Sunday, May 18, 2008

Un-Heavenly Ladders

This post will examine power abuse as it relates to the “ministries” of an unhealthy, fringe church. Once again, I'll tell a personal story.

When I first encountered the Assembly, it was on the campus of a community college. I was almost fresh out of the Army, and had recently turned back to the Lord. I was staying with my family, which was stressful, since we had learned over the years to expertly “push each other's buttons,” thereby frequently getting on each other's nerves. Because I was now trying to live the Christian life, I was convicted by the Holy Spirit regarding my behavior toward my family, and I went to Christian bookstores looking for books which would help me become a more decent person. One such book, Born Again, by Chuck Colson, described how Bible studies were a great help in growing in Christian character.

I was walking around on campus one day shortly after reading that book when I saw a folding table next to the walkway, with a religious banner on its front and a number of Gospel tracts and pocket New Testaments on its top. Around the table were a number of smiling people handing out Gospel tracts and talking to passers-by. Intrigued, I walked up and asked one of these people who they were, and whether they knew of any Bible studies I could attend. His enthusiastic answer to my second question was “Yes! We have a Bible study here on campus on Thursdays in the library. It starts at 11:30. I'll be out in front at 11:15 waiting for you so you can find it, okay?” The rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, once I started attending these studies, I came under the influence of a program of indoctrination to bring me into ever-greater commitment to the group. It began very subtly. Their campus “outreach” consisted of regular weekly activities such as witnessing times, prayer meetings and “chapter summary” Bible studies. The leaders exhorted the “brothers” (us guys, in plain English) to come to the witnessing and prayer times with a “word of encouragement” prepared from the Scriptures, so that we could “strengthen the saints” for prayer or witnessing. Both men and women were encouraged to come to the Bible studies with a “chapter summary” prepared. When new people came to these campus activities and began to share their “words of encouragement” or their “chapter summaries,” they were frequently given much praise by the leaders of the campus group, who would say such things as “Praise the Lord, brother, that was a real blessing to our hearts,” etc. The obvious effect of such praise was to make us want to keep sharing these “words of encouragement.” I have to confess that they were successful in appealing to my vanity (“you know it's just your foolish pride” - Layla, Eric Clapton). I ate up the praise like it was cereal – especially when attractive young “sisters” came up to me after I shared such a “word” and told me how it blessed them.

I crossed another threshold when I began to attend the regular Assembly meetings, the ones that were held in their meeting hall instead of on campus. The first meetings I attended, oddly enough, were the monthly “All-Nights of Prayer” (ANOP's for those who like acronyms). This was because I was working swing shift at a defense electronics plant while I was putting myself through school, and we got off work while the ANOP's were still in session. During these ANOP's, the Assembly leaders, who presided over the giving of prayer requests, would give reports on a number of “special people” laboring “around the world” in charge of various “ministries.” Their descriptions of the seriousness of these labors, and their praise of these “workers,” was designed to make us all want to be like these “special people,” and I have to say that they sold me. Later in my involvement, I got to meet some of these people, during special Assembly gatherings in which the interaction of us common folk with these people was highly constrained, and our leaders kept reminding us of how important these people were.

As I regularly attended the campus ministry activities and the ANOP's, I heard the frequently-repeated teaching that those who wanted to grow in stature as “saints” really needed to “enter in” – as in, “Enter into the labor of this ministry (the activities of the Geftakys assemblies).” As I began to attend their Sunday worship, witnessing and afternoon ministry meetings, I would hear such things as “The Lord is looking for faithful brothers!” and “The Lord is looking for a vessel He can use,” along with stories of great missionaries from the past. When the swing shift at my work closed down and I was transferred to day shift, I began attending the regular Assembly Wednesday night Bible studies and Thursday prayer meetings, as well as the ANOP's and Sunday meetings. I wanted to “enter in!”

Very early in my involvement in the regular meetings, I began to notice a hierarchy of “entering in.” For instance, participation in the Thursday night prayer meetings was tightly regulated. The Thursday meetings began with a time of praise followed by two or three men standing up to preach. Those men relatively new to the group could pray out loud during the prayer time, but they were not allowed to preach at first. They were, however, encouraged and exhorted to “enter in,” that is, become more fully committed to the group, so that they would one day have enough “stature” to “bring a word to God's people.” This was doubly and triply true of Sunday worship times, where the leaders generally did not want anyone to preach unless they had first heard him preach on a Thursday night and had a chance to “vet” his preaching. In all cases, the leaders controlled who preached, and in what order they preached, insuring that no more than two or three men preached at these meetings, with the weightiest or most honorable or ranking brothers preaching last.

Other examples of this hierarchy included the way in which the various ministry activities were structured. New people who wanted to volunteer for a ministry were basically “hired from the shoulders down” at first. They were expected to simply show up and do what they were told. But those who over time demonstrated commitment and seriousness, those who were “entering in,” were promoted to positions of leadership. The leadership at the highest levels, the elders and “leading brothers,” orchestrated who got promoted to a position of responsibility. And because the leaders defined “entering in” as becoming more fully involved in the activities of the Geftakys assemblies, they taught us to look down on Christians who were involved in ministries of other organizations, or Christians who chose to serve God in a more individual way. They accused such Christians of merely “doing their own thing” instead of obeying the Lord's calling. Thus the Assembly leaders became the sole authority by which a man could know whether he was truly “entering in,” whether he was a “vessel whom the Lord could use,” or whether he was merely “doing his own thing.” We were taught to equate being a servant of Christ with having authority over others, with being able to tell others what to do.

I was thus caused to see a vision – behold, a ladder, which was set on the earth with its top reaching to...the highest rungs of the Assembly org chart, with the “serious saints” ascending its rungs as they “entered in” more and more as time passed. There were many rungs. One could move into a “training home” if one was serious about “being trained for the work of the Lord.” Once there, if one was really serious and excellent, one could become “head steward” of the home and be responsible for telling the other residents what to do. This was supposed to be a sign that one had gained “stature and maturity.” Those who were really devoted could become “workers,” members of George Geftakys' inner circle. If you were a guy, there were many rungs you could climb – you could be a doorkeeper (in a sane church, these would be called ushers), responsible for “greeting the saints” and making sure that the meetings were kept in order. You could rise yet further – being asked to lead the singing during the meetings, being asked to give the announcements, being asked to preach the Gospel message during the Sunday meetings, being asked to preach the Sunday “word of encouragement” or “main ministry,” or even being asked to be a leading brother or elder.

I chose to try to climb that ladder. It looked attractive – who wouldn't want to be a “man of stature and maturity”? I volunteered to serve in ministries, making myself so busy that my college education suffered. After all, we kept hearing George say that he wanted to burn out for the Lord, not rust out. I moved into a “training home.” Eventually, I got to be “head steward.” I started preaching on Thursday nights and Sundays. When the Assembly had “open air preaching” outreaches at the beach or in busy public thoroughfares, I coveted being chosen by the leaders to have a chance to yell at people. Because the Assembly defined spiritual maturity in terms of having authority over other people, I tried “pulling rank” on others who had not been involved as long as I had been.

In fact, I tried pulling rank whenever I thought I could get away with it. Climbing this stupid ladder involved stepping on other people, and I learned to do it rather well. In short, I turned myself into a religious jerk. I am not proud of this fact. Looking back now, I can say that I am truly and deeply sorry about the people I offended or injured in my frantic efforts to climb this ladder. And I am deeply sorry about the kind of person I became. I could say as an excuse that I was simply doing as I had been taught, but that isn't much of an excuse, since others were offered a chance to climb the same ladder and refused, seeing it for what it really was. Mea culpa; mea maxima culpa. Eventually I made it to the “doorkeeper” level, where I became stuck, full of a strange mix of my own self-importance on one hand, and a nagging insecurity that some younger brother would pass me up. I learned to determine my self-image, my self-concept, my self-worth, my identity, based on my position on this accursed ladder!

Eventually, the ladder broke, when the facts of the criminal activities of the Geftakys family became widely known. When I left the Assemblies, I decided that I just wanted to be nothing more than a church attender for a while – maybe for the rest of my life. I realized that I had become a toxic person, and that I needed to throw out all the things I had been taught during my two decades in the Geftakys assemblies and start again from scratch. I took time to find people whom I had hurt during my involvement, and to apologize to them. I learned to enjoy sitting on my front porch watching the sun set while kids played in the street, instead of rushing off to some meeting where I would be fighting to climb some ecclesiastical ladder. And I started trying to find a “healthy church.”

But I met a few toxic church people during my search, as has been written in the first few posts of this blog. Two such people, well-meaning but misguided, bear mention. I won't tell their names, but I will mention their church, because I think it's time for some names to be named and I'm tired of beating around the bush. In my post titled, “Leaving, Part 2 – 'Ger Sham',” I described my brief stay at Grace Evangelical Free Church, a modern megachurch in La Mirada. I met a middle-aged couple there who found out that I had come out of an abusive church environment. It turned out that they had also come out of an abusive religious organization, namely, Bill Gothard's Institute in Basic Life Principles. We decided to get together after church one day to compare notes.

I told them about the Assemblies and they told me about Gothard's rigid, authoritarian rule of his organization, and how he squelched those who dared to think independently. They also told me of how they ran afoul of Mr. Gothard, and were drummed out of his organization. They told me how upon their leaving, Gothard had told them that they would never be fit to serve the Lord again, and how they were finding out at Grace EV Free that they could actually be the Lord's servants. I told them about the twisted, distorted picture of serving Christ that had been presented to us in the Assemblies, and how for the present, I just wanted to be an ordinary average guy, a church attender whose biggest ministry was learning to act like a Christian.

This is the very thing I had said earlier to a couple of the elders at Grace EV Free, and I had gotten some interesting reactions from these elders. One of them had said, “Well, that's okay for now, but if you're still nothing more than a church attender several months from now, I'll have something to say about it.” Now that I was having lunch with the ex-Gothard couple, I heard the husband say the same thing to me - “That's okay for now, but if you're still doing nothing more than showing up for church six months from now, I'll have something to say about it!” Hearing this statement again surprised me, and got me thinking. It seemed that evidently there was a ladder at Grace EV Free also, and people were encouraged to climb it. It seemed also that one evidence that one was climbing that ladder was that one felt the liberty to tell others what to do. This was how being a servant of Christ seemed to be portrayed. Thus this couple felt that they had the liberty to judge whether I was properly involved in the activities of their church.

This seems to be a characteristic of churches with power abuse issues. I have something to say to this couple, and to the elders of Grace EV Free, and to anyone else who wants to try pulling that on me: My service to Christ is, on a certain real level, none of your business. As it says in the Good Book, “Who are you who judge another's servant? To his own lord he stands or falls. Yes, he will be made to stand, for God has power to make him stand.” (Romans 14:4, World English Bible.) And while you're at it, read Romans 14:5-11 also. You have no right to pass judgment on me or to pressure me based on your expectations of how much I should be involved in your church. We are called to encourage each other in growth of Christian character, and there are legitimate needs to be met in any legitimate church, but no one has a right to compel his brother or sister to join a church ministry. In the Bible, spiritual maturity and stature are not defined by having power to tell others what to do, but by the display of genuine Christian character. (Of course, because I now live a thousand miles away from La Mirada, you couldn't pressure me even if you wanted to ;)) I'm through with ladder-climbing.

I want to close by mentioning a post at the City Business Church website, titled “The Fattest Carrot of All: Ministry Opportunity.” It neatly sums up the dangers of being hoodwinked into climbing ecclesiastical ladders. Here is the link:

P.S. I'm really glad that this section on fringe churches is almost over. It has been rather hard to write some of these posts, as just remembering some of this garbage has made me almost want to throw my computer against the wall...

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you TH in SoC, I found your post very insightful. My wife and I had a brief encounter with the "Assembly" in the San Fernando Valley over 20 years ago but we never got really involved because I thought I picked up on some "legalism" that was going on. However, we were very impressed with the "order" in the fellowship, women and children being in what appeared to be good biblical order, etc. My wife had always wanted to find another fellowship where there was such a biblical order apparent among the members but we never found one. Thank you for informing us of the problems with the group, we won't feel like we missed out by not continuing to have involvement with the group.