One particular birthday cake stands out in my childhood memories. It was my 13th birthday and, being a diabetic, I had not enjoyed a birthday cake for years. When I came home from school and found a beautifully decorated cake sitting on the dining room table, my heart skipped a beat with excitement. “Finally, I can feel like a ‘normal’ person for an evening, and have a real birthday cake,” I thought, assuming that someone had found a special recipe for sugarless cake. I can still recall my sinking feeling when the family had gathered, the candles on the cake were burning and, to my horror, someone leaned over and lifted the cake from the plate to reveal a series of books underneath! My family had decorated a cardboard box with icing.
There is a very real and acute pain that issues forth from the promise that is false, from the counterfeit, from the lie. For it is not only that you do not get what you are expecting to receive (where the primary outcome would be that you end up back where you started), but you are left to deal with a host of unmet expectations, disappointments, hurt and pain. You are left worse off, sometimes much worse off, than when you began.
Religious cults have a particular ability to inflict this sort of pain and disappointment. Not only do they not teach the true Gospel which gives life, but they lead their followers to trust in that which cannot save us – be it works, mysticism, legalism or a denial of the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. A book released last month – Fractured Families: the story of a Melbourne church cult, by Morag Zwartz – explores the brokenness that has followed the counterfeit Christianity that many believe is practised by the Fellowship in Melbourne.
As with many Christian groups, the Fellowship was formed out of the earnest and sincere desires of a likeminded group of people who wanted to share and deepen their faith and encourage one another. The founding families mostly lived near each other in Melbourne, worshipping at a variety of mainline churches. The gatherings started informally in the homes of Ronald Grant or Alan Neil, the two founders, who had met when they were young men. Along with some other founding families, they came from conservative evangelical families in Sydney and Melbourne.
Meetings were held monthly, and were by invitation only. The Fellowship hid itself in some Anglican and Presbyterian churches, apparently seeking legitimacy within the structures of m a i n s t r e a m denominations. The ties that b o u n d Fellowship members together were very strong – many joined through family connections or married into the Fellowship. The original members had many things in common, and some occupied positions of some distinction within the business community. Former members have expressed concern at the level of affluence enjoyed by Fellowship members.
The Fellowship, one of a number of church-based cults to have arisen from the holiness movement, has now existed behind a veil of secrecy and exclusivism/elitism for more than 60 years. While members were sincere and earnest in their desire to experience the fullness of God, they misunderstood some of the foundational truths of the Christian faith. As one person Morag Zwartz interviewed told her: “They are not intrinsically evil, but they’re deceived, they’re not living the freedom Christ offers.” There is a great deal of emphasis on sanctification, but apparently not appropriately balanced by the doctrine of justification.
According to Zwartz, Ronald Grant and Alan Neil were heavily influenced by traditional Keswick holiness teaching. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology says of this: “The themes of Wesleyan holiness teaching, sinless perfection or entire sanctification, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and second blessings, were underlying planks of the Keswick Convention which, significantly, aimed to provide a ‘spiritual clinic where defeated and ineffective Christians may be restored to spiritual health’.” As such, Ronald Grant appeared to have an elitist vision for his followers.
Although the Fellowship has existed for decades, very little, if anything, has been recorded on paper. Zwartz writes that the dangerous cocktail of “the sinless perfection concept, the holiness teaching, the emphasis on sin and purity, the elitism, and an attraction to the Pentecostal movement with its second blessings and promise of greater power at hand, together tipped the scales into a dangerous imbalance of focus.”
One of the distinctive features of the Fellowship is its claim to unity, purity and holiness. “In the holiness hothouse of the Fellowship, where for years members had been led to search their every action and motive in order to root out sin and be found pure, where pressure to confess to one another had become an obsession, and where an external standard of unworldliness was expected and complied with, there was always a swirling of undercurrents. Some took years to break the surface. But hand in hand with outside pressures for holiness goes legalism, and where people fall into legalism hypocrisy develops; when they are obsessed with their own failings they notice others’ also; when impossible standards are set, judgmentalism takes root; and where there is an authoritarian hierarchy, resentment brews,” Morag Zwartz writes.
During the 1970s and 1980s the Fellowship was impacted by the shepherding and discipleship movements, which heightened the intrusive, inwardfocusing nature of the group. From the accounts recorded in Fractured Families, when members had sessions with their elders the atmosphere was often oppressive. “Prayer, probing, confession, subjugation, searching out of wrong thoughts or wrong attitudes, recalling of past sins” were all employed to “help” members seek after a purer, holier walk with God and a higher experience of the Christian life. It appears that what the Fellowship regarded as unity could be more accurately described as simply conforming to the standards and expectations of the leadership.
Those members who questioned the authority of the elders, or the teaching they were receiving, or the way the group organised or conducted itself, felt the disapproval of the rest of the group, whether subtly or more overtly, such as being immediately cut off from the Fellowship. Those who conformed were richly rewarded – with many members benefiting from the generosity of other members. Houses were renovated, school fees were paid for, cars were bought, relocation costs were met.
In the more recent past, according to Zwartz, there has also been the influence of a variety of writers and movements – Derek Prince, Pentecostalism, Watchman Nee and Madame Guyon among others.
Fellowship doctrine has also been guided by a particular emphasis on spiritual authority, spiritual gifts, demons, rebellion and bondage.
There are several common denominators in the human histories that are recounted in Fractured Families. Many of the people whose voices are heard through its pages describe the great cost they have paid in the past, and the costs that they continue to pay. Several of the people who have been involved in the Fellowship, when they talk of the way that the group wielded power over others, use words such as “programmed”, “dominated”, “brainwashed” and “controlfreaks”.
Some former members criticise the expectations the group held of women – particularly their place in marriage, where it was emphasised that they should be submissive, quiet and gentle. For some the pathway to marriage was through exhaustive prayer and counselling sessions which seemed to be designed to wear one down and render all objections obsolete – as any protest was simply twisted to make it appear as though the young people involved were not truly attentive to God’s promptings.
Many have experienced the deep pain of being estranged from family members, restrained by the Fellowship who frown upon non-Fellowship associations. There are grandparents who have never seen grandchildren who are within the Fellowship, siblings who must watch the agonising “drift” of brothers and sisters away from family contact, and parents who have “lost” children who have married into the Fellowship. The ripples of pain and hurt have extended beyond immediate family members, and across the decades. In addition to the pain and confusion caused by relationships and families being broken, there are many stories of sudden and unexplained moves interstate, job losses, clinical depression and ill health.
How did the Fellowship have such influence over its members? One person interviewed for Fractured Families commented: “They’re so hard to deal with because they’re so righteous and so holy and so nice, to your face.” Many described how public confession plays a significant part in exercising control. And, as with other cults, language was used in such a way that an air of mystery was cultivated and sustained by those who had an interest in maintaining it and using it to wield power over others. Leaders also vetted reading material, encouraging that which fed into the particular teaching which was prominent at the time within the group. Tragically, years of inward focus have left a legacy of feelings of guilt and failure.
Several churches were impacted significantly by a strong Fellowship presence.
Congregations have been left disillusioned and disunited, with many people still struggling to come to terms with the impact the Fellowship has had on their church homes.
How has the group existed for as long as it has with so little reaction from the church hierarchy within which it thrived?
Criticism has been levelled at the Presbyterian church – and, earlier, the Anglican church – in Victoria. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the concerns that had been simmering below the surface for some time, rose in the form of an investigation by the Presbyterian Church. One church, at Mt Evelyn, spent years trying to deal with a schism that nearly ripped it apart.
In 1999 the Presbyterian Church of Victoria published a booklet on the Fellowship, which sought to bring to public discussion some of the issues which the existence of such a group in the church’s midst raised. According to several people interviewed, it is a book that Fellowship members have not been allowed to read.
The New Testament speaks of false teachers and the destructive heresies they introduce. “If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing … But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith.” (1 Timothy 6:3, 11, 12). Let us not allow any others to be robbed of the precious truth of the Gospel of Christ.
Tracy Gordon is a social issues researcher for the Anglican church in Sydney.
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