About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. – Acts 16:25-26
God loosens the bonds of slavery and sets prisoners free. Freedom gained through salvation and the merciful kindness of God gives an unlimited access to Him through the cross of Christ. In abusive churches these lines are often blurred, or hard to see. If eyes are opened, the most difficult step begins because to leave an abusive church is a painful process.
Continuing the series on the book Churches That Abuse by Ronald M. Enroth, I will examine two remaining topics. The focus of this article is the painful exit process. “To break away from the group required more effort than to join” and family members are pitted one against another to keep them and often citing passages like Matthew 10:34-39 as the justification for splitting families apart.
Ex-members were called quitters, turncoats, and traitors. At first they simply lost their place in the Lord’s roll call, but gradually the act of leaving became an act of disloyalty. Ex-members were not to be spoke to or about. Georgia Sheller was told to have no fellowship with her parents who had left angrily and bitterly.
To maintain control, the control-oriented leader must keep the sheep in the fold at all costs. Enroth gives examples of two men, Don Barnett and Phil Aguilar, who used similar tactics, not uncommon for this type of a leader.
“God has called you to this assembly to furnish you with that which you need. Do you have His permission to leave this assembly?” – Don Barnett
“You need to trust God through me; I know what’s best for you.” “I have the responsibility and the accountability according to God’s Word for each and every one of you.” – Phil Aguilar
By comparison, the New Testament gives little indication about leaving a local church. While there are important principles that apply, specific instructions about moving one’s membership from one local assembly to another are not provided. One need express caution when applying God’s word to descriptive but not prescriptive texts of the Bible. Yes, every Christian should be committed and submitted to a local church, to live at peace, as much as depends on you (Romans 12:18)—it’s biblical. However, when leaders are over-bearing and controlling, leaving is the right thing to do. When leaders lead a church unbiblically and when members put up with an environment “where there are no gray, only blacks and whites,” the church ceases to be a biblical church and Christians not only have a right, but an obligation to leave.
In writing about Great Commission International (GCI), an organization founded in 1970 by “apostle” Jim McCotter, former member Jerry MacDonald notes that the group compares its leadership structure with a marriage. “GCI elders frequently refer to ones that have left the church as divorcing themselves from their family. They twist Scripture on God’s hatred of divorce and use it as a coercive technique to keep people from leaving their churches. Thus, ones who leave are taught that they have actually left God and sinned. What it really means is that the elders have usurped the loyalty and the devotion that is due Christ alone and refocused it on themselves.”
MacDonald points out that the proof-text for the idea of “marriage” in relation to elders and leaders in GCI is found in Ephesians 5:22-6:9. The group cites 5:22 (“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord”) as the key to their hierarchical system of authority. “Just as wives are to be in subjection to their husbands, so the church is to be in subjection to the elders. It seems that the elders are the physical manifestation of the authority of Christ. Just as a family mirrors the church’s relationship to the elders, so a wife and husband in the bond of marriage reflect the subjection the congregation should have to the elders.”
In the Great Commission International, much emphasis is placed on “trusting God’s leading through others” –the “others” being those in leadership. In reality, this means surrendering one’s independence, obeying in all things, and submitting to the leaders. As numerous ex-members of GCI have told me, it amounts to subjugation of members to the leadership. Failure to comply with the authoritarian dictates of the group can result in ex-communication, a common practice in GCI and other abusive-church groups.
If you do not give up your independence and follow in harmony, you will be reproved for “sowing discord in the body,” and if you still do not “harmonize,” you will be excommunicated for faction—since, according to GCI, there is no difference between trusting God and trusting a GCI leader.
There are always certain “buzz-words” that carry weight in these assemblies and are commonly used by the leadership; words like authority, submission, love for the body. There are subtle, but well-known, unwritten rules. There are even times when it may take “reproof” to bring members in line—those “wise in their own eyes” are dealt with quickly. It is the unwritten code that is most powerful. It is a life in a fishbowl, where every move is observed.
Enroth notes “excommunication is almost always accompanied by shunning behavior instituted by the leadership…One need not have psychological training to understand that such a procedure also operates as an effective control mechanism within a church. Those who are the ‘boat-rockers,’ those who raise uncomfortable questions and who challenge the leadership in any way, are prevented from sharing their legitimate concerns and criticism with other members. Dissent is muffled, and disinformation can ‘spiritualized’ or manipulated by the leadership.”
Submission is biblical, but unmitigated submission without a clearly defined standard as outlined in Scripture is not. When submission is stressed be on guard. When mishandled, submission can undermine the whole teaching on the individual priesthood of believers (1 Peter 2:9). We are called out individually and collectively to be in local church bodies for mutual edification, but not to have a heavy-handed form of church government upon you.
Leaving will be difficult, relationships that were once cherished will be lost, but to seek and find normalcy is well worth the effort to break free. Good churches are hard, but not impossible, to find. Pastors that preach the Word and allow the Holy Spirit to do His work are a treasure.
If you see any similarities in these words, seek the counsel of someone that has been in an abusive church before or has helped others escape, and read Enroth’s book. It promises a bright hope through the One who never enslaves His sheep.
 Churches That Abuse, 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth – Page 65
 Ibid – page 80
 Ibid – page 81
 Ibid – page 175
 Jerry P. MacDonald, “Manipulation of the Scriptures Within Great Commission International,” unpublished paper (1985), 186.
 Churches That Abuse, 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth – Page 182-183
 Ibid – page 183