Is Calvary Chapel a Cult? Spiritual Abuse, Narcissism and Legalism: 3 Reasons To Be Cautious of the Divisive Doctrines of Founder Chuck Smith

Hello, friends! Today, I am pondering religious oppression and its societal effects. Particularly, I am pondering all of the folks I have run into in my town who have been oppressed with severe emotional, verbal and spiritual abuse by Calvary Chapels. It is interesting how many times I have run into traumatized individuals at coffee shops, restaurants, stores and churches. These have all been kind, innocent individuals who were targeted by charismatic church leaders. Sad, really. Hence, the need to speak up.

I am pondering the fact that Calvary Chapels violate some ethical codes as noted at the National Association for Social Workers (NASW). Tax-exempt non-profit organizations are supposed to exist for and benefit the public good. This “others” mentality is also the point of Christian ministry in the first place:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” – Philippians 2:3,4

Non-profits have a duty to be forthright to the public.

The government protects our religious freedom, and this is wonderful because we all have a right to choose our faith. Still, the government also has a duty to protect us all from the harmful fallacies of socially and psychologically damaging groups. Psychological abuse is physical abuse because it physically affects the brain and is often worse than physical abuse. Spiritual trauma marks the brain. With sixteen years of observations concerning Calvary Chapels, it makes me seriously wonder why they are allowed to get away with abusing the group members and outgroup alike, year after year after year. 

If you are a Calvary Chapel (CC) leader or member, please know that I completely understand how one can become attached and bonded with a Calvary Chapel group. I totally get it. I understand your feelings and the dynamics. Please read this article with an open mind and heart. There are many issues that I once did not see about Calvary Chapel until I came across the truth and facts. I did not see until I got a glimpse “behind the curtain” and did the due diligence that we should all do (see Acts 17:11).

What has been your experience at your Calvary Chapel? What has been your experience with the leaders and pastors? Please let me know in the comments.

Is Calvary Chapel a Cult? Years ago, I had the opportunity to have a short dialogue with author and renowned cult expert Rick Ross. He is well respected in the counter-cult field. Ross explained his professional opinion to me. He confirmed my own view with his explanation: CC has a history of complaints concerning cult-like behavior. His opinion about CC being problematic confirmed my own research and experience: Calvary Chapel is a highly controversial organization with a long trail of abuse stories and public outcries.

Vital to note is that this controversy is consistent throughout the CC movement as a whole (damaging behaviors are not characteristic of only a few isolated CC churches because the dogmas are foundational to the movement).

Calvary Chapel is a massive movement which claims to be a group made up of Christian evangelical leaders and members. They teach the Bible, but they also have an additional set of leadership doctrines. They don’t readily admit this fact because they are maintaining the facade of being a “strictly Bible-teaching church.” They even have a smokescreen motto which goes like this: “Simply teaching the Bible, simply!

Would evangelical leaders preach parts of the Bible but contradict it in their practice, actions and behaviors? Would true Christians maintain a deceitful motto while keeping their other book, that “priceless little gem”, under wraps?

Simply, no.

One plus one equals two. It’s that simple. CC simply does not teach “the Bible only.” It’s their extra book that is responsible for many mentalities and ensuing human oppressions.

Because they are well-disguised, they can get away with spiritual abuse. I also have years of direct, firsthand experience with leadership and service within a Calvary Chapel in Henderson, Nevada.

Even though there are some genuine Christian believers and perhaps a few legitimate pastors in Calvary Chapels, the movement as a whole is corrupt for many reasons (more reasons than you will find in this post alone). Many of these pastors were not told the whole truth when they joined CC.

It does not bring me delight to speak of these unpleasant topics and expose what is in the dark at CC, but the truth is the truth, even if it’s unpleasant. Many people suffer. I have studied destructive cults and spiritual abuse for over a decade from psychological, sociological, theological and social work perspectives.

As a believer myself, I am thankful to God for giving me the opportunity to comfort the abused, not only with reliable scientific findings but also with sound theology. “Cults of Christianity” (cults which deceptively hide behind a mainstream religion like Christianity) concern me due to their deceit and effects on our citizens.

Many of the Christians who stay in CC are either new believers or undiscerning ones who are hyped up by the love-bombing, emotion and music.

Some of them stay not because they are unintelligent, but because they are emotionally attached and stuck in what I call “right brain mode.” They are duped into thinking that because CC preaches some truth about the Christian message, it must be a safe Christian place because the attachment feels so good. For so many, the strength of the CC attachment bond is totally independent of how they are treated or spiritually abused (or how they witness others being abused). It’s like what we see in abusive relationships. With CC followers, there is a lot of apathy when it comes to others being hurt too. They turn a blind eye. As apaths, they side with the charismatic pastor, no matter the cost.

They may know rationally that the church is narcissistic and abusive to the core, but they stay because of the glue-like attachment that is created through love-bombing and other antics.

The ones who are leaving are either discerning pastors or abused and/or discerning victims who have the strength to leave. So, what is love-bombing?

Love bombing is an attempt to influence a person by demonstrations of attention and affection.[1] It can be used in different ways and for either positive or negative purposes.[2] Psychologists have identified love bombing as a possible part of a cycle of abuse and have warned against it. It has also been described as psychological manipulation in order to create a feeling of unity within a group against a society perceived as hostile.”[3]

Here are three of the reasons why we should be extra cautious and not take CC at face value.

As with all things in life, we should do the due diligence, the digging, to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Christian orthodoxy calls this “testing the spirits.” Jesus also spoke of “spiritual fruit” and that we would know God’s true leaders and followers by their “good fruit” (goodness, love, joy, truth, kindness, righteousness, etc.). Rotten fruit would of course be lies, greed, manipulation, cult tactics, hatred, etc.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1, ESV; Christian Bible)

First, one dare not question CC leaders even if their behaviors are seriously damaging. Truth, which is a good “fruit”, does not mind being questioned or investigated. If there is nothing to hide, there is no reason to duck, dodge and gaslight when questioned. When one does question CC leaders, he or she is often gaslighted. Bullies use this tactic; it’s a trait of pastoral narcissism.

Calvary Chapels view the senior pastor either as Moses or as having the authority of Moses. This is why they often quote the scripture, “Touch not God’s anointed” (a twist taken out of the historical and theological contexts from 1 Chronicles 16:22). The problem here is that this scripture is being bended to defend the leaders’ abusive or hyper-authoritarian behaviors.

Orthodox Christianity and some other religions tell us that Moses had God-given leadership and servant-style authority. But come on, he was Moses! This was thousands of years ago. Real biblical leadership is being a servant, not a tyrant. Historical findings show us that Moses was also extremely humble, as opposed to a con-artist in a church building on the corner of a busy Las Vegas intersection. Let’s get real. It’s 2021. A whole lot of cultists claimed to be Jesus too.

It could be that our neighborhood church’s Moses is not, in fact, Moses. When I try to explain this to CC followers, they do not have the capacity to grasp this truth. They defend the modern Moses at all costs. It is entirely more likely that the Moses in the retail center next to Del Taco on the corner of Sunset Blvd. and the Las Vegas Strip is simply a clever snake oil church salesman who flicked a smoldering cigarette butt in a bush, igniting the bush into a raging inferno.

Then, unbelievably, this modern Moses claims during the next Sunday sermon that God spoke to him in a burning bush (huh?) when what really went down was that the homeless guy behind the bush got seriously ticked off and was yelling at him from behind the fire for burning his only desert shelter. A bunch of lizards bit the dust. That’s really all that happened. Many CC pastors make false claims. They are not always “hearing from God”.

The Moses Model is a system to let abuse go unchecked and, in my opinion, is not a system used by safe church leadership. It becomes particularly problematic when the pastor believes the lie that He is Moses or carries the same authority as Moses. This does not do the narcissistic pastor or his followers any favors.

There are many shady characters and cultists in history who claimed to have the “authority of Moses!” Watch out!

This serves to put the leaders on a pedestal. An island unto themselves. It also fuels the narcissistic agenda if the pastor is a narcissist. It is actually common to see narcissists pursuing the vocation of pastor. One thing that the leaders at my previous church told me was that if I kept asking questions, I would not enter the Promised Land. These people think they are stuck in another era. They lord it over their members like the are Israelites lost in the desert.

These verses are taken out of context and used to control others with fear. At the CC church I attended, the services ended with the pastor giving the benediction of Moses over the congregation. Men who resembled body guards surrounded him after the service. People thought he was a modern Moses, and they were afraid of him. We were told that the senior pastor was above accountability and it was unbiblical to question him even if he was caught in wrongdoing (shockingly, they taught that the conflict resolution process found in Matthew 18 did not apply to the leaders who were “vertically above everyone else”).

It is true that healthy leadership and others-focused, servant-style “authority” can be beneficial in organizations. Biblical leadership, though, only applies to leaders who are truly leaders – not jerks. Titus chapter one outlines some of the qualifications for church leaders:

“If anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:6-9)

Pastors are not perfect, and they do make some mistakes like the rest of us. But, what do they do when they make a mistake? Do they right their wrongs, or do they abuse? Do they seek to do good and change themselves after they have done wrong? Spiritual abuse is in a whole different category than other “mistakes” because it is life-altering and traumatizing for the victim. Great damage can be done.

There is no place for a spiritual abuser in church leadership. Gaslighting is an arrogant tool used to abuse. The tactic is not “above reproach.” The reason why they use gaslighting is because CC’s mix truth with error. They hook people with truthful points about the Gospel message, but they intermix this with falsehoods and legalism.

Even if you go straight to the “top” of the Moses Model pyramid, the mothership at CC Costa Mesa, you will be turned away and your questions dismissed. The pastor can get away with pretty much anything in the name of the Moses anointing…including sleeping with the secretary, grossly misusing church funds or blasting innocent critics/church-exiting folks during sermons. Even good pastors who leave CC are ignored when they try to bring light to the problem.

CC’s are pharisaic and notorious for loading heavy burdens onto their members for their imperfections, while excusing themselves of weightier matters like spiritual abuse and marital unfaithfulness.

Ironically, the Bible they hide behind actually warns: “You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us.” – 2 Corinthians 2:17, NLV

Second, Calvary Chapels enforce something called mandated shunning toward other believers, something that the Bible condemns. This is their practice, though they rarely call it mandated shunning. This is not at all the same as what the Bible calls healthy and loving church discipline. The Bible does not endorse abuse. Mandated shunning uses heavy shame and says – You are a condemned enemy, there is no hope for you, you are going to hell, stay away and never come back! It’s when an entire church permanently shuns a target and uses stonewalling. CC’s do this by issuing official written letters to those they have abused saying that they are mandated to forever leave the church and supposedly, the church is “called by God” to write these letters of condemnation. This, too, is completely antithetical to biblical teachings. No place in scripture commends this hateful practice. Stonewalling is a narcissistic tactic I previously wrote about. It is the stark opposite of the spirit of love and charity found in the Bible.

Check out retired licensed therapist Bonnie Zieman’s book on religious shunning (provided in the resources below). CC will go so far as rebuking innocent Christians and critics from the pulpit. These public rebukes bring fear to the members, causing them to be more obedient to the leaders. Some CC’s will take drastic measures to keep out those who question or sniff hypocrisy and abuse. The problem is that the CC leaders are contradicting the Bible they preach and violating the rules of non-profits. The Christian God is not about hating; He is about loving and seeking the good, wellbeing and restoration of others. Even in cases of severe error, the Bible says we treat erring fellow Christians this way:

“Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” (2 Thessalonians 3:15)

Third, Calvary Chapel’s core doctrine throughout the movement is a doctrine of pastoral unaccountability. Yes, CC has other leadership doctrines they follow, but they will rarely admit it openly. It’s discussed in their secret meetings. It’s this enforced doctrine of unaccountability which creates a ripe breeding ground for spiritual abuse. This doctrine is based on a twisted version of John 10:12. Doctrines lead to beliefs which lead to behaviors. Abusive behaviors lead to abuse and trauma for the victims and societal damage. Hence, why we see the trails of abuse stories of CC survivors online.

The damaging doctrine is that the pastor is not accountable to the Board. Is Calvary Chapel a Cult? Well, many cults in history have used the cultic Moses Model doctrines. The problem is that this violates the ethical codes of tax-exempt non-profits. The doctrines espouse:

“They are there to minister to the spiritual needs of the people on a daily basis. With these components in place, there is a great form of church government where you, as the pastor, are not in the position of a hireling. Becoming a hireling is a real danger when the church is run by a Presbyterian kind of a government, and the Board is ruling over the church. The pastor is hired by the Board and can be fired by the Board in the same fashion. With that kind of rule the pastor becomes a hireling [a hireling, in the Bible, has a derogatory meaning. Smith is twisting the meaning of a hireling to mean something exactly opposite of what it means in the Bible].” – Chuck Smith (Italics and emphasis in brackets added; 4)

The problem is that with these doctrines, pastors are trained to think that accountability is an evil thing. This breeds more and more pastors who abuse, who think they can get away with anything!

A hireling, in the Bible, is a no-no. This is also projection (another psychological tactic) at play because unaccountable pastors are in fact “hirelings.”

Pastoral accountability is a healthy and necessary component of ethics (and Christianity). This is clearly against the codes for non-profits (check out Nevada’s Office of the Attorney General Guide to Non-Profits). The government warns of abusive non-profits, the one-man show:

“The nonprofit organization itself, however, may be held liable for negligent or wrongful acts of its employees or agents. In an extreme case, the organization may be dissolved. Under Nevada Revised Statutes (NRS) 41.480, a director may be held personally liable for injuries caused by the director’s intentional misconduct, fraud, or knowing violation of the law…Beware of the one person show. That is, if one or two directors dominate the board and the organization’s activities, do not relax and assume everything is running smoothly. ‘Nonmanagement’ is the quickest route toward trouble. Also, do not allow staff to exercise undue control over the board. Be aware of, and informed about, every major action taken by the organization. The buck stops with you.” (Italics added) – State of Nevada’s Attorney General

Non-profits, as unique organizations, should not exist for selfish reasons. Non-profits are supposed to have duties owed to others. This “others” includes members, public citizens and the government authorities. These duties include not hiding what they are truly doing and not pretending to be doing things they are not doing. Simply put, there is a higher standard for non-profits in our country and that is what our government has decided for tax privileged organizations.  The board needs to make sure the organization is acting legally and ethically – it’s about duty of care. 

Simply, Chuck Smith’s gaslighting antics breed more pastors who gaslight. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

There was once a fella, a public figure, named Alex Grenier. I admired his bravery and insights. Grenier was the son of a CC pastor. Grenier created a website called http://www.calvarychapelabuse.com. He has since shut the website down to focus on other endeavors, but the website was, for so long, a helpful resource for many of the spiritually abused. There were thousands of abuse-related comments and abuse testimonies on his site. Many victims came forward.

Chuck Smith, the founder of the CC movement (now deceased) blasted Grenier publicly during a sermon. Grenier’s “sin” was his defense of and platform for the hurting. I heard this with my own ears. Smith called Grenier a little barking dog previously and threatened that God would punish Grenier (Smith explained that what he (Smith) could do to Grenier wouldn’t hurt much, but what God could do to Grenier? Well! I’m glad that God is on my side…Smith boasted). Since when is it a Christian mandate to publicly issue a condemnation of divine retribution on someone? This, too, is a hypocritical power play. Smith (sadly) passed away exactly two years later (to the exact day) after issuing this “divine” threat of God’s punishment. Alas, the abuse tactic of gaslighting:

“If the bullies can make the target question his own sanity and believe that he must have done or said something to deserve the cruel treatment, all the better! Then he’ll surely keep quiet then.”

Unnecessary Fear: 4 Ways Bullies Use it to Control Their Targets by Cherie White at Chateau Cherie (5)

Is Calvary Chapel a Cult? The ancient Pharisees (whom Jesus rebuked) used gaslighting as they did legalism. They used man-made traditions at the expense of God’s revealed truth. They exhibited a spirit of elitism and lorded their false authority over others. Plain and simple, they had a real problem with Jesus’s real teachings and those who dared to question their false authority. They also made false claims and like the false prophets, made many followers. Did I mention that Smith predicted that Jesus Christ would return some point during the year of 1981? Apparently Jesus did not return in 1981. Let’s be cautious of churches and leaders who claim the authority and prophetic office of Moses and use that twisted notion to oppress others. Amen.

Jesus is far from happy when it comes to Calvary Chapel’s spiritual abuse antics. Simply!

“Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst.”

– C.S. Lewis

Action Steps:

If you are one of the abused. Speak out. Don’t be afraid or intimidated by religious abuse or legalism. God will not zap you if you “Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy”. It’s actually a biblical mandate to do so because God is on the side of the oppressed, the abused, the orphaned, etc. (see Proverbs 31:9). Simply, God does not side with spiritual abusers. Be kind to yourself and realize that the shame you feel is misplaced. Abusive CC pastors will heap abuse upon abuse when the victims speak out. Apathy when it comes to human oppression of any kind only brings harm to others.

When we follow the “golden rule”, we will seek to help free others from abuse and trauma. The emotional parts of your brain and your nervous system may be so jacked up and traumatized that you cannot speak up yet. This is okay, but make it a point to speak up in your time. Notify your state’s government division for non-profits. Check out the resources below. These will show you that you are not alone. Spiritual abuse issues are my specialty. Please check out the resources above.

If you are a counselor, therapist or psychologist. Please seek to understand the inner workings of cults, religious narcissism and ensuing PTSD. Cults, particularly therapy cults (like Bethel Sozo), will only increase after the Covid-19 pandemic’s mental health crisis. This will result in more people seeking out professional mental healthcare, “safe” looking churches or even therapy cults. Narcissism in cultic church settings is no joke. It’s dangerous. Spiritual abuse is a highly damaging and insidious form of psychological and emotional abuse because the victim is told that God has condemned them as well. In other forms of abuse, without a spiritual or religious component, one still feels that he or she can turn to God or faith in times of crisis. With spiritual abuse, there is often no lifeline, and not many therapists understand spiritual abuse. Check out retired licensed psychologist Bonnie Zieman’s book entitled Cracking the Cult Code for Therapists: What Every Cult Victim Wants Their Therapists to Know. Seek to understand the damaging effects of mandated shunning through Zieman’s other book, Shunned: A Survival Guide.

If you are a pastor or church leader. Please consider adding a certified mental health coach or licensed psychologist, therapist or counselor onto your leadership team or board. This will be a safeguard and will show you truly care. Consider adding a ministry in your church dedicated to spiritual abuse trauma survivors. Develop good policies to thwart abuse. Review what the IRS has to say about jeopardizing tax-exempt status, human rights violations and public policy. Please share this article with others in your circle. Pastors. Please. Think. There is a wasteland of hurting hearts and spiritual abuse all around you, and life-altering consequences to what you choose to teach.

“Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.” – 3 John 1:11

Sources:

  1. 1. “Love Bombing: 10 Signs to Know”Healthline. December 17, 2019. Retrieved March 29, 2021.
  2. 2. Richardson, James T. (2004). Regulating Religion: Case Studies from Around the Globe. New York City: Springer. p. 479. ISBN 0-306-47887-0.
  3. 3. Tourish, Dennis; Wohlforth, Tim (2000). On the Edge: Political Cults Right and Left. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe. p. 19. ISBN 978-0765606396.
  4. 4. Smith, Chuck (1993). “Church Government”. Calvary Chapel Distinctives. The Word For Today. Archived from the original on April 28, 2007 (http://www3.calvarychapel.com/library/smith-chuck/books/ccd.htm)
  5. 5. White, Cherie. Unnecessary Fear: 4 Ways Bullies Use it to Control Their Targets by Cherie White at Chateau Cherie; October 21, 2021. Retrieved December 12, 2021.

Simply Teaching the Bible, Simply? Not so much. This book and the cover are misleading and concerning. The upside down dove is used as a cult symbol in some cults. The mention of “Acts” gives the false impression that the book is “biblical.” There are rarely crosses in Calvary Chapel materials. Some researchers have noted that CC has strong links to free masonry and the Knights of Malta. This would be consistent with the symbols on the book cover above.

*The book cover photo, the use of criticisms and my notes regarding the book cover fall under “fair use” guidelines. Everything shared is the truth and/or can be verified by research. If you have any concerns or questions, feel free to use the contact form and I would be happy to help you.

2 thoughts on “Is Calvary Chapel a Cult? Spiritual Abuse, Narcissism and Legalism: 3 Reasons To Be Cautious of the Divisive Doctrines of Founder Chuck Smith”

Leave a Reply