BITE Marks

Paul
12 min readNov 1, 2021

Personal experiences of authoritarian control in the church

Photo by Diana Vargas on Unsplash

The BITE Model of Authoritarian Control was developed by cult expert Steven Hassan to identify common methods cults use to control their members. It groups these methods into four categories: (B)ehavior, (I)nformation, (T)hought, and (E)motional. Each category is an aspect of the member which the cult seeks to control. For example, a cult may control a member’s behavior by deciding where the member lives, or it may control the information available to the member by banning critical news articles. The purpose of this control is for the cult to secure the member’s money, loyalty, service, obedience, etc…or anything else that would otherwise not be freely given. For instance, Hassan was recruited by the Moonies by being driven to a remote location for a three-day workshop. After two days, he desperately wanted to leave but was told there was no transportation back to town. He couldn’t hitchhike or walk because he was too far away from major roads and it was the dead of winter. By controlling his location, the cult secured his participation for the third day of the workshop.

After learning about this model, I recognized how most of my Christian leaders have used these techniques to various degrees. Below, I’ve described five significant instances of authoritarian control I’ve been subjected to during my time in different churches and ministries. I’ve included references to the BITE Model in parentheses (ie, Thought Control, 1b). I don’t consider these examples as definitive proof that the churches or ministries run by these leaders are destructive cults, but they are indicative of a controlling culture.

Mike Bickle, Paul Cain, and Bob Jones

After graduating from college, I moved to Kansas City to become involved with the International House of Prayer (IHOP-KC), led by Mike Bickle. IHOP-KC is a charismatic evangelical ministry ostensibly devoted to prayer, worship, and evangelism. In the seven years I was there, Bickle took time on two occasions to spend a series of nights telling the story of IHOP-KC’s “prophetic history”. It is quite a story, filled with angelic encounters, fulfilled prophecies, Bickle’s own trip to heaven, and many other fantastic tales. On recordings of this history, Bickle usually takes two or more hours to tell the stories of two of IHOP-KC’s founding prophets, Paul Cain and Bob Jones. These two men were instrumental in leading Bickle to start IHOP-KC and both had unusually powerful prophetic gifts. Paul Cain once predicted an earthquake. Bob Jones once predicted an out-of-season snowfall.

The first time I heard the prophetic history, I thought to myself, “Where are Paul Cain and Bob Jones?” Both men were still alive but neither one was involved with IHOP-KC. For two men who were so foundational to the ministry, I found it strange they were no longer around. Unfortunately, I didn’t pursue an answer to this question.

Toward the end of my seven years at IHOP-KC, I discovered what happened. Paul Cain had been outed as a sexually active gay man and alcholic. He had been confronted by Bickle and required to step down from ministry. Bob Jones was caught instructing women to undress in his office as a requirement of his prophetic ministry to them. He was also confronted and asked to leave.

Setting aside one’s views on homosexuality and charismatic gifts, it is clear that Bickle deliberately withheld this information about Cain and Jones from new recruits unfamiliar with the history (Information Control, 1a). Members at IHOP-KC that had been there during these events also never mentioned what had happened. Withholding this information did not allow me to accurately assess whether or not I should be involved in this group. I later discovered there were many other distortions in the “prophetic history”. But by withholding and distorting information, it helped Bickle secure my time, resources, and admiration — aspects of my life I may not have otherwise freely given.

“Power Encounters in Finances”

While I was at IHOP-KC, Bickle would regularly share stories in which he was given large amounts of money as a result of his own financial generosity. He eventually collected many of these stories in a teaching series called “Power Encounters in Finances”. The main point of all these stories was that God’s “storehouses” of financial prosperity would only be opened to those who gave at least 10 percent of their gross income to Christian churches. Since the people hearing this message were all members of IHOP-KC, it conveniently meant that most people would give this money to that ministry. Those who gave 20 percent would be even more blessed by God.

At the time, I was living on a teacher’s salary. Even so, I devoted 10 percent of my income to IHOP-KC. During one period of 2–3 months, I gave 20 percent, but this proved to be impossible if I was to pay my bills and living expenses. Large amounts of money never materialized.

Regardless of one’s views on giving, this financial manipulation (Behavior Control, 7) created a strong dependence on the ministry. It kept me giving in the fear that if I didn’t, I’d miss out on some future financial miracle (Emotional Control, 8b). Once I had given thousands of dollars to IHOP-KC, it was harder to take a step back and objectively evaluate what I was giving to and why. I never once asked for a Form 990 or itemized budget to see where the money was going.

Freedom Prayer

Eventually I left IHOP-KC, disillusioned, confused, and angry. Immediately, I joined another group of similarly disaffected ex-IHOPers who began following a Christian couple who taught a method of prayer called “Freedom Prayer”. “Freedom Prayer” was a series of steps followed to identify demonic influences in one’s life, confront them, repent of the sins that allowed these demons to exercise their influence in the first place, and thus find “freedom” from various problems.

What this style of prayer ended up doing was creating a dependence on it (and eventually the leaders) for any feelings of positivity. We were taught to constantly search our feelings for traces of guilt or unworthiness (Emotional Control, 4). Sometimes, if we couldn’t come up with anything, the leaders would “prophetically” discern these feelings for us. For me, this often had to do with feeling as if I wasn’t living up to my potential (Emotional Control, 4b) or that my thoughts and actions were selfish (Emotional Control, 4f). After identifying the feelings, we would confront the different demonic spirits that were causing them (ie, the Spirit of Passivity), repent of feeling this way, and hope we felt better. Often we did, a result of the euphoric state the act of praying accomplished. Many times, we didn’t.

Eventually, our own discernment proved inadequate to the group leaders. They began to tell us how we were under the influence of the Spirit of Passivity if we weren’t as excited about the ministry as they were. Or, we were influenced by a Spirit of Divisiveness if we disagreed with them. Once, one of the leaders noticed the word “Defiant” on a door handle (“Defiant” is a common brand) and declared the owners of the home were defiant because of their lack of enthusiasm about the group. Many of us tried to conquer these deficiencies through more frequent and emotional “Freedom Prayer”. After a couple of years, and the leaders’ escalating mistreatment of anyone who disagreed with them, I left the group.

A Plurality of Elders

Reeling from this last exit, I began researching how to avoid groups like this and find healthy places in which to practice Christianity. This led me to a Christian ministry called 9Marks which claims to identify the nine marks, or characteristics, of a healthy, “biblical” church. The characteristic that most appealed to me was that of “Leadership”, which is summarized by 9Marks as, “The Bible teaches that each local church should be led by a plurality of godly, qualified men called elders.” My previous groups had stressed the unquestionable authority of the main leader, and I was excited to discover there were churches in which power was actually shared between people.

9Marks lists affiliate churches on their website through a “Church Search” function, and I was able to find a church close to me that was led by a team of five elders. I was excited to join a church which seemed to promote accountability among its leadership. Indeed, 9Marks, and the church I joined, gave the impression that a “plurality of elders” was the biblical ideal of a healthy ecclesial authority structure.

Then, one of the elders, who had previously been quite friendly to me, cautioned that if I didn’t attend adult Sunday School I was in danger of going to hell (Emotional Control, 8b). I clarified that this was indeed what he was telling me (which it was), and after a while I informed the other elders that this had happened. Apparently, this had not been the only instance of abusive behavior on this elder’s part, and one morning at an elders’ meeting he was handed a letter informing him he was being dismissed from the elder team. “Great!” I thought, “This is what accountability looks like.” Then I read the church bylaws.

The bylaws clearly stated that the elders could remove any elder on their team they deemed to be “disqualified”. But it also stated, in a section on relational commitments, that any disagreement between members should be resolved through “biblical mediation or arbitration”. Nothing like that had happened in this case; the elder had simply been handed his walking papers without any knowledge that such steps were being planned against him by the other elders.

To be sure, it was a messy situation, and though I talked with both the disqualified elder and the rest of the elder team, I don’t know everything that happened between the two sides. However, it caused me to look more closely at exactly how the church was governed. What I found was surprising.

The church was organized under a form of government called “Elder-Rule”. Though I had participated in informational meetings regarding the church budget, and approval processes for deacons and an elder, I discovered, “Final authority in all decision making (sic) resides with the Board of Elders.” Deacons and members had no authority whatsoever. And the elders were self-perpetuating; the active elders chose, appointed, and trained additional elders to be promoted to the elder board.

While I was there, through the dismissal of the elder I mentioned and other elders moving away, the elder board shrunk to the two paid full-time elders at the church. Where once there might have been some process by which two or more elders could confront and discipline a third unqualified elder, no such options remained with two elders. When I brought this to their attention, their final response was that formalizing processes for dealing with an “unqualified” elder wasn’t of “utmost urgency”.

Once again, I had been led to believe something that simply wasn’t true (Information Control 1a, 1b). A “plurality of elders” does not necessarily signify a healthy ecclesial authority structure that includes accountability.

Two Doctrinal Statements

While researching this church’s form of government, I also began to look more closely at the process of becoming a member of the church. I had gone through this process already, signing a doctrinal statement and member covenant, but through a more careful examination I became aware of the differences between the “Membership Doctrinal Statement” and the teaching doctrinal statement, the one adhered to by the elders of the church. These two doctrinal statements were different in significant ways.

To become a member, I was required to sign a boilerplate evangelical Christian statement that included such doctrines as Jesus’ bodily resurrection and faith in Jesus as being the way to right standing before God. Setting aside one’s opinions regarding these doctrines, the consensus among Christians is that they are standard orthodox beliefs the Church has held since its inception. The teaching statement, however, was not as simple.

This second statement, which was not emphasized or taught during the membership process, expressed a Calvinist interpretation of the Christian faith, specifically in regards to soteriology, or how God “saves” people. Calvin believed God has determined every single thing that has, is, or will happen. Or, as the teaching statement put it, “God […] did […] ordain […] whatever comes to pass.” In Calvin’s system, God determines the eternal destinies of people before he creates them, ordaining that some should come to faith in Christ while the majority do not and are punished in hell for sins God ordained they commit. In contrast, along with the majority of American Christians, I believe God has granted people the free will to choose him or not. Nothing in the membership statement contradicted this view of soteriology.

As I became more familiar with Calvinism, I understood it was a belief system I did not agree with and probably never could. When I expressed this to the elders, they reassured me that other members also held beliefs different from Calvinism and we could all worship God together in good conscience under the membership statement. I appreciated this gracious desire for inclusivity. However, I found only one regular attendee (a non-member) who held beliefs similar to mine. Furthermore, many members were unsettled when I expressed my views or questioned the system. Finally, I was told by an elder that the author of a book I was reading critical of Calvinism “didn’t understand Calvinism”. By implication, neither did I. This was such an obviously untrue statement, an example of gaslighting, that I largely stopped talking about it from that point on.

Regardless of one’s views on Calvinism, the church had created an “Insider vs. Outsider” doctrinal system (Information Control, 3). The elders and those closest to them, those who might be considered for eldership, understood and knew the truth (Thought Control, 1). People like me, who couldn’t agree with this doctrine, would forever be on the periphery. To the credit of the elders and members, I was never shunned or actively made to feel “less-than”. Many people were more confused than anything else, perhaps wondering why I had joined the church in the first place if I didn’t agree with the teaching statement. But I was never given the opportunity to learn what the teaching statement taught in the first place, instead being led to believe I would be a welcome and fully-accepted member under the membership statement.

The Influence Continuum

A necessary companion piece to the BITE Model is the Influence Continuum. This resource helps people understand that influence exists on a scale ranging from “Constructive/Healthy” to “Destructive/Unhealthy”. For example, I would consider Bickle’s withholding of important information about Paul Cain and Bob Jones to be far on the right of the continuum toward the “Deceptive/Manipulative” marker. However, though I felt misled by the church which operated under two doctrinal statements, the teaching statement was clearly posted on the church website for anyone to read. I wouldn’t consider the process in which I became a member of that church “Deceptive/Manipulative”, but I wouldn’t label it as “Informed Consent” either. In my opinion, it exists slightly to the right of center.

BITE Marks

The effects of authoritarian control have been painful. Each time I’ve been influenced in an unhealthy way, joined a group with high expectations and optimism only to later discover how I’ve been manipulated, it has cost me. I’ve lost money, I’ve changed careers, I’ve made major moves, and I’ve lost whole support structures. Perhaps worse than all this is a growing disillusionment with the American evangelical church as a whole, even though I still adhere to many of its historical principles. The spiritual home in which I grew up doesn’t feel quite as warm and welcoming as it once did.

In addition to disillusionment, I’ve begun to recognize the ways of thinking endemic to the religious culture in which I grew up and how many of these are instilled in me. Almost all of the ways of thinking listed under “Thought Control” in the BITE Model have been commonly accepted as good and right within the groups I’ve been a part of. To be fair, a Christian worldview founded upon the ideas the biblical authors intended to communicate definitely instills a new “map of reality”. But where Jesus may divide the world between those in the kingdom of God and those outside of it, he invites the outsiders in through informed consent and a pervading ethic of love. He loves the insiders AND the outsiders. In contrast, I’ve been taught to divide Christians over relatively small differences in beliefs and led to suspect those outside my group of possibly not even being “real, true believers”. These are ways of thinking that have repeatedly led me to seek out “the Truth” and follow those who confidently proclaim they have it.

One day while in college, I decided to explore the wooded bluffs along the edges of town. It was a hot, humid Minnesota summer, so I wore shorts and a short-sleeve t-shirt. After an afternoon of traipsing about, I returned home and noticed faint red rashes on my legs. The next day, these rashes had developed into a horrifying mass of seeping pustules. I had been walking through poison ivy and hadn’t realized it.

I am beginning to think of my time in the church similarly to my time in the woods that afternoon. There were many experiences I enjoyed: the sense of adventure, the discovery of a falcon’s nest, the view that stretched for miles up and down the Mississipi River. In the same way, I’ve experienced many wonderful things in the church: I met my incredible wife, made lifelong friends, and traveled to different cities and countries. But at the same time, and unbeknownst to me until much later, I was being harmed. I was being misled and abused. I was being taught to think in much the same way that my abusers thought.

That terrible case of poison ivy didn’t keep me out of the woods. Today, I’m more adept at identifying the mitten-shaped leaves, and I usually wear pants whenever I go hiking. Similarly, I don’t want to stay away from the church. But my future involvement will happen with my eyes on the lookout for authoritarian control and conscious of the ways of thinking that encourage it, in both myself and my leaders.

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Paul

I write about my experiences in white American evangelicalism.