Chapter 7: Lifestyle and Experience
Abusive Churches Foster Rigidity
Estimated reading time: 29 minutes
Tom and Pam Murray are still searching for God and the truth after their seven-year experience with what has been called the No-Name Fellowship, or C-U (Champaign-Urbana) Ministries, titles that originated with the media for a group of Christian believers who considered themselves to be just a “part of the body of Christ and therefore did not believe a name for [our] group was necessary.”
Tom says that even after two years out of the group he is still working through a lot of experiences in his mind, “trying to discern what was good and what was bad; attempting to save and retain that which was profitable and releasing that which was unprofitable.” Of one thing he is sure, sincerity does not guarantee that God will always honor your actions.
What began as a Bible study, organized by a few students who felt the established churches were weak and ineffectual examples of Christianity, evolved into a rigidly structured group with one man giving basically all the direction. As is typical of some authoritarian groups, the No-Name Fellowship consisted of white, middle- to upper-middle-class young people from eighteen to twenty-five years of age, of above-average intelligence, well educated, and highly idealistic.
Doug Kleber was chief elder in all but name. It was generally recognized that he had experienced a “greater calling of God” than had the other elders and, consequently, much of what the members practiced in the daily routine of their lives stemmed directly from “revelation” that Doug received, or from additional “revelation” that was received by others on the subjects on which he had broken ground. These extra-biblical “revelations” dictated how members were to properly eat, dress, discipline their children, decorate their homes, clean their homes, and behave in the marriage bed. Because of the group members’ love of the Lord and their genuine seeking to know and do what he wanted, they submitted to Kleber’s self-appointed spiritual authority, even though at times Pam knew that he was wrong. As time went on, she eventually convinced herself that she “was the one that was always wrong.”
It was generally recognized that Kleber had always had a dominating presence about him, even from youth. It was said that at one time a number of prophetic words had been spoken over him indicating that God had called him to lead people. Tom never believed, nor does he now believe, that there was any “deliberate” motive to coerce or control people on Kleber’s part. “I still believe that this man’s heart was free from any deliberate intention to lead us in any way for his own personal gain, financially or psychologically.”
Pam, however, knew that something was “off,” but she couldn’t label what was wrong. “I appreciated receiving direction, being a new wife and mother. I felt so loved by the brethren. We were all in it together. I don’t believe that all the fault for the group lies in the leader’s lap.”
Consistent with a number of similar groups, Pam and Tom’s fellowship attempted to live according to “first-century-church” standards. They believed that “the stain of the world” was upon the established church. “Many of us who were zealous for God found it easy to separate ourselves from other churches, other Christians, families, and friends because of what we saw happening in the mainline churches.”
In a very revealing statement, Pam and Tom observe: “If there didn’t exist a real lack in the organized church today, you probably wouldn’t have the ‘backlash’ effect involving thousands of well-meaning young Christians.” This “backlash” resulted in members of the No-Name Fellowship believing that they were the only devoted and pure body of believers around. They became distrustful and contemptuous of almost everyone, and believed that most people were wicked or misguided hypocrites destined for eternal damnation. “We became victims of zealousness without knowledge.” Tom now takes a more balanced approach to the biblical notion of separation from the world. “There is a place for elitism in the church if it’s wrapped in wisdom and understanding.”
As Pam looks back on the experience, she finds it hard to believe that when people called her brainwashed, she took it as a compliment. “We were blessed to have a clean mind. But it did reach a point where I didn’t decide things on my own. Even vacations had to be cleared with the leadership. You wouldn’t dare leave without God’s blessing. And the elders would be called to okay the house we wanted to rent.” She now understands that “trying to make thirty-five housewives clean, decorate and dress the same way didn’t leave room for expressions of individuality” that are a normal part of the diversity of the Christian church. She also understands that the enforced cutting of almost all ties with family and friends outside of the fellowship was not God’s way of “separating oneself from the stain of the world.”
As parents and others began to react to the isolationist stance that the fellowship was taking, members began to believe that the “world was out to get them.”
“Parents kidnapped their kids to have them deprogrammed, which in turn stirred up the media and local authorities with the end result being that all these circumstances only solidified our initial convictions. No one thought that this was anything but the normal sequence of events that an end-time church was supposed to go through.” As far as those on the inside were concerned, the critics “just didn’t understand.” Members felt that “no one could ever get the full story unless they came in person to find out for themselves how we lived.” Of course, no one was ever given the opportunity to see the real group dynamics.
Over the course of time, as Kleber received more and more “revelations,” life became increasingly rigid and difficult. The control mechanisms employed by the leadership covered a broad spectrum of behavior including dress, diet, work habits, personal style or mannerisms, prayer, Bible study, fasting, entertainment, jobs, and whether or not to have children. “There wasn’t one area in our lives where we weren’t legalistic about something.” Tom reflects, “It seems strange that during our time in the fellowship, you would think that the overwhelming evidence in the New Testament concerning grace would have had some effect upon our minds concerning these rigidities.” However, there was so much “revelation” coming that the average member found it impossible to take the time necessary to carefully study the Bible to determine for him or herself that what was being taught was the whole truth of God. In addition, as Pam notes, “I lived in fear of correction, while Scripture tells us to embrace and love it.” Also, many of the rules and regulations were never actually spoken or articulated as a command. One simply knew from experience that something was a rule, and, if not adhered to, discipline resulted.
Given the overwhelming amount of “revelation” that Kleber supposedly received, “the tendency was to trust first and then hope that you could find the time to search the Word in prayer and verify or refute whatever particular issue was being discussed.” The term “revelation teaching” as used in the group did not signify a special, dramatic, prophetic utterance, but had to do with accumulated spiritual knowledge and insight from the Bible that the leadership claimed to receive from the Holy Spirit, some of which was merely the pastor’s attempt to relate Scripture to everyday life. For these folk, the meaning of Scripture is not simply that which the intellect understands from reading, but is apprehended ultimately by revelation from the Holy Spirit. For example, when it was announced that women should not wear jeans, it came not as an isolated pronouncement, but was based on a continuing series of “revelational teachings” that, layer upon layer, gradually readied the congregation for directives that might seem strange to outsiders.
Life became increasingly based on experience and not on the standards of Scripture. Conscience became externalized and embodied in Kleber and the other elders. At the same time members were taught not to trust their feelings, intuition, and emotions, lest they find themselves “walking in the flesh.” “We stifled the voice of God within, mistaking common-sense reactions for the ‘rising up of the flesh.”’ Tom believes that “It was probably this very doctrine that disabled most of us from ever obeying the ‘gut feelings’ of apprehension within. Many times we stifled our own conscience in the desire to walk spiritually.” For Pam, who had had an active prayer life before the fellowship, “God turned into an unreachable spirit. It was like playing a game that I could never win.” She has lost all desire to share Jesus with others.
If members ever did decide they had reason to disagree with Kleber and his “revelations,” they quickly found reason to stop. Pam knew that even when she desired to stand and say, “This is crazy!” or, “I don’t agree!” she would have been disciplined for disrupting and coming against authority.
Women of C-U Ministries were totally submissive to males and were barred from leadership or decision-making roles, as well as from work outside the home. Pam says that, “It got to the point where what I had to say usually got suppressed because I knew it was a waste of time to discuss it. I’d lose.” Tom, no doubt reflecting his status as a male in the group, takes a more moderate view on how dissent was handled. “There never seemed to be a great deal of major dissent on most issues, and when dissent did appear, it wasn’t of the type that endangered the fabric of the fellowship. In fact, it occurred rather often in the course of meetings and was generally settled by the breaking of the Word.”
Although the “breaking of the Word” may have been a part of the settling of dissenting opinion, outrageous discipline of members was the order of the day according to Pam and other ex-members. These measures included the spanking of adults with hands, belts, wooden paddles, or other objects; the drinking of salt water; having liquid soap squirted into a woman’s mouth for inappropriately addressing her husband; and lying at someone’s feet in order to apologize. Pam recalls a women’s prayer meeting at which one woman was told to remove her dress in order to become “more vulnerable.”
Fear, guilt, and intimidation all played a role in the disciplinary process. Obedience to the standard of the group was secured by the fear of divine judgment. For the most part, the internalized psychological and spiritual discipline applied by the group was enough to bring about the desired results. But on quite a number of occasions, verbal public humiliation and sometimes physical public humiliation were used to help straighten out deviant behavior. Tom adds, “Many, but not all, of these disciplinary measures took place in front of the entire body, because we regarded ourselves a family. Many times the body was asked to judge whether they thought the offender had found repentance.”
Unfortunately, the harshness of the discipline extended to the children as well. Pam says, “I could cry over some of the spankings they received. Bruised bottoms. They were even calloused.” The eventual disbanding of the church was in large part related to a tragic event that took place in another branch of the organization in Spokane, Washington. (At one point the group also had outposts in Passaic, New Jersey, and Plano, Texas.)
In December of 1987, ten-year-old Aaron Norman died as a result of medical neglect and a beating administered by his father and Doug Kleber. The boy suffered from juvenile diabetes but his parents did not obtain medical care for him, preferring to rely on the healing power of prayer. When his physical condition worsened and prayer did not seem to be effective, elders of the church were consulted to determine what the problem was. According to a story in the June 21, 1988 issue of the Chicago Tribune, the elders determined that Aaron had sinned. The sin was masturbation, but Aaron would not confess to the sin. His father decided to spank Aaron with a board because the Holy Spirit had told him that he had been masturbating. As the Spokane County deputy prosecutor stated, “His father and the elders ‘rebuked’ Aaron to confess, but he wouldn’t. Aaron’s father and Kleber then beat the child …. A wooden paddle was used at some point until Aaron confessed. On Sunday morning when his parents awoke, Aaron was dead. There were severe bruises on his buttocks.”
The Murrays left the fellowship when it “all blew up in our faces.” If the fellowship hadn’t broken up, they feel they would probably still be there. “We really didn’t have a clue that anything was wrong.” They have had a difficult time since leaving because they had been programmed to believe that to exit the group was to leave family. Members who had left previously were said to be “deceived and going to hell.” The faithful who remained prayed that the defectors would suffer calamities to prove to them that they had been wrong. According to Pam, “Since we believed so strongly that the group was ‘The One,’ contemplating leaving wasn’t even in your thoughts. Rather, we had a fear of doing something wrong and being told to leave!”
Pam went through a time after leaving when she wondered if God even existed. They both have had difficulty in returning to church. Tom admits, ”I’m not sure if I’ll ever understand why God allowed it to happen, but his grace and mercy are sufficient enough to satisfy us when there aren’t any answers to the questions that we still ask.”
Tom Murray gives a final warning: “It is foolish to think that you can remain objective in an abusive-church situation for any length of time without being subtly influenced. No one can consider themselves above the possibility of deception.”
There is another “nameless” group, much larger than the one just discussed, which also engages in various forms of spiritual and physical abuse. Very little has been written about this obscure worldwide church which is said to have as many as one hundred thousand members. It was founded at the turn of the century by a Scottish coal miner named William Irvine who was later joined by Edward Cooney, an Irishman. In the early days, the group was referred to as the “Cooneyites,” and later became known both as the “Two-by-Two’s” (because its itinerant preachers or “workers” travel in pairs) and the “Nameless House Sect.” The group deplores denominationalism and “man-made” doctrines. It identifies with no name and claims only to follow Jesus Christ.
Former members, who often refer to it as “the Truth,” claim that a great number of children raised in the movement are subjected to stern discipline from an early age in order that their “wills can be broken.” Ex-members report that infants as young as three months old are swatted. One said that
fussing of small children is an unacceptable disruption of the meeting, so children must be taught quickly and firmly how to behave and be silent. Children are expected to behave as miniature adults and whatever must be done to achieve this end is done. One common discipline is to expect children to eat everything on their plates, to train them for the task of being in the “work.” Forcing children to eat is considered part of breaking their wills and teaching them to submit to parental authority. If they refuse or cannot, the workers view it as rebellion.
Like many other abusive churches, the Two-by- Two’s impose a restrictive and rigorous life-style on the membership. Women adherents shun makeup and wear long, uncut hair wrapped tightly in buns on the tops of their heads. Jewelry is proscribed, while plain dresses are the norm. Slacks, shorts, and sleeveless blouses are forbidden in public. They submit to the men of the group who tend to wear dark-colored clothes and carry black-covered King James Versions of the Bible. Marriages are performed by civil authorities only, since church “workers” do not register with state officials.
Conformity to a strict life-style is expected of all children and young people in the Truth. They are discouraged from participating in after-school sports and other social activities. Their circle of friends does not extend beyond the group.
They often grow up ignorant and unaware of current affairs around them. One woman remembers taking her young son to the doctor who was astonished that the boy knew nothing about Big Bird or other Sesame Street characters. Another woman relates that her son’s kindergarten teacher was shocked that he hadn’t ever heard of Easter … [most Two-by-Two’s do not observe Christmas or Easter]. This lack of awareness, culturally, religiously, politically, and socially, severely stunts their perceptions of the world around them …. Emotional withdrawal and social isolation are typical responses among children in the Truth which are carried forward into adulthood.
Members of the University Bible Fellowship were encouraged to get rid of their stereos. One student threw his six-hundred-dollar stereo receiver into Lake Michigan and exclaimed, “I felt so free after that.” An ex-member of another abusive church tells of being advised to get rid of her dead husband’s spirit by burning her wedding pictures, selling her wedding ring, and giving away their bed. “Our children watched their baby dolls and stuffed animals get fried in a bonfire,” reports one ex-member, whose former church taught that such attachments could become “idols” and therefore represented potential sin.
Life-style rigidity in abusive churches often manifests itself in a curiously reactive mode with regard to sexuality. Proscriptive measures reveal a sometimes bizarre preoccupation with sex that mental-health professionals would no doubt conclude gives evidence of repression. For example, an ex-member of Faith Tabernacle, a now defunct California church pastored by Eleanor Daries, was told she had to give up playing the cello because of the “sexual positioning” required to play the instrument. Members of the University Bible Fellowship (UBF) were urged to repent of their sinful desires and cut off their relationships with boyfriends and girlfriends. Those who dated were called “wolfy men” or “foxy women” and were considered to be full of “flesh desires.”
Another authoritarian group provides written guidelines for male/female behavior in church: “Limit physical contact in church to hand-holding. Snuggling, cuddling, laying the head on his shoulder, if longer than a second or so, is not appropriate. Excessive massaging of one another is not appropriate.”
The women of Community Chapel, in printed instructions dated September 1978 and titled, “Perspectives on Dress Conduct,” were given detailed guidelines about underwear, fingernails, and make-up. Under the heading, “Breasts,” we read: “No exposure of cleavage showing. Examine what is exposed when bending over; nothing should be seen. Consider also exposure when sitting and swinging around. Small-chested gals need to be extra careful.” Under the entry on fingernails: “Color should be subtle and natural, not deep, bright, or unusual colors.” Women of Community Chapel were instructed to “let the Pastor take the initiative to hug, but feel free to hug him if there is a great, proper need.” In view of what transpired in that particular church a few years later, these kinds of “guidelines” appear now to be rather tame.
In that same church, Community Chapel, the pastor at one point included these specific regulations in the Sunday bulletin: “Remember our rule: All women who show up at the church offices should be dressed femininely, and if they are wearing slacks, those slacks should be definitely feminine, complemented by feminine tops and feminine shoes …. Please respect the right of your shepherd to guide you into more appropriate, conservative, and feminine dress.” Men of the church were not overlooked. The church bookstore sold a pamphlet entitled, “Jesus Had Short Hair!” The bulletin advised males to “avoid low cut and unbuttoned shirts, jeans, beards, unkempt hair, long fancy sideburns, and frizzy hair.” Neither sex could wear amulets or crosses.
While mainstream evangelical churches have always encouraged a life of holiness before the Lord and urged moderation in dress and other aspects of life-style, authoritarian churches demonstrate an excessive focus on such concerns. The restricted life-style and limits on personal freedom that follow are just other examples of the need to control that all abusive churches exemplify. Conformity to prescribed standards is achieved, more so than in mainline churches, through peer pressure and pastoral directives.
As we have already seen, some of these pastoral directives and announcements border on the ridiculous, and to the outsider they are both puzzling and amusing. For example, Hobart Freeman, former pastor of Faith Assembly (not affiliated with the Assemblies of God), told his flock that wearing striped running shoes was considered to be homosexual fashion. He also announced that members should not use the terminology “pregnant woman.” According to Freeman, only cows become pregnant; women are “with child.” The Sunday bulletin of one California church contained the following announcement: “Mrs. Blank [I have changed her real name] refuses to stop the soul-damning sin of gluttony. She uses every excuse to stay fat. She also has a bitter, complaining attitude toward this church. The Board of Elders recommends that she be transferred to [another church] until she is willing to stop her sin of gluttony. The members of this church will vote on dropping and barring Mrs. Blank next Sunday …. If Mrs. Blank wishes to repent, she needs to see [the leadership] and express a willingness to stop complaining and lose weight.”
In my research of abusive churches, I never cease to be amazed at the degree to which private and personal concerns are made public and brought to the attention of the congregation. In a relatively small organization known as “Rejoyce [sic] in Jesus Ministries,” the members were asked to pray for two named individuals “and their finances.” Then the bulletin proceeded to announce: “This past week, checks that they wrote out to RJM bounced. Note: If you have written a check to RJM that has bounced, please get in touch with the RJM Office regarding repaying the original amount plus charges resulting from your bounced check.”
Seattle’s Community Chapel distributed a bulletin insert entitled, “Guidelines for Dancing Before the Lord.” It contained detailed instructions for adults and children pertaining to the expected conduct of members while participating in dancing during the worship services. “Do not obstruct aisles or block vision; return immediately to your seat after dancing. Keep ‘locked into’ Jesus during worship, but be watchful for collisions. If it is crowded, confine your movements to a smaller area …. Watch where you swing your arms.”
The guidelines also provide for those who are not physically fit. “If you are new to the athletic moves of dancing in the Spirit, be careful of overdoing it at first. Stretch tight muscles before and after use. Some people find that elastic ankle and knee braces help if these areas are weak or sore.” The policy statement also notes that, “Because of the limited space and the number of those wanting to dance during the service, the pastor wants the most gifted to be in the front area during service, and not more at once than the area can accommodate without the dancers having to fear collisions.” And finally, “Ushers and elders should be notified when people violate our rules. We do not want to allow misconduct to continue or proliferate.”
A final example of legalism within authoritarian churches can be seen in the list of regulations that one particular network of churches imposes on those who attend “training” sessions. I have selected just a few from a lengthy list to give you a sense of the control exercised by this group:
- No unexcused absences from any of the meetings will be tolerated.
- All the trainees must be seated in the meetings in strict accordance with their assigned seat number.
- All the trainees must be in their seats at least five minutes before the start of each meeting.
- No eating, drinking, or gum chewing will be tolerated after the start of the meeting.
- No trainee is allowed to leave his seat for any reason (including rest room) during the course of a meeting, except for emergency.
- All the trainees are charged to participate in no gossip or negative talk against any individual or any church.
- All the trainees must rest each afternoon and not go out to visit, shop, etc.
Although most authoritarian churches adhere to a strict regimen of do’s and don’ts, there are a few exceptions. I have talked to a number of former members of the Christian Growth Ministries shepherding movement who have indicated that quite a bit of flexibility was applied to the area of drinking behavior. In fact, in some shepherding circles, drinking was almost promoted and drunkenness trivialized. One ex-member of a church affiliated with Charles Simpson, who at the time was still with Christian Growth Ministries, describes it this way: “In the early 1980s, a bunch of us began to go out drinking for some innocent fun. Even drunkenness was not looked upon as a bad thing. One of our sayings was, ‘It’s not what you do, it’s who you do it with.'”
If life-style rigidity is a characteristic of most abusive churches, the role of subjective experience is equally crucial in understanding how such groups drift toward religious marginality. In the second chapter we discussed the pervasive influence of spiritual experience in the life of Community Chapel. Earlier in this chapter we noted how the lives of Tom and Pam Murray were impacted not only by outrageous discipline, but also by “revelation teaching,” and the primacy of experience. Another group that recently dissolved as an international federation of churches, but which illustrates the importance of subjective experience, is Maranatha Christian Ministries. Here is the account of one young woman’s spiritual quest in that organization.
Karen Moore left Maranatha Christian Ministries (MCM) after three years of dedicated service to what she believed was God’s work. Having moved up in the ranks of leadership, she was responsible for the lives of fourteen other young women as their “discipler,” or “shepherdess.” She could no longer reconcile the dichotomy between the God she once knew and the one she served with fear in MCM.
Karen joined MCM after two years of experiencing depression and a sense of purposelessness that came on the heels of several life changes. She had graduated from nursing school, ended a seven-year relationship, and began to lose her network of friends after the disbanding of her campus fellowship. She was at an extremely vulnerable stage in her life, in need of some stability that her new-found Maranatha friends seemed to provide. Through MCM she found loving people, a Christian value system, goals and direction, leadership, and tremendous support. In exchange, she gave up her will, her ability to think critically, and her relationships with family and former friends.
Karen came to MCM with numerous doubts and reservations concerning the teachings in the group, although she was impressed by its radical nature. She believed in being totally committed to God, but was concerned about what she perceived as an excessive emphasis on holiness, faith, victory, “overcoming,” and a lack of balance with regard to mercy, grace, and love. She initially believed that she could provide this balance for the group.
Her early skepticism was labeled as “mind idolatry” accompanied, the leadership told her, by spirits of critical thinking, independence, rebellion, and mistrust. These so-called “spirits” were exorcised from her at the beginning of her time with MCM, and any further objections to MCM doctrine or practice were merely recurring manifestations of those very same spirits. Thus, Karen’s abilities to think critically and evaluate were effectively stifled.
As she was further indoctrinated into God’s “higher plan,” she learned that her mind had been totally perverted by the Fall and that it was completely unreliable. Depression, she was told, was a sign of spiritual oppression. Anger was sin, unless it was directed at outsiders, in which case it was probably righteous. Above all, she came to understand that submission to MCM leadership was essential.
Each member of MCM was under the direction of a “discipler” or “shepherd” who, in turn, was under the authority of other leaders in a pyramidal, hierarchical structure. Robert Weiner, MCM’s founder, was at its head. Every aspect of life was to be under total submission to the leadership, whether having to do with family visits, “acceptable” literature, marriage, and even female hygiene. Disobedience to the leaders was seen as rebellion, which was equated with the sin of witchcraft.
As time went on, Karen discovered that whereas she once loved God with open affection and awe, now she was scared and intimidated by him. As she moved up in leadership, she found herself explaining the teachings of MCM to new members so that they sounded less harsh, reassuring them that abiding by the teachings was really pleasant and fulfilling. At the same time, she realized that while she once was able to discern God’s will personally, she now was told that her leaders knew God’s will for her better than she knew it herself. Unfortunately, their answers supposedly representing God’s will were often contrary to those she knew deep down to be biblical. Examples of such “answers” were that “reading books by non-Christians would reap corruption”; that she had “to get permission to visit my grandmother, or to travel at all. If I wanted to visit relatives out of town, I was to submit that to my shepherdess who would take it to the pastor for confirmation. If he agreed it was from God for me to visit, I was then permitted to do so”; that “I was no longer to be alone on my days off or anytime” [because the devil was trying to attack her]; and, that “I could more easily be deceived because I was a woman.”
Friendships outside of MCM were terminated, except within the framework of evangelism. One was permitted to develop friendships only for the purpose of witnessing. To “draw life from” loving relationships outside the group was felt to contradict the command to keep oneself unstained by the world. Other Christians could conceivably fellowship with members of MCM, but it was believed that they had such a lower revelation of God that it was repeatedly asked, “How can two walk together who do not share the same vision?”
In time, Karen felt that love became wholly conditioned upon her behavior. She was no longer heard unless she was presenting the party line, all else being considered evil and severely confronted as rebellion against the leadership and ultimately against God. The MCM vision became god, and everything was to be sacrificed to it. “The work” was important, but individuals were not. Members were expected to dress like overcomers, smile like overcomers, serve like overcomers, and behave like overcomers. Outsiders, particularly Christians who did not know them well, marveled at members’ faith, victory, generosity, and obedience. Maranatha members had a high view of their own organization, considering themselves “God’s Green Berets.”
Upon making her decision to leave, Karen was overcome with thoughts of guilt and doubt as she agonized over conflicting feelings. To leave was to break covenant with MCM–an unforgivable sin. To leave was to jeopardize the movement of God in MCM, and to endanger her salvation as well as the salvation of her outside friends and family. An overreaction to problems within the group could be costly. Was she lost in carnal, soulish, selfish pride? And, as a woman, was she as easily deceived as her MCM brothers had said? Her fourteen disciples might backslide. She also knew that her character would be defamed by the leadership if she left. They would announce that she was a false teacher, a false prophetess, one who never knew the Lord, just like others who had left before her. Her publicly confessed “sins” would be brought up as evidence against her. Perhaps Satan had come against her with great force to keep her from her ministry. Maybe a strong spirit of deception had come to blind her to God’s mighty call upon her life, to distract her from her obviously close relationship with him.
As these doubts filled her mind, her pastors fed her additional guilt and psychological intimidation. Regardless of the doubting, after many days of fasting and prayer Karen could not honestly say that God had shown her any sin of which to repent, contrary to the counsel of her pastors. She had not read any non-Christian books, nor was there anything which she was not willing to give up for God that had become an idol. Yet she had been told that she had let Satan have an open door to her heart, and that she must repent and renounce him so that she could get on with God’s will and continue as a full-time worker in the ministry.
Karen’s decision to leave, as told to her small group of disciples, was quickly communicated to her pastor, Mark. Initial attempts to sway her with kindness and encouragement soon gave way to accusations of lack of trust for the leaders God had given her. There were dark predictions of her future, veiled threats, and eventual disfellowshipping. There was no place for her in MCM unless she repented and submitted. Eternal damnation hinged on her decision.
Karen fully expected her plane to crash as she flew home to her parents. The wrath of God, according to her pastors in MCM, was upon her. Gone were the smiles, the assurances, the optimism for an alternate life-style that was far superior to ordinary life. Gone were the prophesies about being part of God’s end-time army, and the supposed opportunities to reign with Jesus in the Holy of Holies reserved for His called-out ones. The young people in MCM were to be “the future great Christian leaders, full of power and grace and truth, that would lead the other unenlightened Christians through the coming Tribulation.” Karen was told that all she now ‘wanted was “to be married and to be a rich, mediocre suburbanite.” Feeling that she could not continue in the group and maintain her relationship with God, Karen was forced to choose between serving him and “breaking covenant” with “his people.” On January 18, 1981, Karen Moore walked away from “the Vision” of Maranatha Christian Ministries.
To conclude this chapter, I share the articulate and insightful commentary of a young man who was also a Maranatha member. In so doing, I also share his “prayerful hope” that all those involved in authoritarian movements will “earnestly seek to prove all things, holding fast to that which is good.”
The most significant problems with Maranatha stem directly from its interwoven concepts of discipleship and submission to authority, which, I feel, have resulted in serious, destructive abuse.
In Maranatha the centrality of authority is a natural consequence of a military self-perception. Greater emphasis is placed upon building the “army of God” than nurturing and developing the “family of God.” The leadership sees itself as setting up a new order on earth in the prospect of bringing in the kingdom of God, thereby establishing an external purified order in this age.
Preparation of leaders is obtained as quickly as is physically possible under the guise of ministry or spiritual expertise culminating in a sink-or-swim survival of the fittest environment. The often painful results in Maranatha include a lack of leaders with a mature understanding of the Bible. Because of this, unwarranted authority is attached to the contemporary spoken word, the rhema, going so far as to hold that it is equal to the written Word, the logos.
All too often the public revelation in the Bible is subordinated by the private revelations of the leadership of Maranatha, pointing not beyond themselves to Christ crucified and risen, but to the leadership’s own experience. Unfortunately, this can lead to setting goals to possess the life of God in exclusively ecstatic experience.
On the emotional or mental level, the Maranatha environment encourages spiritually and experientially oriented persons to allow phenomena to determine their faith instead of interpreting experience with reason in light of Scripture. The “swallow-follow” concept, the “mind idolatry’ teaching, and the overall dictatorial exercise of authority all combine to form a totalitarian attitude that behavior is determined solely by unfettered and thoughtless obedience and submission to authority. When the mind and the values of knowledge and understanding are rejected, downplayed, and scorned as being “rebellious,” the mind becomes subverted and the will is subdued into passivity, producing a dangerous phenomenon many refer to as “mind control.” The potential and, in fact, recurrent result is a mass production of stymied personalities. Consideration and appraisal of the individual by authority is effected through the capricious, demanding, and judgmental eyes of condemnation rather than the eyes of compassion, understanding, and mercy. Motivation becomes fear-oriented, not love-oriented.
Faith is transformed from an adventure into a duty as concern for righteousness through holiness and blind adherence to proscribed behavioral codes begin to envelop the individual’s identity. Holy living becomes a pretext for a new legalism; keeping “the law” tends to become an end in itself rather than a means of service to God.
Table of Contents: Churches That Abuse
- 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
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1 Russell Chandler, “Nameless Sect Travels “Secret Path,'” Los Angeles Times (September 13, 1983), Part I: 1, 3, 17.
2 “Abuse in the Truth,” Spokane: Threshing Floor Ministries n.d., 2-3.
3 Chandler, “Nameless Sect Travels “Secret Path,'” 3.
4 “Abuse in the Truth,” 3.
5 See chapter six of my book, The Lure of the Cults and New Religions (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1983).
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First published (or major update) on Friday, September 26, 2008.
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