Ben W.'s Authoritarian Charismatic Experience

Here's my experience with an abusive church, and the lessons that God has taught me through my experience.

I grew up in a Christian home who attended a loving denominational church. I was saved at the age of 5 when my mother led me in the "sinner's prayer" in October 1980. In retrospect, I believe I was truly saved then, as I had quite a tender heart toward God.

However, I grew up with a lot of insecurities and perceived shame from not being as athletic as my 2 brothers - my strengths were academics and music. As much as my parents strived to let me know how valuable those things were, my peers never really echoed that sentiment. So it was that my insecurities left me with a profound lack of identity for quite some time, and in my later teens, I was finding church to be less relevant. I tried finding an identity in being religious, but ended up being hypocritical, so I eventually quit trying. You see, I didn't have a relationship with God through that time - just with churches and other professed Christians.

So after a few years of trying in futility to find my identity outside of Christ (and failing to do so), my friend started inviting me to her church. This church was different - they were independent, charismatic in personality and in the flowing of the gifts of the Spirit. They were confident, bold, uncompromised and excited about Jesus. There was a security there in knowing that some issues that I'd thought were gray areas were actually black and white.

They walked in a sense of spiritual authority that I had never seen before, and the praise and worship music was phenomenal. The pastor especially walked in a sense of authority, and had an "armor bearer" with him seemingly at all times. I actually received the baptism of the Holy Spirit around this time, and I was on fire for God as I had never been before.

At this time, this church had no formal membership process, so I started attending faithfully. I was convinced at that time that I was now truly saved, and that either I had never truly been saved before, or I had lost my salvation over time. For that reason, I received water baptism there, although I had done so at the age of 12 (considered the age of accountability in my former church).

Once that was done, I started serving in the "ministry of helps" in the video department, as every Sunday service was video taped. I did this for a full year, per a commitment to that ministry that I'd signed. Throughout this year, I had also attended home group meetings and started playing the piano at the occasional meeting.

So "Pastor T" found out that I was musically inclined. That fall, when my year with the video department was expired, there was an altar call in which the current piano player was being ministered to. Pastor T pointed me out and said, "You know how to play that thing - get up there!" Feeling incredibly honored, I got up and started to play the basic chord progression that the worship team was playing. This was the beginning of my involvement with the music ministry. Soon afterward, I was invited to the worship team practices, and I would fill in for the "regular" keyboard player if he needed a break. I started playing the keyboard for the youth praise and worship, and I also played the keyboard for the services at a church that we planted a few miles north.

It was around this time that I started taking my eyes off my relationship with God and placed them in the ministries that I was involved in. Less and less time was being reserved just for the Lord and me. So I was now unwittingly backsliding in heart away from God, although praise from church members and leaders grew for the few years afterward.

Two years after I joined, people I loved started leaving the church against the wishes of the pastor. Actually, within a year, 3 major contributors to the worship team were gone, and within another year, 2 other major contributors had left the church.

I started hearing stories of how people had just suddenly left all throughout the church's 15 or 16-year history. I started noticing that the leadership would discourage people from associating with anyone who left the church, and had told a few people quite bluntly that they should not hang around them. However, I never thought this was scriptural, so I would call them and hang out with them.

Unknown to me, however, the leadership expressed many concerns among themselves about the "rebels" that were influencing me. To them, the people who left were the problem, and so once they were gone, the problems should have taken care of themselves. The mentality was that if someone leaves a church without the pastor's blessing, he removes himself from God's blessing as well, since God called them to that church, and if He were to lead them away, He'd let the pastor know, and the pastor would bless them. (This never happened). After all, the pastor was trusted to know the direction of every service, as it was believed that God would show the pastor what needed to be done, so trusting the pastor was equated with trusting God.

Home group leaders started leaving, the church administrator left, and the youth pastor eventually left. Many families, dozens perhaps, left during this time. I never knew them all, as I was kept so busy about "the Father's business."

The church's reaction to this was more preaching on loyalty, commitment, submission and authority, and more preaching against rebellion. Also, since there were less people in attendance, the people (myself included) that remained in ministry positions worked even harder and dedicated more time - so we had even LESS time to spend with God or examine ourselves.

Their mentality was that it was wrong to miss a service unexcused - and if the church doors were open, you should be there. For worship team members, that meant early to arrive and late to leave every service. There was no rotation in any ministry - children's workers, ushers, etc. all served every service, unless they were excused for some reason.

During this time, I talked with quite a few people that had left, and found out that they were hurt (some quite deeply) by this church when they left. Basically, the pastor didn't want to look bad, so he would label them as "flakey, rebellious," and other assorted names that would denounce their character. Some he said were disqualified from ministry, another one was a thief, and all of them (to him) were out of God's will and would never fulfill the plan of God for their lives. At one time, he told me he was just "trying to protect the office" as pastor. I had no comment.

I also started noticing people starting to prophecy things that were quite self-serving and sounded great to the leadership, but never came to pass. For example, shortly after the 4th major player in the worship team left, a prophecy was given that within a month, we would have musicians coming back in repentance to our church. (Years later, this still has not happened.)

I met with Pastor T privately a couple times throughout this period. This was quite an event, actually, as one had to schedule a meeting with him through the administrator. (Even though one admin left, another was hired shortly afterward.) He would tell me everything I wanted to hear each time I was with him, and I felt that we actually had communicated. It didn't occur to me until much later that he did this with everybody, and it is quite a political and manipulative tactic of gaining people's trust.

Around this time, I also lost trust in most of the people there, as I knew even at that point that anything that was told to the leadership was relayed to the pastor, even if it was in confidence. I also just could not be real with people there, as I knew they disapproved of my maintaining friendships with people who left the church. Being real to me involves questioning things, and at that church, I found, you could not question things unless you wanted to arouse suspicion. So I would socialize and be real with my friends outside of the church - most of whom had left that church.

I also started to feel suspicion that I was being manipulated about a year before I left. Our worship team was down to 4 musicians, and I was the only piano (keyboard) player, and 1 out of 2 members who could play proficiently without music. So I was never "rebuked" like some of the people who had gone before me, since they didn't want to lose me.

In 2001, I made plans to marry and move my fiancée to my city and my church. The church was thrilled with the thought of gaining another musician - she has a beautiful voice, and is quite gifted musically.

However, in spring 2002, my fiancée and I made the decision to move to her city and her church, for many personal reasons. My pastor immediately disapproved, and a few weeks later the worship leader pulled me aside and told me it was God's will for me to stay there per a prophecy given last fall. The last Sunday I was there, one of the church leaders publicly prophesied over me that "this is your house of worship says the Lord." Within 2 hours of that prophecy, I had made my decision to leave that church, as I felt God's anointing was being manipulated and not respected.

Once I made my decision public, I felt the most freedom that I had felt in years. I felt like I could finally pursue a real relationship with God again, as I had made ministry my god awhile ago - serving 6-hour days on Sundays, and 4-hour days on Wednesdays, and many special services in between. Sure, it bothers me that the leadership and members will no longer associate with me, but that's between them and God. I've been blessed with many dear friends that I chose not to burn bridges with years ago, and I treasure each one - I actually have time to spend with them now.

LESSONS LEARNED: First of all, I've learned to use my own discernment and study the Bible for myself again, and never trust in another person to "discern" what is the will of God for my life. Sure, I can obtain counsel and advice from someone, but they are not to make my decisions for me. It is my job to pray and seek God for my own life. I'm accountable for me - not my pastor or anyone else.

Secondly, I've learned that, as Solomon says in the Proverbs, one side of the story looks good until the other side is presented. It is wisdom to consider all sides of a story and to prayerfully draw one's own conclusion - not to quench the other side of a story by telling others not to listen to it.

Thirdly, I've learned that no matter what harm anyone does or has done to me or anyone else, God's love is stronger. Forgiveness is not an option - although I won't forget what happened, lest I forget my lessons learned. So I forgive myself for having believed in something that wasn't real, I forgive others that have disassociated themselves with me, and tell people things that aren't true about me; and I forgive my old pastor. This is what honors Christ - doing what He would do - not according to what I think people deserve. Forgiveness is a tool that God uses to heal us and allow us the freedom to trust and love again.

Finally, along those lines, I've learned that if someone says something untrue about me, I do not have to respond in kind - it's a test as to whether I'm going to honor God with my response to them. Therefore, I will do my best to live so that no one would ever believe what they say. I will not call them names, nor will I denounce their character. I will pray for them, and love them as God loves them. I'm not accountable for what they do to me - but I'll stand before God and answer for how I've responded to them. And I want to please Him above all.

Ben W.


Posted August 31, 2002

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