Nancy N., former member of the Chicago Assembly, wrote this paper in 2004 for a class to show the historical and sociological context of the Geftakys ministry. It includes a summary of how the Irons left the Assembly, as an example of the dynamics that existed in many groups that sprang up in the 1960's and 1970's.
When I first met Steve Irons, he was at the front of the room, enthusiastically drawing responses from a group of people that had gathered together to go over notes from a lecture that they had just heard. With a bounce in each step Steve would energetically move around the room, asking questions to pull together the ideas that had been presented by the speaker just moments before. People in the room were studiously reviewing the notes they had taken as hands raised and responses were given. The brief time ended with Steve’s passionate prayer after many shared how the ministry had spoken to them and how they wanted to make practical application in their personal lives.
We were in the midst of an intense holiday weekend where the leader of a group called the Assembly, George Geftakys, was conducting a three day seminar on “Royal Overcomers.” Steve Irons was an elder in the fellowship, and he, along with his wife Margaret and their three children, Lee, Danny and Keren, were an example of a committed family, full of joy and fervor for the Lord, and willing to dedicate their lives to the ministry that they were involved in with Brother George. Steve and Margaret considered George to be “God’s true servant” and for the next twenty years would dedicate themselves to the vision of the House of God that George charismatically communicated to small communities of born-again believers throughout California, the Midwest, and Canada. Only towards the end of their involvement with the Assembly, when Steve tried to scripturally address concerns about Brother George’s statements and conduct, did Steve fully understand that questioning the leader would have such severe consequences. The belief that special revelation had been given to the group through Brother George, the rigid, legalistic lifestyle and the lack of accountability of leadership are typical troublesome and harmful traits of fringe groups that began with the Jesus Movement and grow to become churches that abuse.
The Jesus Movement came to birth as an outgrowth of the hippie culture of the 1960’s. An article entitled “The Hippie Generation” gives a brief look into the hippie culture: “During the 1960’s a radical group called the hippies shocked America with their alternative lifestyle and radical beliefs. They used illegal drugs and listened to rock and roll music. Concerned chiefly [with] protesting the Vietnam War and with civil rights they made a huge impact on America” (Huber). In the book, One Way: the Jesus Movement and Its Meaning, Robert Ellwood gives a sense of how the hippie culture turned into a “bad trip”. The counter-culture of the hippies promoted experimentation with marijuana, barbiturates and LSD, to name a few of the drugs. Along with the anti-Establishment sentimentality, the new youth culture swelled with young runaways, with the number of juvenile runaway arrests surpassing 170,000 by 1968 (7). Eventually, the psychedelic/free love/acid trip lifestyle took its toll. “The ‘drug scene’ and the ‘crashing’ districts of runaways were riddled with disease, psychological wreckage, crass exploitation by racketeers, perverse kinds of occultism, and despair” (16). It was at this low point that hippies and drug addicts started turning to Christianity and Jesus in significant numbers.
The Jesus Movement began, by most accounts, in a coffee house called "The Living Room" in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco circa 1967 (Di Sabatino). According to James F. Drane in The New American Reformation: a Study of Youth Culture and Religion, the storefront mission was a place that lent itself to talking about Jesus with the counter-culture people. It is estimated that during its brief two-year span of operation, almost fifty thousand young people were contacted. Associated with the coffee house was a Christian commune, where young people on drugs, runaways, and dropouts could come and go (111).
Within a short time many Christian communities began street evangelism, and as a result, a revival had begun. Because the movement was closely related to the drug culture, some of the first Christian communes were established to rehabilitate drug users. Because of the rejection of drugs as an escape, typically Jesus Freaks were “…long-haired ex-drug addicts walking around high on Jesus” (Drane 110).
The Jesus Movement was not only comprised of ex-drug addicts. Because of the unrest among the young people, and the rejection of the “Establishment”, there was a significant decline of membership and influence of the denominational churches throughout the United States. The publication, American Decades 1970 - 1979, speculates that, “Perhaps more people left the Mainline organizations for new modes of worship or because organized religion had lost its relevance to them” (“Decline” 443). Such was the case for my friend Steve. In looking back at how he and his wife first became involved with the fringe group, the Assembly, he comments, “Yes, we were influenced to some degree with the hippie movement. We never dropped out of society, but we certainly questioned the ‘status quo’ and the belief system of our parents and elders."
Like Steve Irons, many young people were discontented with what they saw in their parents’ churches. One of the main characteristics of the Jesus Movement was disenchantment with organized churches because, as the authors Enroth, Ericson and Peters note in their book, The Jesus People: Old-Time Religion in the Age of Aquarius, “…all Jesus People share the feeling that the established churches have lost significant contact with the Jesus of the New Testament, or at least have failed to communicate the gospel, especially to the youth” (84). This desire to seriously follow Jesus and to be totally committed to the gospel was the perfect breeding ground for aberrant groups to recruit a following. According to Ronald M. Enroth in Churches That Abuse, as new religious groups sprang up on campuses throughout the nation, the attraction usually involved a charismatic leader claiming that “…they have been chosen by God to restore a lost or dormant spiritual vitality” (76). Steve revealed that "…to be ‘totally committed’ and ‘on fire’ for Christ was important to me. I was attracted to George (the leader of the Assembly) because he gave the impression that he was also, …so we left the church to be with him."
Enroth tells of a another former member’s experience with the "Assembly". “Kyle” came to Christianity out of the hippie movement. He and his friends were “on fire for God” and desired a life-style of total commitment (Churches 226). The outgrowth of Georges' new following resulted in the formation of “brothers” houses (and later on “sisters” houses), which were considered training homes where young believers could learn what it meant to be involved in a corporate testimony to Jesus. These homes were very structured, with scheduled weekly meetings (at least six meetings a week). Also, expenses and household duties were shared (227). Such a rigorous agenda, along with working and being full time students was typical of many unconventional gatherings. Drane’s documentation about the Jesus Movement cites an example of a communal, fanatical group called "The Children of God". The group maintained “…a rigid, monastic discipline…which included six hours of Bible study daily, four hours of manual labor, and the rest of the time witnessing and street-preaching. This "all or nothing" mentality, which often victimizes the young person, is capitalized on by the leaders of this group” (113).
Another community group that sprang out of the Jesus Movement, and is considered to be among the largest, is "Jesus People, USA". Steve Rabey wrote about this group in Christianity Today almost twenty years ago, noting that those involved “…have given up the American dreams of houses, possessions, and bank accounts” (53). What appeared at that time to be “…an intervention of God in a culture that had been largely written off by society…” (54), is now being viewed as an unhealthy and damaging organization. In “An Open Letter to the Eight Jesus People USA Leaders by Former Members”, concerns are raised about the structure of the leadership, where there is “…no mechanism for members to safely ask questions or express disagreement with the leaders who possess so much power over so many areas of community life”. What has become a theme of many cult-like churches is also observed by the former members of Jesus People USA, who conclude that, “In the past 26 years because of the evolving dominance over every member’s personal life by the same leaders (however benevolent their purpose), they have unintentionally become oppressive and arbitrary” (“Open”).
With George Geftakys in charge, the same control-oriented style of leadership existed in the Assembly. “Kyle” described George as having “…a very domineering personality and extremely opinionated and dogmatic” (Enroth, Churches 227). Steve, as well, expressed that George was never really accepting of criticism. “He believed himself to be ‘right’ from the beginning [of the Assembly], especially when it came to his understanding and interpretation of the Bible. He exuded self-confidence.” As a result, George practiced unimpeded domination in the lives of Assembly members. According to “Kyle”, “Followers are told what occupations are God-honoring, whether or not they may practice the professions for which they have been trained, whom they can marry and when, where they can live, whom they can date, what they can do with their money, and, in some instances, what they can and cannot eat” (Enroth, Churches 321). George’s personality and heavy-handed tactics are consistent with the type of leadership that exists in abusive churches. Zukeran observes, “The leader assumes he is more spiritually in tune with God than anyone else. He claims insight into Scripture that no one else has. Or, he may state that he receives personal revelations from God. Because of such claims, the leader’s position and beliefs cannot be questioned; …questioning the leader is the equivalent of questioning God” (2).
It was exactly this kind of questioning of George Geftakys that started the nightmare for Steve Irons and his family, and ultimately led to them being ousted from the Assembly. It all began when Lee Irons, Steve’s son, was studying at UCLA and became interested in Calvinism (which Brother George did not agree with). Lee’s discussions and questions alarmed George, to the point that Lee became the object of what was basically a character assassination, with George attacking his personality, his past behavior, and his motives. It was a time of turmoil for the Irons’ family, especially for Steve. His concern for his son was viewed as a weakness by George. When Steve attempted to correct and address the slanderous labels that were being placed on Lee, George accused Steve of not “standing in unity” with the brethren. George’s influence over the members of the Assembly was so powerful that people ignored their own personal knowledge about Lee and believed instead what they heard from their leader. Steve recounts, "Because Brother George said it was so, and Brother George is the ‘Lord’s Servant’ and a ‘man of God’, his character evaluation of Lee prevailed."
The Assembly is just one example of groups with power-hungry leaders. A common occurrence happens when people question the leadership of the group. Instead of addressing the question that has been raised, the leadership will ignore the question and instead will treat the person asking the question as the problem. In the letter sent from former members to the Jesus People USA leaders, with emphasis they assert that, “It is the issues that need to be discussed, not the people bringing them up” (“Open”). Enroth says of the leader of a group called Shiloh, “For anyone to be disobedient to their superior was to disobey God himself” (Churches 63). And again, “To question his authority was to bring disharmony into the group” (64). As each fringe or cult-like group is examined in Enroth’s book, Churches That Abuse, over and over again examples are given of how dissenters are ridiculed and brought to shame. Speaking of the Assembly, “Kyle” says, “Those who fell from favor with George, particularly the older members who persisted in questioning his teaching and authority, were ostracized and ridiculed. You don’t have a relationship with George unless George dominates” (Churches 229). Steve, as well, recounts, “I got along great with George as long as I supported him and stood behind his decisions. But when I began to question his integrity and actions, and my loyalty to him wavered, I met resistance.”
Each time Steve tried to set the record straight regarding Lee, he was met with resistance and rebukes from George. George gathered together the leading men in fellowship to tell them that Lee was proud, arrogant and obnoxious. As well, he dictated a letter of excommunication addressed to Lee. Multiple attempts were made on the part of Steve, both in writing and in person, to clarify and resolve the situation and misrepresentation of Lee. George, along with his leading men, repeatedly denied that the conflict involved doctrine, but rather, was an issue of Lee’s bad attitudes. Steve, himself, then began to be disciplined by George. Little by little, responsibilities were taken away from him, leaving him to feel stripped and useless. He was even rebuked by one of the men in leadership and told that he needed “…to repent of digging up iniquity." Steve comments, “I was ‘digging up iniquity’ against George simply because I was pointing out George’s actions as unworthy of a servant of the Lord and that George was at fault. For that I was to be rebuked."
Finally, when all of Steve’s efforts were thwarted, he decided to leave the Assembly. However, before Steve was given the chance to communicate to others about his decision to leave, George stood and told everyone attending the Thursday night prayer meeting that Steve was a failure as a father and servant of the Lord, and was leaving in shame as a failure. Again, this is a typical response that leaders make when someone decides to leave an abusive group. Because members have been convinced that their group alone sees what God wants and obeys a higher calling, they conclude that ones who leave must be leaving the protection of the fold and leaving God’s covering (Enroth, Churches 80, 230). One leader of the Church of Bible Understanding labeled people who left as “enemies of the Cross,” or “losers trying to throw stones at a winner” (80). The tactic of discrediting anyone who left from among them was very effective. Patrick Zukeran notes in his article, “Abusive Churches”,
The majority of the time, former members are publicly ridiculed and humiliated before the church, and members are told not to associate in any way with any former members. This practice is called shunning. Many who leave abusive churches…actually feel they have left God Himself. None of their former associates will fellowship with them, and they feel isolated, abused, and fearful of the world. One former member of a particular campus ministry said, ‘If you leave without the leadership’s approval, condemnation and guilt are heaped upon you. My pastor told me he thought it was satanic for me to leave and wondered if I could continue my salvation experience”.
For Steve and his wife Margaret, leaving the Assembly was painful and sad. Margaret explains, “After we left and I began to realize that shunning was happening, there was huge pain at the rejection from dear ones. There were so many I had been close to, and they were writing me letters telling me how deceived I was and not to contact them any more." Steve shares how he felt immediately after leaving: “I lost what I thought gave my life meaning and purpose. I believed so strongly in what I was doing and was so committed to it that to no longer be involved and committed depressed me." The great aspiration of his life was “…to live an exemplar Christian life before God’s people and the world”, and now he felt despair that he would not be able to serve Christ again.
When members leave an abusive church or community, they experience a range of emotions, from fear, to anger; from feeling totally numb to feelings of fatigue; from feelings of isolation to needing time alone with God; and from reluctance of commitment to embarrassment of being taken in (Enroth, Churches 187-194). The consensus in all the literature that addresses recovering from churches that abuse is that it takes time to heal. It takes time to understand retrospectively what has happened and to sort through all the emotions. Each person leaving an abusive church situation has their own unique story to tell.
It has now been thirteen years since Steve and his family have left the Assembly. For the past two years he has been an elder in a Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, California, where he shares the responsibilities of overseeing the affairs of the church with seven other elders. Recently, during this past winter, George Geftakys, the leader of the Assembly, was exposed as a fraud and immoral man. Many of the Assemblies located throughout the United States have disbanded, and many members have exited from the remaining groups that are still meeting. Because of Steve’s past experiences with George and with the recovery process, he and Margaret maintain a website where they are providing helpful resources to people who have left the assembly.
Abusive churches (and the on-going spiritual abuse that such groups employ) still exist, but Steve Irons is a beacon of encouragement and hope that there can be a full, God-serving life outside of such groups.
“Decline of the Mainline Churches” American Decades 1970 – 1979. Eds. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Richard Layman. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.
Drane, James F. The New American Reformation: a Study of Youth Culture and Religion. New York: Philosophical Library, 1995.
Ellwood, Robert S. Jr. One Way: the Jesus Movement and Its Meaning. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1973.
Enroth, Ronald M. Churches that Abuse. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.
Enroth, et al. The Jesus People: Old-Time Religion in the Age of Aquarius. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.
Huber, Adam, Chris Lemieux, and Marlon Hollis. “The Hippie Generation”, Online posting, 23 June 2003 [now available as a video series].
“Open Letter to the Eight Jesus People USA Leaders by former Members”. Online posting. 18 Mar 2002.
Rabey, Steve. “Remembering the Jesus Movement.” Christianity Today 22 Nov 1985: 53-55.
Zukeran, Patrick. "Abusive Churches". 14 July 2002.