Moving On… Or, How I Had To Deal With Spiritual Abuse And Got Kicked Out Of A Cult

April 15, 2013

Four years ago, my family made the decision to move to Gainesville, Florida, seeking to pursue Christ outside of institutional church, in what many describe as “organic” church. (“Organic” church is usually distinguished by no “official” organization, pastors, or budgets, and is highlighted by meetings that include open participation.)

This year, after quite a long journey, I’m making my way back to the Atlanta area. Unfortunately, divorce and cult-like leadership are both primary characters in this drama.

Before moving to Gainesville, I knew that my marriage was having difficulty, but I had no idea just how bad things were. I had been finding freedom from some relationship-damaging addictions, yet much damage had been done, and other deep-seated relationship issues on both sides continued to confuse all sorts of things between us.

In Gainesville, we entered an environment with very friendly, personable founders, one of whom showed a little too much personal attention in some cases… whether or not it was intended that way, the attention was consistent with a pattern of predatory grooming behavior. The teachings from the founders also included a highly romantic view of the gospel, and placed the vast bulk of the burden of the happiness of a marriage on the husband. Combined, this fueled discontent and exacerbated existing problems to a final breaking point.

The details of how the marriage reached that final breaking point will not be shared publicly. They don’t really matter, in terms of how a church community can respond and should deal with a couple going through divorce. No matter how any particular couple finds themselves at that spot, once they both decide it’s completely over, it is. More importantly, church communities that refuse to get involved during the breakdown of a marriage have no authority to step in and make demands once it’s finished.

We decided on a slow divorce process as we tried to figure out how to handle custody and worked towards deciding where to live long-term. It is a fantastic thing that we took our time on this, as initially, I was very against 50/50 custody, and she was very against moving out of Gainesville. At this point, we’ve been making 50/50 custody work very well practically for well over a year (and has really helped the kids overall), and are moving back to Atlanta this summer, where the extended family environment will help provide a more secure spiritual and emotional environment for the kids.

Yet as we were learning how to patiently and peacefully work through the process of divorce – about nine months into that process – we were both kicked out of the church community. Their viewpoint, specifically, was that:

(a) Divorce is always completely wrong. I can understand why some would hold this view, but the Bible gives clear reasons why it can be necessary, and Christians have traditionally extended this towards other serious breakdowns in relationship. It is not up to a church community, however, to determine at what point a couple has reached a level of dysfunction that justifies divorce, and a couple is under no obligation to share their personal details with the entire community if they choose not to do so.

(b) “Legally” married means no dating. By the time we were kicked out of the community, we had both begun dating, even though our legal status was still “married” since we intended to work out details on our own rather than in court. Since “extramarital” relationships are wrong, their legalistic mindset dictated that we were in sin and must be “disfellowshipped” according to 1 Corinthians 5.

For about a year and a half before being kicked out of the community, we had been in conversation with the founders and a few other families in the group, and they were, more or less, aware of everything. While some of the counsel we received was good, much of it was completely inappropriate to our situation and often even personally hurtful.

Not long after our decision to peacefully follow a path of divorce, the founders began to publicly deride us in front of the community because of that decision. I can imagine that if it had been a publicly contentious process, if we had taken our private matters public in destructive, self-righteous ways, one of us would have won people over to “our” side, and justified in our position, able to stay. As it was, these “leaders” knew the truth, but lied to others in the community and claimed that we had no justification for it. At that point, we chose to continue to keep each others’ confidences rather than share all the details publicly and prove these leaders wrong – both for our own sakes, but also for our kids and for the community. It was more important to us to be at peace with each other than to be “right” in anyone else’s eyes.

During our excommunication, the founders sought to justify themselves to the church community by sharing all of our private problems and indiscretions. All of the things we had shared over the years, in confidence, were shared to the entire group – without our knowledge, awareness, or consent. This was well after having been told that it would have been wrong for either of us to share any of this information with the entire group… Yet they had no problem doing precisely that when it served their own agenda.

If a counselor or therapist broke those kinds of confidences and shared that kind of information publicly, it would be grounds for a lawsuit and they would end up losing their license. In many states, this also applies to clergy, as well as any identifiable “spiritual leader.”

For other people’s sake, I would have been willing to walk away quietly to prevent all of that information from being shared, but I was not given that opportunity.

To my knowledge, some of what was shared was factually accurate, but that does not dismiss the fact that they had no authority to share anything. I particularly know that after some folks raised questions about the treatment, additional things were said – and I know that some of that was outright lies. I also learned that a few folks were even a bit excited at the prospect of “handing them over to Satan,” and that those who were in disagreement were intimidated into not communicating with us.

For the last eight months, people who once called us brother and sister have considered us untouchable, like some kind of leper that’s going to infect their marriages and families, and destroy them. Those that disagreed with how this was handled have silently lived in fear, knowing that voicing their disagreement would likely mean that they would be next.

I have come to understand that the sum total of this treatment is nothing less than spiritual abuse.

After this happened, several friends remarked to me that I had gotten kicked out of a cult. That characterization is not far from the truth.

In reality, I can understand anyone having those convictions about marriage, divorce, separation, and dating. And I would lovingly support anyone as they lived out those convictions. What I can’t understand is treating others with this kind of disgust and contempt if they don’t hold to or live by the same set of beliefs. Then again, that kind of legalism and condemnation happens all the time throughout Christianity, on many more issues than this, so I shouldn’t be surprised to find them poisoning an “organic” church, including through its founders.

I have since learned that some of these founders have had their own struggles with similar issues in the past, and their public persona would be seriously damaged if such information was thoroughly investigated and made public. Because of this, there has been a concerted effort to rewrite that history and keep it covered up. I’ve also learned more of their many failures to build communities that are sustainable. I have begun to suspect that being condemned by them and cast aside from the organic church community was simply their way of trying to continue to protect the public face of their organic church movement, though many who know the inside realities of it are well aware of how shallow it can be.

“Organic” church leaders are building their own mini-kingdoms, too, and are as likely as other leaders – if not moreso – to protect their kingdoms vehemently, through manipulation and coercion. Their guru status combined with their need to maintain a spotless public persona makes them more likely to rely on cult-like behavior to keep their “flock” pure, fuel their elitism, and entrench their control and authority over their groups. They claim to be against hierarchical leadership, but in the end, they don’t trust the groups they’ve founded to deal with their own crises, and employ their stardom at the local level to maintain every bit as strong control over their communities as traditional “pastors” do in typical churches.

Thankfully, God continued to provide for me, as I had already been making connections into another local church here, whose body life and community was open and accepting, and I’ve been fortunate to find folks who are as dumbstruck by my story as I am. I’ve also come to a simpler understanding of the gospel of Christ that has helped me put this kind of leadership abuse into perspective, one that strongly believes that differences of belief and conviction are simply no basis for division and condemnation.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned, though, is that Christianity will continue to fail at helping people with struggling marriages until it learns how to love and support people dealing with divorce. Anything less is compassion based on conditions, love with strings attached.

I’m glad that I’m able to begin to close this chapter of my life, and share some of this now… and to be able to do so honestly, and without anger or resentment. I want to be careful to say things publicly in a way that my children can read one day, but I also want to be honest with them about the way religion infects even the best of us. And I simply can’t stay quiet about the fact that the “organic” church approach ended up being just more of the same, and specifically failed me when I needed authentic church community the most.

Update (25 April 2013): This blog post, more or less, says all I intend to say publicly regarding the circumstances I’ve described.  I do not intend to comment on details that I do not have first-hand knowledge of.  To me, the details of someone’s past is not nearly as important as whether or not they are genuine about it.  A large part of my motivation to write this blog post was to be genuine, myself, and to tell my story as publicly as I can.

12 responses to Moving On… Or, How I Had To Deal With Spiritual Abuse And Got Kicked Out Of A Cult

  1. Thank you Derek. Your friendship has always been valuable to me, and will continue to be so. Heartbreaking post.

  2. Derek,
    You are not alone. It has taken us a year to heal from the spiritual abuse and the “shunning” Chris and I received when we left. So much of the ideology and the basis of what the group was founded on was different than what actually happened. I don’t blame the workers for that as I barely got to know them, but I do wish they would have stepped in when cult-like behavior became overwhelming. I too was told that “it was good that I left because I was in a cult”. Ask a question about a problem and you become the problem… that’s what I learned in my two years there. It has been a long process, and I have also learned about all of the “cover-ups” and blatant lies, but the Lord has given me peace and time has healed those wounds. It no longer bothers me when I am called ‘disgruntled’. I am learning that so many are having the same experience and are talking about it. We find comfort in knowing we are not alone. I am happy for you and Amy and so sorry for the ordeal you both have gone through and the integrity you chose in protecting each other in creating “sides”. ~Love, Jackie

  3. The overwhelming cult-like behavior is from the top down, a direct result of some of the teachings and the self-described apostolic nature of the leadership. You can’t question it, you can’t part from it. The community overall was handling the divorce crisis just fine… sure, some relationships were strained, as people had a hard time understanding, but overall, Amy and I were both loved and supported. Until the leadership got involved and starting selectively sharing information, gossiping, twisting truths, and speaking negatively about us.

  4. Ah, I see. We had some serious issues within our marriage that were handled similarly. We went to a worker out of desperation. I actually had bruises on my arm after one of our “arguments” and the worker asked what I may have done to cause this. I stopped going to that particular worker about things and got a strict “talking to” about how not to embarrass my husband by talking about it. It was crap. Fortunately we no longer deal with those issues, but it was scary how it was handled. I agree that it seems a bit much to place unrealistic expectations on a husband to carry the marriage. We believed that for about a minute, but have found true health since leaving. Thank you for your blog. You are the fourth person to come forward with the spiritual abuse from this one group… I admire your courage. ~Jackie

  5. Derek, I have read the blog. Very well written, but it made me feel so sad. We all go through things that we never expected, May God bless your family. Love you all. Joy

  6. Derek,
    I am saddened by the details of your story and feel for you and Amy. I am glad to hear you are at a more peaceful place and I admire you for your strength and ability to be so transparent in this struggle. As Always, we love you both dearly.

  7. Derek I am sorry to hear of some of the things you went through but at the same time I question your stand on whether it is okay or not for a group of Christians to stand against what the Bible clearly stands against. Divorce.

    God hates divorce. Hates. It’s there in black and white.

    And so should we.

    That doesn’t mean that we are to hate the sinner so to speak. Not at all. But sometimes it’s necessary to stand strong against the sin even to the point of breaking fellowship.

    I don’t know your particular details Derek and I don’t need to but the overall impression left on me by your post is that you felt wronged by being excommunicated from fellowship over things that are not really not as personal as you maintain they are and which are against the grain of godly behavior respecting the marriage vow before God.

    There are to be sure some situations where divorce may be acceptable but barring those very few exceptions there is no excuse for getting divorced before God. The popularity of doing so in today’s “Christian” world notwithstanding.

    Carlos

  8. Carlos, on the one hand, you’re saying that it’s “there in black and white.” And then you admit that there are exceptions…

    The reality is, just because God “hates it” doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when it happens. I hate it, too. How anyone (even God) “feels” about it isn’t the question. The question is, how is a church community to deal with it? By airing out all details, and kicking the people in question out?

    Such an environment only isolates people who are in frustrating marriages, and prevents them from openly seeking help. It creates an environment of shame and condemnation for those in difficult marriages. This was my experience, and is the experience of many others, in any type of church. And that environment only dooms more marriages to fail.

    I believe that God’s commandment for us to love one another supersedes any self-righteous position we might desire to take on God’s behalf.

    When people are being sinned against, those matters can be taken before a church (something, ironically enough, that these leaders didn’t seem to agree with). When leaders are abusing people that they are in a position of authority over, those matters must be dealt with. But there is no clear call for you to impose how you feel God “feels” about a subject onto everyone else. That is a very slippery slope.

    If you’re going to quote the Old Testament to indicate how God feels about something, and then demand that churches take action against individual members in response, then you’re in for a long, legalistic road, my friend.

  9. Derek,

    I think it’s wonderful that you even allowed my comment in. Thanks very much for doing that.

    I must confess that I have not prayed and thought through the issue of divorce a great deal so maybe I was too quick to comment. My main concern is that we not compromise and come to look on divorce as acceptable.

    Carlos

  10. Well, you weren’t mean or anything… besides, I LOVE arguing on the internet. Have been doing it for eons. :-p

    Seriously, though, my intent is NOT to teach that divorce is generally acceptable. It’s clearly something that happens, though, and how is a church to respond? This question equally applies to many areas that people struggle with in their lives. If the church is truly to be a place where broken people find refuge, we must find it in our hearts to offer that same refuge to people who are breaking right in our very midst, and suffer with them, instead of inflicting more damage.

    I believe that the church has done far more damage to marriages out of its impossible expectations on marriage than out of its permissiveness on divorce. The purity culture alone has doomed many relationships to fail from the start. Worse than that, though, is the shame and condemnation shown to those who are struggling and/or divorcing, and it prevents those with problems from seeking and finding help at a time when help is possible.

    I will probably speak more on these issues in the future.

  11. How is the purity culture doomed relationships from the start? I left my own little cult experience over 9 years ago. It is a strange 20/20 hindsight. Now I have been chasing the Organic church dream and wondering if I found the same foul stuff.

  12. My time in the organic church circles was awesome, and then horrendous. I know a few folks who left it who are dealing with some very serious ex-cult issues. The leaders claim that it’s all different, but it ends up being mostly the same.

    As far as the link between purity culture and failed relationships, I can and should write a new blog post about that, but it’s a tough one. In a nutshell, I think it’s about elevating expectations to unrealistic levels – that somehow, by remaining ‘pure’, we guarantee marital bliss. Which doesn’t happen, and a marriage failing to meet unrealistic expectations is a marriage destined to fall apart.