Fringe and Fanaticism:
Abusive Churches Can Go Over The
On March 20, 1986, Janet Cole drove from Seattle to Portland and drowned her five-year-old daughter, Brittany in a motel bathtub. The attractive thirty-seven-year-old mother, described by friends as the ideal Christian woman, was convinced that she was demon possessed and that a similar fate would probably befall her daughter. She wanted the little girl to go to heaven and so committed an act of love by killing her.
Janet Cole was also a member of a large Pentecostal church, Community Chapel, in south Seattle that ex-members and other critics claim was pre-occupied with demons and "deliverance ministry." The tragic drowning resulted in the first of a series of media reports that brought unwanted publicity to the church and its former pastor, Donald Lee Barnett. In addition to the emphasis on exorcism, a swirl of controversy emerged as a result of Barnett's teaching on "intimate dancing" and "spiritual connections" with members of the opposite sex.
Barnett claims that this "move of God" had its origin in a series of mystical experiences he had, including an encounter with a "dancing angel." His "revelation teaching" was derived in part from a heavenly vision in which God told him that he would give him truth that he had not given to any man before. "God let me know that no man had entered that highest realm that I saw. He allowed me to experience
things that no man has ever seen. I was connected with God; I had revelation, I was one with Jesus Christ."
Robin and Matt were two people who were swept away by Pastor Barnett's "revelational teaching." Their lives have never been quite the same since. They are among dozens of people I have interviewed at length about the almost unbelievable events that transformed Community Chapel from an unknown church on the fringe of fundamentalism into a fanatical, spiritually abusive organization. You will find it difficult to believe that what happened to Robin and Matt is quite typical of the upheaval experienced by hundreds of other people in the "move of God."
"I'd call Jen [a friend in the church], screaming, crying, because I knew what I was experiencing was spiritual; I knew there was deception somewhere. But I didn't know where or how I was being deceived. The church was pulling me one way, Matt was pulling me one way, my own heart was saying something else, my husband was in love with one of my best friends and she was now living upstairs with him. I had had some surgery, and I was distraught. So I ended up living in the basement going out of my mind, while they played mom and dad upstairs and took care of the kids. I was like Cinderella in the cellar, losing my bananas. Matt would, sometimes in the middle of the day, come home and come to my house to take care of me. He ended up staying with me every night because I couldn't sleep. I was skin and bones. I couldn't eat; I couldn't sleep; my skin got bad; my hair started falling out. I was tormented, and I was planning and plotting how I could murder my children and take my own life to get out of the insanity, because I was in love and totally dependent for my sanity upon a married man who had two children."
This was the culmination of Robin and Matt's story of their many years of involvement with Donald Lee Barnett's Community Chapel. Barnett, 62, began Community Chapel in 1966 as a small, basement Bible study. By the mid 1980s, attendance at Sunday services was over two thousand, not including the network of twelve satellite churches that were at one time associated with Community Chapel. Today, the Chapel is only a shadow of what it was in the 1970s and
1980s. Membership has dwindled to about two hundred, legal battles have divided the congregation, the pastor is gone, and part of the church property has been sold to pay bills. What is described here is the Chapel at its zenith, just before its collapse. It's the incredible story of what can happen when a church becomes abusive and slides toward spiritual and moral chaos, when a church already on the margins of conventional evangelicalism goes beyond the fringe.
The organization had a ten-million-dollar complex where members, including Robin and Matt, not only learned about God and the Bible, but spent hours in protracted "intimate dancing" with their "spiritual connections." As a result of this church and its pastor, Robin and Matt are now divorced from their spouses, separated from their children, and married to one another.
Members of Community Chapel were instructed by Barnett about every aspect of life, spiritual and temporal. Church bulletins frequently included "pastoral admonitions" that were unusual. For example, one Sunday bulletin warned men against using unisex styling salons. "Our church stands opposed to any hair style on men which tends toward the mod, rebellious, or effeminate! As pastor I am very much against a fad that is growing for men to get permanents at unisex styling salons. Please do not identify with the effeminate, unisex, homosexual fashion trends. Mothers: even though it may be convenient, it is unwise to take young boys to the beauty shop (or unisex styling salon) for their haircuts. While there, they will see the 'big boys' getting their fancy, poofy, effeminate hairstyling. Years of such practice could cause them to be ensnared, too. These places are not without homosexual demons just waiting to influence the gullible." Seminars offered by the church leadership covered topics like, "How to Keep Your Yard," "Masturbation," "Child Rearing," "Dress Standards," "How to Be a Good Wife," "How to Be a Good Employee," "How to Be a Minister's Wife," "How to Choose Make-up."
If there is just one word to describe Don Barnett and his church, it would be "control" autocratic control over the lives of the individual members. Barnett's pastoral "concerns"
went so far as to dictate how close together people should sit in the pews of the church. He also expressed concern in a church bulletin over the fact that he had received "reports of a number of people experiencing insomnia night after night for no apparent reason." Among other things, he recommended that his parishioners take a hot bath immediately before bedtime, along with some warm milk. "Ask the Lord, in faith, for a good night's sleep; taking authority over physical, emotional, and possible demonic influences. Then let your body go limp." The advice was signed, "Your pastor who cares for you."
That "care" also extended to divorced persons and the question of dating. "Because the potential for sin, abuse, and demonic attack in this area is immense, we must maintain a strong position in order to uphold godliness, and insure as far as is reasonable none among us is overly hurt." Therefore, members of Community Chapel were asked to comply with the following two rules "in order to be in this church": "(1) A divorced person may not date or begin building a relationship with a member of the opposite sex without first obtaining permission to date from the pastor. Address your request for such permission to his wife, to whom he has delegated oversight in this area; (2) Nobody who is in the process of separating or divorcing may date or begin to build a new relationship with a person of the opposite sex. No exceptions."
Most members experienced a totalitarian system of control in which all free time, outside of employment, was given to the "assembly," or church. The epitome of being spiritual, in fact, was to have a job at Community Chapel. Most evenings were given to church activities. It was not at all unusual to spend five or six nights a week in church. When asked what members did for fun, Robin responded, "That is what we did for fun, we went to church."
Community Chapel had not always been so controversial and controlling, although its pastor had promoted various unorthodox concepts from the beginning. As a youngster, Barnett and his family belonged to the United Pentecostal Church, a small denomination isolated from the Christian mainstream because of its rejection of the traditional concept
of the Trinity. Barnett still preaches a non-trinitarian message.
Although never ordained a minister, he did attend an unaccredited Bible seminary in Idaho and began his ministry as a Sunday school and Bible study teacher in a series of Assemblies of God churches in Washington. Barnett left each of these churches because of doctrinal disagreements. Meanwhile, he worked as a draftsman.
By 1967, Barnett and his wife Barbara began a home Bible study that attracted newly born-again Christians eager for fellowship. The group quickly grew; the Friday-night "Singspirations" and Barnett's approach and teachings were attractive to new converts. As one former member says, "The teaching didn't seem bad at first. He was preaching the Gospel and the church was growing. But everyone who came in was a new Christian and they didn't know the Word of God. Everything they knew came through Barnett's teaching, and they had to totally submit to him."
The Friday-night Bible study grew into a church with a Bible school, funded largely by the sacrificial offerings of its members. Early services at the chapel were fairly typical of Pentecostal services, including speaking in tongues, and "words of knowledge" from God. As the church grew and the number of employees increased, Barnett's sense of power and need for control grew accordingly, say former members.
Barnett instituted "Operation Rescue" in which members were instructed to report each other's faults to the pastor. A dress code for both men and women was also begun, as well as dietary code restricting pork, shellfish, and alcohol, all based on Barnett's interpretation of the Old Testament laws. Oreo cookies were outlawed because they contained lard. Interracial dating was proscribed. Certain Christian books and bookstores were to be avoided because they promoted "false" creeds. However, Barnett approved of and quoted from a weekly publication by a neo-Nazi group.
Celebrating Christmas and Easter was discouraged because Barnett considered them secular holidays. Engagements could not be announced until Barbara, the pastor's wife, was informed. Every indication of a negative or
"rebellious" attitude or unapproved opinion was attributed to demons.
By the time Robin and Matt became involved in 1972, Barnett was beginning to promote the first in a series of "corporate moves of God." The first was the "white room experience," introduced by Barbara Barnett as a result of a vision she supposedly received from God. This mystical place enabled one to become especially intimate with the Lord, but could only be reached through a progression of different stages of spiritual maturity. Robin recalls that there was much talk about it and other "super-spiritual" experiences by people who had access into the white room.
This was only one of many spiritual fads that would sweep through the Chapel, exciting many of the faithful but confusing many others. For example, there was the "pillar of holiness" movement, but, "if you didn't get into the white room, then you couldn't get into the pillar of holiness." This was followed by additional waves of highly emotional experiences, including "singing in the Spirit" in which the congregation would sing in tongues together. Then there was something called "spiritual surgery" in which individuals were encouraged to "completely yield to God," so that inner healing could result. This was accompanied by individuals being "slain in the Spirit," a phenomenon common in some Pentecostal circles in which persons so overwhelmed by God appear to faint away in a trance-like state.
Finally, "dancing before the Lord" was instituted in 1983, the precursor to "intimate dancing" and "spiritual connections." A former elder and Community Chapel Bible College teacher offers this explanation as to what happened: "We put a premium on spiritual experience. It's shocking to me to see what transpired. Once you're out in the realm of experience, you can't talk Scripture anymore because there's no Scripture that's relevant to something as wild and bizarre as this."
Robin compares these so-called movements of God to the story of The Emperor's New Clothes: ". . . nobody wants to confess that they're the only one in the group that doesn't have any clothes on, so they just kind of jump on the band wagon. They get into it even if it doesn't seem right to them because they don't want to miss out on what God has for them.
They don't want to be left out of 'the bride,' left out of the 'rapture,' not be part of the 'man-child ministry.' " She believes that these fears of losing out are real to the people involved and that Barnett used the fear along with heavy doses of guilt and emotional manipulation to control the congregation. "Everyone was ready to go for anything that seemed spiritual."
Matt believes that these spiritual and emotional experiences over the past years were the key community builders of the church. They drew the people closer through shared experience. However, they have also left individuals terribly confused and families sometimes broken beyond repair. The practice of "spiritual connections" had a particularly demonic impact. There were numerous accounts of adulterous relationships, sexual assault, harshly shunned and rejected dissidents, child abuse, suicides and attempted suicides, broken marriages, child-custody battles, and lawsuits, several of which were aimed at Pastor Barnett for alleged sexual misconduct.
Robin reports that Chapel women had a reputation around the Seattle area as the women who walk around in a trance. Some of them worked in the food-service department of a major hotel where the other workers viewed the Chapel Christians negatively. One of the waitresses said, "We can't even stand to work with them because they're out to lunch. They've got a loose screw somewhere, and they don't pull their share of the weight. They're off in unreality somewhere."
The "moves of God" at Community Chapel did indeed leave many in just such a state of unreality. The dramatic and ever-accelerating barrage of sensual and spiritual experience caused many people to have their discernment ability dulled to the point of no longer being shocked at anything. As one former member put it, "Unless it was horrible, perverted, kinky sex or adultery, or somebody sexually abusing a kid, I was not shocked anymore by it." Exposure to extremes of behavior and belief at Community Chapel had desensitized members to the point where conscience and morals were anesthetized.
Contributing to this state of unreality among members of
Community Chapel was what psychologists call the "double bind" theory of mental dysfunction. "We were told one thing and then what is done is totally opposite, and so you're trying to redefine terms to apply to something that is not real." Robin gives the example of Barbara, Don Barnett's wife. Barbara was held up as a model for Community Chapel women. While Barnett preached that "you don't want to draw undue attention to yourself . . . you want to look feminine, and you don't want to dress in a seductive way . . .," his wife presented a different image. According to Robin, "She wore a wig, she had false eyelashes; she wore spiked heels . . . you see her on the street and people turn around and gape and stare." In the view of some Chapel parishioners, the pastor's wife looked more like the prostitute Jezebel than the godly wife of Proverbs 31.
Community Chapel women were expected to dress in very feminine attire, not the "jeans and sloppy shirts" that "worldly women" were seen in. Barnett reportedly told the congregation, "It may come to the point in this world where the only women who dress in a feminine way are the prostitutes." Matt says that because of this and many other irreconcilable contradictions, "our friends were going insane."
"Connections" and "intimate dancing" nearly caused Robin to have a mental breakdown. Instituted between 1983 and 1985, the "dancing before the Lord" evolved into a teaching with specific rules that encouraged members to find a "connection," or dance partner. Soon partners were instructed to stare into one another's eyes, eventually known as "connecting." Partners were told they would see Jesus in each other's eyes, and that they were to love their spiritual connection in order to express the love of Jesus. During the week, both in church and outside the church, members were encouraged to spend time with their spiritual connections in a kind of quasi-dating relationship. As might naturally be expected, physical intimacy often accompanied these "spiritual" connections. "Connection love" was supposedly more intense, and even more desirable, than marital love.
Robin graphically describes what it was like at church during sessions of intimate dancing. "Picture your typical
forty-year-old wife who's out of shape and has six kids. There she is watching her husband dancing with this little twenty-year-old perfect beauty long blond hair, bug bust, little waist in his arms, gazing at her for hours. And meanwhile the wife is going insane." Spouses were taught that they had to "release their mates unto the Lord" if they experienced feelings of jealousy. At the same time, Pastor Barnett made clear from the pulpit, they were not to view the connections "carnally." What the people were doing physically hugging, holding, fondling, kissing was not to be viewed with the eyes of the "flesh." "What's happening is they're having spiritual union," said the pastor. "It just looks the same on the outside, but what's really occurring is spiritual, so don't judge them or their motives."
God, it was said, was using the connections to break down the barriers and inhibitions within the congregation in order to bring about greater "unity within the body." "We're gonna fall in love with everyone," was the message. Although this inevitably led to marital friction, the members were told that intimate spiritual experiences with members of the opposite sex, other than one's spouse, could help defeat the demons of jealousy and open up the person to a deepened experience of the love of Christ. Participants were actually instructed to diversify. "Don't commit yourselves to any one person." It was not unusual for members, including the pastor and his wife, to connect with more than one person at a time.
Those considered most spiritual were invited to dance in the front of the church with Barnett. All his connections were described as "beautiful, well-endowed, and young." Robin and Matt believe that Barnett "obviously has some sort of sexual problem . . . He's so preoccupied with women's bodies." Barnett discussed oral sex in Sunday school and was "inappropriately explicit" regarding sexual matters from the pulpit.
Community Chapel has reportedly paid for abortions for members, including teenagers, and Barnett has preached that "God never did really say 'thou shalt not have an abortion.' " Those who say abortion is murder are said to be guilty of a "legalism," a term used to refer to an incorrect or
overly literal interpretation of biblical, civil, or moral law. He reasoned that if "adulteresses" were forced to have babies, the children raised by them, or given up for adoption, would grow up to lead sinful lives and end up in hell. If aborted, they would return to God.
Robin and Matt say that the extreme emphasis on sexual issues impacted the children and adolescents of Community Chapel in one of two ways. "Either they were really into it or they think its junk." The entire eighth grade class at the church's Christian school refused to have dancing chapels because they believed it was "ridiculous." Matt is afraid that an entire generation is being lost because of Community Chapel's aberrant former pastor.
* * * * * * *
What went wrong at Community Chapel? How can one explain the bizarre series of events that led to Barnett's eventual downfall? According to former members Robin and Matt, "Don Barnett lost his grip on the Bible. It was that Book which kept the place reasonably sober over the years. He gradually diminished and de-emphasized the Bible as something to preach from, as something to live by. He had to get rid of the Book."
Much of the problem can also be attributed to the deceptive nature of Barnett's sensual theology. He and his wife, over a period of several years, drew the congregation into the trap of believing that the sexual and the spiritual realms were innocuously intertwined. Barnett increasingly relied on mystical and subjective religious experience to convince his followers that he was indeed in touch with God. He gradually, cleverly, and subtly prepared his audience for what would be considered outrageous pronouncement in more conventional evangelical churches.
One such bizarre event took place in 1983 when Barbara Barnett shared a vision she supposedly received from God. Robin was present when the pastor's wife told the story and here is her account of what transpired.
"Barbara had a vision of herself standing before the Lord, and we, her spiritual children, were all there. As she was
standing before the Lord, he asked her to disrobe and come to him. She was very embarrassed and reluctant to do so, but she said, 'I never say no to Jesus. I always obey him and so I just fixed my gaze on him and knew I could do anything he asked.' She started to disrobe and then he asked her to dance and come to him. So she started to dance. He took her into a chamber and she said, 'Oh, I'm so glad to be alone with you, Lord.' And he said, 'No, I want them to come too.' She said, 'Oh, I just don't know how I can do it; it's just way too hard. But I knew that Jesus wanted me to.' He then lay her down on this beautiful bed that was strewn with rose petals. As she was lying there, she looked at the walls and ceiling and they were covered with flowers. He was beginning to make love to her when she noticed that each flower was a face a face of a person from the congregation. She was mortified at first, but he said, 'I want you to be willing to let them watch you yield to me so that they can learn how to do it.' Barbara went on to say, 'There's nothing sexual about this at all, there's nothing romantic. It's just a picture of what is occurring spiritually when you yield your heart to the Lord.' "
Most evangelical Christians would probably conclude that Barbara Barnett had an occultic experience rather than an encounter with the Jesus of the Bible. It was this kind of mystical experience, elaborated on in countless sermons by the pastor, that set the stage for the congregation to believe that they could encounter Jesus through other individuals. Jesus was identified with the men of the assembly, and the women constituted the bride.
As the teaching about spiritual connections began to evolve, people were told that they could even experience a kind of mystical union with their connection while making love to their spouse. "It is so far beyond anything that anyone has experienced sexually that we know it's spiritual," said one of Community Chapel's elders. Other members have reportedly communicated with the spirits of their absent connections, and been made love to by their connections who "embodied" their spouses. Some have danced with the spirits of deceased members. Barbara had also testified about having connections with David, Abraham, and Moses.
Matt and Robin say they have experienced the "demonic, occultic power" of the connection phenomenon. They believe that it is more than just people "going insane, becoming schizophrenic, or making it up." The people involved in what were termed "mega" or main connections (primary pairings), supposedly experienced the greatest power. Matt says, "It's not just people having infatuations or even just falling in love. It was an intensely psycho/spiritual experience. I couldn't live without her [Robin]. I couldn't work; I couldn't eat; I was literally out of my mind."
Matt describes how it all got started. "Though I'd attended church there for eight years or so, I never knew Robin. I had jumped into this latest 'move of God' right away, something that was not unusual for me to do. Anyway, I was doing a lot of dancing with a lot of people and Robin first came and said she'd like to dance with me. That's how it happened. I danced with Robin, maybe twenty minutes, and I was so hooked on what I had experienced that, well. . . . We were both married at the time. It's so difficult to describe the intense emotions, the passion, the longing.
"I consider it entirely or almost entirely demonic. We know at the beginning that we were surrounded by demonic power. We sensed it, but we couldn't define it."
Robin's children suffered as a result of the connecting experience. She says, "The kids went through hell." She believes that she was literally going out of her mind at that time and would have benefited from "involuntary incarceration" if there had been some way to provide for the children. Her ex-husband and his "connection" took on the child-care responsibilities.
An interesting postscript is that in Robin's opinion, those who were considered to be the most spiritual at Community Chapel and who supposedly had the most contact with God were those who had come out of deep occult backgrounds. Those persons who resisted getting involved in the dancing phenomenon were told that their refusing to dance was the result of "demonic oppression."
As for herself, Robin said, "I was having lots of supernatural experiences; I assumed and was quite sure it was all of God." Although it took her a year to get herself to dance in
the congregation, she finally began when she saw a nineteen-year old dancing. "I felt like I was Jesus and I saw him as the bride, and I thought, 'I've gotta get to him; I've gotta dance with him.' " She danced for four straight hours and felt that when she looked at him, she was "looking right into the eyes of Jesus . . . I felt totally free to be vulnerable to Jesus through him, and I had this powerful experience with the Lord while dancing with him." Now she is not sure if it was Jesus of Nazareth that she saw in her partner's eyes, or his voice that spoke through this man while she danced with him, telling her of things that no one could know. "Every time I would look at this guy, especially if I'd look at his right eyebrow . . . . I could see Jesus looking through his eye at me. We didn't have a physical relationship at all, but it was an intense emotional bonding." Robin also states that the connecting experience was so intense that she and other women would experience orgasm without ever having any physical contact with their connections.
Robin's connection with Matt was at first just an "intense spiritual union . . . there was nothing physical at all about it, not a shred, but we became locked into each other, and I've been with him every single day since. We could not stay away from each other. We became so emotionally tied, and I'm not talking just infatuated and wanting to be together, I mean not being able to live. It got to the point where he would leave for work, and then he'd call me as soon as he'd get there, I'd be OK. He'd work for maybe ten or fifteen minutes and then he'd go in and he'd call me up again. By the time he got to me on the phone, I was an emotional wreck, crying, totally confused, out of my mind. He'd talk to me for ten, fifteen, maybe thirty minutes, and get me sane again."
Robin and Matt finally escaped Community Chapel and Don Barnett. They are now married to one another and Robin is pursuing a doctorate in counseling psychology.
What contributed to Community Chapel's slide into what observers agree is false teaching and deception? Virtually all ex-members agree with the conclusion of a founding elder of the church that an over-emphasis on experience began a drift away from the Bible. "It was the experience focus that got us
off the track more than any other thing." "People need to be reminded," commented another former member, "not to put their confidence in a set of criteria put forth by a man who is simply relating his observations, but to place their confidence squarely on the Bible as the only infallible standard for judging truth."
The tragedy of Community Chapel goes back to a misplaced loyalty. People, thinking that they were placing their allegiance in the Word of God, were actually placing their allegiance in a man and his interpretation of the Word of God. That is crucial to understanding why people were so easily deceived. They thought that they were really obeying the Word of God.
The comments of a former elder who was associated with the church for eighteen years before resigning are insightful: "As I look back on it now, it is clear that, subtly at first, there began to be a feeling of superiority and exclusiveness among the people. This was more evident in some than in others, but I think we all were affected by it. There began to be a feeling that this church was unique, and that while we loved other brothers in Christ, to leave Community Chapel would always be a step down spiritually.
"The pastor rarely had other preachers in to minister to us, feeling that they really couldn't add anything to us, and might only foster divisions and problems. I feel that this is one of the critical factors in the sad things that happened later: no checks and balances with the rest of God's people, and no accountability to other men of God outside our own little circle."
Quite clearly, the excesses at Community Chapel demonstrate what can happen when spiritual experience dictates theology and then necessitates a re-interpretation of Scripture. Subjective experience takes care of the theological loopholes that the Bible seems not to address. The leadership of Community Chapel promoted the view that one could accept certain doctrines and practices if they could not be disproved from Scripture, rather than accept them because of a strong conviction they were right because they were taught in God's Word. It has been said that commitment
without careful reflection is fanaticism in action, and that certainly was the case at Community Chapel.
Another problem was the abdication of personal moral responsibility for sin, blaming it instead on the work of demons. There was a tendency to attribute any problem, interpersonal or otherwise, to demons. Members would spiritually psychoanalyze one another with regard to what specific demons were troubling them and then point to the need for "deliverance." This would be the case frequently between marriage partners. Common, natural emotions were more often than not attributed to demons. Members were told that when they saw their spouses dancing in an intimate manner with some other person, they were not to feel any jealousy, resentment, or hurt. The natural tendency in such a situation is to feel possessive of one's spouse. Yet, when they experienced those feelings, they were accused of having a demon of jealousy.
The teaching on spiritual connections or spiritual unions quite obviously was not scriptural. It violated the biblical teaching on the sanctity of marriage and confused the expression of spirituality with human sexuality. It was a blatant attempt to justify a sensual theology by cloaking it in so-called "revelational teaching." The abusive marital and relational problems that emerged were all conveniently spiritualized by the pastor in a classic example of what sociologists call deviance neutralization, or rationalization.
Scripture tells us, "By their fruit you will recognize them" (Matt. 7:16). From whatever perspective you view it, the fruit of Community Chapel was bad. Family boundaries were broken down, conventional biblical understandings were turned inside out resulting in moral chaos, and hundreds of individuals suffered psychological impairment of indescribable proportions. It is a sobering lesson in what can happen when abusive churches go over the edge.
Chapter Three || Table of Contents