Overview

Gracepoint's membership covenant reveals a number of alarming red flags. So does its official response to a damning Christianity Today article, and an unofficial 'plea' from one of its pastors. Together, these documents tell us who Gracepoint's leaders truly are.

Reading Time: 14 minutes

Recently, a huge network of evangelical churches called Gracepoint was exposed as abusive. Burned ex-followers have been trying to warn people about its dysfunctional leaders’ authoritarian control-lust for years, but only in the past few months have their warnings reached public awareness. The furor has all but forced Gracepoint leaders to respond to these serious allegations.

In a previous post, I explored the forces that came together to create Gracepoint—and then made its style of Christianity so appealing to its recruits. Now, let’s specifically explore its membership covenant and responses to its critics. It all contains a number of serious, glaring red flags.

If Christians learn nothing else from the Gracepoint scandal, they might at least learn to look very skeptically at any far-reaching agreement that any church wants them to enter into with its leaders.

The Gracepoint membership covenant

It’s hilariously obvious that recent bad press has had Gracepoint leaders destroying as much evidence as they can. I initially found evidence of their membership covenant on a subreddit devoted to exposing their abuse. That link offers readers a link to their source, but if you go to that link you’ll only find a big 404 error message waiting for you.

The Wayback Machine was much more helpful, giving us a range of backups from 2014 to January 2022. Sometime between January 2022 and September 2022, Gracepoint’s masters deleted this information.

I’ve compared the first 2014 grab to the last 2022 one, then checked out a grab from the middle. None of them vary at all in substance. They all contain almost the exact same wording and demands of members.

This membership page is nothing but a series of waving red flags to me, though the person on the subreddit who provided the initial information saw nothing very wrong with it, and it sounds like a number of replies agree. That fact powerfully testifies to how well-indoctrinated authoritarian Christians usually are in essential victimhood.

Nobody with good boundary-setting and -maintaining skills would ever get involved with Gracepoint after seeing their membership covenant. This is the only page anyone should ever need to see to know that Gracepoint is the worst kind of bad news imaginable.

The red flags in the Gracepoint membership covenant

Let’s start with the membership requirements. These start off innocuously. Obviously, any evangelical church will require all incoming members to “accept Jesus Christ as personal Savior and Lord” and to be baptized, as the 2022 covenant page asks. Some churches even ask new members to attend membership classes. So far, so good.

But the second requirement involves submitting “a written salvation testimony” to (I assume) the church’s leaders. Why? So they have a library of testimonies? So they have something to wave at members who lose faith in Christianity? Or so they can be sure the member is hardcore enough to make their testimony attention-getting?

That second requirement reeks of performative piety. Testimonies already tend to be fantastical enough without having to amp them up for third parties’ approval.

If the write-up wasn’t dramatic enough, I suspect the church’s leaders would kick it back and demand changes. And indeed, the first comment on the Reddit post tells us that’s exactly what happens:

Not explicitly written here is that your salvation testimony is subject to approval from leaders. I know at least one individual who joined the church after college and wanted to become a member, and wasn’t able to for really long time because their testimony was not approved by the leaders.

Cool_Purchase4561

However, Gracepoint’s biggest red flag of all is having members “sign a membership covenant” in the first place.

Reminder about covenants in Christianese

In Christianese, “covenant” is not just a fancier, more Jesus-y way to say “contract.” Unlike contracts, covenants cannot be exited, cannot be modified, and cannot be appealed to any other authority figure. Worse, it doesn’t matter if the power-holding party doesn’t live up to whatever their side’s requirements might be; the powerless party is still bound by the covenant’s terms.

And it doesn’t matter that covenants aren’t even legally binding—because they aren’t. There is no way for any American citizen to sign away their rights like this. Every single Christian in America who signs a membership covenant still possesses full human rights, like freedom of assembly (and its flip side, the revocation of assembly), in the same way that BDSM enthusiasts retain their bodily ownership even after signing “slave contracts” with their partners.

In Christianese, “covenant” is not just a more Jesus-y way to say “contract.” Covenants cannot be exited or modified, and cannot be appealed to any other authority figure.

Covenant-loving churches like Gracepoint likely gamble on their members not realizing that their “membership covenants” are about as legally binding as BDSM contracts. If not, at least their lawyers will make bank on the lawsuits to follow.

Regardless, membership covenants can cause untold grief to those who unwittingly sign them. It all sounds so lovely and Jesus-y at first, and naturally Christians want to be obedient to the gospel and all that, right? That’s all these covenants ask, right? So they shouldn’t ever find themselves in any trouble at all, as long as they do what the Bible says, right?

No. Wrong.

All wrong.

There should be no circumstances whatsoever that ever lead any human being to enter into such an agreement with any church. The risks are simply too enormous and too plentiful.

And in this case, at Gracepoint, they are everywhere.

A glaring omission from the Gracepoint membership covenant

The first thing I noticed about the Gracepoint membership covenant is that it contains no requirements whatsoever for its leaders. Nor does it contain a single item relating to appealing its leaders’ judgments and punishments.

This is completely normal for membership covenants. By now, I’d be far more surprised if it contained anything like that. However, of the ones I’ve seen that do contain those elements, they’re always gauzy and impossible to qualify or quantify. Here, they’re simply absent. And as we’ve seen, even in 2014 they were absent.

So Gracepoint allows no requirements whatsoever to bind its leaders. This is an entirely one-sided agreement. It exists entirely and completely to strip power and autonomy from members.

But the matter worsens the further we go into this document.

Though the covenant does lay out Gracepoint’s expectations for members, they all completely lack context and qualification. It’s what they don’t say that alarms me.

A strange lack of clarity for the level of obedience demanded

As examples, I’ll quote a few of those requirements, then point out what essential information they forget to include:

“Faithfully attending corporate worship.” How often does the church body meet? What are we defining as faithful attendance? Religious researchers think it means attending three out of every eight Sunday morning services, but I get the idea that Gracepoint has a much stricter definition. What if a member must work on a Sunday, or Wednesday night, or on other occasions?

“Living by God’s word and growing in character and personal holiness.” How are we measuring this? What happens if someone is found lacking? And what if the leader’s assessment is wrong somehow?

“Being faithful, available, and teachable.” Again, how are we measuring this? Simple obedience to leaders? What if someone feels that a “teaching” violates their conscience? Or if they can’t be “available” in the way a leader wants, because the leader’s demand is simply excessive and unreasonable?

See what I mean? On the face of it, none of these demands sound outlandish at first. But if you’ll pardon the expression, the devil’s in the details here. Without full understanding of what Gracepoint’s leaders think each item actually means in lived practice, members have no idea just how total and all-encompassing the church’s control will be, nor how completely marrow-deep and unquestioning their obedience must always be.

A blank check for abusers

Then when we get to the last section, which is about how members must “share in the spiritual impact of our church,” the red flags really start waving in synchrony.

“Exercising loving care and watchfulness over my fellow brothers and sisters.” This sounds like a demand that members snitch on anyone who disobeys. It also sounds like permission to stomp on other people’s boundaries, as we see when Christians try to make themselves a Designated Adult. Did the leaders of Gracepoint want a culture of backbiting, fear, hypervigilance, and gossip? Because this, this right here, this is exactly how you get one.

“Fully participating in all church-wide events, ministries and programs.” Here, we get another glimpse of just how onerous Gracepoint’s attendance demands must be. Again, attending “all” Gracepoint events may not be possible for everyone. What if an event is purely social in nature and conflicts with a family celebration? Or if it happens at midday and conflicts with a college student’s classes? Apparently, members get no slack at all.

“Submitting to church disciplinary action.” RED ALERT, RED ALERT, RED GODDAMN EFFIN’ ALERT. There is no link explaining what this “church disciplinary action” is or what forms it can take. Nor does it outline how to appeal disciplinary decisions. It especially doesn’t talk about how to report a leader whose discipline goes way off-limits.

This covenant is a blank check for abusers.

Of course Gracepoint abused people. There was no other way this could go

My heart just cries out for the people who signed this document and then got ripped asunder by Gracepoint’s tyrants. They must have had no idea in the world what awaited them.

Secular culture teaches people to set boundaries and keep them. But evangelicals get taught, especially in authoritarian groups, to trust and obey their leaders. They’re indoctrinated to want to be as Jesus-y as possible. They want to please Jesus, and to modern evangelicals that means living just like real-deal, original-issue, first-century Christians (or at least, how they think those Christians lived).

That exact line of thinking almost landed me in an extremist cult down the road from David Koresh’s compound in Waco in the early 1990s.

Any authoritarian evangelical leader who presents such Christians with this kind of membership covenant, one hinting at achieving all of these goals, will get nothing but enthusiastically-signed documents back from them. They’re sitting ducks for these kind of come-ons.

In a very real sense, Gracepoint weaponized the deepest yearnings and aches of its prey, then played upon their deepest fears to gain their ongoing compliance.

Gracepoint finally must respond to allegations

So it’s no surprise whatsoever to me that people have been trying to point out Gracepoint-based abuse and overreach since at least 2009. I reckon it just took this long to reach a critical mass of abuse victims, enough to catch the eye of the folks at Christianity Today:

Gracepoint has faced decades of criticism from members who left its ranks, but allegations drew new attention last year on a channel of the message board site Reddit. Posters allege they were belittled by church leaders, encouraged to take on credit card debt to fund ministry expenses, and slandered after choosing to leave the church.

Christianity Today

This may also be the first time Gracepoint’s leaders have formally responded to these sorts of allegations.

But in both their formal response and the informal one their representative made, Gracepoint’s leaders reveal that their goal here is to control their critics and manage their reputation, not address the glaring issues in their leadership structure.

This concession is big, but it’s also empty

In authoritarian thinking, the best way to deal with criticism is to ignore it and make a big deal out of how not-a-big-deal it totally is. To concede any part of the allegations’ validity, even to offer a halfhearted weak apology, is to mark themselves as vulnerable. If their fellow authoritarians sense that they’re vulnerable, they will attack in turn to gain more power for themselves.

So Gracepoint’s leaders must feel backed completely against the wall here.

Even so, this response is about as wishy-washy as these things can possibly get. At no point are any names named, nor is any solid accountability structure outlined as a solution. In fact, Ed Kang (the response’s named writer) steadfastly refuses to take any real accountability himself.

All in all, this response is filled top to bottom with red flags that ought to tell any remaining Gracepoint members to FLEE FAST AND FAR AWAY from this abusive church. Nothing is going to change. Everything is only going to get worse.

For their benefit, and for that of people who haven’t tangled much with authoritarians doing damage control, let me outline just a few of those red flags in the formal and informal responses.

The many, many red flags in the formal Gracepoint abuse response

“I wanted. . . to respond to a recent Christianity Today article.” Why now? Why didn’t Gracepoint deal with abuse accusations years ago, when they started? Because not enough people were outraged about it to impact their operations?

“. . .abuse including spiritual abuse is absolutely wrong.” Watch carefully to see if he ever actually defines “spiritual abuse.” (Spoiler: He will not. He doesn’t think that Gracepoint’s membership covenant actually opens the door to abuse of all kinds. He’ll be blaming the abuse on bad apples, not on the system he himself helped develop and put into action.)

“Some of the stories in the CT article are from people that I’ve personally known for many years, and I understand where they are coming from.” A thinly-veiled threat. If any of those people thought they were giving testimonies anonymously, they aren’t. He knows exactly who they are. But if he really understands where they were coming from, then why didn’t he help them years ago? He obviously didn’t care then.

“To be sure, our staff and leaders take responsibility for those encounters that did not go well.” I’m not sure of that at all. Exactly who are these staff and leaders? What did they do, specifically, that didn’t “go well?” Why didn’t the masters of Gracepoint do something about these situations years ago? And what does taking responsibility look like here, since obviously nobody did that years ago?

“But I believe that this CT article is inaccurate on many points and misses a lot of context and nuance regarding our practices and culture.” He thinks that there’s some magical kind of context and nuance that excuses everything his church’s abuse victims say happened to them. He’s also accusing someone of lying, be it the writers of the Christianity Today article or the whistleblowers themselves. He will offer no evidence to support any of these assertions. We’re just supposed to trust him.

Context.” “Nuance.” Look over there, not at Gracepoint!

And now, the official Gracepoint “bad apples” defense

As I predicted, Ed Kang now slides smoothly into his defense:

The system he helped build isn’t the problem here. Bad apples just totally misused it, that’s all.

In broken systems like this one, a system that exists as a conduit of power for the powerful, its message must be positioned as perfect and unquestionable. It can never be criticized, only obeyed. And if anything ever goes wrong with that system, then someone just did something wrong. Blame that person, not the system itself, not its message.

And here is how Ed Kang seeks to maintain the structure of Gracepoint:

The incidents reported are not characteristic of our ministry and do not represent approved practices by our church. Many thousands have gone through our ministry, most of whose experiences are quite different from what has been described by a few. In other words, the sorts of incidents reported in the article are not the norm. . .

But our ministry is carried out by imperfect sinners, 1,600 mostly lay ministers, who are “works in progress.”

Gracepoint Church, “Our Response to the Recent Christianity Today Article

Combined with his mealy-mouthed refusal to take real responsibility for the anguish and torment he and his sub-commanders have inflicted on what sounds like many thousands of people, this part should terrify current members of this church.

At the very least, this part should tell them loud and clear that Gracepoint has very poor discernment when it comes to selecting “lay ministers” — and that it then allows these poorly-chosen leaders to operate with impunity and unilateral power, all without any real oversight or repercussions for bad-faith behavior.

Rationalizing that the abuse doesn’t sound so bad because obviously only a fraction of people go through it? That’s the thinking of someone firmly ensconced in Omelas. It’s just one child suffering for everyone else’s benefit. Right?

Think of the benefits! The mission! The context and nuance of it all!

No, Ed Kang cries out: Don’t walk away from Omelas!

“Pastor Daniel’s” Reddit not-pology might be even worse

I’ve noticed that Gracepoint’s biggest leaders have consistently offered up someone named “Jonathan” as their point person for dealing with their abuse scandal. Their church website’s formal response ends by offering his name and a phone number for interested parties to call with “questions/concerns.” At no point have I seen anyone reveal who Jonathan is, what he does for Gracepoint, or how he is empowered to handle such calls.

But it is “Pastor Daniel,” mundanely known as Daniel Kim, who showed up this past February on the Gracepoint subreddit. At that time, he began a thread he titled “A plea from Gracepoint.” His plea, simply put, was for his church’s critics to shut up so Gracepoint could enjoy success with recruitment again. I’m not kidding. Here’s a sampling of what he wrote:

I don’t know if you know, but these reddit posts have caused quite a bit of damage to our church, and a lot of discouragement to our staff. . .

But what you’re doing on these reddit posts is actually doing quite a bit of damage to that goal [recruitment]. If your aim is to cripple our efforts at reaching the non-Christians on campus – well, I’m sad to say that you’re getting increasingly successful at it. It’s kind of working. . .

I just want to appeal to you. Do you really want to do this? At a time like this? When Christianity’s reputation across the land has hit a historical low, and everyone is losing trust in all institutions? . . .

Let’s seek a more constructive way to move toward talking about hurts and wrongs and misunderstandings.

Daniel Kim, February 2022

It is mind-blowing to see a Christian leader let their mask slip this badly. When I read his post, the bile rose in my throat. It all reminded me of how my Evil Ex, the extremely fervent and abusive Biff, tried to manipulate me into returning to our broken marriage.

What Daniel Kim wants here is to go back to business as usual. And to their credit, the folks at that subreddit were not having any of his manipulative tactics. Once he’d tasted a bit of their pushback, he did what we should always expect dysfunctional authoritarians to do when a plan goes pear-shaped: he lashed out as hard as he felt safe in doing.

One redditor tartly and rightly retorted:

I’m sorry if our stories of abuse have made you tired. I didn’t mean for my trauma to get in the way of your recruitment.

Jdub20202, February 2022

I wish, I wish that authoritarian Christians could feel shame about the right things.

History repeats itself, once again

Years ago, when people locked in culty Christian groups first began to peel away, those groups’ leaders did not like to see them leaving. Sometimes, those leaders retaliated hard against their straying sheep.

In 2012, an article in The Stranger exposed one Calvinist megachurch’s leaders of doing exactly that. Back then, its pastor, Mark Driscoll, was at the height of his power. He ruled Mars Hill with an iron fist (and sometimes a weird sockpuppet account on the church’s forum).

To maintain his power, Driscoll made demands of his new recruits that sound very similar to what Gracepoint demands of its own. Among other things, he expected Mars Hill members to confess their sins to church leaders. When one member, Lance, did exactly that, then made the foolish decision of arguing with “one of his pastors” over a potential safety hazard in his communal home, his leaders clearly decided to make an example of him:

In the midst of this, Lance had begun a long-distance relationship with a young woman in Colorado. Lance says that his pastor instructed him to end the relationship, even though their relationship was not yet physical and nothing improper had happened. Lance balked, but his pastor insisted: “I’m the authority over you,” the pastor said, according to Lance. “You agreed when you became a member that I am your authority, and you have to obey us.” Lance was torn—on one hand, he had signed that membership contract.

On the other hand, this was ridiculous.

The Stranger, 2012

When Lance refused to give up his new relationship, his leaders ostracized him and ordered him to move out of the communal house. Then, when he quit Mars Hill, his now-former church leaders began a harassment campaign against him. They even tried to get his new girlfriend’s father to condemn the new relationship. (That part backfired hard, thankfully.)

That 2012 article details others who found themselves on the wrong end of the covenantal stick, as well as other excesses and overreaches committed by Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll. It’s no exaggeration at all to see, looking back, this article as the beginning-of-the-end of Driscoll’s meteoric career. By 2014, he’d be quitting Mars Hill in a flounce and becoming a pastor at a small Arizona church (where he is, I have no doubt, getting up to his old tricks again).

Similarly, a case of covenant abuse at Matt Chandler’s The Village Church may have been the first crack in his armor. He’s gone now, too.

For once, I find myself hoping that history does repeat itself.

Jesus seems to have no concern at all for his wounded sheep at Gracepoint

Back then, in that flurry of news about covenants gone awry, it wasn’t hard to find websites teaching people how to leave abusive churches—and even suggesting the hiring of legal advocates who stood ready to remind churches of their clients’ rights.

This had to happen because Jesus himself didn’t seem to care at all about how Gracepoint abused its flocks in his name. Without a real god doing real stuff in the middle of Christians’ Jesus-ing, Christianity’s central mechanism and its processes can’t work correctly.

To use the Christianese, Jesus never seems to “convict” church leaders who act way out of turn, demand too much, or punish too hard. He’s certainly not inspiring the masters of abusive churches to make tangible, meaningful changes to their structures that would add real accountability to leaders’ behavior. In fact, if every Gracepoint critic did what Gracepoint’s masters wanted and shut up tomorrow, I guarantee you that even their half-hearted claims of “self-examination” would end the next day.

Maybe we need to get that link-networking thingie fired up again. It seems like something Christians still need. I suppose there really is nothing new under the sun.

(For anyone who needs a starting point for leaving an abusive church, Wartburg Watch offered a good one in 2012.)

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...