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E-News Archive - Spiritual Abuse Resources

September 20, 2018

A Twisting of the Sacred: The Lived Experience of Religious Abuse

Paula J. Swindle

https://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/f/Swindle_uncg_0154D_12186.pdf (2017)

Multiple counseling organizations, including the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP, 2016), the American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics (2014), and the Association for Spiritual, Ethical, and Religious Values in Counseling (ASERVIC) competencies endorsed by the American Counseling Association, emphasize the importance of religion/spirituality in the worldview of many clients. The counseling literature has reflected a “burgeoning groundswell of interest in spiritually sensitive counseling” (Cashwell & Watts, 2010, p. 3). Although the literature continues to evolve to guide counselors when a client’s religious involvement is positive and supportive, very little information is found in the scholarly literature to inform counselors when clients present with negative religious experiences, particularly on the end of the spectrum that may be considered religious abuse (Ward, 2011; Wood & Conley, 2014).

The purpose of this study was to address the existing gap in the current research literature on the lived experiences of those who have experienced religious abuse in order to provide empirical grounding to this phenomenon and to aid counselors in working with clients with a history of religious abuse. Seven participants who self-identified as experiencing abuse with a Christian religious setting in the United States shared their lived experiences via semi-structured interviews. The research team summarized common themes and experiences using the methodology of Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). The ten common themes that emerged across the interviews were: Emotional Trauma, Betrayal, Rules Prioritized Over People/Devalued, Abuse of Power/Use of the Sacred to Control or Manipulate, Spiritual Transformation, Isolation, Healing, Gender Bias/Discrimination, Stigma, and Victim-Blaming. After developing the themes through the IPA process, the Traumagenic Dynamics Model (Finkelhor & Browne, 1985) was used to provide a lens to examine this phenomenon, in an effort to begin to build a conceptual framework for the experience of religious abuse to inform counselors, supervisors, and counselor educators

Dr. Paula J. Swindle is an Assistant Professor of Counseling at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina. She received her BA in English from Wake Forest University, her Master’s degree in Community Counseling from Appalachian State University, and her PhD in Counseling and Counselor Education from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has more than 20 years of experience in the counseling profession. Her research interests include counseling and spirituality and counseling in medical settings.

September 1, 2018

SAR is grateful to Charlene Edge for granting us permission to reprint the post below from her blog. The original post is located here.

Charlene’s Post-Cult Nonreligious Alternative

by Charlene L. Edge | posted in: Cults, On My Mind | 2

Despite its official sounding title, this post is not a statement of faith, or a list of beliefs, or any other such carved-in-stone program I’ve invented. It’s just some thoughts about my life after leaving a cult.

Why I’m writing this

Recently, I was asked to speak at an International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) conference coming up this October in Connecticut. I’ve shared my cult story at two other ICSA conferences and support their efforts to educate and heal people adversely affected by high-demand groups. Although I cannot attend and give a talk in person, I promised to write a blog post instead. The following is for the session, “Personal Account Talks,” under the topic: “Returning from Unhealthy Christianity to a Nonreligious Personal Alternative.”

Glimpses—from Catholic school to The Way

I wasn’t raised in a cult, I was led into one as a young adult. But what I call my spiritual journey began in childhood as a Roman Catholic, including eight years at St. Francis de Sales grammar school being indoctrinated by Sisters of Mercy who sometimes did not live up to their name. After my mother died in 1968, I changed dramatically. In high school, I veered off into the evangelical Christianity of Young Life where my focus changed from God, a distant Creator in heaven, to Jesus, my Pal who communicated directly to me.

Soon afterwards, I set foot on a college campus where students recruited me into a Bible-based group called The Way. The cornerstone of Way teachings was that the Bible is God’s perfect Word—this perfection is called inerrancy of Scripture. Victor Paul Wierwille (1916 – 1985), founder of The Way International, marketed his organization as a biblical research, teaching, and fellowship ministry. That sounded great to me. I thought God Himself had directed my path right to Wierwille’s front door. I gave The Way the next seventeen years of my life.

What happened at The Way?

The Way offered me friendships with kind and sincere people, in-depth Bible classes (what I thought were in-depth), leadership programs, exciting music festivals, and a common cause of helping people and spreading what we believed was God’s Word over the world. My entire life became locked into this parallel universe fabricated by Wierwille. Mixed in with some positive experiences, I suffered emotional, financial, and intellectual deprivation, but instead of questioning the belief system at the root of my suffering, I accepted what the belief system said had caused it: me, or the Devil, or both. If I believed God more, if I studied the Bible more, if I obeyed Way leaders better, those things would improve.

By 1984, I was invited to work in the inner-circle of biblical researchers at Way headquarters in Ohio. With my whole heart, I believed I was serving God. While in that inner-circle, however, I had a rude awakening. I woke up and realized I’d been used to promote Wierwille’s propaganda; I’d been in a cult of personality run by a narcissistic, paranoid abuser of Scripture, power, money, and sex, who shamelessly plagiarized the work of others and built a multi-million-dollar organization with motor coaches and an airplane at his disposal.

For my emotional, mental, and spiritual survival, I felt compelled to escape.

I also felt compelled to question everything.

“Unhealthy Christianity” at The Way

When I escaped from Way headquarters in Ohio and drove to Florida, I didn’t plan to also cross the border of Christianity and enter another religious landscape. As I left The Way, I still considered myself a Christian, but I needed time to think, read, and evaluate those seventeen years I’d given to promoting Wierwille’s teachings. From my up-close-and-personal experiences, I admitted The Way had offered “unhealthy Christianity.”

It was unhealthy primarily due to the Wierwille’s corruption—his abuse of people and misuse of Scripture had combined to spawn a hurtful organization. He had used fear to motivate sincere believers to remain in the group by convincing us the Devil would ruin our lives if we left The Way (successive leaders did the same thing) and that God would take away our rewards in heaven if we rejected the “accuracy of God’s Word” he said he offered.

Way loyalists like me were told not to fellowship with dissenters because they had “turned their backs on the household of God.” I had believed all that. I’d believed Wierwille’s portrayal of The Way as the “first century church in the twentieth” devoted to biblical research, teaching, and fellowship and teaching “the accuracy of God’s Word.” After what I discovered while working in The Way’s biblical research department, however, it was clear those things were lies. The Way was all about Wierwille and propping up his authority. Wierwille had betrayed me and every other Way follower. Thankfully, before I drove off to Florida, I’d sorted things out enough to reject twisted, sick, and damaging beliefs of the group.

Over time, I figured out that Wierwille and his leaders—including me from time to time—had used psychological manipulation to keep followers tethered to The Way. That manipulation, disguised as training us to obey God’s Word, had produced another version of Charlene, a rigid one that fit the norms of The Way. I wanted to break out of that confinement and grow.

What I did not do after leaving The Way

I still considered myself a Christian, but I wanted to be left alone. After one visit to the church of my youth—the Roman Catholic Church—I did not return. Nor did I join an offshoot of The Way. Some former Way leaders broke from Wierwille’s original group and recruited members to their new ones. It was obvious they just recycled Wierwille’s behavior and teachings. I was not interested. I had too many questions. Nor I did join any of the myriad available Protestant or other sorts of churches, nor a synagogue, nor a mosque, nor an ashram, nor a temple of any kind. It was 1987 and next to impossible for churches to “get” how sensitive cult escapees were to religious talk and church behavior—like setting up chairs for meetings and listening to someone teach the Bible.

Besides, I was questioning the Bible’s authority and God’s identity. I was trying to be realistic about what value the Bible had for me and whether God was the kind of entity that directed or intervened in anyone’s life.

What did I do? Nonreligious activity

I read. I wrote. I trusted in the creative universe to hold me together. I threw myself into my education. A year before actually escaping Way headquarters in Ohio, I had returned to college. That was ironic. I had dropped out of college in 1970 to jump head-first into Wierwille’s intensive leadership training program called The Way Corps. Going back to college sixteen years later was frightening, but it offered a fresh start. I had hope.

The liberal arts education I sought counteracted the thought-stopping, cliché-ridden indoctrination and ignorance I’d taken as “truth” all those years in The Way. Education gave me a broad landscape where I could roam and question without fear of being told I was wrong, nonspiritual, or possessed by the Devil. I learned to question and be open to new ideas without being afraid of them. My curiosity woke up. I wrote in journals and I read anything I wanted to.

Alongside college studies …

I sought out books in the library about God, the Bible, and spirituality. Joseph Campbell’s work in comparative religion, as seen in Bill Moyer’s interview with him titled, The Power of Myth, broadened my understanding and excited me. James Barr’s book, Fundamentalism, was a window into where the idea of Scriptural inerrancy came from, how complicated it is, and why Wierwille’s version did not hold up. For a while, I read about the history of the biblical texts and who wrote them and why. By then, I’d given up the idea that “God is the author of the Bible,” as Wierwille insisted, and acknowledged it was authored by men—that’s a topic for many other blogs, which I probably won’t write. I’ll leave that to scholars.

Later, I read Karen Armstrong’s works, including The Battle for God and Bart Ehrman’s many books about the New Testament, beginning with Misquoting Jesus. I read about Buddhism and liked many ideas the Dahlia Lama shares in his books, like this—if you’re going to have a religion, it should help you be a better person. I read lots of literature—novels, poems, and plays—and found community with other writers and students I met at college and at work. I felt nourished. I felt happier. I felt adventurous. I felt I was flourishing more as a human being by not devoting myself to any one established religion and that I didn’t need to.

The obsessive/compulsive lifestyle (at least it was for me) of reading the Bible, attending fellowships, recruiting others, organizing meetings, memorizing Scripture to ward off negative thoughts, and sending money to a leader, was over. I felt relief.

Perhaps I could have adopted a more moderate form of Christianity, but after reading things about its history, I felt it was no longer for me. Now I view the Golden Rule as a good guide for living, but I like better the Golden Rule in reverse, “Don’t do unto others what you would not want them to do to you.” It sets a high bar to aim for.

Today … being nonreligious

All this is not to say my path—one that does not include sticking with one religion’s beliefs or attending religious services—is for everyone. This “nonreligious alternative” has its lonely and scary moments like any other path, but it’s real for me, and I am grateful.

I suppose “eclectic” describes this stage I’m in. And the word “agnostic” works because I’ve given up certainty about spiritual matters. While I’d been loyal to Wierwille and his teachings, I’d been so certain about God and what “He” did that the certainty became destructive and broke up my friendships and family ties. (My memoir, Undertow, details all this.) I often disrespected other people’s freedom of religion, their freedom to worship as they chose to or not. Being so sure I was right about God, Jesus Christ, and the Bible sometimes incapacitated my ability to feel compassion at appropriate times. What’s the point in that?

Perhaps my Irish heritage or my Aries “sign” prompted my independent spirit to rise through the pain and loss of cutting ties with my old worldview, respectfully decline invitations to join all manner of churches, and create my own way of being in the world—which is, as it turns out, living as a writer. But really, who knows all the reasons for being on one path or another? Life is complicated, mysterious, and full of surprises.

These days, I just try to enjoy the eclectic nature of my interests, spend time with friends and family, and soak up contemplative moments practicing a little yoga and meditation, and walking on the beach. And writing. When I think about this stage of my life, I can’t help but recall one of my favorite quotes. It’s advice Shakespeare’s character, Polonius, a philosopher, gives his son as he leaves home, “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” (Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78-82).

About the Author

Charlene L. Edge is the author of the award-winning memoir, Undertow: My Escape from the Fundamentalism and Cult Control of The Way International. She was in The Way for seventeen years (1970–1987). Later she earned a B.A. in English Literature from Rollins College, graduating summa cum laude, and worked for more than a decade as a writer in the software industry. She is a published fiction writer and award-winning poet, is a regular contributor to the Florida Writers Association blog and is a member of the Authors Guild and the International Cultic Studies Association. Charlene lives in Florida, with her husband, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Rollins College, Dr. Hoyt L. Edge, and she blogs about their world travels, fundamentalism, cults, the writing life, and other topics on her website: https://charleneedge.com

August 1, 2018

Editor’s Note:

ICSA has a topic collection on Catholic Aberrations: http://www.icsahome.com/elibrary/studyguides/catholic

Among the articles in this collection are:

Aspects of Concern Regarding Legion of Christ Mind Control Reflected in Its Rules, Norms, and Ex-Member Testimonies

J. Paul Lennon, M.A.


This paper analyzes the daily life of Legionaries of Christ in light of certain characteristics associated with mind-controlling groups. The stifling of questioning, mind-numbing meditation routines, excruciatingly detailed rules concerning everyday behavior, and control of incoming and outgoing information are examined to support the author’s contention Legion of Christ exerts excessive control over its members thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

Mr. Lennon founded and maintains a website on the Legion and its lay order, Regnum Christi: www.regainnetwork.org

Below is the text of a paper that describes an informal survey he conducted of visitors to the Regain website.


Effects of Involvement with Legion of Christ/Regnum Christi on Cradle Faith: Questions for Pope Francis, LC Leadership and Catholic Bishops

Presentation at the International Cultic Studies Association Annual International Conference, Stockholm, July 2015

John Paul Lennon, MA, STL

Aura Bethancourt-Lennon

The senior author’s experience[i], plus contacts with hundreds of other former members of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi by email, phone and/or in person, led him to believe that involvement with this Movement affected one’s cradle faith. “Cradle faith” is the faith one is born into and raised in. It is now common knowledge that many former members of this group, erstwhile devout Catholics, on leaving the LC/RC no longer considered themselves Catholics, or even Christians. Some even consider themselves agnostics and atheists. How did involvement with this bona fide Catholic Movement have such a deleterious defect? Further reflection modified that initial a priori hypothesis. There appeared to be a need to find facts and explore this area with the help of a survey.

The study would be based on the following rationale: On entering the organization all candidates are devout Catholics. After “walking away” or being “thrown away” not all are devout Catholics. How would they describe themselves today? The study was designed to solicit feedback from former members visiting a webpage - http://www.regainnetwork.org - for former members and their families.


A member is recruited and belongs to the group for x number of years. He may leave after a certain amount of time, either as a throw-away or as a walk away. Each member experiences his recruitment/joining/belonging as a member and leaving in a personal way. The stages could be hypothesized as follows:

Pre-entry into the Legion of Christ/Regnum Christi.

It is assumed that the member is in full “communion” with the Catholic Church. Firm and unshaken belief in the Catholic Church as a divinely inspired religious institution; veneration and trust in the clergy (priests, bishops, pope)

· Involvement as a fully observant lay member, abiding by marriage and birth control laws, etc.

· A regular Mass goer who receives Communion (Sacrament of the Eucharist), “goes to confession” (Sacrament of Penance) at least once a year and “contributes to the support of his/her pastors.”

Membership in LC/RC

· All of the above, plus

· Involvement in the Church as a minister, religious or committed lay member of RC

Post exit from the LC/RC Movement.

Some members are unscathed, “keeping their faith intact,” while others have left or renounced full communion with the Catholic Church in varying degrees. The following are some of the possible post-exit pathways:

· Full communion with institutional Catholic Church as in Pre-Entry and good relationship with LC/RC

· Full Communion with Catholic Church but lost faith in the LC/RC organization with an attitude of

o Indifference

o Criticism

o Opposition

· Partial communion with the Catholic Church

· Leaves the ministry and/or religious life.

· No longer fully observant lay member.

· No longer a “practicing Catholic” but does not reject the notion that the Catholic Church is divinely inspired.

o Occasional Mass goer; rarely, if ever “goes to confession”; contributes little, if any, to the support of the ministers, the institution and its works (Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, etc.)

o May not be “married by the Church,” nor heed Church birth control laws

o May not baptize his/her children ‘in the faith.’

· Lost faith in the Catholic Church as a divinely inspired religious institution; lost veneration for and trust in the clergy (priests, bishops, pope)

o Retains partial communion with the Church (some residual attraction to Church such as family tradition, liturgy, sacred music, etc.)

o Joins other Christian community

o Joins other major religion

o Declares him/herself agnostic or atheist

The medium to be used would be the ReGAIN webpage, which has a steady stream of former members. The author assumed -not a very scientific attitude but common sense- that some or many of the visitors to the site -which constantly questions the official version of the Legion and the Regnum- would be among the more “disenchanted” Catholics, that their responses could tend to be “negative” and that some kind of a balancing measure might need to be applied.


A total of 78 valid responses were delivered. Of these only 41 had been former members of the LC/RC; and of these 4 were currently active members. Responses described visitors’ current relationship with the LC/RC in the following way:

Relationship with the LC/RC:

· Average/Non important 13/41

· Poor/Negative 21/41

· Angry/they hurt me 1

· I hate them 2

· Positive 3

· As good as could be 1

Relationship with the Catholic Church:

· Fully Practicing 24/41

· Partially Practicing 8

· No longer a Catholic 8

· * Incomplete response 1


Relationship with the LC/RC: “Average/Non important” answers indicate that a significant number of respondents have “taken the experience in their stride.” This could also indicate that former members have chosen not to dwell on their experience and have chosen to “get on with their lives.” But it is significant that 21 respondents state unambiguously that they have a negative relationship/attitude toward the group they initially joined so enthusiastically and generously.

Recently a Spanish language blog called Legioleaks [ii] was launched on Facebook in which many of the contributing 120 disaffected former members vent their frustration, criticism, and anger at their alma mater. While one might wonder “Why are you so angry?”, this begs the flip question “What has the institute done to make these young men so angry?”

In fact, only 3 respondents on the ReGAIN survey described his/her attitude as angry or hating. Therefore, criticisms on the blog may help interpret the finds of our survey and discover some of the flaws in the Movement’s system.

Results of “Relationship with the Catholic Church” could be considered surprising in the sense that 24 of 41 described themselves as fully practicing Catholics, thus indicating that the respondents cannot be dismissed as “disgruntled ex-members.” Real cause for concern stems from 8/41 considering themselves partially practicing Catholics and another 8/41 saying they are no longer Catholic; in common parlance this means that one out of five “have left the Church.”

Catholic bishops may want to consider this result when they allow the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi to recruit in their dioceses.

Unfortunately, the survey did not inquire into length of membership. It is possible that those who were in for longer periods may exhibit more negative effects.

Questions for LC/RC Leadership

A study of the results prompts the author to raise some questions for consideration by the LC/RC Movement’s leadership:

· Whether there exist elements in the Movement’s training (formation) that tend to alienate or otherwise hurt the members, producing in them feelings of rejection, anger and resentment toward their alma mater upon leaving.

· Whether such flaws in the Movement’s training system are serious enough to cause exiting members to alienate not only from the Movement but also from the Catholic Church.

· Whether the Movement needs to refine its screening process for recruits and its evaluation of new candidates.

· Posters in Legioleaks point out the need for a deeper process of discernment of the religious vocation.

· Posters in Legioleaks return time and again to the fact that their religious vocation appeared to be a forgone conclusion once they entered the group, prompting the question: Does the Movement prepares the members for the possibility/option of exiting the organization?

· Are the members given the necessary instruments for handling departure and transitioning to a new life outside the Movement?

· Do departing members have access to their legal documents, academic degrees, and a minimum of job training?

· If the member decides to leave, does the Movement have -and does it implement - concrete guidelines to help the departing member leave in a healthy, positive and constructive way.

These results beg comparative studies regarding how other religious orders fare with former members.

Historical note regarding Fr. Maciel’s sexual abuse victims

When cultic abuse is compounded by sexual abuse, the impact on the faith of the victim would appear to be more severe. The eight Maciel former seminarians who brought their case to the media and to Vatican authorities feel alienated from Catholic authorities. The spectrum of the survivors’ “faith” –or lack thereof- is very wide and in general terms goes from atheism, through total alienation from the Catholic Church, to minimal participation in the Church. With the exception of Fr. Alarcon, a retired priest, none of Fr. Maciel’s Legion of Christ seminary victims - Senores Barba, Vaca, Jurado, Barrales, the brothers Olvera, Espinosa- would consider himself a “fully practicing Catholic.”

[i] Described in detail in Our Father Maciel who art in bed, a Naïve and Sentimental Dubliner in the Legion of Christ. The exiting was long and tortuous.

[ii] https://www.facebook.com/groups/623513181133578/ Currently with over 2,300 members.

July 23, 2018

Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery

Ken Garrett

Abstract of Dissertation - view complete dissertation

The theme of this project is spiritual abuse. For this project, spiritual abuse is defined as the use of deception, manipulation, and undue influence by a pastor or leader over a member of a church or Christian organization in order to appropriate the member’s material, physical, or emotional resources. The purpose of this study is to introduce the reader to the existence, characteristics, and leaders of spiritually abusive churches. Select biblical examples of spiritual abuse, Christian and secular academic sources, and a description of the basic personality types of spiritually abusive pastors, their churches, and their victims are presented. A description of both healthy churches and healthy pastors is provided, along with suggestions for how churches and pastors can prepare themselves to effectively care for survivors of spiritual abuse. The appendix includes an exegetical sermon on spiritual abuse from the book of Jude. An extended bibliographical list is provided for further reading on the subject of spiritual abuse, thought reform, and the development of a healthy pastoral theology relating to the care of spiritual abuse survivors.

Overview of the Project

This book is separated into chapters that present a biblical and secular survey of spiritual abuse, spiritually abusive leaders, and the abusive churches they lead. The marks of spiritually healthy churches and leaders are also presented, along with some suggestions for how such healthy churches and pastors can effectively care for the survivors of spiritual abuse who may seek to worship in a healthy church. In support of my arguments, I provide extensive interview data from spiritual abuse survivors and intersperse narrative accounts of my own experience of membership in an abusive church. This project is presented in nine chapters.

Chapter one introduces the phenomena of cults and aberrant religious groups in contemporary America and suggests a solution to the tension of referring to an otherwise orthodox, evangelical church as a cult. 9

Chapter two places the project in its theological context, surveying selected examples of spiritual abuse within the spiritual communities of the Old and New Testaments and noting the ethical/spiritual deficiencies of the spiritual abusers described in the text.

Chapter three describes the common, narcissistic disorder found in spiritual abusers, and suggests that such leaders are invariably, ultimately recognized by the content of their words, as considered over time.

Chapter four presents the concept of religious totalism, the mindset commonly found in those who join and remain in abusive churches. This chapter discusses the tensions encountered when a prospective member is challenged to make greater commitments to the church despite his private misgivings of doing so, and the crisis of faith that such challenges create. I will also explore the particular draw of a church or group with a totalist ideology to well-meaning, motivated Christians who simply wish to grow deeper in their faith experience.

Chapter five presents the primary indicators of a spiritually abusive church in eight areas, loosely correspondent with the eight criteria of thought reform developed by Robert Lifton. Through the narrative accounts of survivors of spiritually abusive churches, I will develop each indicator in a manner that will be readily understood by the reader. ( Lifton, Robert Jay. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

Chapter six presents four conditions that have been found to be a consistent part of the decision that the member of an abusive church makes to finally leave the church—all in answer to the question, “Why do people leave abusive churches?”

Chapter seven describes the various emotional-spiritual wounds that the survivors of abusive churches often carry with them when they visit healthy churches. The areas of personal, marital, family, and professional loss, along with spiritual woundedness, are listed and described with a view to informing members and pastors of healthy churches of the condition of the survivors who may visit them.

Chapter eight describes the core motivations and character qualities of the safe pastor—one who acts as a tenderhearted servant, and not as the abusive over-lording pastor of the abusive church. The marks of a safe church are described, juxtaposed with the eight indicators of the abusive church.

Chapter nine presents my summary of the importance of identifying abusive churches, and of purposefully caring for the survivors of such churches. In this chapter, I pull together the overall content of the project to provide solid application points for both the pastor and the church member who desires to be effective in the restoration of abuse survivors to spiritual health. In the Appendix, I provide a sample sermon from the book of Jude that deals with the issue of abusive leaders in the Christian church.

17 July 2018

"Christian" Cults and the Concept of Hell

Rev. Robert Pardon, Director of MeadowHaven, talked at the recent ICSA Annual Conference about a subject that is relevant to spiritual abuse - the misuse of the concept of hell by manipulative groups and individuals.

The talk had three parts:

  1. The historical and cultural concepts of Hell
  2. Contemporary ideas about Hell that are inconsistent with cultic views
  3. A case study of the misuse of Hell by a “Christian” cult

A quotation from philosopher Peter Kreeft makes the logical case for a Christian view of hell (most other religions have concepts of hell, as well):

Hell generally follows from two beliefs: the existence of Heaven and human free will. If there is a Heaven, there can be a not-Heaven. And if there is free will, we can act on it and abuse it. Those who deny Hell must also deny either Heaven (as does Western secularism) or free will (as does Eastern pantheism).

There are three views of hell in Christianity:

  1. Universalism: All, regardless of severity sins, are eventually saved. Not compatible with cult manipulation.
  2. Annihilationism: Humans are not immortal. Those not saved are annihilated. Not compatible with cult manipulation.
  3. Traditionalism: Some people are not saved. At final judgment given either eternal life or eternal condemnation. Compatible with cult manipulation.

Often overlooked is the fact that there are two major models of hell within Christian thought:

  1. Punishment Model: Hell exists to punish those who deserve everlasting punishment. This punishment will be consciously experienced by some people who will not be permitted to leave or escape Hell.
  2. Choice Model: Holds that Hell is inescapable and that it is a “place” of conscious experience. While it is compatible with Hell being a place of punishment, the fundamental purpose of Hell is to honor a person’s choice. Affirms free will that can reject God’s gracious provision (Christ’s death upon the cross) for the forgiveness of sin.

A quote from C. S. Lewis, a major proponent of the choice model of hell, expresses the dilemma of many Christians:

There is no doctrine I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of our Lord’s words; it has always been held by Christendom, and it has the support of reason.

Three other quotes from Lewis succinctly articulate the choice model:

All that are in Hell, choose it. Without self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that ever seriously desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it will be opened.

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'

To enter Heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter Hell is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into Hell is not a man: it is ‘remains.’ To be a complete man means to have the passions obedient to the will and the will offered to God; to have been a man – to be an ex-man or ‘damned ghost’ – would presumably mean to consist of a will utterly centered in its self and (the) passions utterly uncontrolled by the will.

Rev. Pardon says:

Cults and aberrational Christian groups can twist the meaning of Scripture by not taking into account context; and in a literal way that does violence to the text. Sadly, this allows for great abuse and manipulation by destructive groups that tend to be controlling and manipulative to begin with.

To see the full Power Point, go here.

Barring technical problems, a videotape of this talk will be posted on the ICSA YouTube channel within a few months. Subscribe to that channel to be sure to receive an announcement.

14 May 2018

SAR/ICSA will consider reviews of the book described below.

The Scandal of Evangelism: A Biblical Study of the Ethics of Evangelism

Elmer John Thiessen


Contact Information: Elmer John Thiessen ejthiessen@sympatico.ca (519) 746-2821


The Scandal of Evangelism: A Biblical Study of the Ethics of Evangelism

by Elmer John Thiessen Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers

978-1-5326-1788-1 / paperback / $33


The Scandal of Evangelism: A Biblical Study of the Ethics of Evangelism

In today’s multi-cultural and multi-religious world, evangelism is often viewed as scandalous, not only by those who are opposed to anything religious, but also by many Christians. In this book, Elmer Thiessen provides a response to those who find most or even all Christian evangelism objectionable. He does this through a careful analysis of what the Bible says about the ethics of evangelism. Based on this inductive study, mainly of the New Testament, Thiessen proposes thirty guidelines for ethical evangelism. Part II examines some specific contexts that pose unique challenges for doing evangelism ethically— evangelism of children, evangelism within a professional context like the secular academy, evangelism within the context of humanitarian aid, and finally the problem of proselytism, understood in the special and narrow sense of sheep-stealing.

Elmer John Thiessen taught at Medicine Hat College (Alberta, Canada) for thirty-six years. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Emmanuel Bible College. He is author of The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion (2011).

Why your interest in the ethics of evangelism?

I have been writing about the ethics of influence and persuasion for some 25 years now, starting with the problem of indoctrination in the family and in schools. So the ethics of evangelism is simply an extension of this interest in the broader issue of the ethics of influence and persuasion.

This is your second book on the ethics of evangelism. Why a second book?

In the concluding chapter of my previous book, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion (2011), I argued that resources for encouraging ethical evangelism must be found within each of the religions that engage in evangelism. It is within this context that I declare my intention to write another book which will deal with the ethics of evangelism from an explicitly Christian perspective. The Scandal of Evangelism is an attempt to keep my promise!

So, what is different about this second book?

  • My first book was philosophical in nature. The Scandal of Evangelism is more theological inorientation.
  • My first book was written for both religious adherents and those skeptical of religion. My second book is written specifically for Christians.
  • My first book is more academic in nature. I am hoping that my second book will appeal to a more general Christian readership. Academic discussions are for the most part relegated to footnotes.
  • There is one other important difference. Given that my first book was written for both believers and those skeptical of all religion, I had to start with an ethical framework that hopefully all (or at least most) readers would accept. So, the starting point for the first book was a liberal ethical framework focusing on the dignity and freedom of persons. The Scandal of Evangelism starts with a biblical ethical framework.

But doesn’t a biblical ethical framework also assume the dignity and freedom of persons?

Yes, but the foundation is different. Christians believe in the dignity and freedom of persons because we are created in the image of God. Within a Christian worldview, human dignity is a borrowed dignity. It is God who gives us dignity. There are also limits to human freedom, as we are called to submit to God’s norms.

Are there any other differences between your two books?

Yes, there is another significant difference. An important objective of my first book was to answer some standard objections that are often raised against the very idea of evangelism. Indeed, some writers consider evangelism unethical by its very nature, arguing that evangelists are arrogant, meddlesome, and intolerant. In my first book, I argued that these objections are in the main unwarranted. Although The Scandal of Evangelism touches on some of these issues, its orientation is more constructive – trying to articulate some biblical guidelines for ethical evangelism.

But in your first book you also tried to articulate some criteria of ethical evangelism. How does your present book differ from the first in this regard?

For one, in my first book I identified and defended 15 criteria of ethical evangelism. The Scandal of Evangelism has 30 guidelines for ethical evangelism. Further, these guidelines grow out of an inductive study mainly of the New Testament. As already mentioned, the criteria of ethical evangelism in my first book were grounded in a liberal/pragmatic ethical framework.

How practical are your books?

It should be noted first of all that my books are not “how to” books. My aim is not to articulate methods or strategies for doing evangelism. Instead, I focus on ethical evaluation of methods and strategies of evangelism. In both books I try to give many examples of ethical and unethical forms of evangelism. Part II of The Scandal of Evangelism goes further and provides a detailed examination of four specific contexts that pose unique challenges for doing evangelism ethically – evangelism of children, evangelism within a professional context like the secular academy, evangelism within the context of humanitarian relief, and finally the problem of proselytism, understood in the special and narrow sense of sheep-stealing.

How long did it take you to write The Scandal of Evangelism?

I started working on this book even before my first book on the ethics of evangelism came out in 2011. Given the biblical orientation of this book, I thought it was important to read the entire bible, looking for any passages that I thought were relevant to the ethics of doing evangelism. (Well, I’ll admit I skimmed through parts of the bible!) Serious writing on this book began five years ago. I also benefited from presenting drafts of some of the chapters of my book at international conferences and consultations.

Did you run into any significant difficulties in your writing?

Yes, on my third draft, I began to have serious doubts about my working definition of evangelism. Should evangelism be defined simply in terms of verbal proclamation of the gospel, or can there be proclamation in word and deed? In the end, I stayed with my original definition. While deeds are important in giving concrete expression to our faith, deeds alone can’t proclaim the wonderful story of Jesus Christ. Good news need words and people to proclaim these words.

Is there anything that stands out for you from your study of the ethics of evangelism?

Yes, ethical evangelism loves enemies of the gospel.

Finally, why the reference to “scandalous” in the title?

There is an ambiguity in the title. The gospel is in fact scandalous as Paul and Peter note on a number of occasions, and there is no way that we can eliminate the scandal of the gospel message despite its being good news. But sadly, there are many Christians today who view evangelism itself as scandalous. Indeed, many Christians raise the same kinds of objections to evangelism that are made by those who are skeptical of all that is religious. The Scandal of Evangelism provides an answer to Christians who have become skeptical of all evangelism. There is nothing to be ashamed of when evangelism is done in an ethical manner.

Excerpts from the Book

When Jesus gave his instructions for mission to his disciples, he not only anticipated that people would reject the disciples’ message, he goes on at length to instruct the disciples on how to respond to resistance and outright hostility. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves,” Jesus says (Matt 10:16–31). You will be handed over to local councils, flogged in synagogues, and arrested. You will face betrayal even in your families. All men will hate you, just as they hated me. If I was called Beelzebub, you can expect name calling that is even more derogatory. Indeed, you as my disciples might face the same ultimate fate I will be facing—death.

So, how are Jesus’ disciples to respond to such hostility? Again, we need to listen to the ethical overtones in Jesus’ instructions to his disciples. “Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” The disciples, when they evangelize, are to be wise, open, honest, and even simple, when it comes to interaction with the enemies of the gospel. Ethical evangelism does not resort to deceit. It does not involve hidden agendas or rely on elaborate scheming. Jesus goes on to advise the disciples not to “worry about what to say or how to say it,” when they are brought to trial because of their witness (Matt 10:19). God’s Spirit will tell them what to say. Indeed, evangelism is finally God’s doing, for it is “the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt 10:20).

Another ethical aspect of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples is already evident in his analogy of sending them out like sheep among wolves. Sheep are defenseless when it comes to attacks by vicious animals. Jesus also predicts men “will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues” (Matt 10:17—my emphasis). There is no indication the disciples will be fighting back in self-defense. Instead, they are reminded of Jesus, their master, who did not talk back or retaliate when he was on trial, but who entrusted himself to God. Servants should be like their master (Matt 10:25). In all this, Jesus is reinforcing a teaching that runs throughout the gospels and the epistles—we should love our enemies.

What does it mean to love our enemies when doing evangelism? Jesus’ instructions are pretty straightforward when opposition to gospel-preaching becomes physical or political or even violent, but there are also implications for the language we use in evangelism. We need to recognize words can be used as weapons and to incite violence. Such evangelism is not in line with Jesus’ instructions to his disciples. There is no room for demeaning or hateful language as we counter beliefs with which we disagree. We need to practice tolerance. Ethical evangelism is expressed in the language of love.

There is an additional detail in Luke’s account of Jesus sending out seventy-two … disciples that is worth noting and has some implications for ethical evangelism (Luke 10:1–24). After the seventy-two returned from their missionary journey, they enthusiastically reported to Jesus, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” The disciples were enamored with their success, maybe even a bit conceited about the new powers they had. Jesus responds by reminding them it was he who gave them the authority over demons (v. 18). Theirs is a borrowed authority. And then Jesus shifts the focus of their rejoicing: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (v. 20). Jesus was reminding them and us that having our names written in heaven is due to grace, not personal effort, or success in evangelism. What Jesus is also suggesting here is that success is not the fundamental objective of ethical evangelism. Our preoccupation should instead be focused on our belonging to Jesus and being faithful to him.

Praise for the Book

“In a world awash with political correctness Thiessen rehabilitates the art of committed dialogue and inspired persuasion as essential to human flourishing. His careful analysis of New Testament teaching and his discussion of contemporary contexts suggest a positive future for ethically practiced evangelism—more gift than goading, more mutual discovery than manipulative diatribe. Thiessen is clear, helpful, and hopeful.”—Mark Oxbrow, International Director, Faith2Share

“In The Scandal of Evangelism Professor Thiessen sets out and develops a biblical and theological basis for explicitly ethical forms of evangelism that are modelled on the beliefs, values, examples, and practices of the early church as recorded in the New Testament. . . . This is an excellent book that all interested in Christian mission, broadly conceived, should read. It is a book that shows us how to engage in evangelism in ways that respect the dignity of others, while preserving the truth and integrity of Christian faith.” —L. Philip Barnes, Emeritus Reader in Religious and Theological Education, King’s College London

“Since the publication of the document ‘Christian Witness in a Multi-religious World: Recommendations for Conduct,’ published in 2011, world Christianity has been waiting for this book: a detailed discussion of the major questions involved. Elmer Thiessen’s biblical study of the ethics of evangelism provides such discussion, and the result is superb. Thoroughly considered for years, taking up the relevant international discussion, and tested in discussions with the highest level of representatives for the major branches of Christianity, The Scandal of Evangelism is a compendium of the major problems and questions involved. Both friends and foes of evangelism have much to learn here. This book will open a new chapter in the discussion.”—Thomas Schirrmacher, Professor of the Sociology of Religion, University of the West Timisoara, Romania

17 April 2018

ICSA has published hundreds of articles during its nearly 40-year existence. In my opinion, one of the most significant was a 1977 article from Christianity Today, which we reprinted with permission in 1985 in Cultic Studies Journal. The article was written by A. Duane Litfin, who was then Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Dallas Seminary; he later became president of Wheaton College. Entitled "The Perils of Persuasive Preaching," the article got to the ethical heart of cultic dynamics and spiritual abuse. You can read the article on the SAR website: https://www.spiritualabuseresources.com/articles/the-perils-of-persuasive-preaching

I'll give you a few teaser excerpts in the hope that you'll read the entire article.

Kierkegaard’s analysis at least raises an important question. The genesis of any theory of discourse must lie in the philosophy or theology that underlies it. Is it possible that some modem preaching practices are based upon secular theories of persuasion whose underlying assumptions are contrary to those of Christianity?

I am convinced that this is a question we need to be answering, and I would like to suggest a particularly troublesome area where we might begin. It has to do with the role of persuasion in preaching in general, and the goal of preaching in particular. ...

Significantly, homileticians tend to hold that the goal of the preacher is similar to that of the secular persuader, to elicit a desired response from the listener, and that it is quite proper to use a broad range of rhetorical techniques to achieve this goal. ...

While we may grant that the secular persuader can proceed in this way, using his techniques to gain a particular response, are there not additional considerations for the preacher? One may ask whether the preacher should use any technique in an effort to induce the desired response from his audience -whether, in fact, gaining “the response he desires” should be the preacher’s goal at all. For is it not possible that having this goal increases the possibility that the results will be of man and not of God? ...

All this suggests that through the use of certain techniques it is possible to get results, even where the Holy Spirit is not active at all. But according to the Scriptures, God has said that his work is to be accomplished “not by might nor by power but by my Spirit” (Zech. 4:6). The psalmist wrote, “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Ps. 127: 1). Paul later applied this principle to preaching when he avowed to the Corinthians that “my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (I Cor. 2:4,5). Paul obviously understood that persuasive words of wisdom” so highly prized in the rhetorically oriented Corinthian culture, could never bring men and women to Christ. Only the straightforward presentation of the Gospel could do that. The use of persuasive techniques might indeed win a response, but it would be a response based upon the wisdom of men” and not the “power of God.” Paul had the insight to see that such results would inevitably “make void” the very Gospel he preached. ...

In an excellent article on attitude change in the Handbook of Social Psychology (III,173), psychologist William McGuire suggests that human attitude change may be broken down into at least five steps or levels: attention, comprehension, yielding, retention, and action. The hearer must “go through each of these steps if communication is to have ultimate persuasive impact,” he says, “and each depends on the occurrence of the preceding steps. The traditional approach to homiletics seems to suggest that the goal of preaching is the third step, yielding; that is, the preacher’s goal is to induce the listener to yield to (and ultimately to act upon) a particular value, attitude, or belief. I suggest that the preacher’s goal should not be viewed as the yielding step at all but simply the previous step, comprehension.

Someone might protest that this makes preaching merely a sterile intellectual exercise; but to say that is to miss the point. Certainly the preacher must deal with the whole man, including his emotions. My point is that the goal of preaching should be so to present the Gospel that the listener comprehends, sees, is grasped by the issues involved. This may well include and even require the use of “emotional appeals,” but those appeals will be directed toward helping the listener to comprehend, not toward inducing him to yield. Technique has a valid role in inducing comprehension but should not be used by the preacher to induce yielding.

Preaching must always be a fork-in-the-road experience for the listener. He must be so clearly and powerfully confronted with the truth that he cannot evade or ignore it. Comprehension is pressed upon him and he is forced to make a decision. But the decision is his to make, a matter between him and the Holy Spirit. The preacher has shown him the choice; now he is forced to decide, to accept or reject.

What the preacher must not do is use the many techniques available to him to shuttle the listener down one road instead of the other, even though he deeply wants the listener to choose that way. To do so is to violate the listener’s freedom by manipulating him; but worse, it is to shoulder an intolerable burden, one that belongs only to the Holy spirit It is to take upon oneself the responsibility of getting results.

26 March 2018

Rajneeshies: 30+ years Later

Michael Langone

During the past week I’ve been watching Netflix’s 6-part documentary on Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, “Wild Wild Country” - https://www.netflix.com/title/80145240. The series is directed by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, with brothers Jay and Mark Duplass the executive producers.

Usually, I’m disappointed by media portrayals of cults. “Wild Wild Country,” however, is worth watching, even though it recounts events that happened more than 30 years ago.

The series focuses on the establishment and eventual abandonment of the commune, Rajneeshpuram – 1981 - 1985. You can get background information and detailed histories in the following articles:

The directors have been accused of being “too balanced” by some. However, except for the directors’ neglect of the families who suffered while loved ones followed the Bhagwan, I must commend them for that balance. During the 1980s, I was aware of the controversies surrounding Rajneeshpuram and the critical reports of families and former members. This series gave me a bit of insight into the thinking and experiences of Bhagwan’s followers, including leading followers who remain loyal to this day. Osho International carries on the teachings of the Bhagwan.

In the long American tradition of Utopian communities, Rajneesh and his followers bought one of the largest ranches in Oregon, near the tiny town of Antelope, to establish a city where the “new humanity” could have a foothold. Within a few years thousands of people lived in Rajneeshpuram, as the city was called.

Rajneesh was known for his low opinion of marriage and extolling of sexual freedom. Even before Rajneeshpuram had been established, many people enamored of the human potential movement and the experimentation Rajneesh encouraged had become his followers.

The followers of the “free love guru” disturbed the conservative, mostly elderly citizens of Antelope. The film’s depiction of the escalation of an initial discomfort to an intense, mutual antagonism is an understated illustration of what sociologists call “deviance amplification.”

The film focuses on Ma Anand Sheela, Rajneesh’s lieutenant, because she ran the commune and was its most visible public spokesperson. As the deviance amplification proceeded, Sheela increased her control over the commune and her hostility toward the authorities and people who stood in the way of realizing Rajneesh’s vision for his city. Before the commune’s demise, it had accumulated more weaponry than all the police forces in the state of Oregon. Hundreds of citizens of Wasco County fell ill due to salmonella poisoning initiated by Rajneeshees, presumably in a dry-run of a plan to take over the county government by reducing their opponents’ turnout. And murders were attempted or planned, though none succeeded.

Though most of the commune’s residents seemed to be “happy hippies,” those who came close to Sheela’s orbit sensed the police state mentality she had created. As with other groups, there were levels of involvement, with the cultic dynamics most conspicuous at the inner levels.

Eventually, Sheela had a falling out with Rajneesh, who had become, in Sheela’s opinion, too enamored of minor Hollywood celebrities in the commune. Without warning, she left with her “gang.” An enraged Rajneesh broke a silence he had kept for more than 3 years and blew the whistle on Sheela’s crimes. Rajneesh’s vitriolic charges, ironically, gave the authorities the leverage they needed to obtain search warrants. Massive raids ensued. Charges were filed. Rajneesh was arrested for immigration fraud, made a deal, and returned to India, pledging never to come to the U.S. again. (He died in 1990.) Sheela and two of her former staff were arrested and served several years in jail.

The communal experiment failed. But Rajneesh’s teachings live on.

In prior writings I have talked about three models of conversion: the deliberative (characterized by what people THINK about a group environment), the psychodynamic (characterized by what the environment does FOR people, i.e., satisfies unconscious needs), and the thought reform (characterized by what the environment DOES TO people, i.e., manipulation and deceit). I argue that all three models apply to varying degrees in all group affiliations.

Watching “Wild Wild Country” made me think about the psychodynamic and deliberative appeals of Rajneesh and his teachings.

Though I don’t doubt that some people manipulated friends, family, and acquaintances into trying out Rajneesh, I suspect that most people came to Rajneesh because they liked what he said.

Many of the Rajneeshees interviewed for this series seemed to be genuinely happy. But they were happy like kids having a good time at camp. I thought to myself, “They are friendly, smiling narcissists.” Enlightenment is the goal. Self is the constant focus. This is so even when, paradoxically, the tactic at hand is to abandon self, for abandoning self may result in self-realization. Always “self.”

Rajneesh differed from most religious leaders because he encouraged a hedonistic attitude toward life. Rajneesh said: “Enjoy yourself. Make love. Don’t be burdened by responsibility or guilt. Have fun!” His was the kind of spirituality that appealed to a “me generation,” a spiritualized narcissism.

The “love” so many followers obviously felt for Rajneesh was, I think, a combination of the deep human need to connect to “the one” (savior, king, hero, president, tribal chief) and gratitude. I think some followers were thankful because Rajneesh’s dynamic meditation, for whatever reason, freed them from painful memories. Other followers, perhaps a majority, were thankful because he gave them permission – stamped with the spiritual authority of a god man – to pursue pleasure without considering alternatives or consequences.

I flash on one of the ending scenes of the hilarious movie, “Animal House.” A boy (about 13) is lying on his bed reading Playboy, unaware of the bedlam occurring outside. Suddenly a scantily clad young woman comes flying through his window and lands on his bed. The boy’s face lights up in the brightest smile. He looks upward and exclaims: “Thank you, God!”

For a while, Rajneeshpuram was full of happy campers, who made love, sang songs, and exclaimed, “Thank you, Bhagwan!”

In the long run, however, reality always wins, and spiritualized narcissism ultimately loses.

17 March 2018

Addendum, 3/29/18.

Dr. Lisa Oakley, co-author of the study described below sent us a link to a graphically attractive summary of this research.

Spiritual abuse: study suggests two-thirds of Christians could be victims

Church times


07 JANUARY 2018

TWO-THIRDS of respondents to an online survey said that they had been spiritually abused, a study has revealed.

Academics from Bournemouth University, who carried out the survey on behalf of the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS), a safeguarding charity, received 1591 responses from Christians, 1002 of whom said that they had personally experienced spiritual abuse.

Caution has been expressed about the figures in the survey, whose results form part of the report Understanding Spiritual Abuse in Christian Communities, published on Sunday. A co-author, Justin Humphreys, executive director of safeguarding at CCPAS, said: “Yes, the results are significant, as [being spiritually abused] was not a prerequisite for participation. Having said this, in some ways it is not surprising, as many will have taken this as an opportunity to share their story in anonymous form, possibly for the first time.”

The study also acknowledges that definitions of spiritual abuse are not clear cut, and suggests that this lack of clarity may be a significant barrier to responding appropriately to its victims within the Church.

“Existing work around this experience (which is characterised by a systematic pattern of controlling and coercive behaviour in a religious context) is still in its infancy, to the extent that there is no currently universal agreement about this as a term,” it says.

“There is some discussion about it being categorised as a form of emotional and/or psychological abuse. However, to date, spiritual abuse is the most commonly used term and therefore the one that is used here.”

Of all respondents to the survey, 72 per cent said that they were “confident” that they knew what the term spiritual abuse meant, however. “Key characteristics of spiritual abuse identified were coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring of individuals, control through the misuse of religious texts and scripture and providing a ‘divine’ rationale for behaviour,” the study says.

Mr Humphreys later told Radio 4’s Sunday programme: “We have some definitions that have been in circulation for quite some time. Ours indeed has evolved over time . . . but there is still a need to address the issue, to find a clearer definition that seems to be most appropriate and most encompassing for those who experience it.”

CCPAS promoted the online survey through social media and on other platforms, and through supporter databases, last January. “The respondents were self-selecting and just needed to be interested in the topic area,” Mr Humphreys explained.

“It was very clear, as per the ethics approval [by Bournemouth University], that respondents did not need to regard themselves as victims or survivors of spiritual abuse and that they would not be asked to share their story if they were (although some did).”

Most respondents (69 per cent) were men from Anglican, Baptist, Independent, and Pentecostal traditions, with a handful of Roman Catholics and Methodists. About 17 per cent were Quakers.

But, while 62 per cent were confident that they could respond effectively to a disclosure of spiritual abuse, with understanding and empathy, most said that clearer policies were needed in Churches and Christian organisations.

The study continues: “A key message was that leaders can and do experience spiritual abuse from those they are leading, and this experience needs to be recognised and responded to.”

Another co-author, Dr Lisa Oakley, from the national centre for post-qualifying social work, at Bournemouth University, said: “Any work in this area needs to ensure there is recognition that this behaviour can and is experienced by leaders as well as congregational members. These are complex issues and more work is needed in this area to reach better understanding for all concerned.”

One third of respondents stated that their church or Christian organisation had a policy that included spiritual abuse, and two-thirds said that they knew where to go to find help or support. But only one quarter of respondents had received any training on the topic of spiritual abuse.

The study concludes that clearer policies and greater understanding of the characteristics of spiritual abuse are needed, and that better training should be given to church leaders on the subject.

Mr Humphreys said: “Growing awareness around this issue has meant it is now being recognised; but defining what it is and what it isn’t needs further careful and considered work to be done.

“We owe this to those that have suffered spiritual abuse, and we owe it to those involved in the wider Christian community to work constructively towards creating safer places for all.”

The Church’s response to spiritual abuse has long been the subject of debate. Correspondence in the Church Times in 2013 suggested that spiritual abuse was not being properly addressed in the Church of England (Letters, 1 November 2013).

The Vicar of St Michael-in-the-Hamlet and Christ Church, Toxteth Park, Liverpool, then City Missioner in the diocese, the Revd Keith Hitchman, wrote: “In 2010, I made a formal complaint to my then diocesan bishop concerning spiritual manipulation suffered by a close relative of mine, which had caused untold sorrow for this person and the wider family. Aside from the predictable platitudes, I was largely ignored.”



8 March 2018

We’ve recently added “The Dangers of Spiritual Abuse: Clinical Implications and Best Practices,” by Cyndi Matthews and Kevin Snow. Reprinted with permission from Interaction, the newsletter of Association for Spiritual, Ethical, & Religious Values in Counseling (ASERVIC), a branch of American Counseling Association.

Go here to view the article: https://sites.google.com/spiritualabuseresources.com/www/articles/the-dangers-of-spiritual-abuse-clinical-implications-and-best-practices

23 February 2018

Pink Slip From Billy Graham!

Kenneth Garrett, DMin

Pastor, Grace Church, Portland, Oregon

I wasn’t surprised by the letter, but as I held it in my hands, my stomach tightened. It read, “Regretfully, in light of the recent decision of the Pastor’s Committee regarding the participation of your church in the Crusade, we are sad to inform you that you are not eligible to serve as a counselor for the Billy Graham Crusade. . . we certainly hope that the Christian Life and Witness Classes will be of benefit to you in your personal life in the days ahead.”

They didn’t want me, because they didn’t want my church. The small committee of pastors who were leading Portland, Oregon’s efforts to prepare for an upcoming Billy Graham crusade had determined that our little church was no longer welcome to volunteer to serve in the crusade. Who gets kicked out of a Billy Graham crusade?! As a co-worker remarked several years later, “Wow. That’s really a trip, Kenny. Nobody gets a pink slip from Billy Graham! But you did—you should save that.”

A pink slip is a notice of dismissal from a job, and I had received one from one of the most tolerant, welcoming Christian organizations on earth. Throughout his long, illustrious ministry, religious and denominational leaders had often criticized Reverend Graham for his policy of inviting Christians from all denominational and doctrinal backgrounds to join him as he sought to bring the citizens of their cities to the Christian faith in his Crusades. The distinctions and distrust between Catholics and Protestants, Pentecostals and Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists, conservatives and liberals were simply neither acknowledged (at least not openly), nor allowed to become a barrier to participation in the city-wide crusades that had made Billy Graham one of the most popular, recognized figures around the globe. Many Christians volunteered their time, dollars, and energy into creating a successful Crusade. Nobody gets a pink slip from Billy Graham.

Preparations began years before Graham arrived in the city for a series of large, public events that would fill arenas. After the he left town, the genuine hope of all churches was that some of those who responded to his preaching would convert to Christianity and join a church. I don’t think any churches ever exploded with growth after a Billy Graham crusade—and I never sensed that churches were depending on their involvement with Graham to significantly increase their numbers, but they could always hope.

My small, fundamentalist, bible church was no different. Upon hearing of the plans for the 1992 Portland Crusade, our pastor shifted our church of 40 members into high gear. We met regularly to pray for the crusade’s success and attended workshops for training to help new Christians become established into the faith. We flooded the local crusade office with offers to volunteer to answer phones, stuff envelopes, and empty waste baskets.

How strange it must have seemed to the crusade office managers to see members show up early, work long hours, and return the next day for more of the same. They might have wondered, Do these people have lives? What about their kids, their jobs, their schedules. . . the rest of their lives? They didn’t realize that we were perfectly suited to make such all-encompassing, consuming commitments to volunteering for the crusade—because we were members of a high-control, cult-like church that demanded that level of commitment and sacrifice from all its members, all the time. After selling homes and cars, liquidating retirement funds and savings accounts, and giving our time exclusively to the programs, classes, and schedule of our little church—dropping the kids off with a babysitter and spending an eight-hour day answering phones or assembling mailers was a piece of cake.

But then, just a few months before the crusade, trouble came knocking.

The father of a former member of the church reported to the Pastor’s Committee that our pastor had attempted to seduce his daughter, a single-woman in her twenties. His daughter also told him of other young women in the church whom he had also approached. Phone calls were made, letters were exchanged, accusations denied (vehemently), victims were hated (by us), and our volunteers began to note a distinct chill in the air at the crusade office.

I don’t recall if we requested a meeting with the committee, or the committee requested a meeting with us, but a meeting was scheduled. I didn’t think it strange at the time that our pastor demanded that he, his associate pastor, his brother, and his deacons (of which I was one) all be included in the meeting, but that was his demand, despite the committee’s desire that he meet alone with them to address the allegations. So, there we were, the leadership team of our little church striding into the crusade office to meet with the committee. The dark suits we all wore that warm June day were very uncomfortable and given the jeans and business-casual nature of the Pastor’s Committee, were out of place. I suppose our pastor thought such a presentation was a type of show of force.

The meeting was awkward, forced, and very uncomfortable. It seemed clear to me that the committee members did not want to discuss specific allegations about our pastor in front of those of us he’d brought to the meeting. Our point was that the Pastor’s Committee had not followed the biblical direction for confronting a fellow believer whom one suspected of sin. They should have privately contacted the pastor, we argued. They should have ensured that not a whisper of scandal was allowed in the office. Our pastor had been wronged, and so we were wronged. His reputation and good standing in the community was under attack by religious professionals, and—worst of all—they refused to divulge just who it was that had lodged the complaint. We felt it was a matter of fairness that the identity of our pastor’s accuser be made known—and that they confront him openly, along with his accuser. So, we sat through the meeting, which lasted all of a half-hour or so. There was no conclusion, no decision, no next step, etc., just a goodbye, thanks for coming in, we’ll be in touch.

A very strange thing happened to me in the moments after the meeting. As we were leaving the meeting room, one of the committee members, the pastor of a large church in Portland, pulled me aside. He was a very soft-spoken man, and very kind. No one noticed that he’d singled me out, and the office around us appeared to me to become very still and quiet. He shook my hand, looked deeply into my eyes, and said, “Ken, I really like your spirit. I appreciate your heart. Thank you for coming in.” He paused. “You’re a good guy, Ken.” Then, the room became animated again—we were walking out of the meeting, typists were typing (it was 1992!), papers were being shuffled, and phones were ringing. We walked out of the building into the summer heat and drove home to the large house where several of us lived communally with the pastor.

Most of the church members were waiting for us—eager to hear of how the meeting went, what they said, and what we said, and what the conclusion of the whole affair might be. They had gathered for prayer during the time of the meeting. Would our pastor be vindicated? Would the committee see that he’d been set up, that the devil was doubtlessly attacking our little, faithful church, to thwart the goals and hard work that had gone into making the crusade a success? Would these pastors and seminary professors see the obvious attack on our pastor, by a disgruntled ex-member!? We reported back to our church our recollection of the meeting, making ourselves sound very much in control and full of confidence. We presented the committee as less-than-knowledgeable, and even a bit intimidated by our bearing, our comments, and our dark suits.

Within days our pastor crafted a tome that rivaled any of the epistles of the New Testament and mailed it to the committee. In the letter he chided the committee members for their unbiblical approach to the issue, their slander against our pastor, and he reminded them of the great sacrifices of service being made by our volunteers in their office. It was quite a document; just biblical enough to dodge overt criticism, and angry and defensive enough to rebuke the committee. We all praised the pastor for the letter he’d written. I certainly joined in the applause. But deep down, I was a bit embarrassed by it. All in all, it was very defensive and seemed certain to further alienate our church from the crusade.

Within a week all our members who had volunteered for the coming crusade, each and every one, received a letter from the Pastor’s Committee, notifying us that we had been identified as belonging to a group of which grave allegations had been made, and that, while our support thus far was much appreciated, we were no longer welcome to volunteer for the crusade. We were fired from the most welcoming, ecumenical, big-tent ministry on the planet. All kinds of Christians were welcomed by the Billy Graham team, for goodness sakes! Not us, however.

The expulsion of our church had a very profound effect on our church, and on me. As a church, the pink slip was jolting. We knew we were a bit out there, that we were more demanding than other churches, but never dreamed we stood out that much! The letter also ushered in a deeper level of sadness regarding our church. Many of our members, myself included, hoped that the crusade, and the new members that we hoped would join our church because of the crusade, would lead us out of the past few years of isolation and discouragement. Rumors and reports were running through the church of our pastor’s forays into drinking, drug use, and questionable contact with both single and married women in the church. While these accounts were vehemently denied by the pastor and his friends and family, the stories were out there and didn’t seem very hard to believe. After the committee’s decision to exclude our church from the crusade, he withdrew further into what became his addiction to opioids and alcohol and seemed more flagrant in his abusive behaviors. Many in the church also gave up and followed him of the moral cliff he’d led them to.

I think he was relieved by the pink slip. It temporarily brought relief from the fear of the exposure of his secret crimes. Besides the adultery, drunkenness, strong-arming members for money, running rough-shod over the church and making everyone generally miserable, he had been molesting young girls, the daughters of church members. He is now in the Oregon State Prison serving a twenty-year sentence.

For me, the pink slip had a profound effect, and it marks the time when I began to experience an inner deliberation to leave the church. When I was, in effect, fired by Billy Graham, I was ashamed and embarrassed. My dream of one day becoming pastor of a church evaporated. I abandoned all such hopes.

I did attend one of the crusade services one warm evening when it came to town that summer. My 9-year old daughter and I stood in a high-school football field, the overflow location for the nearby stadium, watching Billy Graham on a huge screen put up in an end-zone. It was surreal—having envisioned myself as serving a part in the crusade, angsts all resolved, life cleaned up, leading a bible study, or going to seminary, or preaching—but instead, there I stood, dazed, in a field, watching the whole show go on without me on a screen.

But then, I remembered what happened after the committee meeting, in the hallway when that pastor stopped me to speak to me, and the whole world around us seemed to be thrust into suspended animation.

“Ken, I really like your spirit. I appreciate your heart. Thank you for coming in. You’re a good guy, Ken.”

As I reflected, tiny seeds of doubt and confirmation planted by that pastor and the pink slip I’d received began to send out some tiny roots into my soul. By that time, I knew that our pastor was certainly guilty of all he’d been accused of by his unidentified victim. I knew he was a cad, an abusive, addicted, self-absorbed man. But, who was I? Where did I fit into the whole mess?

Ken, I really like your spirit.

I began, increasingly, to view myself as outside the church. I was present there physically, but emotionally and psychologically the train had left the station, carrying me far away from the church that functioned as a cult. Once I began to think like that, it was only a matter of time before my wife, our children, and I walked out the door and into a life of spiritual and physical health and joyous freedom.

Churches that abuse their members create an atmosphere that is toxic and smothering to the point that their members fear leaving yet hate staying. The control and the countless emotional hooks paralyze members until they start down that mental path of simply imagining life outside the church, away from the abuse.

That’s what I began to imagine, and in a short time, my imagination guided my thinking and planning and even gave me courage to walk out the door. Before he even arrived in Portland, Billy Graham played a part in my departure from the abusive church.

“Whoa, that’s really a trip, Kenny. Nobody gets a pink slip from Billy Graham! But you did—you should save that.”

Well, it was a trip. And I certainly don’t know of anyone else in the world who’s been turned away from volunteering at a Billy Graham Crusade. And I did keep the letter, a pink slip to be grateful for.

7 February 2018

Kenneth Garrett, DMin, Pastor, Grace Church, Portland, Oregon, completed a dissertation for Western Seminary in Portland in April 2017. The dissertation is entitled, Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery. SAR has linked to this interesting dissertation on SAR’s research page: http://www.spiritualabuseresources.com/research Pasted below are the abstract and table of contents to give you an idea of the scope of this work.


The theme of this project is spiritual abuse. For this project, spiritual abuse is defined as the use of deception, manipulation, and undue influence by a pastor or leader over a member of a church or Christian organization in order to appropriate the member’s material, physical, or emotional resources. The purpose of this study is to introduce the reader to the existence, characteristics, and leaders of spiritually abusive churches. Select biblical examples of spiritual abuse, Christian and secular academic sources, and a description of the basic personality types of spiritually abusive pastors, their churches, and their victims are presented. A description of both healthy churches and healthy pastors is provided, along with suggestions for how churches and pastors can prepare themselves to effectively care for survivors of spiritual abuse. The appendix includes an exegetical sermon on spiritual abuse from the book of Jude. An extended bibliographical list is provided for further reading on the subject of spiritual abuse, thought reform, and the development of a healthy pastoral theology relating to the care of spiritual abuse survivors.

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations .............................................................................................ix

Abstract ............................................................................................................... x

Prologue: A House of Mirrors ............................................................................... 1

Introduction .......................................................................................................... 6

Research Methodology ........................................................................................ 7

Overview of the Project ................................................................................8

Definitions ..................................................................................................11

Assumptions ...............................................................................................13

Limitations ..................................................................................................14

Importance of the Project ...........................................................................15

Summary ....................................................................................................15

Chapter 1 - Cults and Churches . . . ................................................................... 17

Cults in America ........................................................................................ 17

What Shall We Call a Church That Hurts People? .....................................24

Chapter 2 - Spiritual Abuse in the Bible .............................................................. 30

Examples of Spiritual Abuse from the Old Testament ................................30

Examples of Spiritual Abuse from the New Testament ...............................36

Chapter 3 - The Psyche and Speech of the Abusive LEADER ........................... 50

The Psyche of the Abusive Pastor ............................................................. 52

The Speech of the Abusive Pastor ............................................................ 57

Chapter 4 - The Members of the Spiritually Abusive Church .............................. 63

Who would ever join an abusive church?! .................................................. 63

Me, the Totalist ........................................................................................... 65

Chapter 5 - Eight Indicators of Churches that Abuse .......................................... 77

Deception: What is received is not what was promised .............................. 78

Loss: The abusive church demands more, of everything ............................ 85

Isolation: The abusive church separates members from family and friends .91

Elitism: The prevailing notion of superiority ................................................. 96

Group-speak: The unique language of each abusive church .................... 100

Fear: Dread of failing to please the abusive leaders ..................................105

Disclosure: Confession as a church requirement ...................................... 108

Trauma: Leaving is painful and costly ....................................................... 115

Chapter 6 - Why do people leave Abusive Churches? ....................................... 125

Time Away from the Church .......................................................................126

Unsanctioned Friendships ......................................................................... 129

Discovery of Ideological Shortcomings ...................................................... 131

Disillusionment with Leaders ..................................................................... 133

What Happened?! ...................................................................................... 136

Chapter 7 - When the Walking Wounded Walk into our Churches ..................... 139

Re-entry Wounds ....................................................................................... 142

Psychological Wounds ............................................................................... 145

Spiritual Wounds ........................................................................................ 154

Marriage Wounds ....................................................................................... 155

Parenting Wounds ...................................................................................... 157

Economic Wounds ...................................................................................... 161

Educational and Professional Wounds ....................................................... 161

Chapter 8 - Safe Pastors, Safe Churches ............................................................164

The Pastor as a Safe Shepherd ................................................................. 164

Safe Churches are Honest ......................................................................... 178

Chapter 9 - Putting It All Together .......................................................................189

For Friends and Family .............................................................................. 190

For Church Members ................................................................................. 194

For Pastors and Church Leaders ............................................................... 197

Epilogue: Healing...not yet healed ...............................................................200

Appendix ..............................................................................................................203

Sample Exegetical sermon: Jude .........................................................................203

Exegetical Study of Jude—Facing Off with Spiritual Abusers ..................... 203

The Fingerprints of Spiritual Abusers, 1-4 ................................................... 204

The Ancestors of Abusive Religious Leaders, 5-7 ....................................... 208

The False Teacher’s Rejection of Spiritual Authority, 8-9 ........................... 213

The Self-Destructiveness of the False Teacher, 10 .................................... 215

Woe to Three Types of Wolves, 11 ............................................................. 217

Five Snapshots of the Abusive Leader, 12-13 ............................................. 220

The Certain Judgment of the False Teacher, 14-15 .................................... 223

The Speech of the False Teacher, 16 ......................................................... 225

Healing From Spiritual Abuse, 17-25 .......................................................... 227

Bibliography ..........................................................................................................235

7 January 2018

UK Research Study

We have learned of an interesting research study. The summary below comes from the authors of the study.

Understanding Spiritual Abuse in Christian Communities

Dr. Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys

There is growing awareness and interest in spiritual abuse in faith communities as a subject (Oakley, 2016). Existing work around this experience (which is characterised by a systematic pattern of controlling and coercive behaviour in a religious context), is still in its infancy, to the extent that there is not currently universal agreement about this as a term. There is some discussion about it being categorised as a form of emotional and/or psychological abuse, however, to date spiritual abuse is the most commonly used term and therefore the one that is used here.

What is clear, is that there is a distinct lack of research available on this subject in the UK, which is why this new research is being undertaken to respond to that need. With it, we seek to investigate current levels of knowledge and awareness of spiritual abuse in the Christian faith in the UK, to provide evidence to inform our understanding, and to develop effective responses, policy and practice.

This research builds on two earlier pieces of work in this area (both of which obtained ethical approval from Manchester Metropolitan university). The first comprised of narrative interviews with survivors of spiritual abuse to ascertain the main characteristics of this experience (Oakley, 2009). The second was the ‘Church experience survey’ (Oakley & Kinmond, 2013; 2014) which explored experiences of attending Church and included some discussion of spiritual abuse in the Christian faith community.

A mixed methods approach (Cresswell & Plano Clark, 2007) has been used to collect both qualitative and quantitative data via a questionnaire which consisted of closed and open questions. For respondents to be included they needed to be from the Christian faith and attend Church or belong to a Christian organisation. To answer the questionnaire participants needed to have heard of the term ‘spiritual abuse’.

The questions did not ask individuals to disclose their personal stories of spiritual abuse, although some respondents did incorporate their personal accounts into their answers. The section given to effective response was only available to those who identified themselves as having experienced spiritual abuse. As wide a range of respondents were invited to participate as possible. The research gained ethical approval from the Bournemouth University social sciences ethic committee in December 2016 and the survey was live for eight weeks from 30/1/17 to 30/3/17.

This research was commissioned by CCPAS (Churches Child Protection Advisory Service), the UK’s only independent Christian safeguarding charity. It is led by Dr Lisa Oakley from the National Centre for Post Qualifying Social Work at Bournemouth University. Who has completed the survey? In total 1,591 people completed the on-line survey. The results show that of these 1,002 identified as having experienced spiritual abuse themselves. (It should be noted that this was a self-identified sample and therefore cannot be verified). 69% of the total sample were female and 31% male There was representation from across the age range but the majority were aged between 30-69 years. Respondents came from a spectrum of denominational backgrounds, however, the majority were from the Anglican, Baptist, Independent and Pentecostal traditions. The category of ‘other’ is quite significant at 17.85%, with the majority of respondents in this category identified as Quakers. It should be noted that the numbers of respondents from Catholic and Methodist denominations were low and this should be taken into account when interpreting the results.

Among the findings:

  • 74% of respondents were confident they knew what the term spiritual abuse meant.
  • Key characteristics of spiritual abuse identified were coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring of individuals, control through the misuse of religious texts and scripture and providing a ‘divine’ rationale for behaviour.
  • The results show that there is a need for a clear definition of spiritual abuse and that defining this term is complex.
  • A key message was that leaders can and do experience spiritual abuse from those they are leading, and this experience needs to be recognised and responded to.
  • Respondents noted the important role culture can play in coercive and controlling experiences and the need to consider the hallmarks of healthy cultures.
  • 64% of participants were confident that they could respond well to a disclosure of spiritual abuse.
  • Features of responding well to a disclosure include: active listening, understanding and empathy, taking the disclosure seriously, not minimising the story or blaming the individual.
  • Respondents stated the importance of developing clear policy and procedure in this area.
  • Only 33% of respondents stated their Church or Christian organisation had a policy that included spiritual abuse.
  • 60% of respondents suggested they knew where to go for help or support with this experience. Respondents suggested that Church leaders, CCPAS, Family and friends and statutory agencies could be effective sources of support.
  • Only 24% of respondents had received training on 24 spiritual abuse.
  • Respondents requested training which included: definition and identification of Spiritual Abuse, effective responses and support, and a consideration of culture.
  • The findings suggest leaders should receive training on this issue both to raise awareness but also to equip them to respond to disclosures and recognise this behaviour if they are experiencing it.
  • Some respondents in the survey identified themselves as counsellors and requested specific training on this issue.
  • Conclusions: The results illustrate the necessity to develop work in this area, specifically to develop understanding of this experience, how to respond effectively and how to develop healthy cultures.

Oakley & Humphreys (2018) Understanding Spiritual Abuse in Christian Communities. For more information on this publication contact:




© CCPAS 2017. www.ccpas.co.uk CCPAS PO Box 133, Swanley, Kent, BR8 7UQ. Charity No. 1004490 Scottish Charity No. SCO40578. Compnay No. 2646487

17 December 2017

A few of us were recently talking about the ways in which the Christian concept of hell is misused by spiritually abusive leaders in fringe Christian groups or cults.

Bob Pardon will give a talk on this subject at the 2018 ICSA Annual Conference: http://www.icsahome.com/events/conferenceannual Here is the abstract of his proposal:

The inculcation of fear is a control tactic that is commonly observed in cultic groups. Those that are ostensibly Christian will often use threats of hell as one means of instilling fear designed to strengthen leaders’ hold on group members. Though most mainstream Christians accept the concept of hell, cultic groups distort and misapply the concept. Frequently, those who leave cultic Christian groups can benefit by understanding how mainstream Christians conceive of hell and how cultic groups use hell as a control tactic. This talk will explore: (1) Historical and cultural contexts that may contribute to cultic formulations of hell (e.g., Dante’s Inferno, what we would today consider inhumane punishments for misdeeds). (2) Contemporary ideas about hell that are inconsistent with cultic views. (3) Cases of former cult members whose recovery involved a reevaluation of the views of hell that resulted from their group experience.

In the course of exploring this topic, Michael Langone came across an informative article on Christian concepts of hell in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heaven-hell/

Here are a few excerpts from this interesting article:

Clearly, then, we all encounter in our natural environment many threats to our immediate welfare and many obstacles, some of our own making and some not, to enduring happiness. The Christian interpretation of this human condition thus postulates an initial estrangement from God, and the Christian religion then offers a prescription for how we can be saved from such estrangement; it teaches in particular that God is at work reconciling “the world” to himself (see 2 Cor. 5:19). But Christians also disagree among themselves concerning the extent and ultimate success of God’s saving activity among human beings. Some believe that God will positively reject unrepentant sinners after a given deadline, typically thought of as the moment of physical death, and actively punish them forever after; others believe that God would never reject any of his own loved ones even though some of them may freely reject him forever, thereby placing themselves in a kind of self-created hell; and still others believe that God’s love will triumph in the end and will successfully reconcile to himself all of those whom he has loved into existence in the first place. ...

Behind the Augustinian understanding of hell lies a commitment to a retributive theory of punishment, according to which the primary purpose of punishment is to satisfy the demands of justice or, as some might say, to balance the scales of justice. And the Augustinian commitment to such a theory is hardly surprising. For based upon his interpretation of various New Testament texts, Augustine insisted that hell is a literal lake of fire in which the damned will experience the horror of everlasting torment; they will experience, that is, the unbearable physical pain of literally being burned forever. The primary purpose of such unending torment, according to Augustine, is not correction, or deterrence, or even the protection of the innocent; nor did he make any claim for it except that it is fully deserved and therefore just. As for how such torment could be even physically possible, Augustine insisted further that “by a miracle of their most omnipotent Creator, they [living creatures who are damned] can burn without being consumed, and suffer without dying” (City of God, Bk. 21, Ch. 9). Such is the metaphysics of hell, as Augustine understood it.

It would be unfair, however, to imply that all Augustinians, as classified above, accept Augustine’s own understanding of an eternal torture chamber. For many Augustinians view the agony of hell as essentially psychological and spiritual in nature, consisting of the knowledge that every possibility for joy and happiness has been lost forever. Hell, as they see it, is thus a condition in which self-loathing, hatred of others, hopelessness, and infinite despair consumes the soul like a metaphorical fire. ...

As these remarks illustrate, the Augustinian understanding of original sin implies that we are all born guilty of a heinous sin against God, and this inherited guilt relieves God of any responsibility for our spiritual welfare. In Augustine’s own words, “Now it is clear that the one sin originally inherited, even if it were the only one involved, makes men liable to condemnation” (Enchiridion, 50—italics added). Augustine thus concluded that God can save whomsoever he wills and also damn whomsoever he wills without committing any injustice at all. “Now, who but a fool,” he declared, “would think God unfair either when he imposes penal judgment on the deserving or when he shows mercy to the undeserving” (Enchiridion, 98). For the Augustinians, then, the bottom line is that, even as our Creator, God owes us nothing in our present condition because, thanks to original sin, we come into this earthly life already deserving nothing but everlasting punishment in hell as a just recompense for original sin.

Although this Augustinian rationale for the justice of hell has had a profound influence on the Western theological tradition, particularly in the past, critics of Augustinian theology, both ancient and contemporary, have raised a number of powerful objections to it. ...

Unlike the Augustinians, Arminian theologians emphasize the role that free will plays in determining one’s eternal destiny in heaven or hell; they also accept the so-called libertarian understanding of free will, according to which freedom and determinism are incompatible. Because not even an omnipotent being can causally determine a genuinely free choice, the reality of free will, they say, introduces into the universe an element that, from God’s perspective, is utterly random in that it lies outside of his direct causal control. Accordingly, if some person should freely act wrongly—or worse yet, freely reject God’s grace—in a given set of circumstances, then it was not within God’s power to induce this person to have freely acted otherwise, at least not in the exact same circumstances in which the person was left free to act wrongly. So in that sense, our human free choices, particularly the bad ones, are genuine obstacles that God must work around as he tries to bring his loving purposes to fruition. And this may suggest the further possibility that, with respect to some free persons, God cannot both preserve their freedom in relation to him and prevent them from continuing forever to reject him freely. As C. S. Lewis, an early 20th Century proponent of such a theodicy, once put it, “In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of … defeat. … I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside” (Lewis 1944, 115).

The basic idea here is that hell is essentially a freely embraced condition and the self-imposed misery it entails rather than a forcibly imposed punishment;[7] and because freedom and determinism are incompatible, the creation of free moral agents carries an inherent risk of ultimate tragedy. Whether essential to our personhood or not, free will is a precious gift, an expression of God’s love for us; and because the very love that seeks our salvation also respects our freedom, God will not prevent us from separating ourselves from him, even forever, if that is what we freely choose to do. So even though the perfectly loving God would never reject anyone, sinners can reject God and shut him out forever; they not only have the power as free agents to reject God for a season, during the time when they are mired in ambiguity and subject to illusion, but they are also able to cling forever to the illusions that make such rejection possible in the first place. ...

Theists who accept the traditional idea of everlasting punishment, or even the idea of an everlasting separation from God, must either reject the idea that God wills or desires to save all humans and thus desires to reconcile them all to himself (see proposition (1) in section 1 above) or reject the idea that God will successfully accomplish his will and satisfy his own desire in this matter (proposition (2)). But a theist who accepts proposition (1), as the Arminians do, and also accepts proposition (2), as the Augustinians do, can then reason deductively that almighty God will triumph in the end and successfully reconcile to himself each and every human being. From the perspective of an interpretation of the Christian Bible, moreover, Christian universalists need only accept the exegetical arguments of the Arminian theologians in support of (1) and the exegetical arguments of the Augustinian theologians in support of (2); that alone would enable them to build an exegetical case for a universalist interpretation of the Bible as a whole. ...

A widely held assumption among free–will theists is that no guarantee of universal reconciliation is even possible apart from God’s willingness to interfere with human freedom in those cases where someone persists in rejecting God and his grace. Indeed, Jonathan Kvanvig goes so far as to describe universalism as a “view, according to which God finally decides that if one has not freely chosen Heaven, there will come a time when one will be brought to Heaven against one’s will. One will experience, in this sense, coercive redemption at some point” (Kvanvig 2011, 14). But in fact, no universalist—not even a theological determinist—holds that God sometimes coerces people into heaven against their will. For although many Christian universalists believe that God provided Saul of Tarsus, for example, with certain revelatory experiences that changed his mind in the end and therefore changed his will as well, this is a far cry from claiming that he was coerced against his will. If God has middle knowledge, moreover, then that already establishes the possibility that God can bring about a universal reconciliation without in any way interfering with human freedom. ...

5. Heaven: Two Critical Issues

Rarely are theists very specific about what heaven will supposedly be like, and there are no doubt good reasons for that. For most theists, even those who believe in revelation, would deny that we have much information on this matter. But two issues have typically arisen in the relevant philosophical literature: first, whether the misery of loved ones in hell would undermine the blessedness of those in heaven, and second, whether immortality of any kind would ultimately lead to tedium, boredom, and an insipid life. ...

26 August 2017

In case you haven’t heard, ICSA is thrilled to announce that we have been approved by the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) to be an Approved Continuing Education Provider (ACEP). This means that ICSA will be able to develop and administer courses that offer mental health professionals continuing education (CE) credits. Of course, state licensing boards have the final say in what CE credits are acceptable.

Events That Offer CE Credits. The following events will offer CE hours for mental health professionals. International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) has been approved by NBCC as an Approved Continuing Education Provider, ACEP No. 6893. Programs that do not qualify for NBCC credit are clearly identified. ICSA is solely responsible for all aspects of the programs.

Understanding Abusive Spiritual Systems and Relationships. Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee; October 14, 2017. 6 CE hours for mental health professionals. More information.

IPS-ICSA Cult Recovery: Gaining Insight Into the Experience and Inner Life of Group Leaders, Members, and Concerned Families. Fort Lee, New Jersey; October 15, 2017. 6 CE hours for mental health professionals. More information.

High-Control Groups: Helping Former Members and Families. Santa Fe, New Mexico; November 3–5, 2017. 10.5 CE hours available for mental health professionals. More information.

Call for Papers. 2018 ICSA Annual Conference: The global challenge of young people born, raised, or recruited into extremist groups, abusive religious organizations, or coercive/exploitative relationships, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; July 5–7, 2017. More information.

ICSA will begin “ICSA Conversations” in New York City next month. ICSA Conversations are 20 – 30 minute talks followed by an hour or more of discussion. We hope to organize ICSA Conversations in different cities so as to enhance local ICSA networks. We are testing the concept in NY.

If you have ideas for topics, particularly those related to spiritual abuse, and/or if you would like to help organize ICSA Conversations in your area, please contact us: mail@icsamail.com.

Rod Dubrow-Marshall and Linda Dubrow-Marshall report, “we are very pleased to announce that we have designed a new MSc Psychology of Coercive Control programme at the University of Salford, Greater Manchester, England, UK which will begin in September 2017. This course covers coercive and controlling behavior in relationships, families, groups (including sects), gangs, and in human trafficking. Individual modules can be taken, and there is also the option for a Postgraduate Diploma and Postgraduate Certificate. Information about applying for this programme.

Gregory Sammons and Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center will hold a 3-day educational course in Portland, Oregon; the course is titled Understanding Manipulation, Influence, and Coercion for Survivors, Friends, Family, and Parishioners.

Vennie Kocsis reports that she now has a “syndicated radio show which will be called Survivor Voices…. The station has a listening base in the millions and is governed by the FCC. I will be on every other Friday starting 8/25 from 6–8 EST. The page to follow on Facebook to listen in live or on archives is fb.com/SurvivorVoicesShow.”

We are planning several local conferences with a focus on spiritual abuse in Indianapolis, Seattle, Orlando, and Boston. If you have ideas for topics/speakers or if you would like to help organize other local conferences, please contact us: mail@icsamail.com

We have put together a booklet to serve as a resource for spiritual abuse conferences. You’ll find a PDF of the booklet here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B4dmoPK1tYNjUVBSbmFyOHZabGM/view?usp=sharing

We can send you copies of this booklet for cost plus postage approximately. Let us know if you are interested in receiving any: mail@icsamail.com.

15 July 2017

SAR advisor Steve Martin told us about some interesting news programs. Steve wrote to us:

Did you see the 60 Minutes program last Sunday July 2nd? It’s about a young man who was recruited into ISIS, and a man who does preventive education. Here’s the link to the program on their website. It’s the one called “In God’s name.” http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/in-gods-name-2

There’s also more in the 60 Minutes Overtime episode called “Somali Americans: Searching for identity, finding ISIS.” http://www.cbsnews.com/60-minutes/overtime

Another program of interest was aired on a daily NPR program called Fresh Air. The July 6 episode interviewed a Muslim who had bipolar disorder and was told that this was his fault and he had this problem because he was not a good Muslim: http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air

Related to this last item is a new and interest website on spiritual abuse in Islam: http://inshaykhsclothing.com/ This site includes an introduction to spiritual abuse, accounts of spiritual abuse, a section on narcissism, and a blog.

23 May 2017

We have consolidated recommendations from previous SAR E-News issues to create a sexual abuse section on the pastors' readings page of spiritualabuseresources.com.

25 April 2017

This past weekend (April 21-22, 2017) ICSA conducted a conference in Fort Myers, Florida: Recovery From Spiritual Abuse.

The program included the following sessions:

  • The Varieties of Abuse (Michael Langone)
  • Repressed and Distressed: Seventeen Years of Emotional Abuse in The Way International (Charlene Edge)
  • Living on the Edge: My Fringe Church Experiences (Maureen Griffo)
  • Coping with Triggers (Maureen Griffo)
  • How to Benefit from Counseling (Ron Burks)
  • Spiritual Issues in Counseling (Robert and Judy Pardon)
  • Making Churches Safe Havens for Spiritual Abuse Victims (Ron Burks; Robert and Judy Pardon)
  • Spiritual Abuse Victims Dialogue With Religious and Mental Health Professionals (Ron Burks; Charlene Edge; Maureen Griffo; Michael Langone; Judy Pardon; Robert Pardon)

The speakers - to whom we are indebted for their continued dedication to the cause of helping victims of psychological manipulation, cults, and spiritual abuse – gave thoughtful presentations. The attendees’ participation made for lively and interesting discussions. Because nearly all of the 34 attendees remained to the very end of the conference, we can conclude that this was indeed a good conference.

As promised, we’ve posted the Power Points in a Google folder, which you can access here.

Though Maureen Griffo did not use Power Points, the content of Carol Giambalvo’s talk on triggers (which Maureen gave for Carol, who could not make the conference) is here.

Thanks to Bob Pardon, we have videos of all the talks, except for his and Judy’s talk on spiritually safe churches (which didn’t film because of a technical issue). We intend to post these on ICSA’s YouTube channel soon.

We hope to see you at future ICSA conferences.

3 March 2017

The Rev. Pamela Cooper-White, PhD, Christiane Brooks Johnson Professor of Psychology and Religion of Union Theological Seminary, sent us additional resources on clergy sexual abuse.

Her book, The Cry of Tamar, 2nd edition (2012), contains a chapter, "Sexual Abuse by Clergy," that has become a standard textbook resource for dealing with sexual abuse and exploitation of congregation members by religious leaders.

Her Declaration as an expert witness in the case of Plaintiff v. Ananda Church of Self Realization (1996) is still online.

Her article, “Soul Stealing: Power Relations in Pastoral Sexual Abuse,” was originally published in The Christian Century (February 20, 1991). The article has been posted in various places online, including the Ananda Awareness Network. Here are a few excerpts:

My own observations are based on working more than ten years in the battered women's movement, in the church since 1984 as an ordained pastor, and since August 1989 as a consultant in a program for survivors of clergy exploitation. In convening a support group for such survivors, I have witnessed the lasting devastations that these women have experienced. The many parallels between male pastoral sexual abuse and wife or partner battering have become increasingly clear, especially as the church is so often portrayed as family. (I agree with Fortune that we should be de-emphasizing the image of church as family in favor of images of community, in which boundary expectations are more clearly defined.)…

Pastoral abuse-pastors engaging in sexual or romantic relationships with their parishioners or counsels--is much more prevalent than is commonly supposed. Estimates exceed the 10 percent figure Rutter ascribes to male psychotherapists….

The clergy role carries a great deal of power in and of itself, and one of the most insidious aspects of that power is the role of "man of God." In some sense the minister carries ultimate spiritual authority, particularly in the eyes of a trusting parishioner who looks to him for spiritual guidance and support. But the male minister also possesses other forms of power: as a man, he carries the power society confers upon men and socializes them to hold over women, often in the guise of being their protectors. He is often physically stronger and more imposing. He may be an employer. He may also assume a teaching or mentoring role which encourages women to listen to his advice and correction. Often he also functions as a counselor, with all the transference inherent in such a relationship….

Many woman neither stop nor report pastoral abuse, for several reasons. First, they usually feel responsible. But as Fortune has written, even if a woman initiated the sexual contact out of her own need or vulnerability, the pastor, like a therapist, has the responsibility to maintain the appropriate boundary. It was not her fault. Society blames women for attracting men--rape survivors usually feel that they are the ones on trial. "She must have done something to provoke it." This is further compounded by myths and stereotypes portraying male pastors as sitting ducks for the seductive maneuvers of female parishioners….

Once a certain determination to think about leaving has taken hold in her, however, fear keeps her stuck. She fears that no one will believe her when it's her word against his. She fears that she will be the one held responsible. She fears losing her church, community, her personal reputation and, if she is employed by the church, her professional reputation. She fears his retaliation-- sometimes within the sphere of personal and church life, but also sometimes in the form of physical violence, rape, or threats of violence.

Most chilling, she fears his retaliation on the spiritual level. This aspect became increasingly clear to me in work with the survivors' group. It is difficult for others to comprehend the sheer terror that accompanies this form of abuse. But often because of the image of charismatic spiritual power that these men have asserted and fostered. the women's terror is akin to actually being cursed or damned. Sometimes this kind of threat is made explicit by the abuser. Its power is clearly demonic in nature and intensity-victims fear that their very souls will be stolen….

We need nothing less than a total paradigm shift: we need to stop treating the problem as only one of sexual morality, emotional instability or addiction, and address the power dynamics of these mostly hidden abuses. Only when this happens and the church stops engaging in denial and collusion can the church be a place of authentic power, healing and proclamation for both women and men.

22 February 2017

We thank Gerard Webster, Psychoanalyst, Forensic & Counselling Psychologist and Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University, for telling us about a useful resource, which we have added to the SAR links page. The resource is:

Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

This Australian commission's website has links to many useful research reports, including: Analysis of claims of child sexual abuse made with respect to Catholic Church institutions; Safe and sound: Exploring the safety of young people in residential care; Principles of trauma-informed approaches to child sexual abuse: A discussion paper.

Gerard also recommended a book on the sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church: Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture. Marie Keenan. Amazon.com says about this book:

A meticulously researched inside look at child sexual abuse by clergy, this exhaustive, hard-hitting analysis weaves together interviews with abusive priests and church historical and administrative details to propose a new way of thinking about clerical sexual offenders. Linking the personal and the institutional, researcher and therapist Marie Keenan locates the problem of child sexual abuse not exclusively in individual pathology, but also within larger systemic factors, such as the very institution of priesthood itself, the Catholic take on sexuality, clerical culture, power relations, governance structures of the Catholic Church, the process of formation for priesthood and religious life, and the complex manner in which these factors coalesce to create serious institutional risks for boundary violations, including child sexual abuse. Keenan draws on the priests' own words not to excuse their horrific crimes, but to offer the first in-depth account of a tragic, multi-faceted phenomenon.

What emerges is a troubling portrait of a Church in crisis and a series of recommendations that call for nothing less than a new ecclesiology and a new, more critical theology. Only through radical institutional reform, Keenan argues, can a more representative and accountable Church emerge.

Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church is a unique reference for scholars of the Church and therapists who work with both victims and offenders, as well as a forward-thinking blueprint for reform.

Feel free to tell us about other useful resources pertinent to child sexual abuse in religious contexts. At some point we may be able to put together a collection of resources on this important subject.