Reply to Cornerstone Magazine

The Wellspring Messanger/Winter 1996
By Ronald Enroth

A word of explanation:

1992 saw the publication of Christian sociologist Ronal Enroth's book Churches that Abuse in which he took a hard look at several churches and Christian movements that, according to the testimonies of many former members, hurt people by legalism, authoritarian leadership, manipulation, excessive discipline, and spiritual intimidation. Most of these were not what many would consider "fringe churches" - they were churches others would recognize as "orthodox" as the their statements of faith. And yet they were creating spiritual and emotional casualties.

Enroth followed up this book in 1994 with his Recovering for Churches that Abuse. In this book many other similar casualties tell their stories of the hurt they experienced in yet other doctrinally "orthodox" churches and fellowships. Enroth does more than describe the abuse related by these individuals. He also relates, as the title indicates, how most of them have recovered or are recovering from the abuse they suffered.

As may be imagined, the churches described in these two books felt their toes stepped on, with a few actually threatening legal action against Enroth and his publisher, Zondervan Publishing House. In addition, several prominent Evangelical scholars and church leaders, coming to the aid of their friends, objected to Enroth's portrayal of certain of the churches as "abusive."

Several of the groups which found themselves uncomfortably under the microscope initiated campaigns of damage control, perhaps none more vigorously than Jesus People USA (JPUSA, or JP) of Chicago.

Over the years we at Wellspring have received a number of inquiries about JPUSA from parents whose sons or daughters had joined the organization. Along with those inquiries we heard stories of abuse similar to those related by Enroth. At first, we tended to discount the stories as being, exaggerations of what we assumed to be JPUSA's legitimate exercise of biblical discipleship and discipline, or as the accounts of real abuse that had happened in the past (and which JPUSA has acknowledged) but no longer occurred. We were also reluctant to believe such things of men and women we regarded (and still regard) as friends and colleagues. For many years JPUSA, through the investigative journalism of its magazine Cornerstone, has provided the counter-cult community with some of the best and most well-researched material about cults, as well as exposes of fraudulent Christian writers such as "former Satanists" Mike Warnke and Lauren Stratford. However, as the accounts of alleged abuse multiplied we were no longer able to ignore them or discount them, especially after on former member sought counseling at Wellspring.

As you will read in Dr. Enroth's "Reply to Cornerstone Magazine" the JPUSA magazine devoted 15 ½ pages to Volume 22 Issue 103 to critical responses to Dr. Enroth's book, even though they had not yet read it. The various writers didn't just seek to deny or refute the testimonies of the ex-members, but also attacked Enroth's research methods and even his integrity and motives. Dr. Enroth sent a reply of his own to Cornerstone requesting that they publish it in full in light of the number of pages of criticism of him. The Cornerstone declined to do. So, in the interest of fairness, we offered to publish Dr. Enroth's reply in the Wellspring Messenger. Readers interested in reading the Cornerstone articles may write the magazine at the address indicated.

A 2001 Update from the Wellspring Staff: "In recent years, however, we have been in contact with several people who have left the group recently. These were long-time members of JPUSA, some as long as 20 years, who gave us credible reports of spiritual abuse they suffered from the leadership while in JPUSA. These alleged incidents were not just in the distant past, but right up to the present. These reports greatly disturb us, and we stand ready to assist these and other former members in any way we can."

Editor, Cornerstone
939 Wilson Avenue
Chicago, IL 60640

Ronald Enroth--Reply to Cornerstone Magazine.

Dear editor:

Never before has one of my books received such advance publicity - especially by people who had not yet read the manuscript. I want to comment on some of the articles you printed concerning my work and particularly my book, Recovering from Churches that Abuse. Since you devoted more than two dozen pages to my work in your recent issue, I hope that you will print this response in its entirety.

In the first paragraph of the lead article, "AN Acid Test for Christian Accountability," you make a statement which sets the tone for the subsequent essays. You refer to "charges made against us by Dr. Enroth." I know that you will disagree with me, but it is my conviction that it is both inaccurate and misleading to use words like "charges" and "accusations" and "attacks" to describe the concerns I spell out in the book. Why? Let me quote from page 151 of the book:

JPUSA pastors and Covenant administrators have received my research findings as "accusations," "charges," and "allegations." Unfortunately, this inaccurate redefinition of scholarly research may give some the impression that I am personally bringing complaints against a Covenant congregation. It unfairly casts me in an adversarial role, something I reject.

Your editorial staff approaches the content of my book (even though they had not seen the content at the time of their writings) from the perspective of investigative journalism. I am not an investigative reporter; I am an academic person, a sociologist of religion, a scholar and researcher who is sharing findings and conclusions with a largely non-academic audience. As a Christian sociologist, I am attempting to help victims (I know you don't like that word) of emotional and spiritual abuse find healing and wholeness through God's grace and his loving concern. I am not interested in bringing "charges" and "accusations" against anyone.

Your readers need to know my perspective on your invitation for me to visit JPUSA facilities, which you state is "a repeated offer which to date has not been accepted." That is an incomplete and misleading statement. On January 5, 1994 while in Chicago meeting with JPUSA representatives and administrators from your parent denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, I accepted your offer to visit JPUSA. Dr. Stan Gundry of Zondervan Publishing house was there and will verify this. Upon returning to my office, I checked my schedule and contacted one of your pastors regarding possible dates.

Zondervan graciously offered to pay my airfare. I then learned about several false statements that had been circulated about me by Jon Trott as well as breaches of what I considered to be confidential information regarding some of my respondents, ex-members. I asked for apologies from Jon Trott and placed my trip to JPUSA on hold until these serious problems could be resolved. No apology was ever received and I did not visit JPUSA. I'm certain that you have a different spin on all this, but my acceptance was not acknowledged in Cornerstone.

On a related theme, you write "Throughout this painful process, we have tried to maintain a loving and respectful attitude toward those who once lived with us." I view this as official rhetoric, just as I see much of the content of your lengthy "Open Letter to Dr. Ronald Enroth" as expected, appropriate, official rhetoric, sometimes not matched by practice. The ex-members whom you claim to love and respect view this kind of statement with cynical skepticism. However, it sounds impressive to the uninformed and sympathetic Cornerstone readership.

Uninformed because you do not mention that at our January 5, 1994 meeting, leaders of JPUSA named several ex-members who had talked with me and then proceeded to repeatedly discredit them, attacking their integrity. I felt that these former members were subjected to insult and that their feelings of pain were not recognized, even though you may not acknowledge the reasons for that pain. I also received a lengthy letter from one of your editors, Mike Hertenstein, about one of these ex-members. It was very long on condemnation and very short on Christian compassion. So your claim of respect and love for all ex-members strikes me as rather hollow.

On another matter of importance, you claim that I accuse JPUSA of "purposely and/or continuously doing damage to those within our fellowship." Such a statement grossly misrepresents what I said in my book. But then again, the Cornerstone staff did not READ my book before they came to such unwarranted conclusions. On page 17 of Recovering from Churches that Abuse, I raise the general question, "Do the abusers intend to inflict hurt? In most cases, probably not. They usually are unaware of what they are doing to people in the name of God." I quote pastor and author Ken Blue who notes that "Spiritual abusers are curiously naïve about the effects of their exploitation. They rarely intend to hurt their victims. They are usually so narcissistic or so focused on some great thing they are doing for God that they don't notice the wounds they are inflicting on their followers."

This observation is echoed much later in the book (p. 153) when I am specifically talking about JPUSA. "Leaders may sincerely not recognize that their leadership style and policies are experienced by many members as a spiritual elitism and an authoritarianism that borders on 'speaking for God.'" I then quote a former JPUSA member who illustrates my point. "I believe that the leaders themselves have become victims…They have no idea how much pain they have caused in hundreds of people's lives."

I agree, and the highly defensive tone of the many pages of Cornerstone's current issue devoted to the "controversy" gives credence to the sad fact that JPUSA's leadership (and that of the Evangelical Covenant Church) may be totally unaware of the damage they have inflicted on some (note that I say "some", not "all") members.

You state: "Many of the accusations Dr. Enroth raised…are flatly contrary to our written policies and community teachings…" Again, I make no accusations of any kind. That is JPUSA's reconfiguration of my work, not my intent or practice. If I were to tell you that most of my respondents also reported that they had some very beneficial impacts while at JPUSA, would you also term that finding an "accusation"? Or are only the findings you dislike called that? I try in the book to convey what ex-members feel about the disjuncture between official community policies and teachings occurred in real life situations. Note my comment on page 153: "JPUSA may well be an instance in which a significant distance has developed between the official teaching of the organization and the reality experienced by many rank-and-file members. This is what sociologists describe as the differences between 'ideal culture' and 'real culture'" In other words, ex-members claim that JPUSA leaders do not always practice what they preach or what is proclaimed in their published statements.

This important dimension of daily life at JPUSA must be kept in mind when reading the lengthy "Open Letter" to me published in Cornerstone. That letter indicates that I will have to "produce verifiable statements from our leadership or publication endorsing such things as public humiliation, spiritual elitism, double standards, etc… You must prove your allegations with valid evidence or documentation which shows that our leadership supports, endorses, or willfully ignores abusive behavior."

I think that most reasonable people would understand that I don't know of a single church anywhere that officially endorses or openly promotes public humiliation; I know of no church whose publications proclaim "yes, we are indeed spiritually elite and proud of it!" Likewise, I know of no church whose formal, written ministry policies advocate "insensitivity re pastoral care" or whose bulletin says "Welcome to our abusive church." But do such behaviors occur at some churches despite their public pronouncements to the contrary? My research indicates that they do. I'll let my readers decide whether the consistent, convincing evidence presented by a multitude of independent witnesses is worth taking seriously.

In the lead essay, the Cornerstone staff identifies one of the key misunderstandings in the controversy surrounding my book - the matter of my research methodology. Let me quote:

It must be noted that when we repeatedly asked Dr. Enroth for details of specifics about these charges, he told us that most of the allegations of wrongdoing he heard were conveyed to him in confidence and that it would be a violation of his "professional ethics" for him to share details of these cases…

Then, "We find this to be a very strange and backwards kind of Christian confrontation…"

First, as previously noted, Cornerstone's use of words like "charges" and "allegations of wrongdoing" are your dramatic terms for my legitimate social science research findings. I have followed standard research procedures in the social and behavioral sciences in that I promised anonymity and confidentiality to my respondents, something I have routinely done in over twenty years of research into cults and new religious movements. Whether I am studying cults or Christian churches, the commonly accepted professional ethics of my discipline apply equally. I have always promised former cultists that they would remain anonymous and that I would not reveal the specifics of my interview of them without their permission. I do the same with former members of Christian churches/organizations, employing a legal form that I have used for two decades. For me to violate that promise of confidentiality would mean that I would violate not only my professional ethics, but Christian ethics as well.

The people at JPUSA and the Covenant headquarters are not behavioral scientists and apparently do not comprehend that promises of research confidentiality are standard practice in psychology, sociology and anthropology. Cornerstone's in-house psychologist, Dr. William Backus (listed as a "contributing writer") says that he is puzzled by my methodology. He seems unaware that his own professional accountability organization, the American Psychological Association, has published ethical guidelines which clearly and unmistakably state that information obtained about a research participant during the course of a research project is confidential unless otherwise agreed upon in advance.

Dr. Backus states that my methodology "sounds like something peculiar to sociologists." No, Dr. Backus, you are quite wrong. If you will consult a standard text in research methods in your own field (like Research Methods in Psychology, 4th edition, Elmes, Kantowitz & Reodiger) you will discover the following statement regarding confidentiality on page 265: "An ethical investigator protects the welfare of research participants by following the ethical standards of the American Psychological Association…Unless the participant otherwise agrees, information relating to his or her participation is confidential."

The same kind of statement can be found in standard textbooks in sociology and anthropology. As a sociologist, I have used these same principles of research for two decades and no one in the Christian countercult camp (including Dr. Ruth Tucker) has ever questioned my methods. Why now? Why does Cornerstone seek to deflect attention from my ethical obligations as a sociologist by suggesting that I am not following "scriptural methodology"? It seems to me that it would be quite unscriptural for me to trivialize a commitment on my part to promised confidentiality. That, in large part, is why I would not agree to be "put on trial" by JPUSA (p. 8, Cornerstone) and reveal all the details of people's experiences that was demanded of me.

As a result, JPUSA leaves your readers with the impression that they are the "good guys," the people who hold to "biblical standards of evidence, sound logic and reason," while I'm the "bad guy" who refuses to be held accountable for his "very strange and backwards" research methods. Whether it is an indicator of your unfamiliarity with the world of academic scholarship or a deliberate attempt at damage control, the staff of Cornerstone has done a disservice to truth and accuracy by attempting to distort and discredit my credentials as a Christian sociologist and author.

An inaccurate and uninformed understanding of my very conventional interview methodology has led to both JPUSA leaders and Covenant administrators making reference to my use of "nameless people" "unsubstantiated, anonymous quotations," and "anonymous characterizations." The president of your denomination, Dr. Paul Larsen, in a letter to me speaks of my use of "secret informants." He makes it sound like I've been conducting some kind of furtive investigation, lurking around in dark shadows, talking with "secret informers" and plotting the downfall of a Christian organization. Not true! Instead, I see administrators who are more concerned about image than about the possibility that real people have really been hurt. To quote a letter to the editor which you received (and I was sent a copy), one observer noted, "I don't believe that orthodoxy gives one the license to hurt others or, if the wounds are unintentional, to dismiss the hurting ones of your community because their pain is inconvenient to your public image."

That hits the nail on the head. The lack of sincere compassion for those ex-members of JPUSA who just might be telling the truth about their hurt is demonstrated over and over in the words and attitudes of the denominational leaders at ECC with whom I've interacted and corresponded. If one is in total denial about a problem situation, how can there be compassion for those who have been hurt?

A case in point concerns Rev. Herbert Freedholm who is named in your piece, "Kaiz Replies." Regarding the role of the Evangelical Covenant Church and their investigation of the alleged "charges" being made against JPUSA, "Kaiz" states: "Several denominational leaders have made respectful but quite detailed inquiries over every charge…I would say that they have been very thorough." Mention is made of Rev. Freedholm, Central Conference superintendent of the Covenant Church. Because Rev. Freedholm and others had made much of my refusal to provide names, etc. of my respondents, I decide to ask a number of those respondents for permission to release their names and phone numbers so that I could share them with Rev. Freedholm. I wanted him to hear their concerns first-hand, as I had. Seven months later I contacted each person who had willingly agreed to speak with this Covenant Church administrator. Not one of them had been contacted by him! Freedholm was willing to fly to Los Angeles airport with a colleague for an urgent discussion with me about the "charges," but when I gave him the opportunity to follow up and check out my information, he did nothing for more than seven months. The "Kaiz" comments about respect and thoroughness should be evaluated in this context as well.

Speaking of "Kaiz" he claims that "JPUSA is about as closed as a Denny's Restaurant!" I recently received a letter from a former member who was sent a copy of the current Cornerstone by a current member with the admonition that the ex-member learn about the "real Ron Enroth." When the ex-member suggested to the current member that she telephone me to talk with me directly, she refused. "It's against the rules," she said. No, not quite like Denny's, Kaiz.

Several of your contributors argue that evangelicals have become preoccupied with "victimization." Dr. Backus, in fact, trivializes the idea of being a victim, a recipient of abusive behavior. He claims that it is "politically correct" for Christians to want to use the term "Spiritual abuse." There is no hint of Christian compassion for the victim in his remarks and certainly no suggestion that compassion is in order for any of the former members of JP.

Dr. Backus had admitted at least two things which are true: (1) that he doesn't know me, and (2) that he has jumped to certain conclusions. It is on that uncertain ground that he lays the foundation for his revealing commentary. His discussion of the role of perpetrators and victims is a complete distortion of my views. But then, of course, he admits that he doesn't know me nor has he read the book. He argues that I feel no need to talk with the perpetrators since authentic victimhood has already been established by those who subjectively feel they have been abused. As he states, "There is no defense against the charge, 'What you said made me feel terrible.'"

I wonder how psychologist Backus would handle a research study of, say, 50 or 60 women who claim to have been physically and verbally abused by their husbands and boyfriends. He would probably grant that they had been physically abused if there were "objective" evidence in the form of bruises, blackened eyes, broken bones, etc. But following the logic of his Cornerstone discussion, he would have great difficulty with their reports of emotional and verbal abuse. We all know, according to Dr. Backus, how "subjective" those unsubstantiated reports can be! And as Dr. Ruth Tucker points out in a letter to me, "I know how easy it is for people to exaggerate when they think they've been wronged." To repeat Dr. Backus' point, there is no defense if the women were to say, "What he said to me made me feel terrible."

Following his own logic, Dr. Backus would have to either dismiss all of the women's subjective evaluations of the impact of verbal abuse, or he would have to spend equal time talking to "the other side," checking out the victims' claims with the perpetrators, the men who did the alleged abusing. In his view, in order to have a balanced, scientific study of spousal abuse, one must always give equal time to the abusers and have a healthy skepticism regarding the subjective statements of the women under study.

I disagree. It is my opinion that much can be learned about spousal abuse by interviewing in-depth 50 or 60 women who have been abused - physically or otherwise. My guess is that Dr. Tucker and I also have an honest difference of opinion here. She writes in a letter to me, "I simply do not make a career of interviewing people privately and quoting them without disclosing who they are…" There are many behavioral scientists who have established a reputation and made a distinguished career based on interviewing large numbers of people without disclosing their names. One example that comes immediately to mind is the prolific, award-winning Harvard child psychologist and champion of social justice, Robert Coles. Speaking of the men, women and children that form the basis for his many books, Dr. Cole writes: "I have not used the real names of the people I have interviewed, and I have done as much as possible to conceal their real names and identities."

I have no qualms whatsoever about publishing my findings about cults, authoritarian churches, or abused women based on carefully conducted interviews and consistent data drawn from those interviews. I'll let the reader decide whether my comments and concerns about abuse are valid. And I'll let Dr. Backus and his colleagues decide otherwise, as they already have.

In her essay, Dr. Tucker claims that my research gives the impression that there is only one model for the Church - the affluent, suburban, middle-class church. I presume she comes to this conclusion based on Churches That Abuse. It is not the impression of authoritarian Christian groups ranging from upper middle class to working class. In the new book (which she has not read) I mention a very upper-middle class church in affluent Marin County, just north of San Francisco. So allow me to set the record straight: abusive behavior, whether spiritual, spousal, verbal, or otherwise, crosses all social class lines. People should not conclude that they are more "spiritually secure" (Prof. Tucker's term) in the materialistic comforts of a suburban Presbyterian or Covenant church than they are in an urban, inner city congregation. The same is true in reverse, of course.

One final important omission in your discussion of me in the various Cornerstone articles. You failed to mention that I asked one of your senior editors, Eric Pement, to provide me with a list of names and phone numbers of former JPUSA members who had left your community with positive feelings about their time there. I told him that since I was focusing my research on those who had left the organization, that I would be willing to interview the "satisfied customers" as well as those who were dissatisfied. I told him that I would be willing to devote space in the book to their reports. Zondervan Publishing House extended my manuscript due date so that I could obtain that and other pertinent data. I repeated my offer to you at least once. I never received the name of a single individual from Eric. Your readers need to know that too.

In conclusion, I have only one request to make of Cornerstone readers: Before you cast stones in my direction, have the courage to read my book first - with an open mind - and then compare the overall tone of my message in that book with the tone of the Cornerstone articles.

I regret that you feel the need to refer to me as "former (italics mine) colleague in cult watching." Just two years ago in Cornerstone (vol. 21, issue 98), you refer to me as a "Christian leader." It's sad that you now consider me to be a hostile adversary. I bear no ill will toward any of you and I reaffirm what I say in the book: "But JPUSA has also had a wonderful ministry to the margins of society in the inner city of Chicago. The organization has had a positive impact on the Christian world through Cornerstone magazine and REZ band…I pray that through the good services of the Evangelical Covenant Church and the Alban Institute, JPUSA will become a shining example that reconciliation with former members and genuine change are possible." Maybe I should insert a footnote about Christian authors in that part about hoped-for reconciliation.

"Praise God for the privilege of being in Christ's family and being called by His Wonderful Name. God has given each of you special abilities; be sure to use them to help each other, passing on to others God's many kinds of blessings." I Peter 4:16 and 4:10.


Ronald Enroth, Ph.D.

Professor of Sociology

Westmont College

June 1994

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