Misrepresentation: Is the Jesus Fellowship Church deceiving survivors or the public?

Mellow H Avstreih

Nov 2018

I would like to highlight a published article (exact date unknown but published this year) on the JF website:


*NB. I understand some ex members reading this may not wish or feel able to read the article in full, or look at the website. I won’t post the link here, but it’s easily discoverable on the JF website. Please note: I’ll be quoting a couple of passages below.

This anonymous article positions both the Jesus Fellowship (JF) and the Jesus Army (JA) as a ‘New Religious Movement’ (NRM), and uses this to say it was not and is not a cult:

“The Jesus Fellowship is linked with other Christian churches and groups through the Multiply Christian Network, and is a Faithworks Associate. It is clear that the Jesus Fellowship is a widely-accepted Christian church, and by no means a cult.”

There is no mention of any negative history, and no mention that they were twice asked to leave the Evangelical Alliance, most recently this year, and were also thrown out of the Baptist Union. It is unclear who ‘Faithworks’ is based on a brief internet search; there are several orgs and companies under this name. The ‘Multiply Christian Network’ they cite as an example of being widely accepted, was exclusively set up by the JA / JF.

The closest the author comes to touching on the JF’s issues is by using the word ‘controversial’ in a general way about NRMs (having first aligned the JF to NRMs):

“Often such [NRM] groups seem to attract a degree of controversy. While this may be of interest to academics, what concerns the man in the street is whether a religious group is orthodox, how it is viewed by other churches, and what is its track record of helping members and outsiders.

Controversial or not, the Jesus Fellowship is an orthodox evangelical Christian church, upholding the historic creeds of the Christian faith: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed.”

Over the last year, I’ve sat in rooms with the JF National Leadership Team (NLT) together with 5 – 10 of my peers / survivors who were raised in this organisation, on at least 4 occasions. I’ve also had some one-one conversations. I can say that this article is completely at odds with their (apparent) stance toward us.

During this time, there have been many verbal acknowledgements from the NLT, that there were widespread spiritual emotional and psychological abuse, hierarchal issues and wrongful practices in the JA / JF. I’ve heard them refer to the ‘culture’ of the church having been damaging to many on multiple occasions.

Some from within the JF NLT have even recognised and acknowledged that the JF / JA carried hallmarks of a TACO (Totalist Aberrant Christian Organisation).

There has been a range of historic allegations made against many of this organisation’s twelve “Covering Authority” members (JF vocabulary for the topmost founding leadership group that included Noel Stanton), and most have either stepped down or been removed from position. All of the “Apostolic Five” (more recent top leaders) have been under an internal HR investigation, with findings still unknown, as under further investigation by police.

Is this the norm for an orthodox evangelical Christian church that upholds the historic creeds of the Christian faith?

Having grown up in the JF / JA / Jesus People / New Creation Christian Community, and having mostly avoided evangelical churches since I left two decades ago, I may not be best placed to answer. However I can say that my experience of other organisations (Quakers, Buddhists and non-faith based groups) has never included the levels of weirdness, control, hierarchy, misogyny or abuse that I and many experienced in this apparently orthodox church.

I won’t get into theology here, but it has been seen that many teachings and practices in the JF were biblically unsound; disseminated through dictatorial interpretations of scripture, ‘visions’, ‘words of knowledge’, and ‘pictures’. These impacted on the treatment of vulnerable people particularly children and women; on sexuality, dependence and free choice, via contracts through covenant, taking vows, overbearing shepherding, forced regimes and disciplines, exclusion from society, judgment and avoidance of (all) other churches, failure to safeguard the vulnerable, intolerance of all other belief systems and leading many people to experience a confessional, punitive and fear-based culture.

It is also my observation that even the most accurate upholding of any orthodox creed; Nicene, Athenian, Apostolic or otherwise, would not preclude abusive or cult-like behaviour. So neither is this claim evidence of not being a cult.

“…what concerns the man in the street is whether a religious group is orthodox, how it is viewed by other churches, and what is its track record of helping members and outsiders.’

 Assuming this has been written by a core and current community member of the JF, I would question how much understanding they have of what the man on the street is concerned about.

I think what might actually concern the man on the street is whether there has been a history of misuse of power, financial abuse and abuse of the vulnerable, mistreatment of children including peadophillic activity behind closed doors.

This website is not upfront or honest about JF history; that they have been facing many disclosures and allegations of abuse over the years from their early days until now, and for many years tried to cover up and keep it quiet even from their own members.

“It is clear that the Jesus Fellowship is a widely-accepted Christian church, and by no means a cult.”

It is clear that any wide acceptance is not based on full knowledge of all facts relating to the Jesus Fellowship, as the JF have not been open about them. Particularly when writing books, blogs and articles.

So how can ‘wide acceptance’ be used as evidence of not being a cult?

This article could be seen in many ways: a dogged belief that the JF has always been on the side of the right; a cynical attempt to position and protect the legacy of the JA, a PR exercise, a way to establish some comfort for existing members, or a move to create reasonable doubt in the interests of defence / payout limitation?

I don’t know. Whatever the reason, this article – and the timing of its publication – has the affect of diluting, denying and undermining the experience of many, especially those who feel they were victims of abusive circumstances and incidents and are asking for acknowledgement of their experiences.

Having this on their website serves to perpetuate a whitewash of the truth.

I also notice the title of the article means that when people enter ‘Jesus + Fellowship + cult’ into an online search (as is becoming more likely these days), this statement is now the top result they get. Perhaps this is not deliberate. There’s also a ‘Jesus Army Watch’ ‘website’, displaying a spoof ticking watch with a red cross on the front, not actually for sale. This seems to be a disingenuous (unsuccessful) attempt to prevent people coming across the old critical ‘Jesus Army Watch’ website when searching.

A fellow JF survivor said to me: “At best, their article and the watch are insensitive to the current internal investigation process and to survivors”.

In meetings and in writing, the JF Survivors Association (JFSA) have previously suggested many ways in which the JF could openly and publicly recognise the truth and acknowledge the experience of survivors, without jeopardising confidentiality or anonymity of individuals. These include: being open in meetings and with their members (who often contact us for updates and information), publishing a revised version of the ‘truth document’ we produced year ago, and issuing a formal and unequivocal apology on their own website that identifies abuse that occurred. This has never been acted on. Their entries for the Investigation Update and Safeguarding give no indication of scale.

The November update about the Redress Scheme, sent to survivors and now on the JF website, has its own spin; and the ‘man on the street’ might think they have been acting promptly, honourably and with great responsibility by setting up schemes and funds under their own impetus.

It is understandable perhaps that it fails to mention how much involvement their insurers have had in advising a disclosure process; how many times over the last few years other survivors have tried to explain the need for disclosure, redress and counselling, and how the previous leadership ignored this.

The only individual (a peer survivor) from JFSA that the JF invited to speak, in a meeting that included their members, is a male Christian leader in another church. The invitation was altered just before the event, so that rather than being allowed to speak openly, he was to be interviewed, in a chair with leaders on either side. He was coached in advance. No specifics of abuse or ‘what went wrong’ were mentioned.

Nevertheless I and many others were glad to see it happen, and even this limited acknowledgement of survivors was a great development, and I think represented a turning point for some JF members. I mention this as an example of how control is exerted, even within progress. Following continued pressure from the JFSA and others, (and many other individuals and groups going back decades) there has been a slow and painful progress, fraught with lapses, significant errors and gaps in communication.

What I have found in meeting with them is that they have become adept at listening. This sounds reassuring, compassionate and gives the impression that changes will be made. It seems as though the hope is that the more acknowledgment is given to us in private, the less public they will need to be.

One argument for not exposing the nature of what abuse happened outside of JF’s NLT and JFSA meetings and individual discussions, is that they are mindful that their current members may not cope with full knowledge, and that their members are ‘sick of hearing’ stories. My discussions with JF members I’ve been contact with, confirms that they are sick of hearing rumours, and of not knowing the full truth, and not feeling able to openly discuss these things among themselves, so that they can make up their own minds and move toward change and healing.

If the author / publishers / JF truly believe they have never been and are “by no means a cult.”–  or let’s say, acted like one, I have several questions for them:

  • Why did you feel the need to write and publish this article?
  • What outcome(s) do you expect to gain from it?
  • In the interests of transparency and balance, why not mention any of the recent disclosures and developments? The investigations, media, police? The forced exits from the Evangelical Alliance and the Baptist Union?
  • Why not acknowledge publicly what has been verbally acknowledged to many of us – the full history of control and spiritual abuse?
  • Why set up a reconciliation approach, begin a redress scheme, agree to fund counselling for members / ex members, and host ‘secondary trauma’ workshops, if you truly believe JF was ‘by no means a cult’ – or an organisation that operated in an aberrant way with wrongful practices and culture, causing harm to members?
  • Why publish this article anonymously? Why not allow discussion comments or feedback on the article? As other organisations do.
  • Why maintain a protectionist and ultimately dishonest ‘PR’ based stance in public, while privately telling survivors you want to ‘right the wrongs’?
  • If apparently ‘orthodox evangelical Christians’ – why not be publicly open, truthful, repentant and respectful of survivors?

I welcome any responses to these questions from those responsible for writing and or endorsing this article, and have sent these questions to members of the JF’s NLT, along with a copy of this whole response.

My thought is that attempting to control and manipulate the narrative in this way, is in itself, classic cult-like behaviour.  As a wise friend said: ‘You can’t have a cult, and not expect them to act brainwashed’, and so to some extent this is to be expected – the hallmarks remain in the actions of those who are still protecting the organisation via controlling the narrative.  This helped me to gain understanding and to feel some compassion for them. I’m also learning about cognitive dissonance, having experienced it myself, and I understand this is painful and difficult for all individuals experiencing it. It takes courage for people in the process of realising difficult truths, to accept what has always been defended against. I understand that some members of the NLT only took up leadership because of the disclosure / leadership crisis; and some seem to genuinely wish to put things right. Yet full and public acceptance is what’s needed, if there is any honest commitment to putting things right.

My thoughts are with those vulnerable members who are still in a state of confusion, anxiety and defence, and who feel their world is under attack, or possibly that this is spiritual warfare or persecution from those who are bitter and/or after ‘their’ money, and who would destroy the homes they depend on would leave them homeless. These atrocity tales have been perpetuated by senior (ex) leaders, and are being maintained by the silence of the current leadership.

I wish to challenge what the JF is saying through publication of this article. Whether they truly believe they have never been cult-like, or whether they realise it – they have either misrepresented themselves to survivors face-to-face, or they are misrepresenting themselves to the public.

Mellow H Avstreih (endorsed by JF Survivors Association)

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Here is a widely accepted checklist of Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups https://www.openmindsfoundation.org/the-basics-lalich-and-langones-controlling-group-checklist/

For more information on Identifying marks of a Totalist Aberrant Christian Organization (TACO)  (a Christian form of cult), please see link on the JF Survivors Association website: