“Spiritual abuse is the misuse of a position of power, leadership, or influence to further the selfish interests of someone other than the individual who needs help. Sometimes abuse arises out of a doctrinal position. At other times it occurs because of legitimate personal needs of a leader that are being met by illegitimate means. Spiritually abusive religious systems are sometimes described as legalistic, mind controlling, religiously addictive, and authoritarian.” –David Henke
We anticipate the following objection. Why are you dredging up something that happened so long ago? There are many reasons. When this incident occurred, there was no internet available for Debra to tell her story. Until fairly recently, the church/pastors controlled the microphone. They were able to tell a story from their perspective. Pastors and church leaders have as much of a sin problem as those they lead. Yet, in some churches, they hide behind an artificial wall of "authority" or "covering" which allows them freedom to follow the dictates of their own sinful nature with precious little accountability. The Internet has changed all of that. Finally, incidents hidden in the past can be brought to light and analyzed. Stories such as this might help other churches avoid a similar situation. The church must learn from its mistakes as well as its successes.
The pastors and leaders in this group of churches have put themselves in the public eye. They write books and conduct conferences, all meant to attract the public to their organization and their particular view on doing church business. However, public scrutiny means that the public might question their methods and theology. TWW would think that if their churches are living out church life as demonstrated in the Scriptures, then the leaders would be grateful for the input of those on the outside looking in. Instead, it seems as if they stomp their feet in frustration when people not only see the good, but also the questionable. And then those observing, GASP, ask questions. However, think of it this way. This very process might help the church grow in humility as it confronts its apparent weaknesses in the light of day. This is true humility – something often talked about by churches in this venue. This story serves as a warning that people are paying close attention to what is happening in today's churches.
Today, I had a wonderful conversation with Father Clint at Christ Church in Plano, Texas. We were planning on linking to a CRI article, and I wanted to include an update on a statement in that article regarding his church's policy on baptism. He is a kind, well-spoken brother in Christ and was happy to answer my questions. Approximately 15 years ago the Christian Research Institute claimed that this church (then known as Christ Episcopal Church) required parents to study one of the Ezzo books before their children could be baptized. He assured me that they do NOT do this, and he is trying to ascertain whether such a thing was imposed on parents in the past. He said it was difficult to imagine such a requirement. We pray God's blessings on his church.
Some churches are beginning to elevate secondary doctrines to primary importance. Let this be the major warning of this story. In fact, the author was told she might be in sin if she did not adhere to these parenting standards. Pastors, intent on their own agenda, can twist Scripture to enforce their own petty belief systems. I had a conversation with one pastor on the issue of creation. I said that the age of the earth was a secondary doctrine. He became irritated and said, "You think creation is a secondary issue?" Note the attempt to move the age of the earth under the heading of Who created the heavens and the earth. The fact that God created the heavens and the earth is a primary issue. That was not the issue I was discussing. This is a tactic designed to stifle communication, not explore the depth and breadth of Christian thinking on a subject. I think some pastors and leaders are afraid to have their knowledge, or lack thereof, questioned. Why? Insecurity? Arrogance? Stupidity?
However, this particular story is even more concerning. There have been legitimate issues raised on the Ezzo method over a long period of time.There have been documented concerns on the part of recognized medical groups on failure to thrive and dehydration in infants whose parents utilize this method. This means that infants' health and well-being could be potentially at risk. It would seem that some churches are hellbent on enforcing fads with little regard for intelligent input. Pastors do not have training on every issue, such as feeding infants and disciplining children; yet some purport to be life experts in all areas. Such pigheaded arrogance is troubling and seems to be at odds with the Christian understanding of the priesthood of the believer. This means that pastors must listen carefully to the people that God has placed in their congregation. If pastors refuse to do so, then they show little understanding that giftedness is shared by ALL in the congregation. That is NOT a church to attend.
I found some of the alleged comments from the church to be both pathetic and abusive. This author was told her marriage would be in trouble if she did not follow this particular form of parenting. Can you imagine? Abusive groups often make up stories like this to apply pressure and to discount critics. When we confronted a situation in a former church, an elder admitted to spreading rumors that my marriage was in trouble.
According to SGM Survivors, SGM no longer insists that parents follow the Ezzo system. Isn't it sad that the leaders wasted so much time and sacrificed relationships and unity within the body to enforce a man-made system of feeding and discipline? I think this should be a lesson to all who read this story. The church has been foolish throughout the centuries. It jailed Galileo, accusing him of being a heretic for saying the earth moved around the sun. It justified slavery and racism. We know of churches today who elevate the following issues to primary importance: homeschooling, courtship, early marriages, anti birth control, KJVO, ESVO, Calvinism, alcohol abstinence, age of the earth, the exact timing of Jesus' Second Coming, etc. And we break communion and fellowship over these issues. Is that what Jesus meant when He said we would be known by our love? He didn't say that we would be known by our infant feeding schedules – Good night!
There was one statement that caused me a sleepless night. Some children, it was reported, were being spanked 30-40 times a day!!! If there were parents who were spanking their kids 40 times a day, then Child Protective Services should have been called in. If CPS knew about this, those children would have been removed from those families. Something is seriously wrong! Anyone who advocates such measures needs to be thrown out of the church instead of some nice lady concerned that infants need to be fed a bit more frequently. Is the world upside down here or what?
Finally, this story has gotten much play throughout the Internet. The Christian Research Institute wrote, with deep concern, about this event on a couple of occasions. Here is a link to one of those articles. Can I prove this story is true? No, but there are people who wrote us to say they would swear out an affidavit that it is. We believe the story has merit and is filled with a whole bunch of lessons for all or us.
The events of which I bear witness occurred in the early to mid-1990s at Covenant Fellowship of Philadelphia (which I will shorten to CFOP). We were members of the church from the first meeting in Newtown Square, PA until we were released from membership or, as I am fond of saying, "dismembered". I am the mother of eight children and, because I have a keen interest in biological processes, have done a decent amount of research with respect to infant nutrition and child development. In fact, when I went back to school, I tested out of basic psychology and early child development.
I ended up as a strong advocate of attachment parenting. Since I had six children at that time, people asked me questions about parenting, particularly about breastfeeding. The leaders within the church were in the early stages of promoting a much more structured and parent-directed philosophy that was popularized by Gary and Ann-Marie Ezzo. To be honest, I had never even heard of the Ezzos until my husband, Pat, and I were called into a meeting with our pastors and told not to discuss our parenting beliefs with others in the church.
I will be honest and say that I am very similar to Donkey on Shrek; getting me to shut up would be impressive rather than getting me to talk and we were eventually un-membered and asked not to attend any of their functions, including unofficial prayer gatherings in a friend’s private home.
Some incidents and issues that still make my heart cramp with sadness:
I did not understand the reasoning behind trying to silence me over something that wasn’t a doctrinal issue to which one of the pastors responded that parenting was a doctrinal issue to them. When I asked them to cite a verse in the Bible to support their position, I was called, “Combative”. I don’t understand how backing up a position with Scripture can be interpreted as combative.
I also tried to say this issue was a matter of opinion and personal interpretation rather than a sin issue to which he responded, “Some would say you are in sin.” I got pretty upset at that point and demanded they cite a verse to back up their position and that “some people” should look to Matthew 18 and come to me privately if they believed I was in sin to which they responded that I was combative, unteachable, and prideful.
We were told our marriage would not last another ten years because we were not parent-centered.
We were told we would never be considered for any leadership position ever.
When my daughter was 14 or 15, she actually went to one of these pastors and *apologized* for having an unforgiving heart toward him. His response: he *forgave* her. Can you imagine? There was no reciprocation on his part; he (big man that he is) forgave her. This is their attitude – things flow in one direction. He never asked her forgiveness for all the hurt he caused her to put her in a place in which her heart needed to forgive.
When I discussed this issue with a friend who happened to be a journalist, he did what any good reporter would do — he went to the pastors to get their perspective. It's important to note that this happened *after* our dismembership. One of the pastors had the audacity to call my husband and order him not to discuss the issue with the press.
I saw the church grow from being strict to being downright draconian in their parenting. Women seemed to take pride in their “advanced” children that needed to be switched/spanked with a ruler or glue stick at three months old because they were squirming upon being changed. Newborn crying (with obvious hunger cues like rooting and sucking of fists) were ignored in favor of a schedule. A pastor’s wife and another pastor’s wife were in the nursing mother’s room talking about how often they spanked their toddlers the previous day. One mentioned 30 or 40 times that day. I was in trouble for saying something like, “You actually spanked your child 40 times in one day?” To which she responded, “Well, don’t you?” To which I responded, “If I was spanking my child 40 times in a single day, I would wonder what I was doing wrong and prayerfully seek alternatives to whatever I was doing because 40 spankings would pretty much be my entire daily interaction with a child, and that isn’t what I signed up for when I became a mother.” Now, people, including those in authority at SGM, look back and see this time as one of excessive harshness. I don’t consider myself to be the final word on parenting, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that these were warning signs indicating that people had gone a bridge too far in the strict direction.
The following is a not-so-friendly exchange between the Ezzos, the pastors, and me. They were essentially caught misrepresenting the truth. Link here.
http://www.ezzo.info/Aney/crjparttwo.pdf Look for the “Released from Membership” sub-heading.
Quote from this document, “As an example of’ division associated with GFI, Our original article stated that “Debra and Pat Baker were involuntarily released from membership’ and even barred from unofficial church functions after voicing concerns about PFP at Covenant Fellowship of Philadelphia” (CFOP) (11).
GFI challenged this statement, noting that the Bakers had not responded to a letter of concern sent to them from CFOP in a timely manner. GFI stated, CFOP did what many churches do in such cases, drop non-attenders from their membership roles.” (46)
The Bakers contradict GFI’s implication. They insist they attended church every Sunday during the months preceding their being “released” front membership. (47)
Financial records from the church itself demonstrate that they had consistently given to the church during that period. (48)
Furthermore, the very letter that GFI selectively quotes from makes it clear the church action was based on the Bakers’ disagreement with the church’s teaching of the family, which included teaching from PFP:“We have released you from membership at Covenant Fellowship….The pastors’ philosophy on family life represents many fundamental differences which we will aggressively teach in the future. Wisdom would dictate that you need a church home which supports rather than challenges your strong opinions.” (49)
Finally, while the Bakers had indeed failed to respond to a letter of concern from the Church in a timely manner, they also explained and apologized for their late response, reiterated their respect for the church leadership and their desire to continue in membership at the church, and asked the Church to reconsider its decision. (50)
The church replied within two days, refusing to reverse its decision. Later they sent the Bakers a letter barring them from even unofficial church meetings .(51)
The Journal statement was accurate and based on written documentation from both of the primary sources—the Bakers and CFOP
We received a comment from "Concerned2" who asked us if we had called Dave Harvey to get the other point of view. From what I can tell, there is no Dave Harvey mentioned in the above story. Perhaps this commenter would like to inform our readers who Dave Harvey is and why he assumed that Harvey's name would come up in our post?
Join us on Monday when we will be discussing John Piper's rather controversial statement on domestic violence.
Lydia's Corner: Deuteronomy 7:1-8:20 Luke 7:36-8:3 Psalm 69:1-18 Proverbs 12:1