I Was Once Deceived – in “Normantown”
John C. Rankin (January 27, 2014)
A biblical faith is an honest one – in the sight of God and one another. So here, let me be candid about the time I was deceived, and how thankful I am that God’s grace turned me from it.
Eight months prior to my deception, in January, 1974, I took “J term” for college credit, done at Grace Haven Farms in Mansfield, Ohio. It was at the apex of the “Jesus Movement” years, and Grace Haven leased a 360-acre farm and had a lodge not unlike Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri in Switzerland, where there and here, many college students and others engaged the Gospel. It was a wonderful ministry, forty years later Grace Fellowship Church remains, and I have good friends there still.
During the month I did farm work and was involved in community life. When it was my time to cook breakfast for sixty people, I decided not to go the scrambled eggs route, but cooked eggs to order, sunny-side-up or easy-over. I had to work a furious pace, enjoyed it immensely and was especially satisfied that I only broke one egg yolk in the process. Then I enjoyed my own easy-over eggs.
A significant part of the program was study. Here I read in depth about some Protestant offshoots of the nineteenth century that deviated from the biblical teachings on the nature of the Trinity – Mormonism, Christian Science and (the later named) Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Back at Denison University in February, I was walking across campus and remember praying, in view of having studied these deceitful religions: “Lord, I thank you that I cannot be deceived because of how much I love you.” God have mercy (and he did) – I actually prayed these words, and what a foolish and proud statement. Not unlike the self-righteous Pharisee in Luke 18:10-14:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
In other words, I set myself up to be deceived, and it came to pass from September, 1974, to January, 1978. A friend in college and just married, with both being seniors, was eager to find “apostolic” authority. With them, my wife-to-be and I visited a small satellite church outside Columbus, Ohio, when the overseeing “apostle” from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area came to visit. His first name was Norman. In truth, I was deeply wary, yet my wife-to-be and I both thought we kept attending because the other one was – in a crazy season in courtship that had not yet come to engagement.
Nonetheless, Norman had some eccentric and false doctrines (though he was within confessional Nicene orthodoxy), and I eventually bought into at least two of them. In fact, our friend who led us to this church actually cajoled me into one. These were doctrines that were exclusivist, where Norman believed that the “true born-again church” was a very small portion of the larger church, he was at the center of it, and was the real (if yet to be acknowledged) Apostle of the “true” church. He proved to be a prima donna, expecting people to submit to his professed authority, no questions de facto allowed.
In early 1976, Norman ordered that his various small satellite churches all move to Pittsburgh, and they did so by the subsequent fall. “Prophecy” and twisted scriptures made this seem to be the great movement of establishing the “true” church with its worldwide epicenter in Pittsburgh, and Norman believed that Pittsburgh had been “given” to him by the Lord as his spiritual fiefdom. He encouraged people to drop out of college if need be, or transfer to a college in Pittsburgh, or leave secure jobs, including a friend who left after 19 years as a government computer programmer, losing all his accrued benefits set to kick in after 20 years. One exception was made for a favored couple while the young man was finishing pharmaceutical school.
Norman also directed the college students, explicitly, to lie to their parents as to why they were moving to Pittsburgh. I did not buy into this, but also, I had no risk because I was graduating that spring. Nonetheless, I told my father why I was moving there. My wife-to-be was able, by God’s grace, to do her senior year at Chatham College in Pittsburgh, and also earn her K-3 teaching certificate not possible at Denison (where she was an art major), all her scholarship monies transferred, and she graduated the following spring from Denison.
Norman was legalistic and petty in micromanaging people’s lives, using the image of the “plumb line” accordingly, and in fact cajoled into existence perhaps several dozen marriages in the Pittsburgh church (actually located in the South Hills through various locales until property was bought, under several names over the years; they are virtually invisible on the internet today). The church had a large ratio of new college graduates, and people of the same age, while Norman was a high school graduate raised Roman Catholic before becoming Pentecostal/charismatic. He preached marriage, and through proxies and the pulpit, insisted that all the single men and women soon find a spouse within the church. The order was given. They did so, almost without exception, as on assignment. Thankfully, by this time my wife-to-be and I were already engaged, having a history well prior to this church, and we married in August, 1977, following her graduation.
While in this church, I was known as one who actually knew the Bible. I was only 21-24 years old in this season. Norman and most the leadership knew it largely as a series of proof-texts, whereas in my prior experience in 1) reading the Bible relentlessly, in whole books and always seeking to learn context, 2) the Anglican liturgies from the Book of Common Prayer, along with the hymns, in prep school, 3) my involvement in the Fellowship of Christians in University and Schools, 4) in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and 5) in learning some skeptical as well as honest biblical scholarship in college, I was wired and prepared to learn the whole biblical storyline on its own terms. And too, my upbringing (see the first blog post from March 9, 2010) blessed me with a love of hard questions. And yet, these forty years later, I know how little of the Bible I then knew, how much more I now know, which also means I now know more how little I know compared with what there is to be known.
Then the explosion. Norman was forcing a friend of mine (the former government computer programmer), to resign as an elder for the “sin” of – hold your breath – having his two older sons attend the youth group of a different church. Norman’s church, aka in my own language, “Normantown,” had no such youth group as the demographics were so young. Norman was requiring this man to lie as to why he was resigning as an elder of one of the house churches (small groups in the larger church), and not to tell anyone ahead of time. But my friend’s wife couldn’t hold it in, she told me and my wife, with him present, in December, 1977, and along with some petty hypocrisies evident, the four of us decided to leave the church. When I made the decision, it was a breath of fresh air to my soul. Awaking from a toxic fog.
Norman was planning to come to the Wednesday, January 11, 1978 scheduled house church meeting, to oversee my friend’s resignation, and appoint a new elder (the pharmacist). My friend thus, in fear, called the meeting for the prior evening, January 10, in secret, to announce the real reasons why he was resigning. He taped it in order to give it to Norman (which he followed through on). Ten others joined us in choosing to leave the church – the first public exodus from Normantown. But one woman in the house church was horrified, and immediately called Norman. The fury was so great that Norman phoned all the elders, and word of such “infamy” spread like wildfire through the church. Norman also phoned the fourteen of us through the night, and called an emergency meeting of the whole church the next night – some two hundred people – to publicly decry and “dis-fellowship” (excommunicate) all of us ex post facto. He also directed that no one in the church communicate with any of us. We were to be “shunned.”
Our neighbors in the apartment above us, in a two-family home (a married couple with a young child), members of the church, shunned us. And, as it so happened, I was switching jobs that week, taking a slightly better paying job in retail management, and had two days off in the interim. So the man, making a momentary exception, seeing me at home for two days in the middle of the work week, asked me if I had lost my job. The expectation in the church was that those who left it would be cursed by their own “sin” of leaving, and descend into personal turmoil and failure in work and marriage. Another man in the church saw me in traffic some weeks later, and oh, the glare of his eyes upon me. May God have mercy – they were entrapped in a cult.
My wife and I then visited the leader of Grace Fellowship Church ministries in Mansfield, he and his wife were so hospitable to us, and he concluded by saying I should be in seminary, and it came to pass for the fall. As it is, Norman, at that time, prohibited people from going to seminary, and generally disparaged higher education.
However, I knew that having a secret meeting on January 10 was not the right way to go about it, even though it was not my decision. My friend was in deathly fear of Norman, and he acted accordingly.
So, in February, I wrote Norman and said as much, and reiterated the reasons why we left. He was so enthusiastic in receiving the letter, thinking we might be persuaded to return to the church – to “snatch us from the fire” as it were – that he personally rushed over to our apartment, while I was at work and my wife was at home (not knowing either variable), knocking on the door. I never did dislike the man, and intuitively have always felt the grace of God can reach his heart. We met with him and an associate pastor some time later, we told him further why we left, and I also asked some questions about his theology and his conduct relative to our friends. Norman said he found no fault in us, only fault in the people with whom we associated in leaving the church. And he invited us to rejoin the church, where “exciting” things were happening – “The Spirit is on the move.” It turns out that the associate pastor also later left the church.
My wife and I responded, 1) we find no fault in our friendships, 2) no thank you to the invitation to return to the church, and 3) we are heading off to seminary. Then he said, “You can go to seminary while staying in the church.” We demurred. But I concluded the conversation something like this: “Norman, now that we have had this conversation, I trust that if ever we cross paths again, we will do so as friends.” He did not disagree, but still, such a resolution was not his purpose for the meeting.
And indeed, when my schedule had me coming through Pittsburgh in 1989, I wrote Norman ahead of time to arrange a visit where my interest was in an open-ended theological conversation, separate from the details of our departure from the church. In receiving no reply, I called the church office, he was unavailable to talk, but his eldest son, also named Norman (but not Jr.), spoke with me. Yet, no meeting was possible with his father. “Little Norman,” as he was then called, was a teenager in 1977, and once I took him and his next oldest brother, and the two eldest sons of my friend, to a Pittsburgh Pirate’s game. I liked him, and in the 1989 phone conversation, it was pleasant enough. When I was in town in 1998, I tried to set up a meeting with Norman (the elder), and no reply. Several years ago, I sent a copy of my one of books, The Six Pillars of Biblical Power, to Norman (the younger) who had since become senior pastor. No response.
This I did in a proactive attempt to lift up Jesus, even though I knew some of the hell into which the church has descended in the meantime. I only know a few details of these intervening years, not even scratching the surface I am sure. In the 1990s, our college friends were divorced, de facto at Norman’s behest. The wife started questioning Norman and his wife, it was unacceptable, and sometime later her husband unilaterally divorced her and locked her out of the house penniless, with virtually no possessions. This we learned, because she and my wife talked at some length on the phone afterward. It turns out, too, that there were quite a few married couples where divorce was insisted upon by the leadership in Normantown, because one spouse was asking impermissible questions, and better it was in Normantown to keep one person in the church, than to have them both leave and keep the marriage intact. One such woman unilaterally divorced by her husband was the one, then single, in our house church in 1978 who, initially horrified by our “rebellion” in Normantown, had immediately called Norman. Years later she had questions, but they were not permitted …
This is a hallmark of idolatry. Norman and his group of pliant elders, on the one hand, insisted on marriage for the young adults within the church, in the name of the biblical covenant; but on the other, as soon as one spouse began to challenge Norman’s authority, divorce was decreed. Indeed, membership in Normantown meant being “married” to Normantown. When I last heard from my friend who had led us into the church, it was in a letter in the spring of 1979 when I was in seminary. I had sent him an announcement of the birth of our first son the prior October. He was cordial, but also said that he had no purpose in further communications since I had “divorced” myself from the church.
Now, when I invent a term that invents itself, “Normantown,” some may think of “Jonestown.” I am not making this analogy, for the members of Normantown may live in a cult (and their church property and adjoining neighborhood of houses occupied by members gives it a geographical fortress mentality), but they also work real jobs in the outside economy. I pray they have no such willingness to literally drink poisoned Kool Aid, and I highly doubt its possibility; but the idolatry in place is just as dangerous to the soul. Various people in Normantown, when I was there, treated Norman’s words as the Word of God, even over the Bible at junctures. As I began to realize this, my soul was already preparing to depart Normantown.
In the 1990s I met a minister of the Gospel who pastored a church in the Mount Washington section of Pittsburgh in the 1970s. He has since preached the Gospel internationally and extensively. He knew Norman well, and said to me that he has never met a man more practiced in the art of manipulating other people. Let me add though, manipulators are virtually always first manipulated in their youths, insecurity of the soul thus multiplies, and a vicious cycle ensues where manipulation of others is an internal hedge against being manipulated, a cycle that needs to be broken for all concerned.
By God’s grace, we escaped. I was deceivable due to foolish pride. “Fool me once and shame on you; fool me twice and shame on me.” And as a result, as I began seminary, I focused on the biblical ethics of freedom, “no coercion in the Gospel” as I then phrased it, and my life has been thus shaped. Do pray for those still in Normantown, that God’s grace may happily interrupt their lives too, though in truth, for those who have been there thirty or forty years, the die is deeply cast. But nothing is impossible to God.
[Addendum: January 28 – the church has no website, but after this posting, I discovered a place where many former members vent themselves, the CitySearch site linked at the top; I have added my own comments]