“I grew up in a religious cult. It is difficult for me to use that word in print because it is inflammatory. I am aware that the word conjures up images of mass suicide, burning buildings, polygamy, and such. Those extremes are not part of my story, nor do I have any expectation that those dangers exist today for others within my former church.”
I am glad you stated your situation bluntly. The term "cult" is synonymous of Jim Jones, David Koresh, and the mass destruction of their followers. While your former church leaders aren't passing around poisoned Kool-Aid, they have passed around the understanding that they (and their organization) are sole holders of the truths of salvation. Offend them, you have offended God and thereby lose sight of salvation. This is the cult mentality that motivated Koresh and Jones into believing they held the power of life or death over their followers.
I think this mentality is present in varying degrees in different individual congregations throughout this fellowship (GAC/Sowders). There are also varying degrees of control. The messages are conveyed in a multitude of ways. Many times the messages are implied rather than communicated through bold statements (though they are often quite direct). For instance, in the congregation where I was raised, my former pastor never made an outright declaration that if we offended him, we offended God. Nor did he say he held the power of life or death over us. It was usually more subtle than that, but nonetheless direct.
My former pastor occasionally told a story about something happening to someone who opposed him (you would get the implied message). He frequently asked the question, "Are you not for me?" He would say that if we were not for him, we were against him. We were likened to the children of Israel, who murmured against Moses, if we questioned or challenged. When we were asked to move with our pastor from CA to TN, he said he would fear for our souls if we prayed and we thought God didn't tell us to go with him. He told us many times that God wouldn't tell us something without telling Him. If God hadn't told our pastor what we thought He'd told us, there was good reason to question that God had spoken to us at all. We should not pray for God to tell us, we should pray for God to tell Him and He would tell us what God wanted us to do. There were many messages like this over the course of my life (from birth to age forty-three). So, you see, he didn't come right out and declare that we were leaving God if we left His ministry or we were offending God by offending him, but the message was successfully conveyed to most of us nonetheless. I know it was conveyed to me.
It has been said of some of us that we left because we could not come under "the covering" and "the authority" of God's order. We left because we didn't want to obey or comply with the standards/rules. We are bitter, angry ex-members of the church if we challenge their beliefs and practices. We are dismissed as having personal agendas. We are enemies of the church. It is not acceptable to voice one’s disagreement openly. It is always the person's fault (who has "issues" with the church) and there has been no acknowledgment of wrong doing on the part of the church or church leaders. A member of my own family has portrayed me as someone with "problems" to people who didn't know me as a way to dismiss me (or anything I might say). Several of those people have told me that their impression of me (based on that description) was that I must be a bit wacky or unstable. I am neither.
However, in spite of all this, as I read your statement above, it caused me discomfort (even after being out for over six years). It's still emotional for me. I don't want to label all the people in my old church. I truly love many who remain there and I don't want to hurt them. I care about them collectively. However, the more I read about cults, the more I have to face the reality that I spent most of my life in one.
Before I left, I could only recognize that we had some "ways" that might appear cultish to outsiders, people who didn't realize who we were. I look back now on that way of thinking and realize my own cult mentality at the time. But as long as you stay, you cannot see it for what it is. I know that from experience. I did not leave because I had come to the realization that I was in a cult. I left because I found it impossible to grow spiritually in that environment. Now I understand more fully why I couldn't.
The message was powerfully conveyed to me that I could not find the truth outside the Body (Sowders) fellowship. After I left, I struggled for quite a while with intermittent fear and anxiety about God being upset or displeased with me. I know I was not born with those fears. They were instilled in me. However, I didn't fully recognize how strongly I had been held by fear until I left. It wasn't because someone enlightened me. But those fears did not fully emerge as long as I stayed in the group. It was more lack a nagging thought. I could deny that fear was a factor as long as I didn't fully experience it. But after I left, embedded fears emerged. And that was when I dealt with them. I sincerely did not want to displease God. I prayed many times that He would show me if I was out of His will or I had left His true church. It had been deeply ingrained in me that all other churches (outside the GAC group) were Babylon (the false church). Why would I have fears like that if I hadn't been taught to believe that?
Many in my former congregation are presently trying to deny that they have ever been exclusive or claimed to have the revealed truth that the rest of Christianity lacked. Some have actually said we never believed or claimed such things. This is an attempt to rewrite history. It's dishonest. We sang songs about it. These dishonest representations of the past only confirm to me that God rescued me from a bad place. If they no longer believe in their distinct and unique calling, they should be honest enough to admit they once did, but they don't believe that any longer.
I have no reason to rewrite my history. I was raised and taught to believe that I couldn't go anywhere else and find the truth that God had revealed to William Sowders. We were the only Christians who knew we were not completely saved by faith in Christ (that we had to go on to reach perfection). We were uniquely called to restore the church and the uncorrupted truth of the early church in these latter days. When the call went forth to “come out of her,” we believed we would be the garner they would come into. There were songs, dreams, experiences. I have notes in my Bible. I have tape recordings. It’s hard to believe anyone denies this.
Men who are honest within the group will still acknowledge the long held beliefs of the group. But men who are trying to gain acceptance from "the religious world" and other Christians are trying to conceal their beliefs in order to grow the church. This is a deceptive practice and it is wrong.
What words of encouragement would you give to someone standing on the threshold between fear of an abusive pastor and the freedom of God's unending grace?
I have written a whole book in an attempt to encourage other wounded people and point them to the cross and God's matchless, unending grace. It is difficult for me to encapsulate all of the things I would say to someone "standing on the threshold" between fear of man and the grace of God.
I will boil it down to this. If you fear your pastor, he is not a true shepherd. If he engages in deception, and that has been revealed to you, God has revealed the truth to you for a reason. Jesus came to set captives free. If you fear men and how they may respond to you, you are not free; you are a captive. The truth will set you free unless you refuse to receive it.
Fear no man, nor what man can do to you. Please don't allow men to rob you of the promises of God. I have finally realized what grace is. Grace is something you cannot earn. It is God's unmerited favor through faith in Him and His Son. When we truly grasp what God has done for us in Christ, our response will be such deep love and gratitude that we will want to live lives of obedience. We will want to glorify our Savior and point others to the cross. We will want to please the One who loves us so much that He provided for our forgiveness and redemption at great cost to Himself. There is no other response to such amazing love. But obedience is our response to His love, not the means of salvation. We are saved by grace.
Jesus died to break our chains. He died to free us; that we may live in the freedom of His love. Because we are free from condemnation, we are free to trust completely in the love and grace of God and willingly obey Him from our hearts.
Thank you so much, Shari for your patience as I worked on the appearance of this interview!
Shari has bravely stepped forward to share her testimony of a life lived in a toxic church environment.
Those unfamiliar with such terms as toxic church and spiritual abuse may be mystified that Shari simply did not leave the ‘bad church’.
Just as a hostage does not simply waltz away from a bank robber, or a battered wife dance away from her abusive husband, so one does not ‘walk out’ of an abusive church.
The robber has a gun and death threats.
The abusive husband maintains a death grip on the wife’s self-esteem.
The toxic pastor or church leaders declare that if the church member leaves their congregation, they turn their back on God.
As Shari mentions in the interview, this knowledge is clearly understood by the congregation even though the pastor may not have spoken the actual words.
Simply stated, these so called men and woman of God took hostage the abused parishioner’s spirituality for their own emotional, sexual, or monetary profit.
As Provender stated in the guest post:
We trusted. Our trust was seized and used against us. We loved. Our love was grabbed and twisted into servitude. We hoped. Our hope was dangled in front of us with promise after promise, not always spoken. Those promises were yanked farther away. We yearned to be nearer to God. Instead, we were led along a walkway to a human idol and told we were nearing God, as the burdens grew heavier and more unbearable.
To me, spiritual abusers are the equivalents of vampires and pirates.
A ‘pirate’ for they steal time, money, and devotion not rightfully theirs.
A ‘vampire’ as they suck the very life-blood of the abused’s relationship with their Creator.
As Shari said:
If you fear your pastor, he is not a true shepherd. If he engages in deception, and that has been revealed to you, God has revealed the truth to you for a reason. Jesus came to set captives free. If you fear men and how they may respond to you, you are not free; you are a captive. The truth will set you free unless you refuse to receive it.
The address to my blog, outofthesilverchair, refers to the C.S. Lewis tale, The Silver Chair.
The story is a fitting allegory of spiritual abuse as the prince, Rillian, is kidnapped by an evil witch and taken to dwell in her gloomy underworld kingdom.
The witch is not content to simply bind the Rillian in chains. Rather, she enchants him so that his captivity seems pleasant and his captor, the witch, and also slayer of his mother, the queen, is perfection embodied.
So it is with spiritual abusers. They bind their victims with false fear of God and delude the victim into thinking that they are God’s direct voice, prophet, etc.
May God free all who dwell against their will in the dark underworld of toxic religion.
Shari's blogspot, Miss oblivous Thinks Out Loud, contains a collection of her thoughts and prayers from her journey out of a spiritual prison. It is an sightful and enjoyable blog to follow