Home      Eagle 11/4/85

The Speaks: problems of power, dissent

This is the first of a three-part series.
By Daniel T. Keating
The Berkshire Eagle
Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Monday,  Nov. 4, 1985 

Lenox – Numerous religious organizations shun The Bible Speaks, and many former members criticize the church on grounds that excessive devotion to its leader causes abuses.

The Bible Speaks’ attitude toward founder and President Carl Henry Stevens Jr. led to a deep split in the fundamentalist, evangelical church in the early 1980's. Former members interviewed in a six-month investigation by The Eagle cited alleged instances of financial explotation, division of families and use of fear to manipulate members.  People familiar with The Bible Speaks emphasize the group is not a cult, but repeatedly point to what they view as “cultic characteristics.”

Even critics note, however, that the organization is filled with earnest Christians with an unusual dedication to service. Former leaders and members say they do not want to harm the ministry with their criticisms, but maintain that some aspects of the church hurt people.

The Bible Speaks, which has its headquarters on the 86-acre Kemble Street campus, responds that the criticisms against it come from a conspiracy of ex-members with grudges against the ministry, and from Christian researchers deceived by the former members. Any church that exceeds the traditional norms in its dedication and service to God will have critics, The Bible Speaks contends.

The Bible Speaks adheres to the standards in the Bible, says John E. Leonard, president of the Stevens School of the Bible at The Bible Speaks. "We get criticized by a non-spiritual world that doesn't understand the rules of the game," he complains.

After learning in March that the church had been rocked by dissension, The Eagle interviewed more that 100 people, including more than 60 former members and leaders of The Bible Speaks. Their statements about The Bible Speaks include allegations of:

• Teaching that the words of Stevens have a special anointing from God, and that God punishes people who question or speak out against the church, sometimes with cancer or violent death;
• Dividing families by teaching members not to discuss the church with outsiders who may be "satanically deceived." That teaching is part of a general doctrine against listening to criticism of the church;
• Requiring unusual dedication to The Bible Speaks and to Pastor Stevens, including incidents of having members take tape-recorded vows never to speak against the ministry or Stevens;
• Encouraging and soliciting families to sell their homes and donate all proceeds to the church under the assumption - which proved false - that they could live rent-free on campus;
• Eavesdropping on members' phone conversations and taping some of them without permission;
• Obtaining honorary academic degrees for Stevens and other church leaders from unlicensed institutions;
• Receiving accreditation for the Stevens School of the Bible. from an organization that is not recognized by private or public bodies of higher education.

It the early 1980s, The Bible Speaks was split by a dispute that resulted it the departure of a large number of its members and leaders, including Steven's oldest son.  The focus of the dispute was "delegated authority." As preached in The Bible Speaks, critics say, that is the authority God gave to leaders like Moses, and, by association, Stevens. As practiced at The Bible Speaks, the delegated authority puts Stevens in the place of God, placing him beyond criticism or reproach, they say.

Stevens stood firm on the issue in the face of internal and external pressure for change, and members supporting change dropped out. How many left is unknown, but the town street list shows that the number of people age 17 and over living on campus dropped from 370 in 1978 to 280 in 1982. And enrollment at the college, which had hit 450 it 1979, declined to about 175 in 1982.

The Bible Speaks, however, began a new period of growth after the defection. Enrollment at the college was 626 this fall, climbing toward a stated goal of 1,000.

The most striking departure was that of Stevens’s son, Bruce, who left in 1982. He was vice president of the organization and held the title of president briefly. In an intereview with The Eagle, Bruce Stevens said he had been “groomed” to take over the business aspect of the ministry.

Bruce Stevens said he left because he could not condone the way people were being treated or the way The Bible Speaks was being operated. It ran counter to what he had been raised to expect, he said.

Half faculty left

Another striking exodus was the departure of six of the college's 11 faculty members on Dec. 4, 1981. Among them were President H. Eugene Hollick and Allen Bonner, dean of students. At the time, Hollick said they were leaving solely because they had decided to start a new kind of Bible school.

Hollick recently told The Eagle, however, that he and the other teachers left largely because they refused to teach the delegated authority doctrine as championed by Carl Stevens.

Besides the faculty members, others who quit during those years included four public relations men, the attorney, the assistant to the president, fund-raisers, the business manager, the head of the print shop, the purchasing agent, the security chief, pastors and other administrators. Many had been with the ministry since its start in the early 1970's in Maine.

Because people who have left are seen as threats, ex-Bible Speaks members say, they are often denigrated by the church in order to camouflage complaints.

Bruce Stevens said The Bible Speaks has given false reasons for his departure. He said he heard that his father told a group of clergy in Maine and others that Bruce left because of an impending breakdown. Other former members confirmed hearing that explanation.  He said he told his father and brothers that he left because of dissatisfaction with the ministry. The story they are telling, he said, is "an out-and-out lie."

`Our enemy now'
Bruce Stevens also said that when his father received Pastor Ron Kelly's resignation, "He barged in and said, `They've got hold of him now. He's deceived. He's our enemy now.'   You're supposed to believe he's an enemy of God because he's an enemy of The Bible Speaks," Bruce Stevens added.

Members of The Bible Speaks who have stayed characterize the events of the early 1980s very differently.

Leonard, president of Stevens School, said the ex-members had conspired to oust Carl Stevens and take control of the church. Failing that, Leonard said, the dissidents have tried to destroy The Bible Speaks.

The Bible Speaks has refused repeated requests by The Eagle for an interview with Carl Stevens.

Leonard said that when the dissenters left, unity returned to the campus. The church has grown and gained momentum since the split, he said.

The title of a 1984 pamphlet published by The Bible Speaks - "A Local Church Conspiracy: A Masterpiece of Satan” – makes clear The Bible Speaks’ position on the split in the church.

The catalyst of the division was a series of reports on The Bible Speaks by the Christian Research Institute of San Juan Capistrano, CA.  Headed by Walter Martin, author of "The Kingdom of the Cults," the institute is known for its work on cults.  The National Association of Evangelicals in Wheaton, Ill., and a number of other religious organization contacted by The Eagle call the institute a reputable organization.  After receiving complaints about The Bible Speaks, the institute conducted an extensive theological study of the church from 1979 to 1983 to examine its position within the Christian community.

Bible Speaks cooperated
When Carl Stevens and other church administrators learned of the investigation, they invited the institute to work with the church.

In its reports, the Christian Research Institute says that the church's teachings on delegated authority foster an unquestioning attitude toward Stevens, a belief among members that The Bible Speaks is on a higher religious plane than other churches, a fear of leaving The Bible Speaks and an unwillingness to listen to any criticism of the group. Ex-members interviewed by The Eagle agreed with those findings.

In an 85-page response published last year, The Bible Speaks says the institute's report "is filled with bitterness, resentment and slanderous motives." Written by Leonard, Stevens and church elder Richard Colby, the response says many of those quoted by the Christian Research Institute were drug addicts, drug pushers, immoral, maritally unfaithful and "unsaved."

The Bible Speaks denies that Stevens is exalted. Instead, the church maintains it holds an orthodox position on delegated authority. As proof, it offers positions outlined in two earlier publications, "The Bible Speaks Goes on Record" and "An Apologetic on The Bible Speaks' Position on Pastoral Authority."   But the authors of both those texts have since left The Bible Speaks. Robert F. Olivadoti and Stephen J. Quinlan, two of the three authors of "The Bible Speaks Goes on Record," told The Eagle that one reason they left was the ministry, and Carl Stevens in particular, were not following the biblical principles set forth in their booklet. Charles E. Carter, the third author, could not be reached, but has said the same thing in a report he wrote.

One of the authors of the other book, Mario Maston, was quoted in the Christian Research Institute report. He said, "I reject the assertion . . . that both the teaching and implementation of ecclesiastical authority at The Bible Speaks . . . is orthodox."

Task Force '84
As part of its response, The Bible Speaks cites the good it does through its religious and community programs. Included in the list is Task Force ‘84, a political awareness organization that started showing its power on local issues last year. But Lilliane C. Schmidt of Lee, founder and head of the group ardently denies that her organization was created by, or is associated with The Bible Speaks.

Many of the former leaders of The Bible Speaks say they left when they realized the church was not genuinely interested in correcting what they saw as problems. One of those leaders is Bruce Stevens.   He said he attended a meeting with his father and Walter Martin of the Christian Research Institute. He said Carl Stevens told Martin that the research organization's recommendations had been adopted. After Martin left, Bruce Stevens said, his father commented, "Who does he think he is, telling us how to run this place?"

Reports from Martin's organization and other groups, as well as firsthand experience, have led to a cold reception for The Bible Speaks in the religious community. Eight evangelical organizations or major religious spokesmen contacted by The Eagle said they do not associate with The Bible Speaks.

The exception to that pattern, cited by The Bible Speaks, was the ministry's membership in the National Religious Broadcasters. The Bible Speaks also works with missionary organizations, particularly in the Caribbean.

The Bible Speaks applied for membership in the National Association of Evangelicals in 1979 but was turned down. Maryann Petlon of the field services department told The Eagle that The Bible Speaks was "not classified as a cult, but it was certainly cultic."

And J. Christy Wilson, who teaches a course at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton that includes an examination of modern cults, told The Eagle he considers The Bible Speaks "a real Christian organization with cultic characteristics."

Graham group critical
The Billy Graham Telephone Counseling Center that was based in Watertown in 1982 turned down members of The Bible Speaks who wanted to be counselors. The Rev. Bruce C. Stutzman of Wellesley, a member of the center's executive committee, sent the applicants a letter with five reasons why the Billy Graham group did not want to associate with The Bible Speaks:
• Exaltation of Stevens;
• Prophecies of divine retribution against people;
• Teachings that only people in The Bible Speaks are "saved," or born again in Christ;
• Lack of truthfulness in fund raising (citing an example of collecting money to pay for a radio broadcast on Trans World Radio when that company had already refused the request for Bible Speaks to air the show);
• Stevens's use of "The Lord told me . . . " during sermons.

The third oldest Bible college in the country, Berkshire Christian College, is located across the street from The Bible Speaks campus. But the older college has no official relationship with its neighbor.  President Lloyd Richardson of Berkshire Christian refused to discuss the reasons for the detachment, saying they are historical, but added that his school did not want to suggest credibility for The Bible Speaks by associating with it.