Tag Archive: Cultism

Why do Evangelicals Flee One Cult, Only to Join Another?

cult of apple

Cartoon by Mike Luckovich

One of the hardest things I had to come to terms with was the fact that my parents raised me in a cult; that I was a member of a cult; that I attended a college operated by a cult; that I married a girl who was also a member of a cult; that I spent thirty years evangelizing for a cult and pastoring its churches. Worse yet, as devoted cult members, my wife and I raised our six children in the way of the cult, in the truth of the cult, and in the life of the cult. Most religions, to some degree or the other, are cults. The dictionary describes the word cult several ways:

  • A system of religious beliefs and rituals
  • A religion or sect that is generally considered to be unorthodox, extreme, or false [who determines what is unorthodox, extreme of false?]
  • Followers of an unorthodox, extremists, or false religion or sect who often live outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader
  • Followers of an exclusive system of religious beliefs and practices

As you can see from these definitions, Christianity is a cult. In particular, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement and Evangelicalism in general are cults. I rarely use the word cult when describing Evangelical beliefs and practices because the word means something different to Evangelicals. In their minds, sects such as the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Moonies, and Catholics are cults. Some Evangelical churches bring in cult specialists to teach congregants about what is and isn’t a cult. Countless Evangelicals have read Walter Martin’s seminal work, The Kingdom of the Cults. Martin’s book was considered the go-to reference work when it came to cults. Martin defined a cult this way: a group of people gathered about a specific person—or person’s misinterpretation of the Bible. In Martin’s mind, any group of people who followed a person’s misinterpretation of the Bible made up a cult. Of course, Martin — a Fundamentalist Baptist — was the sole arbiter of what was considered a misinterpretation of the Bible. Written in 1965, The Kingdom of the Cults included sects such as the Seventh-day Adventism, Unitarian Universalism, Worldwide Church of God, Buddhism, and Islam. Martin also believed certain heterodox Christian sects had cultic tendencies. I am sure that if Martin were alive today, a revised version of The Kingdom of the Cults would be significantly larger than the 701 pages of the first edition. Martin and his followers, much like Joseph McCarthy, who saw Reds under every bed, saw cultism everywhere they look — except in their own backyards, that is.

Over the years, I have heard from numerous college classmates and former parishioners who wanted me to know that they had left cultic IFB churches and joined up with what they believed were non-cultic Evangelical churches. These letter-writers praised me for my exposure of the IFB church movement, but they were dismayed over my rejection of Christianity in general. In their minds, I threw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater; that if I would just find a church like theirs I would see and know the “truth.” I concluded, after reading their testimonies, that all they had really done is trade one cult for another.

Take, for example, my college classmates. Most of them were raised in strict IFB homes and churches. Some of them had pastor fathers. Later in life, they came to believe that the IFB church movement, with its attendant legalistic codes of conduct, was a cult. As I mentioned in my post titled, Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists? there are two components to religious fundamentalism: theological fundamentalism and social fundamentalism. Most Evangelicals are both theological and social Fundamentalists, even though some of them will deny the latter. My college classmates, in leaving the IFB church movement, distanced themselves from social fundamentalism while retaining their theological fundamentalist beliefs. They wrongly believe that by rejecting the codes of conduct of their former churches, they were no longer members of a cult. However, their theology changed very little, and often they just traded a “legalistic” code of conduct for a “Biblical” one. These “non-legalists” revel in their newfound freedoms — drinking alcohol, going to movies, wearing pants (women), saying curse words, smoking cigars, having long hair (men), listening to secular music, using non-King James Bible translations, and having sex in non-missionary positions, to name a few — thinking that they have finally escaped the cult, when in fact they just moved their church membership from one cult to another. When the core theology of their old church is compared to their new church few differences are found.

I can’t emphasize this enough: regardless of the name on the door, the style of worship/music, or ecclesiology, Evangelical churches are pretty much all the same. Many Evangelicals consider Westboro Baptist Church to be a cult. However, a close examination of their theology reveals that there is little difference between the theology of the late Fred Phelps and his clan and that of Southern Baptist luminary Al Mohler and his fellow Calvinists. Ask ten local Evangelical churches for copies of their church doctrinal statement and compare them. You will find differences on matters of church government, spiritual gifts, and other peripheral issues Christians perpetually fight over, but when it comes to the core doctrines of Christianity, they are in agreement.

Calvinists and Arminians — who have been bickering with each other for centuries — will vehemently disagree with my assertion that they are one and the same, but when you peel away each group’s peculiar interpretations of the Bible, what you are left with are the historic, orthodox beliefs expressed in the creeds of early Christianity. There may be countless flavors of ice cream, but they all have one thing in common: milk. So it is with Evangelical sects and churches. During what I call our wandering years, Polly and I attended over one hundred Christian churches, looking for a church that took seriously the teachings of Christ. We concluded that Evangelical churches are pretty much all the same, and that the decision on which church to attend is pretty much up to which kind of ice cream you like the best. No matter how “special” some Evangelical churches think they are, close examination reveals that they are not much different from other churches. This means then, that there is little-to-no difference theologically between Christian cults. Codes of conduct are different from church to church, but at the center of every congregation is the greatest cult leader of all time, Jesus Christ. (See But Our Church is DIFFERENT!)

Go back and read the definitions of the word cult at the top of this post, and then read Walter Martin’s definition of a cult/cult leader. Is not Jesus a cult leader? Is not the Apostle Paul also a cult leader? Is not the sect founded and propagated by Jesus, Peter, James, John, and Paul, and propagated for two thousand years by pastors/priests/evangelists/missionaries a cult? Is not the Judaism of the Old Testament a blood cult, as is its offspring, Christianity? Surely a fair-minded person must conclude that Christianity is a cult. Regardless of denomination, peculiar beliefs, and differing codes of conduct, all Christian churches are, in effect, cult temples, no different from the “pagan” temples mentioned in the New Testament.

Disagree? By all means, use the comment section to explain why your Christian/Evangelical/IFB sect/church is not a cult, but other sects and churches are. Why should your beliefs and practices be considered truth and all others false? Hint, the Bible says is not an acceptable answer (nor are worn-out presuppositional tropes). All cultists appeal to their religious texts for proof that their beliefs and practices are “truth.” Why should anyone accept your sect’s book as “truth?” Why should anyone believe that Jesus is the way, truth, and life or that the Christian God is the one true God?

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Quote of the Day: The High Cost of Fleeing Fundamentalist Religion by Andreea Nica

 

preaching anti abortion gospel lexington kentucky (3)

According to a recent study, those who have a stable religious or secular identity generally report greater well being; however, those who consider leaving religion but stay, tend to experience poorer mental health over time, compared to those who are more consistent in their religious and nonreligious identities. Which begs the question of how leaving impacts well being—particularly for those raised in a religion.

By now many of us are familiar with the data on the “nones.” Nearly four in ten (39%) young adults (18-29) are religiously unaffiliated, and they’re nearly four times as likely as young adults a generation ago to identify as religiously unaffiliated. The primary reasons are skepticism in the teachings of religion (60%), a less religious upbringing (32%), or issues with religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people (29%).

But a subset of these growing religious nones has lacked examination—those who have left fundamentalist religions. Underexplored is how disaffiliation from fundamentalist groups impact family relations and friendships, as well as the stressors involved in ‘coming out’ as a nonbeliever.

Important to clarify, is that strict, fundamentalist, or “high-cost” religious groups have distinct characteristics of absolutism, fanaticism, and conformity. Absolutism means that religious individuals have a high commitment to and willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the religious group’s goals or beliefs; Conformity entails obedience and discipline of religious members; and Fanaticism is conceived of as one-way communication versus a dialogue between leadership and members.

Leaving fundamentalist, strict religions can have negative health consequences, both perceived and actual, that manifest in the body and mind. Research shows that individuals who come out to family members, specifically as an atheist—a strongly stigmatized identity in the U.S., only slightly more popular than Muslims—report that families often react with anger and rejection, as communication deteriorates and distrust grows. While research is somewhat limited on individuals’ experiences leaving religion more broadly, and coming out to family and friends, it’s generally assumed that there are significant stressors involved that impact well being.

I interviewed individuals who left fundamentalist religious groups, or, what I call, ‘exiters,’ and found that they all have complex stories of ‘exiting’ and ‘coming out’ out to their families. These individuals left religion for different reasons, but some common themes included pursuit of personal freedom not found in the religion, shifts in ideological values that put them at odds with religion, and lack of acceptance for who they were or who they wanted to become in their religious communities.

Religious immersion

The ‘exiters’ I interviewed described their experience in religion as immersive, consisting of a significant time commitment, a high degree of participation, and intense involvement.

Heather, a 29-year-old female exiter of evangelical Christianity, explains her religious experience as deeply connected to family and friends in the community:

I was raised in the church, attending services as far back as I can remember. As a child, we would attend Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and mid-week services. As a teenager, I became highly involved in the youth ministry and served on the leadership team, where I continued to attend Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and mid-week services. The church was a significant part of my family’s identity. It was our primary form of community and where I built many lasting friendships.

Lena, a 29-year-old, female, and exiter of The Church Universal and Triumphant, a new age religious cult, echoes:

There were three weekly important Church services of about 2-3 hours each that I attended with my parents. My school was run by the Church so every day was started with a 30-minute services. I took Holy Communion classes every Sunday afternoon for 2 months one summer when I was 8 or 9. There were four major holy events—“Conferences”—when everyone would gather on the main Church campus and spend a week purely in Church praying and listening to the Church leader. On my own, I prayed every night before bed, blessed my food, prayed whenever I was driving in a car, and did rosaries every night for a good 6 or 7 years. I listened to the Church leader on audiotape in the background when doing homework or falling asleep after about 10 years old and the sound of prayer was constant.

Katie, a 34-year-old, female, exiter of a charismatic, non-denominational Christian religious group highlights:

The church services were known for extreme emotional highs. Worship would last several hours and would be used to work the church members into an emotional frenzy. Often people would dance while waving large flags, some would kneel, some would openly cry, some would be seized with uncontrollable laughter. These behaviors were thought to be the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Losing family and friends

A 30-year-old male, former devout member of an evangelical Christian community, as well as former music leader and church staff member, shares his experience leaving religion and coming out as gay. Ted expressed that although most of his family members are no longer religious, his friendships were deeply effected.

I experienced a certain degree of shunning from several very close friends. We still communicate, but they have definitely put a wall between our relationship. They no longer include me as one of their own. I’m familiar with that guarding because I used to put similar walls up with people who were not part of my religious community as well, so I recognized it right away.

Lena described for me coming out as a nonbeliever to family and friends as a gradual process:

I still haven’t come out to my mother though I imagine she suspects or knows…We used to be close and talked every day into my twenties. Now I call her maybe every three months and talk to her for less than 30 minutes. I find that talking to her and hearing the language of the Church in all her sentences produces a great deal of anxiety. I talk to my sister even less. Whenever I speak with my mother at any length she tells me I am on the wrong path…Lots of microaggressions that often devolve into crying. My sister has let me know that she’s given up on me and she hopes someday I wake up. I think she pities me… I told my father never to speak to me again when I was 24 and have had no contact with him since then, though every few years or so I Google his name to see what he is doing.

Lena’s experience coming out to friends shared a similar sentiment with Ted’s narrative:

I have lost contact with an entire friend group of 10 years. I simply stopped contacting them and not a single one of them has reached out to me either by phone or Facebook to see how I am. There were a good 5 people in that friend group that I thought I was very close to, but since I stopped attending Church events, none of them have contacted me though I know they are all still involved in the Church.

Heather describes her coming out as a nonbeliever to family as “difficult and still a work-in-progress” and further explains:

During my several years [in] transition from religious to nonreligious, I didn’t feel comfortable talking about my beliefs with family and friends. Since discussing matters of faith had been a focal point of these relationships (i.e., praying for each other, encouraging each other with scriptures, etc.), my silence created feelings of distance among family members where strong connections used to exist. My mother expressed disappointment that she could no longer pray with me and longingly recalled the days when I would share scriptures and words of encouragement with her.

Katie shares her departure from a charismatic, non-denominational Christian religious group:

In the last two years that I was a Christian, I struggled with depression and panic attacks. I often received prayer and anointing of oil for my depression and panic. I found myself crying at church, not because I was feeling the ecstasy of God, but because I was overwhelmed with the fact that God would not heal me. I tried everything, including paying hundreds of dollars to have one-on-one healing sessions to expel demons and cut demonic ties from and my family’s past sins. These things still didn’t work and I began to have suicidal thoughts, which I eventually admitted to my primary doctor. I was started on anti-depressants, and for the first time in years, I felt happy. My faith was shaken. God didn’t heal me but these pills did. I quit going to church.

Katie’s relational losses echoes others’ narratives:

The majority of my friend network was from my church and when I stopped going to church, my Christian friendships stopped. I just stopped hearing from them, and it was as if I did not exist at all. I lost most of my friends, and that was extremely painful. I realized that the friendships, based on deep spiritual experiences together, had no foundation like a normal friendship did…I was able to come out to friends who had also left their faith, and we were able to create an actual friendship based on our mutual experiences.

….

— Andreea Nica, Religion Dispatches, The Forgotten Nones: The High Cost of Fleeing Fundamentalist Religion, March 12, 2018

I am a Publican and a Heathen Part Four

Jose Maldonado Bruce Gerencser Pat Horner 1994

Jose Maldonado. Bruce Gerencser, Pat Horner, Somerset Baptist Church

This post concludes the I Am a Publican and a Heathen series. This series details my experiences as co-pastor of Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf Texas. In March 1994, I left a pastorate of eleven years and moved to Texas so I could co-pastor a thriving, growing Sovereign Grace Baptist church. The church was founded by Pat Horner. Pat and I became acquainted through a newsletter I published — The Sovereign Grace Reporter. In March 1993, I packed up my family — five children in the backseat and two adults and a child in the front — and drove to Texas to preach at Community’s annual Bible Conference. Polly and I were enthralled with the church and its growing motivated, young membership. Later in the year, Pat called and asked me if I would be willing to come and work with him. After talking it over with Polly, I decided that God wanted me to remain the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church. A few weeks later, in what can only be described as a deep emotional experience, I change my mind about working with Pat. I telephoned Pat and told him that I believed that God was now telling me to come to Texas. Several weeks later, Polly and I drove to Texas to meet with the church membership. They overwhelmingly were in favor of me becoming one of their pastors. Little did I know that less than a year later I would be packing up my family and, with a broken heart, moving back to Ohio. If you have not read the previous posts in this series (Part One Part Two Part Three), I encourage you to do so. They provide important context that will make this post easier to understand.

Community Baptist Church believed that since the church had to approve entrance into the membership, no one could leave the church without their permission. Leaving without church approval was viewed as a betrayal of the covenantal relationship between members. People who left the church or stopped attending were routinely disciplined (Matthew 18:15-20), resulting in excommunication. The church believed that excommunicated members were to be considered publicans and heathens. The only way disciplined members could remove this “mark” (Titus 3:10,11,Romans 16:17, and 2 Thessalonians 3:14,15)  was to humbly come before the church, admit their sin, and plead for reinstatement.

Pat Horner was a former Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher, a fact that he, to this day, likes to hide. The reason this is important is that while Pat disavowed IFB theology when he embraced the five points of Calvinism, he continued to believe that God-honoring churches were to be ruled by pastors (elders). While Community had a plurality of elders, it was quite clear that Pat was the elder above all others. Looking back on my decision to co-pastor Community, I now know that I grossly overestimated the ability of both Pat and myself to work with each other. Both of us had spent our careers as men who controlled every aspect of the churches we pastored. We may have had elders and deacons who were supposedly equal in power and authority, but these officeholders were little more than façades that covered up ego-driven, authoritarian rule. While I did not remain such a pastor, it is, to this day, hard for me to think about how controlling I was. I know that authoritarianism robs people of self-determination and self-worth. Lording over people and treating them as subjects in one’s own little kingdom causes great psychological damage. I suppose, then, my facing church discipline at the hands of Pat Horner was some sort of karmic justice. The monster that I had fed and used to control “sinful” church members finally devoured its creator. All I can do now is to use my experiences as a platform to help others who have been emotionally eviscerated by pastors and churches who believe that God has given them absolute control over the lives of others. While I am hesitant to say such beliefs and practices are cultic — who wants to admit they were a cultist? — any fair-minded person would conclude that they are.

During my time at Community, I participated in several public disciplinary meetings, including one in which I was in charge of the proceedings. Errant members were disciplined for all sorts of “sins,” but most of them were excommunicated because they stopped attending church. Since these dropouts did not notify the church (Pat) about their leaving, they were, by church vote (almost always a rubber stamp to Pat’s request) removed from the membership. In many instances, other local Calvinistic churches refused to accept as members those who had been excommunicated. The only way for excommunicated members to join the new church was for them to return to Community and confess their “sin” before the congregation. Once duly humbled, these wayward members would then be granted a release from their membership. They were then free to join up with a new church. This applied, of course, only to sound Calvinistic Baptist churches. Members leaving to join up with non-Calvinistic churches were not granted releases. Pat believed that Calvinism was the true gospel and that non-Calvinistic churches were heretical and taught a false gospel. This thinking permeated the church. I was asked on several occasions if I believed that Arminians (Methodists, Free Will Baptists, Nazarenes, Pentecostals, et al.) were Christians. I did my best to sidestep such questions, knowing that saying yes would cause church conflict. One leader in the church would later remark after I left that he knew I was never a “real” Calvinist. This man did not like my emphasis of God’s love. He preferred Jonathan Edwards’ brooding, violent, sin-hating God.

As I mentioned, I was in charge of one of the disciplinary meetings. Pat had gone to Mexico for a few weeks, so it was up to me to make sure that the authoritarian machine was firing on all eight cylinders. During this time, I began to have problems with a man who had been ordained by the church. He was unhappy with Pat and with me, revealing, at least in my mind, that he had a “rebellious” heart. This man was disloyal and refused to submit to pastoral authority, so I determined that the best course of action was to strip him of his ordination. After several conference calls with Pat, I brought the matter before the church and the man was defrocked. He would later humble himself before “God” and have his ordination reinstated. (The very threat of discipline was often enough to get church members to change their behaviors.)

In early October 1994, after all the events described in Part Three of this series, Pat decided to bring me before the church for the purposes of discipline and possible excommunication. Several days before this meeting a few church members pleaded with me to make things right with Pat. They knew that excommunicating me had nothing to do with sin. This was all about two arrogant, self-righteous, bull-headed men who couldn’t get along with each other, yet I was the one who had to make things right. They knew that this was a power struggle over who would control the church, a power struggle I knew I couldn’t win. And it is for this reason I decided not to attend the disciplinary meeting. Tim Conway, now the pastor of Grace Community Church in San Antonio, told me that if I would straighten things out with Pat that perhaps he would be willing to help me start a new church in San Antonio. (Conway denies he ever said this.) I knew that a number of church members preferred me above Pat. Many of them found my congenial, at times humorous, preaching appealing. I knew that if I decided to stay in San Antonio and start a new church that a number of people would join with me. And it is for this reason that I chose not to stay and start a new church. I can say with a little bit of pride that, over the course of 25 years in the ministry, I never experienced or fomented a church split. Members would come and go, but I never had a large group of people leave at one time with the express purpose of starting a new church. While causing a split at Community would have been in some ways gratifying — a poking of my fingers in the eyes of Pat Horner — I knew that church splits rarely grew into successful, growing congregations.

It took Polly and me a matter of a few days to pack up our belongings in a U-Haul truck. Several church members helped us load our worldly goods on the truck and a few others stop by to plead with us to attend the disciplinary meeting scheduled for Saturday. Some of them were quite emotional, weeping as they begged me not to go. I told all of them that nothing good would come from the disciplinary meeting. Pat had his mind made up. Either Bruce Gerencser was going to submit himself to the will of Almighty Pat or Pat was going to kick his ass out of the church. I refused to submit myself to Pat’s slander of my character, knowing that he had spent days making sure that key church members would vote his way. As anyone who has ever been a member of a Baptist Church knows, there are cliques and power groups within the church. Identifying these groups and appealing to them is the best way for a pastor to get what he wants. I had practiced this very method in the churches that I pastored. Since Pat had all his ducks in a row, it was futile for me to defend myself. As Kenny Rogers sang (The Gambler), You’ve got to know when to hold ’em / Know when to fold ’em / Know when to walk away / And know when to run. I knew that I did not have a winning hand, so I folded and moved back to Ohio.

Around 6 o’clock on an early October Saturday night, the Gerencser family tearfully drove out the long lane from their church provided-home to Labus Road. As we drove by the church, we passed a parking lot filled with cars. The meeting called for the purpose of dealing with the “Bruce Gerencser problem” was underway, and as I predicted, the church excommunicated me. To this day they consider me a publican and a heathen. My later loss of faith is proof to many of them that the decision they made on that October night in 1994 was right. Ironically, the church did not excommunicate Polly or our children. The church (Pat) determined that they were under my control and unable to think for themselves. This, of course, is exactly how I viewed the church. Under the control of Pat Horner, they pretty much did what he told them to do. My excommunication was a done deal the moment I stood up to Pat and he then determined that he would smack me down like a defiant teenager.

After returning to Ohio, Pat and I exchanged several nasty letters, the type you would expect from a couple who had gone through an acrimonious divorce. In later years, after a lot of reflection and soul-searching, I made several attempts to reconcile with Pat, hoping that in doing so it would put an end to all the gossip and lies that were being spread by not only him but other leaders in the church. Pat would have none of it, saying that the problem I had was with the church, not him. After trying several times to smoke the peace pipe, I gave up, believing, at the time, that the record would be set straight when we got to heaven. Since I now know that there is no heaven or God to adjudicate our disagreement, and Pat is unwilling to admit his part in my decision to resign from the church, all I am left with is this series of blog posts. People will believe what they want to believe. All I can do is tell my side of the story.

Pat left Community several years after I did, starting several churches and leaving them. He is no longer a pastor. (Community is now pastored by Kyle White.) He is still actively involved in “ministering” to Sovereign Grace churches in Mexico and India. Pastors Tim Conway and José Maldonado, both former members of Community Baptist Church, have in recent years publicly “exposed” Bruce Gerencser for who he really is. (Please read Jose Maldonado Says I Never Was a Christian and Gone but Not Forgotten: 22 Years Later San Antonio Calvinists Still Preaching Against Bruce Gerencser.) Evidently, in their eyes, my current atheism is a threat, and like their former fearless leader, Pat Horner, they want to do what they can to eliminate my influence on others. Sadly, for them anyway, their attempts to do so have miserably failed. This series of posts has been read by tens of thousands of people. In recent years, I have received letters from people who were also disciplined by Pat and Community Baptist Church. While all of these people are still Christians, they appreciated my willingness to shine the light on the horrific disciplinary practices used by many Calvinistic pastors and churches. An untold number of good people have been psychologically harmed by hammer-wielding pastors out to bludgeon them into submission.

While my time at Community Baptist left psychological scars that remain to this day, I do believe that being excommunicated helped make me into the man I am today. When I arrived at Community I was on a path that was sure to damage not only myself and my family, but also those who lovingly called me pastor. In Pat Horner and the church I was able to experience firsthand the logical conclusions of my authoritarianism and Calvinistic beliefs. I can only imagine what I might have become had I continued on this path. Thankfully, being filleted and hung out to dry forced me to take a hard look at my life and beliefs. My excommunication was the first step towards leaving Evangelicalism. In the following years, I realized how damaging authoritarianism was, not only to me and my family, but also to the churches I pastored. While I remained, to some degree, conservative, my view of people and my interaction with them greatly changed. I owe Pat Horner and Community Baptist Church a great debt of gratitude for helping me become a better man, ultimately leading me to renounce my Christian faith and embrace atheism. While they most likely view my de-conversion as a sure sign that I never was a Christian, I am grateful that Pat and the church were instrumental in forcing me to take a hard look at the kind of man I was and how my beliefs were harmful to others. My only regret is that the same did not happen for Pat. He remains unapologetically a hard-core Sovereign Grace Baptist preacher. The damage that he has caused his great, but those stories are best left untold. Perhaps someday members of his family or former congregants will dare to tell their stories, and maybe then Pat will have his own honest reckoning. I have done my best to be honest and open about the time I spent at Community Baptist Church. I willingly admit my culpability in the problems between Pat and I.  Peel away all the theology and what’s left is a story about two 30-something Type-A  men who could not or would not find common ground to work with each other. Their failure to do so is a story that has repeated itself countless times in countless churches. Despite appeals to the Bible and God, one truth remains — people are people. Pastors such as Pat and I can easily be driven by personal wants, needs, and desires. In our case, both of us wanted to be the king of the hill, and as anyone who has ever played the game knows, there can only be one king.

[signoff]

Book Review: Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain

banished lauren drain

I recently finished reading, Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church. The book is written by Lauren Drain (along with Lisa Pulitzer) a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. The book is 295 pages long and is published by Grand Central Publishing.

Lauren Drain spent her teenage years as a member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. The Drain family moved to Topeka to join the church in 2001 and they remain members to this day. In 2007, Lauren was kicked out of the church. For a time she continued to live in Topeka. She is a nurse and now lives in Connecticut with her fiancé.

I wanted to like this book, I really did. Anyone who can escape the clutches of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church is to be commended. Throughout the book, it is evident that Lauren was mistreated and abused, and it is a wonder that she escaped with any sense of self-worth. The church and her family did their best to destroy her mentally and emotionally, yet she came through it, and she deserves a lot of praise for what she has done with her life post-Westboro.

Banished reads like a teenage girl’s diary. Page after page detail Drain’s angst over boys, make-up, dating, marriage, and the fear of going to hell. Drain spends significant time repeatedly detailing how she craved the approval of the Phelpses and how she went about trying to gain their approval. Sadly, the book became quite redundant and I found myself speed reading.

Banished does offer a first-person account of how the Phelps clan lives. However, Drain has very little negative to say about the Phelpses or the church. As one reviewer on Amazon noted, it seemed that Drain, if she could, would go back to Westboro. I doubt this is actually the case, but Drain spends little time critiquing the vile behavior and beliefs of the Westboro church family. I don’t want to be harsh in my judgment because I have not walked in her shoes, and since her family is still members of Westboro, I can easily understand her hesitation to be severely critical of the Westboro church family.

Drain was not kicked out of Westboro because of her beliefs. She still believes in the Christian God, albeit a different version of the Christian God — a kinder, gentler, loving God – than that of the Westboro Church. She still reads and studies the Bible and has come to see that there are many different ways to interpret the Bible.

In telling her story, whether intentionally or not, Drain shows that the Phelps family and the Westboro Baptist Church is made up of vile, nasty, vindictive people, who, due to their doctrinal beliefs, have lost the capacity to love anyone other than their own (and even then, their love is conditioned on obedience to what the church beliefs and the edicts of the pastor).

Drain reveals that the Phelps family has a few secrets of its own, such as the fact that two of Fred Phelps’ daughters became pregnant outside of wedlock. I am sure this was especially galling to Drain, since the reason she was banished is because she desired to have a relationship with a boy who was not a member of the church. That’s right — her big sin was being a normal, heterosexual teenage girl.

And this is the crux of the story. It is the story of an American teenage girl who wanted to be like other teenage girls. She wanted to have a boyfriend. She wanted to feel loved. She had wistful thoughts about getting married some day. (The only available boys in the church to marry were grandsons of Fred Phelps.) Her parents, the Phelpses, and the Westboro Baptist Church robbed her of her youth. They used and abused her and then threw her away like a piece of trash. (To this day she has no contact with her parents.)

I wish Lauren Drain well. She deserves a good life, a life with those who will love her for who she is. I hope that someday her family will be delivered from Phelps’ cult and that her relationship with them can be restored. I can only imagine the pain she must suffer from being completely cut off from her parents and siblings.

Drain gives the impression that the Westboro Baptist Church in an aberration and that most Christian churches and people are not like the Phelpses and Westboro. Unfortunately, my extensive involvement in Evangelicalism tells me this is not the case.

Westboro uses the threat of church discipline to control its members. I know of many Calvinistic Baptist churches that do the same. When I was co-pastor of Community Baptist Church in Elmendorf, Texas, I saw church discipline routinely used to keep people in line. People who refused to obey were excommunicated. When I decided to leave the church and return to Ohio, I was excommunicated because I did not ask the church’s permission to leave. To this day, the church considers me a publican and heathen.

Drain reveals that Fred Phelps is the domineering, controlling man everyone thinks he is (as is his daughter Shirley, who rules the church with her father). As the pastor of the church, he rules the church with a rod of iron. His word is the law. Is such behavior by a pastor an aberration? Maybe in some sects, but in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church and in many other Evangelical sects, extreme pastoral authority and control is the norm.

Westboro Baptist Church is a cult. Drain refuses to say this in the book, but any cursory reading of Banished will clearly show that the Westboro Baptist Church is a cult and Fred Phelps is a cult leader. The same cult markers found in the Westboro Baptist Church can be found in countless Evangelical churches. If anything, Banished should be read by every church member in the IFB church movement. If they are able to set their cognitive dissonance aside, IFB church members should have no trouble seeing themselves in the book. As I have often said, there is little difference between many Evangelical churches and pastors on the one hand and Westboro Baptist Church and Fred Phelps on the other. The difference is one of appearance rather than substance. There is nothing in the beliefs of Fred Phelps and Westboro that can’t be found in Calvinistic churches in the IFB church movement, in the Reformed Baptist movement, the Founder’s Group in the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Sovereign Grace Baptist movement. Theologically, there is little difference between Fred Phelps and Al Martin or Al Mohler.

While I cannot give Banished a 4 star rating for the reasons mentioned above, I do think people investigating the Westboro Baptist Church or Evangelical cultism in general will find the book helpful.

You can purchase the book here.

070216