Apologetics Index

Abusive Churches: Chapter 1 — A View From Within

Estimated reading time: 30 minutes

Churches That Abuse — Chapter 1: Introduction

Abusive Churches: A View From Within

Pastor Phil was in the stands watching his team participate in a church league softball game. The game was going great, but for some reason Pastor Phil asked the coach to substitute a number of men in the next inning. The coach complied but left the assistant pastor in the game. This evidently infuriated Pastor Phil. According to the (former) coach, “He called me with his bull horn to come to the spectator stands immediately. He was extremely angry and asked me why I had disobeyed him about the substitutions, pointing out that the assistant pastor was still in the game. Without any provocation on my part, Phil was attempting to intimidate me publicly before many people. I was stunned! His outrage continued for the rest of the evening as he attacked me and the team members.”

The following week Pastor Phil was unable to attend the ball game, but he gave orders to play the game “backward.” That meant the players had to bat left-handed if they were right-handed and vice versa. All field positions were switched so that everyone was playing in an unfamiliar location. Since the pastor couldn’t be there, he sent someone with a camera to videotape the whole game to make sure his decree was obeyed. The point of all of this, he said, was to “humble” the team because they were getting too proud from winning so many games. The team members were, in fact, humiliated and embarrassed.

The coach later confronted Pastor Phil and told him that he was shocked and offended by his behavior. “I pointed out that I had always done what he had asked in regard to coaching any teams, and that his sudden outburst of rage toward me was totally uncalled for. His only response was that I did not obey him and therefore was not submissive to him.” The coach learned later that most, if not all, of the team members had gone to Pastor Phil and apologized even though they really had nothing to apologize for.

The scene was quite different a few weeks later when television evangelist Paul Crouch and his wife Jan were present to watch their son Matt play ball and to shoot a video spot for their Trinity Broadcasting Network. Pastor Phil was now “Mister Personality,” greeting all of the players, cheering them on to victory, calling the play-by-play action while the video cameras rolled, giving “Jesus cheers,” and focusing his attention on Jan and Paul Crouch. At the end of the game, he gathered the team members around him, and, ever mindful of the cameras, prayed and thanked Jesus, tears rolling down his face.

Pastor Phil is the unquestioned leader at Set Free Christian Fellowship in Anaheim, California. He likes to present the image of being a “cool” pastor. No jacket and tie for him. Wearing the obligatory sunglasses and earring, he leaps to the platform, his dark hair pulled back into a pony tail, and grabs the microphone. “I want to welcome you to Set Free Christian Fellowship-a place where people who love Jesus come, a place where people who don’t know Jesus come, a place where people who want to find out about Jesus come. And it’s the place, too, where a few troublemakers come, just to try to stir up trouble. I would point out a few of them right now, but I won’t. We’ll let God take care of them, amen?”

Then Pastor Phil invites his audience to “get high on Jesus.” “Jesus Christ can just bless your brain to bits,” he tells us. “Jesus Christ can make you fly. Jesus Christ can totally set you free-this morning.”

As I glance around the large, old warehouse that is the setting for this 10 A.M. Sunday-worship service, I am reminded of the informal atmosphere that characterized the so-called Jesus People gatherings that I attended and wrote about in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, I felt catapulted back into that time frame this late October morning in 1990 as I joined the largely youthful throng walking from all directions toward the big old building with the words SET FREE emblazoned on its side. Men from the church were directing auto and pedestrian traffic. A few people warmly welcomed me as I approached the entrance.

Before the service begins, the sounds of a Christian rock band announce to the visitor that this is no ordinary church. People are noisily milling everywhere, searching for the hard-to-find seats on the folding chairs cramped across the floor. Around the sides and back of the building, bleacher seating is also rapidly filling up.

The crowd of several thousand is composed primarily of young adults, with some people in their middle years, but very few over sixty. The audience is a mixture of Hispanics and whites, with a scattering of blacks. Quite a few children are there, many of them in the company of single mothers. Most of the folks at Set Free this morning are casually dressed–shorts or jeans, a few women displaying bare midriffs. What is especially noticeable is the presence of many males dressed in biker garb-black motorcycle vests and sleeveless denim jackets, some with “Jesus” inscribed on the back. Others proclaim, “Trained to Serve Jesus at Set Free.” Beards on the men and heavy make-up on the women are the norm. Except for the biker crowd, the atmosphere is again reminiscent of the earlier Jesus People rallies, complete with the “one-way” finger sign popping up here and there throughout the audience.

The music is raucous and the crowd is enthusiastically responsive. They love the rock ‘n rap gospel music. They cheer, whistle, and stomp when Pastor Phil says, “You don’t have to wear a holy face here.” No sir, this is California casual. Pastor Phil urges his audience, many of whom have backgrounds on “the street,” to feel at home, and to forget about hymnals and fancy clothes. He promises us that we will not be hearing a three point sermon. And no poems. Just sit back, relax and enjoy “The Lord’s Most Dangerous Band.” “We’re family,” Pastor Phil reminds us.

Loud, upbeat music dominates the first half of the service.

The Set Free Gospel Choir is introduced and Phil banters with his audience. ”I’m gonna dedicate this in prayer for Mick Jagger that he get saved; he might be able to sing here at Set Free one of these days.” The performers on the platform are “jumpin’ for Jesus.” One of the female vocalists sports a broad-brimmed hat that rivals the $1.98 special worn by Minnie Pearl of the Grand Ole’ Opry. Other performers wear Jesus T-shirts.

Just before testimony time, Pastor Phil brings on the popular rap group, the Set Free Posse. He alerts the audience to “listen up” for the “heavy” doctrine contained in the lyrics. For those unfamiliar with the term “doctrine,” he explains that in “regular” churches it means “teaching.” Then he announces the title of the song: “Don’t Be a Wimp!” “Wimp” is one of Pastor Phil’s favorite words. From the response of the congregation, it is obvious that most of them know he is mocking traditional churches and their concern for doctrine. It soon becomes apparent how lightweight the lyrics are. The audience claps rhythmically in approval. Everyone is having a fun time.

Just before his morning talk, Pastor Phil introduces two young women who give dramatic testimony to Christian conversion. One claims that her recent past had included involvement with drugs and Satanic cults. She says that she had been a “breeder” Satanist and that one of her babies was a victim of child sacrifice.

Pastor Phil’s talk is brief and undistinguished. He wants to preach the simple Gospel in a way that relates to some folks that conventional evangelical churches can’t relate to or even overlook. He is effective as he stands before the crowd with open Bible in hand, informally commenting on several verses. At the conclusion of his talk, he gives an altar call and quite a few people file to the front for brief counseling and a prayer, followed by an announcement that they are now in the family of God.

Phil Aguilar, 43, does not fit the stereotype of the typical evangelical pastor. He is an ex-convict, a former drug addict, a “macho” man who rides a Harley Davidson motorcycle with a license plate that reads, “BIKER PAS,” for biker pastor. His dark glasses and black leather are almost trademarks for a ministry that includes outreach to bikers and gangs (“Servants for Christ”) as well as to miscellaneous street people and the homeless. As drugs increasingly penetrate the middle class, Set Free tries to minister to the young people from the more affluent suburbs. On Sunday mornings cars of all descriptions and dozens of motorcycles can be seen parked in the vicinity.

Set Free also operates a network of rehabilitation homes and ranches. Several hundred church members live in a dozen communal residences located in an area adjacent to the Set Free building. The ministry operates about twenty additional houses nearby, two of them owned by the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). Most of Set Free’s homes are leased at low rates from the City of Anaheim’s Redevelopment Agency. Mayor Fred Hunter, an ardent supporter of Set Free, rents two houses he owns to Pastor Phil and his Set Free Christian Fellowship.

The Set Free rehabilitation program also includes small ranches located in Perris, California, one near Dallas, Texas, and another near Chicago, Illinois. These ranches, plus the urban residential program, involve approximately five hundred people. And it is this segment of Set Free ministries the rehabilitation and communal dimension-that has stirred up controversy. Some critics have questioned the nature of the rehabilitative effort, the physical facilities themselves, and the lack of professional oversight. But most of the concern has revolved around the leadership style and suffusive influence of the man in black-Phil Aguilar. Here is an account of what happened to one couple.

Tina and Art first joined Set Free Christian Fellowship in April of 1987 because of drug and marital problems. They had hopes of a restored marriage and of starting a better life together. Pastor Phil Aguilar regularly appeared on the TBN network, announcing that anyone with problems, either drug, alcohol, or personal, could come to Set Free for counsel and assistance; no one would be turned away.

Tina and Art did go to Set Free and they were not turned away. However, by the time their stay’ at Set Free was over, they had divorced, Art had lost his faith and left the ministry, Tina had remarried one of Set Free’s inner circle of leaders who took her money and possessions for a drug binge and left her pregnant and alone with four other children. All of this occurred with Pastor Phil’s knowledge, counsel, and blessing.

When Tina and Art first moved into the Set Free homes, they were living together in the same house and had no thoughts of separation or divorce. Soon, however, when they started to argue, they were separated by Pastor Phil into different households. They were not in agreement with this forced separation, but they submitted to Pastor Phil’s supposed wisdom and discernment. According to Art, “instead of us getting together to try to work out our problems, we got separated.”

Art was also not allowed to see his own children without having a permission slip. If he saw them at church, he could watch them from fifty feet away but was not allowed to talk with them. Feeling frustrated and powerless, Art watched his wife become increasingly influenced by Pastor Phil. As a young Christian, she could neither discern nor distinguish biblical truth from Set Free doctrine. She drifted further and further from her husband until, because she and Art “didn’t get along,” Pastor Phil counseled her to get a “worldly divorce,” since a “spiritual divorce” was not possible without having committed adultery. Tina says about her experience at Set Free, “When you first start to get involved, you’re so naive about things, and it’s really easy to fall into becoming part of Pastor Phil’s ‘clique,’ especially when you’re just coming off of drugs and having a lot of problems.” Art adds, “At the time, Tina and I were new Christians who didn’t know very much about the Lord, and we could have followed any kind of cult without even knowing it. There are a lot of people out there who twist the Word around, and there are a lot of false prophets.”

At no time did Art and Tina ever receive counsel together, nor did Pastor Phil ever pray or share the Scriptures with them. Art asked many times to be able to sit down with his wife so they could talk out their problems. Each time Pastor Phil would say that they were not yet ready. Then he counseled the divorce that neither of them wanted. Tina thought that this was God’s word. If Pastor Phil sanctioned the divorce, then it must be right.

Set Free claims that it ministers to many downtrodden individuals with alcohol, drug, or relational problems. Few have anything beyond a high school education. Few are Christians before coming to Set Free. According to former members and other sources, Pastor Phil himself has only two semesters of Bible school education and is very negative toward formal schooling. The theological “Master’s degree” that Set Free’s official spokesman claims Aguilar was awarded is in fact a certificate from a correspondence school in Florida, called International Seminary. Given this information, it is entirely understandable how individuals like Tina and Art can be swayed by Phil Aguilar’s philosophy, doctrine, and practices. Tina says, “There were a lot of things Phil kept me from doing, and, at the time, I thought it was okay, but I just couldn’t see what he was doing. I thought what he was doing was good for my life, and I didn’t realize how bad it is to keep someone away from her family, or to keep grandchildren from seeing their grandparents.” Tina wanted to leave Set Free several times. Each time she was told that she was weak and that her return to drugs was inevitable. Despite the internal struggle, she remained in the organization, fearing a return to drug abuse and godlessness.

At the time of her divorce, Pastor Phil came to Tina and told her that he cared for her, that he was with her, and that he backed her all the way in her decision to get a divorce. He also indicated that he wanted her to stay in Set Free forever and to make a life for herself there with her children. His counsel to her was to stay single for at least two years so that she could get closer to the Lord and be near her pastor. So Tina ended up living near Phil Aguilar and his family. He would frequently come to her room to talk with her whenever she was feeling down, and would tell her that she “made beautiful babies and things like that.” Phil counseled her to tell her children that their father was “backslidden and not doing the things of the Lord.”

Tina ended up getting remarried in Set Free to Peter, who, at the time, was one of Aguilar’s lieutenants. She thought that everything was fine, but deep down began to feel that something was wrong. However, she didn’t question too much because she thought that since Phil Aguilar was a pastor, anything he did had to be right. “I never questioned divorce and remarriage because I thought Phil knew what he was doing and everything was okay.”

Peter and Tina also ended up leaving Set Free because they had planned on going to Hawaii for their honeymoon without Phil’s permission. Phil caused most of their wedding and honeymoon plans to be cancelled, and said that if they wanted to get sun or look at palm trees that they could spend time in the backyard of one of the Set Free houses. They ended up living in a single room with four children. Shortly after the wedding, Peter and Tina moved to another city, where Peter returned to drug abuse. In the eleven months that they were married, Peter went on four drug binges each of several days’ length. The last time, he took Tina’s personal possessions and money. When he returned from the last binge, he declared that he was going back to Set Free to serve God. He left on a Wednesday and on Friday he was at TBN doing phone counseling, something that Set Free members regularly volunteer to do. After that, Tina started to question God, but only, she says, “because I had made Phil my god. I couldn’t understand how a pastor could allow these things to happen. I couldn’t understand how Phil could allow my husband to be lifted up again right after he had just ripped off his wife and had been shooting up drugs for two days. I was pregnant at the time, and I had to have all my utilities turned off because he had stolen all my money and I wasn’t able to pay our bills.” The child was not planned; Pastor Phil would not allow Tina to use birth control.

Peter was received with open arms upon his return to Set Free. He was never counseled to take responsibility for his pregnant wife and children. He did attempt to return to his family but was ridiculed and mocked for such sentiments. Phil said, “Peter, you wimped out on me again.” Tina and the children are still alone.

Tina’s brother and mother became involved in Set Free during the same period of time that Tina and Art were involved. All have been devastated. Louise, Tina’s mother, joined because of her concern for her children and grandchildren. A daughter-in-law and grandchildren are now lost to her. Robert, Tina’s brother, went to Set Free for help with drug abuse. At this writing, Robert’s wife and children are still very much a part of Set Free. He is allowed to see them for only one hour on Sundays-but only at Phil Aguilar’s Set Free Christian Fellowship.

A former Set Free staff member, who came to the organization from the outside and who was filled with idealism over the possibilities for service, soon discovered nothing but frustration.

The whole emphasis at Set Free is the idea that everybody should live in one community. However, at that particular point, my wife and I had just sold our house and had begun living in an apartment. Phil was constantly pressuring us to break our lease on the apartment and move into the Set Free homes. At that time they had twelve homes that housed about two hundred people. He said if I would move in, I wouldn’t have the responsibility of having to raise any more support or have to work a part-time job in order to pay my bills, and I could be there twenty-four hours a day ministering and having the freedom to do what God called me to do. He also pointed out that if I ever had to leave town for any reason, my wife would have people to fellowship with. We became convinced that it was the right thing to do. My wife and I took that as being wisdom from the Lord and from our pastor, so we broke our lease and moved into the homes. We also sold most of our possessions. And, thinking that we would be there for the rest of our lives, we took our remaining possessions and remodeled the home which we moved into. We gave them all of our furniture, our refrigerator, and a variety of household goods.

This was the beginning of Pat’s and Kerry’s ordeal as youth pastors at Phil Aguilar’s Set Free Christian Fellowship. During their stay they feel they were “used” to lend an air of respectability to the Set Free ministry, were torn apart as a family, were systematically removed from responsibilities when they were becoming too successful in the youth ministry, and suffered the loss of Kerry’s sister, Stacee, to the intense thought reform of the group and to Aguilar’s son, Geronimo.

Pat was a youth pastor at an Anaheim church when he met Phil Aguilar. He was full of zeal for God, was considering full-time ministry, and had numerous non-traditional ideas that he believed were needed in order to reach the youth of today. He was having a hard time finding a church that would be willing to implement activities that would make church exciting and a place where young people could go and feel like they could belong twenty-four hours a day.

Pat’s father-in-law introduced him to Phil Aguilar. All that they knew of Set Free at the time was that it was an inner-city ministry that helped the poor and needy and reached out to the afflicted and those in prison. According to Pat, “From the outside, everything seemed to be exactly what I was looking for.” At their first meeting, Pastor Phil impressed Pat as being a very charismatic type of person. “He was very lively and full of enthusiasm. He was very non-traditional: an ex-gang member, ex-drug addict, ex-con, a Harley Davidson biker who wore all black, always wore his dark Ray-Ban sunglasses without taking them off, had tattoos all over his body, and was of Mexican descent.” Pat shared with Pastor Phil his vision concerning youth and his desire to open a youth center in Anaheim. He also shared with him the fact that he had a possible invitation from a church in Northern California to go and minister there. Aguilar declared that Pat would not be going there, but that God was going to call him to stay in Anaheim, and that he would ultimately be working with Set Free.

Initially discounting Pastor Phil’s predictions, Pat and Kerry began attending Set Free, and, at first, it appeared to be a “real Christian utopia.” Phil would call Pat’s family on stage and introduce them as the “Boone family” or “the clean-cut family.” This was in a congregation consisting primarily of ex-gang members, ex-drug addicts, and ex-alcoholics. Pat’s family was given exceptional treatment during that initial period, and, over the course of weeks, began to grow very attached to Phil Aguilar and Set Free. Then Phil offered to make Pat Set Free’s very first youth pastor. However, he would have to live by faith and raise his own support.

Immediately after this offer, Pat and Kerry were “coincidentally” visited by a member of Set Free with a word from the Lord concerning their staying in Anaheim, as well as offers of financial support. They were convinced they should stay at Set Free.

For the first three months, life and ministry were great. Pat was having great success, ministering to two hundred high schoolers and being asked to consult with state agencies. According to Pat, “Things were perfect, and we thought we had found the place that the Lord had told us to go and spend the rest of our lives.” However, things changed once they decided to move into the Set Free homes.

Although Pat was eventually appointed overseer of the three main Set Free homes that housed about eighty persons, he and Kerry began to notice inconsistencies in both the Set Free Fellowship and in Phil Aguilar’s life. The red lights began to go on. Phil surrounded himself with non-educated and court-appointed individuals needing supervision. Many could not read and depended on Phil for teaching and the interpretation of Scripture. These persons were not afforded any education at Set Free and, according to Pat, they “literally fear Phil and they serve Phil.” New Christians would be sent to TBN (the Trinity Broadcasting Network) to staff the telephone counseling lines-a “blessing” that was required of Set Free members, even if they were not yet completely free of their own addictions. Any questioning of Phil’s decisions or any indications of “irresponsibility” resulted in a stay at “the Ranch,” a five-acre dirt facility outside of Perris, California, consisting of a few ten-by-ten-foot modular rooms and an outdoor wood-heated shower.

The times away from Set Free at the ranch were ordinarily set aside for spiritual growth, a place where “you could go to be closer to the Lord.” But sometimes it was used just as a place of punishment. Phil would separate parents and children by sending young children, he would separate husbands and wives by sending one or the other, and he would separate mothers, daughters, brothers, and sisters. People put up with such treatment and stayed with Set Free because many knew that if they left, they would not have anywhere else to go.

Things were no more consistent with the Scriptures in Aguilar’s personal life, Pat soon learned. While claiming that he had taken a vow of poverty and that he had had to move forty-two times in his ministry, he would go out to eat lunch and dinner frequently, wear fifty dollar shirts, outfit his children in expensive shoes and clothing, and buy various accessories for his motorcycles. Meanwhile, Pat and Kerry’s weekly food budget for the twenty-five persons in their communal house was two hundred dollars. Phil also had access to many different motorcycles and cars. He headed up car and motorcycle “ministries” and would give motorcycles to devoted followers so that they could participate in these church-sponsored “outreach” activities. To downplay his expensive habits, Aguilar would dress in cutup t-shirts, shorts, and army boots, according to Pat.

Perhaps reflecting on his own meager theological education, and revealing his personal feelings of inadequacy, Pastor Phil would sometimes comment that “the only thing worse than an old Christian was an educated Christian.” Yet, he would discipline his followers by calling them “spineless wimps,” “babies,” or “uneducated.” He would sometimes ridicule and humiliate people in public.

Personal quirks also resulted in inconsistency in practices as well as doctrine. Persons seeking assistance at Set Free received differential treatment according to their connections with influential people and how much they could benefit Pastor Phil. Pat’s youth ministry was severely curtailed when the former youth director, an influential and .financially supportive woman, wanted her position back. Pat and Kerry believed that their family was being used as a public relations tool to further Pastor Phil’s ministry and offset his biker image.

Pat and Kerry’s relationship with Kerry’s parents was severely strained to the point that, at the end of their time with Set Free, they were told essentially that Kerry would have to choose between her parents or the Set Free ministry. Kerry’s parents could only see their grandchildren when they worked as nursery volunteers on Sunday. They were labeled as being a hindrance to the work of God.

Kerry’s sister, Stacee, is still a member of Set Free, having married Phil Aguilar’s son, Geronimo. She has been turned against her family, and, on several occasions when visiting with Stacee, Kerry and Pat have been told that they “stir up trouble” and “cause division” by wanting to see her. They feel that Stacee has succumbed to the “Christian macho” environment promoted by the Aguilars. She is “supposed to treat her husband as if he were the Lord,” according to Pat. She was up, serving her husband food and drink, hours after the birth of their first child. Her husband does not participate in the care of the baby, preferring to wait until the time the child can communicate with him. Speaking of her brother-in-law, Kerry observes: “He continually goes off and does whatever he wants, which usually doesn’t include Stacee.” Stacee continues to defend and build up her husband. A common complaint of former Set Free members is that many of the men in the church treat women like doormats.

Phil allows no elders in the church, claiming that he alone is responsible before God for all of his flock. Thus, internal accountability is nullified. Also, as shepherd of the communal flock, Phil requires permission notes for all aspects of life. Pat was not allowed to oversee his family as husband and father, but was expected to consult with Phil on all matters.

According to Pat, because of these and other areas of disagreement, “I finally got to the point where I was about to lose my wife and child. Kerry was being tormented psychologically and was increasingly negatively affected by the ministry.” Eventually, Pat was taken to a football practice to be told that he was being a “wimp” because he wasn’t able to control his wife and keep her away from her mother. He was told that he had to decide whether he was going to be in control of his family and “get some guts,” or leave the ministry. After consulting with two other Set Free leaders who also admitted that they had considered leaving, Pat was told that if he was going to leave he must do so very quietly so that he didn’t stir up any problems.

One evening Pat and his wife did leave very quietly, but when they returned to pick up their furniture, they found that everything had been removed from their room and locked up. As they began to load what was left of their belongings, Pastor Phil came by to help them pack. Here is Pat’s account of what followed.

“I told him that he didn’t have to help us. His response was that the sooner he got us out of there the better. After we had loaded everything, he began to verbally attack me, hoping to get me to physically attack him. He began to discredit me by calling me a spineless wimp and a baby. He said that I was sowing discord in the ministry and causing other people to leave. When I responded using Scripture, he didn’t answer, but continued to belittle me in front of my wife and all the people in the homes. I am sure he was trying to provoke me to anger so that I would physically attack him. That would prove to all the observers that I was indeed an ‘outlaw,’ which is Set Free jargon for a backslider or a rebellious person.”

Six months after Pat and Kerry left to become involved in another Christian ministry elsewhere in the state of California, they returned to Set Free to visit Kerry’s sister, Stacee, who was now pregnant with her first child. Phil eventually showed up and the first thing he said to Pat was, “Hello, el wimpo. Wimpo is back in town.” He came up to Pat, gave him a hug, and asked him what he was doing there. “I told him that I was just visiting and then he told me that I better leave right away. He again said that I was trying to sow discord. He called me a loser and a spineless wimp. He proceeded to inform me how God wasn’t doing anything with my life and how miserable I was. He said that my family life was down the tubes and that was the reason I was back in town. After a few more minutes of his verbal abuse, Phil’s secretary, Lois, joined in and began to tell me that I was treading on dangerous ground. She said that if I continued to act that way toward Phil, God would probably take my life because I was messing with a man who was anointed by God.”

As Pat tells it, Phil became even angrier. “He started to pat me on the head and make some kissing gestures at me. Then he came up and kissed me right on the lips and said, ‘Now what are you going to do about that?'” Pat told Phil that he would pray for him because he was really confused and that God was going to deal with him severely if he chose to continue on his present path. That was the last time Pat and Kerry saw Pastor Phil Aguilar.

It is Pat’s opinion that “Phil Aguilar is a very confused individual who is selfish, chauvinistic, prideful, jealous, arrogant, and extremely authoritarian. He will do anything to advance his organization, his ministry, or his business.” Before Phil became a Christian, he was nicknamed “King Cobra.” The day that he kissed Pat on the lips, Pat remarked that the “Cobra” had never died, but still lived on. Pastor Phil turned, looked at Pat, and walked away.

This book is about people who have been abused psychologically and spiritually in churches and other Christian organizations. Unlike physical abuse that often results in bruised bodies, spiritual and pastoral abuse leaves scars on the psyche and soul. It is inflicted by persons who are accorded respect and honor in our society by virtue of their role as religious leaders and models of spiritual authority. They base that authority on the Bible, the Word of God, and see themselves as shepherds with a sacred trust. But when they violate that trust, when they abuse their authority, and when they misuse ecclesiastical power to control and manipulate the flock, the results can be catastrophic. The perversion of power that we see in abusive churches disrupts and divides families, fosters an unhealthy dependence of members on the leadership, and creates, ultimately, spiritual confusion in the lives of victims.

And victims they are. In this book you will meet some of the casualties of spiritual abuse. They will tell you in their own words why they were attracted to authoritarian religious groups and what the impact of that involvement has meant. They will share the pain of leaving an abusive church and the struggle to re-adjust to life on the “outside.” For many of them, life in an all-encompassing Christian environment has been so devastating that they find it difficult sometimes to read their Bibles, attend church, or even believe in God.

Much has been written about battered wives and child abuse. Here you will read about battered believers and abused Christians. The people in this book, for the most part, define themselves as born-again Christians. The churches and leaders that abused them are evangelical or fundamentalist in theological orientation. However, churches that abuse are on the margins, or just outside the circle, of the mainstream evangelical subculture as it exists in North America. That is, they would not ordinarily seek membership in organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals or financially support missionary and humanitarian organizations such as World Vision International. Their children would not participate in Young Life or Youth for Christ, and they would not encourage their young people to attend mainstream evangelical colleges like Westmont and Wheaton, or even Bible schools like the Moody Bible Institute. Their pastors would not read Christianity Today magazine.

I have spent several years researching this book and have interviewed hundreds of abuse victims in order to learn about their experiences. I have also talked with many other people whose lives have touched former and current members. I have used a tape recorder consistently, but not always. As much as possible in this book, I want to convey the feelings, the attitudes, and the experiences of the people themselves-in their own words-a view from the inside. There will be a minimum of analysis and commentary. In terms of methodology, my mentor is Harvard social psychiatrist Robert Coles, author of the celebrated series Children of Crisis. Like him, my aim is “to approach certain lives, not to pin them down, not to confine them with labels, not to limit them with heavily intellectualized speculations but “to approach, to describe, to transmit as directly and sensibly as possible what has been seen, heard, grasped, felt.” 1

‘Each chapter contains one or more case studies as well as anecdotal material from interviews and other sources. Occasionally I have presented a composite case history; that is, I have combined two or three people into one individual. Sociologists are concerned about the validity and reliability of their data. I feel that the case studies presented here are reasonably representative. I believe that the people who shared their experiences with me were being truthful and I am equally certain that the leaders of their former churches would assert that these ex-member accounts are exaggerated or, at the least, distorted. Although I did not use formal questionnaires and do not claim that my findings have any “statistical significance,” I feel that I have identified patterns of behavior that can be independently verified using standard behavioral-science methodology.

Churches That Abuse, by Ronald Enroth

In addition to employing informal, in-depth interviews of former members, I have visited some of the churches mentioned, listened to countless hours of taped sermons and talks by the pastors under discussion, and talked with relatives and friends of individuals who are currently members of such groups. Whenever possible, I have attempted to interview those in leadership. In all but a few instances, I identify the pastors and churches referred to in this book by their actual names. The names of all former members have been changed.

Sociologists look for patterns in human behavior and in social institutions. As you read the following pages, a profile of pastoral and spiritual abuse will emerge. Abusive churches, past and present, are first and foremost characterized by strong, control-oriented leadership. These leaders use guilt, fear, and intimidation to manipulate members and keep them in line. Followers are led to think that there is no other church quite like theirs and that God has singled them out for special purposes. Other, more traditional evangelical churches are put down. Subjective experience is emphasized and dissent is discouraged. Many areas of members’ lives are subject to scrutiny. Rules and legalism abound. People who don’t follow the rules or who threaten exposure are often dealt with harshly. Excommunication is common. For those who leave, the road back to normalcy is difficult.

The patterns of abuse, the mechanisms of response and coping, and the similarities in outcome have become clear to me as I have attempted to understand the phenomenon of authoritarian churches. At times, when hearing a person’s odyssey for the first time, I am tempted to say, “Stop, let me tell you the rest of the story.” I am reminded of a comment made by Robert Coles regarding his research experience. He notes that “some observations and considerations keep coming up, over and over again-until…they seem to have the ring of truth to them. I do not know how that ring will sound to others, but its sound after a while gets to be distinct and unforgettable to me.” 2

The full text of 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.

While this book is no longer in print, second-hand copies can often still be bought via booksellers such as Amazon.com.

Note: This is the complete, original chapter. It has been formatted to be easily read online. Links within the text have been added by Apologetics Index to facilitate further research.

See Also

You may also want to read up on “What is a cult of Christianity?


  1. Robert Coles, Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971), 41.
  2. Robert Coles, Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971), 42.

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Category: Books, Churches That Abuse
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First published (or major update) on Tuesday, July 7, 2015.
Last updated on February 12, 2022.

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