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The News & Views of Watchman Fellowship, Inc. Vol. 8, No. 5, 2006

Evaluating High Control Religious Systems
By David Henke

In the mission field of counter-cult apologetics people send in questions about a wide variety of religious groups. Some are overly quick to allege that a particular group with a slightly different take on doctrine is “definitely a cult.” Whereas others simply do not know whether Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons are in cults. That indicates a wide latitude of understanding about the entire religious spectrum.
When we get a question about a group we have not researched we begin our study on these two levels, doctrine and practice. A cult will have two basic elements that we look for, a heretical position of essential doctrine and a high level of control over its adherents.

First, what is the doctrine of the group? Is it orthodox in the essentials, or not? If it is orthodox then we will in all likelihood not use the “C” word when describing it. The next doctrinal questions we ask are what are the implications of any teaching on secondary doctrines that is not orthodox?

To answer this question Watchman Fellowship uses a criteria based on the four functions of math to ascertain whether there is a problem in the group in question.

Does the group…

Add to the Word of God?
Subtract from the deity of Christ?
Multiply works for salvation? or…
Divide the loyalties of its followers?

The first three criteria are doctrinal in nature whereas the fourth relates to the practice of the faith, which brings up the Second area of investigation. What is the level of control exerted by the group on its members? Does the biblical standard of personal freedom of conscience with responsibility to God find a place in the system? Or, does the group restrict personal freedom and direct the follower’s responsibility to the leadership?

A doctrinally orthodox group can still be cultic in its practice. However, the use of the word “cult” is counter-productive. It is loaded with emotional meaning and creates a barrier to communication. A better description would be “high control” or “aberrant.” Even the term dysfunctional would be better than the word cult. It is best to reserve the term cult for the more extreme examples.

A Case Study

In recent years I was asked about my opinion of the Greater Grace World Outreach (GGWO) in Baltimore, Maryland, formerly known as The Bible Speaks (TBS) and founded by Carl Stevens, Jr. Using that group I will illustrate how the question “Is this group a cult?” is answered.

First, a little background. I have twenty-eight years of experience dealing with high control religious groups. I am the Founder of Watchman Fellowship, Inc., an evangelical Christian discernment ministry, and Chairman of its Board of Directors. I am an ordained Southern Baptist minister. For the last 13 years I have specialized in “exit counseling” those who have come out of groups that exert a high level of control over a person’s life. I have been invited in on a number of occasions to meet with groups of “dissidents” exiting a high control group who were seeking answers to what happened to them, and how to recover.

To assess this group we ask four questions to help us arrive at an answer to the question, “Is this group a cult?”

Are There Doctrinal Problems?

The example we are looking at, Greater Grace World Outreach, is according to its doctrinal statement, orthodox. They affirm the essentials of the Christian faith. In other words they do not Add to the Word of God, Subtract from the deity of Christ, nor multiply works for salvation. However, there are serious doctrinal issues.
Though some would be more interested in theological issues, and others in the social and psychological dynamics, there is almost always a direct connection between these two fields. In religious settings a leader who sets himself up as being in the position to hear from God on your behalf has a unique power over the followers. The Bible calls this position the “Seat of Moses.” It includes speaking about the will of God, the Law of God, and can include a prophetic element, as it relates to the individual and their life decisions.

Let’s look at examples. In TBS/GGWO there are certain secondary doctrines that support that opportunity for high control over the individual. Here is brief synopsis of each;

Geographic Will of God – It is taught in TBS/GGWO that God has a will for each individual that includes what church the person is to attend. To attend elsewhere is to depart from the will of God. It is assumed that if you are attending GGWO then you have heard from God that He would have you attend that church. Therefore, if you should leave you are then departing from God’s will. This plants in the mind of each attendee of GGWO that they cannot leave or God will judge them for it. The power of this teaching is primarily fear. It leaves little room for love, grace, freedom, or respect of the individual conscience.

Delegated Authority – This doctrine is taught at GGWO and is widely taught among most high control groups. The doctrine holds that God has delegated authority to the spiritual leaders of the group, beginning with the senior pastor and it flows downward through him to the lower level leaders. In other groups the doctrine is called Covering, Umbrella of Protection, Shepherding, Chain of Command, etc.

Delegated authority holds that the individual must follow the leadership of their spiritual authority or they are out of God’s will and subject to the attacks of Satan. They must obey even when their own conscience tells them the leader is wrong. The leader will usually say that God will bless you for your obedience even if the leader is wrong, and will not hold you guilty, but will hold the leader responsible. This was the classic defense of the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. Its power over the followers is also based on fear and guilt. It leaves the follower open to manipulation and abuse.

This teaching is at odds with the model of spiritual leadership taught throughout the New Testament. That model is one of humble service, not of “lording it over” the person. Wherever it is taught you will find reports of people who have lowered their personal boundaries and have been “used” by the group. Some become victims of various levels of abuse the effects of which, in the worst cases, can rival that of victims of incest. Jeff VanVonderen in his book Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse said that many spiritual abuse victims exhibit the same symptoms, as do victims of incest. The reason is that one of the most intimate areas of one’s life has been violated.

Bema Judgment - Finally, the teaching at GGWO is that Pastor Stevens will stand with you at the Bema Judgment, or Judgment Seat of Christ (a time of divine judgment for Christians only), and will speak about you to Christ. This teaching gives such power to Stevens that the followers who believe this doctrine are highly motivated to please their pastor, and never to criticize him, for fear he will give a bad report of you to Christ. Again, fear is the power of this teaching and leads to an undue submission to the pastor.

Church Polity – GGWO has no effective system of two-way accountability. Those who attend and fill the pews are not members with the authority to decide issues by their vote. Their only “power” is attendance, giving, and service in the church. The official “members” are the Pastor and elders of the church.

Though these doctrines are aberrant they are not fundamental flaws. They do indicate that the loyalties of the GGWO followers has been divided, or compromised, by directing some degree of their loyalty away from God and given to the leaders.

Is There a History of Controversy?

The Bible Speaks/Greater Grace World Outreach (TBS/GGWO) has a history of problems that parallel those of other high control groups. That history is documented in the evaluation done in the early 1980’s by Christian Research Institute of California. It is also evidenced by the court judgment against The Bible Speaks and Carl Stevens over the $6.5 million given to TBS by Betsy Dovydenas of Massachusetts. The court found that Mrs. Dovydenas had been the victim of undue influence and ordered the return of her gifts. It is also evidenced by the consistent testimony of literally hundreds of “dissidents” who have left the church, or are in the process of leaving. Those dissidents have found a voice on the Internet where their stories are being told.

In healthy churches there is a method for bringing a spiritual leader to account for either personal wrongs or for false teaching. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18, a method is presented that begins with going privately to the one who is accused. If he resists accountability then you are to go again with a witness. If resistance is still met then the accused is to be taken to the whole church. In typical high control systems this last step is thwarted because the leadership will not allow the whole church to hear an accusation against them. At GGWO this obstacle was by-passed by means of the Internet. When the Internet became the means of bringing issues to the whole church it opened a floodgate. Now even affiliated churches have taken action to bring about the accountability of the Baltimore church. The final result is still in doubt but many of the dissidents have found the beginning of their own healing in the discussions on

What Do the Dissidents Say?

Consistent reports from Dissidents – In 27 years of dealing with high control religious groups I have found the dissidents to be a rich source of insight into whatever group I am studying. There will always be unfair charges based on personal grudges, etc. However, where there are many dissidents offering their insights common threads are easily discerned and the personal grudges become
easy to spot. The dissidents who have left GGWO and post their comments on FactNet demonstrate such a consistency. Their complaints parallel the following ten characteristics to a remarkable degree and often contain detailed accounts of spiritual and emotional harm.

Harmful Faith Characteristics – In their book Toxic Faith, the authors Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton, describe the ten characteristics of a harmful faith. They are;

1) Special Claims – the group and its leader are the elite, the anointed of God, and have His special blessing. To be in the group is to be blessed by God and to be out of it is to be unprotected against Satan.

2) Dictatorial and authoritarian leader.

3) An “us versus them” mentality - High control groups are typically paranoid. Criticism by outsiders, which always happens, causes the leaders to warn of spiritual pollutions that come from listening to outside criticisms.

4) Punitive in nature – punishment is very frequent in high control systems. Rewards are not for genuine and legitimate reasons but rather are rewards or incentives for more submission and adulation of the group or leader.

5) Overwhelming service – there is too much work to be done and never enough personal time that can lead to reflection and critical thinking.

6) Followers in pain – they are overworked, suffer alienation from family and friends, and many other such personal losses on behalf of the group.

7) Closed communication – control of information is the most important principle in maintaining control of people’s minds.

8) Legalism – this is a spiritual life-style that teaches a performance-based relationship with God and contributes heavily to points 5 and 6 above. It also benefits the interests of the system and its leader by providing incentive to the followers labors.

9) No objective accountability – see the discussion of GGWO polity above.

10) Labeling – the constant refrain of the dissidents on FactNet is that you can’t leave GGWO with your reputation intact. Their reports are that they come up for discussion at after service ‘rap’ sessions where their spiritual health is discussed.

What Has Been the Loyalists Defense?

The defenders of TBS/GGWO will typically deny all allegations, or rationalize them as acceptable given the circumstances. The leadership also failed to recognize the error in their doctrines that facilitated spiritual abuse. The two common reactions that came out on the Internet discussions were entrenched defense against all charges, or gradual enlightenment about the abuses, which then led to their exiting the group. At this point about 80% to 90% of the affiliated churches have disaffiliated from Baltimore, and the Sunday AM attendance in the Baltimore church is roughly half what it once was.

The present is essentially a replay of two past crises in TBS/GGWO. The first was the Dovydenas judgment which failed to get Steven’s attention sufficiently to make the reforms that were needed. The second was the CRI report in the early 80’s to which Stevens gave lip service but no real reform. There is one significant difference in today’s crisis. The Board’s nomination of Roger Stenger to become the senior pastor succeeding Stevens would have moved the church in a healthy direction. However, the Stevens and some of his followers successfully derailed that. This would have been only the second time in church history that such a large and troubled group reformed and recanted its past error. The first was the Worldwide Church of God. The difference was that the WCG was a top down effort at reform whereas the GGWO movement was a bottom up effort.


Though their foundational doctrine is orthodox their secondary doctrines are definitely aberrant. They do Divide the Loyalties of their followers as described above.

Based on my evaluation of their doctrine, the hundreds of reports I have personally reviewed, the direct interaction I have had with former members, and the negative effects that are almost always observed where the above doctrines are taught, I conclude that Greater Grace World Outreach is aberrant in its doctrine, dysfunctional in its practice, and two decades after the CRI report, it continues to exhibit a cultic mindset.

The example of Greater Grace World Outreach demonstrates that a group that is doctrinally orthodox in the essential Christian doctrines can still have the cultic tendency of dividing the members loyalties by leading them to place an undue loyalty in man rather than giving it to God to Whom it belongs.