Descending: Part Nine of My Life Inside the Narrowgate Cult at Messiah College

This is blog post nine in this series, and since I started blogging, I have been asked numerous times “how much more is there?”  I can say that there is no firm number, as I’m mainly transcribing and commenting on the journal I created back in the 90’s. Some topics have led me down a rabbit trail of introspection. Other times I’ve doubled back and covered things twice, either to add more detail or to correct / clarify something. I will say that I am about one third of the way through this entire story, which means we have quite a long way yet to go. As I mentioned in the last blog, we are now in the beginning of Act Two of this three-act tragedy. And with the release of “The Answer” in the last blog post, we are now beginning our downward spiral into the theological abyss. So buckle up, buttercup, let’s dig in.

I’m finding myself in the midst of You – beyond the music, beyond the noise. All that I need is to be with You, and in the quiet hear Your voice. (MercyMe)

As I mentioned in the last blog, during this new phase of the group which followed “The Answer”, the group began exploring areas of teaching that were admittedly bizarre. As a result of “The Answer”, we were more determined to listen for the “voice of God” in our lives, and do whatever it said. Theologically speaking, we considered this a new revelation from God – it was at least equal to, if not more valid than the Bible. And because the written Word of the Bible was considered a written account of what God told other people, it perhaps made sense that what God told US to do personally was of more importance. We were ignorant to validating whether or not what we “heard” was just our own desires and imaginations, or if it was from God, or perhaps even from some otherworldly demonic entity. Giving that “voice” such a prominent place on par with, or perhaps even above the written Word, was a significant risk that we were blissfully ignorant of. Some of us would later learn this the hard way, while others… well, others perhaps still have not.

You may be reading this and thinking “duh that was stupid” or some other such judgement. All I can say in our defense is that it was an incredibly subtle and gradual shift into this area. I do not recall an exact moment when Narrowgate became a “cult” – it just drifted off course into the waters of questionable hermeneutics while we weren’t paying attention. I imagine very few religious groups start out with the intention of becoming a cult – they just wind up there as they drift off the straight line of common orthodoxy, one or two degrees at a time. Perhaps a central theme in all of our lives was the fervent desire that a personal God would want to interact with us mere humans. Within that framework, it is perhaps not surprising that we arrived stranded on this particular theological island, isolated from mainstream religion. I’ll also note that this theology is still fairly common among charismatic circles today. There are “super apostles” claiming “new apostolic reformations” while getting drunk on “new wine” right now. Their theories and interpretations rely heavily on their own personal interpretation of verses usually taken out of context to support what they want. The faithful pack into mega-churches to hear these prophets and evangelists declare what God is doing in the here and now. All that to say, Narrowgate’s theology was not as huge a stretch as you would think for modern western evangelical Christianity, so let’s check our chronological snobbery at the door. I will also clarify that this line of theology is certainly not what I currently believe. That would make for an interesting topic for another day, but not now.

Is this a cure or is this a disease? Nail in my head from my creator. You gave me life, now show me how to live (Audioslave)

Mia was driving around late one night while listening for direction from God, and found herself at Liam and Emma’s house in the early hours of the morning.  After a fair amount of deep discussion, they pulled out the futon and Mia decided to stay with Emma and Liam for a few days. According to Mia, this led Liam to declare Mia’s new role in the group as “courter” for God. She was gifted and called to “court” people within the group as a representative of God, with the goal to draw them closer into a relationship with God. She then “lived” at Emma and Liam’s apartment for that time of courting, and would later move on to move in with other people within the group. Mia assured me there was nothing romantic or sexual with this “courting”, it was based more on building relational intimacy and directing people towards God. During this time, everyone was receiving their new “role” in the new kingdom, which was based on what Liam had written in “The Answer”:

“Because in order for each of us as individuals to live holy we need to somehow discover what it is we were each created for and what we should do each day. There is no generic standard for holiness. Holiness can only be found in the creators plan.”

In retrospect, it is perhaps ironic that we had dismissed the written word of the Bible, but were now considering “The Answer” as an authoritative new written word from God. In the matters of theology, we were consistently inconsistent. One of Liam’s new primary objectives for the group was to determine each member’s new role within the group. This would determine what each of us was created for and what we should do each day (to borrow the terminology from the quote above). I don’t recall what our role was, specifically, if anyone from the group remembers, please let me know. It would be ironic if it was “scribe”, given how this blog has fallen into place some 25 years later.

toothbrushMia’s new living arrangement became a funny joke within the group. At one point during a meeting, she came out from the bathroom holding a white toothbrush, and asked whose toothbrush it was. Liam said it was his toothbrush, and she laughed and said that she had been using it.  We all thought this was hilarious. It was around this time that a new teaching gained focus within the group that our individual belongings actually belonged to everybody, and nothing was personally owned. Everything was ultimately God’s, and we were to share these things with each other.  Liam’s willingness to give up his toothbrush (I can hear all you germaphobes groaning) was an object lesson about being selfless and sacrificing personal belongings for the good of the group. In this time period it became common practice for people to come into our apartment and take our clothes or belonging and just walk off with them.  My only pair of docker dress shoes that I needed for work disappeared one day, and Mia was seen wearing them.  Olivia & Noah later wound up with a ton of our CD’s and music.  It was becoming increasingly chaotic, with people coming and going in and out of everyone’s homes at any time – day or night. I remember that Pooky and I were livid about this. We were still pretty much newlyweds, finding our own stability and safe place as we built our new home together. I recall we were told that it was our reluctance to submit to “God’s voice” that was giving us a problem with this teaching: we had made our belongings into an idol that needed to go. This concept was backed up with quotes out of “The Answer”, as authoritative direction for the group:

“If there are things, anything you aren’t willing to surrender – you cannot come and you are absolutely stupid! If this seems at all scary to you it is because you have been lied to and you have chosen to believe the lies rather than choosing to remember what God has revealed about Himself to this Church.”

Note that there is a black and white ultimatum here – if you aren’t willing to surrender anything, not only are you “stupid” and “chosen to believe the lies”… you “cannot come”. Or to say it more succinctly, if you refuse to surrender anything for the good of the group, then you are out of the group. And at that time, the group was pretty much all we had: we had at this time distanced ourselves from friends and family.

“Once you make the decision to really make Jesus Lord. Once you totally surrender absolutely everything. Once you completely decide that the only reason to live is if it is with Jesus, the fun begins.”

Again, that statement to “surrender absolutely everything” is brought up here. The concept of surrender was a very clear focus of the group – it was equated to living with Jesus, which was now our “only reason to live”. Though truth be told, people walking off with our stuff didn’t seem like a whole lot of fun for us.

“We have learned as a church that we are free, now lets finally acknowledge that true freedom comes from making ourselves total slaves to God with absolutely no will of our own. Turn in your filthy rags for the beautiful robe that’s been waiting for you.”

Reading this some 25 years later, I literally got chills at this quote. According to this document, it was our highest calling to totally submit with no will of our own. Looking at this logically, if there is no will of our own, whose will were we to rely on? Or to phrase this differently, we must surrender our will and become total slaves… but to what, exactly? To God, or to the group? Perhaps a silly distinction – at this time, they were considered one and the same. Our theology of God’s will was boiled down to whatever the “voice of God” told anyone one person. But it was becoming more prevalent that the highest of all authority within the group was what God told Liam – that seemed to take precedence over anything we believe God told us, individually. At this point, I think you and I can agree that those of us in Narrowgate were headed for serious trouble.

According to a 2014 article in The Atlantic, Mike Bickel from the ministry International House of Prayer made a list of seven characteristics or signs of a cult. At this point in our journey, someone could have shouted “Bingo!” as we now pretty much covered them all:

Mike Bickel’s list from the Atlantic article.

Another truth you can never believe has crippled you completely. All the cries you’re beginning to hear – trapped in your mind, and the sound is deafening (Disturbed)

Liam’s next focus of teaching was perhaps a logical evolution of ownership. We certainly believed that God wanted to provide all our needs – most Orthodox Christianity believes that.  But Liam took it a step further – we were denying Him this ability when we only allowed certain people to be used by God in meeting our needs.  The example was given that if Olivia was sad, she should not be limited to a comforting hug from her husband, but should be able to go to anyone within the group for comfort. Liam said that there were too many single people in the group that were forced to walk alone without their needs being met, and that was wrong.

This was immediately seen by some in the group – us included – as an incredibly dangerous concept. There was a lot of debate about this teaching, I remember both Pooky and I really had a serious problem with it, as did Emma and Ava.  It had the potential to become sexually inappropriate, a concern that was brought up.  Liam continuously affirmed that all our individual needs could be met by anyone in the group, and though he didn’t say anything about sex (or perhaps deliberately ignored it), he likewise did not rule it out.  As was becoming a pattern, Liam reaffirmed that if anyone had a hard time with a teaching, it was a clear indicator they were making something into an idol that was preventing them from following God. Liam then gave Sophia a shoulder massage, perhaps to illustrate how good and pure this could be. This he did while his wife Emma sat there, among the group.

dangerEven in the midst of our brainwashed state, this was a huge red flag to Pooky and I, and brought us much discomfort. Neither of us had any desire to physically comfort others (regardless of gender), or to be available to others for physical comfort. We both saw this as a long slip-and-slide that dumped into an abyss from which there was no return. We took some comfort that Emma and Ava (who it is worth noting, were married females) had concerns with this teaching.

In my opinion, this is a prime example of why leadership decisions within the church need to include representation from both men and women. Even a casual look at the sexual scandals being unearthed every day in just about every patriarchal Christian denomination tells us that letting the alpha male call all the shots is a very bad idea. That Liam seemed to be brushing aside our concerns – including those by his own wife, Emma – was also very noteworthy. Our concerns with this teaching relied on our high view of marriage – details like intimacy, physical affection, and even marital decision making could be at stake.

Could be? It didn’t take very long for that to change to WOULD be.

Liam brought up soon thereafter that one of the idols that needed to go was our marriage.  He clarified that in essence, if we were more worried about what our spouse told us than what “God” told us, we were making our marriage into an idol that needed to be put in its proper place: We needed to put “God” first, and our spouse after that. If God told us to do something that was frowned upon by our spouse, God had to always have the final say.

Knight to B5, and checkmate for Liam.chess

This whole teaching became a wedge between Pooky and I that was almost too much to bear: We had always shared and compromised and did what we felt was best for our marriage, always together.  This new teaching meant that we would in essence become lone rangers, instead of the bound together team we had always fought to maintain.  This new teaching put our marriage – the most sacred and intimate thing we had – at risk. What else could we do here? We decided to compromise on this teaching, and still ran our marriage how we always had: together. In short, we were determined that this would not change us. We were still physically affectionate with each other, as we always had been. But we kept quiet about it – the only other alternative was to get out of Narrowgate, and at this point we were very clearly stuck.

One fine day, Mia and Liam took a day trip to go talk.  Mia had some concern about some friend of hers who was a practicing homosexual, and she wanted to share some things that “God” was telling her.  They came back that evening and Liam expanded on his prior teaching by sharing with the group that it was okay for guys to rub other guys backs, that we must not only help members of the opposite sex.  That was fine for the girls, who usually felt comfortable rubbing each others’ backs without odd looks.  But the manly facade had to go. This was another shady area that I didn’t like:  too much was left unsaid.  James then massaged Noah’s shoulders after his long day at work, and was commended for it.  Saving your affection for just your spouse was wrong, Liam said to all of us, because other people have needs that we are denying.  If we are unable to accept that God would use our spouse to help someone else – regardless of their gender – then we are not submitting totally to God. Pooky and I were pretty shocked – we were known for being very affectionate with each other, and were always holding each other close or rubbing each other’s shoulders or holding hands. We felt very singled out.

This was one of the earliest times where we felt church leadership (and I’m using that term loosely here) used the “pulpit” to share an authoritative message to the congregation (again, using that term loosely here) that most certainly only applied to us. This form of spiritual sniping is dehumanizing, embarrassing, and abusive. It’s what we call in Cyberwarfare as “asymmetric warfare“, meaning it’s not a level playing field because the “leader” has a clear power advantage of an elevated position of authority, and cannot be debated or refuted by their target. If you are a church leader, consider that each time you preach from a position of authority, you are personally speaking to each person in the room individually. Are you encouraging people in their faith? Or are you just trying to control their behavior? Stop abusing people – it’s not cool.

And so that was it for us –  we discussed this on the car ride home and agreed that we would absolutely not submit to or go any further with this teaching.  Our only option, short of leaving, was to just lessen our public displays of affection, so that was what we decided to do.

We also agreed in the opinion that this was very clearly setting the stage for future grooming, or worse… and we were so right.

(to be continued)

Next: Part Ten

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