Abusing with a Bible. Brentwood reflections continued

Thinking about the Bible
The title of this blog post is deliberately provocative as it is quite clear that no book of itself can abuse. It is only when it is in the hands of actual human beings that it can sometimes become the tool of abuse. People who, in various situations, have the conscious or unconscious need to inflict harm on others, will seize any tool available. It may be a weapon, the written word, a spoken insult or sadly, in some situations, the Bible itself. Having said this it is also clear that the Bible in other hands can be a tool of healing, comfort, consolation and hope. The difference between these two, the Bible as an abuser or the Bible as a healer, will depend completely on who is holding it at a particular moment.

I am writing in this particular vein because over the past 48 hours I have become aware of the fact that a number of new readers have found their way to our blog. I thought it would be helpful for them to know what this blog is about. I have been writing blog posts for over a year and it does no harm to state again what the underlying principles of this blog are about. I am a retired priest and writer and I have for a number of years focused my reading and pastoral concern on individuals who have found in the church, not good news, but bad news. They have been battered in various ways, emotionally, psychologically and financially and in some extreme cases have been driven to suicide. Fourteen years I published a book on this theme, entitled Ungodly Fear. The correspondence that this book engendered, showed me that the topic of abuse within churches does not go away. In some ways, I seem to have been ahead of the game as the concept of ’emotional abuse’ seems to be coming under the purview of our law makers. The book was the retelling of the stories of a variety of people abused by the church. I tried to show, not only the individual suffering of each individual, but the context of the abuse, the theological ideas that helped to make it possible. Since that time I have garnered material from a variety of sources, psychoanalytical theory, social psychology as well as theology, to illuminate this whole issue and some of this material has appeared in this blog.

In recent weeks I have been an active participant in the blog entitled victimsofmichaelreid.blogspot. This blog is of great value to my studies because it gives a vivid glimpse into the workings of a cult-like church both in the present and the past. I have said enough about the church in the previous post not to need to repeat my comments I made then. But as I know that some readers of that blog have found their way here, I need to make one or two comments directly to them. As past or present members of that church, you are direct participants of an abusive system. This blog cannot, of course, sort out all the emotional and psychological damage of that church, but it can do one thing. It can encourage you to think with greater clarity about what was actually happening at Peniel over the long passage of time.

Before I make further comments about Bishop Reid and his manipulative ways, I want to focus on a key word that is utilised by Bible preachers in many places. It is a word that is ‘biblical’ but is also sometimes a tool of abuse. The word is ‘obedience’. Of course the Bible speaks about obeying the Lord your God but, along the way, obedience towards God is swung to unquestioning obedience of the church leader. In the minds of the congregation to obey God is the same as obeying the leader. That simple confusion leads to in many situations to outright exploitation of individual members of the congregation. That exploitation can be financial, sexual and at the very least emotional. Michael Reid seems to have squeezed the word ‘obedience’ for all he was worth and those who have followed him as leaders at Trinity are not much better. The way they have done it is also to extract favourable quotes from Scripture about leaders, which appear to demand absolute obedience. ‘Touch not the Lord’s anointed’ is one favourite and another is ‘submit to those set over you’ .

My blog posts do not last more than a thousand words, so I must come to a final point. Looking at Trinity from the outside I see a pattern there which is repeated all over the world in strongly authoritarian churches which practise charismatic type worship. I see a gifted individual (here Michael Reid) who has stumbled on the secrets of crowd manipulation. Whether he is sincere in his beliefs I am unable to judge, but what he was able to do is create for himself a large crowd of adoring followers who used to hang on his every word. This is intoxicating and even addictive for him. The bonus was that he became powerful both socially and financially as well. It was probably inevitable that this power expressed itself in taking advantage of the females of the congregation (as one of the perks of power) but everything ultimately became all about the leader and the few others chosen to share in the perks. What did the congregation get out of this? At its simplest level, the congregation picked up some of the reflected glamour of the gifted man of power. He had a certain amount of star-dust to spread around and people felt honoured when he gave them even a small amount of attention. All through the process of Peniel, (I did visit as part of my research for my book in 1998) there was a gradual strengthening of the ties between leader and led which in fact gave very little to the led. The leader ‘takes all’.

I hope the new readers will feel able to stay with us as we continue to uncover the dynamics of abusive churches. I shall be freely commenting here on the continuing developments at Brentwood, particularly as ‘Gail’, the American Bible school student has helped this blog think about the particular issues of that church. From the tone of this blog post, you will be aware that the Bible is not read uncritically, but is allowed to criticise the claims of those who take abusive power over vulnerable people in the name of God.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

7 thoughts on “Abusing with a Bible. Brentwood reflections continued

  1. For those new to this blog my story is available in a booklet on request.

    For me it was the cruellest trick imaginable to be tyrannized by, “The Word Of God” through an infallible pastor with complete power and control.
    It has left me in a constant fear situation with a ghosting overshadowing of guilt.

    Stephen has been able to unpack the mechanics of this in a very helpful way.
    The destruction of a life, (In my experience lives) by an enforced allegiance to an absolute unquestioned hierarchy, is something that words fail me to describe.
    To some this may seem an extreme wording however, I make no apology, and you can be forgiven if you have never heard of the suicides, depression, illnesses that have been brought about by this abuse of power. For some reason it is not something that hits the headlines in newspapers, let alone church publications.

    I wanted to come in immediately after Stephen’s new blog to emphasise the horror and the sting in the tale of realities grip concerning this. We must keep this in the arena of popular debate. I hope and pray for movement on this in the coming year.

  2. And it’s hello from me! I’m another regular reader. I think what Stephen is doing is incredibly valuable. I went to a talk he gave and found he was talking the same language as me. Churches which are run on abusive principles are a particular evil. I have found the language of abuse helpful in my own case, too, which is less, much less, than others have had to endure. My preoccupation is with bullying, often in mainstream churches, which are not actually set up with abusive systems. I have found bullying to be common everywhere. And just as in schools and work places, if there is no system set up to deal with it, it flourishes. And of course, by no means incidentally, that means there are no systems set up to deal with more serious abuses either. I hope people who have been harmed find the dialogue here helpful and healing. We don’t always agree with each other! But we are still together!

  3. Hello, I have read this blog with interest. It echoes the culture at the church I left, The Community of Jesus, Orleans, MA, USA. Although professionals in the psychological and cultic fields all recognize the great harm done by emotional and mental abuse, the law over here still only looks into cases that involve physical or sexual abuse. I hope that one day that will change, as it is frustrating to not be able to expose the harm that was done. I do speak out in my blog, (which I have not written in for a while, but will soon pick up again) and to anyone who asks. Thank you for this blog, it is very helpful

  4. Welcome Carrie. This blog tries to do two things as you will have gathered. First of all it tries to offer an informed comment on the issues around cultic churches, to help people understand a little of what goes on. Second it provides a commentary on issues that take place in the present. It will obviously be UK biased but that is where I am. Also we have little in the way of structures or expertise to help people in these areas, as you do in the States. I am a member of the ICSA and so I know some of the people involved in this world on your side of the Atlantic. We are pleased to have you on board.

  5. It is fascinating reading this. I have only just gotten myself reaquainted with the Peniel situation after 22 years away from it.

    What fascinates me is that 22 years ago the church I was with began closer ties with Peniel, but I felt uneasy – not only with Reid’s preaching but the church itself. I only went once and as a result I left my own church before it got incorporated into Peniel.

    I had discernment and while I would have liked everyone else I was friends with to have had the same discernment, it didn’t happen leading to broken relationships (the mark of a cult if ever there was one).

    At the time I would have been hard pressed to put my finger on exactly what I felt wrong with Peniel – I had only been a Christian for less than 4 years then, but nowadays I am grateful for that brush with Peniel because it is something of a yardstick for measuring the health of other churches I come across. I am certainly much more mature in my faith and theology now and would probably be more outspoken about what I felt was wrong.

    1. Thanks Wayne for your comment. You will find four articles on Peniel/Trinity which combine reporting from the other blog and analysis based on my own reading and study. It will keep coming up as it is such a good source of material and detail about a cultic church. My posts in general focus on trying to help people make sense and ‘put their finger on’ what is wrong in places like Peniel. There is plenty of material for to read,if you have time. Welcome.

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