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Discipline or Abuse?

I have been reflecting on my experiences within Xenos Christian Fellowship - now Dwell Community Church - quite a lot lately. Given the dogmatic beliefs and practices within the church, victims of religious abuse are often left feeling confused and guilty about what they have experienced. Over sixteen years after leaving Xenos-Dwell, I often find myself thinking: I voluntarily joined the church, and I voluntarily left the church; any pain I have suffered is exclusively the result of my decisions to join, stay, and leave. It wasn't until a close friend of mine pointed out that this pattern of thinking is precisely that of victims of physical abuse that I began considering with greater nuance what is so problematic about Xenos-Dwell. I am a strong, intelligent woman with a robust support network, a therapist of many years, and hundreds of books on philosophy, and I still cannot recognize the obvious patterns of abuse in my own life?

What is the difference between discipline and abuse?

I left Xenos-Dwell as a freshmen in college after years in the church, largely due to exhaustion from the pressures and expectations of my leaders that I physically could not meet. At the time I was being groomed for leadership and my future potential was well recognized within the church. Moving out of my ministry house was in itself a traumatic life experience, as I understood that it represented de facto excommunication and that I would lose all of my friends since childhood, but I felt like I had no choice - I barely had time to sleep anymore. Only months later, I was in a tragic car accident caused by a drunk driver in which my friend was killed and I was badly injured. At the time, the leaders of my home church instructed members of the group and many of my closest friends not to reach out to me or to provide any support to me or my family. Indeed, this is a well codified bit of church practice and even if I wasn't surprised - well I have no words for what I felt. The sense of abandonment or betrayal or sheer fucked up irony of it all has haunted me for years.

Also explain to your members how they should handle chance meetings with one under discipline, and that they should not seek out meetings with the person (1 Corinthians 5:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15). Point out that the person has chosen to live apart from God's will, and therefore should not be supported in that decision by Christians extending the benefit of Christian love and fellowship.
Dennis McCallum, Leading Church Discipline

Check out this essay on the Dwell Community Church website for a great example of authoritarianism in action

Nonetheless, I forgave those leaders who wounded me many years ago, because I understood that they acted in a manner internally consistent with their own set of beliefs - beliefs which I had rejected and violated by leaving the church. I have always had a great appreciation for orderliness and logical consistency, so despite the fact that I heartily disagreed with their decisions - decisions that changed the course of my life - I was at least able to comprehend with empathy their inability to view the world outside of their own constructed beliefs. And I let it go for many years.

But now, with so many stories in the news and online of people who have been hurt and abused in the exact same ways that I have been by Xenos-Dwell, I revisited my long-held position. In fact, it may even be that the problems within the church are getting worse with time, something that does not surprise me as I found that the leaders who acted in my life so many years ago now hold senior positions within Xenos-Dwell. By all accounts these individuals seem to stand by the actions that they took nearly two decades ago, without remorse and with the full conviction that they acted precisely as God commanded them.

Upon reflection, I am absolutely stunned by the audacity of leaders to instruct members to withhold kindness and support from me and my family without regard or care for the consciences of individual members of the group. If you want a picture of authoritarianism within Dwell Community Church, here it is in bold relief. My personal suffering aroused the inherent human empathy of my closest friends who were then told by church leadership that such empathy was contrary to God's will - that God demanded that they withhold their love and care in favor of the discipline of the church. Not only was this tactic ineffectual for my repentance (entirely leaving aside the fact that a desire for adequate sleep is not a sin), it constitutes abuse of not only me but also the individuals whose human empathy they subdued under the authoritarian guise of spiritual leadership. Several friends who were a part of this blatant authoritarian abuse, later approached me with a deep sense of shame and guilt for having given in to such obviously irreligious practices. And the most insidious element of all is that they too struggled to see how they had been manipulated and abused.

The ultimate form of discipline in authoritarian churches is excommunication or disfellowshipping, followed by strict avoidance procedures, or shunning. As MacDonald correctly notes, 'Once the deviant is labeled as factious and is denounced, he is cast aside as thoroughly as one would throw out a dirty diaper' … The congregation is told to disassociate from such persons. 'Friends of long standing will ignore him. They will turn their faces away. They will go to great lengths to avoid him. '
Ronald M. Enroth, Churches That Abuse, p. 81

This leads us to the following questions:

How could the leaders of Dwell Community Church say with absolute confidence that this is what God wanted?

On what basis did leaders of Dwell Community Church feel that they should override individual, personal conscience with the full force of authoritarian instruction of the church?

In what way were members of Dwell Community Church permitted to question leadership or act in accordance with individual conscience?

What part of any of this behavior meets the criteria for spiritual empowerment which should form the primary focus of leadership in religious groups?

What doctrinal evidence is there for such a strong emphasis on authoritarian discipline? Why does it form such a major component of practice within Dwell Community Church but not in other religious groups?

Is Dwell Community Church disciplining or abusing members?


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