Basic Church Information
Church Name: Grace Immanuel Bible Church
Senior/Lead Pastor: Jerry Wragg
Elders/Leadership Staff: See the Church’s Leadership & Staff Page
Address: 17475 Jonathan Dr., Jupiter, FL 33477
Phone #: 561-746-4617
Email: Contact Page
Online Services: http://www.gibcjupiter.org/media/mainservice/
Preaching Style: Expository / Topical Mix
Membership Requirements: Yes
Tithing/Compelled Giving: Yes
Financial Transparency: Unknown
Affiliations: John MacArthur/Grace Community Church, Ian MacFarlane (See Red Flag Section for info)
Red Flags of Spiritual Abuse, Coercive Control, or Exploitation/Opportunism
Spiritual Abuse Definition: Any attempt to exert power and control over someone using religion, faith, or beliefs can be spiritual abuse.
Coercive Control Definition: Coercive control is a form of emotional abuse or intimate partner violence that can cause psychological trauma. Here, we use it to describe a specific form of abuse practiced in the local church setting by men and women in church leadership positions. It describes a pattern of behaviors a perpetrator uses to gain control and power by eroding a person’s autonomy and self-esteem. This can include acts of intimidation, threats, and humiliation. Coercive control also refers to a pattern of controlling behaviors that create an unequal power dynamic in a relationship. In the local church setting, these behaviors give the church leader power over their Christian subordinate, making it difficult for them to leave the church.
Spiritual Exploitation/Opportunism: “Spiritual opportunism refers to the exploitation of spiritual ideas (or of the spirituality of others, or of spiritual authority): for personal gain, partisan interests or selfish motives. Usually the implication is that doing so is unprincipled in some way, although it may cause no harm and involve no abuse.”
I see potential for spiritual abuse and coercive control in multiple ways at this church, and also signs of exploitation/opportunism. I will list them in this section.
Please note that my observations in this section of the church check are not purely factual, although they are based on facts about the church and facts about coercive control, spiritual abuse, and spiritual exploitation and opportunism, but they also include my personal opinions based on my knowledge and experience with various types of abuse, coercive control, exploitation, and religious cults. I am not a professional psychologist or therapist of any kind. Some professionals and resources on these issues worth looking into if you’re interested in learning more:
ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association)
Spiritual Abuse Resources
On to the Red Flags!
1. Membership & Church Discipline
This church has official memberships, a sin discipline policy, and membership classes lasting several weeks long. While the person who responded to my inquiries claimed the church doesn’t have a written sin discipline policy, a former member sent us the Church Bylaws for Grace Immanuel Baptist Church, and they actually do.
Why are these things red flags of spiritual abuse, coercive control, and exploitation?
The nature of a membership contract/covenant in a local church setting creates an environment where Christians are commonly abused, manipulated, and devoured spiritually, emotionally, and mentally as individuals. They are contractually obligated to submit to and obey church leadership, or face church discipline, and possibly ex-communication. None of this defers to Christ as the ultimate authority, but to men and their interpretations of Scripture, as the ultimate authority.
Church Discipline takes the reins out of the hands of the Holy Spirit within the Christian individual and puts them into the hands of men. Church Discipline is literally the act of men putting themselves in the place of the Holy Spirit and trying to do His job by convicting people of sin and then punishing them, which Christ saved us from on the cross. Any usurping of Jesus Christ, His work, His authority, His role, and the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life will lead to spiritual abuse. It leads to idolatry as well. Men, no matter how highly they esteem themselves in Christ’s Church Body, do not have the authority of Jesus Christ, nor are they responsible for the Holy Spirit’s job. They are not the mediator between man and God, and they are incapable of doing the work of the Holy Spirit. To think otherwise is insulting to God and insolently prideful of men.
In Article VIII of the Church Bylaws, it describes the church’s “Morality and grounds for church discipline.” These moral failings can be interpreted any number of ways by the church that aren’t biblical, and lead to severe spiritual abuse. One example of this happening would be in the case of a physically abusive marriage. If a wife were to divorce her husband for being physically abusive without consulting or getting permission from the church first, they may deem her divorce unbiblical, then place her under church discipline and demand that she repent or remain married to an abusive husband.
Membership agreements typically require people to financially support the church. This church requires it as well. This is basically a tithe, a mandated payment to the church for membership, which contradicts the freewill giving taught in the New Testament, isn’t a Christian practice, and exploitative in nature. It is also deceptive to claim that the church doesn’t preach tithing, while at the same time they require financial support for church membership. While biblically correct, they are not practicing what they preach. This is the same type of hypocrisy practiced by the abusive Pharisees in the Bible.
For more information on why memberships and church discipline are red flags of spiritual abuse, read my upcoming post on the topic, which I will post later this week. I will update this bullet-point with a link to the post once it’s published.
2. No Transparency
As mentioned in the first red flag in this section, the church bylaws at GIBC dictate that members must financially support the church. Meanwhile, there is very little financial transparency at all.
When I asked a representative of the church about their level of financial transparency, he wrote this:
“Financial information isn’t really shared with non-members to any degree. Summary financials are shared with members, but not details regarding salaries. The elders are given the responsibility to lead the church and they are those appointed who will give an account to God for their decisions. (Hebrews 13:17)
"We practice a church polity that could be described as elder-led, not congregational. The congregation votes on affirming elders, but they do not bear the burden of financial or administrative decisions.”
Additionally, the church bylaws state in Article II: Membership: Privileges of Membership (emphasis mine) -
“...membership does not grant unqualified access to church records (including, but not limited to financial reports, documents pertaining to members, detailed meeting minutes, and correspondence.) This information is considered personal and confidential and is therefore held in trust among church leaders…”
This is a red flag of exploitation because, while the church requires donations from members, it doesn’t appear to show full transparency. It isn’t holding itself to the same standard it requires of its members.
3. Calvinism/Reformed Theology
As usual, any church that identifies itself as Calvinist or Reformed Protestant will have a red flag of potential spiritual abuse from us. This is one of our biases. We briefly covered the reasons for this in our Church Check for Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, but to summarize:
John Calvin was an abusive, tyrannical, murderous dictator in his theocracy over Geneva, Sweden.
John Calvin’s doctrines change the nature and character of God to reflect someone without mercy, grace, love, or justice, which inevitably leads to abuse in the local church.
John Calvin’s doctrines regarding salvation and Lordship salvation produce rotten fruit of abuse when applied in the local church. This doctrine alone heaps burdens on the backs of the Church and inflicts a yoke of slavery on Christ’s followers.
For more information on the problems with Calvinism as well as how it can lead to spiritual abuse, check out the following resources:
Soteriology 101 with Dr. Leighton Flowers
Shawn McCraney’s recent sermons on Calvinism & Romans 8:28
What Love is This? By Dave Hunt
On the church website under Resources and then Booklets, you can find a booklet entitled “Proactive Discipleship”. I’ve linked it above. This booklet is jam-packed with red flags of spiritual abuse, besides being unbiblical.
In summary, this booklet encourages and instructs Christians on becoming “disciple-makers,” but based on its contents, I would change the word “disciple-makers” to “busybodies”. It’s a “How to Judge Others and Point out Every Little Splinter in Their Eye” manual. It is ultimately teaching Christians to be meddlers, quarrellers, and busybodies.
On page 2, we are told that to be a good and proactive discipler, we must “Study their biography in depth,” “Study their present habits in great detail,” and “Bring both warnings and encouragement depending on the disciple’s habits.”
They use 1 Peter 3:10-18 to support these instructions, but I don’t see how that passage is relevant to these suggestions at all. They are clearly instructing people to pry into the personal lives of other Christians. They call it “helping” others and treat it like a cross to bear, but this level of meddling into the lives of others is clearly cult-like according to Dr. Steve Hassan’s BITE Model (linked at the end of this section), and it brings a few Scriptures to mind as well: 1 Thess. 4:11; 2 Thess. 3:11. Anyone with enough time to be a busybody of this magnitude isn’t busy at work in their own lives.
On Page 3, the author claims that a reason why people don’t “proactively disciple” others is because of their own selfishness because they’re trying to protect themselves. They say they are “Selfish in that they self-protect: They don’t engage others so that they won’t have to be vulnerable themselves.”
This kind of statement shows that this church has little to no concern for people coming out of an abusive relationship of any kind, including spiritually abusive churches and religions. The insistence that people not “protect” themselves, calling it selfish, is a huge red flag, and another thing mentioned by Dr. Steven Hassan in his Undue Influence Continuum and BITE Model (all linked at the end of this section).
Additionally, the fact that this author is morally shaming anyone that disagrees with them by calling them selfish is manipulative, emotionally controlling, and abusive. Rather than using Scripture and reason to convince their reader of their position, they are attacking the personal character of anyone that might question it, leaving no room for discussion or loving disagreement.
On Page 4, the author literally writes that in Proactive Discipleship, you must teach people what to think and how to think. This is the opposite of encouraging critical thinking and the individual believer’s free will, as well as their right to think what they want about Scripture. This is Undue Influence and Thought Control, two serious symptoms of cults and abusive organizations of any kind.
There is so much more in this booklet that I could get into and use as an example of spiritual abuse, coercive control, and mind control/undue influence, but unfortunately, there is plenty more to get to in this Red Flag section, and not enough time! Perhaps I will set aside more time and space to address this booklet as I’ve done with Pastor Paul Robie’s ebook on Tithing. For now, let’s move along.
5. Church Booklet: “Which Church is God’s Will for Me”
Another Red Flag of Coercive Control and Spiritual Abuse can be found in the church’s booklet entitled “Which Church is God’ Will for Me?” In this booklet, the author Jonathan Anderson states:
“God wants you to go to a church that has the following non-negotiable realities:
1. God’s Voice Is the Only One Heard in the Church
2. Qualified Men Lead the Church
3. Kingdom Membership is Manifested in Church Membership
“Or, very simply,
1. Preaching of the Word
2. Qualified Leadership
3. Church Discipline”
There are so many red flags and questions to ask in response to this claim.
First, “God wants you to…” is a very serious way to start a sentence. And if you’re going to make a claim about God’s desires, you better be right, and you better be honest about being right. Often, however, pastors and other church leaders use this language in order to control, manipulate, and coerce people. And rarely if ever, are their claims about God biblical or true. Notice the author didn’t even qualify this statement with, “It’s my opinion that God wants you to,” or “I think, based on my knowledge and experience that God wants you to,” or even “I think, based on these arguments and facts, that God wants you to…” This author is actually stating that God wants you to go to the kind of church they describe here. A presumptuous and prideful claim indeed, if not spiritually abusive. And in using God’s name, a clear tactic of those practicing coercive control over others. Unless you can prove something 100% with God’s desires, you should probably just say “I think you should do this.”
Second is the word “non-negotiable”. By non-negotiable, the author clarifies near the end of this document that he means “These three (non-negotiables), however, are certainly ones that must be in place for Christ to own an assembly as His church.” Did you get that? In order for a church to really be Christian, they must abide by these three “non-negotiables”. Another way to coerce or control a Christian is to tell them that unless they abide by your rules while claiming they’re God’s, of course, they aren’t really Christian. This is another example of spiritual abuse, my friends. We don’t place Christ in charge by performing certain works (creating the right kind of church/assembly). That is the Law/Legalism. We can never live up to Christ’s standards perfectly. And we don’t decide what those standards are. He does. Putting Jesus’ name in place of your ideas is dishonest and spiritually abusive.
I will not argue specific points regarding each of these “non-negotiables.” I actually agree with some points made by the author, such as the importance of the teaching of the Word. Unfortunately, these issues are taken to a legalistic and man-made level when turned into a formula for a “truly Christian” church. And one which doesn’t include any grace, liberty in Christ, or the preaching of the Gospel. That’s a red flag if there ever was one. Furthermore, each “non-negotiable” can be easily manipulated to fit literally any local church today. It makes the formula virtually meaningless in the end.
We all have our own opinion of what kind of church is God’s will for us. I have my own “formula” that I try to fulfill when looking for a church myself. I’ve even strongly tried to convince others, and still do, of that “formula.” To claim, however, that God wants them to follow MY idea of what a good church is, or they’re not really owned by Jesus Christ if they don’t follow my formula, would be not only wrong but spiritually abusive. Trying to convince someone of something you believe is biblical and right is one thing. Telling them they must conform to your view because it’s what God wants is something else entirely.
6. Former Members Speak Out
Another big red flag of spiritual abuse, exploitation, and coercive control for this church is the number of people who have come out of the church and spoken up about abuse in the church. Specifically, I’ve received emails from multiple people who have left this church and describe enduring treatment that exhibits coercive control, spiritual abuse, and exploitation.
Even worse, the Calvinist doctrines taught by this church and their practices regarding family relationships also seem to enable a form of emotional and spiritual abuse from husbands toward their wives and from parents toward their children. However, I cannot disclose specific cases in order to protect the privacy of those who have contacted me with this information.
These people wish to keep their stories to themselves, but for some public complaints, see the slideshow below.
Last but not least is the fact that Ian MacFarlane, who was a pastor at GIBC in the late 90’s, was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. This isn’t as much a red flag of abuse within the church today as it is a heads up to how the church has handled a situation involving sexual sin and criminal activity in the past.
Was the church told about what happened? Were they expected to keep it a secret? Was it kept from them? How was MacFarlane treated for this behavior? We know he lost his position in the church, but what was the tone surrounding this situation from church leadership? Secretive, defensive, and controlling, or open/transparent, loving, and gracious?
As always, I recommend everyone attending a church walk themselves through Dr. Steve Hassan’s BITE Model and his Undue Influence Continuum. I’m also adding my infographic on what a Wolf’s BARK looks like. If your church and/or its leaders BARK at you, you may be in a spiritually abusive church. Please check these resources to protect yourself from spiritual abuse and other forms of mistreatment.
When I contacted GIBC to ask my questions, someone in the Music Ministry responded. I did not ask my full list of questions, since they rarely get answered and the website provided answers to many of my questions anyway. So I only asked a few of the most difficult questions to find answers to. I will quote this individual in the corresponding questions.
What is the church’s official position on the topic of tithes and offerings?
This was one of the few questions I asked the church representative. This was their representative’s response:
“We believe and teach that the Old Testament tithe is not a command for the New Testament church. Instead, “each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7).”
While this church does not teach that the tithe is a command for Christians, they require financial support in their church bylaws from their members.
2. Does the church have official membership? Does it include a membership agreement or contract?
The representative of the church had this answer to this question:
“We esteem church membership very highly, believing it to be God’s design for the church. Prospective members take a several-week class, give their testimony of salvation to several elders, and then verbally covenant themselves with the church in the presence of the congregation.”
So yes, the church has official membership. While this person didn’t specify whether there is a written agreement or contract, I could find out from some former members that there is. I have copies of several pages from the church bylaws, which members must read and agree to in order to become members.
3. Is the church financially transparent or accountable to either the local church, a third party (such as an auditor) or the universal Church Body/non-member believers?
The representative of GIBC that answered these questions was very vague in response to this question:
“Information about the finances of the church is made available to members.”
When I pressed for specifics, I asked “As for financial information being available to church members, what kind of financial information does that include? A complete run-down of the budget and how donations are dispersed, salary information, etc.? Also, is that information available to non-members like me, or only or members?” This was his response: