The Other Side of Discipleship
January/February 1990 issue of Ministries Today featured a
striking cover of solid black lending stark prominence to the words,
"' Discipleship was wrong. I repent. I ask
forgiveness.' -- Bob Mumford." For those familiar with Bob
Mumford and the movement associated with his name, this is a rather
astounding statement. For those less familiar with him no doubt
question marks began flying: "What Discipleship is wrong?
How can that be? Why repent of teaching discipleship?"
Such questions are understandable,
not only considering the spate of books and articles in the past
several decades advocating discipleship, but also in view of the
Lord's expressed command to "go… and make disciples of all the
nations…" (Mt. 28:19). So, of what was Mumford repenting? Other
questions were probably elicited by the title of the lead article
describing the circumstances that brought Mumford to offer his
apology. Written by Jamie Buckingham, the lead article was entitled
"The End of the Discipleship Era." Again, apart from
familiarity with Bob Mumford and others one would associate the
"discipleship era" with the 2,000 year history of the
Christian Church, and that era is not scheduled to end until the
return of Jesus Christ.
What is actually being referred to,
however, is a
movement begun in 1974 by charismatic teachers Mumford, Derek
Prince, Don Basham, Ern Baxter, and Charles Simpson. Officially called
Christian Growth Ministries, the movement quickly became known as the
"shepherding" or "discipleship" movement because
of the leaders' strong emphasis on what they saw as the believer's
need to submit to an authoritative "shepherd" for the
purpose of being "discipled" in the Christian life.
Though essentially a biblical
concept, what soon developed in many of the CGM churches was an
abusive authoritarianism that ultimately robbed many individuals of
their liberty and autonomy in Christ. As Buckingham reported,
"Critics cited numerous examples of 'shepherds' who required
their 'sheep' to ask permission before they dated, changed jobs or
made major decisions." (1)In his formal statement of repentance
training under the guidance of another, and effective pastoral care
are needed biblical concepts. True spiritual maturity will require
that they be preserved. These biblical realities must also carry the
limits indicated by the New Testament. However, to my personal pain
and chagrin, these particular emphases very easily lent themselves
to an unhealthy submission resulting in perverse and unbiblical
obedience to human leaders. Many of these abuses occurred within the
sphere of my own responsibility.(2)
movement began to disintegrate in 1986 when its magazine, New Wine,
folded due to steady loss of revenue. In the latter years of the 1980s
Baxter, Basham, and Mumford officially "released" their
disciples from their previous pyramidal authority structure -- Prince
had already severed his formal ties with the others in 1983.
Yet even with Mumford's public
statement of apology -- and in spite of Buckingham's obituary of the
"discipleship era" -- the abuse of discipleship and
spiritual authority continues unabated by other men and women in other
churches and movements.
As long ago as April 1976 Russel T.
Hitt wrote an article for Eternity magazine entitled "The
Soul Watchers" in which he described spreading abuse of pastoral
and discipling authority in several well-known Protestant Charismatic,
Evangelical, and Roman Catholic movements and denominations. In an
editorial entitled "Of Shepherds, Fiefs, and the Flock" the
editors of Christianity Today wrote, "The temptation to
control people is often Christianized by spiritual strong men who
present a benign persona." (3)And in a 1985 article with the
title "Disciple Abuse" (Discipleship Journal, Issue
Thirty) Gordon MacDonald wrote, "Abusive disciplemaking begins
when someone seeks people with the conscious or unconscious aim
not of growing or leading them, but of controlling them. Sadly, this
can be -- and often is -- effectively done in the name of discipling.
The extremity of this tendency is cultism" (emphasis added). (4)
In addition to the apparently now
defunct Christian Growth Ministries of Mumford and company, there are
at least seven other more or less well known national and
international movements that continue to practice a similar style of
discipleship. Besides these there are any number of smaller
associations and individual churches that fall into the same category.
In my ministry of counseling victims of spiritual abuse at Wellspring
Retreat and Resource Center in southeastern Ohio I have personally
worked with former members of a multitude of separate organizations
that fit this general pattern. From a strictly doctrinal
standpoint none of these would be labeled "cults" in the
sense understood by most Christians -- that is, each of these
movements and churches holds the fundamental doctrines considered by
conservative, evangelical Christians to be essential to salvation. And
yet former members and concerned outside observers have charged these
organizations with varying types and degrees of spiritual abuse.
What forms does this abuse take? Ronald M.
Enroth has given considerable help in recognizing the dangers of this other
side of discipleship. He has identified six primary characteristics of
groups or churches that practice disciple abuse. Taken from his article
"Churches on the Fringe," (5) they are: (1) control-oriented
leadership; (2) isolationist attitudes; (3) spiritual elitism; (4) lifestyle
rigidity; (5) discouragement of dissent; and (6) painful exit.
Groups with these restrictive
characteristics I have labeled "totalist aberrant Christian
organizations" (TACOs). They are "totalist" by
virtue of their attempts to control almost every area of the member's life.
They are "aberrant" in that they teach doctrines and
practices that, though they cannot be called actually heretical, they are
yet "eccentric" in the literal sense of "off center" --
out of line with historic, orthodox Christianity. Thus they must be
recognized as genuine, if non-mainstream, "Christian organizations."
The term TACO is appropriate for another reason: the groups are so close to
the truth, and the error is so subtle, that when one tries to get a grip on
the problem one has great difficulty holding things together long enough to
get a good "bite" on it! These things will be made clear as we
look more closely at each of Enroth's points (under slightly different
labels), beginning with one he doesn't mention specifically.
Scripture Twisting. Enroth (and others who
have studied these groups) would agree that all other characteristics
of shepherding/discipleship groups derive from this one. Lack of
care in reading, interpreting, and applying Scripture leads to all
manner of abuse and just plain goofiness, not only in TACOs but even
in otherwise good churches. Especially prevalent in the
former, it is through such misreading and misinterpretation that
demands for total submission to authoritarian leadership (Enroth's
first point) are supported. The failure to read Scripture in its
historical and cultural context, as well as the textual context, may
result in insistence on fringe practices such as communal living, or
refraining from such modern social activities as dating or
movie-going. There may be other reasons for enjoining, prohibiting, or
regulating such things, but the mere presence or absence of biblical
examples is not among them.
In fact, probably all totalist
Christian groups fail to distinguish adequately among scriptural
commands, principles, and examples. If they can find an example in the
Bible of someone living the way they think all Christians
should live (e.g., Abraham, Moses, or Paul) they will teach that
lifestyle as a divine mandate for all. Most TACOs foster a zealous,
aggressive manner of evangelism supposedly based on the Apostle Paul's
example, taking his charge to follow his example as meaning literally
to do everything he did, totally ignoring (for the moment, at
least) his extensive teaching on the differing gifts distributed among
the church members by the Holy Spirit, and the differing ministries
assigned to each by the risen Christ.
Perhaps even more serious a problem
in such groups is their common practice of elevating to the status of
biblical commands their own individual applications of general
principles. For example, the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 10:23,
"All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All
things are lawful, but not all things edify." The question that
should immediately spring to mind is, "What are the things that
are not profitable and that do not edify?" Paul doesn't say here,
but before this principle can be acted on we need to know what those
things are. Totalist "shepherds" will gladly tell us
what they are, but the problem is that unless God has specifically
prohibited them somewhere else in Scripture, these things are merely
the "shepherd's" opinion. Each believer needs to learn to go
to God directly in prayer and the study of the Scripture to seek the
answer to this question in any particular situation. No church leader
has the right to legislate where the Bible is silent. The most they
can do is offer their best advice and counsel, but advice and counsel
it must remain.
Another type of Scripture twisting is
what I've heard called "hermeneutical anarchy" -- reading,
interpreting, and applying Scripture as if there were no rules that
need to be followed in doing so. The result is often total confusion
and chaos as verses and passages are artificially cobbled together to
force the Bible to say something it doesn't. This is the method
followed by such organizations as Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-day
Adventists, the Unification Church (the "Moonies"), and
others in setting dates for the return of Christ or the end of the
world. It also results in a great deal of "spiritualizing"
of Scripture. What has become for me a classic example of this was
perpetrated by the founder of one TACO with which I was associated for
5 ½ years in the 1970s. While sharing his testimony during a Bible
study, this man said the Lord had assured him that he would one day be
married, and the verse that gave him this assurance was Is. 34:16
Seek from the book of the LORD and
read:Not one of these will be missing;
None will lack its mate. For His mouth has commanded, And His Spirit has gathered them.
I went up to this brother after the
meeting and pointed out that that particular verse had nothing
to do with human marriage at all. In its context it is a reference to
the utter destruction of the nation of Edom, illustrating the totality
of the devastation by stating that no humans will be there to
interfere with the wild beasts and fowls in establishing their homes
and raising their families. People are not referred to at
all! His response was, "I know what I said was not the actual
interpretation, but I still feel it is a legitimate application."
But it is not even that. A legitimate application should have a good
deal more connection to the passage and its true interpretation than
this leader's "application" did.
One other thing that leads to
Scripture twisting and abusive discipleship is simple carelessness in
reading the Bible. A failure to observe clearly what the text actually
says has often resulted in faulty and harmful interpretations
and applications. For instance, teachers who insist that one-on-one
discipleship is either crucial or essential to growing to maturity in
the Christian life often do so on the basis of 2 Tim. 2:2 ("And
the things which you have heard from me in the presence of many
witnesses, these entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach
others also.") The problem is this text says absolutely nothing
about one-on-one discipleship in any form. In order to read that
concept out of the verse one must totally ignore the entire phrase
"in the presence of many witnesses." Paul is not saying that
he taught Timothy one-on-one and that Timothy also must teach others
one-on-one. Instead, he is describing a group setting in which
he taught Timothy along with others, and is simply instructing Timothy
to pass that knowledge on to still others who will then be able to do
the same thing. Paul isn't telling Timothy how to do this, just
that he must do it. As a matter of fact, there is not one
example of even the Lord Jesus practicing one-on-one discipleship.
The smallest number we see him work with at one time is three.
There are times when one-on-one discipleship is the most
appropriate form of teaching or counseling, but Scripture itself does
not support the notion that it must be done that way.
Further examples of various kinds of
Scripture twisting will be given in the discussion of the remaining
characteristics of totalist churches.
2. Autocratic Leadership.
Shepherding/discipleship groups place great stress on the need for the
"sheep" to submit to the authority of the
"shepherd" with little or no right to question him. This is
especially true when it comes to making major decisions such as:
buying or selling a house, car, or major appliance; changing jobs or
college majors; planning vacations; moving to another city; selecting
a life-partner; and raising and disciplining children. The
leadership's authority is often made to apply in quite minor and
mundane matters as well, however. A female member of one such group
was so affected by the authoritarian leadership of her elders that she
was unable to decide on the purchase of a shower curtain
without their advice! One prominent leader
and teacher in the movement of which her group was a part is on record
as having taught that 20% of the Bible is black, 20% is white, and 60%
is gray. In the first two areas God's will is clear and unmistakable;
in the last the elders have the authority to tell the
individual what to do. As Chuck Smith has written "[Shepherds]
seek to exercise complete authority and control over your
life… You must submit to the shepherds in all areas of your life
that they deem important and necessary. To refuse to do so is to be
marked as a rebel." (6)
This authoritarianism is frequently
justified by verses like Heb. 13:17 ("Obey your leaders and
submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls as those who will
give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for
this would be unprofitable for you"). Such shepherds seem unaware
of the fuller meaning of the Greek word translated "obey" in
this verse. According to W.E. Vine, "The obedience suggested is
not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion."
(7) Conveniently ignored, too, are numerous other passages admonishing
elders not to lord it over those in their charge (1 Pet. 5:3; cf. Mt.
20:25-28; 3 Jn. 9-11). Further, such spiritual autocrats arrogate to
themselves prerogatives and responsibilities God never meant for them
to have. By enforcing submission to their authority in areas not
covered by Scripture or in matters of conscience and opinion they are
unwittingly usurping the place of the Holy Spirit in the life of the
The consequence of this is that the
group members fall into an uncritical acceptance of whatever the
leader says, and lose the ability (if they ever had it) to go directly
to God for wisdom and guidance.
To varying degrees members of TACOs are kept separated from the world
outside the group, ostensibly to avoid worldly contamination, sinful
temptation, doctrinal error, and flagging zeal. One wonders, though,
whether, as Ron Enroth suggests, such isolation is not actually
"a not-so-subtle attempt to limit access to legitimate
supplementary teaching which may, for various reasons, be viewed as
competitive and even threatening." (8) Many former members of
shepherding groups assert that this is indeed the case.
This isolationism takes forms very
similar to what Robert J. Lifton, in his now-classic study of Chinese
Communist thought reform techniques, calls "milieu control."
(9) The degree to which this is done in TACOs is rarely as extreme as
in the Korean War prison camps and "re-education" centers in
Communist China which were the focus of Lifton's study, but it is
effective nonetheless. Group members are encouraged to read only books
by "approved" Christian authors, often only those produced
within the group itself. Members are discouraged from listening to
Bible teachers of other churches and organizations because they
haven't seen the full truth of God's Word, otherwise they'd be
"with us." Secular literature, including even the classics,
is often frowned upon as being "unspiritual" and a waste of
This isolationism is carried into the
realm of personal relationships as TACO members are often counseled to
sever close friendships with non-Christians and even Christians who
are not members of their group. They are warned that unsaved family
members will not understand, or agree with, their desire to serve God
as a member of the group, and that even Christian relatives may become
the member's enemies. Involvement in outside activities, clubs, and
organizations is also discouraged or forbidden on the grounds that it
will distract the TACO member from his primary purpose -- this extends
even to other Christian organizations. As for relationships
with the opposite sex, most TACOs strongly discourage dating, and some
actually forbid it. Again, most such groups teach a semi-mystical
notion of divine match-making, and many require couples to obtain
permission of group leaders before marriage, and some go so far as to
actually arrange and even compel marriages. In all TACOs
only group members are considered ideal marriage partners, sometimes
the only proper partners.
Spiritual Elitism. Closely
connected with this practice of isolation is what I call a "Laodicean
Syndrome." TACOs typically consider themselves to be "the
closest followers of New Testament principles," "God's Green
Berets," "God's Storm Troopers," "a special move
of God," etc. Ron Enroth quotes a former member of one such
group: "Although we didn't come right out and say it, in our
innermost hearts we really felt that there was no place in the world
like our assembly… We thought the rest of Christianity was out to
This attitude of elitism contributes
to the isolationism mentioned above, especially in the form of
ecclesiastical introversion where group members are discouraged from
having too much to do with non-member Christians, particularly outside
preachers, teachers, and writers. Ultimately, all Bible teaching
originates within the rarefied atmosphere of the movement or group out
of fear that outsiders might "poison the minds" of
impressionable group members with contrary ideas.
A former member of one TACO wrote,
"[Our movement] was founded on a divisive basis as an alternative
to the Laodicean churches from which most of its leaders came… The
movement survives only as long as its adherents can with a clear
conscience label outsiders as 'Laodicean,' otherwise the movement
loses much of its raison d'être."
In his book Wellsprings of Renewal
author Donald Bloesch writes, "While most of the communal
experiments seek to work within the wider church and give support to
its ongoing mission, an increasing number of such fellowships,
especially in the United States, see themselves as embodying a higher
life and purpose than do the churches. The ever present temptation in
vigorous movements of reform and renewal is to become self-righteous
and self-sufficient and thereby immune from criticism by fellow
In recent years a number of the more
prominent charismatic shepherding/discipleship groups have been
networking together in conferences, writing articles for each other's
magazines and newsletters, and so on. But by and large, TACOs rarely
cooperate with other churches or organizations, unless they see a
chance to proselytize from them. The founder of one movement had the
effrontery to say, when his own organization was still wet behind the
ears, that he would be glad to work with Campus Crusade for Christ,
but Bill Bright would have to submit to his authority! A
related characteristic of many totalistic groups is their tendency to
create their own versions and imitations of others' creations, whether
they be magazines, newspapers, political action lobbies, home
schooling programs, publishing houses, recording companies, investment
firms, or even daily devotionals. The apparent intent is to provide a
total package for their members so they will not have to go outside
the organization to "second-best" groups and associations
for any reason.
5. Regimentation of Life.
In their attempt to foster a high degree of commitment to Christ,
"true discipleship," and holiness of life (essentially
different ways of saying the same thing) TACOs create a hothouse
environment in order to "force" this growth. This goes way
beyond the biblical standard of explicitly enunciated morality,
ethics, and values. Totalist groups establish their own standards in a
generally sincere attempt to apply scriptural principles to life in a
practical way. In so doing (as mentioned above under point 1) they too
often fail to distinguish clearly between actual commands and their
own applications of general principles, confusing the latter with the
former. They also treat certain examples, such as the life and
ministry of the Apostle Paul, as mandated for all Christians without
The result of such an approach to
discipleship is that group members are given very specific rules and
regulations, as well as unspoken expectations, by which to live,
encompassing many quite mundane and trivial aspects of life. In
addition, most of such rules and standards are based simply on the
leader's personal opinions, tastes, and values, rather than on clear
pronouncements of Scripture. For example, Enroth reports that "[w]earing
striped running shoes is considered homosexual fashion in [the late]
Hobart Freeman's Faith Assembly." (12)
The most serious consequence of such
regimentation of life based on extra-biblical rules is the
inculcation in the members of a Galatian-style works righteousness.
The fundamental heresy refuted by the Apostle Paul in his letter to
those churches was not justification by works, but rather sanctification
by works. The false teachers of Galatia were saying something like
this: "Paul only told you half the gospel. What he told
you just got you over the threshold into the kingdom of God; to make
further progress you must be circumcised and obey the Law of
Moses." And what totalist "shepherds" teach is little
different, though their teaching in this regard is more by unspoken
implication than by explicit precept: "Your faith in Christ got
you saved, but to press on to spiritual maturity you must render
unquestioning submission to us and do whatever we tell you."
But Paul's words ring as loudly and truly today as they did when he
first penned them: "It was for freedom that Christ set us free;
therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke
of slavery" (Gal. 5:1).
Disallowance of Dissent.
This characteristic of TACOs is also related to their generally
strong penchant for isolationism. One of the main reasons for
isolation (TACO leaders would call it "insulation")
is so members will be compelled to look only to their leaders for
instruction and guidance. It almost goes without saying, therefore,
that the former would be expected to be submissively receptive to
the latter, obediently suppressing any questions or disagreements
with teachings or practices of the group.
As a matter of fact, probably all
totalist organizations -- whether religious, social, or political --
regard "unity" (or "solidarity") as the prime
doctrine. Even in totalist Christian groups unity ranks just below
the "fundamentals" of the faith: inspiration and authority
of the Bible, the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, the personhood of
the Holy Spirit, and salvation by faith alone. As important as unity
in the church really is, the "unity" promoted in
TACOs is really more of a uniformity as members are expected
or required to adopt not only similar lifestyles, but also the same
beliefs and interpretations of Scripture.
This rules out the option of
disagreement and independent thinking in many areas usually
permitted in most evangelical churches. One extensive TACO with
70-80 fellowships in about half the states in the Union until
recently required unanimity concerning what they considered the
biblically mandated strategy to reach the world with the gospel -- a
"spiraling out" process they found commanded in Acts 1:8.
Even though this verse contains no command at all (only a statement
of fact), people were literally excommunicated from churches
associated with this movement because they expressed doubts or dis
-- agreements with this teaching. And the irony is that in
consequence of this "strategy," although their very name
implies a strong missionary thrust, it was more than 20 years from
their founding before they sent their first permanent, fulltime
missionary overseas! In fact, the greatest missionary outreach by
any of their number has come when some invested their Christmas or
summer holidays with Operation Mobilization or similar
organizations, or after they severed their ties with the
movement and then left for the mission field. But the doctrine of
the "strategy" continued to be held beyond dispute until
only a few years ago as an example of another of Robert J. Lifton's
characteristics of thought reform, the "sacred science."
In most TACOs the prohibition of
dissent and disagreement extends to anything that could be construed
as "undermining the authority" of the pastor, elder, or
"coordinator" (or whatever other title they may use) --
and this means especially that one simply does not try to correct a
leader publicly. Even attempts to do so privately usually
backfire on the one so bold as to try. Enroth tells of one young man
who was disfellowshipped because he "asked too many
questions." The young man explained that the founder of the
group would sometimes "pray against the blight of independent
Very frequently the leaders of
totalist fellowships are adept at turning the tables on dissenters,
even those who come to them privately with sincere and humbly
expressed concerns about certain aspects of the group's teachings or
practices. Rather than acknowledge any degree of validity to the
questioner's concerns, the leader typically will assert that the
only problem is with the questioner -- it is plain, he will say,
that the latter has a "rebellious spirit," "a bad
heart," and that if he'd just "get with the program"
he'd see the correctness of the teaching or practice he now
questions. Persisting in such questioning, particularly when the
questioner shares his doubts and disagreements not just with the
leadership, but with the rank and file, will ultimately lead in all
TACOs to the 7th and final characteristic.
7. Traumatic Departure.
The individual who is slow to submit to his leaders by desisting
from raising disquieting questions and concerns will ultimately
undergo a stressful confrontation referred to by some former members
who have experienced it as a "surprise party" or
"gang-up." Often the "rebellious" person is
invited to the home of an elder or pastor, ostensibly to be granted
an opportunity to air his grievances fully in order that the
leadership might clearly understand them and then be able to respond
to them appropriately. Upon arrival, however, the dissident
discovers several other men in positions of authority have also been
invited, and what he thought would be a sincere and honest
one-to-one exchange of views and considerations turns out to be a
hostile and accusatory 4 or 5-to-one interrogation session, (14)
often lasting several hours until late into the night, with the
objective of persuading the dissident to cease his
"divisive" questioning and/or recant his
In his book If You Really Want
to Follow Jesus... Bruce Barron quotes one former member's
description of his own experience at such a meeting: "It was
not unlike a police interrogation. They have you looking in a
certain direction and keep you from looking out the window. You sit
down and they stand up, because that gives you a feeling of
inferiority." Barron continues in a paraphrase of this
ex-member's description, "Each time, he said, more than one
head [i.e., leader] was present; rather than give him a chance to
explain his grievances, the leaders questioned him and reproved his
In some TACOs leaders have
reportedly forced their way into the homes and apartments of
dissident members in order to confront them about the
"sin" and "rebellion," again usually in lengthy
nighttime visitations, and sometimes (hopefully rarely) even
resorting to physical abuse. These tactics often achieve their
goals, at least temporarily. The experience of the "late-night
gang-up" is usually so traumatic that the target individual
will frequently agree to anything just to avoid a repetition of it.
He may eventually choose simply to leave the group rather than to
stifle his objections or risk another such encounter.
Sometimes these sessions bear
permanent fruit. A young man in a Mid-West branch of one TACO wrote
a well-reasoned rebuttal of the movement's founder's assertion that
New Testament-type apostles exist today (and his implication that he
was one). Subsequently this member underwent a "gang-up"
that succeeded in achieving his complete confession and repentance
of this "sin." Even though his scriptural right and
responsibility to judge the teachings and practices of his church
(16) had been denied him by his leaders, he was so thoroughly
persuaded of his "error" that he was able to write a
testimony to the "joy of repentance," published a few
months later in the movement's magazine, which contained the
…I never had the intention
of undermining the authority of my local elders, and becoming
the cause of a church split or faction. Nevertheless, …I found
myself paving the road to division, strife and destruction of
the very church I loved… …[S]landerous accusations were cast
against leaders of other churches associated with ours who were
barely known to their accusers.I was probably the chief of all
sinners in such actions. By crafty words and untimely comments,
I helped to spread suspicion and fear in the hearts of many. I
thought I was helping to establish "unity" in the
church, and protecting the freedom to hold different ideas based
on scripture. But actually I was resisting scriptural unity
(unity under God-given authority) and was only spreading strife.
On February 9, 1985, four Christian brothers, in gentleness and
love, rebuked my sin of spreading strife. Though it was hard, I
publicly confessed and renounced my sin. I honored the
discipline [i.e., excommunication] of those who refused to
repent (including my closest friend), and for the first time in
my life, I got wholly under spiritual authority and obeyed them,
as Hebrews 13:17 commands…(17)
Later this man rose in stature to
become one of his organization's attorneys, with offices in its
headquarters suite, and actively sought to silence vocal critics
of the movement, including the present writer.
Christian groups have been known to excommunicate people for
simply not honoring the "discipline" of previously
excommunicated members. They have also threatened to disfellowship
any member who might have the audacity merely to attend a
gathering of former members (even unexcommunicated former
members) who were going to discuss the problems they saw with the
group and explain why they had left it. Still other people have
been formally excommunicated from TACOs up to a year or more after
they voluntarily withdrew from membership. (It's like the boss who
exclaims to the disgruntled employee, "You can't quit; you're
fired!") In such cases the reasoning is that the
former member has become such a threat to the stability and
cohesiveness of the group they need to put him beyond the range of
influence -- and what better way to do this than to excommunicate
him, thus forbidding members to have any further contact with him?
Regardless of how a dissident
member leaves a TACO, it is almost always a very painful process.
Whether he leaves voluntarily, under pressure, or is
excommunicated, he finds himself cut off from most or all of his
formerly close friends (and sometimes relatives) who remain in the
group. Frequently he must find new living quarters, having lived
in communal housing or roomed with one or more group members. In
some cases ex-members have had to change jobs because they no
longer felt comfortable working with or for members of their
former church or fellowship. Marriages have even been destroyed as
one partner has become so desperate to escape not just the group
but any influence from it that he or she has felt it
necessary to dissolve the marriage bond to do so. In cases where
the departing spouse has not wanted to dissolve the
marriage union, TACO leaders have sometimes counseled the
remaining spouse to do so.
Even more tragic are the numerous
nervous breakdowns and suicides of individuals no longer able to
cope with the totalist environment and unable to see any way out.
After following a friend out of their TACO one girl wrote to
describe her state of mind when she left: "When I left, I
knew something was wrong, but I thought it was me. I
thought they were right, even to the extent that I equated leaving
them with leaving God. And I was so unhappy I was ready to take
even that step to escape… When I left… I felt that I was running
for my life." (18) One measure of this girl's desperation
is the ironic fact that the means she used to flee the group was
enlisting in the Army!
Clearly, no God-fearing,
Christ-glorifying, Scripture-obeying church or Christian
fellowship should ever tolerate, let alone create, a
climate that would make any of its members so desperate for
relief that they would be willing even to run away from God.
Unhappily, all too many churches and Christian organizations in
America and abroad have been doing just that. Yet, almost without
exception, the motives of the founders and leaders of such
churches and organizations are unimpeachable. Their earnest desire
is to save souls and build disciples of the Lord Jesus, and they
have devised a system, method, or environment which they believe
will achieve those commendable goals most quickly. They believe
that without their authority and close supervision -- and the
members' corresponding submission -- the discipling process cannot
go forward, or at the very least that precious time will be lost.
So, as stated above, they have
created a "spiritual hothouse" and employ methods and
inculcate attitudes foreign and often antipathetic to the
Scriptures, and in the process intrude into the ministry of the
Holy Spirit, not allowing him to do his own work in his own way
and in his own time. What happens all too frequently in TACOs is
that the Holy Spirit, for all practical purposes, is supplanted in
the member's heart and life by the group, its leader(s), and its
teachings -- even in charismatic TACOs with all their emphasis on
the gifts the Holy Spirit. After all, if one has a list
(explicit or implicit) of approved and disapproved activities,
beliefs, and attitudes for every area of life -- or if one is
expected to seek direction from one's leaders for every major and
most minor decisions -- what use does one have for the Holy
Spirit? But God doesn't want us to rely on external guides or
guidelines for spirituality; he wants us to rely on him and
his written Word. He gives us teachers and pastors to help us make
the right decisions and sort out truth from error; but they are
not to take his place in our lives.
It was this kind of
works-oriented "gospel" the Apostle Paul had in mind --
particularly in the form of sanctification by works -- when
he exclaimed to the Galatians, "I am amazed that you are so
quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a
different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some
who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ.
But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you
a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him
be accursed" (Gal. 1:6-8). Paul calls Christian legalism
"a different gospel" and says it is a distortion of the
gospel of Christ. Jesus did not give his life on the cross in
payment of the penalty of our sins just so we could exchange one
bondage for another one. No, he died to liberate us from
sin and slavery, and we dishonor him as well as disobey him
when we subject ourselves to any form of slavery involving
attempts at self-perfection. In sanctification as in justification
there must be nothing of human effort, nothing of which man may
boast. Again, the Apostle Paul said it best: "But may it
never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord
Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me,
and I to the world" (Gal. 6:14). (19)
A. Pile was a cult researcher and workshop leader at Wellspring
Retreat and Resource Center, a residential facility providing
rehabilitative therapy and instruction for survivors of destructive
cults and spiritually abusive churches. He now resides in Albany,
Ohio, near the center and is a survivor of an abusive church
Buckingham, "The End of the Discipleship Era," Ministries
Today, January/February 1990, p. 46.
Mumford, "Mumford's Formal Repentance Statement to the Body of
Christ," Ministries Today, January/February 1990, p. 52.
Anonymous editorial, "Of Shepherds, Fiefs, and the Flock,"
Christianity Today, volume, issue, date, page number all unknown, but
photocopy in author's possession.
MacDonald, "Disciple Abuse," Discipleship Journal, Issue 30,
1985, p. 26.
M. Enroth, "Churches on the Fringe," Eternity, October 1986,
Smith, "Shepherding or Discipleship?" The Answer for Today,
No. 6, 1979, p. 2, emphasis his.
(7) W. E.
Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Old Tappan, NJ:
Fleming H. Revell Company, 17th edition, 1966) Vol. III, p. 124.
ibid., p. 20.
J. Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (New York: W.
W. Norton, 1961).
Ronald. M. Enroth, "Voices from the Fringe," Moody Monthly,
October 1989, p. unknown, but photocopy in author's possession.
Donald G. Bloesch, Wellsprings of Renewal (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Publishing Co., 1974), pp. 97-98.
Enroth, "Churches on the Fringe," p. 21.
Enroth, "Voices from the Fringe," p. unknown.
one case with which I am familiar the ratio was nine or ten to one.
Barron, "If You Really Want to Follow Jesus…" (Sycamore, IL:
Partners Press, 1985), p. 73.
(16) See 1
Th. 5:19-22; Acts17:11; 1 Cor. 14:29.
Anonymous, "The Joy of Repentance," The Cause, Vol. 3, No. 6,
June/July 1985, p. 21.
Letter on file with the author.
Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright
1971 by The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, California.
To The SpiritWatch Home Page Back
To The Strange Fires