By: Jennifer Eichenmiller
If you are a member of a Calvary Chapel, then you probably already know that allegations of misconduct have been made against Ben Courson. While I am saddened by what has occurred, I am not surprised. This is because it seems like the response to pastoral abuse, sexual sin, and “moral failures” is a weak spot for many churches. Abuse can happen in any denomination, but it is particularly challenging to deal with in churches like Courson’s, which uses a “Moses Model” structure. Moses Model churches give pastors the authority to make decisions and set policies based on the needs of the local church. Done well, it’s an efficient church model that eliminates a lot of bureaucratic red tape. Unfortunately, there are always two sides, and the flipside of this model is that it is nearly impossible to consistently implement even commonsense policies to prevent abuse. Here’s why:
Ben Courson’s church is affiliated with Calvary Chapel, which does not have formal:
- sexual abuse or misconduct policies
- pastoral code of conduct
- consistent procedures for how to address allegations of abuse
- consistent procedures for how to respond when allegations are founded.
As a result, the responsibility for accountability is in the hands of individual churches. And with church structures like the Moses Model, you should not assume that elders and other church leaders can provide meaningful accountability. In fact, unless the individual church bylaws state otherwise, the pastor can usually overrule or remove elders for any reason. Individual churches can adopt oversight/conduct policies for themselves, but only if the pastor specifically puts them in place. This reminds me of the time I told my kids that we would use the “honor system” for the candy jar—they did ok for a while, but eventually they put their hands where they didn’t belong. And once they realized no one was there to stop them, they went back for more. I’ve also noticed that they tend to hide the evidence if they think they are about to get caught.
As someone who spent 20 years in Calvary Chapel, this topic is especially important to me. I am the daughter of a Calvary Chapel Pastor. My husband and I both attended a CC Bible College. I served as a worship leader at a CC church plant for about 5 years. During most of that time, it never crossed my mind to ask questions about how my church might handle concerns over a pastor’s conduct. Then I experienced interactions with a pastor whose behavior made me extremely uncomfortable.
At the end of 2018, a former elder at our church reported his concerns about the pastor’s conduct, including his conduct towards me. He reported his concerns to another Calvary Chapel pastor, who followed up and suggested specific policies to address the situation. While this situation was handled well, I became increasingly disturbed by my pastor’s conduct towards me during the Spring of 2019 and I finally reported my concerns to the church board in June of 2019. This time the board brought the concerns to a different CC Pastor who had not been directly involved with the first allegation.
Several weeks later, I received a letter stating that the elders at my church had investigated and determined that my concerns were a “personal” matter, despite much of the conduct I brought up taking place in the pastor’s office. Although I was both the person who reported and the person who experienced the conduct in question, I was never interviewed or asked any questions during the course of the elders’ investigation. I didn’t even know an investigation had occurred until after it had concluded.
The point of telling my story is not to argue that the elders’ investigation should have resulted in one particular outcome or action. In fact, I am a proponent of policies that require independent 3rd party investigations because I strongly believe that concerns like these should be handled by a neutral party from outside of the affiliation or denomination. The purpose of sharing my story is to tell you what it can look like when a church does not have specific policies in place before concerns are raised.
I don’t want to minimize what happened at my church, but it is clear that this issue is so much bigger than my story. It is also bigger than Calvary Chapel. Over the past 2 years I have listened to many similar accounts. I’ve read the news reports about Ravi Zacharias, Brian Houston, Ben Courson, and so many others. The problems that allow these things to happen cannot be fixed overnight and they won’t be fixed because of this one post. But as someone who has walked a relatively mild version of this path, I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone. This is something that needs to be fixed, and it is worth the time and effort to get it right.
So, start small. Stop thinking of this as a problem that happens somewhere else to someone else. Start asking: what would I expect to see if this happened to me, or my spouse, or my child? And then educate yourself on your church’s policies.
Ask your church leadership questions about their policies for handling concerns about church leaders’ conduct towards members of the congregation. Ask to see things in writing. The response you get will be very telling. If your church leaders say they have safeguards in place, but they can’t show you where these safeguards are described in the bylaws, that should be a red flag. If the bylaws discuss safeguards but don’t provide a specific procedure for how allegations of sexual abuse or pastoral misconduct are handled, that should be a red flag. If the bylaws include a procedure that doesn’t require using an independent 3rd party to handle allegations of abuse or misconduct towards members of the congregation, that should be a red flag. If your church bylaws do not include a procedure for how to respond to the results of a 3rd party independent investigation, that should be a red flag.
**Not all churches without appropriate policies have abusive pastors, but MANY churches with abusive pastors do not have appropriate policies.**
Having an independent 3rd party handle allegation is important because abuse doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Abusers don’t usually look abusive until they get caught, and abuse victims are not the only ones who are “groomed.” Abusive pastors groom victims to accept inappropriate behaviors they wouldn’t otherwise have allowed. They groom the entire congregation to believe that there are safeguards in place. They groom church leadership to not enforce safeguards and to disbelieve or minimize victims and allegations.
Here are some other potential red flags that should give you pause. If you notice any of these, it’s time to start asking questions:
- Multiple church leaders or long-term members leaving abruptly and without explanation
- Frequently mentioning “wolves in sheep’s clothing” in any context beside the actual biblical context (please note: people who leave a church, speak up about abuse, ask questions, or express concerns about accountability are not wolves in sheep’s clothing)
- Frequently mentioning safeguards but not enforcing them or enforcing them inconsistently; if there are exceptions to the rules, then it’s not really a rule
- Presenting their church/denomination/affiliation as the only “faithful” church
- Addressing allegations of abuse in your church or other churches with comments like:
|“we’ll never know what really happened”||Rather than||“let’s ask questions and find out what happened.”|
|“I feel bad for her”||Instead of||“let’s support her” (and then taking action to do so)|
|“this is why we have safeguards in place”||Rather than||“let’s review our safeguards, policies, and procedures to prevent this from happening here.”|
Some additional red flags include:
|Using words like “affair” or “relationship” or “boundary violations”||Instead of||Abuse|
|Making vague statements about past allegations of misconduct||Instead of||Acknowledging and taking responsibility for specific actions|
Identifying how allegations will be addressed
Creating specific policies to prevent it from happening again
|Discrediting victims and reports of abuse because it was not handled according to Matthew 18||Rather than||Recognizing that it may not be appropriate for an abuse victim to confront an abuser privately, especially if the abuser is in a position of power|
|Calling discussions and questions about abuse or concerns in the church, “gossip” or “slander”||Rather than||Encouraging questions and open discussion when concerns are raised|
|Making statements that the elder’s role is to protect the pastor||Rather than||Making it clear that the position of elder is to care for the “flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3)|
|Narrowing discussions about abuse to congregants abusing their pastors||Rather than||Acknowledging that the power imbalance makes it far more likely that the pastor is the abuser|
|Making comments that are overly defensive, acting hurt, or claiming to be the victim when conduct is questioned||Rather than||Recognizing that a 3rd party investigation protects both the pastor and the congregation!|
|Making comments about needing to protect the church/ flock/ congregation from people who make allegations||Instead of||Protecting the congregation from people with authority who actually have the ability to do damage and a platform to do it from. |
Recognizing that an independent 3rd party investigation protects everyone, including the congregation
|Making statements about how often false allegations are made. |
This may look like comments about how the church can’t possibly follow up on all allegations.
|Rather than||Recognizing that false allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct are actually very rare. In fact, most churches won’t have any allegations. If your church has several, that’s a red flag all on its own. |
But also, the best response is allowing an independent 3rd party investigator to determine if an allegation is credible and then allowing the independent 3rd party to investigate all credible claims
|Referring to people who report abuse/call out lack of policy as: angry, disgruntled, emotional, divisive, unstable, wolves, or jezebels||Instead of||Taking the lack of policy for preventing church abuse seriously, taking allegations of abuse by pastors seriously, and requiring independent 3rd party investigations for abuse or misconduct allegations|
If you would like to understand more about pastoral abuse or if you think you may have experienced it, an organization called GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) is doing great work. You can find their website here: GRACE (netgrace.org)
I also highly recommend these 2 podcasts:
- Shipwreck Over Safety Season 2 Episode 2, Sins of the Church: Sexual Harassment and Grooming
- Christianity Today: The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill
These podcasts describe spiritual and sexual abuse in 2 different types of churches. Don’t get tripped up over differences in theology. Abuse often looks very similar and it is wrong in every denomination.
I have found that one of the greatest challenges of addressing abuse in independent/non-denominational church affiliations is simply recognizing that each allegation of abuse is a pattern and not just a series of “isolated” events. Do your research and see how churches like yours have handled abuse in the past. If you attend a Calvary Chapel, here are 2 news articles and a few names to get you started in your search:
San Jose Mercury News – Bay Area news, technology, jobs, cars and real estate (cloversites.com)
Day of Reckoning | Christianity Today
Ben Courson, Applegate Christian Fellowship
Bob Coy, CC Ft Lauderdale
David Hocking, CC Costa Mesa
John Flores, CC Costa Mesa
Bob Caldwell, CC Boise
Anthony Iglesias, various CC churches
Dino Cardelli, CC in Arcata
Christopher Raymond Olague, Southland CC
Matthew Tague, North Coast CC
Roger Gales, Former Potter’s Field Board Member
I’m so sorry this happened to you.
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Thanks for your insightful post Jennifer! Cardinal Care Group has linked to your post here: https://cardinalcaregroup.com/2021/12/11/is-calvary-chapel-a-cult-spiritual-abuse-narcissism-and-legalism-in-the-church-and-the-dangerous-doctrines-of-founder-chuck-smith/
Could you please reach out to us too, on our contact form at the website? Thank you!