The Authoritarians Arise in The Toronto Blessing

The Authoritarians Arise in The Toronto Blessing January 11, 2020

Hello and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been discussing the Toronto Blessing–a huge movement that erupted in evangelicalism in 1994. Though one of its major teachings and influences was deeply anti-hierarchical, the engineers of this movement were anything but. Today, let’s take a look at the authoritarians who helped create the Toronto Blessing–and their effects on John and Carol Arnott, who led the church where it began.

a small fire burns in a firepit
(Dheeraj Dwivedi, CC.)

(Previous TTB-related posts: What ‘Jesus’ Is Doing Lately Instead of Being UsefulAwakenings and Other Christian LiesThe Tangled WebTodd Bentley’s Amazing Escape From Accountability; A Muddle of Influences.)

Authoritarian Leaders.

When people talk about authoritarians, often they refer to the leaders holding this mindset. Authoritarian leaders tend to be very easy to spot. They’re tyrants. But formally, here’s a good list of their traits, weaknesses, and habits:

  • One-way communication: leaders to followers.
  • Nonexistent listening skills
  • Can’t accept feedback or punishes it
  • Tight control of followers’ speech and behavior
  • Unilateral decision-making
  • Micro-management of followers’ tasks and lives
  • Inconsistent feedback
  • “Punishment” style of correction
  • Creates or capitalizes upon conflict to increase/shore up personal power
  • Resists change
  • Poor problem-resolution skills
  • Willing/happy to use fear to keep followers in line

Done well by a good leader, authoritarian leadership isn’t always a disaster. Done poorly by a power-hungry tyrant, it’s both tedious and nerve-wracking–and the groups led by such people do tend to plunge into disaster.

But evangelicalism long ago forgot how to appoint good leaders (if it ever knew how). What they’ve got instead are petty tyrants who slime into their positions through sheer force of will and a knack for schmoozing.

As we go through some of the leaders of TTB, be watching for stuff from that list.

Kathryn Kuhlman: An Omnipresent Controller.

First, let’s look at Kathryn Kuhlman. She’s one of the earliest influences on what would become TTB. Similarly to how we call Daenerys the Mother of Dragons (and how I call Mr. Captain the Father of Cats), this huckster could well be considered the Mother of the Toronto Blessing. She personally mentored and inspired pretty much all the earliest engineers of the movement: Benny Hinn, John and Carol Arnott, and more. Though she died in 1976–long before TTB broke out–her influence can be detected all over it. Many evangelicals still revere her.

But during her lifetime, she shows almost every sign there is of being an authoritarian leader. On her various media shows, often she simply spoke for her guests! She insisted on shaping their testimonies to fit the narrative she peddled about her product. Here’s how a biographer of hers put it:

No guest on Your Faith and Mine was allowed to come up on the platform, grab the microphone and just begin talking. Kuhlman kept a close narrative rein on the testimonies presented on her shows by directing the speakers through precise prompting, questions and summaries. Kuhlman was strict in her direction of the men and women who testified on her show. . .

And to be sure, Kuhlman enjoyed the fruits of her labors.

Enjoying the Fruits of Her Labors.

“Her overt acts were in complete contrast with what was being preached from the stage. . . Nobody else understood; all they saw was the glamour.”

Dino Kartsonakis, rumored lover of Kuhlman

Another biographer, Wayne Warner, listed a few of her flaws after she died: “expensive taste, fudging her age, some dubious miracle claims.” It went further than that, though.

She angered some of her followers by marrying a man who dumped his wife and kids for her. Worse, her former agent, Paul Bartholomew, sued her in 1975. He accused her of breach of contract–but also of misusing ministry funds.

Immediately, rumors flew about her having an affair with his brother-in-law Dino Kartsonakis, a handsome musician who’d worked for her until very recently. Kartsonakis referred to their relationship as “the cage.” When he finally escaped the cage, she retaliated against him and his brother-in-law–sparking the lawsuit.

That lawsuit also exposed rumors about alcoholism. When asked directly about it, she refused to answer.

However, the crowds soon forgot about all those controversies. Her huckster act gave them tingles and rubbed their itching ears. That is all they cared about. When she died, they only looked to the next source of tingles and rubbies.

When John and Carol Arnott reflected later, they declared that Kathryn Kuhlman’s ministry model had “totally ruined it for us for settling for more traditional ministry models.”

Benny Hinn, Huckster Extraordinaire.

Israel-born huckster Benny Hinn was in his 20s when he first attended a Kathryn Kuhlman magic-healing service. This meeting occurred in Pittsburgh in December of 1973. The pair didn’t meet that day, but he credits that service with giving him the anointing to preach. He also claimed that this huckster totally magically healed his stuttering. (The “Holy Ghost” cured his stuttering so amazingly well that nobody who knew him in childhood even remembers he had one at all. Dang! That’s good magic healin’ there, ain’t it?)

As soon as he could, he began preaching. And he imitated and emulated Kathryn Kuhlman as best he could. In 1979, he moved to Orlando from his home in Canada. A few years later, he founded Orlando Christian Center–and performed the same huckster schtick that Kuhlman had. Magic healings and other such totally-for-realsies miracles flowed from his hands.

Like Kuhlman, Hinn has very expensive taste. His displays of wealth got so extreme that he ended up investigated by the United States Senate in 2007. He was one of six similar high-profile Prosperity Gospel hucksters thus investigated. All six escaped scot-free, and I’m sure we can trust the findings of the evangelical Republican doing the investigation. One of Hinn’s fellow ministers, his rumored ex-lover Paula White, even went on, of course, to become Donald Trump’s pet fundagelical.

Shrinking From “The Unadorned Truth.”

Of course, a lot of what he claims isn’t true. Sometimes he tells multiple stories about the same part of his past; many of these stories can be easily refuted and debunked. One magazine that ran a big expose of him in 2003 notes,

White lies, by themselves, don’t really mean that much, but they indicate how twisted Hinn’s mythmaking can be. He invents things that reflect badly on him just as easily as he invents things that reflect well on him. Psychologically, he can’t stand the unadorned truth.

Occasionally, though, the enhancements expand from the realm of the white lie into the land of the whopper.

But evangelicals neither asked any questions about him nor did any of that legwork to ascertain the truth of his claims. Instead, they accepted him and made excuses for him. As usual, it took outsiders to bring to light his dishonesty.

In 1993, he publicly and formally renounced various practices that had made him absolutely famous. That 2003 D Magazine expose reveals the disappointment of one of his fellow evangelical leaders. Indeed, that 1993 renunciation didn’t seem to produce any tangible changes at all to his practices.

Control–At Any Cost.

Later, big-name pastor David Wilkerson blasted Benny Hinn. He told Hinn’s supporters from his pulpit, “You are being fornicated with!” Seriously. (Does he also shout “Fornicate you!” to people who annoy him in traffic?) But the video in that link goes on to show the “blasphemy” Hinn committed.

It’s hard to imagine how Christians could see Hinn as anything but a total fake. Around 4 minutes in, a line-up of male evangelical pastors begin to fall down in slow, stately fashion like penguins because they think Jesus is personally onstage with them right then and it’s just too much for them. It’s downright surreal.

In fact, Wilkerson blasted Hinn and Rodney Howard-Browne in 1999. I found the transcript of that sermon–it’s a doozy:

Whole groups of bodies jerking out of control, falling on the floor, laughing hysterically, staggering around like drunkards, writhing like snakes, howling like wild animals. We have evangelists that stand and blow on people to knock them down, as if the breath of the Holy Ghost is now incarnated him. Throws his “designer” jacket at people and says that is the “hand of the Lord”.

(That jacket thing 100% refers to Benny Hinn.)

However, Wilkerson expressed alarm at the wrong stuff.

Check out the first video. In it, Hinn directs people all through it. He lines up the pastors, then coaches them into falling down. At the end, he gets really visibly annoyed with people trying to crowd the stage to get some o’ dat. Listen around 9:20 to hear him getting very curt with a gentleman in a brown suit: “Step aside, sir. Step aside. . . SIR.

What did he plan to do if the guy refused to move? 

Benny Hinn and His Holy Machine Gun.

Benny Hinn sure didn’t take these criticisms well. In 1990 during a “Praise-a-Thon” hosted by Paul and Jan Crouch (big Word of Faith ministers), he made an outburst that somehow didn’t end his career. Here’s the video:

In this video, he thunders to his critics,

“Some days I wish God would give me a Holy Ghost machine gun! I’ll blow your head off!”

And the audience cheers for him in this clip. They love his show of belligerence. (Maybe that’s why he acts that way so often.)

This wasn’t even close to the only or first time he’s ever talked about doing harm to his critics. But we must combine this outburst with his penchant for forcing outcomes during his services. He had no trouble with pushing and shoving people to get them to the floor. Someone even set clips of his antics to “Bodies” by Drowning Pool to dramatize his theatrics:

And then we learn that he teaches his followers that criticizing him is the same as them “coming against God.” They are not allowed to question him or wonder how he uses all the money they keep sending him.

Well, John and Carol Arnott attended one of his meetings in 1992. They were already good friends with him, but Hinn particularly impressed them that evening. They came away convinced that their god would totally “reach the city of Toronto” with “power and might.”

Mike Bickle, Tyrant-at-Large.

Mike Bickle, of course, began the Kansas City Fellowship in 1982. He was only 27 at the time, having converted in his teens from Catholicism to evangelicalism. He’d had only 12 years in evangelicalism before starting his group. But he’d apparently learned well, in those short years, how to control evangelicals (<– wow).

He taught that he and his group were “elites” who could, through their devotions, usher in all kinds of miracles and even help spark the end of the world. He also apparently used “prophetic gifting for controlling purposes.”

“Prophetic gifting” sounds a lot like what my crowd used to call “a word from the Lord” — cold reading, basically, presented as a personal message to someone straight from Jesus (because he’s never figured out how to direct-dial). I can easily see how it could be used to control people. Tell fundagelicals in an earnest enough voice and using the right Christianese that Jesus wants you to tell them to jump, and they’ll jump before even asking “how high?”

Around 1990, John Wimber of Vineyard would intercede for Mike Bickle during a huge scandal. As a result (and to convince everyone to think he’d addressed the scandal), Bickle put KCF entirely under the Vineyard’s authoritarian control. I’m sure that fixed everything.

“Obsessed.”

Someone who claims to have provided care to Mike Bickle’s brother–and thus had close contact with him for a long while–writes this of him:

. . . as far back as I have known them that Mike has wanted to build a Movement that would make him great in the eyes of God. He wants to be numbered with the likes of Charles Finney and John Lake. It is His sole passion and desire is to be great in the Kingdom of God and to accuse him of anything less is foolishness and an argument that can’t be won. Mike is obsessed with that idea. .  .

In 1999, incidentally, Mike Bickle quit KCF and founded the International House of Prayer (IHOP). They stole the pancake restaurant’s name because their church featured a prayer room that they kept open 24/7. The restaurant sued ’em in 2010 over it, so now the church calls itself IHOPKC.

That 2014 murder story makes a lot more sense now, seeing where IHOPKC came from. And there are no shortage of testimonies available online that flat-out call IHOPKC–and KCF–outright cults. One of these makes KCF sound a lot like that cult two of my friends got sucked into back when I lived in Texas. Its writer tells us:

It was during this time that the [Kansas City] prophets were on the move, prophesying to churches to submit to Mike, or else they’d be left out. It was also at this time that my hustand [sic] and I began to become seriously confused.

ALL THE RED FLAGS.

The Vineyard: Prophecy Junkies, Cultic Mindset.

The last authoritarian influence we’ll examine is the Vineyard network. As I mentioned last time, the Vineyard claims it isn’t a denomination–but it bears the hallmarks of a denomination. It’s just the first red flag to bear in mind.

(Watch out for any Christian group that claims it isn’t something that it very obviously is: “We’re not Christians; we’re just followers of Jesus.” “We’re not a church; we just like hanging out together every Sunday to rap about this hepcat named Jesus in a building marked and furnished exactly like a church, enjoying all the tax perks of a church, and staffed by ministers that administer church services.” Little lie, big lie: if they lie about stuff that silly and small, you can bet they’re also lying about something big and important.)

It wasn’t hard to locate criticisms–almost all by other Christians–of the Vineyard and its general style. One calls them “prophecy junkies,” and that about sounds right. That person claims to have attended a Vineyard church for nine years. One of his criticisms involves Vineyard’s demand that members not think, only “open up and accept” whatever happened. That critic also mentions Vineyard leaders’ inability to take any criticism, all of which they considered personal attacks, their lack of accountability, and their use of implied threats to gain compliance.

But it’s his section on “Characteristics of a Cultic Mindset” that really seals the authoritarian deal. He’d seen all of that stuff in his prior church–and was starting to see them as well in Vineyard churches while he attended one.

When John and Carol Arnott attended a Vineyard service, they were hooked. It was perfect.

And Now, Toronto Airport Vineyard.

All of these authoritarian influences swirled together–and found perfect vectors in John and Carol Arnott.

It’s clear that from a very early age, John Arnott wanted to create a big huge Christian movement. He attended meetings by hucksters like Kathryn Kuhlman and Benny Hinn, learning their craft as patiently and intently as any bricklayer’s apprentice.

Now, obviously, he didn’t consider his faith binding on his own personal life. It sounds like he got divorced in the 1970s; Carol is his second wife. That’s usually a BIG no-no for evangelicals–just as it’d caused a stir when his idol Kathryn Kuhlman married a man who’d dumped his family for her.

But evangelicals clearly didn’t care about his past when they got a look at what he offered them as a church experience. From the beginning, he had a knack for growing church congregations quickly. I also get the impression that he was well-placed to interface and learn from the big names of his day and gain understanding of the growing trends in evangelicalism.

Like his own mentors, he leaped upon those trends and capitalized on them. Also like his own mentors, he gaslit his followers with doctrines about autonomy and personal freedom and the power of the individual–while controlling them tightly and herding them through their experiences.

That’s where we’ll take up next time.

Why This Story Fascinates Me.

From the first moment I heard about the Toronto Blessing, it fascinated me. How could it not? The more I heard about it, the more fascinating it got.

You have this big huge international movement in my general end of the Christianity pool that I never even heard about till decades laterthat really nobody outside their bubble heard about either. It features Christians doing extremely wackadoodle things, even by their unexacting parameters. And its influences and major names just twine around each other like they’re playing naked Twister.

We can see so much about the influences that provoked TTB–and how those influences developed them as a group into the dysfunctional broken system that they are today (and will be forever if their Dear Leaders have any say in the matter).

If someone likes inter-Christian feuding, there’s plenty of it here–all illustrating what I’ve nicknamed the problem with wingnuts. Scandals? Oh, we’ve got those too, though they center around overreach, abuse of power, and heresy more than sex.

But most of all, what fascinates me about TTB is its sharp contrast between what evangelicals believe about themselves and their flavor of Christianity, and what reality reveals about it all.

NEXT UP: The disconnect between what the Toronto Blessing officially taught, and how that played out in real life. Thanks for your patience! See you soon!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.

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