Two weeks ago, Charles and Stephanie Wesco, ages 44 and 33 respectively, along with their eight children, ages 2 to 13, traveled from Indiana to Cameroon to evangelize the lost. Today, Charles is dead, thanks to a bullet wound to the head after being caught in crossfire between government soldiers and armed separatists. (Stephanie and her oldest daughter were in the car with her husband, but luckily escaped injury.) I can only imagine the heartache Stephanie and her family must be experiencing. That said, in the hope of warding off anyone else needlessly dying for Jesus, there are a few things that need to be said. I realize I will be accused of being insensitive, but after numerous stories in recent years of Evangelical missionaries being killed, kidnapped, and arrested, I think it is time for someone to suggest that maybe, just maybe missionaries need to rethink their “calling.”
The Wescos are Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) missionaries. Stephanie is the daughter of Don Williams, pastor of Believers Baptist Church in Warsaw, Indiana. Don Williams is a graduate of Hyles-Anderson College. He is the son of Ronald Williams, pastor emeritus of Believers Baptist and the founder and director of Hephzibah House — a girls boarding school. Hephzibah House is notorious for its abusive discipline and has been investigated several times by the state of Indiana (see video below). Charles’ brother is Indiana state representative Tim Wesco.
As IFB missionaries, the Wescos spent two years traveling from church to church (deputation) begging for support. Once they raised sufficient support, they made their way to Cameroon so they could win souls for Christ and establish IFB churches. You can check out their website here. The Wescos believed that God has called them to go to Cameroon to preach the gospel. I have no doubt they were excited once they raised sufficient money to begin their evangelistic work. I suspect they planned to win countless Cameroonians to Christ and establish numerous Fundamentalist Baptist congregations. Yet, two weeks into their endeavor, Charles is dead, Stephanie has lost her husband, and eight children no longer have a father.
Charles is being called a martyr for Christ, a man of faith who was willing to put his life on the line for the Cameroonian people. Others are praying that their God will use his death to bring many Cameroonians to Christ. And then there are those who are trying to make sense of the senseless, trying to understand WHY God would have the Wesco family go through the rigors of deputation and the pain of leaving their family and church behind, only to have Charles gunned down, Stephanie made a widow, and their children left without a father. I suspect people will be told to not dwell on the WHY, and to, instead, trust in the loving, faithful, enduring providential care of God. Their pastors will remind them that God knows what’s best and all they can do is ask for God’s name to be glorified through Bro. Charles’ death. They mustn’t dwell on WHY because that might call God’s purpose and plan into question; it might cause Christians to wonder if there really is a God in Heaven who loves and cares for them; it might cause them to question God; yea it might even cause them to doubt his very existence. Of course, those of us who are former Evangelicals know firsthand about asking WHY and not finding a satisfactory answer. For many of us, realizing that, at the very least, God was indifferent towards us or unconcerned with our loss and pain was our first step towards unbelief. I have no doubt that there will be Christians who will face real crises of faith over Charles Wesco’s senseless death, and perhaps some of them might even question God’s very existence. To that I say, good. Better to learn that trusting God to care for you and keep you out of harm’s way is delusional than to see anyone else get it in their head that God talks to them and wants them to pack up their family and go to a hostile foreign land to evangelize sinners.
The root blame rests, of course, on the person(s) who murdered Charles Wesco. But, culpability also rests with the IFB church movement and its doctrines, Believers Baptist Church, Pastor Don Williams, Pastor Emeritus Ronald Williams, and the Wescos themselves. It is IFB preachers and churches that tell congregants that the entire world is divided into two classes of people: saved and lost; that God has commanded them to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature; that American Fundamentalists are duty-bound, if led by God, to carry the gospel to foreign lands. Cameroon is 70 percent Christian, yet the Wescos thought there was a “need” to take the gospel to Cameroonians. Why? Well, 40 percent of those Christians are Catholic, and in the IFB world, Catholic is just another word for LOST. Thirty percent of Christians are Protestants, and in the IFB world Protestant is also just another word for LOST. In the minds of the leaders and congregants of Believers Baptist and the Wescos, what Cameroon needed was Jesus-loving, sin-hating, King James-Only Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches.
I realize that my words may come off as those of a heartless atheist, but I hope that my speaking the truth will cause others who are interested in evangelizing the lost in foreign countries to reconsider their ambitions. Granted, my words are no match for God’s, but surely there’s room for reason in the discussion. Surely, there’s a place for common sense. If Charles Wesco wanted to go to Cameroon and put his life on the line so he could expand his cult’s reach, well that’s on him. But, he, as the head of his home, took his wife and eight young children into harm’s way. It could just as easily have been his wife or one or more of his children killed in the crossfire. It is fair for thoughtful people to question whether taking children into the midst of a brewing civil war is reasonable. I know I would never put my wife, children, or grandchildren at risk of being hurt or killed. As a husband, parent, and grandparent, I have a duty to love, care, and protect those I love. My booking a family vacation in Cameroon would be considered by most people to be dangerous, careless, and irresponsible. But for people who are immersed in the teachings of the IFB church movement, if God is leading the way, no risk or danger is too great. And when things take a tragic turn, as in the case of Charles Wesco? Few will question God, Believers Baptist and its pastors, or the parents of the Wescos as to their culpability in Charles’ death. Cameroonian soldiers and insurgents will be blamed, end of story.
Here’s what I know for sure. Remove IFB beliefs from the equation and it is likely that Charles Wesco would be sitting at home tonight with his wife and children. It is IFB beliefs that put Charles in the line of fire, regardless of his sincere intentions. Had it not been for his cult’s beliefs about divine calling, missions, and evangelization, Charles never would have packed up his wife and children and traveled more than 6,000 miles to a country torn by political strife and violence.
I lament the fact that Stephanie Wesco has lost her husband and her children have lost their father. No one should have to go through the pain they are going through. But, perhaps this tragic story will cause other IFB missionaries-in-training or on deputation to ponder whether they are really ready to sacrifice their lives or the lives of their families for Jesus. At the very least, I hope this story will end the practice of sending families to the mission field; that missionary work will be restricted to single men, much as the Mormons do or the Apostle Paul did 2,000 years ago.
I know my words will be misunderstood and I will be pilloried in IFB circles, but I felt it my duty to say what other want to say but won’t.
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.
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In this post I want to deal with Churches that Abuse: Why Good People Do Bad Things. This post deals with a very difficult and controversial subject. It is easy for us to understand evil actions in a church when they are committed by evil people: wolves in sheep clothing. It’s much harder for us to understand evil actions in the church when the evil is committed by individuals who are generally considered good people…
Let me digress for a moment and lay some groundwork for what I will say next. Evangelicals believe:
The Bible is the inspired word of God and is sufficient for faith and practice. I am deliberately avoiding the various arguments about inspiration, inerrancy, etc. Every Evangelical believes the Bible, to some degree or another, is God’s truth. If they don’t they are not Evangelical.
That what the Bible teaches is to be believed, obeyed, and practiced.
The Bible is to be, with rare exception, read in a literal sense.
The pastor is called by God to preach and teach the Bible to the church membership. I am well aware that a minority of churches have multiple pastors or elders, but the majority of churches are pastored by one person.
As I mentioned in the previous posts in this series, when we add these things together we end up with a church that believes everything written in the Bible. Its members believe they are to live by teachings of the Bible. They believe the most important thing in the world is to be obedient to God.
God has given them a man or a woman (most often a man) to teach and guide them in the teachings of the Bible. The pastor is linchpin of the church. He is the main cog upon which the machinery of the church turns. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance the pastor plays in what people believe and practice. The amount of power that a pastor has is astounding.
How do pastors gain such power over people?
People want to believe that when they go to church they are safe. After all, they are surrounded by people who love Jesus and who seem to sincerely follow the teachings of the Bible. The “it’s what is inside that counts” sounds nice, but in most churches everything is measured by what can be seen and experienced. If people “look” Christian then they “are” Christian. If they “act” Christian then they “are” Christian. People enter the pastor/parishioner relationship with their guard down. They trust the pastor. Surely, he has their best interest at heart.
This is why, when charges of abuse are brought against their pastor, it is hard for churches to accept that their pastor is an abuser. “He wouldn’t do such things.” “He is a man of God.” “He is kind and loving.” “He would never do anything to hurt the church or his family.” Looking in from the outside, the level of denial seems astounding, but church members are taught to be loyal. They are taught to stand firm no matter the circumstance. If they didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.
I know of countless church scandals where the facts of the scandal were not in dispute, yet many members refused to believe the facts. They steadfastly denied reality. When the late Jack Hyles, pastor of First Baptist Church, Hammond Indiana (at one time the largest church in America),was charged with infidelity, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist movement was divided into two groups of people; those that stood with Hyles and considered all the evidence against him to be false or circumstantial and those who believed Hyles was guilty of the things he was accused of.
The evidence was overwhelming. I have no doubt that Hyles did what his accusers said he did. Yet, the 100%-Hyles people — those who actually wore buttons that said “100% Hyles” — won the day. Thousands of people left the church, but Hyles survived the scandal and pastored the church until his death. After his death, his son-in-law Jack Schaap pastored the church. He, too, found himself accused of sexual misconduct. Unlike his brother-in-law David Hyles, who got away with having sex with numerous female church members, Jack Schaap was found guilty of having sex with a minor and is now serving a twelve-year prison sentence.
Hyles had what we called the “Hyles Mystique.” Jack Hyles had god-like qualities. He was a super-Christian, a super-pastor who somehow got thirty hours out of every twenty four hour day. He preached at conferences every week, preached at his church on Sunday and Wednesday, counseled dozens and dozens of people each week and still had time to be a wonderful father and husband. His preaching was inspiring and he had command of the pulpit like few other preachers. Surely, such a man could not “sin” or “abuse” other people. I was quite the Hyles fan, but I later came to see that Hyles was a narcissist and a serial liar.
In the Evangelical church, pastors are considered to be a step above the rest of the human race. They are God-called, God-inspired men who speak on behalf of God. They have vast knowledge of the Bible and they have an answer for every question. If the God/Bible/Pastor doesn’t have the answer to a question…well that’s never happened.
Church members are taught that the Bible is God’s divine answer book. In the Bible Christians will find everything they need that pertains to life and godliness. If it is not in the Bible, it is not worth knowing. Say what you will about evangelicals, but many of they take seriously the teachings of the Bible. They read it and study it, desiring to know how to live their lives in conformity to its teachings.
Church members are taught toNOT trust their own reasoning. They are taught to NOT trust the vain philosophies of this world. Out in the world Satan walks to and fro seeking whom he may devour. This is why church members are discouraged from reading books or magazines that are not written by approved Christian authors. They dare not open their mind to the world, and by living this way they ultimately lose their ability to rationally think and, over time, to spot error and contradiction. Skeptics do not make good Christians. The Bible, or should I say, the pastor’s interpretation of the Bible, becomes the only thing that matters.. This is fertile ground for the seeds of abuse to grow and mature.
Sunday after Sunday, people gather together in Evangelical churches to listen to their pastor expound and illustrate his interpretation of the Bible. They think they are doing so with an open mind, but instead they have closed off their mind to everything except what their pastor teaches. Since he is the man of God, he is explicitly trusted by almost everyone.
Before I go on, I need to say that I think most pastors are honorable people. I think they, as I did, entered the ministry with the best of intentions. They sincerely want to help people and to teach people how to live according to the teachings of the Bible. Regardless of my beliefs about God, the Bible, and Christianity in general, I greatly respect pastors who selflessly work hard to minister to their churches.
Most churches are pastored by one person. Churches with multiple pastors or multiple staff members make up a small number of the total number of churches. Even in large churches, with numerous staff members, there is usually one person who is THE pastor. Take a look at the mega-churches. Tens of thousands of church members and dozens of staff members, yet the churches are labeled as John MacArthur’s, Rick Warren’s, Bill Hybels’ church, etc. No matter how many elders are on the board, there is no doubt whose church it is.
No matter the size of the congregation, the church revolves around the pastor. He the head honcho, the bwana, the chairman of the board. The pastor has tremendous power granted to him by the church body. In many churches, the power that a pastor has is almost absolute. Granted, a church CAN dismiss a pastor, but rarely are disaffected church members willing to get into a turf war with the pastor. In every church there is a core group of people who are on the pastor’s side. Disaffected church members find it difficult to take on the pastor and those who support him.
As time goes on, the pastor, whether on purpose or not, tends to consolidate his power/authority in the church. He becomes the go-to man for everything, even things that have nothing to do with the Bible or the church. The pastor may even deceive himself about this. He may see this as the church and pastor maturing together like an old married couple.
I am sure you have heard the line absolute power corrupts absolutely. Sadly, this is often the case in many churches. Over time, the pastor becomes a monarch ruling from a throne. First Baptist Church becomes John Smith’s church. The pastor’s name is on the sign, the church letterhead, and every piece of literature put out by the church. If the church is a corporate body, with every member being an essential part, why does it matter what the pastor’s name is?
The answer is quite simple. In America we are attracted to personalities. We live in a culture that puts a great premium on star power. As a result, people view pastors as stars and personalities. As with actors and political personalities, when a pastor begins to believe the hype about himself, he has taken the first step to being an abuser. Filled with pride and arrogance, the pastor begins to actually believe what people say about him. “Great sermon pastor.” You are the best preacher I have ever heard.” “What a powerful man of God you are!”
The pastor and the church are complicit in providing a fertile ground for abuse to occur. While ultimately the abuser is the one who must give an account for his abuse, the church is complicit to the degree that it failed to see all people, INCLUDING the pastor, as mere humans. Pastors are capable of committing the same sins and behaving the same way as church members and non-Christians.
Trust is a good thing. Generally, we should trust one another. However, there is a difference between eyes-wide-open trust and blind trust. Closing off one’s mind to the possibility that good people can do bad things is irresponsible. Every week there are news reports of good people doing bad things. Sometimes it is bad people acting like good people doing bad things, but sometimes it really is good people doing bad things.
Good pastors are capable of doing bad things. I have pondered the WHY of this for a long time. I want to conclude this post with a few thoughts on the “why” of pastors that abuse. Why to good men do bad things?
First, they believe the hype about themselves. Pastors foolishly begin to believe the accolades that are thrown their way. Pretty soon they begin to think, I AMSOMEBODY. This is especially true if the pastor is a gifted communicator or has great people skills. They forget that Bible says pride goeth before a fall. The story of Nebuchadnezzar and his rise to power and fall should be burned into the mind of every pastor. The book of Daniel records Nebuchadnezzar saying, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?” Many an Evangelical pastor has uttered a similar statement, only to be ruined by his arrogance and pride. (see Tony Soprano Would Make a Good Independent Baptist Preacher)
Second, they think they are more knowledgeable than they really are. The longer a pastor serves in one church, the more willing people are to come and talk to the pastor about the troubles they are facing. Most pastors have little or no training in counseling or psychology. Even when they do have training, most often they are trained to view the Bible as the answer to every problem. When I was a pastor, rare was the day that someone didn’t come to me and say “can we talk.” I counseled hundreds of people over the years. Evangelicals have the same problems as non-Christians do. Sometimes they have MORE problems than non-Christians, due to literalist interpretation of the Bible. The Bible does not make life easier to live. It’s commandments, rules, and regulations are often a source of conflict and mental/emotional stress.
This is complicated further by the pastor’s interpretation of the Bible. In the hyper-fundamentalist wing of the Evangelical church, you will find lengthy codes of conduct said to be taken straight from the bible. This code of conduct is enforced through the preaching of the pastor. (see An Independent Baptist Hate List and The Official Independent Baptist Rulebook) Many times, the pastor’s own personal code of conduct is presented as the standard by which everyone else must live. After all, the pastor got it right from the Bible! (See Are Evangelicals Fundamentalist?)
As I look back over twenty-five years in the ministry, I now realize the churches I pastored had far more dysfunction than I was willing to admit. My staunch, literalist stand on the teachings of the Bible caused some of this dysfunction. Thinking the Bible is the answer to what ails us is not only ignorant, it can be dangerous. This dysfunction was furthered by my own arrogance as I allowed myself to become THE answer man. I could justify myself by saying that many of the people I pastored were lazy Christians. They were quite willing to accept whatever answer I gave them. One church member, when asked “what do you believe?” answered, “I believe whatever the preacher believes.” Brutal, but honest.
Most church members read the bible devotionally and never spend a moment studying the doctrines they say they believe. Of course, I now see that this is essential to the long-term survival of Evangelical Christianity. Ignorance is bliss or, in Evangelicalese, ignorance is faith. When Evangelicals embark on an intellectual journey to truly understand Christianity and its teachings, they often end up leaving the faith or embracing some form of liberal Christianity. Evangelical Christianity is not well served when looked at with the microscope of reason and fact. For this reason, pastors encourage their parishioners to read only approved books, and they are encouraged to only send their kids to approved Evangelical colleges. This is vitally important for keeping the ship afloat. Non-approved books and non-approved colleges usually cause trouble and often lead to people leaving the church. Knowledge is power.
Over the years, I counseled a number of people who needed immediate psychological or psychiatric help. At the time, I despised the mental health profession. I viewed them as tools of Satan. Instead, I gave people lame, unhelpful advice from the Bible. Instead of helping them, I abused them with the Bible. Several church members had nervous breakdowns and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. I viewed this as their fault, their unwillingness to trust God and obey his commandments. Those who had a nervous breakdown later left the church. They found out that what I was selling was snake oil. I proclaimed Jesus as the cure and they found out he wasn’t.
When given the opportunity, I tell young pastors to stick to doing what they were trained to do. Leave mental health issues to the professionals trained to deal with them. The same could be said of many things pastors counsel others on without having the proper training to do so.
Third, the pastor thinks of himself as being impervious to sin. He is, after all, the man of God. He is the servant of the Most High. He has his Ephesian 6 armor on 24/7. Pastors can begin to think that they are invincible, that they are above the fray. They really should know better, but arrogance and pride blinds them from seeing themselves as they really are. As this point, the pastor lacks self-awareness and is extremely vulnerable to self-deception and open to doing things considered sinful and abusive.
Pastors have a legal, ethical, and moral obligation to act appropriately and responsibly. The Bible, in 1 Timothy 3, sets a high moral and ethical standard for pastors, as do the laws of most states.
Here in Ohio, a pastor is considered a person of authority. He can be held criminally liable for not reporting abuse or for violating the trust of a parishioner. Let me give an example. If church member Joe has an affair with church member Sue, the Bible calls their behavior adultery. However, when a pastor has an affair with a congregant the Bible still calls the action adultery, but the law calls his behavior an abuse of authority. Uncounted pastors end up in prison because they ignored their moral, ethical, and legal obligations to church members.
Pastors who commit sexual sin with a church member are abusing the trust given to them by the person. The state recognizes this and accordingly criminalizes such actions, Pastors, due to the sensitive nature of their interactions with congregants, put themselves in situations where the potential for sin and abuse is great. They often see people at their worst. The conscientious pastor acts appropriately, giving what help he can and recommending secular services for those things he can’t help with. The abusive pastor sees vulnerability as an opportunity to take advantage of a church member. Such pastors are rightly considered the lowest of the low, like dog shit on the bottom of a shoe. Preying on the weak and the vulnerable might work in Darwin’s survival of the fittest, but in the church members rightly expect their pastor to treat them ethically and morally.
Let me share a personal story that I believe will help illustrate what I am trying to say. One spring day, a young woman who used to attend the church came to my office dressed provocatively. Her parents still attended the church, but she had left the church, off to sow her wild oats. She had a short, tight skirt on and when she sat down and crossed her legs she definitely had my attention. It didn’t take me long to realize what her intentions were. In her mind, the best way to get back at her parents was to screw the preacher and ruin his ministry and the church. Fortunately, I realized what was going on and had my wife come into the office with us.
In no way do I intend to present myself as a pillar of moral virtue. I wasn’t then and I am not now. In the above-mentioned story, I was fortunate that I did not take a bite of the forbidden fruit. I just as easily could have. If I had, I would have been guilty of abusing this young woman. Never mind her attempt to seduce me. As a pastor, I was the one who had the responsibility to act appropriately in every circumstance. That’s what the Bible teaches and what the law demands.
A number of the readers of this blog were abused in Christian group homes and boarding schools. Their stories of abuse still bring me to tears. How did these people, children at the time, end up in abusive settings? In almost every circumstance it began with their pastor. Let’s face it, troubled teens are not easy to deal with. But, we must remember that “troubled teen” in an Evangelical context does not mean the same thing as it does elsewhere. A “troubled teen” in an Independent Baptist church might be nothing more than a teen who listens to rock music, drinks a beer now and again, fools around with her boyfriend, or admits to trying pot. This, of course, explains most everyone who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s.
Evangelical children are taught to obey authority, especially the authority of their parents and pastor. When parents have a child or a teen they can’t control–and I readily admit there are some kids that need help beyond what parents can provide — they most often seek out counsel from their pastor. When teens end up in a Christian group home or boarding school, they almost always end up there based on the recommendation of their pastor. In my opinion, when these kids are sent off to a group home and abuse happens, the pastor bears just as much responsibility as the abusers. He is culpable because he is the one who recommended a home, such as New Bethany Home for Girls, Hephzibah House, or the Roloff Homes. Our legal system recognizes this, equally punishing the bank robber and the person who drove the getaway car. (See Sexual Abuse in the Name of God: New Bethany Home for Girls and Teen Group Homes: Dear IFB Pastor, It’s Time for You to Atone for Your Sins.)
Truth be told, pastors often are just as trusting as church members. Parents come to them seeking help for their “troubled teen.” The pastor remembers that “so and so” from college runs a group home, so he gives the parents the phone number for the home, thinking he has done all he needs to do, The pastor has NOT done his due diligence. He should thoroughly check out any place he is recommending to parents with “troubled teens.” The same could be said for Christian colleges. Many Christian colleges are purveyors of institutionalized abuse, yet pastors blindly recommend these colleges to prospective students. Rarely, does anyone consider how the bizarre codes of conduct at many Christian schools affect the minds of the students sent there. Pensacola Christian College goes so far as to withhold giving the student and their parents the complete list of rules and regulations until the student is on campus. Pastors are responsible for the people, places, and things they recommend. Ignorance is not an excuse.
“the Lighthouse has been a haven for boys no one else wanted- boys who were one step from reform school or the penitentiary. … The boys come in all sizes and shapes, but they have one thing in common regardless of their age- they are old in sorrow, sadness, and hostility. … At first the boys cover their inward hurts with belligerence and a bravado that they do not actually possess. These boys are almost without exception bereft of parental love and guidance. Some are actually homeless while others have rebelled against parental authority and have gotten into serious trouble with the law.”
“as we began working with these girls, we realized that many of them were unwanted and consequently unloved. Lester said, ‘No wonder children have become embittered and even criminals at an early age. They’ve never seen love in those who gave them birth. The right kind of love would lock and stop the wheels of divorce, delinquency, murder and war and turn this hell on earth into a haven of peace, rest, and joy for these children.”
Countless IFB churches and pastors supported Roloff in his attempt to bring order, discipline, and righteousness into the lives of rebellious teenagers. When parents were frustrated with their “rebellious” teenager and didn’t know what to do, The Lighthouse for Boys and Rebekah Home for Girls became the go-to places to send their children. Their pastor assured them that Brother Roloff knew how to “fix” their offspring.
What many parents, churches, and pastors didn’t understand, was that Roloff and his staff used violence to beat children into submission. After the homes closed for the last time in 2001, The Texas Monthly reported:
…The Rebekah Home took in fallen girls from “jail houses, broken homes, hippie hives, and dope dives” who were “walking through the wilderness of sin,” he told his radio listeners. Roloff remade these “terminal cases” into Scripture-quoting, gospel-singing believers. Girls who had been saved harmonized along with his Honeybee Quartet at revivals and witnessed to the power of the Lord on his radio show. He showed off his Rebekah girls at every turn, and he was amply rewarded: Each day, packages arrived at Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises laden with checks, cash, jewelry, the family silver—whatever the faithful could provide.
Discipline at the Rebekah Home was rooted in a verse from Proverbs: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.” The dictum was liberally applied. Local authorities first investigated possible abuse at the Rebekah Home in 1973, when parents who were visiting their daughter reported seeing a girl being whipped. When welfare workers attempted to inspect the home, Roloff refused them entry on the grounds that it would infringe on the separation between church and state. Attorney General John Hill promptly filed suit against Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises, introducing affidavits from sixteen Rebekah girls who said they had been whipped with leather straps, beaten with paddles, handcuffed to drainpipes, and locked in isolation cells—sometimes for such minor infractions as failing to memorize a Bible passage or forgetting to make a bed. Roloff defended these methods as good old-fashioned discipline, solidly supported by Scripture, and denied that any treatment at Rebekah constituted abuse. During an evidentiary hearing, he made his position clear by declaring, “Better a pink bottom than a black soul.” Attorney General Hill bluntly replied that it wasn’t pink bottoms he objected to, but ones that were blue, black, and bloody…
…The Rebekah Home was bent on driving sin from even the wickedest of girls and making them see the light of God. Jo Ann Edwards was brought to the Rebekah Home in 1982, after running away from home at the age of thirteen. “I was an acolyte at my church before I went there, and God was very close to me in my heart,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Victoria, where she is the mother of five children. “But that place turned me against Him for a while and made me very hard. I thought that even He had left me.” As a new girl, she was scrutinized by “helpers,” the saved girls who handed out demerits for misbehavior. Demerits were given for an endless host of wrongdoings: talking about “worldly” things, singing songs other than gospel songs, speaking too loudly, doodling, nail biting, looking at boys in church, failing to snitch on other sinners. Each demerit earned her a lick, which the Rebekah Home’s housemother administered with a wood paddle. The beatings left her black and blue. “I got twenty licks my first time, and I was hit hard—so hard that I couldn’t sit for days,” Jo Ann said. “I begged [the housemother] to stop. When she was done, she hugged me and said, ‘God loves you.’ She told me to go back to the living room and read Scripture and sing ‘Amazing Grace’ with the other girls.”
Only Rebekah girls who had proven their devotion by repeatedly testifying to God’s grace could avoid Bible discipline. Some girls were genuinely troubled teenagers who had gotten mixed up with drugs or prostitution; others had been caught having sex; many were guilty of nothing more than growing up in abusive homes. Tara Cummings, now 31 and a mortgage consultant in Chicago, was sent there by her father, a preacher, whose beatings had left her badly bruised. Even she was not immune to judgment. “I was told that I was a reprobate, that I was beyond help and was going to hell,” she said. She was treated to the full range of the Rebekah Home’s punishments, which were not limited to lickings. “Confinement” meant spending weeks hanging her head without speaking. “Sitting on the wall” required sitting with her back against a wall and without the support of a chair, even as her legs buckled beneath her. But kneeling was what she most dreaded. Kneeling could last for as long as five hours at a time; she might have to kneel while holding a Bible on each outstretched palm or with pencils wedged beneath her knees. Only girls seen as inveterate sinners received the full brunt of the home’s crueler punishments. “You had to be saved,” Tara said. “It didn’t matter if you didn’t feel moved to do that—you did it to survive.”
The worst form of punishment, the lockup, was reserved for girls who had not yet been saved—who had talked of running away or who had proven to be particularly intractable. The lockup was a dorm room devoid of furniture or natural light where girls spent days, or weeks, alone. Taped Roloff sermons were piped into the room, and the near-constant sound of his voice was the girls’ only companionship. Former Rebekah resident Tamra Sipes, now 34 and working in advertising for a newspaper in Oak Harbor, Washington, remembers one girl who was relegated to the lockup for an entire month. “The smell had become so bad from her not being able to shower or bathe that it reeked in the hallway,” she said. “We could do nothing to help her. I remember standing in roll call one day waiting for my name to be called off, and I was directly across from the door. She was singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to herself in such a pitiful voice that I couldn’t help but cry for her.”…
Though Roloff died in a plane crash in November 1982, the Roloff homes remained in operation until Wiley Cameron, Roloff’s right hand man, closed them in 2001. When asked about charges of abuse, Cameron stated:
We feel it’s a Bible mandate, like the Samaritan, to help people in the ditch. If we have to get down in the ditch to help people, sometimes we get a little dirty doing it. Put another way, We get troubled kids and we use unconventional methods. We have never abused one person—all of these years, there has never been one case of child abuse that’s been proved in court. There have been allegations, but some people construe abuse where there was not abuse.
In IFB circles, Lester Roloff was quite popular. He and the traveling singing groups from the Rebekah Home for Girls made uncounted appearances at IFB preacher’s conferences and churches. As a young pastor, I heard them several times. Through his preaching and the singing of the Honey Bees, Rainbow Quartet, and Rebekah Choir, Roloff appealed to pastors to help support his work. Pastors, thrilled that there was a place where troubled church teenagers could get godly, Christian help, made sure Roloff had a steady stream of teenagers to “help.” This stream would later number 500 or more children under the care of Roloff’s “ministries.”
(The above video is from 1979, Piney Heights Baptist Church, now Lakeside Baptist, in Clearwater, South Carolina. Bill Reese pastored the church for over 50 years. Please listen carefully to this video. Look at the girls in the singing group. What do you see? Happiness? Joy? Where are their smiles? Listen as Roloff calls his charges terminal cases and dividends paid out to stockholders. Listen, as Roloff and Reese brag about how God is using them in a mighty way)
My wife and I grew up in the IFB church movement, attended Midwestern Baptist College, an IFB institution operated by Tom Malone, and pastored several IFB churches in the 1970s and 1980s. Lester Roloff and the great work he was doing in Texas and his battle against the evil government were topics of frequent discussion. We never heard one person speak negatively about Roloff. While we heard rumors about the charges of abuse, these rumors were dismissed as government attempts to destroy Roloff’s work or the words of jealous men who weren’t as blessed by God as Brother Roloff was.
Influenced by Roloff, many IFB pastors started up group homes to help rebellious teenagers. New Bethany Home for Girls was one such enterprise. In 1971, Mack Ford opened New Bethany. Following the Roloff blueprint, administrators used physical violence to break the will of rebellious teen age girls who were incarcerated against their will at New Bethany. Girls were also sexually violated, molested, and raped. As with Wiley Cameron in 2001, Ford denied anything untoward happened at New Bethany. He died February 11, 2015, having never been brought to justice.
It’s time for IFB churches and pastors to atone for their sin. It is now known that IFB teen group homes routinely used violence to break the will of those sent to them. In some instances, sexual violence took place and criminal acts were committed by serial predators. IFB churches and pastors provided these homes with a steady supply of children; children whose lives were often scarred forever. Just as the man who drives the get-away car for a robbery crew are accessories to robbery, IFB preachers are culpable in the abuse that took place at The Lighthouse, Rebekah Home for Girls, New Bethany Home for Girls, Hephzibah House, and other similar homes.
Where are the IFB pastors who are willing to admit their culpability? Where are the preachers who are willing to publicly air the dirty laundry of the IFB church movement? Countless boys and girls had their lives ruined by men like Lester Roloff and Mack Ford. Thanks to the internet, the stories of abuse, rape, and violence are readily accessible. When will a noted IFB pastor, one of the big dogs, decide to publicly and completely expose IFB teen group homes for what they are/were: money-making businesses that abused and molested children in the name of God?
Here and there, often under the radar, IFB teen group homes are still in operation. Exempt from state and federal laws, these homes are free to follow Roloff’s plan for making rebellious teenagers submissive. In some cases, these current Roloffs and Fords, use their homes to take sexual advantage of vulnerable boys and girls. Why is there not an IFB pastor willing to stand up and say ENOUGH? Is their hatred of the government blinding them to what went on in these homes and what continues to go on until this day?
Thankfully, I can say that I never had a part in sending a child to one of the IFB teen group homes. It almost happened once, but the parents decided against it. In the 1980s, Ron Williams and a group from Hephzibah House came to the church I pastored in SE Ohio. By then, I was beginning to have my doubts about the IFB church movement, so nothing came of Williams’ visit to our church.
While my hands are relatively clean, I know a number of pastors who promoted and supported men like Lester Roloff, Mack Ford, Jack Patterson, Olen King, and Ron Williams, and others whose names are lost to me. Just the other day I mentioned in a post that the home church of IFB evangelist Don Hardman supports Ron Williams, Hephzibah House and Olen King, Second Chance Ranch.
Uncounted IFB churches and pastors continue to support unlicensed teen group homes that use violence to break “rebellious” of teenagers. Why do they continue to do so? Why do they lend their support do abuse and violence? Perhaps it is time to publicize the name of the churches and pastors who don’t have a problem with using violence to subdue a teenager or don’t have a problem with sexual assault or rape. If you, dear reader , run across information that clearly connects an IFB church or pastor to one of these homes, please let me know.
For further information on IFB teen group homes (please use the contact form to send me any other links that should be added to this list):