Chapter 8: Dissent and Discipline
Abusive Churches Discourage Questions
Estimated reading time: 31 minutes
“I’ll never forget, as long as I live, that feeling the first morning when I woke up there at the [River of Life] ranch and stared at that ceiling. I said, ‘Oh God! I’ve really done this.’ And, after a couple of days, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Boy, I’ve really blown it.’ But it was kind of like, ‘Well, here we go, I’m just gonna trust God.'”
This was only the beginning of Paul and MaryAnn Hasting’s negative experiences with Ed Mitchell’s River of Life Ministries. Months of preparation had gone into their being influenced to “lay down everything they had to walk with Jesus.” They were wooed and courted by Mitchell and his indoctrinated followers with public-relations techniques that would rival those of Madison Avenue. Eventually, their succumbing cost them everything, including their home, retirement monies, jobs, lost wages, and very nearly their family. They also exited River of Life almost eight thousand dollars in debt and with River of Life creditors after them for organizational purchases.
Paul, an educator of thirteen years experience with a master’s degree in educational psychology and a professional credential in pupil-personnel counseling, had limited Christian experience before his involvement with River of Life. He and his wife MaryAnn had been brought up Catholic, but they were not devout adherents. Their involvement began when River of Life was called The Centurion Door, and was based in Thousand Oaks, California. Attendance at that point was some three hundred persons. MaryAnn was the head of a liturgical-dance troupe called Hallelujah Dancers, and was having some personal difficulties when she heard of The Centurion Door as being a place to go for “counseling.” As her involvement increased, the Hastings opened their home to prayer meetings. It was at that point that Ed Mitchell became involved in their lives and began inviting them to River of Life’s ten-acre Apple Valley Ranch.
Mitchell, “tall, good looking, and charismatic,” was developing an “end-times ministry” at the ranch, a place where people could come when society fell apart. There, Paul, MaryAnn, and their family found the people to be very loving and accepting. “We played volleyball, had barbecues, and had tremendous religious experiences. Over the period of the next couple of months, we would go out there on weekends. It was wonderful. It was something I had never experienced in my life before.”
Over the months, as the Hastings’ longings for significance, friendship, and “a return to Eden” were seemingly fulfilled, there were also subtle messages given concerning their commitment to Christ. There was the constant pressure to join “the group that had laid down everything they had to walk for Jesus Christ.” Eventually they concluded, “What could be greater than to give one’s life to Jesus Christ and the spread of the Gospel.” Paul turned in his letter of resignation to the school district; they began the process of selling their home. Then the real pressures started.
Paul’s resignation was extremely difficult for him. He had been told by Ed Mitchell that when he quit he would experience great emotional turmoil, but that he should realize this was Satan’s ploy to keep him from accepting “God’s call.” Having internalized the group’s initial indoctrination, Paul spiritualized his anxieties as the devil’s attacks and then interpreted chance readings of scriptural passages as messages from God to go to the ranch. He was anointed as “pastor of the ranch” by Mitchell, who then began speaking of himself as “the major end-time Apostle.”
Paul was also going to be the principal of the ranch’s new school, and also the counselor to the many seekers who came to the facility. However, as Paul states, “Everything inside of me was just screaming out against it. Everything. I woke up that night … and I lay there for three hours rebuking Satan. I felt sick to my stomach. And then I had what I felt were some visions that were pointing me to the ranch. But everything inside of me resisted.” Ed Mitchell was smart enough to notice that Paul was wavering after making the initial commitment, so Mitchell sent one of his people to stay with the Hastings for the two weeks before they left for the ranch. Paul continued to have grave doubts, but he was convinced that it was Satan trying to block him. “Now, as I look back, I think it was the Holy Spirit trying to say ‘Hey, this is not of me at all.'”
Paul continued to resist the indoctrination process upon their arrival at the ranch. “It almost became a daily ritual where I’d get called ‘on the carpet’ one way or the other in what they call ‘truth sessions.'” These sessions, which at first began with just a few persons, devolved into hostile verbal beatings before the entire group. Paul would be grilled, yelled and screamed at until he finally began yelling and screaming at himself and rebuking Satan.
Other members were also subjected to this “hot seat.” Paul says, “To stay sane, you turn on other people. If you don’t jump right in during the ‘truth sessions,’ and yell and scream as hard as the next guy-even though you don’t know what in the world is going on-then you haven’t ‘supported’ the group properly.”
Three weeks after the Hastings committed themselves to the River of Life Ministries, Paul read newspaper accounts of a former member’s death and the defection of ninety percent of Mitchell’s following. The dead individual was a diabetic who had gone off his insulin after having been prayed over by River of Life members. He “stood by his healing,” as did others in the group, regardless of his deteriorating condition, and consequently died. Most members left immediately after the tragedy; the few remaining loyalists were those who recruited the Hastings. As Mitchell began to see “persecutors” everywhere, Paul’s indoctrination became even more difficult.
After the setback, because of the diabetic’s death and the loss of the majority of his following, Mitchell began to believe that a conspiracy against him had begun, consisting of all evangelical churches that had hundreds of airplanes and four-wheel drive vehicles at their disposal. He began sending groups of his followers to hide in the California desert. Paul notes: “The whole persecution thing, as I see it, is just a self-fulfilling prophecy. You do a bunch of off-the-wall, bizarre, crazy things, and sure, people are going to come after you and ask, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ That’s not persecution-not as Jesus experienced it.”
In their desire to serve the Lord, the Hastings continued in River of Life and came increasingly under Mitchell’s sway, primarily due to the constant barrage of guilt and spiritual hype. As MaryAnn indicates, “They have a public relations side … so warm and loving. And then there’s the inner workings of the group, which included public humiliation and sometimes screaming sessions that would go on for two or three hours.”
As the group deteriorated, these inner workings came to include physical abuse. “There was punching, hitting, children were whipped with belts, women were whipped with belts.” This behavior was defined as “love” for the victim, because, “if you really love someone, then you’re going to pay the price for that person to be set free. You’re not going to compromise; you’re going to confront them with their sin or their area of weakness and get them straightened out.” Of course, the majority of this “love” came from Mitchell, who also constantly reminded the members how much he “suffered” by having to chastise the people and treat them the way he did. “He was always telling us how difficult it was for him to take all the steps that he took. And if you ever challenged him on anything, you wouldn’t be challenging a human being, you’d be challenging the Holy Spirit because of his ‘apostolic authority.'”
MaryAnn’s experiences were even more traumatic than Paul’s. Having been accused of being in league with the “evil spirit of Jezebel that controls every woman unless she is submitted to the spirit of God in her husband,” MaryAnn was isolated from Paul and the children. She was dressed in “sackcloth and ashes” by Mitchell, called a seductress and a temptress, not allowed to bathe, forced to do heavy physical activity in the desert sun, and forced to confess that she had lustful desires for all the men and boys, including her own son. She was also accused of having a “spirit of motherhood.” This meant that she “idolized” her children and focused too much attention on them. “I was absolutely terrified to even talk to my children, show any kind of concern for them,” even when her son fell and split his head open.
Eventually, because of the level of abuse, Paul and MaryAnn’s children were taken from them, first by the Arizona Department of Public Social Services (at times the group moved around the Southwest quite a bit), and then, upon their return to California, by California authorities. The children were in foster homes for six months before MaryAnn left the River of Life Ministry. Paul left the following month with their oldest daughter, a teenager who did not leave willingly. “She was one of the ones Mitchell would surround himself with certain people he knew could be manipulated. He just poured everything into these teenagers. They became even more valuable to him than the adults. And, it was an unwritten rule that one of their jobs was to report on their parents at all times.”
Before their escape, Paul had been made president of the River of Life Corporation by Ed Mitchell. Mitchell told him, “Well, I’ve been freed of this; I want you to have this experience, Paul.” Consequently, Paul would meet with the press to defend the group, talk with the attorneys, confront the sheriffs department and shoulder all final fiscal responsibility for the group. He is still being followed by bills that haven’t been paid. As Paul says, “It was just a total set up. He used me because of my talents.”
Paul, MaryAnn, and the children have put their lives back together in spite of the tremendous financial problems that Ed Mitchell and his River of Life Ministries left them. Paul says, “The Lord has really opened up a lot of doors for us. He found a school for me last year, kind of by accident, and now, in my second year, I can say without doubt that it is the nicest place I’ve ever been.”
With his strong academic background in psychology and years of experience, Paul gives this warning: “I’ve been involved with kids all of my life, dealing with different kinds of unusual behavior, and all that this experience says to me is that nobody is really immune; nobody is really safe from being sucked into something like this.”
Virtually all authoritarian groups that I have studied impose discipline, in one form or another, on members. A common theme that I encountered during interviews with ex-members of these groups was that the discipline was often carried out in public-and involved ridicule and humiliation.
Discipline resulting from the infraction of rules or “failure to keep with the program,” as well as “spiritual disciplines” imposed for one’s spiritual betterment, have been reported by former members of the Community of Jesus, a controversial charismatic Christian group located in the Rock Harbor section of Orleans, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. The Community of Jesus (COJ) exemplifies commitment to self-sacrifice and a semi-monastic life-style in the context of what The Christian Century referred to as “tasteful affluence.” The COJ accommodates resident members, associate members, and nonresident members, as well as the many middle and upper-middle-class Christians who journey to the Cape each year to participate in retreats sponsored by the organization. Some of the evangelical notables who are associated with the Community include Peter Marshall, Jr., William Kanaga, who is Chairman of the Advisory Board of the New York firm Arthur Young, and at least one member of the Rockefeller family.
Two laypersons, Cay Andersen and Judy Sorensen, founded the Community around 1970 (Mrs. Andersen died several years ago). They soon became affectionately known as “Mother Cay” and “Mother Judy,” and were at the center of the controversy that has swirled about the organization in recent years. In addition to what one churchman called its “lack of ecclesiology,” the COJ has been accused of promoting a “theology of control” that focuses on attitudinal sins like jealousy, rebellion, willfulness, haughtiness, and idolatry. Critics and former members have argued that the Community has shifted toward an unbalanced, unbiblical, and highly structured program resulting in some people being abused emotionally and spiritually. There have also been reports of some forms of physical abuse. Media accounts, including an extensive article in Boston magazine, have aroused suspicions. These have been denounced by the COJ leadership.
According to a lengthy article appearing in the April 19, 1985 edition of the Cape Codder, former members stated that one of the cardinal sins at the COJ is to talk against Community disciplines in public. A group of ex-members have shared their concerns with reporters. “All of them had tales of being yelled and screamed at. All of them said they had been disciplined, in one way or another.”
I have extensively interviewed a number of former members of the Community and have no reason to believe that they were being untruthful. Independent verification from various other sources has confirmed to me the questionable behaviors at the COJ, and has led me to include here a brief discussion of the problem. I do this despite repeated assertions to me by the leadership that the reports are invalid, and that they represent the complaints of only a handful of “disgruntled” ex-members. Several children of the founders have also departed the Cape and their leaving is dismissed by the leadership as a result of “family squabbles.” It would seem that since reports of abuse continue to surface, to completely discount the experiences of these former adherents is to question the motives of an increasingly large group of people who have been, from their perspective, deeply hurt as a result of their association with the COJ. Because of its proximity to elements of the mainstream evangelical subculture, the Community of Jesus represents an unusual example of what many Christians, including many church leaders, see as a troublesome and unsettling phenomenon.
Since 1982, several presbyteries have initiated studies and critical assessments of the COJ, including the Presbytery of Boston and the Presbytery of Genesee Valley (NY). These studies were undertaken because of the heavy involvement of members and pastors of certain Presbyterian churches in various COJ programs and retreats. In a report dated June I987, the Synod of the Northeast concluded, among other things, that “There is some evidence that in the use of authority, some of the disciplines and practices of the Community of Jesus have been appropriated by individuals in less than helpful ways. The Agency [Synod Vocation Agency] is particularly conscious of the authoritarian nature of the Community of Jesus.”
The comments of Don, an ex-member, demonstrate why there is an uneasiness among many secular and Christian observers regarding the Community. “While the leaders continue to say that they don’t force anybody to do anything, there is such moral persuasion and such peer pressure that there’s no question that you would do whatever you were expected to do. The alternative would be anything ranging from a beating to being sent away from the Community, which meant, separation from Jesus. None of us wanted that, so therefore we would do what we were expected to do-not because they stood over us with a whip, but because of the psychological control they used in giving us the fear that we would miss our calling or that we would be lost to Jesus if we ever left.”
Like members of other abusive groups, Don was led to believe that he was joining an elite team. “We were often told that there was no place in the world like the Community, that it was special.” Don believes that many people who join the Community have problems beforehand, or are spiritually immature, and therefore vulnerable to manipulation. “People who were there all had reasons for joining. Perhaps life was not going well for them, or they were searching for something they couldn’t find. By clever manipulation, the leadership convinced them that they could find it at the Community. I was a new Christian, and they convinced me that I would best find Jesus at the Community. To leave the Community was to get out of God’s will.”
Don experienced firsthand the discipline that the Community administers. “I was told I talked too much. I was directed not to speak more than three sentences at anyone time. And I had to wait until someone else had said something before I could say three more sentences. There were also dietary disciplines. One time we were all expected to go on a grape diet. For forty days we had grapes, grape juice, and raisinsthat’s all. A few were excused for medical reasons. But the great majority of us were expected to ‘go on the grapes.'”
Don’s wife was placed on what is known as the “silence discipline.” She reports, “I was placed ‘on silence’ for six months, except for certain times when there was company in the house, or they decided I could be let off it, which wasn’t very often. Once I had been sent to pull carrots and when I brought them back, I had, unfortunately for me, pulled up some small ones with the larger ones. I was verbally chastised for this and was told that I was not ‘in the Spirit’ and what did I have to say about it. They said I could speak and I fell into their trap; I began to defend myself and then I got another lambasting.”
Don pointed out that no negative criticism of the Community was tolerated, a distinguishing feature of most totalitarian groups. “No one dared to say anything negative of any kind. I was actually afraid of being beaten up physically by members of the Community if I got out of line. No, you learned not to raise questions. We learned to keep our mouths shut. If someone questioned what the Community did, they were ridiculed and humiliated. That effectively shut up everybody else.”
Members of the Two-by-Two‘s also experience the subtle effects of not making waves. “They struggle in vain to sort out what they believe, only to give up in frustration and confusion if they hope to survive. They are taught: ‘When in doubt, do nothing,’ ‘do not question,’ ‘doubt is sin,’ ‘if you have a problem, go to more meetings,’ and ‘if you are unhappy, you need to count your blessings, sacrifice, suffer or submit more.’ The resulting guilt, confusion, indecision, depression and low self-confidence become lifelong burdens one must bear in order to have hope of salvation.”
A former elder at Seattle’s Community Chapel also discovered that you could not question the pastor. “The only way you can minister there is to stroke Don Barnett’s ego. But once you cross him, that’s it for you. There’s no way that you can tell him that he’s wrong. I flat out told him that what the church was involved in was sin, that it was an affront to a holy God. That was my demise as an elder.”
In 1984 Pastor Barnett sent a memo about “Undermining the Pastor” to his elders and their wives. It read, in part, “I am alarmed to see a new trend which I believe the devil is in. A number of you to whom this letter is being sent have been privately sharing with others your personal opinions of how the pastor has given you wrong advice, the mistakes that we have made concerning revelations, and so forth …. To do this is to undermine the church; it is contrary to the church and the Word of God, and it is the devil’s business. Those who are appointed to be representing the church have no business undermining the very church and pastor they represent, the one who has hired them to do their job …. “
Members of all abusive churches soon learn that the pastor or leader is beyond confrontation. As one former member of an abusive congregation put it, “Since no one in the church was allowed to murmur and complain, or to disagree with the pastor, there were many, like myself, who suffered in silence lest we incur God’s anger.” All problems that befall the group are the fault of members who violate the infallible rules. Accordingly, members experience increased self-doubt, helplessness, and insecurity.
Oftentimes the deviant is barraged with attempts to get him to admit that he is guilty of crimes that he does not see. If he says that he is doubting the leadership, he has sinned because you are never to doubt the leadership. If he has talked to someone else about his concerns, he has sinned because you are never to plant “seeds of doubt” in others’ minds about the leadership and/or the sect. If, however, the deviant does not agree with the definitions of his behavior that is placed by the group, he is immediately considered “unrepentant” and “unsubmissive.”
The ultimate form of discipline in authoritarian churches is excommunication or disfellowshipping, followed by strict avoidance procedures, or shunning. As MacDonald correctly notes, “Once the deviant is labeled as factious and is denounced, he is cast aside as thoroughly as one would throw out a dirty diaper … [the deviant] is no longer considered even to be an ex-member, but a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is referred to and looked to as how not to be.” When a rebellious individual leaves an abusive group, he is labeled as a traitor, a reprobate, a sinner, a backslider, or, in the case of Set Free Christian Fellowship, an “outlaw.” The congregation is told to disassociate from such persons. “Friends of long standing will ignore him. They will turn their faces away. They will go to great lengths to avoid him. They will walk on the other side of the street, hang up the phone, or not answer the door. … “
It is one thing to live through the devastation of an abusive-church environment. It is another thing to jump from the frying pan of one aberrant group into the fire of another abusive experience at the hands of one’s supposed rescuer. Ed and Carolyn Roberts’s story is another example of the very destructive and evil nature of abusive-church leadership.
Carolyn, the granddaughter of missionaries to Tibet, grew up in a very psychologically and physically abusive home. Her mother and stepfather had left by the time she was a teenager, and she moved in with her father and his wife at age sixteen. Feeling trapped in poverty and powerlessness, she turned to God and prayer. Carolyn believes that she was filled with the Holy Spirit and received the gift of tongues during this period of time.
At age eighteen, she went to work at a state mental hospital in California, but felt that God was calling her to Mexico. During a phone conversation in the middle of the night, she found out that her mother was going to Mexico to begin an orphanage. Believing that her termination from her job was a sign from God to go, she joined her mother who promptly suggested that she attend a “school for discipleship” in Mexico. It was at this point, at nineteen years of age and with very little Christian experience, that Carolyn encountered Benjamin J. Hyde (not his real name) and Witness to the World (not the actual name).
B. J. Hyde, fifty-six years old and blind, ran a small school in Juarez, Mexico, where he was “training people to be disciples and to become the bride of Christ.” Carolyn admits that she went there in part to get away from a young man who was pursuing her. “I was so mixed up. I was having a lot of problems with demonic spirits trying to make me think that I was going to go crazy.” Carolyn came from an abusive family situation, and knew very little love, but the school provided an environment of total love and acceptance. “It just sucked me in.” Of course, she did not see the real dynamics of the group until much later.
Indoctrination began immediately. Being a rather stubborn individual, Carolyn would approach the woman in charge of the disciples-in-training whenever she saw things occurring that she did not agree with. She was told, “Well, that’s okay. Don’t worry about it. God’ll give you the understanding of what is going on.”
In time, Carolyn became one of seven women who were supposed to be “spiritual wives” to B. J., as he was called. She took a vow of celibacy and wore a ring that had “Jesus” written in the center. She was to learn submission, humility, and obedience through her special relationship with B. J. In public circles, the “wives” were supposed to be wedded to Jesus, but in the inner circle, they belonged to Hyde.
Hyde believed that the Lord had given him a new vision and shown him a new thing. He was to prepare people for the bride of Christ. Because he had “the mind of Christ,” his followers put on different garments according to the extent of their humility. “When he deemed us humble enough, we could put on another garment.” The members were always striving to be submissive, always working to be humble, and always working to be acceptable in their leader’s eyes. They gave up all their worldly possessions to “apostle” B. J. Hyde, whom they also affectionately called “Papa.”
The group moved to El Paso where they had an “outreach” to servicemen, drug addicts, and runaways. It was at this “Lighthouse” that Carolyn began crying out to God, saying, “Lord, I cannot stand this anymore. I can’t do this. I can’t put up with this. He is such a mean, cruel man.” People, like herself, with torn pasts and abusive histories, were the kinds attracted to Witness to the World. It was among the hurting and the unlearned that Hyde exercised his most abusive spiritual authority.
As a part of his “discipleship training,” Hyde continually insulted his followers, because “we needed to learn submission, humility, and these were humbling things.” Although he belittled, insulted, and berated the members, he would “respond to us with the right spirit if our spirit was right.” Their spirits were rarely “right.”
Ed, who joined the group a number of years after Carolyn, also became subjugated to Hyde. At first he thought that “Papa” Hyde and his seven dedicated spiritual wives were going to instruct and teach him in the ways of Jesus Christ. That’s why he joined the little band. Now, in retrospect, he comments: “It’s pretty amazing how a person can be drawn into such a group and be totally overcome and confused.” Hyde would come across in the morning as sympathetic, constructive, benign, and benevolent. But by afternoon, if something had gone wrong or had not been carried out exactly the way he had intended, it would result in severe anger and chastening. Even when Hyde was clearly wrong, members got to the point of saying, “He’s not at fault. I’m here because God has put me here, and he is going to refine and perfect me so that I will be ready when Jesus comes. So, I am going to humble myself under this absurd type of inquisition in order to purify my character weaknesses.”
Hyde received the majority of his financial support from a Woman named Emily Fuller, who, reportedly through some miraculous intervention and word, was shown that she was to give her substantial savings to him. Her on-going support, plus initial real estate investments, supplied Hyde and Witness to the World with sufficient funds for daily expenses. But members were put on food stamps. In addition, one of the “wives” worked as a secretary, and, if extra monies were needed for down payments on land or other purchases, members were sent to harvest tomatoes or do other menial work.
Regardless of one’s position in Hyde’s hierarchy, relations with family and close friends were cut off because “allegiance had to be to our spiritual family.” Even though Carolyn was “third down on the list” of spiritual wives, under “Mother Superior” and “Mother Efficiency,” there was no exception. When family members were questioned about their “worship” of Hyde, B. J. would respond: “They won’t understand that all that is happening is God using me to perfect you and get you ready for the bride of Christ.” The “bride of Christ” was supposed to be a very small number, only two out of every two million according to Hyde. Members were told that they would miss all the tribulation if they were willing to submit themselves as the bride of Christ now. “So we were willing to do anything to get ready to be right with the Lord.” This included the loss of one’s children.
Carolyn’s sister joined the group two months after Carolyn, bringing with her an illegitimate baby who was just a few months old. “The baby was taken away from my sister and given to another woman. This is what he would do; he would break up the family like that.” When Carolyn asked, “Why are you doing this?” he answered, “This bondage is not healthy. She has to look to me for everything, and this bondage between the mother and the son is too great. If she can’t submit herself to me totally and allow me to do this with her child, then she’s not totally submitted to the Lord.” Carolyn laments, “It was pitiful because the little child was just thrown from one person to the next.” Hyde also separated another family with four children, parceling out each child to one of his “spiritual wives.”
Because of this and other incredible experiences, Carolyn began to balk at Hyde’s authority. She became known as the “rebel” because she was constantly being chastised. Hyde would use the writings of William Branham, John Robert Stevens, and Lester Sumrall to support his positions, although he would not allow writings or teachings from more balanced perspectives to enter the group.
Carolyn, in her “rebellion,” was subjected to physical abuse as well. Hyde allegedly hit her and broke her eardrum. He also put her on a total food and water fast because she came to the aid of her nephew, whom Hyde was tormenting. The cruelty increased upon their relocation to Alabama. He would beat, or order the beating of, children who wet their beds. He would not allow disciplined members to bathe for several weeks, and, because of Carolyn and Ed’s growing relationship, told Carolyn “to wash with my tongue every place that I had stepped with Ed in my ‘adulterous path.”’ She was forced to clean the floor of Hyde’s very dirty trailer bathroom with her tongue because she, as a “spiritual wife,” had committed “spiritual adultery” in her relationship with Ed. “I didn’t want to go to hell,” she explained.
Eventually Witness to the World began to deteriorate. In order to stop Joyce, Carolyn’s sister, in her growing relationship with Dan, another man in the fellowship (dating was considered demonic), Hyde sent her to a ministry run by Phillip Benson. Carolyn had convinced him that Benson was sympathetic to their “cause.” There, she learned that Hyde had allegedly engaged in unspeakable sexual conduct and had had relations with a number of women in the group. Carolyn, Ed, Joyce, Dan, and the majority of the rest of the fellowship left Witness to the World upon hearing about these allegations and went to Benson’s camp on his invitation.
Benson performed the marriage ceremony for Carolyn and Ed, as well as for Joyce and Dan. He also helped them set up housekeeping. “We went to Bible study every day because he said that we had to learn the Bible without this twisted slant.” However, Carolyn and Ed began to see that staying at Benson’s camp was in many ways similar to their experiences with B. J. Hyde. Benson claimed to have the same “psychic abilities” as B. J. claimed to have. He told his congregation that Ed was jealous of his “water witching” skill. He attacked one of his members in front of the congregation, bringing up his “past sins,” because he disagreed with Benson. Things did “not line up with the Scripture.” Ed and Carolyn began to see the exercise of authority and the use of manipulation and abuse in this congregation as well.
Carolyn and Ed escaped and were later disfellowshipped from Benson’s church. They were told that he told the others, “Don’t pray for Carolyn and Ed anymore.” He didn’t want his church members “spending their spiritual energy” on them. Unfortunately, most of the ex-members of Witness to the World are still in Benson’s camp, and they are now hostile toward the Roberts.
Carolyn and Ed have worked through their experiences with B. J. Hyde and Phillip Benson, and they have grown as Christians. Carolyn says, “I am not angry with God. I am not angry with Christ. I don’t understand it all. I don’t know how all of this fits, but I still trust him.”
Ed adds, “I know that there is a lot of flexibility within the body of Christ and even in the theology of the church. I have tried to sharpen my senses to know what is on the ‘outside’ and what is on the ‘inside.’ I am more intense toward his Word and am a lot more protective of it, because when it is used properly, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it brings life and joy. When it is distorted, it’s a monster.”
Unwavering obedience to religious leadership and unquestioning loyalty to the group would be less easily achieved if analysis and feedback were available to members from the outside. It is not without reason that leaders of abusive groups react so strongly and so defensively to any media criticism of their organizations. Don recalls what happened when adverse publicity about the Community of Jesus began to appear in the media. “We were told in a meeting by Mother Cay and Mother Judy that we were not to read the article in Boston magazine and the newspaper article because we didn’t need to know about it. They said it was all baloney and that we were above all that sort of thing. We would stand for the persecution in the same way Jesus did.” But then Don adds: “Some of us who were rebels did read it, and in our brainwashed state, swept under the rug a good bit of what was said. But I think it did lay some of the groundwork for later questioning.”
In response to questions submitted by The Cape Codder to the Community of Jesus, the leadership issued a statement that essentially denied the allegations made by ex-members, claiming that the Community “stands in the long and honored tradition of monastic and semi-monastic communities, which have existed since the early days of Christianity.” Regarding the role of founders Cay and Judy, the statement said that members “certainly do not regard them as infallible or surrogates for God.” The statement also made reference to Jesus’ words, “By their fruits you shall know them.” “We submit that the fruit of this Community’s life can be seen in the incredible abundance of creativity-music, drama, art, crafts of every description, gardening, and writing (to name a few)…”
Regarding the latter reference about being known by one’s fruits, a former COJ member remarked to me, “The fruit of the Spirit is well outlined in Galatians chapter five and has nothing to do with gardens, music, drama, art, and crafts.” Another ex-member, reacting to the statement, commented: “The leadership has done a beautiful job of putting together a large number of words that say nothing. They have never in any way responded directly to any of the facts which were stated as facts by various individuals in the media coverage. They always come out with a straw man that they set up and then batter down. ‘Oh, we don’t know of any of these things which the former members allege.’ But they were not allegations, they were facts. We witnessed the events, we knew they took place, and they happened to us.”
No one was more vociferous in his denunciation of the media than Hobart Freeman, pastor of Faith Assembly. Here is a sampling of his comments extracted from several of his sermons:
- “I don’t care what the media says because it isn’t true. It’s 110% false.”
- “The spirit of the anti-Christ is in the news media. N.E.W.S. means Negative Expression of What’s Seen.”
- “Your responsibility on behalf of this Body is no comment to the news media, ever!”
- “You’re not obligated to answer one question to the media. They will turn everything you say against you.” “When you feed information to the media, you’re asking for persecution you don’t need.”
- “They don’t know which end is up, spiritually, those religious reporters. Even when they try to report what they see, they can’t see right. They’re cross-eyed.”
When authoritarian churches are subjected to what they perceive to be negative press, they invariably interpret the results as the “work of Satan.” This is true even if the report appears in a Christian periodical, or when Christian observers are quoted.
I well remember the response of a columnist in the December, 1984 issue of Charisma magazine to a report authored by an ad hoc committee of evangelicals who had investigated allegations about Maranatha Christian Ministries. I was one of the authors of that report. We were all cast into the role of unwitting agents of Satan because we had critically evaluated Bob Weiner’s organization. “How can one group of Christians be attacking a ministry which other respected leaders have called one of the most significant movements in America?” the columnist asked. The devil, he asserted, “attacks any vigorous expression of Christianity by persecution and slander …. ” He concluded his article by stating, “Wherever Maranatha is going in the future, I would like to go with them.” I have often wondered how the columnist, seminary professor Richard Lovelace, felt a few years later when Maranatha was shut down as a ministry (to be discussed in chapter 11). Ironically, some of the reasons cited for Maranatha’s demise were the very problems that we had identified in our report, which was so roundly denounced by Maranatha and others at the time of its release.
Criticism, whether its source is’ Christian or secular, sincere or superficial, is always viewed by fringe churches as an “attack” -and dismissed as more evidence of Satan trying to discredit “a good Christian work.” In no way would I defend all that is passed off as investigative journalism aimed at Christian organizations. But I am aware of numerous instances where carefully researched, accurate reporting has been totally rejected by the evangelical Christian community without ever considering the possible merits of the reporting. It is almost automatically attributed to Satan. That is unconscionable.
A case in point involved the publication of an extensive journalistic investigation into Set Free Christian Fellowship, located in Anaheim, California. Following publication of the report in The Orange County Register on June 9, 1991, members of the Christian community appeared on the Trinity Broadcasting Network to denounce the article as an unjustified journalistic attack, a contrivance of the Adversary. Pastor Phil Aguilar was being interviewed and consoled by the hosts because of the “vicious persecution” he had endured at the hands of the press. The co-host made this incredible statement: ”I’ve never read the article about you Phil, but I know that it’s untrue.” When Christians refuse to listen to “the other side,” to say nothing of reading the material under discussion before commenting on it, they lose credibility with everyone. And let’s not forget, there are almost always reasons why abusive organizations do not want exposure.
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
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.
Buy the Book
While this book is no longer in print, second-hand copies can often still be obtained via booksellers such as Amazon.com.
1 “Abuse in the Truth,” Spokane: Threshing Floor Ministries, n.d., 2.
2 MacDonald, “”Reject the Wicked Man’: Coercive Persuasion and Deviance Production: A Study of Conflict Management,” Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1, (1988), 48.
3 Ibid., 88-89.
4 Ibid., 82.
5 The Cape Codder, April 19, 1985.
Articles related to Abusive Churches and Spiritual Abuse
Explore more of Apologetics Index
Related topic(s): Churches That Abuse, spiritual abuse
First published (or major update) on Sunday, October 19, 2008.
Last updated on May 11, 2022. Original content is © Copyright Apologetics Index. All Rights Reserved. For usage guidelines see link at the bottom.