Dwell Community Church - formerly known as Xenos Christian Fellowship - is under fire once again, this time in a Daily Beast article propelling the widespread allegations of systemic abuse within the Ohio non-denominational megachurch onto the national stage. With a congregation represented to be in excess of 5,000 individuals, the church has been decried by critics in the area over its five decades of existence with the stories of traumatic, authoritarian overreach numbering well into the hundreds, to say nothing of those too damaged to step forward. Though the precise look and feel of each story differs between individuals, the destructive patterns of structural abuse weave even the most disparate stories into a frighteningly cohesive framework of spiritual abuse. Whereas the scope of abuse becomes ever more apparent and almost takes on a routine commonplaceness, the tone-deaf response of church leadership is ever increasing in its creativity of new forms of denial and defense.
Today we explore just one facet of the church defense against these allegations: the strategic attempt by church leadership to portray specific allegations of abuse as no more than a two-party conflict that may be adjudicated by the church itself to determine the precise level of fault by either party. Indeed it is hardly surprising that a church drunk on its own intellectual knowledge and superior commitment to religious practice should consider itself uniquely capable of discerning the difference between actual abuse and merely disgruntled individuals who are in rebellion against God. As with many questions of vast emotional and spiritual scope, Xenos-Dwell uniquely possesses the truth about what precisely constitutes abuse, what God demands of our lives, and who is capable of discerning the difference. Spoiler Alert! It's not the abused.
Senior church leadership has long repeated the party line that individuals who have criticized the church have either failed to properly understand the motivations and intentions of the church as biblical and loving or have left the group because they were spiritually mediocre, embittered, or rebellious against God. This underlying logic sets up a two-party system of plaintiff and defendant, under which Xenos-Dwell believes that it is best positioned to serve as judge, despite the obvious conflict of interest in also being the defendant. Far more problematic is that this litigious mindset misses the deeper structural and systemic issues within the organization of which individual incidences of abuse are merely a symptom. The hyper-focus of church leadership in adjudicating the finest level of detail in personal interactions in order to issue a verdict of righteousness or unrighteousness to each party is merely another outgrowth of an ideology of uncompromising absolutism which leaves no room for complexity, emotional experience, or nuance. Individuals within the church may be guilty here and there of overstepping this or that, but the church is above reproach as its authority comes from God himself.
For this reason, we should evaluate claims on a case by case basis. We would be remiss if we didn't hear both sides of the story before making a judgment.
- Pastor & Elder James Rochford
Consider the response by Xenos-Dwell Pastor Brian Adams - quoted in the Daily Beast article - in relation to accusations by former member Callie Nicholson. Nicholson was sexually assaulted at a party by a non-church member and struggled to find support in a Xenos-Dwell home church that pressured her to acknowledge at least partial responsibility for the rape. In response to her departure from Xenos-Dwell and subsequent allegations against the church, Pastor Adams says, "Nicholson felt like she was being confronted for being assaulted, but that wasn’t the case.” No doubt this line has been trotted out to the thousands of junior and mid-level members within the church who have expressed concern or uncertainty related to the countless number of stories beginning to rise to the surface after decades of systemic issues within the group.
A further inspection of Adams' verdict in Nicholson's case leaves those looking in from the outside even more befuddled about the church and its so-called Christian practices. Nicholson not only "felt" like she was being confronted, but gives concrete examples of that confrontation by her spiritual leaders and personal discipler. So then we may ask of the church verdict - but that wasn't the case - what wasn't the case? It was not the case that she felt like she had been confronted? Or it was not the case that she was confronted? No matter how we choose to answer this question, what was in fact the case is abundantly clear: a woman who was struggling to heal from an incredibly invasive personal trauma was subjugated to a whole new level of emotional and spiritual trauma as those she relied upon the most for support, her Xenos-Dwell family, failed to support her in any meaningful way. Indeed, the church not only failed to support her, but in a gesture at once typical for the group and deeply ironic, drove her away burdened by a sense of shame before God.
Nearly every story of deep trauma coming out of the church today bears this selfsame structural hallmark. And yet, it wasn't the case, according to church leadership. We may reasonably ask if this verdict was pronounced prior to the Xenos-Dwell court of law even being called to order, if it is not both premise and conclusion. And again - what wasn't the case exactly?
It wasn't the case that hundreds of individuals who desired to know the living God have struggled in silence for decades attempting to understand how and why they were violated at the most intimate level of soul and spirit?
It wasn't the case that spouses were counseled to either suffer like Christ in indissoluble marriages that are emotionally and/or physically abusive or face the deep shame of failure before God and losing the only community they have during the most difficult period of their life?
It wasn't the case that young women have believed themselves to be personally responsible for the invasive gaze of men because their bodies are sexual objects made for the singular pleasure of their future husband?
It wasn't the case that those suffering from depression, eating disorders, anxiety, or abuse are taught to believe that prayerful devotion may heal all wounds and a failure to be healed is evidence of a failure to truly desire and commit to God?