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This post is not for those of a sensitive disposition.

For Christians recovering from toxic churches, Ronald M Enroth’s 1992 book Churches that Abuse is recommended reading.

The book has been mentioned on many church abuse recovery sites and is available in its entirety online for free. It’s well worth a read, even for those who belong to sound, doctrinal congregations. It will confirm certain stereotypes but smash a few others.

What follows are a few excerpts, highlights mine.

Background to the book

… Despite the defensive protestations of authoritarian leaders that ex-members of their churches lie, distort the facts, and are “accusers of the brethren,” there is abundant evidence that a serious problem of abuse exists in the Christian community …

It is my hope that this book will provide a context for understanding. If we have basic information about a subject, we can sometimes take preventative action. Regrettably, it is not always possible to “get through” to people already caught up in abusive churches. They do not see themselves as being manipulated, or in any danger of spiritual abuse. Hence, the frustration of parents, relatives, and friends who try to reach or “rescue” them. There are no easy solutions to this problem.

In the final analysis, the book presents a hopeful outlook. Not only can individuals leave abusive churches and achieve recovery and restoration, but there are encouraging signs that some groups are themselves recognizing the need for change and are moving away from the fringe toward the center. May their numbers increase. (Preface, pp ix and x)

In Chapter 1, Enroth states that he conducted interviews of ‘hundreds’ of abusive church victims and also visited some of the churches in question. Whilst the church names in most cases are real, the names of the victims have been changed (pp 30-31). His intent was to expose the nature of manipulation, control and pain that these cultish congregations foster under seemingly omnipotent pastors.

Pastoral control over relationships

Chapter 4 details an Asian-American group near Los Angeles, which changed its name several times. At the time Enroth was compiling information, it was called Church of the Great Shepherd and, as a legal entity, Shepherd’s Training Center (STC).

Jean Liang headed the group and damaged family relationships among her adherents:

As the head of the STC, Mrs. Liang dictated every aspect of life, whether spiritual, physical, or relational …

Members shared a common purse …

Evan and Stacy’s two daughters almost died as a result of Jean Liang’s influence, the oldest from being force-fed at six months and routinely beaten, the youngest because of premature birth due to Stacy’s being overworked in the communal house. In addition, Roy and Mandy Chan’s young son and daughter were severely abused, being regularly beaten or shaken for such offenses as wetting, crying, not keeping their eyes closed, or falling asleep. After a severe shaking of their three-month-old daughter, Jean said that it would be better for her to grow up submissive and retarded than intelligent and rebellious

The bonding of mothers and children was seen as a great sin. Jean regularly separated nursing mothers and their infants, even going so far as to take them from the breast, saying, “You are tying your child to yourself and not to the Lord.” This “tying” supposedly endangered the child’s salvation. However, former members state that Mrs. Liang’s five children are strongly bonded to their mother, but have little respect for their father. Husbands and wives were also separated for long periods. Their relationships supposedly were impure and ungodly, based upon lust and manipulation.

Public times of confrontation, confession, and repentance were common, lasting anywhere from four to twenty hours. These sessions usually took place at night. The airing of the most intimate details of one’s life was seen as opening the way for God to take one deeper into the spiritual life. All participants were victimized because of their idealism and desire to more fully serve and love God. These intimate details, including those related to one’s sexual behavior, were brought up over and over again to produce feelings of deep guilt. “It amounted to spiritual blackmail,” states Evan. Many persons were labeled as homosexuals and were required to write letters to old associates confessing this “sin.” Old “sins” were never forgotten nor forgiven. (Chapter 4, pp 85-86)

Enroth observes:

Spiritually abusive groups routinely use guilt, fear, and intimidation as effective means for controlling their members. In my opinion, the leaders consciously foster an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and interpersonally, by focusing on themes of submission, loyalty, and obedience to those in authority. In all totalitarian environments, dependency is necessary for subjugation. Jerry MacDonald, a student of autocratic religious movements, notes that authoritarian religious groups manipulate “rewards, punishments, and experiences to systematically sever from members their past support systems, which include their own powers of independent and rational thinking, their ability to test, define, and evaluate, as well as their ability to freely interact with others about their experiences. These internal support systems are replaced with exterior support systems under the control of the leaders.(Chapter 5, p. 103)

Pentecostal ‘demons’ and deliverance

Chapter 2 discusses the Pentecostal focus on demons and deliverance:

On March 20, 1986, Janet Cole drove from Seattle to Portland and drowned her five-year-old daughter, Brittany in a motel bathtub. The attractive thirty-seven-year-old mother, described by friends as the ideal Christian woman, was convinced that she was demon possessed and that a similar fate would probably befall her daughter. She wanted the little girl to go to heaven and so committed an act of love by killing her.

Janet Cole was also a member of a large Pentecostal church, Community Chapel, in south Seattle that ex-members and other critics claim was pre-occupied with demons and “deliverance ministry.” The tragic drowning resulted in the first of a series of media reports that brought unwanted publicity to the church and its former pastor, Donald Lee Barnett. In addition to the emphasis on exorcism, a swirl of controversy emerged as a result of Barnett’s teaching on “intimate dancing” and “spiritual connections” with members of the opposite sex.  (Chapter 2, page 35)

Barnett regularly received special ‘revelations’ which he passed on to his members. Enroth describes what happened when Community Chapel was at its peak, which was in the 1970s and 1980s.

Barnett’s ‘intimate dancing’ involved members finding ‘spiritual connections’ with other members of the opposite sex — not their spouses. It went far beyond dancing, as spiritual connections were to spend time with each other during the week.

Enroth unpacks the situation:

Community Chapel had not always been so controversial and controlling, although its pastor had promoted various unorthodox concepts from the beginning. As a youngster, Barnett and his family belonged to the United Pentecostal Church, a small denomination isolated from the Christian mainstream because of its rejection of the traditional concept of the Trinity. Barnett still preaches a non-trinitarian message.

Although never ordained a minister, he did attend an unaccredited Bible seminary in Idaho and began his ministry as a Sunday school and Bible study teacher in a series of Assemblies of God churches in Washington. Barnett left each of these churches because of doctrinal disagreements. Meanwhile, he worked as a draftsman. (pp. 38-39)

As his church grew:

Barnett instituted “Operation Rescue” in which members were instructed to report each other’s faults to the pastor. A dress code for both men and women was also begun, as well as dietary code restricting pork, shellfish, and alcohol, all based on Barnett’s interpretation of the Old Testament laws. Oreo cookies were outlawed because they contained lard. Interracial dating was proscribed. Certain Christian books and bookstores were to be avoided because they promoted “false” creeds. However, Barnett approved of and quoted from a weekly publication by a neo-Nazi group.

Celebrating Christmas and Easter was discouraged because Barnett considered them secular holidays. Engagements could not be announced until Barbara, the pastor’s wife, was informed. Every indication of a negative or “rebellious” attitude or unapproved opinion was attributed to demons. (pp. 39-40)

The irony is that the focus on demons and deliverance actually encouraged Barnett and his members’ demonic behaviour:

The practice of “spiritual connections” had a particularly demonic impact. There were numerous accounts of adulterous relationships, sexual assault, harshly shunned and rejected dissidents, child abuse, suicides and attempted suicides, broken marriages, child-custody battles, and lawsuits, several of which were aimed at Pastor Barnett for alleged sexual misconduct. (p. 41)

And:

Another problem was the abdication of personal moral responsibility for sin, blaming it instead on the work of demons. There was a tendency to attribute any problem, interpersonal or otherwise, to demons. Members would spiritually psychoanalyze one another with regard to what specific demons were troubling them and then point to the need for “deliverance.” This would be the case frequently between marriage partners. Common, natural emotions were more often than not attributed to demons. Members were told that when they saw their spouses dancing in an intimate manner with some other person, they were not to feel any jealousy, resentment, or hurt. The natural tendency in such a situation is to feel possessive of one’s spouse. Yet, when they experienced those feelings, they were accused of having a demon of jealousy. (page 49)

Sex and sensuality – a warning!

I found the following mention of sexual activity, particularly oral sex, interesting in light of Mark Driscoll’s views:

Barnett discussed oral sex in Sunday school and was “inappropriately explicit” regarding sexual matters from the pulpit.

Community Chapel has reportedly paid for abortions for members, including teenagers, and Barnett has preached that “God never did really say ‘thou shalt not have an abortion.’ ” Those who say abortion is murder are said to be guilty of a “legalism,” a term used to refer to an incorrect or overly literal interpretation of biblical, civil, or moral law. He reasoned that if “adulteresses” were forced to have babies, the children raised by them, or given up for adoption, would grow up to lead sinful lives and end up in hell. If aborted, they would return to God.

Robin and Matt [former members] say that the extreme emphasis on sexual issues impacted the children and adolescents of Community Chapel in one of two ways. “Either they were really into it or they think it’s junk” …

What went wrong at Community Chapel? How can one explain the bizarre series of events that led to Barnett’s eventual downfall? According to former members Robin and Matt, “Don Barnett lost his grip on the Bible. It was that Book which kept the place reasonably sober over the years. He gradually diminished and de-emphasized the Bible as something to preach from, as something to live by. He had to get rid of the Book.”

Much of the problem can also be attributed to the deceptive nature of Barnett’s sensual theology. He and his wife, over a period of several years, drew the congregation into the trap of believing that the sexual and the spiritual realms were innocuously intertwined. Barnett increasingly relied on mystical and subjective religious experience to convince his followers that he was indeed in touch with God. He gradually, cleverly, and subtly prepared his audience for what would be considered outrageous pronouncement in more conventional evangelical churches. (pp. 43-44)

This is also worth noting:

An interesting postscript is that in Robin’s opinion, those who were considered to be the most spiritual at Community Chapel and who supposedly had the most contact with God were those who had come out of deep occult backgrounds. Those persons who resisted getting involved in the dancing phenomenon were told that their refusing to dance was the result of “demonic oppression.” (page 46)

The importance of the Bible

Afterward, former Community Chapel members voiced the need to examine teachings by the light of Scripture. I know that some of my readers would not agree on this, and they have their favourite authors who offer more comforting messages. However:

What contributed to Community Chapel’s slide into what observers agree is false teaching and deception? Virtually all ex-members agree with the conclusion of a founding elder of the church that an over-emphasis on experience began a drift away from the Bible. “It was the experience focus that got us off the track more than any other thing.” People need to be reminded,” commented another former member, “not to put their confidence in a set of criteria put forth by a man who is simply relating his observations, but to place their confidence squarely on the Bible as the only infallible standard for judging truth. (pp 47-48)

Dangerous discipling

Chapter 6 tells the story of Barbara Harold, a 21-year old student and hospital employee, who began attending the Phoenix Valley Church of Christ, affiliated with the infamous Boston Movement.

As Barbara became more enmeshed in the cult, she found her new friends dictating her every move. Her daily exercise regime was pulling her away from God, she wasn’t making enough converts in local evangelical excursions and she had to have a certain amount of ‘quiet time’ each day.

Enroth tells us:

Given that she had to be at the hospital each morning at 6:30, Barbara would rise by 4:15 to spend her “quiet time.” Invariably, because of the demands of her heavy schedule, she would fall asleep unless someone else was with her. This led to her being called “weak hearted” and lacking in zeal for God by her disciplers (those more mature Christians who supervised her spiritual activity) and the other women in her Bible study. A vicious cycle of emotional highs and guilty depressions resulted.

… She was told, “You must live for God’s kingdom only.” Because she came to believe that her whole family would be lost if she didn’t try to convert them (the Boston churches constituted the only “true Church”), Barbara was constantly speaking to them about their salvation. Her family grew tired of the spiritual barrage, as did her old friends, so Barbara ended up moving into an apartment with four other women from the Phoenix Valley Church of Christ.

Although she enjoyed the activities and the pep-rally-like church sermons, Barbara was under constant pressure to be something she wasn’t. She was always required to confess sin to her discipler. Not being a very extroverted person, Barbara found it hard to meet the requirement to constantly evangelize. Times with her discipler were like interrogations: How many persons did you reach out to today? Barbara’s answer was invariably one, two, or none. She was told that because she didn’t desire to reach out and witness that Satan was in her, that she didn’t have Jesus’ heart for the lost, and that she needed to be more like Jesus. Finally, the pressure became so great that she began making up sins to confess so that she would at least have something else to say. She constantly felt guilty ...

If you “stuffed” bad feelings toward someone down in your heart, that is, if you didn’t confess them, you were in sin. This would obviously lead to more sin since a root had already taken hold.

Barbara’s last night with the Phoenix Valley Church of Christ was one of severe reprimand and interrogation by the members of her Bible study because of her alleged “stuffing” of bad feelings. The Bible study was not “advancing” (growing in numbers), and she was obviously at fault. What bad feelings and thoughts was she stuffing? Why wasn’t she having quality quiet times with the Lord? How many persons was she really reaching out to each day? One by one, each member told her what her shortcomings were

Barbara asked to move back with her parents that same night. “It was the hardest decision I ever made,” she said … Her guilt increased, exacerbated by the fact that members contacted her and asked, “How could you allow Satan to harden your heart so much to do this to your friends?” She was told to remember that her heart was “exceedingly deceitful.” (Chapter 6, pp 112-113)

Extreme church discipline for all ages

Enroth relates the story of Pam and Tom Murray in Chapter 7. The Murrays were members of the No-Name Fellowship, or C-U Ministries, based in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.

It’s difficult to imagine people who are better off economically and socially becoming entangled in Christian cults, yet, the membership base was solidly middle-class, well-educated, ‘highly idealistic’ and between 18-25 years of age. For those who are unaware, Champaign-Urbana is a university town.

Similar to the Pietists, this group felt that organised church worship was lacking, so they started their own Bible study. A man by the name of Doug Kleber emerged as the chief elder, with his ‘greater calling of God’.

Hmm.

Kleber, who had an authoritarian personality, also had ‘revelations’ which, interestingly, told him how to dictate everyone else’s life:

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.” (Chapter 7, p. 128)

Like extreme pietist groups, the group reverted to an early Christian lifestyle. The world was evil and church denominations ineffectual. Everyone else was damned but they.

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. (p. 130)

Unfortunately, as a result:

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. (p. 131)

This is how Kleber and his followers conducted church discipline for disagreements:

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 woman’s prayer meeting at which one woman was told to remove her dress in order to become “more vulnerable.”

… Tom adds, “Many, but not all, of these disciplinary measures took place in front of the entire body, because we regarded ourselves as 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.) (pp 131-132)

Eventually, corporal punishment — ‘discipline’ — resulted in the death of a ten-year old boy with juvenile diabetes at a branch of the organisation in Spokane, Washington:

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. (p. 132)

Catholics not exempt

In Chapter 11, Enroth reviews the changes made in some of these toxic churches and movements in the late 1980s and 1990s.

He makes general mention of Catholic Charismatic groups and the ‘extreme submission of women to men’ and conformity required. This went so far as to celebrate the birth of baby boys but only a tolerance of baby girls. Pastors and other leaders also discouraged family contact, even of children towards ailing and aged parents.

Some Catholic Charismatic leaders have now acknowledged their error and arrogance.

That false feeling of exclusivity

Throughout Churches that Abuse, former members report that they believed their church had the only way, that it was exclusive, that they were uniquely blessed and so on.

When there are no guest preachers in the pulpit and no free exchange of ideas, when the pastor wants to dictate your living quarters, your personal time, your relationships with family outside the church, your potential employment, your parenting methods, your attire, your hairstyle and your health — run for the door.

Why?

Those of us on the outside reading this will wonder if it was pure gullibility that drew these people into cults and toxic churches.

However, as Enroth points out in Chapter 10 and elsewhere in the book, a number of factors can be in play:

– Personal circumstances, e.g. an attempt to come out of substance abuse or the occult.

– Being accustomed to an authoritarian home life.

– A search for security on the assumption that more rules equal greater security.

– A desire for exclusivity and the ‘only way’ to holiness.

– A successful way to cope with and counter our ever-changing society.

– The need for heroes one can admire.

– The adulation of experts — including gifted clergy: ‘If X says so, it must be true’.

However, the question now is, 20 years on and where are the victims now? And have the leaders ever truly repented?

Answers on a postcard, please.

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