Book Review - In the House of Friends

ICSA Today, 13.1, 2022, 21-22

Book Review: In the House of Friends: Understanding and Healing From Spiritual Abuse in Christian Churches

By Kenneth J. Garrett

Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR ( 2020. ISBN-13: 978-1-7252-6602-5 (paperback) $12.86; 978-1-7251-6603-2 (hardcover) $17.00; 978-1-7252-6604-5 (ebook/Kindle) $9.99 ( 126 pages (paperback).

Reviewed by Stephen Martin

At just a little more than 100 pages, this is one of the most comprehensive books available on spiritual abuse and recovery. Writing from his own personal experience, Kenneth Garrett tells the story of what he and his family encountered and suffered in an abusive church; then he relates steps that led to his recovery and offers insights from his experience to help others, as well. The book is an easy read with the author’s use of vivid language to illustrate what happened, and what he knows happens to others under abusive pastoral leadership.

In the Foreword, Michael Langone, Executive Director of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), discusses the inadequate knowledge and understanding that too many people in our culture have about spiritual abuse, and the meanings of the word cult in our society and potential communication impediments that can arise when people use that term. In Chapter 1, Ken tells of a personal conversation that illustrates a common and limited concept that people have about cults. He then points out that the abusive characteristics in cults are the same characteristics that exist in churches that are abusive.

Going beyond terminology to actual description, Ken cites several examples straight from the Bible to simply show what the problem is: abuse of power. These numerous references prove that the writers of the Bible were highly concerned about and opposed to spiritual abuse, thus dispelling the notion of many that a cult is only about unorthodox doctrine.

Ken examines the psychological roots of the behavior and speech of abusive group leaders; describes the nature of these groups, including the luring and appealing recruitment process; and tells through his own experience how involvement in a cultic group can produce thought reform and adverse personality change. He clearly gives examples of how mind control works, in that it uses social dynamics such as approval, disapproval, and fear, thus leading members to become psychologically trapped in these groups. Once they do manage to wrench themselves away from such a group, their emotional and spiritual wounds are often painful and deep. This dynamic is even more intense on the part of children who were raised in the group and then run away from it (and from their families), and the painful two-way rejection that often ensues between these children and their parents.

In addressing the recovery process, Ken says it “is more an issue of choosing what to undo than it is trying to figure out what to do” (p. 57). The healing for him and his family began with a return to their precult roots and environment. But they soon found that this wasn’t enough to undo the damage that had been inflicted on their souls and their family. Simply starting over by joining a healthy and balanced church is not easy, for many reasons that Ken empathetically describes. Former members usually need some time away … and time to seek justice. For Ken and his family, justice included court trials, resulting in their abusive pastor being found guilty of the sexual abuse of a minor and sentenced to 160 months of incarceration, with no possibility of parole.

In addition, Ken lists other beneficial, practical, and time-proven procedures for recovery. For his family, one component was a support group for survivors that he and his wife began and aptly named SAFE—Spiritual Abuse Forum for Education.

Ken and his family eventually started attending another church and found it to be healthy and caring. A few months later, they met with the pastor, told him their story, and experienced compassion in his reaction of rage as he listened. This reaction validated what Ken and his wife were feeling and they felt loved. This experience played a significant part in the healing of their wounds.

The most important traits that a pastor and church members must have include everything that’s the opposite of domination and deception. In addition, they need a basic understanding of thought reform and spiritual abuse, which they can use as an educational means to assist former members in their recovery process.

Following these experiences, Ken went on to get his Doctor of Ministry (DMin) degree, and he now serves as the senior pastor of Grace Church in Portland, Oregon. Part of his ministry there is helping people who have been affected by the same kind of painful experiences that he and his family had. He tells of the victims of abusive pastors who come to his church with shyness and guardedness, fearful that they might encounter the same thing as he and his family did. He offers the reader helpful advice on what to know and what to do (and not do) to help, and how to stay lovingly connected to family members and friends who are embedded in abusive churches.

About the Reviewer

Stephen Martin, MDiv, is a cofounder of Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, established in 1986, and is the younger brother of the late Dr. Paul Martin, founder and director of Wellspring. Stephen served as a workshop leader there to help restore the lives of victims of cults and spiritual abuse. An outgrowth of this work has been spiritual-abuse education in the public arena, especially churches, in which Stephen conducted more than 45 programs. He is author of the book The Heresy of Mind Control, which integrates the psychology of cults with biblical insight as an educational and therapeutic tool. He has coauthored two articles in ICSA publications.