CHURCHES THAT ABUSE #3
RONALD M. ENROTH
Abusive Churches Can Go Over the Edge
CHURCHES THAT ABUSE
"white room experience," introduced by Barbara Barnett as a
result of a vision she supposedly received from God. This
mystical place enabled one to become especially intimate with the
Lord, but could only be reached through a progression of
different stages of spiritual maturity. Robin recalls that there
was much talk about it and other "super-spiritual" experiences by
people who had access into the white room.
This was only one of many spiritual fads that would sweep
through the Chapel, exciting many of the faithful but confusing
many others. For example, there was the "pillar of holiness"
movement, but, "if you didn't get into the white room, then you
couldn't get into the pillar of holiness." This was followed by
additional waves of highly emotional experiences, including
"singing in the Spirit" in which the congregation would sing in
tongues together. Then there was something called "spiritual
surgery" in which individuals were encouraged to "completely
yield to God," so that inner healing could result. This was
accompanied by individuals being "slain in the Spirit," a
phenomenon common in some Pentecostal circles in which persons so
overwhelmed by God appear to faint away in a trance-like state.
Finally, "dancing before the Lord" was instituted in 1983,
the precursor to "intimate dancing" and "spiritual connections."
A former elder and Community Chapel Bible College teacher offers
this explanation as to what happened: "We put a premium on
spiritual experience. It's shocking to me to see what transpired.
Once you're out in the realm of experience, you can't talk
Scripture anymore because there's no Scripture that's relevant to
something as wild and bizarre as this."
Robin compares these so-called movements of God to the story
of The Emperor's New Clothes: " . . . nobody wants to confess
that they're the only one in the group that doesn't have any
clothes on, so they just kind of jump on the band wagon. They get
into it even if it doesn't seem right to them because they don't
want to miss out on what God has for them. They don't want to be
left out of 'the bride,' left out of the 'rapture,' not be part
of the 'man-child ministry.' She believes that these fears of
losing out are real to the people involved and that Barnett used
the fear along with heavy doses of guilt and emotional
manipulation to control the congregation. "Everyone was ready to
go for anything that seemed spiritual."
Matt believes that these spiritual and emotional experiences
over the past years were the key community builders of the
church. They drew the people closer through shared experience.
However, they have also left individuals terribly confused and
families sometimes broken beyond repair. The practice of
"spiritual connections" had a particularly demonic impact. There
were numerous accounts of adulterous relationships, sexual
assault, harshly shunned and rejected dissidents, child abuse,
suicides and attempted suicides, broken marriages, child-custody
battles, and lawsuits, several of which were aimed at Pastor
Barnett for alleged sexual misconduct.
Robin reports that Chapel women had a reputation around the
Seattle area as the women who walk around in a trance. Some of
them worked in the food-service department of a major hotel where
the other workers viewed the Chapel Christians negatively. One of
the waitresses said, "We can't even stand to work with them
because they're out to lunch. They've got a loose screw
somewhere, and they don't pull their share of the weight. They're
off in unreality somewhere."
The "moves of God" at Community Chapel did indeed leave many
in just such a state of unreality. The dramatic and
ever-accelerating barrage of sensual and spiritual experience
caused many people to have their discernment ability dulled to
the point of no longer being shocked at anything. As one former
member put it, "Unless it was horrible, perverted, kinky sex or
adultery, or somebody sexually abusing a kid, I was not shocked
anymore by it." Exposure to extremes of behavior and belief at
Community Chapel had desensitized members to the point where
conscience and morals were anesthetized.
Contributing to this state of unreality among members of
Community Chapel was what psychologists call the "double bind"
theory of mental dysfunction. "We were told one thing and then
what is done is totally opposite, and so you're trying to
redefine terms to apply to something that is not real." Robin
gives the example of Barbara, Don Barnett's wife. Barbara was
held up as a model for Community Chapel women. While Barnett
preached that "you don't want to draw undue attention to yourself
... you want to look feminine, and you don't want to dress in a
seductive way ....," his wife presented a different image.
According to Robin, "She wore a wig, she had false eyelashes; she
wore spiked heels ... you see her on the street and people turn
around and gape and stare." In the view of some Chapel
parishioners, the pastor's' wife looked more like the prostitute
Jezebel than the godly wife of Proverbs 31.
Community Chapel women were expected to dress in very
feminine attire, not the "jeans and sloppy shirts" that "worldly
women" were seen in. Barnett reportedly told the congregation,
"It may come to the point in this world where the only women who
dress in a feminine way are the prostitutes." Matt says that
because of this and many other irreconcilable contradictions,
"our friends were going insane."
"Connections" and "intimate dancing" nearly caused Robin to
have a mental breakdown. Instituted between 1983 and 1985, the
"dancing before the Lord" evolved into a teaching with specific
rules that encouraged members to find a "connection," or dance
partner. Soon partners were instructed to stare into one
another's eyes, eventually known as "connecting." Partners were
told they would see Jesus in each other's eyes, and that they
were to love their spiritual connection in order to express the
love of Jesus. During the week, both in church and outside the
church, members were encouraged to spend time with their
spiritual connections in a kind of quasi-dating relationship. As
might naturally be expected, physical intimacy often accompanied
these "spiritual" connections. "Connection love" was supposedly
more intense, and even more desirable, than marital love.
Robin graphically describes what it was like at church during
sessions of intimate dancing. "Picture your typical
forty-year-old wife who's out of shape and has six kids. There
she is watching her husband dancing with this little
twenty-year-old perfect beauty-long blonde hair, big bust, little
waist-in his arms, gazing at her for hours. And meanwhile the
wife is going insane." Spouses were taught that they had to
"release their mates unto the Lord" if they experienced feelings
of jealousy. At the same time, Pastor Barnett made clear from the
pulpit, they were not to view the connections "carnally." What
the people were doing physically, hugging, holding, fondling,
kissing - was not to be viewed with the eyes of the "flesh."
"What's happening is they're having spiritual union," said the
pastor. "It just looks the same on the outside, but what's really
occurring is spiritual, so don't judge them or their motives."
God, it was said, was using the connections to break lawn the
barriers and inhibitions within the congregation in order to
bring about greater "unity within the body." "We're gonna fall in
love with everyone," was the message. Although this inevitably
led to marital friction, the members were told that intimate
spiritual experiences with members of the opposite sex, other
than one's spouse, could help defeat the demons of jealousy and
open up the person to a deepened experience of the love of
Christ. Participants were actually instructed to diversify.
"Don't conunit yourselves to any one person." It was not unusual
for members, including the pastor and his wife, to connect with
more than one person at a time.
Those considered most spiritual were invited to dance in the
front of the church with Barnett. All his connections were
described as "beautiful, well-endowed, and young." Robin and Matt
believe that Barnett "obviously has some sort of sexual
problem.... He's so preoccupied with women's bodies." Barnett
discussed oral sex in Sunday school and was "inappropriately
explicit" regarding sexual matters from the pulpit.
Community Chapel has reportedly paid for abortions for
members, including teenagers, and Barnett has preached that "God
never did really say 'thou shalt not have an abortion.'" Those
who say abortion is murder are said to be guilty of a "legalism,"
a term used to refer to an incorrect or overly literal
interpretation of biblical, civil, or moral law. He reasoned that
if "adultresses" were forced to have babies, the children raised
by them, or given up for adoption, would grow up to lead sinful
lives and end up in hell. If aborted, they would return to God.
Robin and Matt say that the extreme emphasis on sexual issues
impacted the children and adolescents of Community Chapel in one
of two ways. "Either they were really into it or they think it's
junk." The entire eighth grade class at the church's Christian
school refused to have dancing chapels because they believed that
it was "ridiculous." Matt is afraid that an entire generation is
being lost because of Community Chapel's aberrant former pastor.
What went wrong at Community Chapel? How can one explain the
bizarre series of events that led to Barnett's eventual downfall?
According to former members Robin and Matt, "Don Barnett
lost his grip on the Bible. It was that Book which kept the place
reasonably sober over the years. He gradually diminished and
deemphasized the Bible as something to preach from, as something
to live by. He had to get rid of the Book."
Much of the problem can also be attributed to the deceptive
nature of Barnett's sensual theology. He and his wife, over a
period of several years, drew the congregation into the trap of
believing that the sexual and the spiritual realms were
innocuously intertwined. Barnett increasingly relied on mystical
and subjective religious experience to convince his followers
that he was indeed in touch with God. He gradually, cleverly, and
subtly prepared his audience for what would be considered
outrageous pronouncements in more conventional evangelical
One such bizarre event took place in 1983 when Barbara
Barnett shared a vision she supposedly received from God. Robin
was present when the pastor's wife told the story and here is her
account of what transpired. "Barbara had a vision of herself
standing before the Lord, and we, her spiritual children, were
all there. As she was standing before the Lord, he asked her to
disrobe and come to him. She was very embarrassed and reluctant
to do so, but she said, 'I never say no to Jesus. I always obey
him and so I just fixed my gaze on him and knew I could do
anything he asked.' She started to disrobe and then he asked her
to dance and come to him. So she started to dance. He took her
into a chamber and she said, 'Oh, I'm so glad to be alone with
you, Lord.' And he said, 'No, I want them to come too.' She said,
'Oh, I just don't know how I can do it; it's just way too hard.
But I knew that Jesus wanted me to.' He then lay her down on this
beautiful bed that was strewn with rose petals. As she was lying
there, she looked at the walls and ceiling and they were covered
with flowers. He was beginning to make love to her when she
noticed that each flower was a face - a face of a person from the
congregation. She was mortified at first, but he said, 'I want
you to be willing to let them watch you yield to me so that they
can learn how to do it.' Barbara went on to say, 'There's nothing
sexual about this at all, there's nothing romantic. It's just a
picture of what is occurring spiritually when you yield your
heart to the Lord.'"
Most evangelical Christians would probably conclude that
Barbara Barnett had an occultic experience rather than an
encounter with the Jesus of the Bible. It was this kind of
mystical experience, elaborated on in countless sermons by the
pastor, that set the stage for the congregation to believe that
they could encounter Jesus through other individuals. Jesus was
identified with the men of the assembly, and the women
constituted the bride.
As the teaching about spiritual connections began to evolve,
people were told that they could even experience a kind of
mystical union with their connection while making love to their
spouse. "It is so far beyond anything that anyone has experienced
sexually that we know it's spiritual," said one of Community
Chapel's elders. Other members have reportedly communicated with
the spirits of their absent connections, and been made love to by
their connections who "embodied" their spouses. Some have danced
with the spirits of deceased members. Barbara has also testified
about having connections with David, Abraham, and Moses.
Matt and Robin say they have experienced the "demonic,
occultic power" of the connection phenomenon. They believe that
it is more than just people "going insane, becoming
schizophrenic, or making it up." The people involved in what were
termed "mega" or main connections (primary pairings), supposedly
experienced the greatest power. Matt says, "It's not just people
having infatuations or even just falling in love. It was an
intensely psycho-spiritual experience. I couldn't live without
her [Robin]. I couldn't work; I couldn't eat; I was literally out
of my mind."
Matt describes how it all got started. "Though I'd attended
church there for eight years or so, I never knew Robin. I had
jumped into this latest 'move of God' right away, something that
was not unusual for me to do. Anyway, I was doing a lot of
dancing with a lot of people and Robin first came and said she'd
like to dance with me. That's how it happened. I danced with
Robin, maybe twenty minutes, and I was so hooked on what I had
experienced that, well, ... We were both married at the time.
It's so difficult to describe the intense emotions, the passion,
the longing. I consider it entirely or almost entirely demonic.
We knew at the beginning that we were surrounded by demonic
power. We sensed it, but we couldn't define it."
Robin's children suffered as a result of the connecting
experience. She says, "The kids went through hell." She believes
that she was literally going out of her mind at that time and
would have benefited from "involuntary incarceration" if there
had been some way to provide for the children. Her ex-husband and
his "connection" took on the child-care responsibilities.
An interesting postscript is that, in Robin's opinion, those who
were considered to be the most spiritual at Community Chapel and
who supposedly had the most contact with God were those who had
come out of deep occult backgrounds. Those persons who resisted
getting involved in the dancing phenomenon were told that their
refusing to dance was the result of "demonic oppression."
As for herself, Robin said, "I was having lots of
supernatural experiences; I assumed and was quite sure it was all
of God." Although it took her a year to get herself to dance in
the congregation, she finally began when she saw a
nineteen-year-old dancing. "I felt like I was Jesus and I saw him
as the bride, and I thought, 'I've gotta get to him; I've gotta
dance with him.'" She danced for four straight hours and felt
that when she looked at him, she was "looking right into the eyes
of Jesus.... I felt totally free to be vulnerable to Jesus
through him, and I had this powerful experience with the Lord
while dancing with him." Now she is not sure if it was Jesus of
Nazareth that she saw in her partner's eyes, or his voice that
spoke through this man while she danced with him, telling her of
things that no one could know. "Every time I would look at this
guy, especially if I'd look at his right eyebrow.... I could see
Jesus looking through his eye at me. We didn't have a physical
relationship at all, but it was an intense emotional bonding."
Robin also states that the connecting experience was so
intense that she and other women would experience orgasm without
ever having any physical contact with their connections.
Robin's connection with Matt was at first just an "intense
spiritual union... there was nothing physical at all about it,
not a shred, but we became locked into each other, and I've been
with him every single day since. We could not stay away from each
other. We became so emotionally tied, and I'm not talking just
infatuated and wanting to be together, I mean not being able to
live. It got to the point where he would leave for work, and then
he'd call me as soon as he'd get there, and I'd be OK. He'd work
for maybe ten or fifteen minutes and then he'd go in and he'd
call me up again. By the time he got to me on the phone, I was an
emotional wreck, crying, totally confused, out of my mind. He'd
talk to me for ten, fifteen, maybe thirty minutes, and get me
Robin and Matt finally escaped Community Chapel and Don
Barnett. They are now married to one another and Robin is
pursuing a doctorate in counseling psychology.
What contributed to Community Chapel's slide into what
observers agree is false teaching and deception? Virtually all
ex-members agree with the conclusion of a founding elder of the
church that an over-emphasis on experience began a drift away
from the Bible. "It was the experience focus that got us off the
track more than any other thing." "People need to be reminded,"
commented another former member, "not to put their confidence in
a set of criteria put forth by a man who is simply relating his
observations, but to place their confidence squarely on the Bible
as the only infallible standard for judging truth."
The tragedy of Community Chapel goes back to a misplaced
loyalty. People, thinking that they were placing their allegiance
in the Word of God, were actually placing their allegiance in a
man and his interpretation of the Word of God. That is crucial to
understanding why people were so easily deceived. They thought
that they were really obeying the Word of God.
The comments of a former elder who was associated with the
church for eighteen years before resigning are insightful: "As I
look back on it now, it is clear that, subtly at first, there
began to be a feeling of superiority and exclusiveness among the
people. This was more evident in some than in others, but I think
we all were affected by it. There began to be a feeling that this
church was unique, and that while we loved other brothers in
Christ, to leave Community Chapel would always be a step down
spiritually. "The pastor rarely had other preachers in to
minister to us, feeling that they really couldn't add anything to
us, and might only foster divisions and problems. I feel that
this is one of the critical factors in the sad things that
happened later: no checks and balances with the rest of God's
people, and no accountability to other men of God outside our own
Quite clearly, the excesses at Community Chapel demonstrate
what can happen when spiritual experience dictates theology and
then necessitates a re-interpreta of Scripture. Subjective
experience takes care of the theological loopholes that the Bible
seems not to address. The leadership of Community Chapel promoted
the view that one could accept certain doctrines and practices if
they could not be disproved from Scripture, rather than accept
them because of a strong conviction they were right because they
were taught in God's Word. It has been said that commitment
without careful reflection is fanaticism in action, and that
certainly was the case at Community Chapel.
Another problem was the abdication of personal moral
responsibility for sin, blaming it instead on the work of demons.
There was a tendency to attribute any problem, interpersonal or
otherwise, to demons. Members would spiritually psychoanalyze one
another with regard to what specific demons were troubling them
and then point to the need for "deliverance." This would be the
case frequently between marriage partners. Common, natural
emotions were more often than not attributed to demons. Members
were told that when they saw their spouses dancing in an intimate
manner with some other person, they were not to feel any
jealousy, resentment, or hurt. The natural tendency in such a
situation is to feel possessive of one's spouse. Yet, when they
experienced those feelings, they were accused of having a demon
The teaching on spiritual connections or spiritual unions
quite obviously was not scriptural. It violated the biblical
teaching on the sanctity of marriage and confused the expression
of spirituality with human sexuality. It was a blatant attempt to
justify a sensual theology by cloaking it in so-called
"revelational teaching." The abusive marital and relational
problems that emerged were all conveniently spiritualized by the
pastor in a classic example of what sociologists call deviance
neutralization, or rationalization.
Scripture tells us, "By their fruit you will recognize them"
(Matt.7:16). From whatever perspective you view it, the fruit of
Community Chapel was bad. Family boundaries were broken down,
conventional biblical understandings were turned inside out
resulting in moral chaos, and hundreds of individuals suffered
psychological impairment of indescribable proportions. It is a
sobering lesson in what can happen when abusive churches go over
To be continued
Well, if any of you out there went through the Worldwide Church
of God experience in the 1970s through to 1990 or so, you can
relate to what we have seen so far with abusive churches, many
likenesses indeed. The bottom line being the power and vanity of
a man, supported by other men, in putting aside the word of God
and having people believe they and their organization has some
'special' connection with God. It is the end result of putting a
person or persons between you and your Savior Jesus Christ. It is
people who are drugged on thinking their leaders are above the
Bible and God is inspiring them to dictate how every facit of
their lives should be lived. It is "religious" leaders being as
little (or big) Hitlers - doing the work of the Lord, and they
themselves being taken over by demons in their mind, where they
can set up their own laws and commandments based upon supposed
revelations of the Lord. The human mind has two weaknesses that
are exploited by the demons - the power trip, having power over
other individuals like Hitler and his clones had over millions of
Germans, and people having the need, for them at least, to follow
a man, to give up their personsl responsibility and let other
humans tell them how to act, talk, think, and conduct their
Both sides are sinfully WRONG!!
You need to make sure you can detect BOTH sides and avoid the
trap of deception that Satan and the demons are so willing to
have you fall into.