Elitism and Persecution:
Abusive Churches See Themselves as
Barbara Harold was almost twentyone in the summer of 1988, living in Tempe, Arizona, and attending nursing school in Mesa. While running in the park one night, she was approached by a harmless-looking couple who invited her to attend a "Bible Talk." She declined. The woman pursued her and asked to at least have lunch together so that they might talk. Intrigued, and not having any really close friends, Barbara decided to accept. Within a few weeks, she was attending a regular Bible study with three other girls from the Phoenix Valley Church of Christ, an affiliate of the so-called Boston Movement. Although brought up a Baptist, Barbara had not been to church in four years and was looking for something to which she could belong, to feel a part of. She was looking for friends with whom she could bare her soul and be secure. She joined Phoenix Valley Church of Christ in July of 1988, was baptized in November of that same year, and became an assistant Bible Talk leader by the following June. When she left the church in June of 1990, she was "totally devastated, afraid to be alone, severely depressed, and on the verge of suicide."
While a part of the Phoenix Valley Church of Christ, Barbara's life was very full. After classes and work at the hospital, every evening was filled with activities. Monday and Tuesday she and her friends went "door knocking" (street evangelism) or "blitzed" the local malls. Wednesday they were at Church. Thursday was "Bible Talk" night (their
term for Bible studies). Friday they had activities with visitors. Saturday was "date night," when all single members of the church were expected to be out on group dates. Sunday night was either Bible Talk leaders' meetings or activities with roommates. Such a schedule left no room for nonchurch activities.
In addition to this full evening schedule, Barbara was told that she must have an hour of quiet time with God each day. Given that she had to be at the hospital each morning at 6:30, Barbara would rise by 4:15 to spend her "quiet time." Invariably, because of the demands of her heavy schedule, she would fall asleep unless someone else was with her. This led to her being called "weak hearted" and lacking in zeal for God by her disciplers (those more mature Christians who supervised her spiritual activity) and the other women in her Bible study. A vicious cycle of emotional highs and guilty depressions resulted.
Her disciplers also told her to quit exercising, something she did four to five times a week, unless she was using it as a means to reach out and share the Gospel. Her regular exercise regimen was seen as being "too self-focused." She was told, "You must live for God's kingdom only." Because she came to believe that her whole family would be lost if she didn't try to convert them (the Boston churches constituted the only "true Church"), Barbara was constantly speaking to them about their salvation. Her family grew tired of the spiritual barrage, as did her old friends, so Barbara ended up moving into an apartment with four other women from the Phoenix Valley Church of Christ.
Although she enjoyed the activities and the pep-rally-like church sermons, Barbara was under constant pressure to be something she wasn't. She was always required to confess sin to her discipler. Not being a very extroverted person, Barbara found it hard to meet the requirement to constantly evangelize. Times with her discipler were like interrogations: How many persons did you reach out to today? Barbara's answer was invariably one, two, or none. She was told that because she didn't desire to reach out and witness that Satan was in her, that she didn't have Jesus' heart for the lost, and that she needed to be more like Jesus. Finally, the
pressure became so great that she began making up sins to confess so that she would at least have something else to say. She constantly felt guilty.
Members of the Phoenix Valley Church of Christ would compare their "Bible Talks" with the Bible studies of other campus fellowships, and comment on the amount of sexual immorality that must be going on in these other groups. Members of their church never went on single dates, but always in groups of four to eight. "Sisters" were never to be alone in a room with "brothers" for more than fifteen minutes. Members required permission to call one another for dates, and, after going out, were grilled by their disciplers about lustful thoughts during those dates. Couples going steady were allowed to hold hands and give one another pecks on the cheek. No solo dating by individual couples was permitted. There was a strong emphasis on getting the brothers married, as "It is not good for the man to be alone (Genesis 2:18)." Consequently, no single sister was ever to be home alone on a Saturday night.
The amount of control exercised over Barbara's life and the lives of some of her friends extended to extremely personal levels. Member would quit very good jobs to be "in the ministry" full time. It was a sign of their dedication to God. Disciplers would tell married couples when and how to have sex, a fact that caused one of Barbara's best friends to leave the church with her husband. Disciplers would require that every single sin, even negative thoughts, be confessed to them. If you "stuffed" bad feelings toward someone down in your heart, that is, if you didn't confess them, you were in sin. This would obviously lead to more sin since a root had already taken hold.
Barbara's last night with the Phoenix Valley Church of Christ was one of severe reprimand and interrogation by the members of her Bible study because of her alleged "stuffing" of bad feelings. The Bible study was not "advancing" (growing in numbers), and she was obviously at fault. What bad feelings and thoughts was she stuffing? Why wasn't she having quality quiet times with the Lord? How many persons was she really reaching out to each day? One by one, each member told her what her shortcomings were.
Yet they all declared their support and love for her, along with their great desire to see her grow.
Barbara asked to move back with her parents that same night. "It was the hardest decision I ever made," she said. She was emotionally unstable, and didn't even know how or what she felt, since she was so used to having someone else tell her that what she was feeling was wrong and of Satan. Her guilt increased, exacerbated by the fact that members contacted her and asked, "How could you allow Satan to harden your heart so much to do this to your friends?" She was told to remember that her heart was "exceedingly deceitful."
That same night she also phoned one of her old disciples, a woman who had been "marked" (shunned) by members of the church for marrying the wrong man. Although one was not supposed to talk to ex-members because they would "try to pull you away," Barbara found it a relief to have someone to talk to. Getting a better perspective by talking things out with her friend, Barbara's resolve not to return grew. Even though at times she felt like she was leaving the "true Church" or turning her back on God and heading for hell, Barbara knew that the "unconditional love" preached by the Boston Movement churches was very conditional when it came to ex-members.
Barbara returned to her shared apartment the next morning to gather her things. She ignored the "love bombs" that members and leaders attempted to throw at her things like invitations to activities, reminders of good times together, and words of encouragement. Somehow she found the strength and courage to walk away from the highly controlling and manipulative environment in which she found herself; she returned home to her family. She had been in the Boston-affiliated Phoenix Valley Church of Christ for two years.
Barbara is concerned for her friends still in the group. Although she knows that she would be indulging in blasphemy in the eyes of the members by calling the Boston movement a destructive group and warning her friends, she realizes that her severe depression, attempted suicide, and sleeping sixteen to eighteen hours a day with no hope for the
future are not the results of a ministry centered around Jesus' Gospel of grace. If it was such a wonderful thing that God could lead her and others into such a movement, why must it be of Satan to feel that God has saved her and led her out? She now hopes that others in the Boston Movement will have the strength and courage to question whether God is truly blessing their ministry, and whether they really do belong to the only "true church" on earth.
Barbara knows that one day she will be seeking God and wanting to know the truth again. She believes that God himself will lead her to the right place. But right now she is burned out on church and she knows she is not ready to get involved in any kind of church. After twelve weeks of therapy, Barbara is now just beginning to make simple decisions on her own and is attempting to make a normal life for herself.
* * * * * * *
The Boston Movement, earlier known as the "Crossroads Movement" and "Multiplying Ministries," had its origins in the Crossroads Church of Christ in Gainesville, Florida, under the leadership of Pastor Chuck Lucas. He stressed personal discipleship training, a variant of the shepherding philosophy so popular during the 1970s. This philosophy stressed the need for every believer to have a "covering" in the Lord, a delegated authority who must be unconditionally obeyed and consulted for even the most personal decisions. One of Lucas' own disciples, Kip McKean, became pastor of a small Church of Christ in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1979 and transformed a group of less than one hundred members into a thriving congregation worshiping on Sundays in Boston Garden, home of the Celtics. It has been under the leadership and influence of this young evangelist that the Boston Church of Christ has developed into what one observer calls the "Jerusalem" of one of the most controversial and most publicized of the authoritarian movements discussed in this book.
Unlike the mainline Churches of Christ (which have
distanced themselves from this rapidly growing offshoot), the congregations affiliated with the Boston Movement answer to their mother church in Boston. The doctrinal areas that have caused most controversy are those dealing with authority, discipling, baptism, autonomy of congregations, and the role of the leadership, especially the leadership of Kip McKean.
Central to the Boston Movement's belief system is its view of authority. The leaders have justified the use of abusive authority in order to follow Jesus. They demand submission even if the leaders are sinful and un-Christlike. Here are examples of statements made by various Boston leaders that illustrate their position:
Often we are afraid to submit to authority because it might be abusive. Jesus was not afraid of abusive authority; he was even willing to submit and obey authority that was abusive (Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 27:11-50) . . . .When we trust God, we do not have to be afraid of abusive authority. Just as in the times of the New Testament, there will be people who are hurt and killed by abusive authorities, but God is still in control; if they were right with Him, and they will be ultimately rescued to the supreme security home with God . . . It is not an option to rebel against their authority . . . God's people must be aware that they have a responsibility before God to respect, obey, and submit to His anointed servants . . . Far too many with the church of Christ have imitated the words of Korah and other leaders of Israel who said to Moses, 'You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, everyone of them, and the Lord is with them. Why do you set yourself above the Lord's assembly?' . . . It is true that through His spirit certain men have been assigned responsibilities to lead in the Kingdom and that to oppose them is to oppose God who anointed them.1
The Boston Movement teaches that each member should be answerable to another disciple in order to provide nurturing for new Christians. Members are encouraged to imitate and trust their disciplers.
A disciple is one who obeys his discipler even if he doesn't comprehend what he's told. Because he wants to have a teachable heart, he will fully obey and be totally obedient even if what he's asked to do is contrary to what he would normally do or think. To distrust the person God had put in his life is equal to distrusting God and his faith in God is shown by his faith in his discipler.2
In 1987, evangelist Kip McKean gave a talk entitled, "Why Do You Resist the Spirit?" in which he said, "No one can do it on their own. Everybody needs ongoing discipleship. You are a disciple of God until you die and you are a disciple of someone else until you die."3
The Boston Movement demands "Lordship baptism." In other words, one must confess Jesus as the Lord of every area of his life and demonstrate that he is a disciple before being baptized. This has resulted in a wave of rebaptisms since new adherents who may have been baptized in another Christian church find that their previous baptism is not acceptable to the Boston Church of Christ. Even those people with backgrounds in the mainline Churches of Christ find themselves needing rebaptism.
The Boston Movement is an example of the elitist orientation that is so pervasive in authoritarian-church movements. It alone has the Truth, and to question its teachings and practices is to invite rebuke. As Jerry Jones observes:
When the Boston Movement is confronted with their wrong teachings, its practice is to attack the character and life of the questioner by claiming that he has "sin in his life." Such terms as "prideful," "independent spirit," and "rebellious" are used in answer to the inquirer. The Boston Movement believes that being "independent" or "critical" is sin.4
Yeakley's research on the Boston Movement concluded that the disciple / discipler relationship was potentially manipulative and destructive. Because members are required to confess their sins to their disciplers, the emphasis on such self-disclosure can be dangerous.
The discipling hierarchy becomes a glorified informant network. As such, it is an effective means of control . . . Those being discipled were told what courses to take in school, what
field to major in, what career to enter, whom to date or not date, and even whom to marry or not marry.5
The spiritual elitism of abusive churches can be seen in some of the terminology they use to refer to themselves: "God's Green Berets," "God's End-Time Army," the "faithful remnant," the special "move of God." As one ex-member put it, "We believed we were on the cutting edge of what God was doing in the world. I looked down on people who left our movement: they didn't have what it took. They were not faithful to their commitment. When everyone else got with God's program, they would be involved in shepherding just like we were." A former member of a group known as The Assembly (headquartered in Fullerton, California, and discussed later in this book) said, "Although we didn't come right out and say it, in our innermost hearts we really felt that there was no place in the world like our assembly. We thought the rest of Christianity was out to lunch."
Community Chapel's Pastor Barnett regularly reminded his followers that their church was special. "We've got to go on into a new thing that God has promised in his Word that no church has ever come into yet . . . Do you know of any other church in which people are loving each other with that same kind of unconditional love? I don't."
If abusive churches are exclusive and special, it follows that they will be targets for persecution, or so their leaders seem to feel. "It is the earmark of the last-day church that if God has promised it, and we are beginning to experience it, you know the devil's going to fight it."
Pastor Barnett would tell his flock: "You'll be a laughing stock, a mockery. You will find that there will be hatred toward you and it will come from the church world. You are sheep among wolves, and the wolves are the religious ones, the church world."
The leader of one controversial group named Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps complained, "The churches are full of sinners. We don't want to be hypocrites. You try to be strict and keep people clean, and everybody crucifies you. We're strict and we're not going to apologize for it. If we're crucified, we're crucified."
Jan was a member of a group that felt it was being unjustly persecuted by its critics, including the press. Here is her account of life with The Piecemakers, a small Southern California communal-Christian group.
Jan had had all she was going to take. Eleven years of frustrated emotion, suppressed anger, and mental anguish came boiling out, and she began to swing her purse and bags of groceries at her tormenters two "sisters" in the Body of Christ Fellowship, the informal name for The Piecemakers. They were "loving" her to repentance by screaming obscenities at her and attempting to "break through" to the point where she would again be submissive to the words and teachings of their unofficial leader, Marie Kolasinski. Although one of the women was nearly twice her size and holding her arms, Jan managed to break free, run to her room, and lock the door. Later, when her husband joined her, she said, "Mark, you have to get us and the kids out of here and away from these people."
The next morning Jan insisted that the six adults in her household meet to discuss who would be moving out. The two "sisters" wanted to postpone the meeting until the next day when Marie would be home from her family vacation in the mountains. Saying that she was "no fool," Jan stood her ground. The "sisters," as well as Jan's natural sister and brother-in-law who were also a part of the Fellowship, declared that they were staying and "claiming the land for God." Jan, as holder of the lease, knew otherwise.
That afternoon, twenty members of the Body of Christ Fellowship came to move the women out. In the process, they took everything that they believed had been bought with "God's money" sheets off the beds, toilet paper holders out of the bathrooms, bolts and screws ripped right out of the walls. Jan's house was ransacked. Unfortunately, Mark was not home at the time.
Later, in the early evening, five of the "brothers" came back, saying they had come to claim "God's bed" a youth bed on which Jan's youngest daughter slept. Not wanting them to trash the children's room, Jan asked if she could bring the bed downstairs. She was pushed out of the way by her brother, also a member of the Fellowship, and the men
headed up the stairs. Grabbing her brother's arm and pleading with him, Jan was beaten to the floor. Another relative, who had come to stay and help Jan out, had her arm twisted behind her back until she cried, and was told to "Keep out of God's way!" Meanwhile, Jan's thirteen-year-old son, eldest of her six children, had run down to the kitchen, grabbed a butcher knife, and was on his way up the stairs to protect his mother. In the resulting chaos, the men left with the bed, and Jan and her children were left crying on the floor.
When Mark returned home, Jan asked the children not to tell him how roughly she had been treated, but the children told all. Mark responded by gathering his six children into his arms, saying, "It doesn't matter. We've only lost material things. I have what I've been praying for. My family is now free."
This dramatic account, tearfully related to me by Jan one month after her departure from the Body of Christ Fellowship, exemplifies the trauma of involvement in even the smallest of aberrational, abusive groups. The Body of Christ Fellowship, also known by their business name of Piecemakers Country Store, is located in Costa Mesa, California. Unofficially headed by grandmotherly Marie Kolasinski, who denies her leadership role ("God would strike me down if I took credit for his beautiful work"), the Body of Christ Fellowship is unique in its use of profanity, for Marie's edict that required vasectomies for male members, and for their claims that the second coming of Christ has "already come and gone."
Jan and her family were members of the Fellowship for eleven years. Most of her children were born during their involvement with the organization, which first began because Jan believed that members of the Fellowship had a "greater Christian walk." She felt that they were "walking in the fullness of life," and were growing closer to Jesus than was possible in other groups or churches. Her first encounter with Marie (she is know by no other title) came about through a mutual friend. Marie said, without ever having met her before, "Oh, Jan, take off your shoes for you are standing on holy ground."
In the early days, the group experienced healings, spoke in tongues, and conducted baptisms in a local swimming pool. However, somewhere along the line, Marie and the Fellowship began changing from a charismatic Bible study to a strict, authoritarian communal group. The change occurred gradually, with Marie slowly introducing teachings that contradicted the Bible.
While the group claims to live peacefully as a communal witness (they own several houses in the Costa Mesa area), their doctrine and practices have evolved over the years to a point of drastic departure from orthodoxy. Marie believes that she has "come through the veil" that she experienced the death of her flesh in 1978 and now walks in sinless perfection. As the only one to have yet begun to "walk in the fullness," she dictates every aspect of the lives of her followers so that they too, some day, may join her in her exalted state. Consequently, she is beyond confrontation and in total control. "If you are sitting in this room today, and you are doubting whether or not these are the words of the Father, you better check to see if you are doing the will of God." She adds, "I always marvel at people who will come and hear the truth of what is going on in this fellowship and reject it."
As the only one yet to achieve sinless perfection, Marie is God's mouthpiece to her followers. Any questioning of her decisions or dissent is defined as the rebellion of the original sin nature in her followers and an indication of their lack of perfection. "Words" from God, received by Marie, are obeyed by her followers without question. Members have been known to surrender wedding rings, forsake their children, and move to different states, in obedience to Marie's received "words." Marie has also reportedly received "words" telling members to give money to her husband for his failing business, or to refrain from styling another's hair after she received a poor haircut.
According to Marie's philosophy, growing closer to God requires suffering. This means the travail and pain of letting go of everything of one's old life family relationships, both immediate and extended; personal belongings of sentimental value; and the ability to control one's life and make
personal decisions. The more broken her members, the closer they are to "entering into God." Therefore, every aspect of their personal lives and egos is systematically assaulted.
One of Marie's assistants indicated that members cry and go through so much emotional and spiritual torture because it is a painful process to shed all of life's pleasures in order to serve God. Jackie Kindschi, Marie's childhood friend and former member of the Fellowship, was quoted in a local newspaper as saying:
Marie believes, and so do the others, that when they pick on a person and break them down, they are helping them get closer to God. She really thinks she is doing the right thing . . . When I look around my apartment and see all the things I "idolize," like my children and grandchildren, my memories and my material items, all the things that Marie says we shouldn't have, I say hallelujah.6
Marie's brother and sister-in-law are also very concerned. "Somewhere along the line Marie got messed up with drugs, and the next time we saw her, she was the leader of this group." They did attend some of the meetings at the fellowship but decided the group was not for them. "Everything is contrary to scriptural teachings and she twists them to fit her cause. She is holding those people hostage and threatens them with God."7
Marie now believes and claims that she "holds the keys to the Kingdom," and has the power to regulate who and who will not have the opportunity to go to heaven. Jan says that her manipulation is "total and complete," and that there is no possibility of members winning against her. In the "fullness" there is neither right nor wrong, good nor bad; therefore, anything that Marie does or says is perfect.
Since "dying to the flesh" allows Jesus Christ to be born in a person in fullness (the supposed second coming of Christ according to Marie), those individuals who have come or are coming "through the veil" should no longer live "fleshly" lives. Therefore, members of the Body of Christ abstain from sexual relationships with their spouses since there is neither male nor female nor marriage in the Kingdom of God.
"Natural man must shed all his ways to reach God. The flesh must die in order for us to gain entry into the Kingdom of God. I'm celibate and am no longer a slave to any man, lust or desire. Only God is in my thoughts now."8
Conceiving and bearing children are both considered to be sorrowful ordeals. Marie believes that humankind evolved from the animals, so that having children is "reproducing after one's lustful flesh." Children therefore keep one from seeking God; one needs rather to have "spiritual children." Needless to say, the children in the Body of Christ Fellowship do not lead normal lives, usually being separated from their parents. Marie states that God himself is "trying to tear down the family unit."
Living out their commitment to God, members rise each day at 5:15 A.M. They meet at 5:30 A.M. to walk for two miles, then receive the day's instructions from Marie at her home. Members are assigned to either work at Piecemakers, do manual labor through the Village Tilers, a home improvement arm of Piecemakers, or baby-sit a host of children. Members' weekly salary is ten dollars and no free time is allowed. Jan says that, "Every minute of the day was accounted for. If you were supposed to be somewhere, you were there and no one argued."
Portions of the day are spent in meetings to learn about God and scold errant members. These "scoldings" can last for hours and include being labeled a "slut" or a "whore," if one is a woman, or being convinced that one is weak and worthless, if one is a man. Accompanying the scoldings are outpourings of profanity, the use of which, one therapist believes, breaks down religious training so that victims are more open to Marie's influence.
Those who supposedly attempt to usurp Marie's authority are the most severely abused by brutal group-humiliation tactics and peer pressure. "They would hit you blindside, and you never knew it was coming. All the members would gather around and begin screaming and hollering obscenities until you broke," says one former member.9 There are also allegations of physical beatings. However, Marie claims that only by their strength and adherence to the word of God, and submission to her authority, will members overcome and
be successful. Success is defined as the return of all that one has given up to "go through the veil."
Interestingly, Marie's husband, Ray, is Catholic and not a member of the Body of Christ Fellowship. Jan states that while Marie preaches against family, she is a submissive wife to Ray, cooking his dinner, keeping his house, and attending Mass at his side. However, Jan also notes that at the point Marie received the word about communal living and the pooling of resources, Ray needed money to pay his taxes. The pooled funds allegedly went to pay Ray's tax debt, among other things.
The straw that finally broke the camel's back for Jan was watching her own sister and another woman verbally abuse and attack her mother with gross profanity. Why? Because she wanted to bring Christmas presents to her grandchildren. Jan thought, "This can't be what religion and Jesus are all about. This isn't what he died on the cross for." Her altercation with the other persons of her household came shortly thereafter. Within a few days, she and her family had escaped.
Marie claims that Jan is bitter because she was not strong enough to "walk with God." She told Jan that she would "turn into a whore, an alcoholic, and a drug addict," that she would be "crazy within six weeks, just like your mother," and that her husband would be "chasing everything in a skirt."10
Jan and her family had to move out of the area to escape constant threats and harassment from members and Marie. Although they have been away from Marie Kolasinski and the Body of Christ Fellowship for over six years, the emotional scars and spiritual turmoil are only now fading away. There is still guilt over influencing four of her siblings to become involved in the group. She has only recently regained her "vision for God." And she and her family have only recently returned to church. But they are free.
Chapter Seven || Table of Contents
1. Jerry Jones, What does the Boston Movement Teach? Vol. 1 (Bridgeton, MO: Mid-America Book and Tape Sales, 1990), 7-8.
2. Ibid., 12.
3. Jerry Jones, What Does the Boston Movement Teach? Vol. 2 (Bridgeton, MO: Mid-america Book and Tape Sales, 1990), 17.
4. Ibid., 14.
5. Flavil Yeakley, The Discipling Dilemma (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1988), 54-55.
6. Melinda Keller, "Piecemakers: Kolasinski's Path to God," Costa Mesa News (August 5, 1988).
8. Melinda Keller, "Piecemakers: the Crafting of a Cult," Costa Mesa News (July 22, 1988).
10. Melinda Keller, "Piecemakers: Life in the Family of God," Costa Mesa News (August 19, 1988).