Most who follow my blog know that for me to come out and name an institution and criticize it openly is not typical for me. And with the interest my recent post on Fairhaven has generated (more than 170 comments to date), I feel the need to explain myself and my own perspective on Fairhaven Baptist Church and College.
Over a period of several years, I gradually became dissatisfied with fundamentalism, and in January of 2005 I finally left the movement. 10 months later, I founded Fundamentally Reformed, as a way to share my own thoughts and walk through all the changes in my thinking. It was an online journal, and I did a bit of venting at first. (You can still read my story, here.) Writing was good for me, and in the first several months it made me face some issues and gain clarity by thinking through them and standing up to scrutiny. After my first few months of blogging, I had learned to temper my tone and I realized that I still did appreciate the good in much of fundamentalism. I continue to be thankful for fundamentalism’s zeal for truth and seriousness about Scripture.
Today, I frequently get asked for advice from people in fundamentalist churches who are awakening to some of the problems in fundamentalism. I almost never tell them to just bail ship, tuck tail and run. I have come to the conclusion that it isn’t always practical or responsible to just abandon the IFB movement and not touch it with a ten foot pole. People still have families and friends there, and sometimes they don’t know what to do. I try to encourage incremental change, and a time of prayer and evaluation. It might be wise to leave your church, it might be wise to stay and work for change. I’m happy when people stay and when they leave, and when they find another church (IFB or otherwise) that allows them to focus more on God’s grace.
But over my years of blogging, I have not apologized for speaking out against what I see as real problems in fundamentalism. And along the way, I’ve encountered literally dozens and dozens of people who have shared their stories with me, and thanked me for this blog. (You can read some of these stories here.) I have also come across stories elsewhere in other forums, I’ve reconnected with old friends on Facebook and over the phone, and I’ve been heart-broken many times at what I hear. Some people are so harmed by hyper-fundamentalism (the worst variations of fundamentalism), that they walk away from the Faith altogether. And I hope my blog helps prevent some of that, and helps people find others with similar stories who haven’t left God or Christianity, but have found a vibrant Christianity outside fundamentalism’s rigid boundaries.
[As this post will get a bit long, I’m putting a “read more” link here. Click for the full post.]
I’m going to elaborate on my story here, because I think it will help people evaluate my motives in blogging about the problems at Fairhaven.
I am thankful for so many things from my time at Fairhaven. I went for four years of college plus 14 months of Master’s school. I was accepted and respected by many of my peers, and was involved in a number of ministries while at Fairhaven. Pastor Jeff Voegtlin befriended me, and I was also a helper in the junior high youth ministry since my freshman year. I studied Greek and came to respect Dan Armacost, and I rubbed shoulders with some of the other staff members. All of these men seemed serious about Christ and dedicated to the Gospel. They were trying to raise the bar when it came to education standards at the college and academy, and seemed to be true men of God. They invested in me and positively impacted me, of that I’m sure. I also had the opportunity to represent the college on ensemble one year, and mens’ quintet for two years. I had a lot of fun, learned a great deal, matured and grew through my time there. I made mistakes and was ministered to. But the best thing of all was that I met my dear wife there!
However, during my last few years at Fairhaven, I began to wake up to some of the problems there. My sophomore year is when I really should have realized something was up. I got back to the dorm and rumor had it I wasn’t going to come back. That was news to me. There was a blow up with missionaries sent out by Fairhaven, and some squabbling. Since my parents were missionaries in the same field, and since they were friends with the one who was in the wrong (per Fairhaven), they assumed I would leave. I was asked to leave or challenged to leave by some who knew me. But I just figured it was a misunderstanding and determined to think the best about it. Then Dr. Behrens left (that may have happened first, but both happened my sophomore year). I was shocked at all the dirt that was dug up on Bill Behrens in front of the congregation Sunday night, and my roommate at the time was skeptical to the extreme about it all. I thought my roommate was just exaggerating things, and again I just decided to overlook this.
As time went on, I came to realize that many of the sermons in chapel and at the church were more about the delivery style and the vigor of the preacher, than they were about Biblical content and depth. At least it seemed to me, that the sermons were pressed onto the passages of Scripture, rather than flowing from them. And the same themes seemed to dominate: salvation, character, “grit your teeth and do it”, calls for re-dedication, toe-stomping messages, and parenting. I got the best I could from the sermons and tried to keep a good attitude, but sometimes friends I respected in the dorms would also point out the lack of Scriptural basis in this sermon or that, and express dismay over this.
There was also an excessive emphasis on manliness. I remember being lectured against using hair spray or wearing pink shirts. I thought that a bit extreme, but I was a conservative kind of guy, so I didn’t let it faze me. Then there was the humiliation of the men in the college who didn’t want to wrestle in the college wrestle-off. They were publicly called “fish” and sometimes staff members or preacher Voegtlin would even declare that if you didn’t wrestle, you’d never do anything for God, or you’d never amount to much in the ministry. A close friend of mine conscientiously abstained from wrestling just to protest this excessive and errant teaching. A few others joined him. I reasoned that since I was in the youth ministry, I needed to go along and wrestle so as to set a good example, but I respected my friend for raising valid objections. Added to this, were occasions where college guys would haul off and hit someone in a college sports match, and then be applauded and lifted up as a man’s man, when in fact a true man would hold his temper and not do the easy thing and just hit someone (on a team that was not even a Christian team, no less).
I also was a bit alarmed when the staff talked about their 18 month olds and 2 or 3 year olds fighting each other with boxing or wrestling, or having long spanking sessions with them. It seemed too much.
But my biggest lesson in the Fairhaven way came my senior year. Sermons in chapel started to reference “those Masters’ students” in a negative way. We were causing trouble, asking questions (unbelievable, right?), and worse some of us were quoting John MacArthur (who doesn’t believe in the blood, mind you — according to Fairhaven). Problem was, there were only 5 or 6 of us, and sometimes only 1 or 2 of us in the chapel sessions where these things were being said. Several of us had weekly prayer meetings with key staff members, Armacost, Damron, Jeff Voegtlin, Randy Love. None of these men raised the issue with any of us directly. But the matter came up in sermons. We heard that if you quoted John MacArthur, you’d get a zero on any paper you turned in. And yet the dorm supervisor knew that one of us (a friend of mine) had been teased about having MacArthur books all four years he was there. It was in the open and known, and now all of a sudden, as it gets closer to graduation, they are alarmed about it.
So we talked with each other about this, what else are we to do? Two guys thought their books and tapes from John MacArthur’s mailing list were not being delivered to them. We felt like we were being spoken ill of on all sides with no opportunity to speak up or explain ourselves. So one day, my friend Jerry and I were dragged into Roger Voegtlin’s office. They were looking for some of the other Masters’ students but none were around. Jeff Voegtlin was there too. And then preacher had Jerry’s girlfriend (she may have been his fiance at the time) brought in as well, to observe. We were given the “what for”. We were spreading gossip and talking with each other instead of going to staff. I tried to bring up some of our valid points of contention. I talked about the mail. I talked about how Charles Finney (who denies the substitutionary atonement) was required reading while MacArthur was censored. But pretty much we just were quiet. At one point, Roger pointed at Jerry’s girlfriend and said, if you don’t stand down on this, I’ll say one word to her father and this will be over (indicating Jerry’s relationship). Needless to say we acquiesced and apologized. I’m sure we really did do something wrong, but looking back what were we expected to do? I did ask Preacher what I should tell my friend who was reading MacArthur. At that point he got upset and said he didn’t want to even talk to my friend, because if he did, he’d get mad and kick him out of college (it was the spring semester of our senior year). When I told my friend that, he started weeping because this college president was supposed to be his pastor (we were encouraged to join their church), and yet his own pastor wouldn’t even talk to him! I came away from the experience learning how to strong arm any dissent and how best to silence opposition: hold their fiance or anything else you can get, over their head! I shook my head at this story for a long time, but figured it was just a political way of doing business, just a minor thing, no big deal. I determined to think the best of Fairhaven anyway.
Then later I encountered or became aware of the Fairhaven policy of parents shunning their way-ward children. I met some who had their parents abandon them. I heard of one 19 year old locked out of his house with no advance warning. Left on the street in the cold. I heard from one who was a member at a Reformed-type church, but who since they advocated careful, moderate drinking, were still treated with disdain by their parents. Their children had never met their grandparents, and the oldest was something like 7 years old. It’s not like these were pagan people living it up in the world, they were part of an active vibrant church, from what I knew. I also saw a negligence toward parents and family and an emphasis on spending time at Fairhaven or away by your own selves as a family. A relative of mine confided in me that he was so angry over his sibling’s treatment of their family that he had given up on Baptists of any kind. I can’t even share all that was said to me, I remember how much it shocked and devastated me to realize how these oddities of Fairhaven were wreaking havoc on people and families all across the country.
Over the last few years I’ve learned of stories of what was alleged to have gone on at Fairhaven. Recently in a Facebook group that I’m a member of (I didn’t start it), I heard tales of four or maybe five different individuals recounting spanking sessions they received at the hands of their parents where the numbers of swats ranged from 70 to 300 at one time. And these individuals are not related to each other. Five different families with that level of abuse, and yet looking back the culture of Fairhaven seems to encourage that. Preacher would berate fathers who didn’t spank hard enough, or diligently enough. People would be reminded from the pulpit about their wayward children, and he’d get everyone all fired up to go out and do something. And then with Fairhaven’s past troubles with the law (an investigation into the spanking there), the government was always portrayed in the worst possible light, so no one would think of calling authorities or anything. People turned a blind eye and just let parents do what was needed to get their kids to grow up right.
I’ve heard other stories. One is worth sharing here. After a wedding, the newly married couple were walking to the reception and crossed paths with Preacher Voegtlin (who had just married them). He said something to the effect, “What do you think your chances are of having your kids turn out right?” Stunned, they didn’t know how to answer him. His reply, “You’re a _____ and you’re a _______, I’d say your chances are zero.” What kind of comment is that? Don’t you think you shouldn’t have married them then, if you really thought that way? And why can you write off people like this?
Fairhaven claims to be the best church in America. At least Preacher Voegtlin would say that often in the pulpit. People acted that way. And there was always something wrong with any other college, and any well-known names that weren’t invited to Fairhaven.
Much of what I’ve shared is hearsay. I can’t prove much of it. It’s my impression of Fairhaven. There are more damaging claims and more serious claims, and based on my history with Fairhaven, I suspect they are true (many of them). But the ethos of the place is definitely one of rigidness and a bit of hysteria. I felt it was so hard to keep going when I was there. There was a burden and everything depended on you so much. Right things were taught and preached often, but the onus was on you to get right, you to go out and reach the lost, you to tithe and give, you to just “do it”. I felt we were beaten down and then our guilt would make us fall in line, repent and keep going. Very rarely were we encouraged to lay it all at Jesus’ feet, rarely was He presented as a Lord of Grace and healing, we felt that God was distant and demanding, and only interested in what we turned in on our soul-winning and ministry slips.
These are my opinions, and may be clouded by my own experience. I think there is a problem with legalism there. There is a performance-based sanctification model. A man-centered Christianity. Powerless Preaching, and a lack of grace. Not everyone is bankrupt, there is much good there. But the power and the life is hidden and tucked away. The energy to live the Christian life is clouded by the demands to live the Christian life. There is too little teaching and too much doing. Too little encouraging, and too much judging. Too little praying for people, and too much talking about people. I hope the picture I’m painting is very misguided and wrong, but I don’t have much basis to think it is.
More than twenty years ago, Roger Voegtlin stood up on a Sunday evening and preached a very famous sermon: “Why I’m Not 100% for Jack Hyles”. For two hours he listed and detailed numerous personal stories that were shared to him, he played clips of Hyles’ sermons, and he expressed his conviction that Hyles was guilty of immorality and that the evidence was too great to be ignored. The charges against Pastor Roger Voegtlin are not as severe as Jack Hyles. But a lot of them are similar in the sense that they are based upon a large amount of personal stories and recollections. Eventually the number of the stories overwhelm you and you have to believe either there are an awful lot of good liars, or something is rotten in Denmark.
I share this story because I’m no longer on the fence. I think Fairhaven has proven itself to be a hyper-fundamentalist institution. They have avoided criticism and tried to smear those who would bring it. They have flaunted recent allegations of abuse, by the fact that for a time they had a picture of the paddle they presented to CNN on their church website. They have not issued a public statement and show no remorse. Instead they insist nothing wrong ever happened, and that everyone who would speak out against them is a liar or hates the cause of Christ. Well, I think the cause of Christ is BIGGER than Fairhaven.
The story of Fairhaven is a lesson to us all. Well-meaning religion, old-fashioned tradition, man-centered pragmatism, performance-based Christianity doesn’t work. Fairhaven is not standing for the old-time religion. They are standing against the world for their peculiar brand of Christianity. The stories told of them sound awful similar to tales of Jack Hyles, and J. Frank Norris. They represent an approach to the Christian life which is damaging and harmful.
Please, don’t abandon Christianity because of the Fairhavens of this world. Study out legalism and grace. Learn how the Gospel is for believers. Find some good Christian books (like these and these). Research for yourself on the internet the claims of arrogant pastors. Don’t just follow blindly, mindlessly obey the rules given to you, and let someone else do your thinking for you. Be wary and don’t let someone turn you against your family. And don’t glory in the fall of another, but stay focused on Jesus Christ.
Some have said that I instigated this whole thing with Fairhaven. As if I was behind the CNN report. My wife and I laughed when we heard that. I’m a spectator seeing how all this will turn out, as I don’t have too much time to devote to “the cause”. I’m not for a cause that wants to shut down Fairhaven altogether or to expose all IFB churches as harbors of abuse. And that goal is not what is behind the efforts to get the story out about Fairhaven either, from what I’ve read and seen. People are standing up to specific abuse which has been harbored in Fairhaven, and they want an apology, an admission of wrongdoing, and they hope to save some other little ones from the fate they endured. Is that so wrong?
Should this be aired in public? Well it has been. I brought the story when I knew it would be aired. People have been saying these things in other venues, and on other forums. But here at my site some have given their names and stood out in public to stand against this abuse. I applaud them. I don’t want to silence a voice that might need to be shared. Is this the best way to handle things? I don’t know, but this is definitely grass roots and I’m pretty confident that these people couldn’t all get together walk down to Fairhaven tomorrow, share their story before the church, and see any change happen. This tactic has been effective in the past, and if you don’t have anything to hide why be afraid of something like this anyway? If all you hear are ad hominem attacks and Fairhaven pointing to the failures and flaws of those speaking up, then what really is going on here? Doesn’t it seem like they’re just backpedaling as fast as they can? Slinging mud and hoping to avoid serious damage? Why aren’t they just stating their side of the story boldly, courageously and candidly? I didn’t get that impression from the CNN interview.
This isn’t about the freedom to spank. This isn’t about spanking, as any honest hearing of the CNN reports (and there were three prior to the Fairhaven report) would show. This is about a specific cover up and history of abetting abuse, and the refusal for Fairhaven to face up and apologize or admit wrongdoing.
Barring any more significant developments, I don’t intend to post on Fairhaven again. Eventually these posts won’t be on the front page of my site and will be forgotten. I have purposely tried to moderate the comments here carefully. I have not spread the story far and wide on multiple different forums where I could have brought it up. I have tried not to say more than I think I should. But right now, even if I differ with some of the perspectives, language, and tactics of those sharing their stories, I feel it is right to stand up with them as victims of abuse. I don’t want to be in any way complicit when stories such as these are coming out and there’s an opportunity to prevent anything like them from happening again.
I pray that Fairhaven takes a good internal look, and tries to purge out any wrongdoing and clamp down on parental abuse in the church. I hope more accountability and oversight can be arranged in the church structure and that steps can be taken to own up to any failures, and set a course to change for the better. Other fundamentalist institutions faced with similar problems have done this (ABWE and BJU are recent examples). I hope and pray that Fairhaven will be wise enough to follow suit. An independent investigator could be hired to look into these very real and hurtful allegations, and other such steps can be done. I say this because some don’t know that this is how other Christian fundamentalist institutions handle such public up-cries and allegations. There is a right way to handle things. I hope Fairhaven follows that path.