Minister's Teachings Wrack Church -- 'Move of God' Linked to Divorces, Suicides, Alleged Murder of Child

Seattle Times/April 11, 1986
By Carol M. Ostrom

To many members of Community Chapel and Bible Training Center, 37-year-old Janet Cole seemed to be the perfect Christian woman - sweet, graceful and cheery.

But after 18 years as a member of the large Pentecostal church, where members are encouraged to establish strong "spiritual connections'' with other people and demons are regularly blamed for emotional turmoil, Cole apparently became convinced that she and her daughter were possessed by unshakable demons.

On March 20, Cole drove to Portland and drowned 5-year-old Brittany in a motel bathtub, according to a prosecutor who has charged her with murder.

The tragedy of Janet and Brittany Cole is not the only trouble that has recently beset the 3,500-member church, a sprawling, $9 million complex south of Burien that began as a small, fundamentalist gathering in the late '60s.

Since mid-December, two chapel members have committed suicide, and a number of others, say former members, have come close.

Last month, police were called to the scene and a woman was dragged out of church in handcuffs after she refused to leave. She says she was thrown out of the church because of a problem with a church counselor. Church officials said she was dismissed, or disfellowshipped, for attacking recent church practices and for not following advice.

A number of church principals, including counselors, prominent elders and a couple who helped found Community Chapel, have left the church in the past few months over church practices prescribed by its pastor. Some former church members estimated 250 adults and children have left within the past several months.

The upheaval has wracked the church's family - and that of its powerful pastor, Donald Lee Barnett. His son and daughter-in-law have left the church; a brother in Idaho, also a pastor, now refuses to refer students to the Chapel's Bible College and says he's no longer in communication with his brother.

"I'm praying for that church and for my brother that God will open their eyes,'' said Idaho Pastor Bob Barnett.

In January, an Olympia satellite church severed relations, taking a new name.

At Community Chapel, some believe that God is testing the congregation, weeding out those with weak faith. But others, including disgruntled and former members, think recent events are the inevitable result of doctrine espoused by Barnett, an imposing, silver-haired 56-year-old former Assembly of God minister.

In the past year, Barnett has encouraged his followers to make spiritual connections with each other - through dancing, hugging and kissing. Such connections, Barnett has said, are necessary to open members of the congregation to pure, spiritual love and the possibility of complete unity with God.

Barnett's teaching, also referred to as "the move of God,'' began as simple joy-filled solo dancing in the church. Gradually, former church members say, the dancers became couples, married people often pairing with others' spouses.

Barnett, who said he had a revelation convincing him that this was God's will, encouraged church members to see the spirit of God's love in each other. But even his critics say he never condoned adultery. In fact, he has attempted to set guidelines for the connections several times.

Neither Barnett nor other church officials would be interviewed. But in a March 29 sermon tape-recorded by church members and given to The Times, Barnett told his congregation that if spiritual connections were carnal, he, too, would object to them. Barnett's sermons are routinely tape-recorded by the church.

"God has told us to love one another fervently. . . . That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to obey God's word,'' he told the congregation.

But others say that to expect such intense feelings to remain spiritual and not cause jealousy is simply unrealistic.

"It's not that he's preaching adultery. It's the very nature of the thing which can only lead to adultery,'' said Cheryl, who was disfellowshipped in March after she and her husband wrote Barnett a letter saying they disapproved of the doctrine. Like many others, Cheryl asked that her real name be withheld for fear of harassment and loss of contact with those still in the church.

In several private rooms in the church, ex-members said, those with intense connections, express their unconditional spiritual love, often staring into each others' eyes and saying sweet things to each other, and sometimes embracing warmly.

"There are a lot of people who are on the brink of insanity in there because the whole system is schizophrenic,'' Cheryl said. "People who really love the Bible can't really reconcile going off and dancing and hugging and kissing someone other than their mate. They have to go through real gymnastics to reconcile that.''

"We were told to release our mates to other people - their spirits didn't belong to us, and we had no right to deny them other relationships,'' said Rosemary Guthrie, a 14-year church member who was a church counselor for 10 years.

Guthrie said her troubles with the church began last year, when her husband began to have a spiritual relationship with one of Guthrie's friends. It all began with the friend praying for Guthrie's husband.

"I got counsel from the pastor's wife (Barbara Barnett). She encouraged me to let go, and it drove me to the point of insanity over the summer. I was screaming and crying for hours on end - totally out of control of my emotions,'' Guthrie said.

"Lynn,'' who asked that her real name not be used, recently left the church after 16 years.

"I really love my husband,'' she said. "All of a sudden I'm being told that sister so-and-so is going to minister to him because I'm not good enough. . . . I'm watching all my friends' marriages fall apart all around me. There have been numerous adultery cases, and they just blame it on the devil. But it's not just the devil, it's their teaching,'' she concluded.

Dozens of separations and divorces have occurred in the recent past within the church, former church members say. And while that may be the norm "in the world,'' Lynn said, "it's not in spirit-filled, born-again churches.''

Many said they were deeply afraid to leave the church at first. Typically, those coming into the church are "divorced from their former values and have their values replaced,'' said Harry Stegman, a former Chapel Bible College teacher who now helps counsel those coming out of the church. In addition, he said, Chapelites cut themselves off from former associations and become taken up in a desire to ready themselves to become ultimately connected to Jesus Christ. They also believe, Stegman said, that to differ with the pastor means cutting off their chances of going to heaven.

Like others, Guthrie said she believed if she left the church she would be spiritually lost. And she didn't want to divorce her husband, the father of her three children.

"I was going mad,'' Guthrie said. "All of my conflicts and emotions were attributed to demons.''

Kelly Scott had conflicts and emotional difficulties, too, and like Guthrie, she was told she needed to purge her demons. But on Dec. 14, Scott gave up, shooting herself in the head with one of her husband's weapons.

Kim Hamm, who left the church about six weeks ago, lived across the street from the Scotts. Scott and her children spent many evenings with Hamm, Hamm said, after Scott's husband established a spiritual connection and began spending more and more time at the church. Scott, a shy, insecure 25-year-old, became increasingly despondent, Hamm said.

"The pressure started adding. People began to tell her that she was being demonically inspired to keep her husband from getting what he needed,'' Hamm said. Then, Scott's husband got pneumonia, Hamm said, and his connection moved in to help tend him.

Scott asked for counseling at the church, and for a time, moved out to stay with friends, Hamm said.

The week before she committed suicide, Guthrie said, Kelly Scott asked two friends to pray with her all day about her "demonic problems'' such as her jealousy.

"Their philosophy is pray and believe God. Whatever is negative is a demon and if they don't leave, it's because you're unwilling or you have sin in your life and this is God's way of purging you,'' Hamm said.

After Scott killed herself, Barnett told the congregation that her death had nothing to do with the "move of God'' teachings. But many Chapel critics dispute that. "To have Pastor Barnett say that it had nothing to do with the move is asinine,'' Hamm said. "It had everything to do with the move. To have another woman come in and take over right under your nose!''

Problems in adjusting to the practice of spiritual connections also figured heavily in the suicide of church member Scott Linderson, 34, who shot himself in the head March 10, friends said.

But it was Janet Cole's actions that shocked many Chapelites the most.

"She was the epitome of Christian womanly grace, beauty, very sensible. She was teaching a Bible study for weeks on reverencing your husband that many women went to and got lots of help,'' said Guthrie.

But the "move of God'' simply went against her conscience, said another friend. "She was pushed against her conscience until her mind snapped,'' she said. "She was told her mind was riddled with demons.''

Cole is now under 24-hour psychiatric care at Oregon Health Sciences Center, said Bob Leineweber, Multnomah County deputy district attorney.

About two months ago, Cole contacted "Mark,'' a former counselor at Community Chapel who had known Cole since she first joined in the early '70s. She wanted to discuss medications and the possibility of seeing a psychiatrist, he said. Several people close to Cole said she was having difficulty with spiritual connections she and her husband established.

But her husband told Mark he was against outside help, Mark said. In a conversation with Mark one evening, Cole's husband told Mark that his wife's problems were caused by demons, Mark said.

And Janet Cole told Mark that those in the church who tried to help her simply tried to cast out her demons, but that the demons only seemed to get a better grip on her.

Mark said Janet Cole told him she was afraid Brittany had similar demons. Because of church teaching that a child who dies at a young age will automatically go to heaven, Cole felt she was saving her child from everlasting damnation by killing her, Mark said.

Soon after Brittany died, Cole's husband, Rick, said in a speech tape-recorded at the church that what happened with his wife didn't have anything to do with "what God has been doing in our body, knitting us together and unifying us.''

"I have been wrestling demons . . . in my wife for 7 months,'' he said in his speech.

About Brittany's death, he said, "I don't despair for my daughter. There is a deep agony inside that I know hasn't fully hit yet. . . . My daughter delighted in Jesus. . . . And all I can do is see her dancing before him here tonight. It brings such joy to my soul.

"I will never have to watch her be tempted with the world. I will never have to watch her backslide,'' he said.

The devil is at work whenever God begins to draw his people closer, Cole said. "We're in a war chariot. Life is real, life is dangerous, as our pastor has said. And we have a war to fight. Heaven is on the other side. Thank you Jesus that Brittany is on the other side.''

Cole refused to be interviewed about his wife or daughter, or to say whether he had seen her since she left for Portland.

And although Barnett, too, refused to speak to The Times, he has insisted in recent sermons that Brittany Cole's death and the suicides have had nothing to do with the "move of God'' emphasizing spiritual connections.

"This other kind of love is heavenly love, this other-world love, is love so great that the world will marvel and know that you are the sons of God the father,'' Barnett preached.

Answering critics who said the spiritual connections teaching was not scriptural, Barnett denounced their logic as "full of holes.''

"Where in the New Testament does it say that you should stand up and clap your hands? No place. Where does it say you can dance solo? No place. . . . There's a lot of things it doesn't say you can do,'' Barnett said.

And even now, in the midst of turmoil, many critics say they understand why the spiritual-connections practice has support.

In the connecting, says Mark, "people were beginning to experience and feel what we all want - love and acceptance. They were beginning to experience something that felt good, and they felt freer in it.''

Wives and husbands were encouraged to become close to their spouse's connection, and many apparently did, despite jealousy.

Guthrie said she became very close to her husband's connection - "I loved her desperately.'' Kelly Scott, friends said, was also close to her husband's connection.

Many members and former members say they're speaking out only because they're afraid something they deeply value is taking a dangerous twist.

"I actually, honestly did meet God at Community Chapel,'' says Guthrie. "God actually was there at that time. And I was willing to make any sacrifice in my personal life to have him.''

Jane, who left the church after seven years, says she still loves the church and the people there - even though most won't speak to her now that she's been disfellowshipped.

"The thing about the people of Community Chapel is they genuinely love God,'' she says. But now, she adds, "I'm kind of in the place where I'm wondering how many more people have to die before something happens.''

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