This page demonstrates the mechanics of what happens in such a system when dangerous tendencies are not held in check and misgivings are finally expressed.
In our case, fear made it impossible to remain in the group; fear of staying, fear of leaving, fear of criticising, fear of manipulation, fear of acquiescing.
We were trapped.
It was high time to raise concerns.
I went to the pastor (whom I regarded as my 'Dad') in private with a letter. It acknowledged his pastoring gift, and the gratitude we felt for his care, concern, help and wisdom towards our family down through the years. It acknowledged how hard his upbringing had been and how this must have made things difficult for him. It raised misgivings about the increasingly legalistic tone of meetings and about statements that he had begun to make which, from any religious view, were unsupportable.
It expressed a desire to continue working with him.
His response was not one of acceptance.
He clearly believed that Satan was attacking him and he referenced the story of Peter and his unfortunate encounter with Jesus. ("Get behind me, Satan!")
On the following Sunday meeting his paranoia become even more pronounced. He spoke of those who intended to topple the leadership! He railed against 'those who attack in their intellectual pride' and the evils of criticism. He cited the biblical stories of Miriam, Daniel and what happened to his critics, as well as Ananias and Sapphira. He was angry. This was the beginning of a steady indoctrination process against 'the critics', conducted publicly through every meeting.
The following day I told him that I was unable to remain in a church in which the pastor preached himself beyond correction and pleaded with him to let me help him. Our meeting ended with him requiring me to read out loud from a piece of paper he had already prepared, Hebrews 13:17 'Obey your leaders and submit to their authority...'
We decided that we would remain in the church for a further nine months, in the hope that we would see change.
Instead this encounter ignited nine months of escalating manipulation and accusation, ramping up the pressure against us to 'repent'.
We were on trial with no right to speak and no council for our defence.
The vilification conducted through public preaching did not mention us specifically by name. It was, however, intended to instil fear and did so very successfully. This deliberate tactic ('There are disruptive spirits among us, beware!') served to unsettle the 'faithful', as well as lay a foundation for false accusation, while maintaining plausible deniability. It allowed him to create suspicion and fear of dissent in the flock, leaving us in a high state of anxiety and battling emotionally against the accusations leveled against our own integrity and relationship with God.
It was difficult not to justify ourselves. To do so publicly would confirm his charges of being divisive. To do so to our friends would be gossip and slander. And he had made it increasingly clear that he would not hear us.
As time went on, he told the congregation that 'right-hand men' often rose against leadership to overthrow them (I was perceived as his right-hand man). He made the congregation recite, on several occasions, a paranoid prayer, 'I forgive all those who, in their anger, taunt me with contempt of my person...'. He was keen to demonstrate how well he forgave his critics, while closing his ears to those who felt it necessary to plead with him to listen. The prayer itself appeared to manipulate the 'faithful' into believing that we were among those who 'taunted' him.
We began to attend fewer 'prayer' meetings (which had increasingly become platforms for him to accuse indirectly). So the congregation heard that missing meetings was 'spacing out on Jesus', that leaving the church opened you to satanic attack, that God would destroy the critics in their pride, that disobeying each other was disobeying God and many other such threats, loosely hinged on twisted scripture.
It was taught that the correct response to criticism was to walk away.
And that if anyone claimed they were being bullied, they should be avoided.
On one occasion direct, public and blatant assassination of my character was attempted in order to discredit me.
On another occasion, to encourage us to 'recant', he presented bread and wine, emphasizing that whoever took it with a critical spirit would become sick and may even die. No names this time, but just as Jesus dipped the bread and gave it straight to Judas, he came with the bread and wine to us first.
The snare had been set.:
I resigned my trusteeship. I had previously been warned that to do so, was to break faith with God.
And then we left.
The greatest shock of all and perhaps the most painful aspect, was the policy of shunning which began the moment we finally left, nine months after our initial approach.
Closest friends, (one in particular whom we had known for 37 years, entertained in our home for over 1000 Sundays, and who had lived with us for a season), refused even to acknowledge the kindest well-wishing in text messages.
We had deliberately not given reasons for our departure. We did not wish to be accused of gossip or criticism so our only explanation was to the few trustees that needed information. We told them simply that the pastor knew of our reasons for contemplating this decision nine months previously. Unless they made their own enquiries, their conclusions would be reached on his words alone. We were at the mercy of his prejudiced judgement.
Apart from one couple who had already felt the abuse themselves, none of our 'friends' asked us why we had left. We suspect they were afraid to do so, the emotional cost of potential separation from the pastor being too great.
Once a church community becomes so much part of your life with so much trust and commitment, shunning is not easy to bear. It leaves you without friends, without community and, unless you are secure, doubting your relationship with God. Those who have no outside friends and have been dependent on the church, suddenly find themselves very alone!
Thankfully in our case, we had some friendships 'on the outside'.
Ours is not the first church to start so well and yet descend into cult-like behaviour!
Any group, however orthodox at the start, is susceptible to this kind of tragic decline if those 'in authority' fail to make themselves accountable to others and those in the group confer on leadership such a status of near infallibility that their voice becomes almost that of God Himself.
If you note warning signs in your own church, we urge you to take action as soon as possible.
We recently learned that those still in the church had been told that we have betrayed them and that we are 'branches that have been broken off'. No questions were to be asked, even of him, about why we left.
Having been gone for over a year, and understanding that our voice had never been heard, we wrote one final letter to the Pastor, copied to the inner circle.
It presented a 'tip of the iceberg' account of events leading to our departure, with suggestions for the future health of the church.
The 'inner circle' of ladies, as well as the Pastor's adopted son and his wife have all returned the letters. It appears they were given instructions to return it intact with no comment, as though unopened.
The leading lady responded with a card.
There appears to be no one left in the church, having a position of trust and responsibility, who is prepared to hear any voice other than that of the Pastor.