Excerpt, In the House of Friends: understanding and healing from abuse in Christian churches, chapter 4 “Who would ever join an abusive church?”
The church met in a living room, and its 25 members sat on folding chairs in three rows. The service followed a traditional, Baptist-church format: a welcome and announcements time, a prayer, a couple of hymns, an offering collection, and then the sermon.
I recall the sermon that the pastor preached on my first visit to the church. He had titled the sermon A Furlough of Futility. The sermon was part of a preaching series on the life of King David, and it specifically covered a period when David (before he was king) lived as a mercenary among the enemies of Israel, the Philistines. He hired himself and his soldiers out to the Philistine king to do battle for them, and then lied about his activities. The focus of the sermon was on the frustration, and ultimate failure, of one leaving God’s plan for life. To abandon one’s commitment to God would inevitably lead to hypocrisy, frustration, and a life of lying and secrets. Packed with historical, cultural insights; observations derived from the Hebrew text itself; and illustrations that seemed to correspond exactly to my own experiences, the sermon was compelling. The pastor preached with fervor, conviction, and charisma. He was young, unpolished, confrontational, and deadly serious about what he was doing.
I sneaked glances at the church members. Each was taking notes, furiously trying to keep up with the preacher. They occasionally interrupted their notetaking to look up and nod (that’s about as charismatic as the congregation ever got). No daydreaming, thumbing through hymnals, or making shopping lists here. These people were serious. I felt right at home and would soon be challenged as to just how serious I really was in following Christ.
After the service on that first Sunday visit, a couple of the deacons talked with me. When one of them asked if I planned to return the following week, I replied that I did not know, and that I would have to talk it over with my wife, who was across the room, talking with their wives. I sensed that my response did not get much traction with them, and so I explained,
“And then, I do have to work every third Sunday, since I’m on a one-day-on, two-day-off schedule.”
One of them was a paramedic himself, a veteran with many years in the field. He answered,
“Well, you can get trades, or use vacation time, or even give away the hours. God will work it out for you to make it to a place where you can really grow, Ken. Don’t you think He can replace whatever income you might feel like you’re losing to be a disciple, Ken? He really cares that much about you and your growth. It’s a matter of what you value most in life. This obviously seems to be an opportunity that God has presented to you to really grow in His calling on your life to follow Him and demonstrate trust in Him.”
“Uh, well,” I stammered, “as a rookie, I kind of don’t want to make waves by taking time off work right away. I have only been on the job for a couple of months.”
The other deacon said nothing for a few moments, and then thoughtfully replied,
“Right, Ken. Well, we would not ask anything of you that Jesus did not ask of his own disciples.”
I was hooked.
Although I did not become aware of the concept of totalism for many years, when I read about it for the first time, there was not the slightest doubt that it described me at that time of my life with absolute precision. I was a religious totalist.
I was a religious totalist in that I truly believed that every aspect of my life (behavior, personality, habits, tastes, etc.) should comply with the demands of my new discipline—the Christian faith. Although I could not see it at the time, I was simply waiting for a totalist Christian leader to come along who would seek to control every aspect of my life and point out all of the areas that I had been holding out on God. There is always an abusive leader at the end of every totalist organization. And my totalist tendencies made me low-hanging fruit for the narcissistic, totalist pastor who preached that day about the evils of leaving the place God has brought you—even if that place is a little ranch-style house with 25 people meeting in its living room, and deacons who spiritually bully you after the service.
And, as far as I could determine, God had brought me to that living room that day. If I had known then what I know today of what that little living-room church would become to me—and what it would do to me, and to my marriage and children—I would have thrown my folding chair through the front window, grabbed my wife, and crawled out over the shards of glass. Instead, I went home and pulled out an employee phone list and prayed that God would find me a paramedic who might be willing to trade a shift so I could attend church the next Sunday.
Praise for Awakened By Grace
“How sad that in coming forward to follow Jesus, some vulnerable Christians are damaged by overbearing, unaccountable, demagogic church leaders. Sad but true. Ken Garrett tells the truth about abuse of power even in the church. He shows how Scripture depicts spiritual abuse, how to spot a potentially abusive pastor, and gives practical resources for responding to the sin of spiritual abuse. Ken’s book is a godsend for all Christians who want the church and its leaders faithfully to represent Christ’s love for his people.”
—Will Willimon, Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry, Duke Divinity School, United Methodist Bishop, retired, author of Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry
“One of the things that Christians don’t like to discuss is the existence of cults inside the church; not theological cults, but emotional cults. Some churches teach the basic truths of Christianity yet enslave their members through the use of cultic practices, such as peer pressure, threats, and mind controls. … If you work with hurting people who escaped with emotional scars, or escaped yourself, or perhaps are still in an emotionally unhealthy church, this is the book for you. Garret provides a full review of how cultic churches work, as well as how you can escape, and how to minister to those damaged by them.”
—Gary L. McIntosh, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University
“This book is a valuable resource for victims and for pastors, seminarians, youth ministers, church members, and families or friends concerned about a loved one caught up in an abusive situation. Garrett effectively weaves together a compelling personal story, testimonies of other spiritual abuse victims, and clear explanations of what spiritual abuse is, how people get sucked into abusive churches, why they stay in abusive relationships, what kind of help they need when they leave, and how churches can become safe havens for the spiritually abused.”
—Michael D. Langone, from the foreword
“Ken Garrett’s In the House of Friends: Understanding and Healing from Spiritual Abuse in Christian Churches is compelling. I read it in one sitting. I literally could not put it down. Ken is an expert in this field, but he writes for those who sense something is wrong in the church, but can’t pinpoint the problem. Ken so accurately diagnoses the problem of narcissistic and authoritative church leaders that I literally felt the oppression and wanted to run. However, Ken does what any good doctor desires to do; after first describing the problem, Ken gives the remedy. For any person who’s ever been the victim of abusive spiritual authority, or for anyone seeking healing from the scars left by authoritative pastors who’ve cared more about themselves than the Kingdom, In the House of Friends is a God-send. I plan on purchasing many copies and giving them to people who’ve been ‘In the House of Friends’ and need healing.”
—Wade Burleson, author of Fraudulent Authority
About the Author
Ken Garrett is a native of Portland, Oregon, where he and his wife Sharon live today. After a 20-year career as a paramedic in Portland, Ken completed seminary training, and soon became senior pastor of Grace Church, Portland. Ken loves travel, hiking, spending time with family and friends, and reading. He and Sharon have three daughters and four grandchildren. Ken has taught pre-hospital medicine courses in Uzbekistan, Iraq, and Vietnam.
The great knuckle ball in life that Ken faced was his 12-year experience of membership in a high-control, spiritually abusive Christian church. Recruited with a promise of “discipleship training” and preparation for vocational ministry, Ken instead lost all of his money, nearly his marriage, and almost all of his pre-cult friends. In 1996 he and Sharon walked away from their church (that functioned as a cult) with their children, their car, some clothing, and Ken’s guitar. The experience has led to Ken’s fascination with the study of cults, leadership, and healthy group and family dynamics. Ken is an advisory board member of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), and leads a monthly recovery oriented meetup, the Spiritual Abuse Forum for Education. Ken has written articles for the magazine ICSA Today, and has earned a doctorate from Western Seminary for his studies of spiritually abusive Christian churches. Ken and Sharon counsel and assist many survivors of abusive, cult-like groups and also the families and friends of current members.