An Issue of Control
Brian T., second-generation adult from the Charleston Assembly, comments, "This is EXACTLY how MOST relationships were managed in the Assembly. I have heard about and seen this exact story over and over growing up in the Assembly. So the fact that the author didn't use anyone's names (except for a few higher-ups) really strengthened its impact on me, because it comes across as a kind of "Everycouple's" retelling of how they got together in the Assembly. One common and particularly tragic deviation from this oft-repeated drama was when a reluctant sister was pressured into marrying an especially loyal brother. I enjoyed reading about how they found happiness together anyway. Love conquerors all, eh?"
When considering what to say about involvement in the Assemblies of George Geftakys, there are far too many topics one could choose from to talk about. To describe everything I experienced as a part of this aberrant group would take so many pages that a book could probably be written. For me, the single greatest contributor to the problems within the Assembly is the profound level of control exerted over the lives of members. This control permeates every level of a member’s life and, for many, caused catastrophic doubts and even moral failure to enter in where a healthy Christian faith would have existed otherwise.
How could someone be persuaded that keeping secret the severe spousal and child abuse perpetrated by one of the full-time elders (George’s own son) would be good for God’s people and for the work of the Lord in general? How can people be persuaded that in order to further God’s work and keep the movement healthy a sexual predator like George should have his sin denied or hidden rather than exposed and dealt with? How could profound games of semantics and blame shifting take place with almost all leadership with no one raising an eyebrow or asking why? Personally, I believe that George, knowing the sin in his own life, thought he could keep other people from walking down the same path he had by controlling them and micro-managing every aspect of their lives.
At one time, I thought becoming a “Worker” and assuming a leadership role within the Assemblies was a noble and honorable endeavor. But during a stay for a year in Fullerton as a “campus worker” that the questions that had passed through my mind throughout my involvement with the group truly began coming to a head. They reached a crescendo during and after my attendance at the weeklong “Workers Conference” held every year in Colorado.
I intend to shed some light on these issues by discussing what took place before and during my courtship with my wonderful wife. I will not mention many names in this article because I believe it wouldn’t be profitable to do so (indeed, my own name will remain anonymous). The only names mentioned are those of men who I believe have a need to receive a public call to repentance for the control they exert over others (as well as for other issues). George, if you ever happen across this, know that my wife and I have prayed for your repentance many times and that we hope you can be fully restored to a life of true spiritual joy and richness rather than the legalism you impose upon others.
When I graduated high school, I had only recently begun reading my Bible for myself from beginning to end. It was a tremendous experience that I enjoyed greatly. I was going to a Cal State university with a major in philosophy that I intended to be a stepping stone to a career as a full-time pastor. I was extremely enthusiastic about the Lord and walking before him. I was eighteen and very naive, idealistic and zealous for my faith. My desire to share that faith with others was intense.
These feelings are good, but can become dangerous if they block out Christ Himself. If a desire to serve, spread the gospel, and do works overwhelms your desire for a loving relationship with Christ Himself, then as 1 Corinthians 13 says, that desire and those works are nothing. C.S. Lewis captures it well in his book, The Great Divorce:
There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God Himself … as if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist! There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a though to Christ. Man!
This quotation, in many ways, captures what I was like in the Assembly. I was so zealous for what I understood to be His house, His work, and "the heavenly vision", that I truly forgot Christ Himself.
In my first couple of weeks at the university, I was looking for a good Bible-believing Christian group to be in fellowship with. Keeping in mind my mindset at the time, imagine my joy when I came across a book table where there were a few young people sharing their faith with others in a very open and straightforward manner. Attending Bible studies on campus and then in the community, my young mind was incredibly impressed by the sense of community, friendship, and serious devotion to holiness and God’s Word.
Needless to say, I was instantly hooked. This group perfectly fit what my idealistic mind wanted to find. Everything about their lives revolved around what I perceived to be devotion to God and His House.
The Assembly sought out people like me--intense, zealous for God and His work, and looking for someone to provide a framework that would define what it meant to walk with him. My naive zeal allowed the Assembly to give me stringent definitions of what God’s work was, how it was to be conducted, and how others simply fell short of what God wanted.
I wanted to serve the Lord, and the Assembly convinced me that its definitions were the only way to do it according to “God’s eternal purpose in Christ” or according to “the Heavenly vision.” I ate it all up and quickly became an ardent follower and herald of the Assembly vision. I looked down on others (including almost all other Christian groups) as having fallen short of "the vision", and approached people with that condescension. Looking back, it is no wonder people were so offended and that so few came to Christ in our group.
My first real glimpses of what Assembly control was like came when I moved into a "training home." There were two other men living there renting a room from a family. We all lived in that same cramped room and slept in bunks. When I moved in, I thought things would continue as they had before I was in a home. Before, I certainly received pressure to attend all Assembly functions and special events like seminars and conferences, but living in the home took that pressure to an altogether different level.
Every decision I made was evaluated, criticized, and either overruled or approved by the head of the home. Strictly attending all Assembly functions was mandatory, not optional. Being two minutes late was grounds for being “talked to” by the head of the home. I was not treated like an adult who needed to make mature decisions about the course of his life. I was another child who had to obey the head of the household.
There was a strictly enforced curfew, and chores to do that involved “consequences” if they weren’t done perfectly. Every decision I made required the approval of the head of the home. I had to get permission to take trips to visit my parents, make a financial decision, or do anything else including go out with non-Assembly classmates for events or study groups. Every aspect of my life was controlled and evaluated by the Assembly leadership. If something didn’t measure up, you would be sure to hear extensive preaching about it during a meeting.
Having been raised in an arid high-altitude mountain environment, my lungs had some difficulty with the constantly cold and damp coastal air where I lived and went to school. I got respiratory infections quite often that kept me out of meetings and I got talked to more than once about being too soft on myself. I was told I needed to “play the man” and come to meetings even though I was sick. All the while, it never occurred to my zealous and naive mind to ask the question, “Why?”
These were my first tastes of what control was like in the Assembly. Rather than prepare young men and women for a mature adult life, which was the stated intention of the “training homes,” they taught people to do only one thing--learn to obey the leadership and seek their permission for everything in life. It bred immaturity and a lack of independent decision-making ability, as well as a complete reliance on others.
I had no friends at all outside of the Assembly (even amongst Christians from other groups) and was discouraged from maintaining any friendships at all unless they were “saints” (people in the Assembly fellowship). This had a tremendous impact on once-close friendships that to this day has left profound damage. When my home Assembly was slowly declining, one brother who left said, “I feel like rather than learning how to find out what God wants for my life and my family, I’ve learned how to do what I’m told.” That was the reason he moved on to another Christian gathering. I have to say I felt much the same.
People in the Assembly were not taught to find the Lord’s mind on their own and obey him according to their own conscience. They were taught to rigidly obey whatever council they were given by the leadership. If people disobeyed counsel, the leadership would often publicly tell the Assembly to pray for so-and-so, because they weren’t trusting the Lord. Thus, people who sought to truly walk before the Lord rather than men were frowned upon and endured constant reproof and criticism from leadership. I don’t think I will ever be free of the sense of guilt and regret I feel for participating in that kind of treatment of others.
The ultimate example of control in my own life involved the time leading up to, during, and immediately after courtship with my wife. For me, this control was the ultimate example of George’s system of arrogance that he had woven into Assembly culture. Marriage, what career to pursue (even who to work for) and where to live are probably the most significant decisions any person will make in their entire life. Yet, even in this, people were taught to obey what the leadership said without question. How on earth could the leadership honestly think they knew what was best for everyone in the Assembly when it came to who and when to marry, where to live, or how to conduct your life?
Personal friends of mine from the Assembly were criticized as rebellious and lacking deep faith if they married or pursued a relationship with someone the leadership didn’t approve of. They received the same criticism if the couple was approved of, but the timing wasn’t. There are possibly many from the Assembly who only got married to the people they did because Assembly leadership pressured them into it. There are still others who were possibly deeply in love but didn’t get married because the leadership didn’t allow it. The following is an account of the control exerted over my wife and me when we were convinced God wanted us to be together for the rest of our lives.
God spoke to me about my future wife when we were in our final year of college. We had been friends, but not very close, for a couple of years. During that final year of college our friendship became very close. I told the leadership in my home Assembly about what I thought God wanted and also told the leadership in Fullerton since I was going to be moving down there for the “campus worker” program.
Immediately, the leadership sought to minimize the time I spent around her. I was told to spend as little time as possible around her and got “talked to” on a number of occasions because we were seen talking with each other. During this time it wasn’t even that we were too close, but the leadership basically wanted me to practically ignore her. You see, I wasn’t allowed to foster any kind of relationship until they thought it was OK, if that time ever came.
When the time came to move to Fullerton, I was told by the leadership in my home Assembly very strictly not to talk to her while I was in Fullerton. They said it was great that we were friends and we would see what happened romantically in the future, but they decided now was not the time and told me to drastically alter my manner of behavior towards her. They didn’t want me talking to her or maintaining any semblance of a friendship at all.
Also, I was directed not to tell her anything about why I was completely changing the way I behaved towards her. This, they said, would show her what kind of marriage we would have because I was devoting everything to the Lord.
What it really showed her was that I had for some unknown reason completely stopped pursuing our friendship and hadn’t communicated anything at all about why. This kind of a lack of communication is definitely not what a woman wants in a possible future husband. The direction given me by the leadership certainly made an impression with her regarding what kind of marriage we would have, but it definitely wasn’t the impression I wanted to make.
Ostensibly, this decision was made to keep us focused on “God’s work” and undistracted by our romantic interests, which were by this time mutual. Instead, both of us spent time worrying about why we weren’t talking and were both very confused about what to do. All traces of our friendship disappeared because the leadership wanted it that way. It was a very odd and uncomfortable time, since I couldn’t talk to her at all when I saw her almost every day of the week. They had complete control over both of us and could manipulate me very easily by the mere suggestion that she would see I wasn’t trusting the Lord and I might, therefore, not be the one for her.
After several months of growing tension between us, I finally convinced the leadership in Fullerton that I needed to have a one-on-one with her to explain that I did value our friendship profoundly, that I wasn’t ignoring her, and to renew an open dialogue with her. They allowed me to have no more than fifteen minutes with her one Sunday morning. I explained that I really did value our friendship and that I had broken off contact because I had been directed to do so, not because I wanted to. We hugged (a huge “no-no”) and actually began talking again, although our contact was still very limited and I still got “talked to” if I spoke to her too much.
The rest of the year in Fullerton saw an easing of the tension between us. One of the elders put us together running one of the campus Bible studies. We enjoyed the time, but I still got quizzed from time to time about what we talked about, and how much time we were actually side-by-side during those days. If we talked about anything that was deemed “inappropriate,” I received a reprimand. Inappropriate conversations weren’t things like gossip or discussions about sinful subjects. These unsanctioned conversations included any plans we had for the future, or what we thought Godly relationships should be like. Just simple things friends talk about, especially very close friends with a mutual romantic interest.
At the same time, questions in my mind began surfacing ever more regularly regarding what George’s role in the Assembly truly was and what his son David was really doing. George would say things in seminars that I knew weren’t true, or were stretches of the truth. They were always some statement about himself or something he did (he talked about himself a lot in every sermon he gave).
One example is a seminar lecture where he stated that he never preached the same message twice. He always had something fresh from the “kitchen of Heaven” for God’s people. I knew that was false because the Midwest Seminar was often a repeat of messages he had preached at seminars in Fullerton. Also I had been in meetings where he stated he had preached the word previously in another Assembly.
I asked a couple of the elders in Fullerton about the rumors spreading regarding David Geftakys and I was never satisfied with the answers I received. These discussions always left me with more questions and doubts than answers and confidence.
Upon our return to our home Assembly, we immediately left for a “Mission and Training Team.” During the stop in the home Assembly, I asked one of the Leading Brothers for permission to declare my feelings for the woman I loved so we could begin “spending time” (the Assembly term for dating). It never occurred to me how ridiculous it was for a grown man to ask permission to see a grown woman romantically. The leading brother said yes, we could "spend time" together, but he and I misunderstood each other and I would pay for it dearly at a later date.
On the team, Bill Bradbury from West LA was the head. Bill took control to an altogether deeper level than I had ever experienced before. Bill was not manipulative at all in his control. He was totally up front about it.
Every second I spent talking to her, or even nearby her, was evaluated and criticized. It got to the point where he didn’t want me even talking to her unless it was by his express consent. He “gave us permission” to spend a few afternoons by ourselves, but I got a quiz after each time regarding what we talked about. In the whole six weeks we were there, we spent a total of two afternoons together.
We even had time limits for how long we could be gone. Bill considered this very generous. It was as if we were teenagers being monitored by a father rather than grown adults making mature decisions for themselves.
After listening to all of Bill’s ideas about what a relationship between a husband and wife should be like and listening to his counsel to a family on the team, I decided that I was not going to run my family according to the Assembly vision and I didn’t care what the consequences would be. I was going to give my wife a voice in the marriage and treat her like a loving partner rather than a servant. My children were going to be dear souls to love rather than things to whip into shape or “work with.”
My doubts about the Assembly grew much deeper and I decided I would try to work in some changes to teaching and practice very subtly. I never voiced any of my thoughts about what I saw as outright child abuse in some situations because I knew it would instantly cause the leadership to shoot down our relationship.
The children of one family on the team spent a large portion of their day being whipped with spanking rods and crying. This happened every single day and often for no reason other than the parent was feeling frustrated or tired about something at the time. I can remember conversations in the Assembly where mothers actually exchanged tips for how to hide the bruises on their infants and children. Not saying anything about this was a very selfish decision. I should have spoken up for the protection of the children.
Upon returning from the mission team, I was very disillusioned with the Assembly vision for families. Grown men and women didn’t make decisions for their families, but obeyed whatever counsel they received from the leadership. People still involved or who still wish there was an Assembly in their communities might disagree, but I finally saw that the leadership did exercise a profound level of control over every element in an individual's or a family’s lives and choices.
I met with the leadership in my home Assembly almost immediately upon our return to discuss how to go forward with the woman I loved. I was (and still am) deeply in love with her and wanted to go forward immediately to engagement. We had been friends for years by this time, and both she and I believed it was God’s will. However, the leadership told me it wasn’t time. They directed me to call off all closeness with her and once again ignore her.
As it turned out, the leading brother who “gave me permission” to start spending time with her at the beginning of the summer hadn’t really meant for that to happen. We had misunderstood one another. So, in his view I had overstepped the boundaries he had set and abused his trust.
The result was the renewed distance between myself and her. Once again, I was not permitted to tell her why I had stopped talking to her. She went to children’s camp as a counselor for the same week I was at the Worker’s Seminar. She told me later that she had felt very sorrowful and discouraged because she thought it was over. She thought I had stopped talking to her because I wasn’t interested in her anymore.
During this time, I went to the Worker’s Seminar in Colorado and became very disillusioned with George himself. For an entire week I listened to him preaching about himself and how great his ministry and work were. I listened to him praise various men for different things, thus winning their unswerving devotion to himself (not to the Lord, but to the man). Mike Almanzor, Jim McAllister, and Scott Testa were among those he praised that week.
I also saw him discipline “unfaithful” men publicly and shamefully. George held people up publicly and humiliated what truly was minor failure. He said that if you are accused, you should publicly come forward and show your innocence. If you didn’t, he said it was a sign of your guilt. He got powerful “amens” from most of the congregated “Workers.”
The hypocrisy of that became plainly evident later when he himself was called on the carpet for his adultery and for covering up his son’s felony spousal and child abuse. When he was faced with the true accusations about his own life, he defied his own preaching and fled the Fullerton Assembly.
To this day, he has made no effort to clear up anything. There have been no public statements made on or about the website and no reconciliation with the leadership in Fullerton. It truly is a sign of his guilt and complicity. As I said, I left the worker’s conference very disillusioned about George and his “Work.” The control being exercised over my relationship to my future wife only served to profoundly strengthen that sense of disillusionment.
After pressuring the leadership for about a month, they allowed me to spend some time with her. I was given permission to go running with her one afternoon, but had a strict two-hour time limit. We went way over the two hours and I got reprimanded for it.
On one occasion, I was talking to her on the phone and the head of the home I was living in happened to call. I didn’t pick up the call waiting, so he called back immediately. I hit flash and answered his call. He asked if I was talking to her and sharply reprimanded me for not picking up call waiting. Then, he told me I had talked to her long enough (not even knowing how long we had been on the phone) and directed me to hang up. I later got reprimanded because I shouldn’t be talking to her so much. This kind of control dominated the remainder of our courtship.
Finally, just before Thanksgiving that year, I was given permission to propose to her. By this time, I did consider it ridiculous that I had to get permission from a church leader to propose to a grown woman. I immediately called the only people I should have every have asked for permission to marry her. I called her parents and asked for their blessing. They joyfully gave it to me. I invited her to go on a hike in the forested hills near our home Assembly. There, by river in the forest, with the sun setting, I declared my love for her and she for me. She accepted my proposal.
Even after engagement, the leadership still sought to control aspects of our relationship. They strongly pressured us to continue living in a training home even after we were married so they could monitor our relationship and provide guidance.
She was told (not suggestions, but requirements) what her wedding dress could and could not be like. We were told what we could and could not have in our wedding. Some examples included: no train on the wedding dress, it must have sleeves rather than be sleeveless (she disobeyed that one), no candles in the ceremony, no dancing at the reception. Disobeying in some of these areas could have led to a loss of support by the leadership, even to the point of having to get a pastor from another church to perform the wedding.
Despite all the control and problems that were a direct result of it, she and I were happily married. During the time of preparation for our marriage, George's and David’s profound moral failures came to light and the Assemblies began to fall apart. As a result, there was a bit of bickering at our wedding, mostly as a result of Scott Testa, who remained loyal to George, running around trying to “talk sense” into people. He even had the audacity to approach one of the sisters who accused George and call her a liar … at our wedding!
Our home Assembly was one of the last groups in California to close its doors in the first year. We stayed for as long as possible, attempting to change the system from within. But it eventually became apparent that complete closure was needed before people could truly change and heal the way they needed to. For some, there have been profound and tragic consequences as a result of unswerving devotion to the “vision” of George Geftakys. I fear that some will always wish for the “glory days” to come back. But most of the former members of our home Assembly have moved on with the Lord.
This website is aptly named. It is good to reflect on what transpired in each of our lives. Such reflection reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the Assembly system (which is really a Brethren system). My wife and I are not the only ones who suffered the kind of control that is described above. Many others went through similar situations to a greater or lesser degree.
Also, in many ways I was myself an instrument of Assembly control. I said and did things to exert control in the lives of others over the years even though I truly knew in my heart that it wasn’t right. I can think of specific people whom I wronged in different ways over the years, but I do not want to mention them by name here. For all of that and much more, I am truly and deeply sorry.
My wife and I haven’t really had any marital problems of any kind as a result of the experiences we had. We truly are well suited for one another. Learning to communicate in effective ways and learning how to live together are things all couples go through and we’ve had our share of growing pains. But fortunately there hasn’t been any really deep issue come out of our Assembly experience.
As far as my aspirations for a pastoral calling are concerned, I still believe very strongly that the Lord has called me to shepherd and teach in some capacity. I’m just exploring what that capacity is. A few weeks ago, my wife and I met with the pastor of our current church to discuss this very issue and it was a very encouraging conversation. I started out in college thinking I had my plan all set, but the Assembly really changed that. God will lead in faithfulness as He always has. I will simply wait to see what happens in the future.
To any person reading this who is a part of or is considering joining an active Assembly: I challenge you to lay aside the semantics that seek to make this kind of control into something it is not (i.e. Godly counsel, obedience to leadership = obedience to the Lord, etc.). Please consider the direction you get from leadership with the Word of God in mind, and consider the will of God for your life. Walk before God, not under the direction of men (Acts 4:19). Remember, leaders God raises up are forbidden to exercise the kind of control they do in the Assembly (1 Peter 5:2-3).
To any un-named former Assembly leadership (or members) who may be reading this account and realizing that you played a part in this story, I harbor no bitterness or condemnation for you personally and there is no need for you to make any apology (public or private). This account is not intended to condemn people, but to expose the darkness of the system through which we were all deceived.
May God richly bless you in your lives and choices. He is good, and we are thankful for all He has done for us. There truly is joy in serving Jesus when Jesus is truly the one you serve.
Comments from readers:
May 11, 2006, "Just Me": "Scott Testa confronted one of George's accusers at this guy's wedding and called her a liar! How absurd is that? What woman would go around ruining her own reputation and supposedly trying to protect others by telling such a ridiculous story of an affair with a man 50 years her senior? What could she possibly gain?
May 15, 2006, Brian T.: "This bears repeating. The percentage of false abuse accusations is miniscule. Women who report physical or sexual abuse generally have much to lose and little to gain from going public. So especially when more than one woman accuses the same man of crossing sexual boundaries, such as George G., all doubt is removed from my mind.
This is EXACTLY how MOST relationships were managed in the Assembly. I have heard about and seen this exact story over and over growing up in the Assembly. So the fact that the author didn't use anyone's names (except for a few higher-ups) really strengthened its impact on me, because it comes across as a kind of "Everycouple's" retelling of how they got together in the Assembly. One common and particularly tragic deviation from this oft-repeated drama was when a reluctant sister was pressured into marrying an especially loyal brother. I enjoyed reading about how they found happiness together anyway. Love conquerors all, eh?
"This Scott Testa character sounds like quite the socially awkward bully. I mean, what kind of a person would pull a stunt like that at someone else's wedding??"
May 17, 2006, Jem: "Brian, where you went wrong with the above statement was thinking it was "someone else's wedding." Weddings were Assembly meetings, so they fell under the domain of leadership to coerce and control what went on. The Assembly required you to surrender your wedding, (and for some, who you married), your children, your money, where you lived, to "the will of God" as interpreted by leadership. Scott, being a loyal, leading brother was just doing the only kind of dancing allowed at weddings."
Read about another Assembly-managed courtship, Chris and Mary B.'s Story - Ottawa Assembly