Apologetics Index
Voices From The Fringe

Voices From The Fringe

Former members report the tragedy of churches that drift
into the distorted behavior more expected of a cult

More on Spiritual Abuse      A-Z Index       Color Key  About The Color Key
Common Threads   Looking to Leaders   Common Threads   Enforcing Authority   Generating Loyalty   
Controlled Lives   The Cost of Questioning   Cutting Ties   Fringe Appeal   Finding Answers   

More Information   About The Author   

When Jennifer was 12, she was forced to repent in front of her entire congregation -- for playing with dolls.

The group also held bonfire burnings to encourage members to rid themselves of "sinful possessions" that hampered their devotion to the Lord. "Our children watched their baby dolls and stuffed animals get fried in the bonfire," a former member says. One woman was advised to free herself of her deceased husband's spirit by burning her wedding pictures, selling her wedding ring, and disposing of their bed.

Kristi and her husband found themselves drawn to a small group in the Southwest that stressed total commitment to Jesus Christ.

The group's leader "had this big thing about idolatry and the need to love Jesus Christ more than anything," Kristi says. "So the problem we mothers had was our children." Excessive devotion to children was seen as a form of idolatry, or what the leader called the "spirit of motherhood."

"I was terrified to even talk to my children or show any kind of concern for them," Kristi says. "One time my young son fell in a race and split his head open. I knew he needed stitches, but I didn't dare suggest that he to the hospital because I knew that if I did, it would be considered an example of the spirit of motherhood."

"Furthermore, as a woman," Kristi says, "I could never make a suggestion like that without being labeled unsubmissive' and 'out of line.'"

Neither Jennifer not Christi's family, however, belonged to a cult. Both their congregations claim to be Bible-believing, Christ-honoring churches. They represent a small but growing number of organizations outside mainstream evangelicalism or fundamentalism that, for lack of a better term, I call "fringe churches."

There is no way of estimating how many of these churches exist in North America -- certainly hundreds, perhaps thousands. Most are small and unknown, a few very large with impressive facilities. One can find them in both charismatic and non-charismatic circles.

Common Threads

With few exceptions, these churches are orthodox in their basic doctrine. The controversy has little to do with their faith, but with the way they interpret and practice it.

Several red flags are almost always present in fringe churches.
  • An emphasis on spiritual experiences
  • An increased focus on the role of demons
  • A large proportion of members with personal, emotional, and dependency needs
  • A teaching emphasis on attitudinal sins (such as rebelliousness, lack of submission, pride, and self-centeredness)
  • An unhealthy dependence on those in authority
  • Few checks and balances
  • Minimal leadership accountability
  • A defensiveness that results in intolerance of member-critics
Few fringe churches begin that way; nearly all develop these characteristics over a period of time, the result of authoritarian leaders interacting with vulnerable, trusting members.

"Subtly at first, there began to be a feeling of superiority and exclusiveness among the people," says a former elder in a West Coast church, "a feeling that this church was unique and that, while we loved other brothers in Christ, to leave the church would always be a step down spiritually."

At the beginning there is a praiseworthy zealousness for the Lord and for unified fellowship. As the congregation drifts toward the fringe, there is an increased focus on the group's narrow self-interests, with the pastor assuming a position that is above confrontation.

Looking To Leaders

"Little by little this man became the standard by which we all sought to live," says one ex-member of a Midwestern church. "The wisdom that poured forth from his lips left us in awe."

"I believe they were telling me what God's will was for my life," another says. "You love God and you really want to do what He wants you to do."

On orders from those leaders, one family tossed a television off a bridge; others threw bricks through their sets.

A student member of another fringe church threw his $600 stereo receiver into Lake Michigan. "I felt so free after that," he explains.

One West Coast pastor told a young woman who had recently joined his church that he discerned in her a "spirit of lesbianism." The reason? She had a deep voice and was wearing jeans. The church's elders then proceeded in an unsuccessful attempt to exorcise a lesbian demon from the distraught young Christian.

Enforcing Authority

Fringe churches often interweave discipleship with unthinking submission to authority. In such a climate, says one former member, "the individual becomes overly dependent upon another human -- the overseer or shepherd -- to the point where the individual does not question, but instead relies on an unthinking and unquestioning obedience to directives and policies."

When members do confront their leaders or fail to follow their directives, the consequences can be severe.

In one West Coast congregation, a couple who had been members for years decided to take a much needed vacation without first consulting church authorities. They had already purchased airline tickets when the presiding shepherd learned of their decision. He chastised them for not obtaining the usual clearance, then warned them not to go on the trip. The couple went anyway.

Upon the couple's return, leaders from the church appeared at their door to notify them of church discipline: No one in the church would be permitted to speak to them or have any contact with them. Their children could not even play with the children of other church members.

Some leaders of fringe churches play down official positions of prominence. "I am a brother among brothers," one founder of a network of fringe churches likes to say. Yet his followers know who is in charge.

"It was clear, without a doubt, who the leader was -- who was giving the direction, the counsel, the teaching," one member says. "His position of authority was secured from the very beginning, and there was never a moment when it was relinquished. There was an implicit understanding that he was 'The Lord's Servant,' the person to whom everyone was subject and to whom we were loyal. We regarded him like an apostle Paul."

"Much of what we did was a direct result of what he said we could do or had to do," another former member says of this same leader. "We were adults, yet we were still treated very much like children. He would verbally intimidate you, verbally abuse you."

Fringe churches constantly warm members about "speaking against the leadership." There must be absolute obedience to leaders who are appointed by God to be shepherds of the flock. "We were told that it is more important to obey leaders than to question what they are doing," one man says. "It was unthinkable to question the motives of the pastor."

Generating Loyalty

Fringe churches typically communicate a sense of spiritual superiority. "We believe we are the purest expression of the body of Christ in this area," one pastor claims. "We're not ashamed to say that."

"We had cut ourselves off from all Christians except those in our small exclusive group," one man says. "We believed ourselves to be the only church we knew anywhere that sought to be faithful. We saw ourselves blessed of God in that He was revealing deeper truths to us and that we were called upon to stand for the truth."

"Although we didn't come right out and say it, in our innermost hearst we really felt there was no place in the world like our assembly," says a former adherent of another group. "We thought the rest of Christianity was out to lunch."

When members of this group would hear that a well-known evangelical speaker was preaching at another church in town, their leaders would discourage them from attending. If leaders learned that members were considering a visit to another church for any reason, they would call them in and chasten them. "You really don't need to be going to those places," the leaders would say. "Isn't the ministry here rich enough? Isn't the Lord feeding you here?"

Controlled Lives

Members are also kept busy with church-related activity so they have little time for outside involvements. Leadership and peer pressure discourage visits from friends or relatives. The technique is simple: If someone enjoys the company of friends or even family, it shows a lack of commitment to God's work - "not putting God first."

"Many times I was encouraged to sacrifice my vacation time at home in order to participate in the group's activities," a college student says.

One California church provided a bulletin insert instructing how members should spend their holidays. Worshippers were told Christian and New Year's Eve are Christian holidays, not pagan feast days: "We expect you to be in church worshipping God, not with lost relatives, worshipping mammon. Those over 18 years of age who miss any of those holy days will be barred from the [church]."

Couples were made to feel guilty if they expressed a desire to spend a day on a family outing, reports an ex-leader of another church. There was no time for picnics, swimming, or family camping. He estimates a professional person with a full-time job and church leadership responsibilities could have perhaps two free Saturdays a year.

Within a group, however, busy schedules are promoted as a means to edify the body of believers.

"On our days off, we were building the body by cleaning, working, and repairing each other's cars," says a woman who once belonged to a tightly knit East Coast church. "All of our time was spent with other church members. During the holidays no one thought of being with their natural family. No one ever missed a meeting. Absence from the church was unthinkable."

In many fringe churches, control extends even to the choice of a home, job, and spouse.

"They tell people what kind of professions are Christ-honoring and what kind are not," one man says of his former church. "One couple was driven out of the church because the husband wanted to be a policeman, and he was told he couldn't be a policeman and honor the Lord."

Some groups even regulate friendships within the church. "We were told we could have no 'special friends' in the work of God," a woman reports. "'A special friend can cloud your ability to discern the Lord. Special friendship can cause you not to sense the Lord's leading.'"

The Cost of Questioning

Those who do question their leaders are accused of having a "rebellious spirit." Says one young man, "My sin, which led to my expulsion, was that I asked too many questions."

In the movement this man belonged to, the founder frequently accused a question person of "mind idolatry." "I have been in services," he continues, "where the founder would pray against the blight of independent thinking."

In effect, fringe church members are encouraged to renounce their mental faculties. They come to believe they cannot, and should not, trust themselves.

"One thing the pastor used to say all the time was, 'Don't resort to reason. You don't know enough to figure these things out on your own.'" one former member reports. "The pastor would tell us, 'Just let me guide you to the Lord.'"

Cutting Ties

Some members finally realize their involvement has been more harmful than helpful and decide to leave. Others -- usually persistent questioners or critics -- are accused of having a "rebellious spirit" or having a "factious" influence, then promptly disfellowshiped.

When excommunicating dissidents, fringe leaders may shield themselves from dealing with the real issues by invoking a protective blanket of silence. An ex-member of a Midwestern church describes her group's procedure:

When a discipline is brought before the church, members are forbidden to discuss it among themselves or with the disciplined member. They are told that, if they have questions, they are to ask elders only. The elders have complete control over what is said about the life and reputation of the disciplined member. If he says anything in his defense, he is accused of gossip and slander. Many of us in the church have repressed questions about these disciplines because we've been afraid of losing the deep trust we've had in leadership, and because the church has been a family to us that we haven't wanted to risk losing

Those who leave, for whatever reason, find themselves cut off from what had been a very secure, structured environment.

"Friends of long standing will ignore you," says one ex-member. "They will turn their faces away. They will walk on the other side of the street. They will hang up the phone or not answer the door."

"I felt an unbearable separation from God," one woman says. "I felt like I was divorced from someone I was deeply in love with. My whole life was over. It's not possible to express what horrible turmoil I continuously experienced. I had extreme guilt for leaving my spiritual family and betraying those I loved. I felt very strongly that God would kill me."

"We were confused, afraid, and in many ways not able to copy in the world as we had known it," one father comments. "Our daughter asked, 'Where else can we go? No other church teaches the truth.'"

Many ex-members says they were taught they would be "out from under the covering" if they ever left the group. Some were even threatened with spiritual destruction. One pastor sent this letter of spiritual intimidation to people who were considering leaving his flock:

"As your pastor, I warn you that you are headed for the bottom of the sea. When you take yourself out of this move of God, you are going downhill spiritually. Demons are going to have access to you. You are going to lose eternal rewards. You cannot walk into any church and think you are safe. God won't honor that. He called you here and I am your pastor, no one else. You must follow me or you will answer to God."

Fringe Appeal

Those who join fringe churches, however, see a much different image. Initially at least, they are attracted because they encounter people with a zeal to serve the Lord; people who appear to be committed, serious Christians in an environment where all needs are met and all problems are resolved.

"I was part of what I totally believed was a sold-out, godly, and committed church," says a woman who has now left a tiny East Coast fringe group.

"What I was in this church was Christians who loved God with their whole hearts and lives and who lived for each other," one man reports. "Nowhere had I seen such commitment, love, and sincerity. They weren't just Christians; they gave their lives up to the Lord and each other and were true disciples."

Others experience a sense of family and a kind of surrogate parenting from the leaders. "One of the big reasons we became a part of the group is the way we were accepted and cared for," an ex-member says. "The warmth and concern, however, misplaced, was compelling in a busy, impersonal world."

Finding Answers

Conventional churches can learn several lessons from the fringe phenomenon.

There are many earnest Christians whose spiritual idealism and deep personal needs are being exploited and manipulated by churches on the fringe. Mainstream congregations can provide alternatives where sound doctrine is demonstrated in sane practice.

At the same time, members of mainstream churches must guard against the kinds of extremism found on the fringe. We live in a fallen world. Even Christians acting under the guise of spirituality may succumb to human weaknesses and seek to deceive God's people through the abuse of pastoral authority.

As Harold Busséll reminds us in his book Unholy Devotion, Jesus is our only Shepherd, our model of authority. A good shepherd leads his flock, not controls it. "Power that elevates a leader beyond contradiction or check to a bionic position will lead both the leader and the followers down a road marked by broken relationships, exploitation, and control. Power that tempers and checks itself is the pathway to gentleness, caring, and maturity."

More Information

For more information on the subject of fringe churches, see the resources listed under Spiritual Abuse.

This article was first published in Moody, Oct. 1989. It is posted here by Dr. Enroth's kind permission.

Dr. Enroth addressed the subject of fringe churches in his books, Churches That Abuse (voted as one of the top ten books of 1992 in Christianity Today's Readers' Poll), and Recovery From Churches That Abuse. Unfortunately, these books are currently out of print. As an alternative, Apologetics Index suggests Healing Spiritual Abuse, by Ken Blue. Subtitled, "How To Break Free From Bad Church Experiences."
About The Author

Dr. Ronald Enroth, is Professor of Sociology at Westmont College (Santa Barbara, California). An acknowledged national resource person on cults and new religious movements, Dr. Enroth has spent more than twenty-five years researching and writing in the area of current religious movements. In addition to many journal and magazine articles, he has authored or co-authored nine books, including: The Jesus People (Eerdmans, 1972), Youth, Brainwashing and the Extremist Cults (Zondervan, 1977), A Guide to Cults & New Religions (InterVarsity Press, 1983), The Lure of Cults and New Religions (InterVarsity Press, 1987), and Churches That Abuse (Zondervan, 1992), and Recovering From Churches That Abuse (Zondervan, 1994).

Dr. Enroth has conducted seminars and lectured on cults and new religious movements through North America and has appeared on numerous radio and TV programs in connection with his research. He was the 1982 recipient of the Leo J. Ryan Commemorative Award given annually to the individual judged to be most active in focusing public attention on the dangers of destructive cults. The award is given in memory of those who died in Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978.

He can be contacted at:

Westmont College
955 La Paz Road
Santa Barbara, CA 93108-1099
Email: enroth@westmont.edu