Churches That Abuse: A Study

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CHURCHES THAT ABUSE: HELP FOR THOSE HURT BY LEGALISM, AUTHORITARIAN LEADERSHIP, SPIRITUAL INTIMIDATION, by Ronald M. Enroth [Zondervan Publishing House, 1992]

“A central theme of this book is that spiritual abuse can take place in the context of doctrinally sound, Bible preaching, fundamental, conservative Christianity. All that is needed for abuse is a [leader] accountable to no one and therefore beyond confrontation.” (p. 203)

“Abusive religion substitutes human power for true freedom in Christ. Unquestioning obedience and blind loyalty are its hallmarks. Leaders who practice spiritual abuse exceed the bounds of legitimate authority and ‘lord it over the flock,’ often intruding into the personal lives of members.” (p. 235)

“A key element of discernment, then, is the recognition that potentially abusive churches foster an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and otherwise, by focusing on themes of submission and obedience to those in authority. They create the impression that people just aren’t going to find their way through life’s maze without a lot of firm directives from those at the top.” (p. 217)

And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them. And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them. Therefore, ye shepherds, hear the word of the Lord; As I live, saith the Lord God, surely because my flock became a prey, and my flock became meat to every beast of
the field, because there was no shepherd, neither did my shepherds search for my flock, but the shepherds fed themselves, and fed not my flock; Therefore, O ye shepherds, hear the word of the Lord; Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the flock; neither shall the shepherds feed themselves any more; for I will deliver my flock from their mouth, that they may not be meat for them. ~ Ezekiel 34:1-10

What is it that most deeply concerns us at The Student Voice, as well as hundreds and perhaps thousands of others who have been touched in some way by the PCC system, both good and bad? What is it that concerns us about PCC? It basically boils down to the fact that the trends, while not necessarily the end product yet, at PCC parallel very closely the practices of other cults and abusive religious groups: aggressive authoritarianism, resistance to all criticism, teaching obvious scriptural error, maintaining a perceived moral superiority, etc. These are not simply “preferences” which we can all casually disagree on and not expect the system to remain a benign institutional phenomenon. CHURCHES THAT ABUSE, by Ronald M. Enroth is a book that should be read by everyone interested in this debate, regardless of which side of the fence you happen to fall on. It is simply that important.

From the perspective of an institutionalized, formal religious practice, this book is a powerful expose on how overly authoritarian groups can destroy the individuality and spiritual discernment that God intended for us as Christians to possess and use. Authority is a requirement in all human endeavors, but when a human organization exceeds the rightful bounds of that authority, the results can be devastating. Power becomes the end result that feeds upon itself, and it becomes a ravenous cancer that eats away at the vulnerable and the undiscerning, those who are encouraged to swallow the institution’s philosophy hook, line and sinker without a peep.

Ronald Enroth has done a superb job in chronicling several abusive churches and religious organizations and pointing out the common themes that are common to these abusive practices. The problem I see is that there are numerous parallels with PCC. I am not stating the conclusion that “PCC is abusive;” but what I am stating is that there are many, too many in fact, parallels between the “system” and the “spirit” of PCC and these ultra-fringe abusive religious groups. I encourage you to question my words. I encourage
you to read the book for yourself, and see if you don’t draw the same parallels.

One of the problems we get into is that we fail to see the forest for the trees. PCC has a lot of rules – so what? PCC may be overly authoritative – so what? Once you graduate, it’s over – get on with it. But these are the insignificant trees that when we step back and see that these trees make up
the proverbial forest, the perspective changes. PCC is not simply a small college down in the panhandle that has a strict environment. PCC is an organization that has many of the same philosophies of other radical religious organizations and cults that we look upon with derision, and PCC teaches this “system” and ideology to the thousands of teachers, pastors, evangelists, and school administrators that it graduates EACH YEAR. These graduates – fortunately not all of them – go out, then, and further promulgate this same philosophy at other churches and Christian schools. These churches and Christian schools then multiply this legalistic, neo-fundamentalist philosophy to thousands of others, and where does it stop?

I know of people who are hurting and confused because of the treatment they received at PCC – you know, the place that has “Christian” tacked onto its name? But that is irrelevant to those who make the policy at PCC. The philosophy is “We have a right to pick and choose who we want, and we have the right to exclude who we want. Period.” Well, this may be true, but let’s not forget that these same people claim to be involved in a “ministry.”

A “ministry” is something that is characterized by those who “minister.” A ministry is usually more inclusive than it is exclusive, but PCC has managed to ignore the generally understood aspects of a “ministry” and has chosen to exercise its prerogatives in an extremely un-ministry like way – you know,
enforcing those rights which we supposedly do not have. But this is another topic for another time. . . .

Consider what this book has to say about the following three areas of abusive religious practices:

1.) General characteristics
2.) The leaders
3.) People who criticize

1. General Characteristics.
There are several characteristics that are common to the churches and organizations profiled in this book, and oddly enough, many of them sounded frighteningly familiar. You see, a movement or an institution, as well as an individual, can be analyzed by what characterizes their actions. This is not
a deep concept, but yet many seem to be blind to it when it comes to PCC. Consider these general characteristics:

a. A control-oriented leadership/environment.

From Churches That Abuse:

“Abusive churches, past and present, are first and foremost characterized by strong, control-oriented leadership. These leaders use guilt, fear, and intimidation to manipulate members and keep them in line. . . . Many areas of members’ lives are subject to scrutiny. Rules and legalism abound.” (pp. 32,33)

“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 [devotions], fasting, entertainment, jobs, and whether or not to have children.” (p. 138)

[From a description of the Boston Movement, an abusive church in New England;] ” Everyone’s Christian life was under scrutiny by someone, assigned by some level of authority; each member was confronted with observed faults, issued counsel, and followed up; each was encouraged to know the true state of his soul, its sins and weaknesses, and to confess these openly and honestly to others who have ministry and authority over him.” (p. 221)

“Most abusive churches make use of some kind of reporting system or surveillance pattern to insure conformity with group norms.” (p. 113)

Now This From 96/97 PCC Student Handbook:

“Every student is expected to maintain the standards of the College as well as do all within his power to encourage other students to maintain the standards. Students who know or SUSPECT that another student INTENDS to violate any rule of the school and do not ATTEMPT TO PREVENT the violation may be dealt with by the Discipline Committee.” [emphasis added] (p. 12)

A control-oriented leadership and environment is the most common characteristic of all the movements discussed. PCC has a very strong and control-centered leadership and structure, and without it, PCC would not have the “spirit” that it boasts to have. The cardinal sin on the campus of PCC is to cross paths with the leadership. That simply is not done. Why? Good question.

b. A strict, regimented system.

From Churches That Abuse:

[From a description of Shiloh, an abusive organization that boasted of its Bible school;] “Male-female relationships were strictly controlled to preserve propriety. ‘To avoid the appearance of evil,’ there was no touching of any kind between the sexes. . . the most minor flaws became the source of guilt and self-loathing.” (p. 61)

[Again, from a description of Shiloh;] “It mattered how you acted, how youtalked, even how you thought and looked.” (p. 62)

[From a Sunday bulletin at Community Chapel;] “Remember, we are our brother’s keeper. Please do your friends a favor when you see them making serious mistakes; tell your pastor or an elder so something can be done in time.” (p.114)

Now This From PCC:

[From the 96/97 PCC Student Handbook;] “With these goals in mind, the PCC policies are reinforced through a demerit system, which WE HAVE FOUND to be a reasonable system.” [emphasis added] (p. 34)

[From Dr. Horton’s comments regarding The Student Voice;] “. . . PCC does not have to be like other colleges or organizations. Our distinctive [sic] is that we are different.”

A strict, regimented environment is one of the hallmarks of PCC. Most of you know what it is like to face the common, “Oh, isn’t that the place with the pink and blue sidewalks?” sort of question when telling people that you attended PCC. No, PCC doesn’t have to be like other colleges, and they don’t HAVE to resemble true Christianity either.

c. Inconsistencies in guidelines.

From Churches That Abuse:

[From a description of Community Chapel;] “We were told one thing and then what is done is totally opposite, and so you’re trying to redefine terms to apply to something that is not real.” (p. 43)

[From a description of COBU;] “Implied guilt and Scripture twisting were often used to manipulate members.” (p. 81)

[Testimony of someone who came out of the No-Name Fellowship;] ” ‘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.” (pp. 138, 139)

From PCC:

[From a letter written by Dr. Goddard to a student who was asked not to return because he “did not conform to the ministry,” no other reason was given, although specifics were requested time and time again;] “. . . I trust that you will be honest with yourself and your parents about this matter. I am sure that you know, in your heart, that our decision in this matter is right; you were not in harmony with PCC. I pray you will acknowledge this, accept the responsibility for your actions, and allow God to use this experience in your life to His glory.”

Contrast the U.S. system with that of PCC. In the U.S. legal system, the Constitution is the ultimate law, the ultimate STANDARD by which all legal matters are judged. It is specific, one knows what is required of him or her, and inconsistencies are corrected in public tribunals. The PCC “standard,” although this is a terribly inaccurate description, for a standard is something specific by which actions can be judged, is that a student “conform to the ministry of PCC.” This phrase has never been adequately defined, and if you ask 100 students what it means, you will undoubtedly get 100 different answers (unless 75 of them are “I don’t know”).

d. No checks or balances.

From Churches That Abuse:

[From a description of Community Chapel;] “I feel that this is one of the critical factors in the sad things that happened later [physical and emotional abuse]: no checks or balances with the rest of God’s people, and no accountability to other men of God outside [their] own little circle.” (p.51)

The epitome of an institution with no checks or balances is PCC.

e. No criticism permitted.

“Don pointed out that no negative criticism of the Community [Community of Jesus] was tolerated, a distinguishing feature of most totalitarian groups.”(p. 167)

“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’.” (p. 168)

“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 [outside] criticism of their organizations.” (p. 175)

From PCC:

[From Dr. Horton’s comments regarding The Student Voice;] “But Mr. X and his followers want all of you to join them in protesting against PCC. I am instructing the dean’s and their staff to be highly sensitive, especially regarding participating or involvement in the underground ‘StudentV,’ which
is a means of protest against PCC. Those actively participating and involved in the underground StudentV’ will be dealt with according to the Student Handbook, page 36, and I quote, ‘participating in unauthorized petition, demonstration, protest or riot – 150 demerits.’ I suggest very strongly that you stay away from any involvement with ‘StudentV.’ If you know of anyone actively involved in this protest, you are responsible to report it to a residence manager – Dean Ohman or Ms. Crook so it can be dealt with.”

Criticism is a taboo at PCC, and anyone who has followed The Voice can attest to that. There are some cases that The Voice will be addressing in the near future that prove this to be true. Just so it can be understood, PCC allows no criticism. No criticism means unquestioning obedience to the authority, and no one but Jesus Christ deserves unquestioned obedience. You draw the parallel.

——————–

2. The Leaders.
While a control-oriented leadership has been addressed, it must also be noted that the leaders themselves have certain qualities that lend themselves to an overly authoritative and sometimes abusive nature. I know of numerous instances where Dr. Goddard or Dean Ohman will simply say that their hands are tied, they have to dole out the punishment. Now, they are either lying, or there is such a top-heavy control that if these men simply did what they know in their hearts is right, which is let the student off, then there is a very authoritarian leader at the very top.

From Churches That Abuse:

“If there is just one word to describe Don Barnett and his church, it would be ‘control’ – autocratic control over the lives of the individual members.”(p. 38)

“Stewart [leader of COBU], however, was above scrutiny. According to Betty, ‘Stewart will only accept ‘corrective criticism’ coming from a ‘right spirit.’ Of course, he is the judge of ‘right spirits’ and whether any criticism is truly constructive’.” (p. 82)

“Even though he says he allows differences of thought on issues, it’s very difficult for him, really, to allow his leaders to view things differently than he does.” (p. 84)

“The source of legitimate Christian leadership therefore lies in ENTRUSTED AUTHORITY. The spiritual autocrat, the religious dictator, attempts to COMPEL subordination; the true Christian leader can legitimately only ELICIT followership.” (p. 211)

“. . . authoritarian leaders are ecclesiastical loners. That is, they do not function well or willingly in the context of systematic checks and balances. They are fiercely independent and refuse to be part of a structure of accountability. . . . Yes, sometimes they will point to a board of elders or its equivalent, but more likely than not, this turns out to be a faithful inner circle of clones that implicitly accepts all that the leader sets forth.” (p. 219)

“Power that elevates a leader beyond contradiction. . . will lead both the leader and the followers down a road marked by broken relationships, exploitation, and control.” (p. 237)

Like it has been stated before, what goes on at the bottom of a hierarchical structure is evidence of the substance of that hierarchy’s leadership. Dr. Horton is a man who I believe has been called by God to do a great work, but there needs to be an understanding that there are people to consider, the bounds of authority which even he is under, and a pattern of leadership that Christ has set up. As has been stated before by Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

———————

3. People Who Criticize.

The Student Voice is perceived to be Enemy #1 by PCC based on the simple fact that we are not afraid to criticize what needs to be criticized. An opinion is an opinion, and an idea is an idea. Instead of engaging in a healthy debate over ideas and policies, PCC has chosen to try to eliminate The Voice by instilling fear into the heart of any student who reads it [please refer to “Fearocracy II” in Issue 4, No. 2]. But if one can truly understand the big picture and the PCC ideological trend, this should come as no surprise, and it should be rather disturbing.

a. An attack from Satan.

From Churches That Abuse:

[From the leader of Shiloh’s response to negative and critical exposure of his abusive practices;] “[Satan] has used godless editors and reporters to write up the most sensational and glaringly false statements concerning this work. . . .” (pp. 67, 68)

[From the same leader of Shiloh;] “Sandford interpreted every criticism as a demonic attempt to destroy the kingdom of God.” (p. 70)

“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.” (p. 177)

“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’.” (p. 178)

From PCC:

[From Dr. Horton’s comments regarding The Student Voice;] “He [satan] comes as an angel of light and mixes truth with just enough error with truth to mislead us.”

[From Dr. Horton again;] “. . . remember, the devil also sugarcoats his lies, deceptions and twisted reasoning; and as young people you need to be aware that the devil hates every work of God that stands for truth and righteousness, and he tries in every possible way to undermine and destroy God’s Word. The devil always works through people just as God works through people.”

[From Dr. Horton again;] “Now I need to share with you a recent attack that satan is making on this institution. We’re accustomed to satan’s attacks. We’ve had them over the years.”

[From Dr. Horton again;] “. . . the devil likes to do his work under cover. . . .”

b. Rebellion.

From Churches That Abuse:

“When the Boston Movement is confronted with their wrong teachings, its practice is to attack the character and life of the questioner by claiming that he has ‘sin in his life.’ Such terms as ‘prideful,’ ‘independent spirit,’ and ‘rebellious’ are used in answer to the inquirer. The Boston Movement believes that being ‘independent’ or ‘critical’ is sin.” (p. 124)

“Pam [a member of C-U Ministries] knew that even when she desired to stand and say, ‘This is crazy!’ or, ‘I don’t agree!’ we would have been disciplined for disrupting and coming against authority.” (p. 140)

From PCC:

[From Dr. Horton’s comments regarding The Student Voice;] “In doing so, he [editors of The Voice] piously promotes rebellion against the policies of the college. . .”

[From Dr. Horton again;] “But PCC will not retain students who promote a spirit of division, discord or rebellion.”

[From Dr. Horton again;] “I Samuel 15:23 states that “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft. . . .” In other words. . . in other words, God considers rebellion as bad as witchcraft.”

[From Dr. Horton again;] “Mr. X teaches rebellion against PCC and against the principle that our Lord Jesus taught in Matthew 6:6.”

——————–

Well, there’s more, but the point should be clear. Criticism is always chalked up to rebellion or satan, with little, if any, introspection and never any actual consideration of whether or not the substance of the criticism has any merit. That would be unthinkable.

In closing let me state that I think PCC in some ways exercises abusive practices by maintaining spiritual and psychological control far beyond what Scripture would permit or what is realistically needed. However, this must be done to maintain the “Mr. Clean” image of PCC, one which continues to net PCC millions of dollars each year through A Beka Books. The two are intricately tied together, and if the image fails, so does the business venture, according to the official thinking.

CHURCHES THAT ABUSE is must reading. You can either read it, or you can continue to hide your head in the sand and pretend this doesn’t exist. It’s as if grown adults are putting their hands over their eyes in an attempt to make it all go away. “It doesn’t really exist, Student V; please stop showing us what we don’t want to see!” cry those in blissful ignorance. Well, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee, folks.

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