Churches That Abuse – Part 4


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.[1]

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[2]

“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[3]

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,”[4] 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.”[5]


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.”[6]


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.[7]


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.[8]

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.”[9]

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.




[1] Churches That Abuse, 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth – Page 65

[2] Ibid – page 80

[3] Ibid – page 81

[4] Ibid – page 175

[5] Jerry P. MacDonald, “Manipulation of the Scriptures Within Great Commission International,” unpublished paper (1985), 186.

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Churches That Abuse, 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth – Page 182-183

[9] Ibid – page 183

Churches That Abuse – Part 2


Today I will continue a blog series on the book Churches That Abuse by Ronald M. Enroth with a focus on control-oriented leadership and spiritual elitism–two hallmarks of abusive churches.

What is it that makes a church a “special” place for its members?  Charismatic leaders have an influence on people, sometimes for good, but in the case of an abusive church, disastrous.  These leaders control the vision for the church through persuasive speech and bold proclamations.  This is how Pastor Barnett built his church.

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.  Barnett’s pastoral “concerns” went so far as to dictate how close together people should sit in the pews of his church…[1]


Most members experienced a totalitarian system of control in which all free time, outside of employment, was given to the “assembly,” or church….   It was not unusual to spend five or six nights a week in church.  When asked what members did for fun, Robin responded, “That is what we did for fun, we went to church.”  [2]

As we’ve seen above Pastor Barnett had total control.  Often, new believers are easy targets, and while they may be familiar with the bible they don’t always have a good command of the bible.  They can be swayed by the truth with a slight degree of error.  Truth mixed with error is error and the subtle errors are the most difficult to detect.

The tragedy of Community Chapel goes back to a misplaced loyalty.  People, thinking that they were placing their allegiance in the Word of God, were actually placing their allegiance in a man and his interpretation of the Word of God.  That is crucial to understanding why people were so easily deceived.  They thought that they were really obeying the Word of God.


The comments of a former elder who was associated with the church for eighteen years before resigning are insightful: “As I look back on it now, it is clear that, subtly at first, there began to be a feeling of superiority and exclusiveness among the people.  This was more evident in some than in others, but I think we all were affected by it.  There began to be a feeling that this church was unique, and that while we loved other brothers in Christ, to leave Community Chapel would always be a step down spiritually.


The pastor rarely had other preachers in to minister to us, feeling that they really couldn’t add anything to us, and might only foster divisions and problems.  I feel that this is one of the critical factors in the sad things that happened later: no checks and balances with the rest of God’s people, and no accountability to other men of God outside our own little circle.[3]

Controlling leaders able to articulate the “specialness” of the church, create a buy-in process for the membership and future members.  “We’re unique! There’s no one else like us! We’re faithful!”

You will hear things like “Other people really wish they had a church like this…”

“I just don’t hear about the type of love we show one another…”

“Some may think this is legalism, but it’s really a desire to pursue a higher level of holiness…”

Spiritual elitism can be fostered through daily life and it is often controlled through a systematic message, consistently fostered through the leadership.  We are the “Special Forces” of the church world.  We take it to a whole new level, exemplifying the Christian pursuit of Christ’s calling.

As one ex-member put it, “We believed we were on the cutting edge of what God was doing in the world.  I looked down on people who left our movement; they didn’t have what it took.  They were not faithful to their commitment.  When everyone else got with God’s program, they would be involved in shepherding just like we were.”


Community Chapel’s Pastor Barnett regularly reminded his followers that their church was special.  “We’ve got to go on into a new thing that God promised in his Word that no church has ever come into yet…. Do you know of any other church in which people are loving each other with that same kind of unconditional love?  I don’t.”  [4] 

Spiritual elitism convinces members that their families need special attention.  They have not heard, nor have been under, the teaching of these leaders, they are certainly a lesser Christian if even a Christian at all. Barbara explains her experience:

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.[5]

There is an intense pressure to save those we love and, as Barbara stated, “She constantly felt guilty.”  Christians don’t desire to see their loved ones suffer in Hell; and their salvation can only come by a prescribed manner consistent with the abusive church.

The Spiritual Elite Churches place a high emphasis on evangelism and efforts are commended where many are reached for the lost through passing of pamphlets and tallies of the amounts that went out.  The modern church is an easy target to setup the elitism because there is a seeming lack of passion for the lost. In elitist churches, unhealthy expectations and feelings of guilt are entrenched if members are not working for God to bring the lost to Christ in the way they’ve been instructed to do so. After all, they wouldn’t want to be like all the other so-called Christian compromisers out there.

Spiritual elitism, fostered by control-oriented leaders, leads to churches that abuse because at the root of the problem is spiritual pride.

One’s pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor (Proverbs 29:23).

Next time, we will discover that maintaining control requires a system of reporting and monitoring of the sheep through what’s called “the shepherding movement” and Here.



[1] Churches That Abuse, 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth – Page 37

[2] Ibid – Page 38

[3] Ibid – Page 48

[4] Ibid – Page 118

[5] Ibid – Page 112

Churches That Abuse – Part 1


I’ve recently read a book entitled Churches That Abuse by Ronald M. Enroth and I found it a fascinating book into the insights of what most would consider highly “cultic” churches.  These churches are ones that most people would never get sucked into, but they exist, are quite active, and are in some instances very popular.  The most fascinating thing about my journey through this book is not that people will end up in Jonestown, but that discerning people that know their bibles can easily be trapped in a system that is unbiblical, and often dangerous.

I plan to do a blog series on Churches That Abuse because not everyone will go to the effort to buy the book but may spend a little time reading this blog to understand the techniques and characteristics of abusive churches and how they typically function.  There are consistent patterns in the churches highlighted throughout the book, and if you find yourself questioning the legitimacy of a church, you might benefit from reading about the most common characteristics

I will quote heavily from the book and note that Enroth’s work is based on years of comprehensive research with real people that have independently verifiable experiences.  The leaders of the abusive churches in the book would, no doubt, say that victims had an “axe to grind” or were “disgruntled.” However, when the same complaints are lodged against a church continually, it becomes difficult to maintain that it is just a few bad experiences, or that there was a conspiracy against a group.  Reading the book myself, I’ve been made all the more aware that the slightest distortion of truth can have immense consequences and can have long term damaging effects on the precious souls of individuals.

We do need to be careful, though.  We can easily assign abusiveness to those with whom we disagree and can throw terms around that may or may not be true, so prayerfully seeking God’s wisdom and sound discernment are important.  The Bible assures believers that the Lord will lead us in truth.   In our search for the truth we must also bear in mind that most who are caught up in these churches don’t recognize it; they have people that love them and would desire them to see it, but they can’t, or they won’t.

As Enroth points out, “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.”  [1]

The book’s front cover description says, “Ronald Enroth identifies what is meant by ‘abusive churches.’  Then, he describes abusive churches, using the ten identifying traits of control-oriented leadership, spiritual elitism, manipulation of members, perceived persecution, lifestyle rigidity, emphasis on experience, suppression of dissent, harsh discipline of members, denunciation of other churches, and the painful exit process.  Finally, he shows readers how to discern fringe churches and offers several ‘red flags’ that can be discerned when conventional churches drift toward the fringe.” [2]

In Enroth’s introduction he presents Pastor Phil and while it is clear Pastor Phil has some control issues he has some tendencies that are common among abusive leaders.  Often a family orientation is highly stressed, “’We’re family,’ Pastor Phil reminds us.  And while this is true of the body of Christ there is manipulation in the way charismatic, control-oriented leaders live this out.  Wisdom and discernment are hallmarks of this type of a leader who will work at gaining trust through these avenues.  Often as Pastor Phil stated, ‘he is very negative toward formal schooling.’”[3]  There may be inconsistencies in his life that look good on Sunday morning but may not be the same within the home or in the outside world.  Pastor Phil is a likeable guy in certain circumstances but in the back of his mind he is working toward a greater goal.  Sadly, for the members of Phil’s church the motives are sinister, but for Phil he believes he is doing them good.  Is Phil deceived or does he know what he is up to?  This is a difficult question to answer in some cases but in others there is no doubt it is manipulation for sordid gain.

Enroth describes the book and why it’s important that we are educated about abusive churches and the leaders that run them:

This book is about people who have been abused psychologically and spiritually in churches and other Christian organizations.  Unlike physical abuse that often results in bruised bodies, spiritual and pastoral abuse leaves scars on the psyche and soul.  It is inflicted by persons who are accorded respect and honor in our society by virtue of their role as religious leaders and models of spiritual authority.  They base that authority on the Bible, the Word of God, and they violate that trust, when they abuse their authority, and when they misuse ecclesiastical power to control and manipulate the flock, the results can be catastrophic.  The perversion of power that we see in abusive churches disrupts and divides families, fosters an unhealthy dependence of members on leadership, and creates, ultimately, spiritual confusion in the lives of victims.[4]

And here we will begin our journey.  This might be a painful exercise for some, it might be a sweet relief for others, or you may find yourself saying, “I’ve never experienced such a thing” and for that you can praise the God of heaven for His mercy toward you.  This article is meant to inform and educate those that may never experience or that it may help you help someone out of such a situation. Whatever the outcome, my desire is that abusive churches and leaders will be exposed and Christ would receive the glory He deserves through His church.

Soli Deo Gloria!




[1] Churches That Abuse, 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth – Preface x

[2] Churches That Abuse, 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth – front cover

[3] Ibid – page 21

[4] Ibid – page 29