“Do you think he’ll address the issue?”
“I guess we’ll find out.”
It was Friday, March 23, 2018. John and I were about to walk into church, our hearts a broiling cauldron of pain and confusion.
Only a few days earlier, the Pastor we had come to love as a father had sent us a letter, via email attachment, in which he had charged and condemned John with being an arrogant, selfish, hard-hearted creature of death and darkness who had disengaged from “God’s instruction and conviction of the body.” Although it had been wrapped in the pretty packaging of “I-love-you-brother,” the letter looked and felt like anything but love. Our hearts tore at the reading of those words; our spirits howled in anguish. Were those accusations an accurate description of the state of John’s soul, of his character?
We first sought answers from the Pastor himself but were denied the opportunity to meet with him. Then we sought answers from the congregation – made the letter public and offered ourselves up to be judged by them at the upcoming Friday night service. The pastor flatly refused this request.
Now, here we were, heading into the Friday night service, just as we had done almost every week for the last six years.
The air was heavy with tension, but the Pastor acted as though nothing had happened. Instead, he began the service by asking certain people (not us) how their week had been.
At one point, he asked the Secretary about her week. I can remember how she looked that night — shoulders slumped, eyes full of pain, her expression one of embarrassment. She had been to the dentist recently and had learned that her teeth were so bad that she would need to have them all removed, a quarter of them at a time, over the course of the next couple of months.
“I just feel so stupid!” she lamented. She slumped forward even more and buried her head in her hands.
At this point the Pastor jumped in. “Who can tell me how she misused the word ‘stupid?’ What does stupid really mean?”
After a thorough berating of this hurting woman for not using the word ‘stupid’ in accordance to his Biblically-defined definition, he then dedicated the rest of the service to describing random trivia facts about Easter traditions around the world.
It was clear to us then that the Pastor had absolutely no intention of addressing his letter. And if he wouldn’t help us – wouldn’t even bother to acknowledge the letter he’d sent – where then could we go to find the answers we sought? Where could we look to discover the true nature of our unrighteousness and perhaps, the nature of the Pastor’s unrighteousness as well?
Welcome to part two of this five-part blog series on church hurts. As an idea of what you can expect in the coming weeks, here is a rundown of the topics:
Church Hurts Part 2 – Searching for Answers
Answers from Church Members
The first place we looked for answers was from among the members of the church. We made the letter public to them via email the day after we received it and asked that they examine it, consider the accusations, and judge us accordingly.
Most of the members wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.
A dear friend tried to “Jane Bennett” the situation and make everyone good. In a later conversation, she revealed that she had seen the Pastor lose interest in her family after he’d finished the construction work on their house. Over the years, she’d watched as he showed interest in so many other people and ignored her family, even though they had been attending for the longest period. She said she knew he didn’t think very highly of her and her husband. Yet, because this church is where she believes she can find the most accurate teaching, and because she believes that accurate teaching equals salvation, they go.
One member directly told us she wanted nothing to do with the issue. She said it was inappropriate [that we had made it public]; told us we needed to seek counseling with the Pastor and the Secretary; that they were “very wise and anointed ones.”
The Secretary responded with a lengthy public email, plainly stating that the letter had been meant as “a private correction with an intent for them [John and I] to seek understanding and insight from others.” She went on to affirm and build upon the Pastor’s account of our hardness of heart regarding what had transpired between us and a young woman who had come to us seeking financial help, though neither the Secretary nor the Pastor had been present at the time of the interaction or sought us out to hear our account of it. She also indicated that we had shown our ingratitude towards the Pastor for his work on our house by not working with him on his current construction project.
The Loyal Disciple of the Pastor also affirmed our hardness of heart and chastised us for not being more involved in the Pastor’s construction “ministry,” which, at the time, consisted almost entirely of work being done on the Pastor’s new home. “We can use the help,” he said, “and there is no better way to build relationships.”
I directly contacted the young woman who had come to us. As we met and talked through what had happened that night, I realized that her account and understanding of events was different than what the Pastor had portrayed. She also told me that the needed funds had arrived earlier than expected and that everything was financially back on track.
Only one member, another very dear friend, came to us directly and asked to hear our account of what had happened between us and the young woman. She then, very courageously, told us that she had noticed an intellectual pride reveal itself in John and I through a few interactions we’d had with another friend who occasionally attended services.
It tore my heart to hear this account of my words and behavior. Nevertheless, John and I took her words into consideration and realized that yes, we had started down the path of thinking ourselves to be intellectually superior to those of lesser theological understanding – of thinking that our church was the only place in which you could find truth, that there was nowhere else you could go to find God.
From these communications we learned five important things:
- The Pastor had never intended for the letter to be made public.
- Why not? If it was a true reflection of John’s character, why not make it public so that we could, as the Secretary stated, “seek understanding and insight from others?” We began to wonder if the Pastor had sent letters of this nature to other current or past members of the congregation…
- The Pastor, who had always said he did not expect payment for his work since he considered it to be a ministry, did in fact expect payment for his construction services. This payment was expected in the form of a member’s time, labor and money being given to help him on other projects.
- Believing that your church is the only place to find truth and that theological understanding is the most important aspect of the faith can lead to the development of an intellectual superiority and pride.
- True disciples of the Pastor never questioned the validity of any of his assertions.
- Before this event happened to us, we had never questioned the validity of any of his assertions that those who had left were “in darkness.” Maybe it was time we did so. Maybe it was time to seek out the other side of some of those stories.
We acknowledged and repented of the sins which had been revealed – those of perceiving ourselves to be theologically above other believers, and judging other believers guilty without ever hearing their side of the story – and set out to rectify the latter.
But first, we let the church know we would be taking a month to step away from the group and pray about the situation. Then, John blocked the Pastor, Secretary, and the Loyal Disciple’s phone numbers and set his email to forward their communications to both me and his out-of-state brother. Although I would read the emails, we both had a very strong sense that we were not to reply.
“Like a sheep before his shearers, he was silent.” This was the clear instruction John received from God in regards to how we should respond to the accusations. We were to follow the example of Jesus and say nothing.
Those words would echo through our minds in the coming days.
Blocking phone numbers and forwarding of emails is something I would highly recommend for anyone going through this kind of situation. You need space to think and process. Doing this is, in fact, one of the number one recommendations given by Steven Hassan, the author of Combating Cult Mind Control.
Answers from Those who had Left
With this temporary separation complete, John and I began contacting anyone we could think of who had once attended the church or been under the guidance of the Pastor. After all, we reasoned, if he has acted this way once, it is highly likely he has acted this way before. Is there a pattern? A history? Why did these people really leave his guidance? We no longer believed it was due to them being “in darkness.” The situation with the young woman had shown us how very painful it is to be accused of something without your side of the story ever being sought out. Now we wanted, in some degree, to try to lesson that pain for others by hearing them out.
Each and every one of those whom we contacted was hesitant to talk to us. Most of them either politely declined or else dragged out the possibility of meeting so much that it never happened.
A few of them, however, did eventually agree to meet, though they later revealed that they’d wondered if we were spying for the Pastor.
Although their stories differed somewhat from each other’s and ours, one element of commonality was that their stories were vastly different from the narrative we had received from the Pastor. Deep, dark sins which the Pastor had accused them of had never taken place. They weren’t in darkness. Instead, we discovered a group of people (all men) who had been deeply hurt by what had transpired and were doing their best to pursue God and move forward in their walk with Him.
There was one story which was frighteningly similar to John’s. The two stories were so similar, in fact, that you could have laid one upon the other and never been able to discern which story was which.
Like John, this man had come to the Pastor at a point in his life when he was weak and vulnerable. Like John, the Pastor had taken him under his wing and invested in him – built him up, encouraged him, praised him for his progress and maturity in the faith. Like John, the Pastor had referred to this man as his only friend, the only mature Christian [other than himself]. Like John, this other man grew in his faith to the point of studying scripture on his own, gathering his own information, and bringing his own, different understandings to the Pastor’s attention. And then, like John, the Pastor’s countenance and demeanor toward this man changed. He began accusing this man of various sins. This state of things ratcheted up until they arrived at such a place that this man made the decision to sever the relationship.
From these communications we learned four important things:
- The Pastor had lied about the reasons those we spoke to had left; had fabricated and charged them with serious sins.
- There was an established pattern of building men up, declaring them to be his only friend and only mature Christian, and then systematically working to spiritually destroy them.
- Those affected in this way were universally men.
- We could track a linage of such men going back nearly 20 years.
It is interesting to note that while we haven’t been able to talk to enough women to definitively say there are no women who have been treated in like manner to that described above, we have ascertained that the Pastor is quite willing to demean and denigrate a woman’s husband and any other masculine influence in her life to the point of presenting himself as the more trustworthy leader.
Answers from Books
A conflict with my family a few months earlier had resulted in an offhanded comment made by one of them about us being in a cult. Rather than completely dismiss the comment, John had rounded up several books on cults and cult mind-control, intending to discredit the accusation through his reading. What he found, instead, was evidence that would tend to support it.
Now, based on some of Merriam Webster’s definitions of ‘cult’– a system of religious beliefs; a great devotion to a person, idea, object or work – Christianity, political parties, sports teams, music concert, etc. could all be classified as cults. Since, by definition, we as Christians are in a cult, the real question was, were John and I in a destructive cult?
According to the books John read – Combating Cult Mind Control by Steven Hassan, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen, and Brainwashing: the science of thought control by Kathleen Taylor – some indicators that the leader is spiritually abusive and controlling are:
- He is extremely confident. A spiritually abusive leader will never admit that he is wrong or that he is uncertain about anything. Even if you present direct evidence to the contrary, he will not acknowledge his own error.
- He possesses a narrow sense of focus. In our situation, the Pastor thought that any holiday or celebration was an insignificant waste of time. Instead, he spent most of his daylight hours on construction projects, which he conveniently labeled as ministry.
- You are never allowed to question him. Although the Pastor claimed you could question him, any time other men actually did, they were immediately shut down, often in a demeaning or harsh way.
- He controls the information you receive. The Pastor loved to recommend and hand out books. That in itself is fine. What isn’t fine is the displeasure he expressed when other men started rounding up their own resources and coming back with different conclusions. At that point, the resources those men had found were labeled as being inadequate, unreliable, biased…
- He loads the language. The Pastor had a very specific set of definitions that he declared to be theologically accurate. He would often review these definitions in the service and correct anyone who didn’t use the word according to his definition, just as he did with the Secretary that last Friday night we were there. We later realized that the whole exchange was a power play — an exerting of his power and authority — a warning to anyone else who might attempt to step out of line as we had done.
Support from Family
One of the best early outcomes of this tough situation was a reconciling with my family. Although we still have issues that need to be worked out (is there a family that doesn’t?), John and I could see how our pride had affected some of the interactions which led up to the earlier-mentioned conflict. We were sorry things had gone the way they had and wanted to take steps towards making it right. With this desire to reconnect, we reached out to them with an email in which we described our situation and asked for their help. We also sent them a copy of the letter and talked with them via Skype and phone conversations. What were their thoughts? Did they see these characteristics in us? In like manner, we also made contact with John’s mom and brother.
We needed our families. We needed them to help us stay grounded; to keep us from weakening and returning; to let us know we were loved; that we weren’t alone. John sent them copies of the books he had read so that they might better understand what we were going through.
As Steven Hassan notes, family and outside-the-group perspectives are critical to healthy evaluations.
They responded with kindness and understanding and offered to be there for us. In addition, they shared the impressions they’d had of the Pastor and supported our decision to step away. John’s brother also proved to be a great support in helping us filter through the church-related emails we were receiving throughout this time.
Answers from Another Church
Easter Sunday was spent at a different church. Honestly, we were hesitant to go. It would be so much easier to stay home. But God compelled us to go. We needed to be around other believers; we needed to see that there was hope and spiritual life beyond the small group of believers with whom we had been so exclusively involved.
I don’t remember what that first service was about, but I do remember that I cried (and I don’t cry easily). I cried that week, and the next, and the next. God was here, in this church. We could feel His love surrounding us, telling us He was with us and that it was going to be ok. The people here had a heart for God. They reached out and greeted us when we came in the door. We met several whom we knew from other areas of life. Many of the people didn’t know anything about us, but they showed us love and kindness anyway.
From this church we learned:
- God is present in other churches.
- There are people pursuing God and desiring a relationship with Him who are attending other churches.
- Not everyone in a position of spiritual authority is like the Pastor.
- There is another church option for us. And if there is one option, there are probably others as well.
We really liked this church, but, as much as part of me wanted to stay and make it our new church home, we felt God calling us to move on. Maybe it wouldn’t have been healthy for us to jump right into a “rebound church.” However, the more likely reason God called us to move on was that we were to continue on the path He had set before us years earlier – we were to attend other churches and see His people. And so we did. Our mindset, however, had drastically changed from the first time we had obeyed this summons. No longer were we looking to evaluate the theological accuracy of the churches. Instead, we were looking to see their heart. We were quickly learning that if there were hearts desiring God’s presence, He would be there.
Answers from Getting Away
At the end of April, a little over a month after we received that devastating letter, John and I left Albuquerque to spend a week without kids. We had started planning this get-away in January. At that time, I’d had a pressing sense that even though our girls were still young (one was four, the other eighteen months), we really needed this trip. Little had I known at that time why or how much we would need it.
This much-needed get-away consisted of two parts. The first part was in Atlanta for Camp Logos: a three-day training on using the LOGOS Bible Study Software. The second was a three-night stay at a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains and a visit with my Invisible Battles book-writing partner.
Right from the get-go, the trip was everything I had hoped it would be and more. John and I absolutely loved the LOGOS training! We had forgotten how much we loved to geek-out over scripture for the sake of learning more about God and about what His Word meant for our life.
And we weren’t alone.
The room was filled with people from all different denominations, each and every one of them there to learn how to more effectively study and know the word of God.
This training was run by a man named Morris Proctor. You could feel his enthusiasm radiating out from where he stood. While he occasionally referenced the various doctrinal differences among the denominations, he didn’t mock or emphasize those differences as the Pastor did. Instead, he led the group through a series of observations, steps, and software tools that could be used to discern the meaning of the passage at hand.
It was a gaining of intellectual knowledge, but this knowledge had a strong heart for God that was guiding it with the end result not being a pride and separation from others of the faith, but rather a humble awe of God and a stronger unification with those who differed in various points of their theology.
From this training we learned:
- We love to study for the purpose of learning more about God.
- Intellectual study that is initiated and guided by a heart for God and his people will result in humility and unity.
- There are others who are teaching directly from Scripture, and, like the Pastor, are noting important differences between the original text and the English translations.
- There are others who are desiring to pursue God.
Energized from this training, we packed up our rental car and headed north for the Boone, North Carolina area.
Our cabin was perfect – a small, two-bedroom house situated right next to a stream. There were window seats in the dining room that looked down onto the rushing water and out upon the forest on the other side. If you opened the window, you could hear the water’s soothing speech as it passed by.
We spent hours in that dining room.
It had been pressing upon us that we should read James, so we did – out loud, at least four or five times.
As an aside, we have found that there is nothing more spiritually connecting than to read God’s word aloud with other believers.
We also spent time discussing what we were seeing and learning, and had times of simply sitting and listening. Besides the lessons we gained from reading James, we were also further impressed with the idea that we were not to answer the Pastor according to the accusations. The charge continued to be, “Like a sheep before his shearers, he was silent.”
What we learned from James and our time at the cabin:
- If we persevered through this trial we were in, we would arrive at a place of greater completeness.
- We had been progressing along a path of pride. “Knowledge puffs up…” We had fallen into judging and criticizing fellow believers with greater regularity. God wanted us to turn from this path we were on.
- God’s correction brings joy and hope to open hearts.
- We had learned the intellectual element of the faith. Now it was time to pursue the heart of it. “… but love builds up.”
- We wouldn’t be able to learn the heart of it under the guidance of the Pastor.
Our Final Answer
We returned from our trip energized with renewed hope and purpose. We knew where we were at and what we needed to do. We had learned the intellectual side of God. Now we needed to learn His heart and His compassion.
Due to John being away on travel for the next few weeks, we waited another month to make our decision known. Then, since we had begun this journey with a public email to the church, we decided to end it with an email, though this time, we chose to send the emails individually to each member.
The emails, with various personalizations, went something like this:
We love you and have truly enjoyed being in fellowship with you at —. Over the past several weeks, we have come to realize that God is guiding us to continue our journey with Him beyond the boundaries of —. We would love to continue our relationship with you outside of —, but we will not be returning to —.
With Great Love,
John and Jenny Fulton
The Following Months
That’s a nice, happy ending, isn’t it? Unfortunately, if you have ever been in this kind of a situation, you know that it doesn’t just end. Instead, there is so much more to process and deal with, such as the question of how to move forward.
Next Week: Looking Back: Red Flags and God’s Goodness