Elizabeth Esther posted on Facebook today, August 11, 2014, “Yesterday afternoon George Geftakys slipped into a coma. He passed away at approx. 6:15pm. Burial will be private. Please keep our family in your prayers during this difficult time. ” Reflections prompted by this event are welcome here. Also follow updates and comments on the Facebook group, “George & Betty Geftakys – Geftakys Assembly”.
Sandy Blank went through the big doctrinal changes in the Worldwide Church of God, became thoroughly disillusioned, and walked out. After having a powerful conversion experience she went back to Worldwide (now Grace Communion International) to try to make a difference, but left again after 10 years. In “My Theological House” she describes her experience using a punchy metaphor that captures the feeling of desolation that comes from leaving a Bible-based cult.
MY THEOLOGICAL HOUSE
When I was young I began to build my theological house. I wouldn’t have called it a theological house, but that’s what it was. Everyone needs one because every human spirit needs somewhere to live. That’s why we go to the trouble of building them. Mine was a little hut assembled from old prayer cards, lyrics of ancient hymns, episodes of Touched by an Angel, and whatever else I could scrounge up. It had a smooth dirt floor that I swept clean with a stubby old broom. It wasn’t much. But it was comfortable, and more importantly, it was mine.
Then I found out about a particular church that I thought was the one and only. They easily convinced me to remodel my theological house according to their exact specifications. For many years I spent more than I could afford on new floors, oddly-shaped furniture and glittering accessories. I was sure that these possessions identified me as one of the peculiar ones who was extra special to God.
One day I heard a troubling report that this church was not the one and only; perhaps it was not even a real church. I quickly dismissed this absurd notion and continued to work on my theological house. However, another year passed and I could no longer ignore the evidence that indeed, this church was not as it had first appeared. It was not the one and only.
How could this be true? How could I have been fooled for so long? What does all this mean? I became angry and turned my back on the group that I believed had knowingly deceived me for so many years. I ventured forth alone on an earnest quest for the real one and only church. But after many months of searching I became weary and gave up.
I returned to my theological house only to find that it was gone. It had vanished without a trace as though a tornado had swept it away without leaving so much as a stick of furniture or even a cracked bowl. All that remained was a deep hole in the ground that looked as if it had been dug for a foundation. I made my way to the edge of that hole and with much sorrow gazed down into it. All I saw was a level floor with three large flat stones. These represented the only things I knew for certain. They were— first that there is a God, second that Jesus is the Son of God, and third that the Bible is true.
I don’t know how I knew these three things. Perhaps I had known them before I became involved in the group that turned out not to be the one and only. Or maybe I came to accept them during my struggle with the truth about that group. I don’t know. These three stones were all I had and it seemed at the time that they weren’t much to stand on.
I felt orphaned and theologically homeless. It was a desperate aching kind of feeling that hovered over me throughout each day and interrupted my sleep every night. How could I rebuild my theological house? There wasn’t even any debris to sort through, nothing to salvage. It had all been swept away. There was no shelter for my weather-beaten spirit and nothing with which to rebuild.
For the next several years no one came alongside to help or teach me. Even if some brave soul had made the effort I wouldn’t have trusted them. The wounds from the previous time were still too fresh. Nor could I trust my own judgment. How could I know what was true?
I was not comforted or uplifted by reading devotional books or listening to Christian broadcasts. Even reading the Bible didn’t help because I could not trust my ability to understand it. This was a long cold season of losses. My old friends were gone, my social activities ceased, and my very identity was in question. Who was I if I was not part of this one and only group?
It has taken me more than a decade to build my new theological house. This time it’s different because I am building it upon a deep foundation that was fashioned by God himself: the three stones of faith in him, in his Son, and in his Word. I have been privileged to spend brief moments with individuals who are highly skilled in the art of theological house construction. Their advice has been invaluable, yet none of them have tried to claim that they or their group is the one and only.
I now realize that the one and only is not a group of people who cling to a set of external rules and exacting standards. The one and only is only to be found where the truth of God is proclaimed from the Word of God in a community infused with the Spirit of God.
I will never forget my first theological house and the incredible grief I felt when it was taken away from me. I had never known such a sense of desolation before, nor have I ever experienced it since.
If I had known how to read the Bible it’s unlikely that I would have become involved with that group in the first place. I would have recognized that their doctrines were little more than a patchwork quilt of isolated verses ripped from their original context and recklessly stitched together. It would have been obvious that many of their requirements for membership were not mandated in Scripture.
But I didn’t know. And I didn’t know because I couldn’t read. I was biblically illiterate.
During her last years in GCI Sandy earned an M.A. in biblical studies and a Ph.D. in Christian education. She currently teaches Bible literacy skills in several Bible study groups with the goal of helping others develop a solid spiritual foundation.
Here is the message of God’s love in paraphrased words from scripture in a six minute video. Be blessed!
Or maybe not.
If you’ve experienced spiritual abuse, you might be thinking, “But what does that mean?? God let me get really hurt – how is that ‘love’?”
God has many reasons for the things he lets happen to us. First of all, remember that God isn’t behind the evil that is in the world. He tells us that he’s at war with the powers of evil, and he’s let us know that we, too, play a part in that struggle. Revelation shows believers overpowering satan by ‘the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony’.
So how on earth does that work? God doesn’t tell us a whole lot about it, but he does tell us to be wary, and get armed and pray. We have the story of Job to encourage us to hold on tight to our faith when bad things happen. Remember, Job didn’t know why he was getting so beat up and losing everything. So far as we are told, God didn’t let him in on the behind-the-scenes drama with satan, at least in his lifetime. But it’s safe to deduce that, like Job, spiritual abuse happens to some folks because their faith in God through it all counts hugely in the eternal scope of things. If you’ve lost years, and experienced many losses, maybe you can take courage from Job.
Sometimes God lets these things happen to prune us so we can become more fruitful. “Yikes,” you say, “this has been a terribly drastic and painful pruning. Was I that out of hand?” Well, it wasn’t necessarily all about you per se. Whatever your environment had been in Christianity prior to your involvement in an abusive group, it had been insufficiently clear about the gospel and the basis of God’s love for you. You were somehow vulnerable to a performance-driven appeal. (Which is to be found in all sorts of guises throughout Christianity, by the way, not just in abusive or cultic churches.) Maybe as you educate yourself out of wrong teaching, you will shed light for others in a way you couldn’t previously.
So what about the biggie, the reason most of us think God lets bad things happen to us – to punish us. Isn’t that the first thing that comes to mind? We were stupid, we got ourselves into an abusive group, and God punished us with the suffering. Or maybe there was some sin in our life, and God punished us by letting us get into the group. Etc. etc.
There are two things to get clear about. The first is that the just punishment for our sin, all our sin, was born by Christ. Period. If you have put your trust in him – there. is. no. more. punishment. for. your. sin. No more judgment. The second thing is, yes, God disciplines those he loves, but the word ‘discipline’ does not mean catastrophically painful punshment. It comes from the Greek word for the servant who taught the children or took them to school. It means to instruct, correct and nurture. No doubt that is happening in your life. Because God loves you, values you, and wants to nurture you up in his ways. Maybe you could watch the video, and be encouraged by his love after all?
Missionaries recount marvelous examples of this. Bakht Singh, a famous indigenous church planter in India, used to tell how he was in a hotel in a strange city one night and realized he had forgotten to pack toothpaste. He asked God if he should go buy some, and God said yes. On the street he felt impelled to approach a man who, it turned out, needed the gospel, and was led to Christ. The circumstances confirmed God’s will.
This approach doesn’t always have a good outcome, however, and Bakht Singh was an example of this as well. When he used to visit the USA, G. V. Matthai, an acquaintance of George Geftakys from Biola days, organized his west coast itinerary. On one occasion George was to meet Bakht Singh at the airport and deliver him to a meeting of local Indian folks. The group waited and waited, and Bakht Singh never showed up. G. V. called George and was told, “Bakht Singh is resting, and will not be coming to the meeting.” In actuality, George had taken him, without consultation, to a meeting of the Fullerton Assembly instead!
One of Bakht Singh’s chief principles of guidance was, “Do not make your own plan.” Definitely this situation was not his own plan, so, expecting God to reveal his will by circumstances, he went with the flow. Arriving at a roomful of young people eager for the Word, he must have felt satisfactory confirmation from the Lord.
Unfortunately, when George introduced Bakht Singh, “the great servant of the Lord in India who has come to see God’s wonderful work here in the Assemblies”, we took his presence in an Assembly meeting as a strong confirmation of George’s credibility.
If only Bakht Singh had had a more objective and less mystical approach to guidance, he might have insisted on checking out the situation with G. V. Matthai first, and discovered George’s duplicitous scheme. He would have discerned God’s guidance immediately, as the Bible is pretty clear about not following liars and deceivers. He might even have been alarmed enough to expose George….and then how differently things might have turned out. At the very least, Bakht Singh would not returned to the Assembly several times to hold Holy Convocations, ensnaring us more and more deeply by his implicit approval of the Geftakys ministry.
In all the discussion about child-rearing methods, one aspect that hasn’t received much attention is how the issue relates to children’s conversion. In an Assembly-type group there’s the assumption that the parents’ “child training” is the underpinning of a child’s salvation. It’s up to you to discipline your children into the Kingdom.
The problem is that you are starting off with a contradiction. You begin – in infancy – to deal with your children’s “self will”, to make them obedient to God. And as they grow a little, your goal is to make them “servants” of God. But they haven’t yet had the all-important decisive conversion experience. Maybe not until they’re four or five, or ten or twelve. This gives children the impression that God’s acceptance and approval is earned, first by good behavior and then by an outstanding event in which they trust Christ for salvation.
Lee Irons, father of three, discusses a completely different approach in his post, Must Covenant Children Have a Conversion Experience? Children can be nurtured in the faith, rather than browbeaten to it. From this perspective, child-training is not related to their eternal salvation, but rather to character building.
I was talking with someone who visited the Assembly once in 1992 with her husband and children. Once, mind you. And that was a long time ago. “We never came back,” she said, “because I just couldn’t make the commitment to raise my children that way. It was too hard.” After that, she felt for years like she hadn’t stepped up to the bar, until she came across the Reflections website and was hugely relieved to learn that, as good as it looked on the outside, the Assembly way of child training was wrong-headed.
Early in the Assembly, Richard and Virginia Fugate’s books and video series What the Bible Says about Child Training were promoted as standard resources for parents. In the 1990s the Assembly began ordering and using the book, To Train up a Child, by Michael and Debi Pearl. These methods have been well-critiqued by many, including Tulip Girl, and Lynn Harris 1 at Salon Magazine.
The underlying principle behind both methods is “first time obedience”. The idea is that the child will be conditioned by negative reinforcement to immediately obey directions. This concept is convenient and useful for parents. Saves a lot of hassle.
The problem is, it’s carried out in the name of God, as if it’s His method of parenting.
But is it? Did God break off a branch and whack Moses for arguing with Him? Was Peter even punished at all for denying Him? God’s methods with his people are instructive, corrective, encouraging, and redemptive. Where is the just consequence for disobedience? It fell on Christ, because in spite of our best efforts and God’s instruction, we are not going to be able to obey perfectly.
Was there an immediate consequence for Adam and Eve for disobedience? Yes. Because the first disobedience brought sin into the world. After sin and death entered the human race, God’s dealings were not punitive, to enforce obedience, but redemptive, because human beings were no longer able to obey. They needed a Savior.
Same with children. They have the same inability we do as adults. No amount of punishment will subdue sin and make them beautifully sanctified. It’s not possible. If you punish children to make them unfailingly and instantly obedient, the result is often Pavlov’s puppies who are conditioned by fear. While they may conform outwardly to your expectations, what you’ve accomplished is actually counterproductive to salvation and sanctification. You produce people who feel that they have to live up to an impossible standard, and have a false image of God as a perfectionistic judge looming with narrowed eyes to pounce on any imperfection.
Children of missionaries are now termed “third culture kids”. I think many Assembly kids fit that category. Some AK’s were allowed a certain level of cultural participation. They may have taken part in Christmas events at school, had posters of pop stars in their rooms, or attended the prom, but many felt very alienated from their peers because they were prohibited from so many aspects of American culture.
The book, however, while certainly bringing out the aspect of cultural alienation, focuses largely on the neglect and abandonment experienced by kids whose parents were completely consumed with serving the Lord. The parents loved their children and thought they were doing a superb job of child rearing. But Palmer draws out how adversely the kids were affected by their legitimate needs being denied in the name of God’s call to an important ministry.
Former Ak’s will find much to relate to in The Happy Room. Those who went to children’s summer camp in the 1980’s will sympathize with the bad food at Kenya Christian Academy. Having to always be on one’s best behavior to be a good example will strike a familiar note. The communication barriers between the adult children and their parents will ring true with some adult AK’s.
Although not extremely well written, reading and discussing The Happy Room might possibly open avenues of communication between former Assembly kids who have grief and anger over their upbringing, and parents who still justify the Assembly system. It would be great if someone could write a similar story about the Assembly.