Elements of Spiritual Abuse

Tunnel perspectiveJeff Vanvonderen, author of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse and Tired of Trying to Measure Up, defines spiritual abuse this way: "Spiritual abuse is when someone uses God's name to get people to do something he/she wants them to do, not what God wants them to do." Ron Henzel defines it as "the abuse of power in the context of Christian fellowship."

• Identifying Abusive Churches & Cults
• Unethical Influence & Mind Control
• Problems Fostered by a Cultic System
• Recognizing Narcissistic Leaders
• Clergy Sexual Abuse & Leadership Collusion
• Other Perspectives
• Author Index
• Alphabetical Index of Articles

More information on the psychological, social, spiritual and relational effects of spiritual betrayal can be found in the Recovery section of the site.

Note: Don't be put off by the use of the "cult" word. On this site we use the term in reference to how a group functions, not its beliefs. And yes, even churches that begin with orthodox beliefs can veer off into cultic practices. For more about the "C" word, read here 


Identifying Abusive Churches and Cults

"How to Spot an Abusive Church" - a brief article by Dr. Ronald Enroth, who also wrote the books Churches that Abuse and Recovering from Churches that Abuse.


"Spiritual Abuse" by David Henke, on the Watchman Fellowship website, describes five common characteristics of spiritually abusive groups, and gives a Biblical response. It briefly details several serious effects of spiritual abuse, and how to approach recovery.


Does the Assembly fall into the category of a "spiritually abusive" group? The excellent article, The Bible and Spiritual Abuse, by Ron Henzel, begins with a discussion of the problem with the word "abuse." He says,

It is safe to say that we live in a culture which frequently (and ironically) abuses the word 'abuse.' One of the most common ways this has been done has been by incorrectly locating the meaning of the word "abuse" in the perception of mistreatment, rather than mistreatment itself.

He defines spiritual abuse as "the abuse of power in the context of Christian fellowship." He covers topics such as the counter-cult movement, biblical evidence for spiritual abuse, the biblical criteria, authoritarianism, elitism, intimidation, manipulation, an accusatory mentality and excessive discipline, long-term effects on victims, and the question of whether spiritually abusive groups are "cults". The discussion is based on an extensive use of Scripture.


Categories of Cults and Sects and Groups with Cultic Potential, drawn from material compiled by cult recovery experts, terms the Assembly a T. A. C. O., that is, a "Totalistic Authoritarian Christian Organization".


Dr. Janja Lalich, an expert on aberrant groups who worked with Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer, wrote an insightful definition of groups that inflict abuse. Unfortunately, as repugnant as it is to think so, there is much in this description that resonates with abusive churches like the Assembly.


The article, Stress Making Churches, by Dr. Ronald Enroth, first appeared in the magazine Christian Counseling Today, August 1996. Dr. Enroth graciously sent us a copy of this article, along with a memo letting us know that the article contains material from interviews with people who had left the Assembly. An excerpt from the book Brain Longevity by Dr. D. S. Khalsa shows the destructive effects of chronic stress on the brain and the body.


The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, written by David Johnson and Jeff Vanvonderen, is probably the best and most widely recommended book on the subject. Here is an interview with Jeff Vanvonderen by STEPS magazine on the subject. Here is a summary  of part of the book.


A summary of the book Toxic Faith by Steve Arterburn and Jack Felton is available online. I mentioned this book to Jim Hayman when I ran into him in the bank shortly after we left the Assembly, and his shocked reaction was, "What a terrible title! Faith is NOT toxic!" Proper faith in GOD is not toxic, but misplaced faith in an abusive Christian leader definitely is.


An excellent article by Jan Groenveld on Identifying a Cult includes sections on how cults work, cult abuses of rights and freedoms, and results of the cult experience. She proposes this universal definition of a cult: "Any group which has a pyramid type authoritarian leadership structure with all teaching and guidance coming from the person/persons at the top. The group will claim to be the only way to God...Nirvana...Ultimate Reality... [and we might add, "the only way to an overcoming walk with Christ and to inclusion in a true Testimony to Jesus"], and will use thought reform or mind control techniques to gain control and keep their members.


Warning Signs of an Unhealthy Church - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 are excerpts from the book, Exposing Spiritual Abuse: How to Rediscover God's love when the church has left you down, by Mike Fehlauer. The book also has a chapter on "Toxic Love," about the excessive devotion of people looking for a father-figure, plus two good chapters on positive and negative characteristics to look for in a pastor.


Is Your Church Free from Cultic Tendencies? is a checklist of 37 questions to ask about a church prepared by the Spiritual Counterfeits Project.


"You Know You/They Are Wrong When..." is the title of an intriguing blog post by Michael Spencer about attempts to control discussion, questions, and independent thought.


Ondi Timoner's new film "Join Us" is premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, 2007. The film follows 21 cult members in real time as they leave their South Carolina Bible-based abusive church and get help at Wellspring. Watch the trailer on the film's website. The DVD is available on Amazon. Dave Sable reviews the movie in "Join Us" - Better Felt than Telt. He says it, "...it certainly touches upon the list of characteristics of abusive churches – they are all there...But this is only secondary to what the movie is about. The movie is about people. It is about what abusive principles did to people emotionally." Dave Sable also sent a link to John Fischer's comments about a recent Los Angeles Times article on cults published June 25, 2007.


Brent T. published a piece written by the Local Church of Los Angeles describing their outreach techniques. Amazing similarities to the Assembly.


Rachel Geftakys recounted how the similarity between the Assembly and the "Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization" (3HO) turned the lights on for her about Assembly dysfunction.


Amy Cahill's friend in New York was thinking of attending a new church. Amy did some web investigation and found red flags. She wrote up her research as An Example of How to Critically Evaluate a Church. On the whole, it is very helpful; in a few areas we think she overreacted a bit due to her Assembly experience. What do you think?


When to Leave...Think It Over identifies warning signs of a blind leader leading the blind. Chuck Swindoll wrote this while he was pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, which lost a number of college students to the Assembly.


"H" contributed this link to an article critiquing and characterizing the Ayn Rand libertarian movement in the 1960's as a cult. Historians, and our society in general, do not think of Ayn Rand as a cult leader, but the article points out many cult characteristics that were present in her movement. (Interesting side note: Alan Greenspan, of "Fed" fame, was a devoted Ayn Rand disciple!)


A former SLO Assembly member sent a link to a story in Newsweek about an AA group gone wrong. It shows that if an AA meeting can become abusive, it can happen anywhere!! Dave Mauldin has a comment.



Unethical Influence and Thought Reform

Dr. Robert J. Lifton is an American psychiatrist who is known mainly for his research on the thought-reform techniques used in China under Mao Tse Tung. His analysis includes 8 characteristics of thought reform that are well-summarized in Wikipedia and on the REVEAL website. Here is Lifton's own brief condensation of his work, entitled Cult Formation. Here is Brian Steele's application of Lifton's characteristics to the Geftakys Assembly. Gretchen W. analyses her experience in the Omaha Assembly in terms of these eight characteristics.


There are many, many similarities between the Geftakys Assembly and the International Church of Christ. Two articles analyze the ICOC in terms of Steve Hassan's "BITE" model and Lifton's eight criteria for mind control.


K. Gordon Neufeld spent ten years in the Unification Church. After leaving, he completed an M. A. in creative writing and wrote a book about his experience with the Moonies. Neufeld uses an excellent explanation of mind control that discards the image of "mindless robots" and incorporates instead the very helpful concept of "mental roadblocks". Here is the introduction to the book.


Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the famous 1971 Stanford prison experiment, says, "A remarkable thing about cult mind control is that it's so ordinary in the tactics and strategies of social influence employed. They are variants of well-known social psychological principles of compliance, conformity, persuasion, dissonance, reactance, framing, emotional manipulation, and others that are used on all of us daily to entice us: to buy, to try, to donate, to vote, to join, to change, to believe, to love, to hate the enemy.

Cult mind control is not different in kind from these everyday varieties, but in its greater intensity, persistence, duration, and scope." Tom Maddux writes an insightful and extremely helpful analysis of Zimbardo's experiment in relation to the Assembly leadership and includes an editorial review of Zimbardo's book, The Lucifer Factor. Here are excerpts from an Assembly bulletin board exchange about whether Christians have special protection against such psychological manipulation or not.


Dr. Kelton Rhoades, a professor at USC, addresses questions about cults on his website, Working Psychology. This site is dedicated to the scientific investigation of persuasion and influence. Read An Introduction to Social Influence and Cult Influence Tactics, and you'll want to learn more - Rhoades is a good communicator.


The Rick Ross website has a summary of Dr. Robert Cialdini's work on the subject of influence and persuasion. He enumerates six fundamental social and psychological principles that successful marketers use on us every day. At Wellspring this is regarded as key piece in understanding high-demand groups, which rely on the unethical use of persuasion. Here is a short funny little video that is a neat example.


Dangerous Persuaders, a free online ebook by psychologist Louise Samways, is a brief, thorough and excellent explanation of how people are drawn into abusive organizations, how the mind control works, and what it takes to get free. Highly recommended! A must-read for everyone who has suffered spiritual abuse.


Dr. Singer wrote a brief article, Thought Reform Exists: Organized, Programmatic Influence. It is published on the F.A.C.T.net website with a chart showing the continuum of influence and persuasion. The continuum ranges from legitimate education to advertising to propaganda to legitimate indoctrination (such as the military) to unethical thought reform.

Note how frequently the Assembly falls in the "thought reform" category. Dr. Singer makes the point that a person does not know the agenda of an authoritarian high-demand group at the beginning, or the full content of the ideology, and states that a person cannot be thought-reformed if they are fully informed. Getting Hooked gives an example of how the Assembly recruited a young couple without informing them of the implications of a "commitment to fellowship" (joining the group). Here is another influence continuum created by Dr. Singer. Also see the other links at the bottom of the F.A.C.T.net pages.


Tom Maddux recommends this article on mind control, Biderman's Chart of Coercion, on the reFOCUS website.


Members of the Wellspring staff--Dr. Paul Martin, Larry Pile, Ron Burks, and Stephen Martin-- have written a long article with a formidable name, "Overcoming the Bondage of Revictimization: A Rational/Empirical Defense of Thought Reform." It is a rebuttal to an article by Bob and Gretchen Passantino, "Overcoming the Bondage of Victimization: A Critical Evaluation of Cult Mind Control Theories."

The discussion centers on the question, is the mind-control model of cult recruitment and influence compatible with Christian theology? The Passantinos argue that the mind-control model removes moral/spiritual responsibility from the person who has joined a cult. Wellspring argues that mind-control does not remove responsibility, but modifies it by distorting reality. The article will be helpful for those who are angry at themselves for having gotten involved in the Assembly.


Dr. Margaret Singer also wrote a brief article of rebuttal from a secular standpoint to show that thought reform--i.e. "orchestrated exploitative psychological manipulation"--is real, and is recognized within the professional psychiatric field. She says the efforts to defend cults "rest on a 'seeker' theory of how people get into cults.

She makes the point that a person does not know the agenda of an authoritarian high-demand group at the beginning, or the full content of the ideology, and states that a person cannot be thought-reformed if they are fully informed. Getting Hooked gives an example of how the Assembly recruited a young couple without informing them of the implications of a "commitment to fellowship" (joining the group).



Problems Fostered by the Cultic System

Excerpts from Recovering from Churches that Abuse by Dr. Ronald Enroth cover some of the common problems experienced by people who leave abusive groups. You might find that what has been going on with you (or not going on...) is not weird, but normal, given what you've been through. Several cases Dr. Enroth describes are drawn partially from interviews with former Assembly members. The complete book is now available online in PDF format.


A former member of the Taylorite exclusive brethren in Britain interviewed 200 other former members, and found that they were suffering from a variety of psychological symptoms. Foremost were a feeling of alienation from society, and a lack of interpersonal skills.


A blog post comments on Allen Shawn's book, Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life, making the point that in some cases psychological phobias were created in members of the Geftakys Assembly. This might be the case in other spiritually abusive groups as well, where leaders are bullies and Scripture has been twisted to instill unbiblical fear.


High demand groups like the Assembly are very stressful, as we all know. An excerpt from the book Brain Longevity by Dr. D. S. Khalsa shows the destructive effects of chronic stress on the brain and the body.


Emotional Deprivation Disorder was first identified by a Dutch psychiatrist in the 1950's. Dr. Terruwe found that a person could exhibit symptoms characteristic of an anxiety disorder as a result of a lack of unconditional love, authentic affirmation and emotional strengthening in early life. The child was criticized, ignored, neglected, abused, or emotionally rejected by primary caregivers, which resulted in stunted emotional growth. This article is also referenced in the Reflections section -  it is a key article for all Assembly parents.


Born or Raised in High-Demand Groups: Developmental Considerations by Leona Furnari, LCSW points out that one of the complicating factors for those who grew up in aberrant groups is that they have no “pre-cult identity” to go back to. Every AK and Assembly parent should read this article!


Reflections on Marriage and Children after the Cult draws out some of the causes of family problems stemming from involvement in a high-demand group, and shows how they can be tackled in counseling. Bill and Lorna Goldberg are therapists who specialize in cult issues.


Raised in Cultic Groups: The Impact on the Development of Certain Aspects of Character, also by the Goldbergs, is an article directed primarily at therapists, but it is full of insights applicable to AK's.


In the l970's James Dobson's Dare to Discipline was the approved Assembly handbook on child training. In the l980's the Fugate book and videos, What the Bible Says about Child Training, were emphasized. In the 1990's the Ezzo's came on the scene with Growing Kids God's Way, and Michael and Debi Pearl came out with their book, To Train up a Child, and then their No Greater Joy material. All these methods have in common strong authoritarianism and advocate spanking.

The Christian Research Institute critiques this approach in Christian Families on the Edge: Authoritarianism and Isolationism among Us. The brief blog post, "Does Discipline Really Produce Godly Character?" pinpoints a major problem with the first-time obedience principle. Here are more links to perspectives on Assembly child training.


The Ezzos were in the past deeply involved in John MacArthur's Grace Community Church and in fact Gary was an elder. At some point, the elder board became alarmed over some of their material and issued a public statement distancing the church from the Ezzo's teaching. Grace Church now has a website devoted to the problems with the Ezzo program.


The book, The Other Side of the Garden, by Virginia Fugate, became a standard resource in the Assembly for "wife training." On Amazon.com there is a reader's story about the disastrous results in her marriage from trying to follow the precepts of the book. 


The Gradations of Abuse by Sam Vaknin is written from his awareness as a self-confessed narcissist. Instructive.


C. S. Lewis observes that the longing to be a part of the "inner circle" is one of the "great permanent mainsprings of human action". He warns that unless we take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of our lives. This article is also referenced in the Recovery section.


Cognitive distortions are errors in thinking. While anyone can have a few, they are firmly ingrained in the thought reform process. This brief article lists 10 cognitive distortions, and says, "The good news is, like any habit, these patterns of thinking can be broken and discarded through awareness and practice." This article is also referenced in the Recovery section.



Psychopathology  of Leaders

Articles in this section provide information to evaluate the nature of Assembly leadership, beginning with G. Geftakys, but not necessarily ending with him. Unfortunately, other men were molded in his personality style and the effects are experienced in marriages.


Could There Have Been a Sociopath or Two Among Us?, by M. Irons, applies information from Dr. Ken Magid's book High Risk: Children without a Conscience, to Assembly leadership.


Profile of a Sociopath is a comprehensive list of the behavioral characteristics of sociopaths, on the Exit & Support Network website. The site has a section devoted to children raised in the Worldwide Church of God that is very applicable to Assembly kids.


To say that there was malignant narcissism in the Assembly may seem shocking and extreme, but we should at least seriously consider the possibility. Certainly there was a devastating effect on many lives. Dr. Scott Peck, in his book People of the Lie, proposes malignant narcissism as a category of psychopathology. Here is a series of three short articles on malignant narcissism: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Characteristics of Malignant Narcissism (quotations from People of the Lie) and Malignant Narcissism: A Stage Production, which proposes a way to look at the Assembly as a whole from the standpoint of malignant narcissism.


Sam Vaknin, himself an admitted narcissist, has a fascinating website dedicated to this topic, called Malignant Self Love. His articles on Cerebral vs. Somatic Narcissists and The Adrenaline Junkie offer a lot of insight into G. Geftakys' sexual predations. The Cult of the Narcissist describes the dynamics of a group under the leadership of a malignant narcissist. Assembly members, particularly Leading Brothers and Workers, should examine ourselves for symptoms of the contagion of evil.


The Relationship Checklist is a tool for recognizing malignant narcissists with sociopathic characteristics. Emotional Abuse, Verbal Abuse - the Very Early Warning Signs is a similar article that focuses on identifying the less extreme narcissist, and gives some good advice as well. Sam Vaknin has two articles with additional insights - How to Spot an Abuser on Your First Date, and The Abuser's Body Language.


We received an email from a Watchman Nee researcher who found this website. After reading about G. Geftakys, he wrote to us, "Watchman Nee did the same thing." A Nee devotee responded indignantly to this allegation.



Clergy Sexual Abuse and Collusion

Clergy sexual abuse occurs in many types of religious settings. On this site we deal with it in the context of dysfunctional groups. There is a tendency to dismiss clergy sexual contact as an "affair" between "consenting adults", which is a complete misconception, in any case, but particularly in abusive settings. This article explains why.

In regard to Kristin's story, some may think it was not a case of "clergy sexual abuse"--after all, the Assembly didn't believe in "clergy". But the issue isn't the terminology; it's the power differential. Bear in mind that "Brother" George was not simply "George", and not even "brother George", but "Brother" capital "B", at his insistence. Sexual contact between a pastor and a church member is often dismissed as an "affair" between "consenting adults".


The Hope of Survivors website has a number of articles dealing with clergy sexual abuse. Here is a link to a brief synopsis of other misconceptions and misunderstandings about clergy sexual abuse.


On this website, the term 'collusion' is used to describe the collaboration, conscious or unconscious, of two or more individuals to protect those engaged in unethical practices from exposure. Collusion allowed George's sexual abuse and David's domestic violence to go unchecked for 25 years. The following links show that collusion around the issues of clergy sexual abuse and clergy domestic violence happens in many churches.

• Basic Facts About Domestic Violence & Collusion
• Collusion Is Just a Symptom
• Parallels with Family Dynamics of Addicts
• A Two-Fold Treatment Approach for Collusion


In contrast to the collusion of the dysfunctional system, a real-world view of domestic violence considers that the uppermost concern in a domestic violence situation is to provide safety for the woman and children. The Faith Trust Institute has a number of articles on domestic violence and clergy sexual abuse that are well worth reading.



Other Perspectives

There is an interesting commentary in the online magazine Slate on a scholarly article by economist Lawrence R. Iannaccone, "Why Strict Churches Are Strong". Slate says Iannaccone makes the case that the devout person is willing to pay a high social price for belonging to a strict church because it "buys a better religious product...." There are "quantifiable benefits their piety affords them, not just in the afterlife but in the here and now," such as a great sense of community.

He goes on to discuss the point at which the disadvantages of zealotry might outweigh the benefits. Fascinating....This article is perhaps applicable to the reasons why we stayed in the Assembly, as well as why we got involved in the first place.


Brent T. provides an excerpt and a link to a three-part article by Dr. Roger W. Sapp, called "Honoring the Truth-Teller", about the roles of loyalty and truth-telling in organizations, especially the church.



Back to top