The July/August 2011 (not posted yet but if you sign up for their email newsletter you will be given access to the article) issue of Mother Jones features a hard hitting, provocative article by Kathryn Joyce that exposes the abuse that occurs in many teen group homes operated by Independent, Fundamentalist Baptist pastors. The recent 20/20 investigation opened the door into the Independent, Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. Joyce’s article shows what goes on in one corner of the IFB house. I hope you will take time to read Joyce’s article, and better yet, I hope you will subscribe to Mother Jones, one of the finest investigative magazines in America.
The IFB movement is well known for its abuse of people. Due to their strict, literal interpretation of the Bible, it is not uncommon to hear of pastors abusing church members and IFB church members abusing their spouse and family. While some in the IFB movement will object to my broad assertions about the IFB movement, the fact remains that abuse is quite common and all the objections in the world won’t make this fact go away. I have seen the abuse firsthand, to some degree participated in the abuse as a pastor, and I am in almost daily contact with people who were in, or are currently members of, IFB churches that are abusive.
Why is abuse so common? The answer is quite simple. The Bible. IFB pastors believe the Bible is the inerrant, inspired Word of God. They believe that every word of the Bible is from God and that God expects everyone (Christian or not) to obey the teachings of the Bible. Most IFB pastors are strict literalists, believing every word of the Bible as written. So when the Bible speaks of beating a child with a rod they believe they have the duty and obligation to beat their children with a rod. As a pastor, they have the duty and obligation to teach their parishioners to beat their children with a rod.
Key to understanding how this abuse occurs is understanding the word authority. There is a hierarchal system in IFB churches. It goes something like this:
- God is over all things; Christ is the head, the shepherd of the Church.
- The pastor is the under shepherd,given authority by Jesus himself to rule the church. (some churches will try to mitigate the one-man rule by having a board of elders or deacons but all this does is make multiple people having authority from Jesus to rule the church, abuse by a group instead of a person)
- The husband, under the authority of Christ,under the authority of the pastor, is the head (the authority) of the home. He has authority over his wife and children.
- The wife, under the authority of Christ, under the authority of the pastor, under the authority of her husband, has authority over her children.
- The children under the authority of everyone have no authority over anything. They are to do what they are told and if they do not do so they suffer the just punishment God’s Word demands. (out of love, of course)
Granted, not every IFB church is like I describe above, however the majority of IFB churches are, and because they are it is important that their abuses be exposed. Not every IFB pastor abuses children or their parishioners, in fact most don’t. But, because of their teachings from the Bible they often become enablers, giving church members the green light to abuse their children, in the name of God.
As I look back on my time spent pastoring IFB churches I now realize how naïve I was about how my sermons affected other people. For the most part I pastored people who came from the lower end of the socio-economic scale. (the same place I came from) Many of the people I pastored came from homes where dysfunction and abuse was quite common. I now see telling a person raised in such environments to use a rod to correct their children was like throwing gasoline on a fire.
When strict, physical Bible-based discipline no longer works IFB parents are given the option to send their children to teen group homes that specialize in turning rebellious teenagers into to docile, submissive servants of the Lord. Joyce’s article does an outstanding job detailing the abuse that goes on in these teen group homes so there is no need for me to recount the abuses here.
While I recommended the teen group homes several times to parents who had rebellious teens, only one family sent their child to a teen group home. (not a IFB home, a nondenominational home for unwed mothers-to-be) Most of the families I pastored could not afford to send their child to a teen group home. While covering themselves with God, the Bible, and the American flag IFB teen group homes, these teen group homes are money-making businesses. Hiding behind the separation of church and state, often operating under the authority of a local church, IFB teen group homes are exempt from financial accountability. I am of the opinion that many pastors have done quite well financially by owning and operating a teen group home. (I would love to see an accounting of “love offerings”, also known as cash the IRS doesn’t know about)
It is quite common for teenagers to rebel. Most people understand that teen rebellion is all part of the process of becoming an adult. I suspect some people might think that I should be thanking IFB pastors for operating teen group homes since they are providing a service for parents who have rebellious teens. Who is going to help if these IFB teen group homes aren’t around?
People not schooled in the IFB way of life are at a great disadvantage in this discussion.(when I tell my counselor of some of things that went on in my IFB days he often gives me an incredulous, really? Yes, really.) When they hear the phrase “rebellious teen” they assume that the teen is wild and out-of-control. In some cases that is certainly true but in most cases “rebellion” is often nothing more than a teen listening to rock music, smoking, having sex, or arguing with their parents. The normal path of a teen moving from adolescence to adulthood is demonized and the teen’s every action becomes an affront to God.
IFB parents are oft reminded of what happens when rebellion is left unchecked. Well meaning parents want what is best for their children so they send them off to teen group homes like the ones mentioned in Joyce’s article. Well meaning pastors want what is best for the families of his church, so he recommends teen group homes to parents who are having trouble with a “rebellious” teen. Everyone means well, but regardless of intentions the results are most often disastrous. (and yes I am acutely aware that some people praise the IFB teen group homes for saving their lives)
For a number of years I pastored IFB churches in Central/SE Ohio. During my time there I was introduced to several pastors who operated IFB teen group homes. I was an ardent IFB pastor, typical of the type of pastor found in the IFB movement. I believed the Bible was the inerrant, inspired Word of God. I was a literalist. I took seriously the commands of God concerning authority, family, marriage, and discipline.
The IFB teen group homes often had groups (most often girls) that traveled to promote the teen group homes. (BTW, this is a common practice used by Christian Colleges. Appearance is everything.) These traveling groups would go from Church to Church praising the work of the teen group home. The girls, all dressed in long skirts, with long hair, sang beautiful songs about redemption and gave glowing testimonies of how
Jesus the teen group home turned around their lives. It was quite amazing. Right in front of us were examples of how Jesus could change even the vilest of sinners. As the purveyors of IFB teen group homes well know, selling Churches on their “ministry” is an easy sell when people can see the finished product right in front of them.
Over the course of 25 years in the ministry I often attended pastor’s fellowships. Pastor’s fellowship are monthly meetings where pastors get together to gossip and listen to preaching. The traveling groups from the IFB teen group homes made regular appearances at the pastor’s fellowships I attended. The groups would sing, give testimonies, and most often a love offering would be received to help with the “ministry” of the teen group home. The names of the teen group homes are lost in the fog of an old man’s addled mind but I still remember the white, wholesome faces of girls who had been delivered from their rebellion by Jesus.
Fast forward to 2011. The doubts and concerns I had about the IFB movement towards the end of my time in the ministry have been proved. Of course to my critics in the IFB all that has been proved is that I never was saved and that I am a false prophet. I have had to face my own culpability in the abuse that went on in the IFB churches I pastored. I have to own the fact that my preaching, though well-intentioned and Bible based, hurt other people. There is nothing I can do about the past other than seeking forgiveness from those I hurt. Of course, some former parishioners don’t think I hurt them at all. They are quite proud of my preaching and my hard-core stand for truth and righteousness. They are sad and angry that I have become a denier of the faith I once passionately preached.
I have been privileged to meet women like Cat Givens and Teresa Frye who have eloquently and honestly shared stories of their time in IFB teen group homes. Their stories have given me the courage and determination to be a voice for those abused in IFB teen group homes. The past is what it is. I know of no way of “fixing” the past. Embrace it, learn from it, and make sure that, from this day forward, what happened In the past will never happen again.
I am incensed that my state senator Sherrod Brown refused to be proactive on recent legislation that could have gone a long way in regulating teen group homes, or at the very least regulating and banning the use of abuse as a means of discipline. I intend to make my views known to Senator Brown. I respect him, I voted for him, and he and I share similar political views, but his unwillingness to support regulating teen group homes is scandalous.
In the late 1980’s the State of Ohio finally did something about unregulated, unlicensed day care centers operated by churches throughout the state. They forced the day care centers to license or close. My wife’s uncle’s church day care was the last unlicensed day care closed in the state of Ohio. Ohio did what was right and I firmly believe such action is needed regarding teen group homes. (religious or not) The federal government or state government needs to pass legislation forcing teen group homes to license or close. These homes need to face unannounced, regular inspections. Abuse needs to be reported and prosecuted. The days of IFB teen group home operators schmoozing with government leaders and law enforcement is over. It is time for law enforcement and prosecutors to enforce the laws already on the books. It is beyond belief that the perpetrators of abuse mentioned in Joyce’s article remain free to continue their abuse in the name of God.
As I read Kathryn Joyce’s article I was struck with one amazing fact. The abuse she details, involves many different people and teen group homes, but they all trace their lineage back to one man…Lester Roloff.
Perhaps it is time to take down the pictures of Saint Roloff and call him what he really is…..the father of Independent Fundamentalist Baptist teen group home child abuse. Roloff may be dead but his vile teachings and practices live on.