“We repented and were accepted back into fellowship, but they were afraid to associate with us again. When we came back, they didn’t know what to say. They didn’t know what was really wrong, what we’d done, or what they could say or shouldn’t say that might make them fall from favor. They didn’t know how to relate to us because I had been a ‘leading brother’ and had ‘failed.’ But, what really bothered me was, if our repentance was accepted and we were back, why didn’t any other workers or leading brothers call to see how we were doing or drop by for tea or anything? They showed very little compassion.”
Kyle Larson’s story of his eleven-year involvement with George Geftakys’ “Assembly” demonstrates every aspect of the psychological, emotional, and spiritual abuse that is characteristic of many fringe fundamentalistic churches. Kyle and his wife were “workers” — responsible under shepherds — in The Assembly’s hierarchy of command. As such, they gave away eleven years of their lives, including their college careers, to follow “Brother George’s” interpretation of the way to eternal life. Not once in their married life did they have any privacy, but lived with and spiritually directed as many as seventeen “brothers or sisters” at any given time.
The Assembly is based in Fullerton, California, where Brother George Geftakys, 64, a graduate of Talbot School of Theology and former Baptist minister, provides the model for his followers across the country. Strongly influenced by Plymouth Brethren thought and anti-denominational teaching that condemns organized Christianity, Brother George began his ministry among the students of the hippie generation of the early 1970’s. Drawing his following from Fullerton Junior College and California State University at Fullerton — because the older people don’t want to change and are set in their ways” — Brother George began by speaking to house meetings of loosely knit young Christians who had come to Christianity out of the hippie movement. As Kyle says, “We were willing to have anyone come speak to us who wanted to address a group of Christians.” None of these young people knew much about the Bible or had any developed discernment skills. All were “on fire for God,” and desired a life-style of total commitment, including lives as missionaries if that was God’s will.
Brother George would speak to two southern California communes called the House of Christian Love and the House of the Lord’s Grace on a regular basis. Kyle was impressed. “He could really preach a sermon.” On New Year’s weekend of 1971, Brother George invited his new following to a seminar at Hillcrest Park in Fullerton. This included members of the two communes as well as a few young families who had been following him around to the different Bible studies where he would teach. At that time, Kyle and his contemporaries had been Christian believers for about six months. “He began opening the Scriptures to us and showing us what it meant to be involved in a corporate testimony.” By February of that year the thirty-five persons in attendance began to meet regularly under George’s teaching. The recreation center of Hillcrest Park had been offered by the city to the fledgling church free of charge on Sundays in hopes that they would be a positive influence on a bad neighborhood.
Kyle recalls that within six months a leadership board composed of “leading brothers” had been chosen by Brother George. The initial authority exercised by George seemed to be good. Brothers and sisters were separated into different houses located in the area, and a strict regimen of activities was begun. This was all completely opposite to the laid-back life-style to which the members had been accustomed. The Christian communes of the earlier period had been very loosely structured. “We didn’t have rules or regulations; we came and went as we’ pleased. We just lived together because to us, it was a very normal outgrowth of the kind of life-style we had had before.”
The new “brothers’ houses” were very regimented with nightly meetings, shared expenses, and shared tasks around the house. (Similar “sisters’ houses” came into being a few years later.) Everyone was expected and required to attend all meetings, and there were at least six of them each week. All of this was in addition to being full-time students. Consequently, many never finished college.
Kyle says that “George has a very domineering personality and is extremely opinionated and dogmatic. He has a way of looking at the world that’s not quite real, and he’s also extremely intelligent.” Although he always refers to himself as a “brother among brothers,” there is no question in anyone’s mind who is in charge of The Assembly. As Kyle states, “It was clear, without a doubt, who the leader was, who was giving the direction, the counsel, the teaching. It was George. That position, from the very beginning, was secured. I don’t think that it was ever relinquished for even a moment.”
Brother George asserts that he runs a “prophetic ministry.” He teaches a great deal on how believers are to relate to him as “The Lord’s Servant” who has been anointed by God. While he never refers to himself as the servant of the Lord, and does not claim to have a unique anointing himself, he doesn’t have to. For his followers there is an implicit understanding that Brother George is “the Lord’s Servant” in the ministry to whom all are subject and to whom each is loyal.
The group’s name, “The Assembly,” came about as a reaction against the organized church. It was said that the word “church” had a bad connotation. “Church is a building and it’s used wrongly. We are the Assembly; we are the ecclesia [the ‘called out ones — ‘the assembly of God’s people]; we take no name other than Christ-no name, just ‘The Assembly’.” Their anti-denominational stance has gotten them confused with Witness Lee’s “Local Church” at times, and, as Kyle indicates, they have had some “very big clashes” with members of the “Local Church” movement. Both groups disdain organized Christianity (reflecting Plymouth Brethren influences on both), but The Assembly does not engage in “pray reading” and other practices associated with the “Local Church” movement.
Kyle and his wife were known as “workers.” Workers were the ones most closely associated with Brother George and constituted his “inner group.” A list of twenty-eight characteristics was developed to describe the requirements for workers. Set within these guidelines is the key notion that, in effect, Brother George is “The Lord’s Servant” to whom everyone must be subject and to whom everyone must be loyal. The inner core of workers oversees the whole ministry of The Assembly, while each local Assembly is directed by a leading brothers’ council.
Kyle states that during the early years, “Brother George spoke on Sunday morning, Brother George spoke on Sunday afternoon, and Brother George spoke on Wednesday night. Brother George spoke at the prayer meetings, and he spoke on Saturday morning.” He spent those first years indoctrinating the workers into “all his thoughts, his ideas, everything, until the brothers were ‘developed.'” Thereafter, some of the more “mature” brothers were allowed to “get a word” and preach. However, no one from the outside was ever allowed to address The Assembly. Brother George’s followers regarded him like the apostle Paul, his role being to plant Assemblies, preach, and give the vision.
Kyle now realizes that much of what he and the other members did was a direct result of what George said they could do — or had to do. “Although we were getting older and were no longer kids anymore, we were still treated very much in that same manner.” Those who fell from favor with George, particularly the older members who persisted in questioning his teaching and authority, were ostracized and ridiculed. “You don’t have a relationship with George unless George dominates.”
Brother George would save his most extreme indoctrination for the workers’ meetings-because workers were supposed to develop “thick skins.” Although he reserved much of the verbal and psychological abuse for private sessions, he would ridicule dissenters in these closed workers’ meetings, gatherings to which the general congregation was neither invited nor allowed to attend.
The average members, according to Kyle, don’t see the underside of the organization. “They see the enthusiasm, the tremendous amount of outreach that goes on, the impressive amount of personal involvement, and the companionship as you labor together with them.” But they were not privy to the inner details of “The Work” leading, discipling, decision-making, problem solving, and indoctrinating. The written code of requirements for workers states that, “The Work is not conducted on the basis of democracy … We have the right to demand loyalty in The Work … We come into The Work … with a commitment to The Work … ”
Supposedly, any Christian is welcome to attend meetings at The Assembly, and to partake of the Lord’s Supper with them. No one is turned away, and, “God’s family and God’s purpose are inclusive of everyone.” However, former members say the principle is not carried out in practice.
Kyle and his wife had a difficult time leaving The Assembly because to leave was to lose one’s “covering.” To leave would be to subject oneself to physical danger from the Adversary, or to the defilement of one’s testimony by Satan. Members are continually taught that “there is no place else in the world like this Assembly in Fullerton.” Kyle says that the spiritual intimidation employed can be severe. Members are brought before the leading brothers’ council and “talked to” for violations such as displaying a desire to hear other Christian preachers, having a “rebellious spirit,” disagreeing with authority, lack of subjection to the leadership, questioning one of Brother George’s teachings, or desiring to go to another church. “You have one person on one side of the table, with an array of men on the other side. A domineering person is telling you you’re wrong, why you’re wrong, that you need to repent, and then, one by one, all the rest of them agree wholeheartedly. The targeted person has a tremendous psychological onslaught to deal with. More often than not, he ends up in tears and repents, and is either eventually restored to favor or leaves the fellowship.” Additionally, peer pressure among the general congregation is an exremely effective tool used to control the wayward.
Although members are taught that it is perfectly legitimate to have differences of opinion between “godly men,” in practice it is not allowed. Brother George himself claims to be accountable to the leading brothers, and that he doesn’t d0 anything without their approval. However, “they always agree with him,” because, “Brother George has insight to see things that we don’t see.” As a result, Brother George and a few of his underlings exercise unrestrained control in the lives of Assembly members. Followers are told what occupations are God-honoring, whether or not they may practice the professions for which they have been trained, whom they can marry and when, where they can live, whom they can date, what they can do with their money, and, in some instances, what they can and cannot eat.
Members of The Assembly are in a real double bind when it comes to family and children. Although there is a great emphasis on homes and the need for family life, activities are so frequent and so intense that children are neglected. Families are lucky to have two Saturdays a year to spend together, Kyle observes. From birth children are expected to attend all meetings and to remain quiet “in the presence of the Lord.” “You would feel guilty if you went off with your family or just wanted to hang out. If you took off on a holiday to visit other family members, you just didn’t want what the Lord wanted, and you were just going the way of the world.”
The requirements on workers are the most intense and burdensome, often entailing voluminous correspondence, outreach efforts, and meetings. And, of course, Sunday is reserved entirely as a day for the Lord.
Brother George teaches in “broad strokes” — a whole chapter from the Bible at a time. He may use three- or four-hundred Scriptures in a two-hour meeting, and in the midst of all the Scriptures he is attempting to identify a general pattern or teaching. He tells his followers that he believes that the vast majority will “forsake him in the end,” but that if only one or two remain loyal it will have been worth his effort. In the end, “tremendous persecution” will inevitably be his lot. Members are encouraged not to miss out, but to overcome and receive their “inheritance.”
Brother George believes that the greatest part of salvation is yet to come. According to his theology, only overcomers — those in The Assembly — will reign with Christ in the millennial kingdom, which is their inheritance for appropriating God’s grace. At the end of the millennium and after the destruction of Satan, all believers will gain entrance to the eternal kingdom, but only those having an inheritance will reign first.
In order to maintain full control over the lives of his followers, Brother George instituted a reporting system by which he rewards those who inform him of any questionable activities among the membership. Although “everyone would deny that flatly,” it was understood that those who informed on others were “truly godly,” and that the “dedicated ones told all” Consequently, Kyle, and many others, confided in no one, including even their spouses at times. Special friendships were said to cloud one’s ability to really discern the Lord. Affections might get in the way of making an objective spiritual judgment or decision concerning someone in The Work.
Brother George has developed a teaching that refutes all criticism. He encourages members to listen to no criticism of or accusations against that teaching whatsoever, even “the Enemy” lurking in one’s own thoughts. The result of this teaching, according to Kyle, is the “subtle cutting off of any kind of critical thinking, any kind of analytical thinking.” Members therefore listen to nothing but the teachings of Brother George.
Kyle and his wife believe that they remained with The Assembly as long as they did because they were away from Fullerton and the full impact of George’s influence for six of their eleven years. During that time they ministered to Assemblies in several states. Kyle says, “When we started thinking that we were going to be coming back to Fullerton, we very seriously considered not even leaving the Midwest, just because we had personally been out from under all the control for so long. It was a lot easier to deal with a long-distance phone call than it was to deal with discipline day-by-day, face-to-face. When we were told to move to another city, we thought that that was a little bit better. But, what it comes down to is that there are always ways for control to be established and perpetuated no matter where you are. The appropriate thing to say to Brother George was always, ‘Brother, whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it.'”
Eventually, Kyle “fell into sin” and was excommunicated.
In actuality, he left the movement for a period of time because he was “fed up.” He had begun to see the subtle indoctrination process involving heavy scheduling, constant teaching, unending meetings, and the partisan viewpoint being presented while passed off as inspiration from God. He saw the “tremendous psychological chains” that were being put on the people, and he was also aware that most people who leave The Assembly drift away from the Lord. They give up, believing that God himself has laid on them un achievable expectations.
Unable to reconcile his thoughts and sort out his emotions, Kyle “repented” and went through a yearlong process of proving his repentance to the leading brothers. He was passed up for four months during communion, and the condition of his repentance was based on how willing he was to do whatever he was told. Even when his repentance was accepted, he and his wife were still shunned, because members were afraid of associating with a fallen worker. After six months of this treatment, Kyle and his wife left to begin a new life.
Leaders who are abusive usually develop their heavy-handed style over a period of time. Churches that abuse are the result of an ever-accelerating emphasis on the kinds of control mechanisms I have discussed in this book. People who have been in close contact over a period of years with some of the pastoral leaders we have discussed have told me that their ministry was far more benign and subdued at the beginning. Gradually, as the pastors became aware of the influence they could exert and the power they could wield, they and their ministries began to change. Consciously or unconsciously, they took advantage of vulnerable people, and convinced them that God had given them, the shepherds, the right to exercise authority over the flock.
People who abuse power are changed progressively as they do so. In abusing power they give themselves over to evil, untruth, self-blindness, and hardness without allowing themselves or anyone else to see what is happening. The longer the process continues, the harder repentance becomes. Church bosses must be spotted and rescued early, or they may never be rescued at all. They have caused inconceivable havoc among churches throughout history’
Pastoral abuse can be spotted quite easily, at least in its advanced stages. Abusive religion substitutes human power for true freedom in Christ. Unquestioning obedience and blind loyalty are its hallmarks. Leaders who practice spiritual abuse exceed the bounds of legitimate authority and “lord it over the flock,” often intruding into the personal lives of members. God’s will is something that they determine for you rather than something you individually seek to know. Abusive leaders are self-centered and adversarial rather than reconciling and restorative.
But what about rescuing the leaders and salvaging the followers? That is a major challenge facing the conventional evangelical church. Most of the abusive churches I have studied are independent, autonomous groups. They are not a part of a denomination or network that could provide checks and balances or any kind of accountability. As we have seen over and over again in these pages, their leaders are accountable to no one and resist any outside scrutiny. How can such independent groups themselves be disciplined or even investigated for aberrations? Because we value freedom of religion for all people and because we are reluctant to get involved in someone else’s vineyard, even if we know it is “off the wall,” the problem of abusive churches is likely to continue.
The key to understanding the whole phenomenon is within the human psyche — the desire to control others and to exercise power over people. That has always been a part of the human experience and it will continue to be. All of us have been exposed to the temptation of power, whether as parent, spouse, teacher, or worker. It has been said that human nature is always ready to abuse its power the moment it can do so with impunity. It should not be surprising, then, that the will to power sometimes invades the religious realm, and specifically the church.
The respected Christian writer and physician, Paul Tournier, writes that “there is in us, especially in those whose intentions are of the purest, an excessive and destructive will to power which eludes even the most sincere and honest self-examination.” He makes the point that people in the helping professions-social workers, physicians, psychologists, and pastors-especially need to be aware of the temptation of power, the temptation to manipulate, and to control those who come seeking help. “To be looked upon as a savior leaves none of us indifferent.”
Although he was not specifically addressing the problem of contemporary pastoral abuse, Tournier’s comments about the possibility of misusing spiritual authority are a timely warning.
They look upon us as experts, God’s mouthpieces, the interpreters of his will-to begin with for ourselves, but very soon, before we realize it, for other people too, especially since they insist on requiring it of us. Very soon, too, we find ourselves thinking that when they follow our advice they are obeying God, and that when they resist us they are really resisting God.
While we probably cannot prevent individual power-seekers from getting entangled in their own authoritarian excesses, we must remind all who will hear, including mainstream Christian leaders, that weakness and dependence on God’s strength are the hallmarks of true greatness. As Harold Bussell writes in Unholy Devotion:
The antithesis of the misuse of power is gentleness, which is best seen and understood within the framework of strength. Gentle leaders, pastors, or teachers do not force their insights and wisdom on the unlearned, nor flaunt their gifts before those in need. They are patient. They take time for those who are slow to understand. They are compassionate with the weak, and they share with those in need. Being a gentle pastor, shepherd, leader, or teacher is never a sign of being weak, but of possessing power clothed in compassion.
This is in stark contrast to the style of abusive leaders, who, as we have seen, often lack compassion and a gentle spirit. Power has a way of blinding the conscience so that those who spiritually and psychologically abuse others (like abusive parents) show little sign of remorse and repentance. They deny any guilt for what they have done to people. And they project their own weaknesses onto others.
If we are in positions of power over others and we fail to place controls on ourselves, we subtly and unknowingly start to control others. Power that elevates a leader beyond contradiction … will lead both the leader and the followers down a road marked by broken relationships, exploitation, and control. Power that tempers and checks itself and is wrapped in compassion is the pathway to gentleness, caring, and maturity. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). He is our model of service and leadership.
One of the pressing needs of the Christian church is to assist in the development of discernment skills among believers so that the likelihood of following an aberrant teacher or a false doctrine is diminished. The need for discernment was impressed on me by a former member of Hobart Freeman’s Faith Assembly. He told me how the emphasis on the “faith message” or “faith walk” eventually diverted his focus from the centrality of Jesus Christ.
“The faith message is a counterfeit, unbiblical faith,” he said. “It takes the place of relationship with Jesus. Christ became a secondary figure. We were taught that if you produce the works of faith, God will bless you and you will have definite proof that you are following Jesus Christ. These people would say, ‘I believe with all my heart that I’m on the right track because Jesus healed me. Jesus gave me a promotion. Jesus gave me a new car. He gave me the desires of my heart.’ It becomes a matter of the work of faith, doing some kind of faith formula. What you do is important proof of your salvation, not what Jesus did for your salvation.”
This young man described the appeal of emphasizing positive thinking or “positive confession,” as it is known in the faith movement. Many new Christians that he knew in the movement were not only attracted to Hobart Freeman, but to the prospect of supernatural, extraordinary experiences. “People look for teachers who claim special revelations, who promise signs and wonders. They’ve got to have something more than just a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
One survivor of an abusive-church situation told me how she had been exposed to “every movement or fad that has crossed America in the past decade.” Initially influenced by John Wimber’s “signs and wonders” teachings, her church moved from an emphasis on healing to inner healing, visualization, the healing of memories, deliverance, positive confession, covenant relationships, prosperity teaching, discipling/shepherding, and even community living. She left confused and suffering from spiritual burn-out. “It’s still difficult for me to read my old Bible, you know, the ‘cool’ one that’s all marked up. I have to read a different translation. I can’t sing the same worship songs and I have difficulty going to church.”
This woman’s comments about the progression of spiritual fads she encountered brings to mind a book that has not received wide circulation, but which I believe deserves thoughtful consideration by every Christian interested in the topic of current evangelical/charismatic movements. It is entitled Wonders and the Word, and is a collection of essays that sensitively and discerningly critique the Vineyard movement founded and headed by John Wimber. (There are now more than two hundred Vineyard fellowships throughout North America and Vineyard-sponsored seminars are held throughout Europe, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.) Although the book focuses on the “signs and wonders” emphasis within the Vineyard fellowship, I feel its message has wider implications for understanding any new religious movement.
I receive many inquiries about the Vineyard movement. Based on extensive conversations with both current and former members of Wimber’s fellowship, I believe that the issues raised in Wonders and the Word are valid concerns and that this rapidly growing movement has great potential for problems similar to those I have been discussing in this book. Indeed, there is some evidence of abusive practices already taking place within Vineyard churches.
Let it be clearly understood that I agree with one of the contributors to Wonders and the Word when he states that
the Vineyard movement is impacting many people both inside and outside the church. We cannot deny its existence as a genuine work of the Spirit, and so should not discredit it …. At the same time, we need to be aware of some of the extremes to which such a movement can go …. Most new movements of the Holy Spirit are embraced by eager followers, many of whom tend to push the ideas of the leaders to extremes. However, rather than write off the movement because of excesses, we should draw alongside to render guidance and counsel where it is needed and welcomed.
It is precisely this need and desire to provide counsel and guidance that constitutes the challenge to the larger Christian community as we reflect on the problem of abusive churches and the prospect of potentially abusive groups. As I shall point out shortly, there are some groups that are open to dialogue with more mainstream churches. Others are extremely defensive and resist any overtures from traditional churches, considering them to be apostate and outside the circle of the elect.
Another challenge to the larger Christian world includes the recognition that at least some of the members of abusive groups are refugees from more conventional evangelical churches. They are sincere, earnest seekers after God who, for a variety of reasons, have become disillusioned with mainstream evangelicalism. Many are seeking an intimacy and a kind of fellowship that traditional churches often do not provide. As Yeakley admits, “In the modern church, people come together as strangers and leave as strangers and their lives never touch.”
Others seek a more informal, charismatic worship style that many traditional evangelical churches do not offer. Interestingly, it is this dimension-worship style-that former members of abusive churches tell me they miss the most, as they reflect back on their experience. Still others mention the appeal of a family-like environment. I have in my files a letter from a man whose comment is not at all unusual: “One of the good things about the group was that it gave people like me a sense of ‘family’ and ‘belongjng’ to an extent that I haven’t had before or since.”
Why are Christians being attracted to nontraditional groups? In addition to the reasons just cited — greater freedom in worship, acceptance, fellowship, and a sense of family — there is the appeal and excitement of experience, the desire for something new, something more, as illustrated by this observation concerning the Vineyard: “Dissatisfaction with a lack of spiritual power, a feeling of unfulfillment in one’s relationship to Christ and a hunger for a new and deeper experience with God … . The Vineyard’s emphasis on power, signs and wonders has a definite appeal to those who are searching for something more.”
I have already noted the role of subjective experience in the devolution of many abusive churches. It is understandable, then, that I voice my concern over the current preoccupation in some Christian circles, including the Vineyard movement, with the exorcism of demons, the pronouncements of “prophets” like Paul Cain and Bob Jones, the talk of a “new breed” of people (“Joel’s Army” — a unique end-time army of believers endowed with supernatural power enabling them to perform “signs and wonders,” purify the church, and overcome all opposition to the Gospel), the appearance of the “Manifest Sons of God,” the unorthodox God-man theology of Benny Hinn, and the “revelation teaching” of assorted “end-time prophets” in charismatic circles. Space does not permit discussion of these phenomena, but let the reader beware.
As Dr. Paul G. Hiebert of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School correctly observes:
Like most movements in the church, the current emphasis on healing, prophecy and exorcism has both positive and negative sides to it. It reminds us of the need to take seriously the work of the Holy Spirit in meeting everyday human needs. It is in danger, however, of placing primary emphasis on what is of secondary importance in scripture and of bending the gospel to fit the spirit of our times. Satan often tempts us at the point of our greatest strengths. His method is not to sell us rank heresy, but to take the good we have and distort it by appealing to our self-interests.
Abusive churches are not, for the most part, promoting rank heresy. But their human leaders seem ever willing to make pronouncements in the name of God, thus “mistaking what God is saying in Scripture for their own particular brand of interpretation of Scripture.” This sets the stage for the possibility of outright heresy being introduced, as well as the kind of abusive practices we have discussed.
Is it possible for authoritarian churches to change direction? There are several fairly recent examples of leaders who have announced changes and confessed to error. One of the leaders of the discipleship/shepherding movement officially known as Christian Growth Ministries, Bob Mumford, made a dramatic about-face after issuing a public statement of repentance in November of 1989. Mumford, one of the “Ft. Lauderdale Five” (so named because of the group of the five founders of Christian Growth Ministries of Ft. Lauderdale Don Basham, Ern Baxter, Bob Mumford, Derek Prince, and Charles Simpson), acknowledged abuses that had occurred because of his teaching on submission. This emphasis resulted in “perverse and unbiblical obedience” to leaders. He publicly repented “with sorrow” and asked for forgiveness. He also admitted that families had been severely disrupted and lives turned upside down.
In an interview with Christianity Today magazine, Mumford indicated that the abuse of spiritual authority led to “injury, hurt, and in some cases, disaster.” Leaders, he said, were operating at a level where biblical limitations on their authority were not clear. “Part of the motivation behind my public apology is the realization that this wrong attitude is still present in hundreds of independent church groups who are answerable to no one.”
Jack Hayford, whose counseling of Mumford was instrumental in the decision to issue a public apology, said in Ministries Today magazine that he was one of hundreds of pastors who had spent fifteen years “picking up the pieces of broken lives that resulted from distortion of truth by extreme teachings and destructive applications on discipleship, authority, and shepherding.”
In November of 1989, Maranatha Christian Churches, founded by Bob Weiner, announced that it was disbanding and dissolving its international federation of churches. The youth and inexperience of its pastors, along with the controversial shepherding practices of the group were some of the problems that led to the demise of the organization (although MCM spokespersons denied those allegations). Most of the churches themselves did not close, but instead became even more independent and autonomous bodies.
One of the most encouraging evidences of change appears to be taking place within the Great Commission Association of Churches, formerly named Great Commission International (GCI). Founder Jim McCotter is no longer associated with the organization. The current leadership (which includes many of the original leaders) has been consulting with evangelical pastors, lay persons, former members, and various well-known Christian organizations in an effort to chart a new course. I have met with several of the national leaders on two occasions, and I am convinced of their sincerity in wanting to begin a process of restoration and healing, as well as their desire to chart an organizational change.
The Great Commission leadership has sought to identify a number of “errors and weaknesses” that they feel were caused by incorrect or imbalanced teaching, the youthful immaturity of some leaders, and a number of other factors. In personal correspondence with me, one of their national leaders stated, “We have a desire to forthrightly acknowledge errors and problems that existed and yet not inaccurately or needlessly dishonor what the Lord has done in our past … ”
Former members of GCI are cautiously optimistic about the unfolding events and, frankly, they are a bit surprised. Others are more cynical, fearing that the effort is an insincere gesture in order to achieve acceptance and legitimization from the evangelical mainstream without fully acknowledging the depths of the hurt which has been caused over the years. At this writing, the effort at reconciliation and restoration is in process. Many will be watching to see the outcome and the nature of change that emerges. The Great Commission Association of Churches may well prove to be a model for other authoritarian groups to emulate.
Major change is also taking place within a network of charismatic Catholic communities because of the efforts of former members to expose the excessive control and abusive practices alleged to have occurred. The Word of God Community in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has undergone a split, and cofounders Ralph Martin and Steve Clark have experienced a parting of the ways. Word of God leaders, in a March 1991 letter to members, expressed a desire to repent of “spiritual pride and arrogance, elitism, legalism and an overbearing exercise of pastoral authority.” Several months later the same leaders told assembled members that people were no longer to be under anyone’s control, in effect renouncing the shepherding practices of the past. The basic issue that divides Martin and Clark is the nature of pastoral care and authority in Christian community. Martin’s faction has opted for a more moderate pastoral system with less emphasis on submission, while Clark maintains that covenant community leaders have been entrusted with the spiritual and material welfare of the members, and therefore must exercise responsible pastoral authority over those members.
Former members of several other charismatic Catholic communities told the National Catholic Reporter stories of the extreme submission of women to men, and life-style conformity that included the wearing of shoes and hairstyles similar to those of the leaders. One group celebrated the birth of boys but reportedly only “tolerated” newborn girls. A former member of one group was “discouraged” from visiting his dying mother. “He was told to repent for spending a Sunday morning with her.”
Roman Catholic Bishop Albert Ottenweller of Steubenville, Ohio, ordered an investigation of Servants of Christ the King, a charismatic covenant community affiliated with the Sword of the Spirit, a network of communities scattered throughout the United States and abroad. Bishop Ottenweller criticized the Servants of Christ the King for “an arrogance that is elitist … ” and a “lack of compassion and love for those in need.” He charged that the lives of members had been controlled through the manipulation of marriages and life-style patterns. “Great psychological harm has been done to members.”
While not all groups affiliated with the Sword of the Spirit have recanted their clearly abusive methods, the actions of Word of God leaders in Ann Arbor appear to be sincere and will have an uncertain but dramatic impact on that organization’s future. In an interview with Fidelity, a conservative Catholic magazine, Word of God senior head-coordinator Ralph Martin admitted that the community had had problems from its earliest days.
I think a small group of people basically took control of the whole thing early on. And I was part of that group … I think [we] took the place of the Lord Himself, in a certain kind of way. Instead of trusting in the Lord and being docile to the Lord, … [we] basically got into protecting our thing, our work, in a way which led to excessive exercises of authority, controlling people’s lives.
While these examples of repentance and change are welcomed and praiseworthy, we must not forget those whose lives have been damaged, some irreparably, during the long years when the now-repentant leaders were unresponsive to warnings and reluctant to admit weakness. It is easy for us who have not experienced the pain and turmoil of their followers to say, “Forgive and forget.”
We all struggle on in a fallen world, seeking to test the voices that call to us, to discern whether they are, indeed, from God. The ultimate challenge is to fix our eyes on Jesus, the Great Shepherd, who knows his sheep and who will never abandon us.
The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel … ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? … You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd … Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD … because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock … I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock … I myself will search for my sheep and look after them … I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak … I will shepherd the flock with justice … I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered … You my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, are people, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign LORD.'” (Excerpts from Ezekiel 34)
1 White and Blue, Healing the Wounded (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1985), 198.
2 Paul Tournier, The Violence Within (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), 137.
3 Ibid., 148.
4 Harold Bussell, Unholy Devotion (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 70.
5 Ibid., 72.
6 John Schmidt, “New Wine from the Vineyard,” in Wonders and the Word, ed. James R. Coggins and Paul G. Hiebert (Hillsboro, Kansas: Kindred Press, 1989), 78-79.
7 Flavil Yeakley, The Discipling Dilemma (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1988), 79.
8 Wonders and the Word, 79.
9 Paul G. Hiebert, “healing and the Kingdom,” in Wonders and the Word, ed. Coggins and Hiebert, 139-40.
10 White and Blue, Healing the Wounded, 40.
11 Christianity Today, March 19, 1990.
12 Ministries Today, January/February 1990.
13 National Catholic Report, June 21, 1991.
16 Fidelity, June 1991.
© 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.