Did I Belong to a Cult? The Story (in Brief) of My Spiritual Journey…

Did I Belong to a Cult? The Story (in Brief) of My Spiritual Journey… July 17, 2015

Did I Belong to a Cult? The Story (in Brief) of My Spiritual Journey (Or How I Survived Spiritual Abuse but Still Bear the Scars) Part Two

So why am I telling this story of my spiritual journey, including being part of what I now look back on as a cult, here and now? Over the years, especially as I have taught courses in three Christian universities and series in literally hundreds of churches about “cults and new religions” (“unsafe sects”) numerous people, students and non-students, have approached mem mostly quietly, to tell me their stories of spiritual abuse at the hands of seemingly orthodox, evangelical churches. Some have told me about growing up in or being converted into religious groups almost anyone would call cults—blatantly heretical, abusive religious groups. The majority of people who approach me quietly, almost surreptitiously, however, want to talk about their experiences of spiritual abuse at the hands of power-hungry, unaccountable, manipulative pastors or other religious leaders—often in seemingly “normal” churches.

I have come to realize what I experienced in my late teens and early twenties still happens to very many people. I want them to know how to survive, escape and then handle the scars which may remain for many years—even their whole lifetimes. And I want them to know they’re not alone; others have been there before them and become free without giving up the evangelical Christian faith. I want them to know it’s okay to have scars from religious-spiritual abuse and that their feelings of rejection, fear and lack of worth are simply symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from the abuse they suffered at the hands of abusive religious leaders and their followers.

Here’s the problem that many Christians and others don’t know about. Some of us, your brothers and sisters in the faith (speaking now only to Christians), became “caught” in religious systems that seemed “okay” at first but then either became extremely manipulative and abusive or suddenly showed their true colors—usually when a well-meaning member asked the wrong questions.

I didn’t know what to call what was happening to me, then, in my late teens and early twenties, but I knew something was terribly wrong and it was being done to me and my fellow students and faculty members. Later I learned the right name for it: “spiritual abuse.” My eyes were totally opened to its dynamics (and that term for it) by reading two books: The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Christian pastors Jeff Van Vonderen and David Johnson and Tired of Trying to Measure Up by Van Vonderen. (During my recovery I received counseling from Van Vonderen.) Other books by secular and religious authors revealed to me what I had been subjected to: Toxic Faith by Stephen Arterburn and Churches that Abuse by Ronald Enroth.

As I explained in Part One I grew up in what I would now call a “high demand” evangelical Christian church, part of a denomination that was evangelical in doctrine but that placed a high premium on “loyalty” which meant never criticizing anything leaders said or did. As I look back on my childhood in that religious form of life now I realize that, in spite of all the good it gave me, it also repressed my intellectual curiosity and taught me it was wrong to question spiritual leaders. “Touch not God’s anointed” was a favorite and often-quoted Bible verse (1 Chronicles 16:22 and Psalm 105:15). I remember my stepmother and others in our church and denomination denouncing pastors and evangelists who had become “negative” which meant “critical” of leadership. Those people slowly disappeared from the denomination as they were ostracized. It seemed to me that almost anything was forgivable except “disloyalty” which was just another term for even constructive criticism.

My misfortunates within the denomination began in high school. Although I was intensely loyal to our church and denomination, I began to realize, especially through Youth for Christ, a very transdenominational parachurch organization, that other Protestants and maybe even some Catholics (!) were just as Christian as we were. The Charismatic Movement was just growing and reports were filtering out all around us (in Christian magazines, for example) of Episcopalians and Catholics speaking in tongues! Scholars were calling them “Neo-Pentecostals.” Then, during my senior year of high school, the “Jesus People Movement” burst on the scene. My father opened up our church to both—“Neo-Pentecostals” and “Jesus Freaks”—without requiring them to abide by our traditional rules of clothing, hair style, belief that speaking in tongues is the “initial, physical evidence” of the “infilling of the Holy Spirit, etc. Throughout my senior year in high school our church rapidly expanded, breaking through the restrictive norms and mores of “classical Pentecostalism,” and welcoming many people other Pentecostal churches would not welcome. My mind was being opened to some new ways of thinking about Christianity even as I held firmly to my fervent, passionate Pentecostal faith.

Around the same time I developed a friendship with a high school student with whom I sat in “Home Room” and study halls every school day for three years. We happened to be the only two students in the high school who, at least in our class years, spelled our last names exactly the same. So we were thrown together. Larry was intellectual and considered himself an atheist, a relativist, and an existentialist. In order to converse with him and witness to him, sensitively, I began to read existentialism. Eventually I found my way to Søren Kierkegaard—a Christian existentialist. I thought I could “use” him to help Larry become more open to Christianity. But reading Kierkegaard also began to expand my mind and open it to the value, the importance, of thinking critically even about one’s own religious tradition.

During my high school years I was struggling very much with a growing conflict between what I was learning about philosophy and theology, mostly on my own, and what I was being told by my spiritual mentors. At camps and when they came to our home (as they spoke in our church) and at religious conferences I very gingerly, carefully tried to ask them some questions. Some of them were Larry’s questions and some were mine. Some were both. I was absolutely confident that Christianity had good answers to questions about evil and science and how God could be both three and one and how Jesus could be one person and yet both God and human, etc. But my spiritual mentors declined to discuss these questions with me and instead indicated that I shouldn’t think so much, that I should just believe. One of them preached a sermon, perhaps aimed at me, the main point of which was “Doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs!”

The fact was, however, that I wasn’t doubting! I was seeking answers to very important questions being fed to me by Larry and by books I was reading. And that were simply appearing in my own inquiring mind as I read my Bible and the books some of my spiritual mentors encouraged me to read—books by Watchman Nee, Alan Redpath, Dwight Pentecost, Erich Sauer, and Finis Jennings Dake. To my inquiring mind, though, these authors seemed confused and shallow. I assumed the problem was with me and I prayed fervently for help in understanding them and finding answers to my persistent questions.

Throughout my senior year in high school I looked forward to attending our denomination’s Bible college. In a way, I didn’t think I had any choice. It was where all of our church’s young people went to college. My parents and many of my aunts and uncles attended there. My brother and best friend were students there already. Plus, a young lady I really believed I was supposed to marry was a student there! (We did marry and have been married now for forty-two years!) Attending that Bible college was the most natural progression after high school imaginable. In fact, I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else to college.

And yet, some things troubled me about the college. I visited there several times during high school and some of what I observed and heard disturbed me. But, I assumed it would all turn out okay anyway. God was moving me there and that was that. I would endure whatever happened. It was, to my way of thinking, my only realistic option. The whole time I was growing up I and everyone in my church’s youth group had been told numerous times that we should go to that Bible college for at least one year—to get “grounded in the Word” even if we didn’t plan to pursue a degree. And yet, I noticed, our denomination’s executives’ children never attended it! They all went to various other colleges and universities with their parents’ blessings. That seemed strange to me. Even the college president’s son attended another Christian college and not out of any rebellion; he fully intended to remain in the denomination. Yet I was told, we all were told (in my church’s youth group) by our denomination’s leaders and our spiritual mentors (evangelists, missionaries, etc.), that we were pretty much required to attend the Bible college if we planned to “do ministry,” even as lay people, with the denomination.

Pushing down my qualms, I moved into the Bible college’s men’s dorm alone a week after graduating from high school. I found a job at Look magazine, then published in that city, and spent the summer hanging out with my brother (who had dropped out of the Bible college and gotten married), his wife and my wife-to-be who was then must a very good friend. I was the only person living in the men’s dorm most of that summer.

My first real signal that something was wrong was when word came out that the college president was being fired by the chairman of the board and replaced by the dean of students who was an angry old curmudgeon and extreme legalist in religion. There’s simply no better way to describe him. Rumor had it his assignment was to “fix” the students, many of whom had begun attending movies, wearing “modish” clothes, growing facial hair and using “modern Bible translations” instead of the King James Version. In fact, one of the reasons given for the president’s firing was that he read out of a modern English translation of the Bible in chapel. That all gave me some cause for concern, but I figured it was all way over my “pay grade” and my uncle, the president of the denomination, assured me all would be well. But he didn’t seem too pleased with the change in college administration.

Then the first of a series of very strange incidents happened; something that really made me wonder where I was at. The only female student living on campus during the summer was a very attractive and vivacious young lady and we became close friends. One evening as we sat talking and laughing together outside the women’s dorm (men were not allowed inside the women’s dorm ever and vice versa) the pay phone rang just inside the dorm. It rang numerous times and she finally stood up, went inside and answered it. When she came back she had a shocked look on her face. I asked her who it was and she said “The president was calling from his office in the administration building to tell me to stop laughing.”

I know it sounds like a very small matter, but it took on greater significance later that school year as it became clear that the new president did not like frivolity. He expected students to be constantly serious, pious, obedient, and unquestioning. He expected the same from faculty. (I can’t help thinking of a comparison between him and the infamous anti-humor monk in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose!) A chill and a pall fell over the college. The president ranted and raved in chapel against the students for behaviors that were not against any written rules. He laid his hands on students who dared to question anything—such as the declining food in the cafeteria (it was truly inedible)—and attempted to cast demons out of them. He attempted to fire the academic dean, his second in command, for no given reason, but my uncle told me (he told me many things others didn’t know!) it was because the younger dean was a threat to the president because he was earning a degree from a non-Pentecostal seminary. The president had no higher education; only a bachelor’s degree from a Pentecostal Bible college. Also, the dean was pushing hard for accreditation—something the president and chairman of the board did not want for the college.

The president began unilaterally creating new rules governing almost every aspect of students’ lives including hair, dress and entertainment. Students were forbidden from attending movies. Men’s hair could not touch their collars or have “sideburns” (below mid-ear). Students could not become engaged without the administration’s permission. Women could not wear pants to class and their dresses had to be at least knee-length. The student center could have ping-pong but not a pool table. All “playing cards” were banned from campus (except, we assumed, “Rook”). Finally, to top it all off, the president announced that students were forbidden from leaving campus except to attend church functions and work.

But none of that, as oppressive as it was, bothered me as much as the academic atmosphere which was one of anti-intellectualism and thought-control.

I went to that college hoping to get answers to my biblical and theological questions. I discovered very quickly, however, just how unwelcome such questions were. To be continued…

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