I joined Davis Evangelical Church in Davis California, which was later named Grace Valley Christian Center (GVCC), back in 1975, and I was appointed by the Pastor (P.G. Mathew) to be an elder, along with four or five others. My wife to be, Marika Savas, joined the church about 6 months later. There was a strong emphasis on discipleship, accountability, and submission, and Watchman Nee’s Spiritual Authority was recommended reading. We were young and zealous for the Lord, and trusted God to work through His delegated authority, but somehow I was never completely comfortable with the Pastor’s habit of freely discussing peoples problems in their absence in a critical way, and of publicly and privately rebuking people in a harsh and belittling manner. It did not seem to me to reflect Christ’s character, but I assumed, as did others, that it was primarily a difference in culture and personality (he was brought up in a very strict Christian home in India, I grew up in a more lax nominally Christian home in California). But the uneasiness persisted.
After Marika and I got married in the church, we went to Texas for Bible translation training with Wycliffe, partly motivated, no doubt, to escape the church’s influence in an acceptable manner. While we were gone, my brother Dave, who was also a member of the church, decided to leave the church. These are the circumstances which led up to his departure: It was deer hunting season, and Dave wanted to go hunting for the weekend, so he asked Pastor Mathew if it would be all right to miss church that weekend. The Pastor gave his permission, so Dave went hunting. That Sunday the Pastor used his situation as an object lesson in his sermon, talking about how some people loved hunting more than God, and going on at length about how flakey such persons are, and how true Christians will always put God first, etc. The church was very small at the time, and most people knew that Dave had gone hunting that weekend, but they had no way of knowing that he had asked for and received permission from the pastor. When David returned and found out what had been said from the pulpit, he was filled with grief, shame, anger, and feelings of betrayal. He went to the Pastor to confront him, but the Pastor refused to acknowledge that he had done anything wrong. My brother and his wife then left the church, and was shunned by many of his friends who remained in the church. This is the typical treatment of those who leave the church dissatisfied.
When we returned from Texas to California in 1980, Marika and I were summoned to a series of meetings with the pastor and the elders. As we were going in we saw a couple coming out of the church office in tears. I was scared. We sat in chairs in the middle of the room. We were rebuked for, among other things, not staying in closer contact with the pastor while we were in Texas, being autonomous, harboring critical thoughts about the church. My wife was called in to another meeting alone. The setting was similar: she sat in a chair in the middle of the room, while the pastor and elders stood around her. According to my wife, the pastor went on yelling at her in this meeting for close to an hour, while she hung her head and wept.
Over the years, there were many incidents of persons being publicly humiliated in church services, particularly in the “flock” meetings, meetings held on the first Saturday of the month for those who had made life-time commitments to the church. One of the worst cases of public humiliation that I witnessed happened in an evening service, maybe 10 years ago. A young girl was at the pulpit reciting Scripture. She was not reading loudly or clearly enough for the pastor, so he began to sharply correct her, but the more he rebuked her, the more confused and upset she became. She finally burst into tears, but the pastor did not let up. He began to rebuke her for being emotional and commanded her to stop crying. The Pastor’s wife, who was horrified, along with the congregation, made a move to the pulpit to stop what was happening, and the pastor told her to stay in her place.
About 4 years ago, Marika and I returned from the annual church retreat in Tahoe to find a note from our 21 year old daughter, Genevieve, saying that she was leaving the church and leaving our home, and did not leave a phone number or an address to contact her. We were absolutely devastated. After a period of time, we were able to contact her, and repair our relationship. She was comfortable coming to visit us but wanted nothing to do with being a Christian, and over time began to explain why she left. She was being repeatedly rebuked by the college group leader, Pastor Edgington, both publicly and privately, telling her that she “disgusted” him when she prayed, that her worship was only for show, that she should not pray in public, and that she would make a terrible wife for some Christian man.
Some time after our daughter left the church, she was formally excommunicated in a church service, and my wife and I were publicly chastised for failing as parents. Later the Pastor told my wife to avoid “social visits” with our daughter Genevieve, who by this time was engaged to a non-Christian gentleman. We discussed this matter between ourselves, and although we were afraid to disobey the Pastor, we were convinced that to follow such counsel would be a violation of our conscience. We called a meeting with the Pastor to get clarification, and to ask for advice about the appropriateness of attending our daughter’s wedding, and hosting a wedding reception for her. The meeting proved to be confrontational, highly intimidating, and utterly unfruitful. I went in with a list of questions, but was not able to get any answers. Shortly thereafter I made a phone call to a leader in the church, Ron Guly, who is close to the Pastor, to ask him specifically what he thought the pastor meant by “no social visits”. He told me that he thought it meant that when someone is sinning, it is a Biblical form of discipline to avoid that person, to convict them of their sin.
After discussing this conversation with my wife, we both agreed to leave the church and wrote a letter, explaining why we left — that we felt we had a divine obligation to continue to relate to our daughter, in order to win her to the Lord — and expressing our appreciation for the years of ministry. The letter was delivered to the pastor on a Sunday. The very next evening I came home from work, and there in my living room was Elder Gerrit Buddingh and Ron Guly. They were there to say that basically the whole thing was a misunderstanding, that Pastor never intended for us to avoid visits with our daughter. My wife asked Gerrit what the Pastor did mean when he said “no social visits”, and his answer was “I don’t know”. I wanted to say that there was nothing more to discuss, since we were no longer part of the church, and send them on their way, but I knew that was impossible. My wife felt that our only valid reason for leaving was taken away by their retraction, and I couldn’t think of leaving the church without her, for fear that she would be negatively influenced against me. I had seen how one spouse was used against another to discourage dissent or departure.
We had two meetings at the church regarding this incident. The first meeting was that Wednesday night with the Pastor and several elders. It was surprisingly cordial. The Pastor welcomed us back and complemented us for our years of service in the church, and emphasized that the church supports families. The second meeting was that Saturday, with just my wife and I, and Elders Daniel Washabaugh and Gerrit Buddingh. The tone of this meeting was a complete antithesis and contradiction of the previous meeting. We were severely chastised, and told that we were arrogant sinners, that our leaving was a “drive-by shooting” of the church (we had driven by the church to drop our letter of resignation in the church mailbox), and that there was no validity to this letter I had written to the Pastor explaining our departure. Both my wife and I were very depressed as we walked out of this meeting, feeling very contrite and very confused.
After that, some persons who used to engage in conversation avoided us. Everything that had transpired had become common knowledge to the leaders in the church and their families, and this information spread to others in the church. I felt like a convict who was being punished for trying to escape. One Wednesday night, the Pastor told the congregation that our daughter had married a Muslim and had become a Muslim herself. My wife was very upset by this slanderous statement. We had mentioned that Genevieve’s husband was from Iran, but we had specifically mentioned that he was not a Muslim, and that he had in fact fled the country because of his anti-Mullah political views. Marika went up to the Pastor immediately after the service and confronted him, by saying “Let me give you the facts. Genevieve did not become a Muslim when she married Vahid, and Vahid does not and never has professed to be a Muslim.” His response was not apologetic, nor did he claim to be misinformed. He merely stated “She has become an object lesson.” A few days later, Marika went in to Pastor to apologize for being disrespectful in the manner in which she had challenged him. Again he did not even acknowledge that what he said might have been inaccurate, but responded emphatically: “I’m always right.” In the monthly Saturday night “flock meeting” Pastor mentioned from the pulpit that certain people who are “loose cannons” should be avoided, and went on to say that “Marika Burton is a loose cannon.” The following day we had the Trotters over for lunch after Sunday church, and Andy told me that he would not be coming to my house in the future, and had he known before what he had learned the night before, he would not have responded to our invitation. I was devastated.
In January of 2004, something happened which set off a series of events that resulted in several families leaving the church at once. It all started with a phone call from my daughter. She called me at work to say that she had recently repented of her sins and surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus. I was of course, very pleased to hear this, but then she began to cry. She told me that she had called Pastor Mathew to tell him that she had committed her life to Christ, and wanted to be reconciled to the church, since she had left in rebellion to the Lord. His response to her was very discouraging. He told her he was suspicious of her sincerity, and did not believe her faith was genuine, and wanted her to come in and meet with the elders. She had been in such meetings before and was terrified at the prospect. I assured her that I would be with her in the meeting, and that I would protect her, and that what counted was not what men think, but what God thinks, and that she was cleansed by the blood of Christ.
The meeting was scheduled for the following Sunday 1/11/2004, after the morning service. Genevieve sat with us in church, and afterwards she was summoned to the meeting by Elder Gerrit Buddingh, and I followed behind them. He turned, surprised to see me, and asked, “Are you invited to this meeting?” I replied, “No, but I assumed that it was appropriate to be at the meeting, since I’m her father.” He responded by saying “You are a man under authority. You should know not to assume.” When this did not deter me from following them to the meeting, he turned again, and scolded me, questioning my intelligence. I asked him for permission to attend the meeting, and he reluctantly agreed. The meeting began with prayer, and then she tearfully read her letter of confession and repentance, freely acknowledging her guilt and asking for the church’s forgiveness — “I abandoned the Lord, my family, and my church and refused to respond to several summons from this church and even my family for a few months. I sinned against the Lord with my mind and body in a spirit of complete rebellion. … Feeling grieved for my sin against my merciful God, I laid my shame at his feet. Receiving his forgiveness, I ask now for yours. I know I have caused you grief. This saddens me deeply, so I ask for your forgiveness.” She concluded by asking to be released from her commitment to the church – “I ask for your prayers to continue in the Lord faithfully and I ask for a release form my covenant here in keeping with my husband’s wishes to continue attending church where I am currently attending (First Baptist Church in Davis). I would also like an opportunity to make my confession to the church body.” When she was done, they began to ask her questions about why she left the church, where she moved, whom she roomed with, whom she slept with. This went on for two hours. There was no acknowledgment of her confession of sin, and no response to her plea for forgiveness or her offer to confess to the congregation. Finally, Gerrit Buddingh said that he had to go, and that they would schedule another meeting the following Sunday. I was told that my wife was expected to be at this meeting as well.
The next Sunday after church, Genevieve, Marika, and I met with the elders, Gerritt Buddingh, Dan Washabaugh, Tim Swickerd, and Ron and Trina Guly. In this meeting, various Scriptures were quoted and interpreted to imply that proper repentance should include yielding obedience to delegated authority, specifically the authority of the leaders at Grace Valley Christian Center. At one point, Gerrit Buddingh asked Genevieve a question regarding the parable of the Prodigal Son: “What if the prodigal son returned home and said to the Father: ‘Father, I have sinned against you, but I don’t want to live here, I am going to live next door.” Would this be true repentance?” I immediately recognized that this was a flagrant example of twisting Scripture to support an untenable position: If a person leaves a church and falls away, her repentance is not genuine unless she returns to the church she left. Since Genevieve had mentioned that her husband preferred that she go to the church she is currently attending, Elder Dan Washabaugh told her that she was obligated to obey God rather than her husband, implying that she was disobeying God if she chose not to make GVCC her home church. After almost two hours of this, Gerrit stood up and said that he had to go, and that they would schedule a third meeting the following Sunday, at which time they would hear from Genevieve her final decision. As we went to the parking lot, Genevieve broke into tears, sobbing and saying that she could not go through another meeting with the elders. I assured her that that would not be necessary. I would help her write a letter informing GVCC of her decision to remain at the First Baptist Church.
By this time I began to see things very clearly, and was filled with a sense of indignation, and a firm resolve to get my family out of the church. I began to reason carefully with my wife about what was happening, quoting Scripture, and writers like Dr. Enroth who specialize in abusive churches. She slowly began to see how abusive the church was, and how important it was to leave, but there was a major problem in her mind. Like others in the “flock”, we had made a life-time commitment to the church, and she considered this to be a sacred and inviolable vow. I tried to explain that such a vow was not Scriptural, and was in fact a method of manipulation and bondage, giving Martin Luther as an example of someone who broke his vow of celibacy by marrying, but I was not able to convince her. Finally, on 1/20/2004 I wrote Dr. Grudem a letter, asking him his opinion about the Scriptural validity of life-time commitment to a local church (see Email Correspondence with Dr. Grudem). His response, particularly this sentence: "Rash and wrongful vows should be broken at once, with an expectation of God's favor on you when you break it..." gave my wife the freedom of conscience to leave the church, and to convince her sister to leave as well.
Shortly after Genevieve’s second meeting with the elders in January 2004, Elder Gerrit Buddingh had my son Nicholas and his wife Leticia over for dinner. He said to Nicholas, “If I were you I would not have Genevieve over to my house.” Then he added, “Don’t mention this to your parents. I will talk to them about this.” We never received any correspondence from Gerrit regarding this conversation that he had with our son, and only found out about it through a discussion with Nicholas several weeks later, after we had left the church. Finally, on 3/9/2004, I sent a letter to the Pastor, explaining why we were leaving the church. It was signed by myself, my wife, my son, my daughter-in-law, and my sister-in-law. (see The Burton's Resignation Letter from GVCC)
Several other families left the church at the time that we did, or shortly thereafter. Each of these families has a story of their own to tell. The following Sunday night, an emergency meeting for members was held at GVCC after the evening service. A power-point presentation was given in which many of us who left the church were declared to be excommunicated. From what I have been told by some who attended that service, the reasons given for the excommunication were very general; the slide said something to the effect that “the persons being excommunicated are guilty of one or more of the following sins: ”, and theft, drug abuse, slander, and covenant breaking were mentioned, among others. We have never received a letter or a phone call from the church informing us of our excommunication.
For several months after we left, the pastor preached from the pulpit against those of us who had left the church, vilifying us as the vilest of sinners, the most reprehensible God-haters, who are bent on destroying the church. We understand that this is a method of fear, to keep anyone in the church from communicating with us, or acknowledging that we may have left for legitimate reasons. We continue to pray for the pastor, the leaders, and those who attend GVCC, that the Lord will establish His government in the church, and that the controlling, oppressive ways of the flesh will be abandoned. — Clifton Burton