Evangelical leaders love to point to discipleship as the one thing that will for-sure, 100%, absolutely positively save their religion from its current and ongoing decline. In truth, discipleship comes with a whole bunch of risks for their followers—risks they don't perceive until it is far too late.
Recently, the news exploded out of the Christ-o-sphere: A popular Berkeley, California college-based evangelical church, Gracepoint, fueled its meteoric success through iron-vise-grip control and devastating emotional abuse. Gracepoint’s leaders packaged this very cult-like behavior as discipleship.
None of the stories I’m hearing about that abuse surprise me. They’re the same stories I’ve always heard about evangelical churches that practice discipleship. Discipleship might be the answer to the prayers of authoritarian evangelical pastors, but it all too often becomes a total nightmare for their followers.
So much for grace, or all that blahblah about Jesus offering his followers light burdens and easy yokes. It all goes right out the door when discipleship prowls into a church. There’s a reason why it turns out so badly for the laypeople trying it, too. So let’s take a closer look at discipleship to see why it’s such a terrible idea—for everyone but the powerful—and then explore how Gracepoint’s leaders weaponized evangelicals’ misplaced trust and indoctrinated obedience.
An abuse story that is by no means new
At Gracepoint, we learn from Christianity Today, leaders screamed at their followers and manipulated them into confessions. These leaders restricted who and how their followers dated. They even decided if followers would be allowed to have pets in their own private homes. (Usually, they weren’t. After all, pets were a distraction from obedience.)
Followers who signed membership covenants with Gracepoint discovered that they had effectively signed their lives over to their new church leaders. Their leaders dictated how followers lived every aspect of their lives, from home decoration to clothes shopping to what they were allowed to watch and listen to.
And, of course, the covenant required members to comply with all demands on their time. Whenever their leaders decided they had to attend a Gracepoint function, they had to be there. If they weren’t, they could expect all kinds of repercussions. But their demands went well past attending functions. It also extended to group recruitment events. These events tended to be successful, but at the expense of the followers’ lost non-church lives.
According to one member who says they witnessed all of the following, these included being “singled out” in a group to be yelled at, often with “aggressive gestures such as table slamming,” being demoted from whatever positions they held, getting “deliberately vague” emails meant to stoke tension and anxiety, being ordered not to attend public events, thus isolating the victim, and even being ostracized fully. That link contains replies describing downright hair-raising examples of manipulation, too, like Gracepoint leaders using accusations of “lying” to demoralize their victims.
Protesting their innocence only earned victims further accusations of “defensiveness”—and hours more of getting screamed at.
The people who leave Gracepoint are often traumatized. Their stories break the heart.
And yet, none of this is new.
The harder a church pushes on its membership covenant, the more it talks up its discipleship programs, the more likely it is to erupt in abuse stories. Gracepoint is no exception.
To understand why, let’s look into the history of modern evangelicalism itself.
A short history of modern evangelicalism
Back in the 1960s, a number of Christians wanted more from their religion than it was giving them. While big-name evangelical leaders continued their efforts to tie Christian affiliation to American patriotism (which succeeded to a shocking extent), a counterculture evangelical movement sprouted at the edges of their efforts like weeds in a garden.
The people who resonated with that movement were tired of the dull, ritualistic Christianity their parents observed on Sundays before going back to their normal lives. Instead, they wanted to feel consumed by their faith. In turn, they wanted their faith to permeate absolutely everything about their lives.
This is when we start seeing extremist evangelicals like the Jesus People.
The Jesus People, or “Jesus Freaks” as many called them then, left their homes and traveled thousands of miles to evangelize and live out their ideals. They tried to get their fellow young adults to stop doing drugs and having free sex, and instead to devote all that youthful zeal and energy to Christian devotions. Even their music was strikingly different from anything Christians had ever encountered before.
This new evangelicalism proved to be wildly successful. By the 1970s, evangelicals were well on their way to inventing a form of Christianity that wasn’t simply observed, but lived to the fingertips and felt in every cell of the body. And it caught on very quickly, capturing huge numbers of Christians by the dawn of the 1980s.
The converts of those Jesus People, the outgrowth of that yearning to be consumed, are evangelical church leaders today. When you behold any middle-aged evangelical leader today, chances are good you’re seeing the handiwork of that movement from the 1960s and 1970s.
A short history of the Shepherding Movement
The Shepherding Movement grew out of that idealistic fervor. Christians wanted to feel like original, real-deal, first-century Christians. And that meant living in community, insofar as they were able, and obeying all the rules in the Bible that they thought applied to Christians. They wanted to be slaves to Christ, as literally as they could.
(If you ever wondered why evangelicals seem so hostile to the idea of inalienable human rights, this is exactly why. People who value their rights don’t respond well to evangelicals’ usual recruitment ploys.)
But gosh-darn it! Modern life got in the way of all of that. Modern Christians could easily escape all of those requirements, especially all that pesky rule-following.
So in the late 1970s and early 1980s, enterprising church leaders tried to give their flocks what they said they wanted. In one pastor’s words:
The structure of the SM [Shepherding Movement] was, in effect, a pyramid scheme for discipleship. A Christian submitted themselves to a shepherd, who took on responsibility for their whole-life discipleship. Additionally, a disciple would tithe to their shepherd directly. A shepherd would generally have no more than 5–10 men (or family units) under his care. This shepherd was under the care of his own shepherd — so on as so forth, with the top 5 leaders of the SM at the top, who “mutually submitted to each other”. While not intended (it was modeled after the picture of Jesus with his 12), it was clearly a pyramid scheme focused on discipleship.Jacob Young, “The Shepherding Movement: A Summary“
Interestingly, in a pyramid scheme those higher on the pyramid benefit when their recruits sign up recruits of their own. This pastor’s comparison is more apt than he realizes.
(Out of everything about the Shepherding Movement, what surprises me most is that Pat Robertson completely opposed it. The man has a bloodhound’s nose for optics. If even he opposes something authoritarian, then you know it’s got to be over-the-top bad.)
The Gracepoint Church origin story
According to one source, Rebekah “Becky” and Paul Kim started Berkland Baptist Church (BBC) in 1981. Its name derived from its location; it was situated right between Berkeley and Oakland, California.
Becky Kim was very much a product of both the Shepherding Movement and the Jesus People movement, thanks to her involvement with University Bible Fellowship (UBF). Just as UBF had, BBC focused its recruitment efforts on Korean and Korean-American college students.
Very quickly, BBC grew. Ten short years later, Becky and Paul Kim started a satellite church in Boston. They named this one Berkland Baptist Church East. Once they left, two of their longest-running members, Ed and Kelly Kang, took over the first church’s operations.
After that, a flurry of new satellite churches sprang up all over America’s college towns—as well as in Korea and Uzbekistan. They all seem to have used the named Berkland.
In 2005, Becky Kim’s controlling, abusive behavior finally caused a schism within the megachurch. Ed Kang in particular tried to rein her in but failed.
Some of the Berkland churches stayed while others left. The ones that remained rebranded as Gracepoint. The Kims and the Kangs remained in charge.
Gracepoint is a Southern Baptist church, with all that that entails
Though I had to poke around a lot to uncover this affiliation, Gracepoint Church is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). That’s not actually unusual for such a tainted brand. At a guess, I’d reckon there are likely a million Christians out there who have no idea in the world that their churches are members of the SBC.
Though their SBC affiliation appears nowhere on their main page, Gracepoint mentions it on their Statement of Faith page. They’re also closely affiliated with the SBC’s subgroup North American Mission Board (NAMB). As its name suggests, NAMB handles the starting of new SBC churches in North America.
Our history source tells us that SBC money may have helped Berkland get started. On page 4 of a Gateway Seminary newsletter, Paul Kim also talks about holding a degree from this SBC-affiliated school.
The SBC and NAMB affiliations certainly explain a lot. Ever since their “Abuse of Faith” mega-crisis came to light, the SBC has been brewing up a new schism over how to respond to it. One side acts like it wants social progress, definite action, and real accountability for pastors, while the other wants to drill down all the harder on regressive social policies, evangelism-at-all-costs, and no accountability at all for anyone in power.
I call these factions, respectively, the Pretend Progressives and the Old Guard. As far as I can tell, neither faction has a formal name for itself. At most, some Old Guard leaders refer to themselves as “orthodox” or “traditionalists.” (They call the other faction a number of snarl words like “liberal,” “elites,” and “Democrats”. So loving; very unified.)
As a quick shorthand, any SBC leader who enthusiastically supports dealing meaningfully and definitively with the abuse crisis will be part of the first group. Anyone who wants the SBC to stop focusing on the crisis and refocus on any other objective will be Old Guard. Similarly, any group that praises and continues to hire disgraced SBC leaders who got caught abusing people, especially Paige Patterson, will usually be Old Guard.
The tangled webs of affiliation and loyalty
Even long before “Abuse of Faith,” NAMB was coming under fire for mishandling money, excessive cronyism even by the SBC’s alarmingly-expansive standards, and generally just wrecking the SBC’s credibility in the United States in particular. One recent SBC presidential candidate, Randy Adams, even ran on a platform of defunding NAMB.
In fact, a whole lot of Southern Baptists don’t like NAMB or its president, Kevin Ezell. But Gracepoint enthusiastically supports it.
You know who else likes NAMB? The Old Guard, which dominates the SBC’s top-ranked Executive Committee. The Executive Committee handles budget-setting for most other SBC subgroups—including NAMB.
There’s a good reason why NAMB hired Johnny Hunt in 2018 to be its new Senior Vice President in charge of evangelism, even though Hunt has never accepted accountability or faced any consequences for sexually assaulting a woman in 2010. For the same reason, the dude’s still at NAMB—and enjoyed some high praise from Ezell in the SBC’s 2022 Annual Report (on page 201). The SBC might have had its own #ChurchToo tidal wave, but those waters never even dampened Hunt’s shoes. Or, clearly, NAMB’s.
At this point, my ninja whiskers flare outward any time I so much as hear NAMB mentioned. A church’s mere membership in any NAMB project is enough to make me question just how accountable its leaders feel they are, and how likely those leaders are to do something off-limits.
The Old Guard wants tighter control over congregations
Many, many years ago, during the SBC’s last schism (the Conservative Resurgence), the denomination fell under the sway of Calvinists. By selling doctrines like biblical literalism and inerrancy to SBC members and leaders alike, Calvinists pushed through a whole bunch of desired reforms.
But they never got the one reform they really wanted: church discipline. A 2011 review of a Calvinist’s book tells us:
Quoting [Tom] Ascol [the Old Guard’s presidential candidate this past election], [Colin] Hansen writes: “The conservatives have been in charge now for a couple of decades and our convention is no better off on basic issues than when the liberals were running things. That’s because inerrancy isn’t enough. We have to actually understand and apply what the Bible says. The conservatives thump the Bible but are unwilling to just obey the Bible in the most basic ways. How can you be an inerrantist and not practice [church discipline according to] Matthew 18? You might as well be a liberal. What difference does it make?”Peter Lumpkins, 2011
So ever since the schism ended, Calvinists have been trying to snake that reform into SBC churches. The Old Guard latched onto it early on as well, even though not all of them are even Calvinists.
Church discipline, as the phrase suggests, involves pastors gaining ironclad control over their congregations. These pastors give themselves the power to discipline the flocks however they see fit for any show of disobedience to their commands. The flocks, in turn, get stripped of personal sovereignty and autonomy.
If that description doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, I don’t know what could. But it is the endgame goal for the Calvinists who even now infest the SBC at all levels of leadership, and by extension their Old Guard hangers-on.
Church discipline and discipleship
Often, church discipline wears a pretty mask called discipleship.
(Last night, I noticed that the SBC’s 2022 Annual Report features the word “baptism” 25 times—but “discipleship” a full 80 times.)
In Christianese, discipleship has a general meaning of a close-knit master-apprentice relationship between an experienced Christian and a new one, though sometimes one experienced person shepherds a bunch of newbies. (In the Shepherding Movement, remember, one shepherd might control many people/families at a time.)
Once joined, the newbies are expected to obey their shepherd’s suggestions about all things Christian. If they don’t, the church lays out various penalties for disobedience—up to and including disfellowshipping, which means throwing the disobedient Christian out of the church and ostracizing them from all future socialization with members. That ostracism command almost always includes their own families, if you’re wondering.
Why authoritarian church leaders like discipleship
A great many Christian leaders think that discipleship seriously cuts down on apostasy and backsliding, which means slacking off from one’s Christian duties and requirements. Ever since I was a teenager in the 1980s, they’ve thought this way. When such church leaders lament the massive numbers of Christians drifting away from their churches, they always point to discipleship as the way to stop that trend.
Now, this thinking is obviously not true. Christianity has been doing nothing but decline since the 2000s. It was well on the path to decline in the 1980s, even, which may have led to the Shepherding Movement gaining more traction more quickly than it otherwise would have. But authoritarian leaders will always embrace suggestions that involve giving them, as powerful people, more power. They will always love the idea of stripping away more power from those they want to control.
In authoritarian groups, discipleship becomes a requirement, even a sacrament. Often, it is presented to new members as a contract—one endorsed and commanded by Jesus himself.
And often, church leaders call these contracts covenants.
Covenants vs contracts
The wording here of covenant is not accidental. This word has major implications in evangelical Christianese. It’s not just a fancier, more Jesus-y way to say “contract,” though I suspect many Christians still labor under that misconception.
A covenant differs from a contract in one major respect:
Contracts are two-sided. Either side can abandon the contract’s terms at any time, though this action might incur a penalty of some kind. People enter into contracts freely. In fact, if they don’t, then the contract is considered void (or non-binding). They can also leave without penalties if the other party isn’t living up to their end of the contact’s terms.
A covenant, by contrast, is one-sided. Covenants cannot be broken. They’re forever. Moreover, someone can find themselves as part of a covenant without ever having been given the opportunity to consent to it—and then find that they have no power to withdraw from it. And even if one party completely disobeys the covenant’s terms, the other party still must fulfill their side of it.
In the Old Testament, Yahweh made a number of covenants with the Jews. Christians think that Jesus made a “New Covenant” with humanity. And nowadays, many evangelical pastors make membership covenants with their congregations—as Gracepoint does.
Incidentally, the sorts of Christians who like discipleship think that marriage represents a covenant, just as church membership does. That’s why evangelical leaders keep trying to make divorce harder to obtain, instead of demanding that evangelical husbands not act like such boorish, sexist jackasses that their wives to want to divorce them in the first place.
If I could ever give Christians one piece of advice that they would actually heed, it would be to run fast and far away from any church that wants them to sign a “membership covenant,” or that wants them to embrace “church discipline.”
You know, like Gracepoint does.
Truly good people will never ask for one-sided covenants
The biggest problem with the Gracepoint membership covenant, as with all other church membership covenants, is that it is completely one-sided. (I’ll be exploring the specifics of that one-sidedness, along with its other dealbreakers, in a future post.)
What must Gracepoint’s leaders do, in this supposed covenant?
The covenant itself does not contain the answer to that question.
For that matter, how are Gracepoint leaders chosen? How do they in turn choose their sub-leaders? How do leaders get held accountable? What can followers do regarding redress of injuries, if they feel that a leader is treating them unfairly or abusively?
Gracepoint does not answer any of these questions. Its leaders do not appear to be accountable in any way for any mistreatment they commit or any bad decisions they make.
In any relationship between humans, one-sidedness always—inevitably even—leads to abuses. Toxic people gravitate to these sorts of relationships because they give them the room they need to behave in the ways they like best.
At most, one-sided agreements only require the most surface-level and temporary of good behavior. Toxic people only have to fool the people who promote them into leadership, and even then only up to the point of promotion. After that, they can let their real character shine through. From top to bottom, their group will shield them from consequences, if only to protect the organization’s reputation—and any benefits the shielders derive from that reputation, like income, bragging rights, and personal power.
At Gracepoint, its ultimate downfall is a complete lack of real accountability
In groups like Gracepoint, all that holds leaders accountable to their group’s stated rules is their own sense of fairness. There’s no way for the group to detect bad faith in potential leaders. If a leader turns out to be acting in bad faith, then there’s no approved way to eject such a leader from the group or even publicly warn the rest of the group about them.
Even worse, the group’s only street-legal means of redressing injuries, like the way Gracepoint’s “Pastor Daniel” offers Matthew 18 “reconciliation” in a recent reply to his church’s critics, serves only to shield its abusers.
For that matter, Gracepoint’s spokesperson only demonstrates every point I’ve made today. In his reply to all the pushback he got, Daniel Kim sounds very peevish indeed. His oh-so-magnanimous gesture of Matthew 18 “reconciliation” isn’t going over well with these people he views as his inferiors. Dude even threatens to weaponize any secrets he holds about his critics, as Tom Buck did this spring.
Daniel Kim’s hypocritical behavior in that Reddit thread really should function as a potent red flag to all Gracepoint members. He doesn’t even feel accountable for his behavior in that thread.
Ultimately, Gracepoint operates exactly as it was designed
But alas, Christians aren’t taught to examine their systems for two-sidedness and accountability. They aren’t taught to detect openings for bad-faith behavior and abuse-shielding. And they are especially not taught to care about their civil liberties and human rights with regard to abusive groups. Nor do they understand the need for boundaries even in the most Jesus-errific groups.
Christians only learn those skills after getting burned to a crisp by a bad-faith actor taking advantage of a one-sided contract.
Every single thing about the Gracepoint scandal speaks to what everybody should expect when a church operates on a membership covenant. It’s not an aberration, not a fluke, not a shocking turnout.
Rather, it’s the natural outgrowth of a broken system that lacks accountability structures for its powerful members.
For years, Gracepoint operated exactly as its leaders designed it. Only now, when their abuses have finally reached public consciousness, are they trying their best—not to meaningfully deal with their own abuse scandal, but instead to regain control over the people calling attention to it.
Author’s Note: To those who care about accountability
Terrible people love to memory-hole information that makes them look bad. They are also not above unsavory tactics like false DMCA strikes, as VenomFangX famously tried in 2008 against an atheist criticizing his Creationist pseudoscience claims. Their goal, always, is to remove damning information posted about them and their groups.
Never assume that such people won’t take any means possible to manipulate how the public perceives them. All that accountability blahblah ends the moment it threatens their power and income.
So any time you run across something like “Pastor Daniel’s” Reddit post or Gracepoint’s faux-apology, you should immediately archive it. That means using an archive utility like archive.today to make sure that information never goes away. If it’s a YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, or Facebook video, research methods of saving that information to a local drive. Also, archive anything critical of them—like anything tasty from that subreddit about them.
That way, the leaders of Gracepoint will never be able to say they never said XYZ, nor that no criticisms exist. Even screenshots can be faked, but an archive tells the truth.
Archive, archive, archive.