpretation and practice of doctrine were not consistent with the Scriptures. There was an extreme emphasis on attitudinal sins such as rebelliousness and pride, and an unhealthy dependence among the congregation on their pastor. There was a total lack of accountability to any elders on Carl’s part, a defensiveness of his ministry that grew over time, and a strong attitude of superiority and exclusivity. “No one else teaches the whole counsel of God like this.” “Carl Plummer is our Apostle Paul.”
Finally, shortly after Carl Plummer died, Keith and Bonnie Mason took their family out of Midvale Bible Church. The Masons have suffered much. Keith had written a secular song shortly before meeting Plummer. His pastor had told him to get rid of the “worldly” song, and Keith sold his rights for thirty-four dollars. To date, it has been recorded by three groups and has sold over three million copies. Fortunately, after a fifteen-year hiatus, Keith’s music career is again on the rise.
Keith and Bonnie have been shunned by their former friends. Longtime associates of fifteen years turn their heads when they walk down the street. Bonnie says she does not care. She is glad to be free. She is, however, feeling very badly about her children. Both daughters became extremely rebellious when they moved away to college. They are doing things that she knows are wrong. Bonnie regrets not having had the opportunity to raise her children in a normal, healthy, Christian home, free of condemnation and the competition fostered by Plummer’s teachings. She is jealous of others who have lived normal, Christian lives. She would like to regain the lost years.
Although Bonnie is not angry at God, she cannot yet forgive the Christians who have hurt her. The Plummer family has denied any wrongdoing and any manipulation or inappropriate actions on Carl’s part. Bonnie blames them for the rebelliousness that her children are experiencing.
Bonnie knows that there is still much residual confusion and doubt to work through. She doesn’t understand why God allowed the experiences of the past fifteen years. She is desperately looking for God to show her a way to go on with her life and to put the past behind her. As she says, she earnestly desires to “forget what is behind and strain toward what is ahead, to press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Bonnie’s story, as well as the other case histories presented in this book, points to the need on the part of Christians for discernment. At what point does biblical authority turn into spiritual violence? When does a church cross the line between conventional-church status and abusive-church status? What are some signals or indicators that a given group is headed for the margins?
It goes without saying that the pastoral leaders we have examined here are power-seeking individuals. In their attempts to control and manipulate others, they reveal much about their own personality and identity. Behavioral scientists view the desire for power as the result of a deep-seated insecurity or need. It is my impression that abusive pastors often come from troubled backgrounds and are very insecure persons despite the “take charge” image they may project. They are power-hungry people who crave visibility. Leaders who inflict spiritual violence often hide behind the smoke screen of authority to gain power.
However, as Cheryl Forbes correctly points out, the words power and authority are not synonymous.
Power means insistence on what we want for no other reason than that we want it; it means making other people follow us despite their own wishes. Power is assumed, insensitive, dehumanizing, and ultimately destructive. Authority, on the other hand, is positive, and usually involves a conferred right within strictly controlled bounds.
Although she is not addressing specifically the topic of abusive churches, Forbes’ analysis is directly applicable to the material I have presented in this book. Note this insightful observation:
The exercise of power always implies coercion and violence because the purpose of power is to reproduce itself. Whatever tries to prevent this reproduction must be disposed of. An exercise of authority, however, should have nothing to do with coercion, violence, or manipulation. Yet in our zeal for God’s work we decide that if someone won’t recognize our authority, we will force him with our power.
Jesus is our ultimate role model when it comes to the exercise of power and authority. Even though unlimited power and authority in heaven and on earth were at his disposal, the Scripture clearly demonstrates that he was never on a power trip. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,” he once told his disciples, “and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25-28).
John White and Ken Blue in their book, Healing the Wounded, address the problem of the spiritual tyranny that results when leaders abuse their authority and seek to subjugate Christians.
There is a tension among Christians that arises from what might be called a high view of the church and a high view of Scripture. Both have their dangers. The first emphasizes the authority of the church over the lives of God’s people. Similarly a high view of Scripture emphasizes the need for Scripture to control the behavior of Christians. Both emphases are found in Scripture. There is no tension between them. The tension arises in the minds of leaders who try to use either church or Bible or both to control God’s people. Church leaders are themselves under the authority of Scripture, but its authority is never to be coercive: it does not make leaders into rulers.
Ruler is the right term to describe the kind of people in authoritarian leadership roles who are a focus of this book. They are spiritual tyrants who take unholy pleasure in requiring obedience and subordination of their followers. It is important to recognize that leadership depends on follow-ership, and from a truly Christian perspective, that means cooperation with the leader rather than domination and control by the leader. The source of legitimate Christian leadership therefore lies in entrusted authority.
The spiritual autocrat, the religious dictator, attempts to compel subordination; the true Christian leader can legitimately only elicit followership.
Church leaders must be accountable both to God and to the congregations that they lead. They must strive to exemplify the qualities of our Lord Jesus Christ, “that great Shepherd of the sheep.” “Leaders are meant to be facilitators not despots. Their role is essential. But they must use their authority in the way Jesus did. And they must never forget that while (like all of us) they have a line to heaven, unlike Jesus they are open to the wiles of the devil.”
It is common practice for pastors in abusive churches to fail to distinguish between spiritual and worldly authority. As John White and Ken Blue write:
Occasionally, especially if they are young in age and inexperienced, they may say, “You must submit to me because God has placed me over you.” Now while such words may be true, they are words that never fall from the lips of true leaders because the authority of true leaders springs from spiritual power. Such words prove the speaker’s unfitness for his task. They too can enslave us to another gospel rather than draw us to the freedom of the cross.
Pastor Phil Aguilar of Set Free Christian Fellowship likes to say, “It’s my way or the highway.” The arrogance of such a statement contrasts with the gentleness and humility of ~ Christ’s way. Pastor Don Barnett of Community Chapel communicated the same attitude: “I have the anointing and because I have the anointing, I know what I’m doing.” That kind of thinking is obviously dangerous, but to many members of authoritarian churches it doesn’t appear inappropriate. They look at their pastor and say, “How could a Spirit-filled, anointed pastor ever be wrong?” The young man whose case history follows found out the hard way what it means to be in the wrong church at the wrong time.
Bruce Hogan says that he has been “recovering nicely” after six terrible years in the very militant Potter’s House, also variously known as La Puerta (or, The Door), Victory Chapel, or Christian Fellowship Church, based in Prescott, Arizona. His involvement came about as the result of a spiritual quest he undertook after dropping out of high school. Having been brought up in what he terms a “traditional multi-divorce family,” with a father who left when he was three, Bruce says that he was searching for a real father. He has finally found his heavenly Father, but not before experiencing a great deal of pain and suffering at the hands of an abusive church. “I had no prior Christian experience or training and I didn’t know how to spot a counterfeit. My home life was typical of the divorce and MTV generation, and I suppose I was looking for something like an artificial, ready-made family. Ignorance coupled with desire always results in trouble.”
Bruce, now “twenty eight and looking like forty,” had just left his job as a nightclub entertainer when he first encountered the Potter’s House. He had found God on his eighteenth birthday while using “recreational chemical substances,” and was “supernaturally saved” after years of delving into the occult, like his father before him. He believes that God did a real miracle to save him because the occult influence of his father had been passed down generationally.
Bruce, with no grounding in the Bible, had decided that he had better quit his wild life-style and go to college. He had passed the GED, and was just beginning Southeast Missouri State University when members of the Potter’s House first arrived in town. Impressed by their zealousness, and influenced by their concern, he joined their ranks in 1984.
Being a very intelligent and discerning person, Bruce was concerned, even at the beginning of his involvement, about the emphasis on authority, submission, and spiritual headship. But he also thought that they might help him overcome his terribly rebellious nature.
Bruce was self-supporting while at Southeast Missouri State. Not only did he work full-time and take a full course load, he also became involved in all the fellowship activities, outreaches, revival meetings, and regular services of the church. After a few months of little sleep and failing grades, he landed in the hospital from sheer exhaustion. The attending physician told him to stop the whirlwind of activity or he would be dead in weeks.
However, with his salvation at stake, Bruce continued, and, as he puts it, “sacrificed my higher critical thinking faculties” to the leadership of the Potter’s House. Week after week of meetings and revivals that lasted late into the night had done their job and caused him to “just stop thinking.” “I had surrendered the lordship over my life to a reprobate mind” [that of the Potter’s House leadership], and came to recognize that “even the elect can be deceived.”
Bruce believes that at its peak the Potter’s House had a network of hundreds of congregations. Committing very little to paper, the leadership limits access to information to a select few. Run by Wayland Mitchell out of Prescott, Arizona, local congregations have no say as to who will lead them. Bruce’s local fellowship had three different pastors during his stay, all of whom were sent from Prescott. He describes the Potter’s House movement as very aggressive, strong on church planting, militantly committed, and very anti-intellectual. He was called an “educated idiot with a high IQ,” and was told, “You obviously have a call on your life, son. You should be pursuing ministry and submitting yourself to our discipleship.
Bruce’s inquisitive nature and analytical mind were always considered a manifestation of rebellion. When he attempted to show one of the elders that his teaching was not in line with the Scriptures, he was violently rebuked and told, “I am the shepherd. You are the sheep. God is my head covering, and I am answerable only to Him. And don’t you forget it.” Bruce says, “I wished John the Apostle were there. He’d be kicking some butt …. Pardon me. He would be setting things in theologically correct order.”
It is Bruce’s opinion that the Potter’s House attracts those with altruistic natures who know little or nothing about God and the Scriptures but who are on a spiritual quest. It reaches “those strata and segments of society that no one else can touch.” The problem is, Bruce says, that when people join, “they kill them,” and if they ever leave the Potter’s House, it is unlikely that they will ever serve the Lord again. The majority of the membership come to know God while in the fellowship-there is no Christian foundation outside of their Potter’s House experience.
Bruce believes that his involvement in the Potter’s House is his own fault. He has no excuse. “I had the Bible. I had the witness of the Holy Spirit. I knew something was wrong, but I thought it was just my own rebelliousness …. I fired the little lawyer inside me that tried to save me.”
After six years of pastoral and psychological abuse, Bruce and his new wife left the Potter’s House. He was “rescued” by George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a book about totalitarianism that Bruce also feels accurately describes the Prescott-based fellowship. He admits that this was a unique aid to his exit, but reading the book sparked his abilities to think critically and independently.
The Potter’s House, “first to condemn, first to judge, and last to show any mercy,” shunned the Hogans. They were told that they were going to hell and that they had never been saved. They were also slandered by the leadership. “I was sacrificing babies in my basement or was a homosexual, or whatever.” Eventually they left everything and moved away.
Having no church to go to that he felt he could trust, Bruce said, “The heck with it. I’m going to stay at home and read my Bible. ‘Every man to his tent.”’ Over six month’s time, primarily because of being laid up from a severe, work-related back injury, Bruce came to know the truth in Scripture. Feeling very old now, he says, “God’s people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge. I would have become a heretic if God had not put me on my back for six months. All I did was read the Bible.”
Bruce, understandably, had difficulty with forgiveness. “In order to survive the ordeal of withdrawing from an authoritarian church, you have to admit that you have been taken and forgive from the heart. Otherwise, in the words of our Lord, you will be ‘delivered to the tormentors.’ When I finally forgave from my heart, I began to recover.” His wit, though not as acerbic as a year ago, is still sharp. Paraphrasing Luther, he says, “If there be a hell, Prescott is built over it.”
As Bruce indicated, the membership of authoritarian churches is frequently comprised of young, spiritually immature Christians. This kind of church is successful because it is meeting basic human needs-the need to belong, the need to be affirmed, to be accepted, and to be part of a family. It is not unusual for the leaders to assume the role of surrogate parents, especially for those young adults who come from dysfunctional-family backgrounds. Speaking of the woman who was pastor of the Church of Jesus Christ Forever, a small, authoritarian congregation in the Midwest, one ex-member says this: “She really cared about us. We were young, looking for something, and she really took us under her wing.” Echoing similar sentiments, a former member of an east coast group sums up the appeal of the abusive church she joined: “I never felt I had a family until I became part of this church. Never before had I felt so loved and cared for in every way. They were the first family I ever had.”
Although they may be on the fringe of mainstream evangelicalism, spiritually abusive churches usually are closer to biblical orthodoxy than they are to outright heresy. Yet, there is often a subtle distortion of biblical teaching. Looking back at her experience at the Community of Jesus on Cape Cod, a former member relates an all-too-common realization.
You allow yourself to be blinded, and you bend over backwards to believe it’s for your own good … I think for me and a lot of other people who were perhaps recently converted Christians, they have taken biblical truths, and the twist isn’t very great, but they are twisted, all twisted. Somehow you’re not aware of the twisting so that you accept it as being from God because you see them [the leaders] as speaking the truth that God’s given us in the Bible … everything they say makes a good deal of sense. But there’s something in the application of it-and it’s so subtle’ it’s hard to put into words-something in the way they apply it that turns it the wrong way.
A key element of discernment, then, is the recognition that potentially abusive churches foster an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and otherwise, by focusing on themes of submission and obedience to those in authority. They create the impression that people just aren’t going to find their way through life’s maze without a lot of firm directives from those at the top. They promote what MacDonald calls a form of “learned helplessness.” He writes, “Remarkably, many intelligent Christians actually enjoy being told what to do. In GCI churches, people seek the elders for permission to go home and see their parents or friends, and to inquire for how long they may stay; they go to them for permission to go to a party with unbelievers … “
The disquieting truth is that many Christians do indeed fall into the trap of authoritarianism because of an inclination toward the black-and-white mentality that abusive churches cater to. If you have the type of personality that is drawn toward groups that offer wraparound security and solutions to all your problems, you are vulnerable to spiritual abuse. If you value your spiritual autonomy, you must resist any teaching that brings into question Christ’s role as the sole mediator (go-between) between God and humankind. No Christian is ever called upon to give unquestioning obedience to anyone. Only Jesus Christ deserves disciples.
If you are a new convert, reaffirm the freedom that characterizes the new life in Christ. Ironically, ex-members of Set Free Fellowship have an expression: “We’ve cut loose from Set Free.” They found themselves in bondage rather than true freedom, subjected to spiritual infantilism and dependency rather than growth. However attractive and upbeat the group in question may at first appear to be, follow the example of the diligent Bereans who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).
The discerning Christian must also beware of the trap of legalism. We have seen numerous examples throughout this book of how life-style rigidity and the keeping of a set of rules can stifle spiritual liberty and encourage abuse. Preoccupation with keeping Christian rules enhances guilt feelings in members, and it acts as an effective control mechanism for power abusers. “Legalism is never corrective church discipline. For legalism pulls us away from following Christ toward another gospel, another gospel that says the cross is not enough.”
Another quality that can lead to abusive behavior in a church is the tendency toward isolationism, a conscious effort to limit input from outside the church-in other words, information control. Beware of the church where outside speakers are consistently denied access to the pulpit, and where other Christian churches are regularly denounced, belittled, or ridiculed. Competing authority figures, whether from within or without the church walls, are rarely welcomed in abusive churches. No one can measure up to their exalted standards. In the words of Marie Kolasinski (see chapter 6), “Ninety-nine percent of the people who profess to be Christians are really enemies of the cross.”
It is my opinion, based on extensive research and informal observation, that authoritarian leaders are ecclesiastical loners. That is, they do not function well or willingly in the context of systematic checks and balances. They are fiercely independent and refuse to be part of a structure of accountability. To put it crudely, they operate a one-man (or one woman) spiritual show. And God help the person who gets in the way or makes waves. Yes, sometimes they will point to a board of elders or its equivalent, but more likely than not, this turns out to be a faithful inner circle of clones that implicitly accepts all that the leader sets forth.
As we have seen, another sign of impending trouble in a church is an obsession with discipline and excommunication. Beware of churches that warn of certain doom if you leave their “covering,” or if you “break covenant.” Once banished from the group, little compassion is shown the wayward one. An overwhelming majority of the ex-members I have interviewed expressed the opinion that abusive leaders are cold, almost cruel, in their treatment of people who leave-whether that departure was voluntary or involuntary. Almost without exception they report that the leadership made no attempt at reconciliation and made no effort to heal the wounds inflicted. Instead, defectors are held up to the congregation as warnings to potential “sowers of discord.” As the leader of one small group in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, the Church of Our First Love, was quoted as saying, “Anyone who hinders the work I do, God will remove him.”
Once he had decided to seek his spiritual food outside the Boston Movement, a former member of that group says he
experienced the full force of friendly persuasion, peer pressure, righteous indignation, and eventually a form of “shunning,” where one exists, but for all intents and purposes is “dead” in the eyes of the brothers and sisters. To leave the Boston Church of Christ-even to leave for another congregation of the Church of Christ-was not a recognized option; to leave was a weak, sinful thing to do, tantamount to opting for perdition.
He adds, “Not once did I ever hear from a member of the Boston Church of Christ again.”
A sure sign that a church is headed for the fringe is when family relationships are significantly disrupted and the leadership encourages the severing of ties with relatives outside of the group. “Be prepared to switch your loyalty from your natural family to God’s family,” advises Marie Kolasinski of the Body of Christ Fellowship. “Those blood ties are filthy rags unto God. So if you are experiencing great upheaval in your well-ordered natural family, BE OF GOOD CHEER.” When a Christian is asked to sacrifice family relationships for church loyalty, it’s time to bail out.
In abusive-church situations, the “spiritual family” often displaces the biological family, and church leaders assume the role of surrogate parents. The founder of Great Commission International, Jim McCotter, is said to have usurped “the very authority of parents over these young people” by allowing youthful “elders” to exercise greater influence in the lives of the young adults than did their own parents.
On the day after Mother’s Day, 1991, two young members of Set Free Christian Fellowship, one of them the pastor’s daughter-in-law, telephoned their Christian mothers to tell them they never wanted to see or hear from them again, in part because they (the mothers) had expressed their concerns about Set Free to newspaper reporters and to the author of this book. When one of those mothers and her husband later dropped off presents for grandchildren they were not permitted to visit, Pastor Phil Aguilar’s son filed charges of trespassing with the local police-against his own in-laws. The gifts were returned to the grandparents in a large carton along with a note that read, “No thanks!”
When an evangelical church institutes a surveillance system and encourages its members to keep close tabs on one another, it’s time to look for another church. A former member of the Boston Movement describes a scenario common to most abusive churches.
Everyone’s Christian life was under scrutiny by someone, assigned by some level of authority; each member was confronted with observed faults, issued counsel, and followed up; each was encouraged to know the true state of his own soul, its sins and weaknesses, and to confess these openly and honestly to others who have ministry and authority over him.
The warning lights should register when a mainstream Christian church begins to show signs of an unhealthy elitism. This characteristic is related to the isolationist attitude I discussed earlier and is well illustrated by another example from the Boston Movement. A former member speaks of the Boston Church of Christ:
setting itself in bold, confrontational opposition to everyone not directly affiliated with itself …. Access to this elite community is through the narrow gate of a baptism that is at once the product of an intensive “cost counting” process that results in a fully conscious subjection of one’s entire self, as a repentant sinner, to Jesus’ Lordship, a lifelong commitment to needs of the Body, and absolute obedience to the leaders of the movement.
To the average Christian person reading this book, the examples of pastoral abuse and spiritual exploitation should represent a patent breach of biblical teaching. You may even feel that the abusive practices described in these pages appear to be far removed from the world of conventional churchgoers, and, it is hoped, they are.
Yet, I am convinced that tendencies toward abusive styles of leadership are more prevalent than most Christians realize. If we are honest with ourselves, we might admit that at least the potential for authoritarianism may exist in some of our own backyards.
I will discuss the problem and the challenge that this represents in the concluding chapter, but allow me to comment briefly here on a troublesome trend I see in the evangelical community today. It seems that we have a need to create evangelical gurus, Christian celebrities, super-pastors in mega-churches, and miscellaneous other “teachers” and “experts” that we place on pastoral pedestals. What is it about people, including evangelicals, that explains this apparent need for authority figures, the need to have someone cosign for our lives? As David Gill noted years ago:
We want heroes! We want reassurance that someone knows what is going on in this mad world. We want a father or a mother to lean on. We want revolutionary folk heroes who will tell us what to do until the rapture. We massage the egos of these demagogues and canonize their every opinion. We accept without a whimper their rationalizations of their errors and deviations.
Christians, as well as other members of society, live in a culture that is rapidly changing and confusing. Many experience real insecurities and are attracted to organizations and churches that offer systematic approaches and clear-cut answers to life’s problems. For people who come from dysfunctional families, or who have lacked structure in their lives, authoritarian churches are a haven, a womb of security. It is sometimes comforting to have others make decisions for you, tell you how to live, and tell you what to believe.
As James I. Packer reminds us in Christianity Today, the evangelical world is plagued by “the personality cult.” We, the mainstream evangelical public, elevate certain individuals to virtual infallibility. “On issue after issue people reason thus: ‘Billy Graham / Martyn Lloyd-Jones / John Wimber / John Stott / Chuck Swindoll / Elisabeth Elliot / R. C. Sproul / (write in here your own preferred authority) says it; I believe it; that settles it.'”
In our homes, in our churches, and in our programs of Christian education, we must strive to cultivate critical, discerning minds if we are to avoid the tragedy of churches that abuse.
1 Cheryl Forbes, The Religion of Power (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 87.
2 Ibid., 88.
3 John White and Ken Blue, Healing the Wounded: The Costly Love of Church Discipline (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1985), 39-40.
4 Ibid., 41.
5 Ibid., 84.
6 Greg O’Brien and Paul Kemprecos, “Defectors Raise Questions About Religion Group,” The Cape Codder (April 19, 1985)
7 MacDonald, “Manipulation of the Scriptures,” Unpublished paper (1985), 192.
8 White and Blue, Healing the Wounded, 83
9 Jones, The Boston Movement, vol. 2, 78.
10 MacDonald, “Manipulation of the Scriptures,” 153.
11 Jones, The Boston Movement, vol. 2, 84.
12 Ibid., 87.
13 Quoted in Ronald M. Enroth, “The Power Abusers,” Eternity (October, 1979), 25.
14 James I. Packer, “How Will I Be Remembered?” Christianity Today (June 24, 1991), 11.
© Copyright 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth.
While this book is no longer in print, second-hand copies can often still be obtained via booksellers such as Amazon.com.