CHURCHES THAT ABUSE #1
RONALD M. ENROTH
This has been a difficult book to write because it is a book
that is critical of other Christians. One always runs the risk of
being misunderstood and labeled "judgmen tal" or arrogant when
you make evaluative statements regarding Christian believers and
organizations outside your own immediate circle. The book is
about churches and other Christian organizations that inflict
psychological and spiritual abuse upon members through the use of
fear, guilt, and intimidation.
However, when we refuse to pass judgment on any religious
phenomenon for fear that such judgments might violate the norm of
tolerance so prevalent in our culture, we abdicate our
responsibility to the body of Christ to sound a warning where a
warning is justified. Some boats need to be rocked, even
Christian boats. The years of research that have gone into this
book have validated for me the truth of a placard I display in my
office: "Those who make it hardest to be a Christian in this
world are the other Christians."
I can safely predict that not one of the groups discussed in
these pages will agree that they deserve such mention. They will
protest that they have been unfairly portrayed, that I have
listened to "a few disgruntled former members" whose words should
not be trusted, and who are not representative of the membership.
Let me assure the reader that the information I convey in this
book is based not on my own fanciful imagination, but on the
actual experiences of real people whose accounts can be
independently verified and who, to the best of my knowledge, have
been truthful about their encounters with churches that abuse.
Despite the defensive protestations of authoritarian leaders that
exmembers of their churches lie, distort the facts, and are
"accusers of the brethren," there is abundant evidence that a
serious problem of abuse exists in the Christian community.
Researching and writing Churches That Abuse was often a
depressing experience because in recounting their days in abusive
environments, the survivors I talked with had to re-live the pain
and confusion, and, yes, the anger. Sometimes they were
embarrassed to admit that they had allowed these things to happen
to them. They felt the absence of understanding people willing to
help them "pick up the pieces."
It is my hope that this book will provide a context for
understanding. If we have basic information about a subject, we
can sometimes take preventative action. Regrettably, it is not
always possible to "get through" to people already caught up in
abusive churches. They do not see themselves as being
manipulated, or in any danger of spiritual abuse. Hence, the
frustration of parents, relatives, and friends who try to reach
or "rescue" them. There are no easy solutions to this problem.
In the final analysis, the book presents a hopeful outlook. Not
only can individuals leave abusive churches and achieve recovery
and restoration, but there are encouraging signs that some groups
are themselves recognizing the need for change and are moving
away from the fringe toward the center. May their numbers
It is customary for authors to say that without the help of
many people their books could not have been written. That is
especially true with regard to this book because so much of it is
comprised of case histories. My greatest debt of gratitude,
therefore, is to the dozens of individuals who have shared freely
with me their personal, often painful, odysseys in abusive
churches. Only a few of their stories can be told in these pages.
But each one has contributed to my understanding of the topic
and, hopefully, all will feel they have had a part in this
project. I have tried to convey as accurately as possible what
they have told me, but I alone am responsible for any errors.
My gratitude extends to the following people who each contributed
in various ways to the success of this effort: Jamey Robertson,
Kara Bettencourt, Rebecca Coons, Hubert Merchant, Betty Fleming,
John Rodkey, and Anne Anderson.
I owe special thanks to Kevin Liu, whose assistance was
invaluable, and for whom this book has unique meaning. I remain
grateful to Herbert and Louise Moeller and to David and Dore
Charbonneau for their years of encouragement. Warren and Barbara
Landon demonstrated stability and caring when I felt alone. Thank
I continue to be grateful to J. Whitney Shea, who many years
ago introduced me to sociology and modeled for me not only
scholarship, but Christian compassion and a steadfast faith.
Finally, I thank the staff at Zondervan Publishing House,
especially my editor, Len Goss, and Zondervan's publisher, Stan
Gundry. Thank you both for your supportive encouragement and your
willingness to take on this topic.
Abusive Churches: A View From Within
Pastor Phil was in the stands watching his team participate
in a church league softball game. The game was going great, but
for some reason Pastor Phil asked the coach to substitute a
number of men in the next inning. The coach complied but left the
assistant pastor in the game. This evidently infuriated Pastor
Phil. According to the (former) coach, "He called me with his
bull horn to come to the spectator stands immediately. He was
extremely angry and asked me why I had disobeyed him about the
substitutions, pointing out that the assistant pastor was still
in the game. Without any provocation on my part, Phil was
attempting to intimidate me publicly before many people. I was
stunned! His outrage continued for the rest of the evening as he
attacked me and the team members."
The following week Pastor Phil was unable to attend the ball
game, but he gave orders to play the game "backward." That meant
the players had to bat left-handed if they were right-handed and
vice versa. All field positions were switched so that everyone
was playing in an unfamiliar location. Since the pastor couldn't
be there, he sent someone with a camera to videotape the whole
game to make sure his decree was obeyed. The point of all of
this, he said, was to "humble" the team because they were getting
too proud from winning so many games. The team members were, in
fact, humiliated and embarrassed.
The coach later confronted Pastor Phil and told him that he
was shocked and offended by his behavior. "I pointed out that I
had always done what he had asked in regard to coaching any
teams, and that his sudden outburst of rage toward me was totally
uncalled for. His only response was that I did not obey him and
therefore was not submissive to him." The coach teamed later that
most, if not all, of the team members had gone to Pastor Phil and
apologized-even though they really had nothing to apologize for.
The scene was quite different a few weeks later when television
evangelist Paul Crouch and his wife Jan were present to watch
their son Matt play ball and to shoot a video spot for their
Trinity Broadcasting Network. Pastor Phil was now "Mister
Personality," greeting all of the players, cheering them on to
victory, calling the play-by-play action while the video cameras
rolled, giving "Jesus cheers," and focusing his attention on Jan
and Paul Crouch. At the end of the game, he gathered the team
members around him, and, ever mindful of the cameras, prayed and
thanked Jesus, tears rolling down his face.
Pastor Phil is the unquestioned leader at Set Free Christian
Fellowship in Anaheim, California. He likes to present the image
of being a "cool" pastor. No jacket and tie for him. Wearing the
obligatory sunglasses and earring, he leaps to the platform, his
dark hair pulled back into a pony tail, and grabs the microphone.
"I want to welcome you to Set Free Christian Fellowship-a place
where people who love Jesus come, a place where people who don't
know Jesus come, a place where people who want to find out about
Jesus come. And it's the place, too, where a few troublemakers
come, just to try to stir up trouble. I would point out a few of
them right now, but I won't. We'll let God take care of them,
Then Pastor Phil invites his audience to "get high on
Jesus." "Jesus Christ can just bless your brain to bits," he
tells us. "Jesus Christ can make you fly. Jesus Christ can
totally set you free-this morning."
As I glance around the large, old warehouse that is the
setting for this 10 A.M. Sunday-worship service, I am reminded of
the informal atmosphere that characterized the so-called Jesus
People gatherings that I attended and wrote about in the late
1960s and early 1970s. In fact, I felt catapulted back into that
time frame this late October morning in 1990 as I joined the
largely youthful throng walking from all directions toward the
big old building with the words SET FREE emblazoned on its side.
Men from the church were directing auto and pedestrian traffic. A
few people warmly welcomed me as I approached the entrance.
Before the service begins, the sounds of a Christian rock band
announce to the visitor that this is no ordinary church. People
are noisily milling everywhere, searching for the hard-to-find
seats on the folding chairs cramped across the floor. Around the
sides and back of the building, bleacher seating is also rapidly
The crowd of several thousand is composed primarily of young
adults, with some people in their middle years, but very few over
sixty. The audience is a mixture of Hispanics and whites, with a
scattering of blacks. Quite a few children are there, many of
them in the company of single mothers. Most of the folks at Set
Free this morning are casually dressed-shorts or jeans, a few
women displaying bare midriffs. What is especially noticeable is
the presence of many males dressed in biker garb-black motorcycle
vests and sleeveless denim jackets, some with "Jesus" inscribed
on the back. Others proclaim, "Trained to Serve Jesus at Set
Free." Beards on the men and heavy make-up on the women are the
norm. Except for the biker crowd, the atmosphere is again
reminiscent of the earlier Jesus People rallies, complete with
the "one-way" finger sign popping up here and there throughout
The music is raucous and the crowd is enthusiastically
responsive. They love the rock 'n rap gospel music. They cheer,
whistle, and stomp when Pastor Phil says, "You don't have to wear
a holy face here." No sir, this is California casual. Pastor Phil
urges his audience, many of whom have backgrounds on "the
street," to feel at home, and to forget about hymnals and fancy
clothes. He promises us that we will not be hearing a three point
sermon. And no poems. Just sit back, relax and enjoy "The Lord's
Most Dangerous Band." "We're family," Pastor Phil reminds us.
Loud, upbeat music dominates the first half of the service. The
Set Free Gospel Choir is introduced and Phil banters with his
audience. "I'm gonna dedicate this in prayer for Mick Jagger that
he get saved; he might be able to sing here at Set Free one of
these days." The performers on the platform are "jumpin' for
Jesus." One of the female vocalists sports a broad-brimmed hat
that rivals the $1.98 special wom by Minnie Pearl of the Grand
Ole' Opry. Other performers wear Jesus T-shirts.
Just before testimony time, Pastor Phil brings on the
popular rap group, the Set Free Posse. He alerts the audience to
"listen up" for the "heavy" doctrine contained in the lyrics. For
those unfamiliar with the term "doctrine," he explains that in
"regular" churches it means "teaching." Then he announces the
title of the song: "Don't Be a Wimp!" "Wimp" is one of Pastor
Phil's favorite words. From the response of the congregation, it
is obvious that most of them know he is mocking traditional
churches and their concern for doctrine. It soon becomes apparent
how lightweight the lyrics are. The audience claps rhythmically
in approval. Everyone is having a fun time.
Just before his morning talk, Pastor Phil introduces two
young women who give dramatic testimony to Christian conversion.
One claims that her recent past had included involvement with
drugs and Satanic cults. She says that she had been a "breeder"
Satanist and that one of her babies was a victim of child
Pastor Phil's talk is brief and undistinguished. He wants to
preach the simple Gospel in a way that relates to some folks that
conventional evangelical churches can't relate to or even
overlook. He is effective as he stands before the crowd with open
Bible in hand, informally commenting on several verses. At the
conclusion of his talk, he gives an altar call and quite a few
people file to the front for brief counseling and a prayer,
followed by an announcement that they are now in the family of
Phil Aguilar, 43, does not fit the stereotype of the typical
evangelical pastor. He is an ex-convict, a former drug addict, a
"macho" man who rides a Harley Davidson motorcycle with a license
plate that reads, "BIKER PAS," for biker pastor. His dark glasses
and black leather are almost trademarks for a ministry that
includes outreach to bikers and gangs ("Servants for Christ") as
well as to miscellaneous street people and the homeless. As drugs
increasingly penetrate the middle class, Set Free tries to
minister to the young people from the more affluent suburbs. On
Sunday mornings cars of all descriptions and dozens of
motorcycles can be seen parked in the vicinity.
Set Free also operates a network of rehabilitation homes and
ranches. Several hundred church members live in a dozen communal
residences located in an area adjacent to the Set Free building.
The ministry operates about twenty additional houses nearby, two
of them owned by the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). Most of
Set Free's homes are leased at low rates from the City of
Anaheim's Redevelopment Agency. Mayor Fred Hunter, an ardent
supporter of Set Free, rents two houses he owns to Pastor Phil
and his Set Free Christian Fellowship.
The Set Free rehabilitation program also includes small
ranches located in Perris, California, one near Dallas, Texas,
and another near Chicago, Illinois. These ranches, plus the urban
residential program, involve approximately five hundred people.
And it is this segment of Set Free ministries-the rehabilitation
and communal dimension-that has stirred up controversy. Some
critics have questioned the nature of the rehabilitative effort,
the physical facilities themselves, and the lack of professional
oversight. But most of the concern has revolved around the
leadership style and suffusive influence of the man in black-Phil
Aguilar. Here is an account of what happened to one couple.
Tina and Art first joined Set Free Christian Fellowship in April
of 1987 because of drug and marital problems. They had hopes of a
restored marriage and of starting a better life together. Pastor
Phil Aguilar regularly appeared on the TBN network, announcing
that anyone with problems, either drug, alcohol, or personal,
could come to Set Free for counsel and assistance; no one would
be turned away.
Tina and Art did go to Set Free and they were not turned
away. However, by the time their stay at Set Free was over, they
had divorced, Art had lost his faith and left the ministry, Tina
had remarried one of Set Free's inner circle of leaders who took
her money and possessions for a drug binge and left her pregnant
and alone with four other children. All of this occurred with
Pastor Phil's knowledge, counsel, and blessing.
When Tina and Art first moved into the Set Free homes, they
were living together in the same house and had no thoughts of
separation or divorce. Soon, how ever, when they started to
argue, they were separated by Pastor Phil into different
households. They were not in agreement with this forced
separation, but they submitted to Pastor Phil's supposed wisdom
and discernment. According to Art, "instead of us getting
together to try to work out our problems, we got separated."
Art was also not allowed to see his own children without having a
permission slip. If he saw them at church, he could watch them
from fifty feet away but was not allowed to talk with them.
Feeling frustrated and powerless, Art watched his wife become
increasingly influenced by Pastor Phil. As a young Christian, she
could neither discern nor distinguish biblical truth from Set
Free doctrine. She drifted further and further from her husband
until, because she and Art "didn't get along," Pastor Phil
counseled her to get a "worldly divorce," since a "spiritual
divorce" was not possible without having committed adultery. Tina
says about her experience at Set Free, "When you first start to
get involved, you're so naive about things, and it's really easy
to fall into becoming part of Pastor Phil's 'clique,' especially
when you're just coming off of drugs and having a lot of
problems." Art adds, "At the time, Tina and I were new Christians
who didn't know very much about the Lord, and we could have
followed any kind of cult without even knowing it. There are a
lot of people out there who twist the Word around, and there are
a lot of false prophets."
At no time did Art and Tina ever receive counsel together,
nor did Pastor Phil ever pray or share the Scriptures with them.
Art asked many times to be able to sit down with his wife so they
could talk out their problems. Each time Pastor Phil would say
that they were not yet ready. Then he counseled the divorce that
neither of them wanted. Tina thought that this was God's word. If
Pastor Phil sanctioned the divorce, then it must be right.
Set Free claims that it ministers to many downtrodden
individuals with alcohol, drug, or relational problems. Few have
anything beyond a high school educa tion. Few are Christians
before coming to Set Free. According to former members and other
sources, Pastor Phil himself has only two semesters of Bible
school education and is very negative toward formal schooling.
The theological "Master's degree" that Set Free's official
spokesman claims Aguilar was awarded is in fact a certificate
from a correspondence school in Florida, called International
Seminary. Given this information, it is entirely understandable
how individuals like Tina and Art can be swayed by Phil Aguilar's
philosophy, doctrine, and practices. Tina says, "There were a lot
of things Phil kept me from doing, and, at the time, I thought it
was okay, but I just couldn't see what he was doing. I thought
what he was doing was good for my life, and I didn't realize how
bad it is to keep someone away from her family, or to keep
grandchildren from seeing their grandparents." Tina wanted to
leave Set Free several times. Each time she was told that she was
weak and that her return to drugs was inevitable. Despite the
internal struggle, she remained in the organization, fearing a
return to drug abuse and godlessness.
At the time of her divorce, Pastor Phil came to Tina and
told her that he cared for her, that he was with her, and that he
backed her all the way in her decision to get a divorce. He also
indicated that he wanted her to stay in Set Free forever and to
make a life for herself there with her children. His counsel to
her was to stay single for at least two years so that she could
get closer to the Lord and be near her pastor. So Tina ended up
living near Phil Aguilar and his family. He would frequently come
to her room to talk with her whenever she was feeling down, and
would tell her that she "trade beautiful babies and things like
that." Phil counseled her to tell her children that their father
was "backslidden and not doing the things of the Lord."
Tina ended up getting remarried in Set Free to Peter, who,
at the time, was one of Aguilar's lieutenants. She thought that
everything was fine, but deep down began to feel that something
was wrong. However, she didn't question too much because she
thought that since Phil Aguilar was a pastor, anything he did had
to be right. "I never questioned divorce and remarriage because I
thought Phil knew what he was doing and everything was okay."
Peter and Tina also ended up leaving Set Free because they
had planned on going to Hawaii for their honeymoon-without Phil's
permission. Phil caused most of their wedding and honeymoon plans
to be cancelled, and said that if they wanted to get sun or look
at palm trees that they could spend time in the backyard of one
of the Set Free houses. They ended up living in a single room
with four children. Shortly after the wedding, Peter and Tina
moved to another city, where Peter returned to drug abuse. In the
eleven months that they were married, Peter went on four drug
binges each of several days' length. The last time, he took
Tina's personal possessions and money. When he returned from the
last binge, he declared that he was going back to Set Free to
serve God. He left on a Wednesday and on Friday he was at TBN
doing phone counseling, something that Set Free members regularly
volunteer to do. After that, Tina started to question God, but
only, she says, "because I had made Phil my god. I couldn't
understand how a pastor could allow these things to happen. I
couldn't understand how Phil could allow my husband to be lifted
up again right after he had just ripped off his wife and had been
shooting up drugs for two days. I was pregnant at the time, and I
had to have all my utilities turned off because he had stolen all
my money and I wasn't able to pay our bills." The child was not
planned; Pastor Phil would not allow Tina to use birth control.
Peter was received with open arms upon his return to Set Free. He
was never counseled to take responsibility for his pregnant wife
and children. He did attempt to return to his family but was
ridiculed and mocked for. such sentiments. Phil said, "Peter, you
wimped out on me again." Tina and the children are still alone.
Tina's brother and mother became involved in Set Free during the
same period of time that Tina and Art were involved. All have
been devastated. Louise, Tina's mother, joined because of her
concern for her children and grandchildren. A daughter-in-law and
grandchildren are now lost to her. Robert, Tina's brother, went
to Set Free for help with drug abuse. At this writing, Robert's
wife and children are still very much a part of Set Free. He is
allowed to see them for only one hour on Sundays-but only at Phil
Aguilar's Set Free Christian Fellowship.
A former Set Free staff member, who came to the organization
from the outside and who was filled with idealism over the
possibilities for service, soon discovered nothing but
"The whole emphasis at Set Free is the idea that everybody
should live in one community. However, at that particular point,
my wife and I had just sold our house and had begun living in an
apartment. Phil was constantly pressuring us to break our lease
on the apartment and move into the Set Free homes. At that time
they had twelve homes that housed about two hundred people. He
said if I would move in, I wouldn't have the responsibility of
having to raise any more support or have to work a part-time job
in order to pay my bills, and I could be there twenty-four hours
a day ministering and having the freedom to do what God called me
to do. He also pointed out that if I ever had to leave town for
any reason, my wife would have people to fellowship with. We
became convinced that it was the right thing to do. My wife and I
took that as being wisdom from the Lord and from our pastor, so
we broke our lease and mo-ed into the homes. We also sold most of
our possessions. And, thinking that we would be there for the
rest of our lives, we took our remaining possessions and
remodeled the home which we moved into. We gave them all of our
furniture, our refrigerator, and a variety of household goods."
This was the beginning of Pat and Kerry's ordeal as youth pastors
at Phil Aguilar's Set Free Christian Fellowship. During their
stay they feel they were "used" to lend an air of respectability
to the Set Free ministry, were tom apart as a family, were
systematically removed from responsibilities when they were
becoming too successful in the youth ministry, and suffered the
loss of Kerry's sister, Stacee, to the intense thought reform of
the group and to Aguilar's son, Geronimo.
Pat was a youth pastor at an Anaheim church when he met Phil
Aguilar. He was full of zeal for God, was considering full-time
ministry, and had numerous non traditional ideas that he believed
were needed in order to reach the youth of today. He was having a
hard time finding a church that would be willing to implement
activities that would make church exciting and a place where
young people could go and feel like they could belong twenty-four
hours a day.
Pat's father-in-law introduced him to Phil Aguilar. All that
they knew of Set Free at the time was that it was an inner-city
ministry that helped the poor and needy and reached out to the
afflicted and those in prison. According to Pat, "From the
outside, everything seemed to be exactly what I was looking for."
At their first meeting, Pastor Phil impressed Pat as being a very
charismatic type of person. "He was very lively and full of
enthusiasm. He was very non-traditional: an ex-gang member,
ex-drug addict, ex-con, a Harley Davidson biker who wore all
black, always wore his dark Ray-Ban sunglasses without taking
them off, had tattoos all over his body, and was of Mexican
descent." Pat shared with Pastor Phil his vision concerning youth
and his desire to open a youth center in Anaheim. He also shared
with him the fact that he had a possible invitation from a church
in Northern California to go and minister there. Aguilar declared
that Pat would not be going there, but that God was going to call
him to stay in Anaheim, and that he would ultimately be working
with Set Free.
Initially discounting Pastor Phil's predictions, Pat and
Kerry began attending Set Free, and, at first, it appeared to be
a "real Christian utopia." Phil would call Pat's family on stage
and introduce them as the "Boone family" or "the clean-cut
family." This was in a congregation consisting primarily of
ex-gang members, ex-drug addicts, and ex-alcoholics. Pat's family
was given exceptional treatment during that initial period, and,
over the course of weeks, began to grow very attached to Phil
Aguilar and Set Free. Then Phil offered to make Pat Set Free's
very first youth pastor. However, he would have to live by faith
and raise his own support.
Immediately after this offer, Pat and Kerry were
"coincidentally" visited by a member of Set Free with a word from
the Lord concerning their staying in Anaheim, as well as offers
of financial support. They were convinced they should stay at Set
For the first three months, life and ministry were great.
Pat was having great success, ministering to two hundred high
schoolers and being asked to consult with state agencies.
According to Pat, "Things were perfect, and we thought we had
found the place that the Lord had told us to go and spend the
rest of our lives." However, things changed once they decided to
move into the Set Free homes.
Although Pat was eventually appointed overseer of the three
main Set Free homes that housed about eighty persons, he and
Kerry began to notice inconsistencies in both the Set Free
Fellowship and in Phil Aguilar's life. The red lights began to go
on. Phil surrounded himself with non-educated and court-appointed
individuals needing supervision. Many could not read and depended
on Phil for teaching and the interpretation of Scripture. These
persons were not afforded any education at Set Free and,
according to Pat, they "literally fear Phil and they serve Phil."
New Christians would be sent to TBN (the Trinity Broadcasting
Network) to staff the telephone counseling lines-a "blessing"
that was required of Set Free members, even if they were not yet
completely free of their own addictions. Any questioning of
Phil's decisions or any indications of "irresponsibility"
resulted in a stay at "the Ranch," a five-acre dirt facility
outside of Perris, California, consisting of a few
ten-by-ten-foot modular rooms and an outdoor woodheated shower.
The times away from Set Free at the ranch were ordinarily set
aside for spiritual growth, a place where "you could go to be
closer to the Lord." But sometimes it was used just as a place of
punishment. Phil would separate parents and children by sending
young children, he would separate husbands and wives by sending
one or the other, and he would separate mothers, daughters,
brothers, and sisters. People put up with such treatment and
stayed with Set Free because many knew that if they left, they
would not have anywhere else to go.
Things were no more consistent with the Scriptures in
Aguilar's personal life, Pat soon learned. While claiming that he
had taken a vow of poverty and that he had had to move forty-two
times in his ministry, he would go out to eat lunch and dinner
frequently, wear fifty dollar shirts, outfit his children in
expensive shoes and clothing, and buy various accessories for his
motorcycles. Meanwhile, Pat and Kerry's weekly food budget for
the twenty-five persons in their communal house was two hundred
dollars. Phil also had access to many different motorcycles and
cars. He headed up car and motorcycle "ministries" and would give
motorcycles to devoted followers so that they could participate
in these church-sponsored "outreach" activities. To downplay his
expensive habits, Aguilar would dress in cutup t-shirts, shorts,
and army boots, according to Pat.
Perhaps reflecting on his own meager theological education,
and revealing his personal feelings of inadequacy, Pastor Phil
would sometimes comment that "the only thing worse than an old
Christian was an educated Christian." Yet, he would discipline
his followers by calling them "spineless wimps," "babies," or
"uneducated." He would sometimes ridicule and humiliate people in
Personal quirks also resulted in inconsistency in practices
as well as doctrine. Persons seeking assistance at Set Free
received differential treatment according to their connections
with influential people and how much they could benefit Pastor
Phil. Pat's youth ministry was severely curtailed when the former
youth director, an influential and financially supportive woman,
wanted her position back. Pat and Kerry believed that their
family was being used as a public relations tool to further
Pastor Phil's ministry and offset his biker image.
Pat and Kerry's relationship with Kerry's parents was
severely strained to the point that, at the end of their time
with Set Free, they were told essentially that Kerry would have
to choose between her parents or the Set Free ministry. Kerry's
parents could only see their grandchildren when they worked as
nursery volunteers on Sunday. They were labeled as being a
hindrance to the work of God.
Kerry's sister, Stacee, is still a member of Set Free,
having married Phil Aguilar's son, Geronimo. She has been turned
against her family, and, on several occasions when visiting with
Stacee, Kerry and Pat have been told that they "stir up trouble"
and "cause division" by wanting to see her. They feel that Stacee
has succumbed to the "Christian macho" environment promoted by
the Aguilars. She is "supposed to treat her husband as if he were
the Lord," according to Pat. She was up, serving her husband food
and drink, hours after the birth of their first child. Her
husband does not participate in the care of the baby, preferring
to wait until the time the child can communicate with him.
Speaking of her brother-in-law, Kerry observes: "He continually
goes off and does whatever he wants, which usually doesn't
include Stacee." Stacee continues to defend and build up her
husband. A common complaint of former Set Free members is that
many of the men in the church treat women like doormats.
Phil allows no elders in the church, claiming that he alone is
responsible before God for all of his flock. Thus, internal
accountability is nullified. Also, as shepherd of the communal
flock, Phil requires permission notes for all aspects of life.
Pat was not allowed to oversee his family as husband and father,
but was expected to consult with Phil on all matters.
According to Pat, because of these and other areas of
disagreement, "I finally got to the point where I was about to
lose my wife and child. Kerry was being tormented psychologically
and was increasingly negatively affected by the ministry."
Eventually, Pat was taken to a football practice to be told that
he was being a "wimp" because he wasn't able to control his wife
and keep her away from her mother. He was told that he had to
decide whether he was going to be in control of his family and
"get some guts," or leave the ministry. After consulting with two
other Set Free leaders who also admitted that they had considered
leaving, Pat was told that if he was going to leave he must do so
very quietly so that he didn't stir up any problems.
One evening Pat and his wife did leave very quietly, but
when they returned to pick up their furniture, they found that
everything had been removed from their room and locked up. As
they began to load what was left of their belongings, Pastor Phil
came by to help them pack. Here is Pat's account of what
"I told him that he didn't have to help us. His response was
that the sooner he got us out of there the better. After we had
loaded everything, he began to verbally attack me, hoping to get
me to physically attack him. He began to discredit me by calling
me a spineless wimp and a baby. He said that I was sowing discord
in the ministry and causing other people to leave. When I
responded using Scripture, he didn't answer, but continued to
belittle me in front of my wife and all the people in the homes.
I am sure he was trying to provoke me to anger so that I would
physically attack him. That would prove to all the observers that
I was indeed an `outlaw,' which is Set Free jargon for a
backslider or a rebellious person."
Six months after Pat and Kerry left to become involved in
another Christian ministry elsewhere in the state of California,
they returned to Set Free to visit Kerry's sister, Stacee, who
was now pregnant with her first child. Phil eventually showed up
and the first thing he said to Pat was, "Hello, el wimpo. Wimpo
is back in town." He came up to Pat, gave him a hug, and asked
him what he was doing there. "I told him that I was just visiting
and then he told me that I better leave right away. He again said
that I was trying to sow discord. He called me a loser and a
spineless wimp. He proceeded to inform me how God wasn't doing
anything with my life and how miserable I was. He said that my
family life was down the tubes and that was the reason I was back
in town. After a few more minutes of his verbal abuse, Phil's
secretary, Lois, joined in and began to tell, me that I was
treading on dangerous ground. She said that if I continued to act
that way toward Phil, God would probably take my life because I
was messing with a man who was anointed by God."
As Pat tells it, Phil became even angrier. "He started to
pat me on the head and make some kissing gestures at me. Then he
came up and kissed me right on the lips and said, `Now what are
you going to do about that?"' Pat told Phil that he would pray
for him because he was really confused_ and: that God was going
to deal with him severely if he chose to continue on his present
path. That was the last time Pat and Kerry saw Pastor Phil
It is Pat's opinion that "Phil Aguilar is a very confused
individual who is selfish, chauvinistic, prideful, jealous,
arrogant, and extremely authoritarian. He will do anything to
advance his organization, his ministry, or his business." Before
Phil became a Christian, he was nicknamed "King Cobra." The day
that e kissed Pat on the lips, Pat remarked that the "Cobra" had
never died, but still lived on. Pastor Phil turned, looked at
Pat, and walked away.
This book is about people who have been abused
psychologically and spiritually in churches and other Christian
organizations. Unlike physical abuse that often results in
bruised bodies, spiritual and pastoral abuse leaves scars on the
psyche and soul. It is inflicted by persons who are accorded
respect and honor in our society by virtue of their role as
religious leaders and models of spiritual authority. They base
that authority on the Bible, the Word of God, and see themselves
as shepherds with a sacred trust. But when they violate that
trust, when they abuse their authority, and when they misuse
ecclesiastical power to control and manipulate the flock, the
results can be catastrophic. The perversion of power that we see
in abusive churches disrupts and divides families, fosters an
unhealthy dependence of members on the leadership, and creates,
ultimately, spiritual confusion in the lives of victims.
And victims they are. In this book you will meet some of the
casualties of spiritual abuse. They will tell you in their own
words why they were attracted to authoritarian religious groups
and what the impact of that involvement has meant. They will
share the pain of leaving an abusive church and the struggle to
readjust to life on the "outside." For many of them, life in an
allencompassing Christian environment has been so devastating
that they find it difficult sometimes to read their Bibles,
attend church, or even believe in God.
Much has been written about battered wives and child abuse.
Here you will read about battered believers and abused
Christians. The people in this book, for the most part, define
themselves as born-again Christians.
The churches and leaders that abused them are evangelical or
fundamentalist in theological orientation. However, churches that
abuse are on the margins, or just outside the circle, of the
mainstream evangelical subculture as it exists in North America.
That is, they would not ordinarily seek membership in
organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals or
financially support missionary and humanitarian organizations
such as World Vision International. Their children would not
participate in Young Life or Youth for Christ, and they would not
encourage their young people to attend mainstream evangelical
colleges like Westmont and Wheaton, or even Bible schools like
the Moody Bible Institute. Their pastors would not read
Christianity Today magazine.
I have spent several years researching this book and have
interviewed hundreds of abuse victims in order to learn about
their experiences. I have also talked with many other people
whose lives have touched former and current members. I have used
a tape recorder consistently, but not always. As much as possible
in this book, I want to convey the feelings, the attitudes, and
the experiences of the people themselves - in their own words - a
view from the inside. There will be a minimum of analysis and
commentary. In terms of methodology, my mentor is Harvard social
psychiatrist Robert Coles, author of the celebrated series
Children of Crisis. Like him, my aim is "to approach certain
lives, not to pin them down, not to confine them with labels, not
to limit them with heavily intellectualized speculations but...
to approach, to describe, to transmit as directly and sensibly as
possible what has been seen, heard, grasped, felt...."
Each chapter contains one or more case studies as well as
anecdotal material from interviews and other sources.
Occasionally I have presented a composite case history; that is,
I have combined two or three people into one individual.
Sociologists are concerned about the validity and reliability of
their data. I feel that the case studies presented here are
reasonably representative. I believe that the people who shared
their experiences with me were being truthful and I am equally
certain that the leaders of their former churches would assert
that these ex-member accounts are exaggerated or, at the least,
distorted. Although I did not use formal questionnaires and do
not claim that my findings have any "statistical significance," I
feel that I have identified patterns of behavior that can be
independently verified using standard behavioral-science
In addition to employing informal, in-depth interviews of
former members, I have visited some of the churches mentioned,
listened to countless hours of taped sermons and talks by the
pastors under discussion, and talked with relatives and friends
of individuals who are currently members of such groups. Whenever
possible, I have attempted to interview those in leadership. In
all but a few instances, I identify the pastors and churches
referred to in this book by their actual names. The names of all
former members have been changed.
Sociologists look for patterns in human behavior and in
social institutions. As you read the following pages, a profile
of pastoral and spiritual abuse will emerge. Abusive churches,
past and present, are first and foremost characterized by strong,
control-oriented leadership. These leaders use guilt, fear, and
intimidation to manipulate members and keep them in line.
Followers are led to think that there is no other church quite
like theirs and that God has singled them out for special
purposes. Other, more traditional evangelical churches are put
down. Subjective experience is emphasized and dissent is
discouraged. Many areas of members' lives are subject to
scrutiny. Rules and legalism abound. People who don't follow the
rules or who threaten exposure are often dealt with harshly.
Excommunication is common. For those who leave, the road back to
normalcy is difficult.
The patterns of abuse, the mechanisms of response and
coping, and the similarities in outcome have become clear to me
as I have attempted to understand the phenomenon of authoritarian
churches. At times, when hearing a person's odyssey for the first
time, I am tempted to say, "Stop, let me tell you the rest of the
story." I am reminded of a comment made by Robert Coles regarding
his research experience. He notes that "some observations and
considerations keep coming up, over and over again-until... they
seem to have the ring of truth to them. I do not know how that
ring will sound to others, but its sound after a while gets to be
distinct and unforgettable to me " 2
To be continued