Was Community Chapel a Cult?
“..cult leaders are good at hiding what it is they actually do. ‘I've never met anyone who joined a cult,’ says Carol Giambavo, who works with the American Family Foundation (AFF), a cult-research center. ‘They all joined an interesting group.’ ” 1
The question "Was the Chapel a cult?" is raised from time to time on the "Community Chapel Gathering" discussion board. When Tyler asked it in a posting on September 30, 2003, the answers ranged from one lone affirmative answer (given by "Searcher") to the simple denial of Lanny (a former elder and Bible college instructor of Community Chapel), based mainly on the vagueness of the term, which seemed to express the majority opinion. Neither answer fully satisfied me, however. Based on my own experience there, I can't view the Chapel as something that definitely fits the picture that the word "cult" normally paints. On the other hand, there were many disturbing elements to it that bore unmistakable similarities to common definitions given for a cult, even before the era of "spiritual unions," or "connections," at the Chapel (1985-1988).
But first let me deal with the difficulties in the discussion that sometimes muddy the water. One of them is the continued existence of a group that is led by the same man, Don Barnett, who founded and led Community Chapel. This group, named the Church of Agapé (COA) is made up mainly of people from the Chapel who followed Don there after the Chapel fell apart. More than a few on this board, including myself, who are also ex-Chapelites, have not hesitated to label that group a cult. Most ex-Chapelites who are not also members of COA agree that COA is a cult, but they also agree it is a much different group than what Community Chapel was before the connection era. The character of the Chapel did change over time, and making comparisons between what Don's present group is like with what Community Chapel was like, especially before connections, is not necessarily valid.
Defining exactly what we are talking about when we talk about a "cult" is another difficulty. As several people noted in response to Tyler's posting in 2003, the word has no agreed-upon meaning today and therefore it has become uncertain in its application. Some people even contest the validity of the term. So it is necessary to first discuss the meaning of the word before giving any clear answer to the question "Was the Chapel a cult?"
Until the last forty or fifty years, the term "cult" was almost always used in neutral contexts. It was used mainly in scholarly works to refer to any system of worship.
The word cult comes from the French culte, and is rooted in the Latin cultus, which means "care" and "adoration." That idea comes from the Latin cultus - the past participle of colere, which means "to cultivate."Today, however, many questions and controversies swirl around the use of the word "cult." One of the best discussions of these is given on the Apologetics Index Web site, from which I took the citation above. For all of those who have questions regarding cultism, I highly recommend it. On that site, one will also find these remarks:
The word was used in the sense of "to worship or give reference to a deity." 2
Some experts, on all sides of the debate over cults, altogether object to the use of the word "cult," considering it to be a pejorative term designed to trigger a negative response.In light of this, then, I myself feel comfortable in pursuing the question of how the term is applicable to the Chapel. In view of the manner of its end in 1988, and in view of the nature of the present group led by the former leader of the Chapel, I think the question is obviously relevant.
Cult apologists, in particular, tend to accuse their opponents of using the term "cult" to convey negative images.
However, fact is that while a few people may indeed misuse the term that way, the fast majority of cult experts do not use "cult" in a pejorative way - even though they may well view cults in a negative light.
On this issue, see the following statement at the American Family Foundation (AFF) site:
Even though we have each studied cults and educated people about this subject for more than 20 years, neither of us has ever felt completely comfortable with the term "cult." No other term, however, serves more effectively the linked educational and research aims of AFF (American Family Foundation), the organization that we serve as president (Rosedale) and executive director (Langone). In order to help others who have asked questions about the term "cult," we here offer some thoughts on the definition and use of this term.
Even though the term "cult" has limited utility, it is so embedded in popular culture that those of us concerned about helping people harmed by group involvements or preventing people from being so harmed cannot avoid using it. Whatever the term's limitations, it points us in a meaningful direction. And no other term relevant to group psychological manipulation (e.g., sociopsychological influence, coercive persuasion, undue influence, exploitive manipulation) has ever been able to capture and sustain public interest, which is the sine qua non of public education. If, however, we cannot realistically avoid the term, let us at least strive to use it judiciously.
Source: On Using the Term 'Cult'. Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq., Michael D. Langone, Ph.D. 3
If nothing else, I found the question to be highly relevant to me personally as I struggled to find my place in the Christian world following the collapse of the Chapel. After a few years of trying and failing to find another church in which I felt as comfortable as at the Chapel, I had to ask myself why. What was it about my expectations of church that were so hard to satisfyespecially given the fact that I could see many others in many different kinds of churches who were deeply satisfied by their churches? What need of my own was satisfied by the Chapel that was failing to be met by these other churches? Were all churches except the Chapel simply inadequate? Or were my expectations maybe out of kilter? Was I expecting the wrong things from church? Had legitimate spiritual needs been manipulated and damaged by the Chapel so that now my expectations or spiritual perception were permanently damaged?
In brief, if other churches were also part of the body of Christ (as indeed Don always conceded they were), then why should I feel so out of place and dissatisfied in them? In the first few years, I think I could have given several definite answers to this questionthe teaching wasn't as deep, the worship wasn't as good, the people weren't as committed, and there wasn't as much true fellowship and love. I had an expectation that church should be like my early days in the Chapelsomehow more "alive," with more zeal, more prayer, more heart-felt worship, more obvious commitment to the Word taught in the church.
On this view of it, I had perhaps made a mistake in leaving the Chapel and seeking out other churches instead of following Don into COA after the Chapel split. He was, after all, the one who had the "anointing" to receive and preach the truths upon which the Chapel had been founded, and it was his leadership and teaching under which the worship and fellowship there had flourished.
In reality, returning to a church under Don's leadership was not something I even considered at the time. It would have been simply impossible for me, emotionally speaking, after all the revelations of his conduct and history that came out during 1988. It was all too obvious to me that this man was truly disturbed. I think it was that more than anything else that made me think of any group he led as off the beam. Rightly or wrongly, what first made me realize that the Chapel was potentially cultic was the impossibility of any longer seeing Don as a man ordained by God to pastor a church, much less as anointed to receive and teach powerful revelations for leading a unique "end-time move of God." When the magnitude and scope of Don's adulteries and other sexual misadventures were revealed during the course of 1988, it became obvious to me that if those things didn't matter and if Don was still a man of God with deep revelations, and if, on the other hand, the rest of the church world was mistaken in thinking him unfit for any spiritual office, then two fundamentally different models of Christianity were in conflict. I couldn't articulate this at the time, but dimly felt the difference. Either the Chapel was off the beam and other churches were right, or the Chapel had been right and all other churches wrong.
By way of contrast with the uncertainty I found myself, I note that the friend who first invited me to the Chapel has never doubted Don and has remained with him at COA ever since the collapse of the Chapel. For him, there was never any question of leaving Don's leadership, and he is barely open even to discussing it. He knows he belongs under Don because "Don still has the anointing." That was the sum total of his defense against my reasons for leaving the Chapel and for wanting to have nothing further to do with any group led by Don. He was not the only one from whom I heard that defense and explanation. All the people that I knew at COA, and who were willing to say anything, also were repeating some variation of it. Sometimes it was "the anointing is still on the worship" or "the anointing is still on the message," but it was always implied that the anointing was there because of Don Barnett and his teaching, and that it couldn't be found anyplace else.
So on Chapel principles I was being told to be led by "the anointing"follow the man whose leadership and teaching could produce the powerful messages, intense worship, and emotionally close bonds among members. I was told that I should "forgive" Don's adulteries, sexual sins, and divorce, and still count him as called to pastor me and the rest of the Chapelites, and as approved of God because of the revelations he was receiving, the kind of messages he was preaching, and the kind of worship he was leading. In contrast to this, by the principles I had previously learned as a Lutheran, by the principles I was hearing in the church world at large, and by the principles I was feeling in my gut, I was being told to take a look at this leader's life and draw the obvious conclusionhe was in sin and deception, and leading his group further into sin and deception, isolating himself and them from the body of Christ and taking them further away from sound doctrine and practice.
As I realized this, the picture I had of the Chapel as compared to other churches began to change. Where previously I had viewed the teaching at the Chapel as deeper, it now seemed more like indoctrination. Where previously I had viewed the worship at the Chapel as more intense, it now seemed unhealthily emotional and manipulative. Where previously the members had seemed closer to each other and "more committed," that now seemed more like a product of regimentation and group think.
That is to say I was beginning to see the Chapel as cultish (not as a full-fledged cult) in the sociological sense, though not yet in the theological sense. The time of which I am now writing was roughly four or five years after my wife and I left the Chapel. I had not yet begun to have any doctrinal doubts in regard to the Chapel's teaching or Pentecostalism. I still spoke in tongues, and thought that the Charismatic and Pentecostal churches had the Holy Spirit in a way traditional churches did not; and I also thought that Oneness doctrine was an important Biblical truth in contrast to the "pagan corruption" that I still thought Trinitarian doctrine reflected. I was not yet worried that I had been involved in anything that was fundamentally unsound in doctrine; in fact, I still looked back at the Chapel as exemplary in the thoroughness of its Biblical teaching and scholarship. But I was becoming very concerned about what kind of marks Don's leadership may have left from the beginning on the Chapel's teaching and on its members. I was embarrassed by what the Chapel had become. Don's behavior in the last two or three years of the Chapel's existence was indefensible and the things that were now revealed seemed to indicate he had been that way since well before he founded the Chapel, that this aspect of his character was purposely hidden from the ordinary Chapel member by his wife and one or two of his closest aides. I found that I could not simply disassociate those facts from his position as founder and pastor of the Chapel.
In regard to the sociological definition of a cult, this is one definition I found on the Internet:
Usually, the word cult refers to a group led by a charismatic leader who has spiritual, therapeutic, or messianic pretensions, and indoctrinates the members with his or her idiosyncratic beliefs. Typically, members are dependent on the group for their emotional and financial needs and have broken off ties with those outside. The more complete the dependency and the more rigid the barriers separating members from non-believers, the more danger the cult will exploit and harm its members. 4Here is another, longer definition:
...A cult, by modern standards, is any group that incorporates mind control to deceive, influence and govern its followers. Although most people think of cults as being religious, they can also be found in political, athletic, philosophical, racial or psychotherapeutic arenas.The Chapel obviously is not fully a cult under these definitions, but some things to which we submitted were uncomfortably close to these things, particularly the "self-appointed leader with complete authority." Many definitions do regard the type of leader as the key factor in determining whether or not a group is a cult. Another example of this is found in a paper by a psychiatrist who was at one time a member of an eastern religious cult. He defines a cult as follows:
The mind control, or brainwashing, exerted by cults often take the form of at least several of the following elements:
A totalitarian control over the lifestyle and time of its members - Many cults tend to dictate exactly what its followers should read, eat, how and with whom they should spend their time, and even what they should do in off hours. This totalitarian control is necessary for the leaders to indoctrinate the followers in everything they do, and is also an attempt to separate them from anything not associated with the cult. This is why cults often live together in groups.
A charismatic, self-appointed leader with complete authority - Cult members are taught not to question the teachings, practices, or ideas of the leader. Many cult leaders truly are charismatic people, and are able to influence people to believe them. It is common that a cult member is not told everything up front when joining the group, but that they are taught increasingly controlling ideas and teachings as they go. In the case of some of the more well-publicized cults that have come and gone, it is also common that the leader's ideas and demands evolve over time, becoming increasingly controlling and restrictive. One very clear identifying element dealing with the leader of a cult is that the leader will always focus the attention and veneration of the members upon himself or herself. At the heart of a cult usually lies a very self-centered and self-seeking person.
A focus on withholding truth from non-members - Many cults teach their followers to be completely open and truthful within the group, while at the same time they are encouraged to be secretive and evasive when questioned by people outside of the group. This is another form of mind control-instilling guilt in the members if they hold anything back within the group. The members are taught that outsiders wouldn't understand or that they would only make fun of the ideas and practices and requirements for living within the group. Only specially-commissioned members are appointed to recruit members from outside. New members are usually encouraged to keep silent or even lie, especially to their families and close friends.
The three elements listed above are very successful ways to create a group mentality, an us-against-them way of looking at things. This is essential for any cult that wants to keep its members. The more afraid of the outside world the members become, the more strongly and faithfully they will keep within the safe fold of the cult. 5
I am defining a cult largely on the basis of the personality of its leader. In my definition, a cult is a group that is led by a person who claims, explicitly or implicitly, to have reached human perfection; or, in the case of a religious cult, who claims unity with the divine; and therefore claims to be exempt from social or moral limitations or restrictions. In the language of psychoanalytic diagnostics, such people would be called pathological narcissists, with paranoid and megalomaniacal tendencies. Without the cult leader, there is no cult, and from my perspective, in order to understand cult followers, we must simultaneously seek to understand cult leaders. I will attempt to describe the interplay of psychological dynamics between leader and follower that can enable cult leaders to dominate and control followers and enable cult followers to be seduced and manipulated into submission. 6Though again the picture does not fit fully, this comes closest to defining the sense in which the Chapel was a cult. Not that Don claimed to have reached human perfection or unity with the divine (although even here there is interesting echo of Don's "being completely superimposed on Jesus" that he was said to have experienced at one elders' retreat), but that he is probably a "pathological narcissist with paranoid and megalomaniacal tendencies" who, accordingly, manipulated his followers to their harm.
I've never studied psychology or psychiatry, and I didn't have any credentials in the mental health field (and I don't have any now), but I knew from the things that were being revealed in the press at the time of the Chapel's collapse (1988) that Don's psychological problems were not minor. They were in fact probably of a magnitude that would have been grounds for removal and mandatory treatment had he been a pastor in a normal denominational church. Even today most ex-Chapelites and current COA members remain ignorant of the extent of Don's problems. He has never faced these problems, choosing instead to cover them up from the view of others and to rationalize them to himself. Besides for the fact that this is not a characteristic of a mature leader, the problems he covers up are very serious indeed and have serious implications for the nature of any group that accepts his leadership and gathers around him in support.
In Barbara's book, The Truth Shall Set You Free, when she details the episode in which Don was arrested for exposing himself to several hotel maids in Las Vegas in 1976, she says something to the effect that "I thought he had gotten over that problem..." [My copy of the book is loaned out at the moment, so I cannot check this to get the exact wording. I hope to before I write the final version of this article.] There are hints like this throughout the book that are nowhere explained. However, in the mid-90's before the book was published, I learned that an ex-Chapelite friend of mine had been asked to help Barbara edit and proofread the book in order to help it find a publisher. My friend said she had been shocked at what she readshe told me she was not surprised that publishers had been shying away from it. She said it was nearly pornographic in some parts that dealt with Don and his problems regarding sex and marriage. My friend had advised Barbara to cut out some parts completely and edit others to reduce the explicit sexual content. Barbara followed this advice and the book was later published. [In 1998, I think.]
I relate this in order to show the depth of Don's psychological problems. An ongoing problem with exposing oneself to strangers would probably be diagnosed clinically as the sexual disorder of exhibitionism. It could also show an excessive need for the attention and admiration of others, and as such could be a component of a personality disorder known as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). However, I don't base the observation that Don may be clinically narcissistic on his exhibitionism alone. Here is the definition of NPD in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:
301.81 Narcissistic Personality DisorderAn ex-Chapelite cannot help but squirm with discomfort as he or she reads these short paragraphs. Or at least I could not. I saw a strong correspondence between nearly every one of these characteristics and things I could remember about Don Barnett. "A pervasive pattern of grandiosity" - who cannot but see this in Don's frequently explicit claims to be the one who alone has the revelations necessary to lead us into "the Feast of Tabernacles," and in the way we were always encouraged to think of him as God's man for the hour? Not to mention in the way he structured the Chapel so that he was the unchallenged head and doctrinal authority?
The essential feature of this disorder is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), hypersensitivity to the evaluation of others, and lack of empathy that begins by early adulthood and is present in a variety of contexts.
People with this disorder have a grandiose sense of self importance. They tend to exaggerate their accomplishments and talents, and expect to be noticed as "special" even without appropriate achievement.
They often feel that because of their "specialness," their problems are unique, and can be understood only by other special people. Frequently this sense of self-importance alternates with feelings of special unworthiness...
These people are preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love, and with chronic feeling of envy for those whom they perceive as being more successful than they are.
Although these fantasies frequently substitute for realistic activity, when such goals are actually pursued, it is often with a driven, pleasureless quality and an ambition that cannot be satisfied. Self-esteem is almost invariably very fragile; the person may be preoccupied with how well he or she is doing and how well he or she is regarded by others. This often takes the form of an almost exhibitionistic need for constant attention and admiration.
The person may constantly fish for compliments, often with great charm. In response to criticism, he or she may react with rage, shame, or humiliation, but mask these feelings with an aura of cool indifference.
Interpersonal relationships are invariably disturbed. A lack of empathy (inability to recognize and experience how others feel) is common. For example, the person may be unable to understand why a friend whose father has just died does not want to go to a party. A sense of entitlement, an unreasonable expectation of especially favorable treatment, is usually present. For example, such a person may assume that he or she does not have to wait in line when others must.
Interpersonal exploitativeness, in which others are taken advantage of in order to achieve one's ends, or for self-aggrandizement, is common.
Friendships are often made only after the person considers how he or she can profit from them. In romantic relationships, the partner is often treated as an object to be used to bolster the person's self-esteem. 7
Likewise, "self-importance," "need for admiration," "rage or shame masked with indifference when faced with criticism," "inability to recognize and experience how others feel," "interpersonal exploitativeness," all of these things rang true as I thought back over what I had seen of Don in his role of pastor of the church of which I had once been a member. They rang even more true of the things about Don that were successfully hidden from most of us during the Chapel's existence, such as the episode that caused Frank Rice's exit from the Chapel. (Frank happened to be present, unknown to Don, in a woman's house when Don arrived to harangue and threaten the woman in an effort to prevent her from ending her relationship with him or revealing the relationship. I cannot remember the exact details.)
Why was it important for me to see that Don fits the characteristics of a cult leader, and therefore that the Chapel was cultish? The answer is because I still wanted to be in the church in which God wanted me.
If I had really been led to the Chapel by Godif Don's "anointing" was really the hallmark of a more Biblical church and of an "end-time move of God"then obviously I should be at COA. If notif other churches and pastors were really more typical examples of what churches and pastors should be before Godthen I needed to find out why I had been so attracted instead to Community Chapel. I needed to deal with it so that I might become a happily functioning member of a good church.
So if I had not been led to the Chapel by God, then what might have led me there?
A typical pattern in the lives of members of groups that were undoubtedly cults has been observed and documented in many different types of literature, from psychological studies to Christian counter-cult books. Here is a typical description of that pattern, a description the author calls "the cult story":
At the time they joined their particular cult, most of the people we interviewed had been dissatisfied, distressed, or at a transition point in their lives. Typically, they desired a more spiritual life, a community in which to live cooperatively; they wanted to become enlightened, to find meaning in serving others, or simply to belong. An encounter with an enthusiastic, attractive, friendly person served to introduce each of them to a group whose outer appearance was quite benign. At some point during that introductory phase an intense experience took place which was interpreted as validating the claim that the leader and the group were special, powerful, spiritual; that they could give the person what he or she wanted. This experience might have been an altered state of consciousness (induced by the leader or the group via meditation, chanting, or the laying on of hands), a powerful therapeutic experience, or just a wonderful feeling of being accepted and welcomed ó of "coming home."Again, notice the similarities of this "story" with the Chapel "story." The Chapel story may not have been as extreme in most cases (although for a at least a few individuals, we know it was possibly more extreme), but the main outline is definitely there. From the first years of a small, special group of new believers hungry for the pure Word of God to the later years when "dissidents were painted as deceived and then disfellowshipped, the Chapel story, including my own part in it, is clearly of the same genre.
Won over, the newcomer joined the group, embracing its doctrines and practices. Soon the cult's demands increased and the new member was asked to devote increasing amounts of time, money, and energy to the group's activities. These demands were justified as necessary to fulfill the group's goals; willingness to comply was always interpreted as a measure of the recruit's commitment and sincerity. In order to continue, most did comply, sacrificing much for the sake of the stated high purposes of the group (often put in terms of saving the world).
Relationships outside the group became difficult to maintain. The former life of the new member was given up; contact with outsiders was discouraged and the demands of the new life left little opportunity for extra-group activities. However, the sacrifices were compensated for by the convert's sense of belonging and purpose. The group and the leader (at least initially) gave praise and acceptance.
Gradually, however, an iron fist was felt. Deviation from group dogma brought swift disapproval or outright rejection. The message to the convert became clear: what the group had given the group could take away In time, he or she submitted to ó and participated in ó cruel, dishonest, and contradictory practices out of fear of the leader and the group, who by then had become the convert's sole source of self-esteem, comfort, and even financial support. Actions that conflicted with the convert's conscience were rationalized by various formulas provided by the leader. (For example, in one group lying to potential converts was explained as "divine deception" for the good of those deceived.) Critical evaluation of the leader and the group became almost impossible, not only because it was punished severely, but also because the view of reality presented by the cult had no challengers. Discordant information was excluded from the group's world.
Exploitation intensified and the recruit regressed into a fearful submission. Couples might be separated; members would inform on each other. Morals were corrupted and critical thinking suppressed. Often the group's leader deteriorated as well, becoming increasingly grandiose, paranoid, or bizarre. In most cases, paranoid thinking tended to mark the entire cult and reinforced the group's isolation.
Our witnesses told of how, eventually, the demands became unbearable; a mother might be told to give up her child or her husband, or a spouse directed to take a different sexual partner. Although often the person would agree to the new requirement, sometimes he or she would not. In such cases, when the member finally refused to comply with the leader or the groupís demands, he or she left precipitously, often assisted by a person outside with whom some contact and trust had been maintained.
Leaving such a group was a flight because the groupís reaction was known to be severe and punitive. Apostates were excommunicated. It was not uncommon for ex-converts to fear that they had been damned or had lost their souls as a consequence of leaving the group. (In some cases, former members were convinced the group would hunt them down and kill them.) Many went through months of struggle to re-establish their lives, wrestling with the questions How could I have been involved in such a thing? How could I have done what I did to other members of the group? Were my spiritual longings all false? Who and what can I trust? At the same time, the closeness the group offered was often sorely missed, and until the ex-memberís life was reconstituted, he or she wondered at times if leaving the group had been a mistake. This turmoil gradually diminished, but for many a sense of shame for having participated in the cult and a frustrated rage at having been betrayed lingered for a long time. 8
When I was first invited to the Chapel, I was indeed at a time of transition, I was indeed dissatisfied with the churches I had known up to that time, and I was open to alternatives. I had moved to Seattle alone less than six weeks before and had not yet found friends with whom to fellowship regularly. I accepted the invitation to attend the Chapel from a co-worker who had impressed me with the certainty of his faith.
Although at first I was put off by the speaking in tongues in the Chapel services and the authoritarian structure centered around one man, at the same time I could not help but be impressed by the preaching, music, and zeal I heard and saw. Extensive discussions with members, who seemed to be basing their arguments on nothing but the Bible, convinced me my own beliefs about tongues, church structure, and other issues were wrong. I felt like my own church had not taught me well on these things. I soon began attending regularly, was rebaptized after about eight months, and eventually decided to drop out of the University of Washington (where I had enrolled in the meantime), and attend Bible College instead. I experienced some degree of alienation and isolation from my family and those with whom I had previously shared faith.
Then, sure enough, life at the Chapel gradually deteriorated into increasingly bizarre practices. Teaching about sexual behavior became ambiguous and confusing. Irregular sexual behavior occurred, and was then covered up by the leadership. Members were told not to open the letters of the increasing number of "dissidents." Confusion, uncertainty, and doubt reigned. Finally Don was exposed as being personally involved in the sexual irregularities, and the church collapsed.
In looking at what happened, it is difficult to know what I should have done differently. What could I have done to avoid being drawn into the Chapel, or what should I have known that would have warned me away from it? It seemed to be offering everything that I wantedparticularly a genuine way to live my faith in Jesus Christ. As I had encountered and then joined the Chapel, I had seemed to be following only a strong desire to believe and live Biblically.
In the same work that describes "the cult story" above, these observations follow:
After listening to many variants of this story, I began to see that cults form and thrive not because people are crazy, but because they have two kinds of wishes. They want a meaningful life, to serve God or humanity; and they want to be taken care of, to feel protected and secure, to find a home. The first motives may be laudable and constructive, but the latter exert a corrupting effect, enabling cult leaders to elicit behavior directly opposite to the idealistic vision with which members entered the group.I am not saying I buy into this "dependency dream" theory completely. I cannot think it was a very prominent factor in my own decision to join the Chapel. Taken too far, this kind of theory could be used to dismiss belief in God. But I do think there is a germ of truth in it. Instead of mature faith and fellowship in Christ, the Chapel offered its members dependence upon the ersatz security of Don's "anointing" to teach us and to make us into the kind of church that alone could become the kind of "bride" pictured in the Bible that God wanted in it.
Usually, in psychiatry and psychology, the wish to be taken care of (to find a home, a parent) is called dependency and this is a rather damning label when applied to adults. Adults are not supposed to be dependent in that way, relying on another as a child would rely on a mother or father. We are supposed to be autonomous, self-sustaining, with the capacity to go it alone. We do recognize that adults need each other for emotional support, for giving and receiving affection, for validation; that is acceptable and sanctioned. But underlying such mature interdependency is the longing of the child, a yearning that is never completely outgrown. This covert dependency ó the wish to have parents and the parallel wish to be loved, admired, and sheltered by oneís group ó continues throughout life in everyone. These wishes generate a hidden fantasy or dream that can transform a leader into a strong, wise, protective parent and a group into a close accepting family. Within that dream we feel secure.
...the dependency dream...has great strength and tenacity. It should be recognized as a permanent part of the human psyche even though in adults it ceases to be as visible as it is in childhood. This dream is dangerous because in its most extreme form it generates cults and makes people vulnerable to exploitation, regression, and even violence. Even in the less intense, less obvious manifestations which occur in everyday society, the dependency dream may impair our ability to think realistically. If we recognize our dependent wishes for what they are we can make appropriate corrections in thought and behavior, but usually we do not. 9
At the risk of sounding deluded or self-serving, I'll say that I think I was less affected by this than others I knew or observed while in the Chapel. I was never too impressed by Don. I thought he was a good administrator, but his and Barbara's visions and revelations never seemed to quite connect with anything in me, and I much preferred to get my teaching and fellowship in the setting of the Bible college under the other teachers there. Perhaps this is why I found it easier to leave the Chapel and Don's "anointing" behind when it became led by the experiences and "revelations" that resulted in connections, rather than by the New Testament doctrine by which I thought it was led when I joined it.
However, having left the Chapel, I was still acutely aware of an unfulfilled spiritual hunger. But now knowing that that hunger had led me into a group that was in fact counter-productive to my goal of becoming mature in Christ and a proper member of His body, the church, I began to see that there were both legitimate and illegitimate ways of satisfying that hunger. There is real food, and then there is a way that is more like a drug.
A legitimate church with a legitimate pastor does not exploit and damage its members but rather nourishes them. At the Chapel there was no nourishmentonly injections of stimulants. That's because we had a pastor who was narcissistic and who therefore used people to gratify his self-importance instead of helping them become mature in Christ by ministering to them the true Gospel. That perversion is what made it cult-like.
Don was not teaching us, but indoctrinating us with his own belief system in order to serve his own ends and perpetuate his own position. We were served up an intoxicating brew of experiences and emotionalism that seemed to be spiritual, but in reality we were in a carnal circus. Don was attempting, as ringmaster, to sustain a fantasy that had himself at the center; but it was damaging many people as the spectacle gained more speed and began to spin out of control. It wasn't healthy, it wasn't based on anything real, and it couldn't last. In my opinion, one needs to recognize those facts before one can be fully restored as a functioning member in a real church. Otherwise one will be continually longing for a faulty model of faith that will keep one from full acceptance of and participation in the genuine thing.
Don's current followers think his exhibitionism, his adulteries, and his other sexual sins should be simply "forgiven," and are irrelevant to his status as a leader or his office of pastor. They are wrong. We can forgive his sexual sins; the important thing, however, is not that he sinned sexually, but that his personality and ministry were and are severely disordered. The disorder leads him to continue to sinfully exploit his followers to their own hurt for his own desires. I am not saying this is conscious on Don's part. He is driven by something of which he is not aware and which he does not understand. One may say this is psychological, or one may say it is demonic, I don't care. What I am certain of is that Don's leadership, his ministry, is not Biblically legitimate. It doesn't minister the gospel of God's grace revealed in the New Testament in Jesus Christ. That's what made Community Chapel at least cult-like, if not fully a cult; and now that Don has survived the challenges to his leadership and authority that the collapse of the Chapel represented, that's what makes COA more fully cultic.
1 Wright, Chris, "Bob Pardon to the rescue", http://www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/news_features/
top/features/documents/02977841.htm (The Phoenix.com Web magazine, June 27 - July 3, 2003 issue.)
2 http://www.cultfaq.org/ ("Apologetics Index" site)
4 Deikman, Arthur J., M.D, The Wrong Way Home, excerpted at http://www.deikman.com/wrong.html.
5 Poulson, Erin at http://la.essortment.com/whatisdefiniti_rjli.htm. Copyright 2002 by PageWise, Inc.
6 Shaw, Daniel, C.S.W., "Traumatic Abuse in Cults: A Psychoanalytic Perspective," at http://hometown.aol.com/shawdan/essay.htm.
7 DSM 301.81 quoted at http://www.anandainfo.com/dsm.html.
8 Deikman, Ibid.