First of all, let me say that I have hesitated in writing my story on this blog because I spent the first half of my book, Religion’s Cell, expounding on the tactics used against me and my family as members of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Church. It just didn’t make sense to me, once I wrote my book, to tell my story ever again. Actually, there was no need to. I wrote it in my book out of a need to expel the hurt and anguish that I was dealing with. Once I wrote my book, I had no further need to “re-tell” my story.
Over the last year, however, I have had many of those that have read my book tell me that they wished I had told more of my story in my book. Other victims have asked me why I have not told my story here as well. In truth, I just didn’t feel the need to do it. My recovery from the spiritual and emotional abuse, to me, was complete and, I felt that God had prepared me for the tasks at hand. It is because of other victims, that I tell more of my story here. It is for them and those readers that have a desire to hear more, that I write it here today in hope that it will help them.
This said, I do not wish to just tell a story. As is my usual writing style, I want people that read what I write to learn something that will help them. This is why I have chosen to write this part of my story in the manner in which I have.
I will not recount the destruction and trauma that I have spoken about in my book. That part is available for the world to read if they so choose. What I want to talk about are the “red flags” that my husband and I ignored in the very FIRST fundamentalist church that we attended that set the foundation for the destruction our family. We attended two other IFB churches after this one that also watered the seeds of legalism and instilled attitudes and behaviors that led to abuses in the home. All three churches operated under the same system, rules and tactics. I speak about these other two in my book. For the sake of others experiencing these “red flags” and ignoring them, is why I am covering this topic. Hopefully, it will save others from suffering the heartache and destruction that our family experienced because we ignored the “red flags.” Our Christianity was built around a corrupted foundation of man-made doctrines, rules and dogmas. I want to save others from building their lives around such a foundation.
I sincerely hope that my story is a blessing and encouragement to those who find themselves in the same place of religious bondage that I found myself back in 1993 when my husband and I joined a fundamentalist “cult.” I also hope that those in an abusive church will recognize these “red flags” and FLEE the abusive system to find true freedom in Christ.
— Cynthia McClaskey, Author
My husband and I were invited to an Independent Fundamental Baptist Church in 1993, by our friend, N_____. At the time, we had been attending and Assemblies of God Church with our two children for the previous three years. (Before that, we went to a Catholic Church. I was raised Catholic.) Although we thoroughly enjoyed the people and the preaching there, there were things that we could not wrap our minds around as being “right.”
Our first service at TBC was an event that my husband and I will probably never forget. It was our introduction to expository preaching. What we felt at the time, was that the preaching was such that it was applicable for everyday living. The preaching was the first thing that drew us in. The second thing that drew us to this place, was the friendliness of the people. This is not to say that the people at AOG weren’t friendly; they were! There was just something “different” about the way that these people treated us. The inner circle of members (leadership and their families) acted like they genuinely cared about us and our family. For several months after, they showered us with attention and love. But, we soon learned that it was not what we thought it to be. The real friends soon stood out above those that wore the “facade” of love. This was a “red flag” we ignored.
After joining the church, we realized there was something different about the ladies at this church. It never really stood out beforehand. All the ladies wore dresses. No one wore pants! It wasn’t long before I was pressured into giving up my pants in exchange for “service” and “the will of God.” My husband did not agree with this rule but went along to keep peace in our relationship. After this, many more rules were expounded to us that we were required to adhere to in order to be in “God’s will” and to “serve” in the church in any capacity. There were so many spoken and unspoken rules of dress for the women, that the load was grievous to bare. This was a “red flag” we ignored.
Unfortunately, because I was an independent thinker, I soon experienced isolation. This wasn’t an obvious isolation to those around me because it was done in an unusual way. The clique, those in the inner circle in the church, started avoiding me. They would not shake my hand or talk to me. They would just smile and walk on by. If they saw me walking toward them, they would make sure to keep a distance from me. In the church and church gatherings, they kept their distance. There were countless services where I would sit in the pew and no one would talk to me except a few choice people. I felt like something was wrong with ME. I felt unloved. I felt that if they thought something was wrong with me then, God must feel the same way and, was angry with me. This attitude was further exacerbated by the financial stress in our lives. God must surely be punishing us, because of ME! At night, I would cry to my husband about how I felt. I cannot count the number of times I cried about this. This went on for three years! My husband would tell me that maybe they were intimidated by me or, that maybe they did not have people skills and did not know how to hold a conversation. He would tell me that there was nothing wrong with me; but I didn’t believe him. I tried to conform to everything I was told to conform to; to no avail. I just wasn’t good enough for them, or God. Today, I understand that shunning is a tactic used to get people to conform to the rules – and it works!! Despite this treatment from the “inner circle” however, we made some wonderful friendships that we thought would be for a lifetime. After exiting, we realized that we were wrong about that too. This shunning was a “red flag” that we ignored.
There were only two families in the church that really made the difference for us and, were the only reason that we stayed there in the early days of our membership. We developed a genuine friendship with them and their children and a genuine love for them. These two families were some of the most wonderful people we had ever met. Later, we developed friendships with a few other families and our whole time in this church revolved around just a handful of people.
These initial two families took us into their homes and genuinely loved us. They also influenced us toward “the rules” me and my husband and our children were taught to follow regarding women and men, dress standards, associations, etc. In the same vein, the preaching and teaching was key in reinforcing the legalistic mindset of our oldest son that fostered his contempt and rebellion toward me as a women later on. The teaching and preaching was also responsible for my indoctrination and my mindset that fostered abusive responses toward my husband and children later on. These indoctrinated responses toward conflict became knives that cut through the very fabric of the relationships in our home. Looking back, we realize that they did it unknowingly because it was all they had known and were taught as “truth” for many years before we ever came on the scene. They were conditioned to believe as they were “taught” and believed it was “TRUTH.” We did it because of the same reason. We thought we were being taught “truth” and that in order to please God, we must follow the rules the church taught. Nonetheless, these two families loved us and we loved them. There was no finer example of Christian love than these two families. What we have since realized is that many of the people within this sect exhibit “conditional” love toward others based on conformity; not an “unconditional” love that mirrors God. The fruit of this association with this church was the planting of the seeds of legalism in the minds of my husband, me, and my children; seeds that later sprouted and led to much abuse and strife in the home. All of this, hidden under a cloak of righteousness that no one could see.
T.B.C. was a small church in a small town. There were probably only about 50-60 families at the time we joined. At least, that’s all we ever counted in the services. This did not include the bus kids. They had a bus ministry, a choir and soul-winning and visitation. The next “red flag” occurred when I decided to join the ladies visitation with my new friend, A_____. Today, I wish I had not ignored this “red flag.” The pastor’s wife and, many of the ladies that were in the inner circle, were seated at a table in the kitchen area. I was the only woman not in, or associated with, “the inner circle.” In walked the Pastor and he began bad-mouthing a former staff member that had just left the church. He and his wife were two of the most precious people. I sat there in shock as I witnessed his comments regarding S_____. Did anyone else pick up on the slander? Did they see it for what it was? I didn’t know. I left to go on visitation with what happened imprinted on my mind and heart. I knew this family. How could he speak evil of them? I went home and told my husband about what the Pastor said and we both decided to keep this knowledge to ourselves. But, it helped us to put a question mark on everything the pastor did from that point on. I did not understand until after I exited the cult, this tactic. It is used on every person and family that leaves the cult in the “wrong” way.
The next “red flag” that we ignored was that everyone in the church seemed to hold the pastor on a pedestal as though he were God. The church members displayed an excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to the pastor. No one was allowed to question anything the pastor did. Anyone foolish enough to do so would be publicly humiliated from the pulpit or through gossip. We learned quickly that the pulpit was used as a whipping post to humiliate members into conformity to the leader’s standards and doctrinal beliefs! We also learned that gossip emanated from the top down and was used toward those who did not conform. Needless to say, I was “labeled” as bossy, loud, and rebellious through gossip because of my independent spirit. On a regular basis, women were ridiculed and mocked from the pulpit by the Pastor. The underlying messages in the sermons were such that it led to an attitude that women were second-class people and should not be in positions of leadership over men! It instilled a “women are door-mats” mentality and, they better take the abuse quietly and meekly. This battle with this mindset caused much emotional turmoil in me and led to a negative self worth and self-esteem. It instilled in my son, the attitude that he was not to submit to my authority because I was a women. This attitude was the cause of much conflict between us after leaving this church for the next fundamentalist church which hammered home this mindset to even a greater extent. (It was the second church that solidified this mindset in my son…and it was done by the teachings of people who were our closest friends. That is the saddest part of all and we could not see it until God showed it to me after we moved to our third church.)
The next “red flag” that we ignored was the fact that the church members seemed preoccupied with bringing in new members. The whole system of the church revolved around “numbers;” numbers of bus kids on the buses, numbers in attendance in church, numbers in attendance in Sunday School, keeping track of numbers in soul-winning and baptisms. Where was the true fellowship and unity of the members when they were so busy trying to get numbers? The whole work of the ministry was all about bringing in the numbers and growing the church as big as we could make it. Later, I realized that the bigger the church, the more money that comes in to support the leadership.
The church members were also preoccupied with money and status. This was another “red flag.” We began to notice that many members wore the nicest clothes and drove nice cars. The men and teenage boys always wore suits to church and the ladies and girls, the most beautiful dresses. The pastor’s children, especially the wives, wore very expensive clothes AND, wore a different outfit for each day of the week. They very rarely wore the same outfit twice in a year! The pastor and his sons had many suits. The special events for the Pastor involved the giving of much cash and expensive gifts to the pastor. The pastor and his family lived in a huge two story home provided by the church and exhibited “status” while some in the church were struggling simply to pay their utilities or to buy food! That’s where me and my family were – struggling. Yet, we were required to give 10% of our GROSS income to the church or, we were not “right with God.”
By the time we left this church, our family had expanded to four children and, we were six people living on less than 15,000 a year. I cannot tell you how often I went without food to give my children their two or three meals a day that usually consisted of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or, pasta, oatmeal or some other cheap food. We drank powdered milk, never bought name brand foods, clipped coupons and very rarely ate out if it wasn’t business related. It was so bad that the kids had developed the habit of hiding food for themselves, for later, from their siblings. We laugh about this now, but at the time, we didn’t. Having something to eat was everything to us and the kids. We shopped at Goodwill for clothes and, I fasted 2 – 3 times every week so that my children could have food because we could not afford enough groceries. At one point, we had no choice but to go to the pastor to ask for food and they bought us enough food to last a few months. THAT was a blessing; but bittersweet. I will never forget how much I cried as the pastor’s son and his wife brought in the groceries. I was ashamed and I was thankful all at the same time. As a result of poor income, and having to tithe 10% of our gross, as well as giving to missions, I dropped down to 94 pounds and silently suffered. In the evenings, if my mind wasn’t occupied with working, I would silently cry over our situation. I felt that I had no hope of my life ever getting better; that the hardships would never cease. My husband would tell me often, “Honey, this is only temporary. You have to tell your self that.” I tried to do that, but it didn’t help.
The “red flags” began to pop up at every turn and we found ourselves struggling emotionally and wanting more than anything to find another church that taught the truth. Sadly, because of indoctrination we genuinely believed that the Independent Fundamental Baptist Church was the only true church. Therefore, we felt we had no other options but to stay put until God moved us to another IFB church. All this time in this church laid the foundations in our family that reinforced the attitudes and behaviors and, fostered strife in the home. Here are more of the “red flags” that we ignored:
- Questioning of the doctrines, dogmas, teachings, rules or church policies was discouraged or even punished by the pastor and church members.
- The leadership dictated in great detail how the members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders told the women what types of clothes to wear, how to discipline children, and so forth). Because my husband and I never went to the pastor for “advice” in making personal decisions for us and our family, this led to some of the “shunning” I spoke of earlier that I could not understand.
- The church was elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members. They made us believe that we were the only church that preached the “truth;” that all other religions were going to hell; that we had a mission to save the world from “hell;” that if we left the church, God would curse us and hurt us.
- Because of the teaching and preaching, we, and many of the church members developed an “us vs. them” mentality which caused conflict with those outside the church who believed differently or lived differently. It instilled and “anti” mentality instead of fostering unconditional love toward others and accepting them as they were.
- The Pastor was not accountable to any authorities (as are, for example, military commanders). He was similar to a King over a kingdom and not only controlled his kingdom, but the personal lives of the members! There was no accountability for the pastor. He pretty much was able to do as he pleased regardless of what anyone else thought. Even if the pastor was wrong, the members would back him to the bitter end.
- The leadership induced guilt feelings in the members in order to control them. The preaching developed into congregant bashing on a regular basis. The pastor would consistently tell us from the pulpit how stupid we were; how sinful; how wicked. This led to the members believing that without the pastor they could not be what God wanted them to be; that they could not serve God; that they NEEDED the pastor’s guidance in order to please God and be right with God. This also instilled a mindset that God would punish anyone that left the church or believed differently than the pastor.
- Subservience to the church caused me to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals and activities that were of interest before joining the church. I had Catholic parents and 11 brothers and sisters that I had nothing to do with for 20 years. Because of this, I am still estranged from many of my brothers and sisters. I have managed to build the bridge with my parents and a couple of siblings, but that is it. This is the most hurtful part of all. The loss of family and friends that once were my world. To this day, though I have tried, they want nothing to do with me or my family.
- This loss of family and friends was replaced with expected devotion of huge amounts of time to serving the church in the ministry. Me and my children served 4 to 5 days a week for the churches we attended after this one. We were so busy serving that it prevented us from “thinking” and realizing that there were “red flags” that we should not be ignoring. This constraint on our time also kept us blind to calling the abuse exactly what it was – ABUSE!
- We were encouraged or required to socialize only with church members. Anyone outside of the church would be a bad influence on us and our children and cause us to fall away from God. This mindset was so strong that it helped to further our bondage to the church and the church family because, now, they were our only friends and family. The churches we attended made us sign a sheet of paper stating all these “rules” in order to serve in the ministry!
Ignoring all of these “red flags” led to a monstrous web of destruction over the coming years for my marriage and the relationships with our children. The aftermath of which, caused me to go to place of contemplating suicide once the extraction from the cult was made. Toward the end of our stay in this church, the Pastor hated me, his family hated me, others hated me. So much so that when I went with my friend to the hospital to help her take a gift to the pastor’s daughter-in-law, the Pastor became visibly angry that I was there with her. When I went to visit my friend in the hospital, all the ladies got up to leave when I entered the room and the pastor’s wife had to stop them from being so obvious. When we left the church, the pastor made my closest friends break any and all contact with our family and, made them return all my letters unopened. To this day, I can only surmise that my “non-conformity” to his “control” of our home, and my independent spirit, was the reason for this. How’s that for Christian love?
Extracting our family from the cult was traumatic for me. I speak of this as well in my book. I had a complete emotional breakdown and suffered for two years in the confines of my home. I lived in fear that God was going to hurt me or kill me. I was so depressed that I believed that suicide would be the only way to stop God’s hand of punishment on my family because, truly, I WAS THE PROBLEM. Because God had made me a FEMALE, everything bad that happened in our lives, was MY FAULT. If something bad happened in someone elses life, it was MY FAULT. Because I was so sinful, God hated me. I could never be good enough for God or, others. If you became my friend, you would be cursed because of me. That’s the way the IFB teachings made me think and feel. Therefore, if I took me out of the picture, God would bless my family.
We have since, by the grace and mercy of God, been freed from the cult mindset. Now, I realize that God allowed bad things to happen to me so that he could bring about His PURPOSES in my life and prepare me for the plan he has for me. The extraction was traumatic because of the way it all happened; BUT, it was the ONLY way God could get me out of the cult so that he could use me for his purposes in exposing the lies of the religious system and giving victims a voice regarding their abuses. God KNEW what I needed to go through in order to be awakened out of my religious slumber and mindset in order to realize “truth.”
After exiting the cult, my husband and I bought gifts for our children and sat them down and apologized to each of them for the way we raised them and asked for their forgiveness. With tears, we promised them that we would change. WE DID. We changed IMMEDIATELY in every way we possibly could and have never turned back. Humbling ourselves and making a complete turn-a-bout is what salvaged our children’s love. They had been harboring much anger, hurt and bitterness toward us because of the disciplinary tactics of the IFB. I talk about these in my book, Religion’s Cell. Thankfully, though, even though I have lost a relationship with many of my own siblings, I still have a relationship with my own children. I do not know if I could have survived losing them too.
What I have realized is that the teachings of the cult instilled “fear” in me that was unhealthy. It made me a serious person. It instilled a negative self-worth and self-esteem in me. Am I better today? Absolutely yes! No more BONDAGE to a religious institution and its leaders! No more emotional and spiritual abuse! No more TWISTED doctrines and theologies that degrade women! No more verbal beatings from the pulpit about how wicked I am! Everyday I am thankful to be free. Everyday I am thankful for my husband and children. Every day I am thankful to be alive. I am thankful to the many victims of religious bondage and abuse that have also come into my life. I have since learned to love people “unconditionally” without any strings attached. I have a personal walk with God that surpasses anything I ever could have imagined. I do not attend church and I do not give to a church. I give to others individually. I talk to God every day and know how much He loves me. He is pleased with me. He leads me along to do the tasks he has set before me. Yes, I am so thankful. If you or anyone you know experiences any of these “red flags,” I urge you to not ignore them. Many of these “red flags” are prevalent across all denominations where abusive churches are concerned. Do your best to extract yourself or, rescue your friends.