1993, 08/04. A Letter to David Johnson, Author of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.
I wrote this letter to David Johnson, the author of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse while I was still living in the Church of Bible Understanding.
August 4, 1993
Dear Mr. Johnson,
I thought I would send you a note in the mail because I live in one of the abusive environments you describe in your book.
In fact, you describe the inner workings of such environments quite well and insightfully. Another book, which is sold in Christian bookstores on the same subject as your book, is Ron Enroth’s “Churches that Abuse.” Our church, the Church of Bible Understanding is named and briefly described in that book, although I’d say that the hints of financial improprieties in the account are untrue. The rest is true, and the surface is only barely scratched. He describes the inner workings of such organizations rather well also.
Many of the things you describe in your book, I had already come upon by my own independent observations and conclusions. Yet seeing some of those things in print, clearly laid out, by another source has helped to clarify some things for me. (As you said, the ability to think clearly can become blurred. You end up thinking you are the only one, that you are the problem. You bury it, dig in, and try all the harder to do the “right thing” just one more time, always to come up with failure and with the same conclusions and thoughts about the whole thing.)
I don’t intend for this to be a long letter, so I won’t go into much. I will just say that I have been here for thirteen years. None of these things bothered me too much, until the last four years. Up till then our pastor ruled from a distance, but since then he has become very involved with our lives, almost with every aspect of it. He has an agenda for our lives, which is that we carry out his teachings. If we have needs or problems outside this agenda, they don’t exist and we must act accordingly, even with each other. One of the most prominent of these “non-existing” problems with us is marriage, or the lack thereof. No one has been able to marry here since 1979! (Yes, some left and got married, but not more recently than four years ago.)
We are one of those live-in fellowships, where one lives, works and “worships” in one place. We hand in our money to the church (or work in church businesses), take a $30 allowance. We live in communal church residences. Some even camp out on the office floor.
I’m saying this because you’d have to know how we live in order to understand our group dynamics, and to understand how men and women live and work side by side, yet never express an interest in one another. In fact, it’s so neatly suppressed, that if one didn’t have a general understanding of human life, he’d never think that marriage existed. But, since it does exist (though suppressed) and is one of the primary basics of human life, this is obviously not a healthy way to live. Now many other things are suppressed as well, but I say this by way of example.
The keystone, so to speak, of this arrangement is a pastor who believes that only he is teaching rightly about the Christian faith (he says that “99.999% of all other Christians are teaching wrong”), who is, at least outwardly, believed by us, who must be obeyed and who can’t be spoken to unless one is in complete agreement with him. Critical questions are not allowed and are instantly dealt with by threats of excommunication (which also means instant loss of job and place of residence without compensation for the time one has spent here). I was threatened for telling him he was alone and needed to get his views checked by other pastors, since he doesn’t associate with other pastors. This was considered a direct attack on the church and on Jesus himself. I only avoided imminent disaster by profusely saying I was wrong and that I am the problem.
Somewhere during this time, which was about two years ago, I began to think about the claims of our church. Or the claims of our pastor, really. (We hear many things described in terms of all other Christians are wrong, or “this is the first time this has been heard since the time of the Apostles”)
I reasoned that if we are such an important church with such special and exclusive revelation of the Christian truth, then therefore, we must occupy an important place in church history. I didn’t actually believe that, but this is the logical conclusion to these claims and to what goes on here. So I began to take a look at church history, and especially American church history. Of course, I found a lot of information on the likes of Jonathan Edwards, Dwight Moody and others. But what most stood out was the proliferation of special, unique and exclusive groups who considered themselves to be the only repository of God’s truth in a lost world. They were usually centered around a single leader who had a special revelation. These groups lived communally and claimed to be attempts to recreate first century Christianity. Examples are, the Shakers, Shiloh, the Oneida Community and a proliferation of other lesser known short-lived groups. Not to mention the larger more successful ones such as the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Well, we are one of these kinds of groups. At least I found that out! Such groups seem to be a uniquely American phenomenon. America, the land of religious foment.
The pattern common to all these groups is the same as ours. Add to that an exact duplication of the patterns of behavior described in books on church abuse. (And also similar patterns in books on organizational behavior and “thought reform.”) I have done extensive reading on these subjects as well. Also I have read about 30 books on cults. Our church is very much like a cult.
At this point, what I have described shows my present state of thoughts on the matter. I don’t have any specific questions to ask you in terms of what I should do, but I am certainly open to any of your opinions or advice. You can also consider my letter as feedback of the kind of readership your book is receiving, its response and the kind of places your book is finding its way into.
Fight or flight? Right now, I can’t say I am either. Although the “passive resistance” I resort to is a kind of fighting. Sometimes I stand up for the new people here who neither understand nor deserve the treatment they get sometimes. I am living “underground.” I have the classic double life. The “can’t talk” rule is in full effect here, even among ourselves. Everybody watches everybody and anything that looks like dissent is noted. We have frequent meetings where we “check” one another, vote on and evaluate one another. Our life is designed in such a way as to insure conformity. We go for weekly meetings in Philadelphia, where the pastor lives. These meetings are usually emotionally tense, live-wire things. They are mind bending, like being in a 12 hour pressure cooker. It’s too much to describe in a few words. I don’t look forward to being there. The meetings set the tone for the whole week. Then we go back the next week. The whole church is judged and evaluated, pushed and shoved. New doctrinal discoveries are expounded upon and accepted without question. Of course, not everything is wrong, but, there just aren’t any questions allowed.
Being that the pastor considers himself to be (and is considered by most here to be) someone with an exclusive and ultimate hotline to God, a special calling, this empowers him to exert great demands on our behavior by virtue of this. Also great power to get us to deny anything or any part of us that is not a part of his agenda and to act as if those things are not a part of reality.
I’ll close this letter here. Yes, if I knew what I know now back when I first came here, I would have turned around and walked back out.
I can be reached at the following address if you would like to respond. Though I have what may seem an unusual request. Please send any mail in a business envelope from your church, not in a hand written envelope with your name. Though my mail is not directly monitored, someone might notice a letter sent to me from a pastor of another church. This could get me in at least some trouble, if not a lot. Many people here receive mailings and newsletters from other ministries, so anything that appears this way is all right.
J. E. LaRue
162 Woodruff Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11226