How do you hold on to your faith after experiencing abuse in a church? And how can you find Christian community when so many aspects of church trigger painful memories?
In this week’s podcast, Doug and Wendy Duncan join me to discuss their journey into—out of—what they say was an abusive and cultic Christian community.
After being taught God was angry and punitive, they had to heal their image of God—and of themselves. And they needed to relearn Christian community—and figure out how to connect with Christians in a way that didn’t trigger bad memories.
Both Doug and Wendy are contributors to our premium for donors this month—Wounded Faith: Understanding and Healing from Spiritual Abuse. And though their experience may have been extreme, it has many parallels and insights for anyone who has experienced spiritual abuse.
In thoughtful detail, Doug, who’s a professional counselor, explains the hallmarks of thought control and the red flags to look for when exploring a new church. Wendy talks about her process of healing, and how to view God as our Good Shepherd, instead of a demanding disciplinarian.
This is an incredibly helpful podcast that’s extremely relevant, given the prevalence of abuse in the current Christian environment.
Your tax-deductible gift helps our journalists report the truth and hold Christian leaders and organizations accountable. Give a gift of $30 or more to The Roys Report this month, and you will receive a copy of "Wounded Faith," edited by Rev. Dr. Neil Damgaard.
We are unable to ship books internationally.
Doug & Wendy Duncan
JULIE ROYS, DOUG DUNCAN, WENDY DUNCAN
JULIE ROYS 00:00
So how can you hold on to your faith after experiencing abuse in the church? And how can you find Christian community when so many aspects of church trigger painful memories? Welcome to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And joining me today is Doug and Wendy Duncan, a couple who say they spent decades in an abusive cultic community in Dallas. And in that community, they were taught that God was angry and punitive, and that their community was the only true bride that God loved. The year spent in that cultic group devastated not just Doug and Wendy sense of self, but their view of God and their ability to connect with other believers. In this podcast, the couple tell their journey into and out of this spiritually abusive community, and they share the road they took to recovery and the expertise they’ve gained over many years. Wendy is now a spiritual abuse recovery specialist. And Doug is a professional counselor specializing in helping people recover from religious trauma and cult involvement. This is going to be a fascinating and informative podcast and I’m so looking forward to our discussion.
But before we dive in, I’d like to thank the sponsors of this podcast, Accord Analytics and Marquardt of Barrington. In your ministry or business, your reputation is your most valuable asset. But what do you do when you suspect misconduct? Hopefully you do the opposite of many of the organizations I report on. Instead of covering up wrongdoing, you investigate it, and Accord Analytics can help. In just 72 hours, their team of experts can scour emails, call logs and other records to produce usable evidence. They also can analyze your organization to identify specific threats and to suggest best practices. To schedule a free consultation, go to ACCORDANALYTICS.COM. Also, if you’re looking for a quality new or used car, I highly recommend my friends at Marquardt of Barrington. Marquardt is a Buick GMC dealership where you can expect honesty, integrity and transparency. That’s because the owners there Dan and Curt Marquardt, are men of integrity. To check them out, just go to BUYACAR123.com.
Well, again, joining me are Doug and Wendy Duncan, survivors of what they say is a pseudo-Christian bible-based cult. Wendy has a master’s degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and is a licensed social worker. Doug is a professional counselor and specializes in helping people recover from religious or spiritual abuse. The couple recently started the Wounded Sheep Project, which is a call to churches to reach out to those who have a wounded faith and feel estranged from God. So, Doug, and Wendy, Welcome, and thanks so much for joining me.
DOUG DUNCAN 02:51
Thank you for having us.
WENDY DUNCAN 02:52
Thank you so much.
JULIE ROYS 02:54
Well, Doug and Wendy I am so looking forward to talking to you and hearing your entire story. But before we dive in, I should probably mention that you’re both contributors to a book that we’re offering donors this month, called Wounded Faith: Understanding and Healing from Spiritual Abuse. This is an incredible resource covering topics like healing your image of God and returning to church after experiencing spiritual abuse. We’re offering this book to anyone who gives a gift of $30 or more to The Roys Report in November. To do that, just go to JULIEROYS.COM/DONATE.
So I would like to start with your journey into this cult that you experienced. And I was surprised to find out that the name of the organization that you were part of was Trinity Foundation, because I know Trinity Foundation. Ole Anthony who started the group has been on the forefront of exposing televangelists, and some of their corruption. He’s been on 60 minutes, and they’ve been helpful to us and some of our research and so just surprised to hear that kind of saddened to hear that. But this was something you were part of Doug for, like, what 20 years, were both of you a part for like 20 years?
DOUG DUNCAN 04:06
Wendy was there about seven years, the last seven years that I was there. Early childhood, I attended a Methodist church with my parents and then later on as an adolescent, I got very involved in several youth groups. I was in Young Life, went to college and got involved with the Navigators. I was very involved in evangelical churches and groups as an adolescent. That certainly gave me a background but I think in some ways, certain vulnerabilities to the pitch that Ole made, who offered what he was teaching as being the purest and the best and, you know, the most committed version of Christianity that you could find and you know, since I was very gung-ho that appealed to me.
JULIE ROYS 04:56
It does appeal especially I think, to young people who have a desire to give their lives to something and you want it to be something that’s worth giving your life to. And certainly, the call of Christ is something worth giving your life to. But in the expression that it sounds like you experienced was pretty spiritually abusive. Wendy with you, you grew up Southern Baptist, right? And what was that experience like for you?
WENDY DUNCAN 05:20
My parents were both very active in the Baptist Church, my mother was a WMU director for a while my dad was a deacon. You know, we were there every time the doors opened. And until my dad had an accident when I was 10 years old, you know, we were the model Christian family. I was estranged from God for a number of years. And then when my last semester of college, had one of those Damascus Road experiences, and God was so real, and it just changed the course of my life. I ended up going to seminary, and there’s a lot of other stories. But I’ve experienced spiritual abuse, church hurts, church disappointments.* At the time that I met Doug, I was looking for a place that would accept me. I had been divorced. And that was a big deal with Southern Baptists. You know, you’re always kind of like a second-class citizen. You’re not really as spiritual, devoted or as good as everybody else. So, I meet Doug, and he invites me to a church. He says, come to our Bible study sometime, our church on Sunday evenings, all the different Bible studies, small Bible studies get together and they have like a potluck dinner, and they talk and we have such a good time. And then all the groups get together for what we call a big group. And there’s music and our leader preaches, But, Julie, before I ever went to their first group, I called different apologetic ministries. And I said, What do you know about Trinity Foundation? Is it a cult? Is it, you know, is it legit? And all of them said, they’re eccentric, they’re a little out there. But we don’t see them as rising to the level of the definition of a cult. So, I called Trinity Foundation and asked for their doctrinal statement, received that in the mail looked at it, and it just looked like any mainstream Christian church. And what we know now is, it’s not what the group says that they believe; it’s how they practice what they believe.
DOUG DUNCAN 07:29
What Jesus said, By their fruits, you will know them. He didn’t say, by their doctrine, you will know them. The Pharisees had good doctrine for the most part, but they treated people badly. And that’s what Jesus saw some of what happens in the churches now that would upset him now as well.
JULIE ROYS 07:47
What you just said, I think is so important, because when I first started doing a lot of my investigative work, when I would say is this a cult? what I was always told is to be classified as a cult, you have to have some sort of heretical or aberrant kind of teaching. And what I was experiencing what I was seeing, not so much experiencing, but hearing other people’s experiences, was that they had experienced just horrible spiritual abuse and bullying and manipulation and control and all of these things. But there was almost a doctrinal purity to the extent that that became, I would say, in some of these cases, idolatrous, but some cases, it really had nothing to do with doctrine. It really had to do with orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. Orthopraxy being you know, right practice and orthodoxy being right doctrine.
Let me ask you, Doug, since you were the first to get involved with Ole Anthony, and the Trinity Foundation. What was it? I mean, you said a little bit that you were attracted to this idea of the perfect expression. Can you give me some more details and how you were recruited into this group?
DOUG DUNCAN 08:59
Part of what was going on, I think, with me at the time, as you know, as a college student and very involved in evangelicalism is that I was under a lot of probably mostly self-induced pressure to perform. And so, you have, you know, evangelicalism as performance religion as performance. And so initially, Ole was proffering a very extreme form of grace, which actually probably was not right. I mean, it was a license, I guess. There was plenty of heresy that Ole taught. You know, one once you got below the surface, and how he wanted to present himself to the world. He had all kinds of crazy, weird heretical Gnostic doctrines that he was teaching. He wanted a certain amount of acceptance in the apologetics ministries because of his work with the televangelists. So, he wanted to look like he was mainstream, but he certainly was not. I mean, he taught plenty of really strange, offbeat, heretical, crazy things. But you know, initially, it just, you know, it seemed very, very Gracie, you know, wasn’t about performance. This was the 70s. It kind of had a hippie vibe to it. And people cuz people drank it was a rowdy bunch. But at the same time, you know, he offered it like, you know, he was like Jesus, he was hanging out with the people from the street. You know, this was all exciting and interesting to us. Because, you know, you had people who were drug addicts and hookers, and you know, all kinds of wild, crazy things. And people would get in arguments in Bible study, and they’d shout at each other, and people would cry. It was actually pretty interesting. The joke was, we had grown up in Ozzie and Harriet land. So, it just seemed kind of interesting. And it felt very authentic. That felt like grace, it felt like you didn’t have to perform. But, you know, ironically, over the years, the thing completely turned around. And it was constant performance all the time. But the performance was not about moral purity as much as it was just to be obedient to leadership and, you know, being, you know, gung-ho for whatever the project that Ole was working on at that moment.
WENDY DUNCAN 11:08
One of the things that attracted me was all of us lived semi-communally, I homeschooled the children, we had all our meals together, we were in and out of each other’s homes, it was community. Community, lay down your life. I liked all that. I mean, I liked that idea about community. And they liked me. And I liked that they liked me. They accepted me, and they didn’t care that I was divorced. In fact, they thought I was too religious.
JULIE ROYS 11:37
So, what were some red flags that you began seeing, and saying, this does not seem to be all what it’s cracked up to be?
DOUG DUNCAN 11:47
One red flag for me was my mother hated the group. She felt like I should not be involved in and that was carrying me down a bad path, that it was a cult. But, you know, again, I was 18-19 years old when I first started getting involved. And I thought this was the right thing. This is what God wanted me to do. And so rather than listen to my mother, I followed the siren call of a false prophet. Interestingly, Ole was right about some things. He had some legitimate points that he was correct about, about the prosperity gospel and televangelists. His motivation for doing it had more to do with getting publicity for himself. And he wanted to be a hero and a rescuer of Christianity and seen as a prophet, and all of that. But Ole was able to accomplish a lot because he had slave labor to do all of that stuff. From the early years, especially it was all about Ole getting a forum just so he could be on TV. And I think that was really his motivation.
JULIE ROYS 12:57
Wendy, you write that, at one point, you began to realize, there’s a lot of talk from the leader of sacrifice for everyone else. But when you began to look, you didn’t see the leader sacrificing. You saw the people sacrificing for the leader and the leader kind of living, it sounds like, a pretty cushy life.
WENDY DUNCAN 13:20
That’s true. He talked about sacrificing and laying down his life and that he had given up fame and fortune and everything for us. But early, early, early, when I first started going, I wanted to see, you know, because in the Baptist Church, when they had the meetings, you got a budget report. So, I asked, you know, if I could see the budget report, or the financial report. Ole blew up, he blew up at me, it’s so angry, and talked about me not trusting and me not understanding the doctrine and, you know, just laid into me about all my bad stuff. During the early days, I questioned some of the doctrine and he would humiliate me, ridicule me in front of all these people. And so finally, I just, you know, shut down and didn’t say anything. And I often say that when I first got there, I did not believe what they believed, and then slowly, I started realizing that I didn’t know really what I believed anymore. And then eventually, I did believe what they taught. It was a typical thought reform environment.
JULIE ROYS 14:30
Well explain that.
DOUG DUNCAN 14:31
There’s a really good book Christians everywhere should read called The Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Thought Reform in China, by Robert Lifton, who’s a psychiatrist. And so, it’s really the seminal work in the anti-cult field because it explains thought reform, what used to be called brainwashing many years ago. That term is out of favor, but he basically says that there are eight criteria that creative thought reform environment, you don’t necessarily have to have all eight, but all thought reform environments will have some of the eight So there was milieu control.
JULIE ROYS 15:11
Like your environment, controlling the environment?
DOUG DUNCAN 15:13
Yeah, you’ve got to control the information and all of that. That’s why, you know, cults will cut off people’s relationships with those outside that, you know, it’s a subtle process. Now you keep people busy, you know, you have Bible studies several nights a week, so that they don’t have much time to do anything else or be with other people or read other books that are not, you know, the things you’re supposed to be reading.
JULIE ROYS 15:37
It’s interesting to me, you’re describing this in the context of a cult, and yet so many of the investigations I’ve done with churches where it’s not a cult, supposedly, but that same sort of thing happens where your kids go to the church, or they do homeschooling, and only one way of doing it is correct and right. The doctrine is so pure from upfront from this church, that you only read their books and the books of people they approve. And so, it becomes a very insular community. And then, without even meaning to do this, people realize all of their relationships, all of them are within this group. And so, when they leave, it becomes like their whole world that they’ve built for, like 20 years, 25 years. It just comes crumbling down. So, I really appreciate what you’re talking about. So okay, milieu control, what are some of the other things?
DOUG DUNCAN 16:31
All right, then there’s mystical manipulation, which is like planned spontaneity. So, you know, maybe you’ll have a healing that would happen. You know, Jim Jones used to do this in his group. He had these basically fake healings, but they were very dramatic and created the expected emotional response from everybody, but it’s manipulation. But to get everybody to believe that they’re having a spiritual experience, in the context of the environment. Cults and cult leaders, they’re always demanding you to do better, to do better, to be perfect, even though that’s impossible, as we know, nobody is ever going to be perfect. And yet, for the cultic group, you’re never good enough.
JULIE ROYS 17:17
But let me stop you on just that one point, because it’s very interesting to me, what you’re describing where the church was, or the even the doctrine, at first to you is presented as sort of antinomian, which is this sort of hyper grace, that it doesn’t even matter what you do, because it’s all covered by grace. And so, it’s almost where Paul says, Should we send more that grace may abound? And you know, of course, he says, God forbid! But antinomianism, again, is this just really, really hyper Grace thing. And then it went to almost a hyper legalism of you have to do everything just right, and just perfect. And yet, it almost has to go to that hyper legalism for the control to happen, like you’re describing. So, I mean, I find that fascinating. And I do find fascinating, how many hyper legalistic, hyper controlling, very shame-based kind of doctrine, comes out of places with the name grace.
DOUG DUNCAN 18:18
Oh, yeah, that’s interesting.
WENDY DUNCAN 18:20
The first church that I went to, you know, you’re supposed to come to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday. And the preacher would even say, the really good Christians come on Wednesday. You are expected to go to Bible studies, visitation, read your Bible every day. I mean, there was a whole list of things that you were supposed to do in order to be a good Christian. But had nothing to do with a relationship with God. It had to do with performance.
JULIE ROYS 18:47
DOUG DUNCAN 18:49
So that’s always going to be a thing in communist China, people having to engage in self-criticism. There’s always this thing of always having to examine and confess your own sins and a lot of times confess them to the group. And of course, the Trinity Foundation, they took that to an extreme, you know, to the point of having hotseat sessions where people were just broken down psychologically. You know, you confess all your sins to the group and then have everybody wail on you for a while and until Ole had decided that you had had enough and were sufficiently penitent, and then he would be the one to say, okay, you know, God forgives you or whatever.
WENDY DUNCAN 19:32
Doug and I have been facilitating a support group for former members of cults and spiritual abusive groups for about 15 years. And it is amazing because it does not matter if they are coming from a fundamentalist church, Bible based church or Eastern religion or what. They all have the same characteristics.
DOUG DUNCAN 19:55
A lot of times when you have several new members in the support group or whatever, somebody will look around and say, did all our leaders go to the same school of the dark arts to learn how to be manipulators? And Wendy’s right, you really can’t tell the difference between that somebody was a Hindu guru who was abusive, or their Christian pastor, frankly. You know, it’s the same set of techniques that they all use.
JULIE ROYS 20:23
It seems like every single one of these groups, there is just some real gross hypocrisy going on. For example, you say there’s these really high standards that are applied to the members, right? So, there’s a lot of works for the members. And yet for the leaders, when you bring up things, or if you dare, about their behavior, that’s off limits, right?
DOUG DUNCAN 20:47
JULIE ROYS 20:48
So, they have license.
DOUG DUNCAN 20:50
They have license, they have no true accountability, which I think is a line of demarcation in a healthy church and a healthy, honestly, in a healthy institution, business or nonprofit or anything, the leadership has accountability. And these leaders, these abusive leaders are very good at evading accountability. In fact, a lot of times, that’s why they set up the whole thing the way they set it up.
JULIE ROYS 21:17
I’m curious with you, when did it get to the point, and, you know, I’m guessing you’re having these discussions between the two of you where you’re saying, something’s not right. And so, when did it kind of grow into sort of a crisis?
WENDY DUNCAN 21:35
Actually, we did not have those conversations very often, because you didn’t talk about leadership, you didn’t talk about the elders.
DOUG DUNCAN 21:44
Yeah, no gossiping, you couldn’t talk about leadership, because you will be violating the injunction against (XXXX). Which I understand why gossiping is bad. But the way that these groups apply that sometimes.
WENDY DUNCAN 22:02
It’s to keep themselves from being criticized.
DOUG DUNCAN 22:06
Right. That there would never be an opportunity for anybody to even get to the point of being able to hold them accountable, because they even have a conversation it gets, you know, gets labeled as gossip.
WENDY DUNCAN 22:18
We did not have those conversations. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back with us was we wanted to get married. And at Trinity Foundation, you had to have the blessing of Ole and the elders in order to get married, but they did not want us to get married. Primarily, and that’s another example of the control by the leadership.
We dated for seven years. The week before we got married, my Bible Study leader, one of the elders told me, God is going to kick your butt if you marry Doug. I can’t tell you how much that scared me and how upset that made me, because all week long, I was thinking, oh, something’s gonna happen to Doug. He’s gonna get in a car wreck or something is gonna happen. And what she says is true. God’s gonna punish me for marrying Doug. What a cruel thing to say to somebody! Talk about spiritual abuse! I mean, that was horrendous.
DOUG DUNCAN 23:17
And one of the men said, why haven’t you two gotten married yet? And when we said, Trinity Foundation won’t let us. And Mike said, well, I’m Trinity Foundation. I haven’t said anything about you can’t get married. And I think that was a wake-up moment where we said, wait a minute, it’s not Trinity that doesn’t want us to get free. It’s Ole.
WENDY DUNCAN 23:38
He was constantly badgering Doug. Every time Doug would bring up the fact that we would like to get married, he would make it about Doug wasn’t being content in being single. One morning, he badgered and harassed and ridicule Doug in a Bible study meeting. And when Doug told me that, for some reason, I snapped. So, I went to Ole, and I said, Ole, I’m so tired of you telling Doug that he’s out of the wrist, and that he’s not being content if he wants to get married. And Ole, your voice is so loud, I can’t hear God’s anymore, and I ran out of the room. And that’s what ended up being the title of the book that I wrote, I Can’t Hear God Anymore. Because Ole had replaced God, his voice. After that, you know, I was going to a meeting and I started crying because I thought I had lost the love of my life, you know? I finally found a man who was a Christian who loved God, and I thought he would never forgive me.
DOUG DUNCAN 24:39
I realized that Wendy was right, and that Ole was abusive, that he was abusing his authority. And so long story short, we ended up basically eloping and then that started a cascading series of events that led us leaving the group several months later.
WENDY DUNCAN 24:56
They were so angry, so angry that we got married. That’s a whole other story.
JULIE ROYS 25:01
But that’s, again, another hallmark of spiritually abusive environments is they don’t respect your personal boundaries. I mean, you should be able to make personal decisions about marriage. Now, you know, say they’re not a believer, okay, that that might be a biblical standard. But I mean, the other things that you’re talking about, like some sort of hoops you have to jump through that are extra biblical. This is just, again, its overstepping boundaries, and I’m guessing there are other boundaries, because there always are.
DOUG DUNCAN 25:34
Let me say one thing. That’s another one of Lifton’s criteria, that doctrine over person. So, whatever the teaching is, becomes more important than the humans that you should be trying to shepherd and minister to. So, it becomes about our rules, our system, our procedures, our doctrine. This is the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it. And so, I think that was part of the thing there, too.
JULIE ROYS 26:05
So eventually, you do leave. And you leave, as I understand it, pretty broken, pretty confused, pretty without a sense of self, and I so appreciate your chapter in this book, Wounded Faith, Wendy, where you talk about healing our image of God. Even it’s our image of self because you talk about how your image of self and your image of God are connected. So, talk about that. What was your image of God, coming out of the Trinity Foundation?
WENDY DUNCAN 26:42
That God hated us. And that he only loved us if we were a part of the Bride of Christ, which was the community.
JULIE ROYS 26:53
you were the only bride?
DOUG DUNCAN 26:55
WENDY DUNCAN 26:56
Yeah. The Trinity Foundation was the Bride of Christ. And God hated you if you were not a part of the bride, not a part of the group. So, he did not love the isolated believer, he did not love the individual believer> You hear something over and over and over for years and years and years, you begin to believe it. I did not believe it at first. But I began to believe that God hated me, that God was harsh and cruel, had no mercy, was just you know, waiting to punish me for anything that I did. And Ole taught he did not want to have a relationship with you. That’s egotistical for you to think that God, the God of the universe, would want to have a relationship with you. God does not want you to pray to him. I mean, you know, that is just so arrogant, for you to think the God of the universe would want a relationship with you or want you to pray.
So that’s what I believed about God when I left. All spiritually abusive groups and cults pervert who God really is, the character of God. And, you know, it is so painful, because, you know, we see so many people that are just so broken, and they don’t want anything to do with God. You know, they’re like, No, there’s no God, and God would not allow that to happen to me, you know. And most of the time people join churches, or these groups, because they have a heart for God, they want to know more about him. And then they get abused, and their faith is shattered.
That was probably my first task in the recovery, was trying to figure out who God was. And I will tell Doug, Doug, I just want my relationship with God back. And he was like, you can’t have that previous relationship with God back. You know, that’s gone. And the other thing is, when I did talk to God, I’d say, you know, God, I want a relationship with you again, but I don’t like you. I don’t like you, because you’re angry all the time, and you don’t like me and all that. But I want to have a relationship with you, but I don’t like you.
So I went through the whole process, I started reading books. I couldn’t read my Bible by the way. I started reading other authors who had struggled with their faith. I was reading one of those books, and all sudden, you know, I had one of those aha moments. And I said, that’s who he is. That’s God. Now I remember. Now I know who he is. And that was just the beginning of reconnecting with God. That God was a God of grace and love and mercy. And he hurt because I had been through that experience. It’s hard because all of these people who’ve gone through these horrible experiences when all they wanted to do was get to know God better, you know?
JULIE ROYS 29:45
One of those books that was so helpful to you was The Shack. And I know that that book, well, I have my own experience with The Shack. So, when I was at Moody. So, I was on Moody Radio for 10 years. And The Shack was just, you know, vilified. Like, you cannot read The Shack. I mean, God’s not a woman. And he appears as a woman, and this is, you know, heretical and blah, blah, blah. I never read it because I was busy doing other things. And then I finally realized when the movie came out, I’m like, okay, I can give two hours to just see what this is. And I watched it. And I saw the line that was really close to universal. Like, it gets really, really close to that line. But it never fully goes over. And the truth is, it’s not even saying that God is a woman, because it is a woman that portrays God in the movie, but she’s called Papa. And it’s simply because this man has been so hurt by men that this is a way that God can relate to him. But it’s not saying that God is male, which God isn’t male or female anyway, I mean, he might relate to us as masculine, but we won’t go into that. But yeah, it was so disregarded.
Yeah. I’m so glad that you said that. Because when I started writing about The Shack, I thought, oh, my gosh, I’m gonna get really, really criticized for this. Because I was born evangelical Christian. You didn’t read those kinds of books, you know? Those were heretical. But yet it had touched my life. And you’re right, I the same thing happen. If it had not been for such a profound encounter with God and relationship with God, I couldn’t have gone through all the church hurts and church disappointments and abuse that I’ve gone through. I clung to that. And, you know, I’m so glad that I had that to cling to. But thank you for saying that about The Shack. And I watched this movie, and I was profoundly impacted by The Shack. And when I watched it, I thought of a family member. And I said, this family member has to watch The Shack. I just knew it. And so, I called the person up. The person was far from God at that point, although I should say was, was coming closer to God. And I said, can we just go see this together? And the person said, Yes. And we saw it. And this person is bawling during it. Of course, I’m bawling during it. And afterwards, I mean, it was profound. I prayed with that person to start that relationship again, with God, because somehow, and even I think if you grow up in a good church, sometimes the expectations of God, you know, we should, God’s holiness, should make us better understand His grace, right? And should make us better understand His love. But sometimes that’s just a disconnect. It just is. And so, I found that book, that story, remarkably powerful, and expresses the love of God in such, and the mystery of God. Because you know, this side of eternity, we really will not get that God is great, and God is good and bad things happen to me. We just, I mean, you can wrestle with that all day. Job wrestled with it, and he never even gotten an answer, right? I mean, other than for me to describe this to you, you know, would be beyond your ability to comprehend. And at some point, there has to be some trust, and we have to believe. But yeah, when you mentioned the book, The Shack, and having those experiences with God, and for me, I don’t think if I hadn’t had, in my journey, those experiences of knowing profoundly experiencing God and His love in a profound way, we wouldn’t be talking right now. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. But it is interesting to me, that sometimes God uses the very things that have been told us are off limits. This is bad. Well, to me it’s sad that it has been vilified the way that it has. And I do think, now would I give The Shack to somebody who was steeped in New Age and universalism? No, probably not. I think though, it can be a very powerful tool for understanding the love of God. Especially if you know, having right doctrine is not a lot of our problems, you know? It’s understanding and comprehending and experiencing God’s love, and God is love. So, if you miss that you miss kind of the whole thing.
WENDY DUNCAN 34:45
I don’t know if you’ve read much of Henri Nouwen. But one of the books that he wrote is The Life of the Beloved. He talks about how we are the beloved and once you really get your head and heart around that, its life changing. When you can tell yourself, I’m the beloved, and it’s not about me, it’s about God. That’s who God is.
And I also wanted to say that you know what you said about God being a mystery, that is so true. This side of heaven, we’re never going to know everything. We’re not going to know why he does what he does. Now, when I was growing up, and in the churches that I belong to, you know, we were always trying to figure out what God was up to.
JULIE ROYS 35:31
And we wanted to put him in and very neat box with a bow on top.
WENDY DUNCAN 35:34
It wasn’t until much, much later that I realized, God is a mystery. How in the world am I going to figure out the God of the universe, you know? His ways are not our ways. So.
JULIE ROYS 35:47
So good, so, so good. The one thing, too, that I wanted to hone in, and something you wrote about, is that you also had to find an expression of the Church which was different than what you were used to. And I hear this from so many folks. Talk a little bit about that part of your journey.
WENDY DUNCAN 36:07
You know, we criticized liturgical churches when I was growing up, you know. They didn’t really know what they were doing. It was all rote; it was all ritual. We started going to an Episcopal Church, and it was the liturgy that gave me back my ability to worship God. Because when I couldn’t pray, the prayers were there for me. When I couldn’t read Scripture, the Scripture was read. When I couldn’t sing, everything about the liturgy is to pull you into the worship. So, it’s a body worship you bow and know Jesus. It is said, there’s times you kneel and stand, and we’re going to do different things that is just so impactful. It gave me back my relationship with God and a way to worship God. So, I will always be grateful for that.
DOUG DUNCAN 36:55
What happened with me is, after we left Trinity Foundation, of course, you know, we had spent so much time investigating all of the pastors and evangelicals that, you know, everything just seemed tainted for me and shallow and Wendy soldiered on looking for a church, you know, and I wasn’t really going in the wake of that experience. But I did suggest to her that maybe we could try a liturgical church I had a friend growing up who was an Episcopalian, and I would go to church with him and his family sometimes. And so, I said, maybe we can try an Episcopal Church and I hadn’t been in one in I don’t know how long. But we went to the early service of one, because at that time, I was working on Sundays in retail. So, we’d go to the early service. And of course, like, there were like six people there. I mean, very, very few people there at eight o’clock in the morning, and we didn’t know what to do. You know, there’s all the things you know, where you’re supposed to kneel, and then you’re supposed to do this. And then it came time for communion. And everybody goes down to the altar rail to receive Communion. And the priest came out from behind the altar rail, because we just stayed back in the pews. And he said, would you like to come have communion with us? And we said, you know, we’re not members of this church. And he said, that’s okay. We invite all baptized Christians to have communion. We were baptized Christians. So, we went down. And that was my profound experience at that moment, because having left Trinity Foundation, you know, having flamed out in my cult, I didn’t know, I thought God might be done with me. And then I had just a profound experience of grace and felt God reaching back to me, you know, through the process of the priest and the communion and, you know, having Eucharist there in that little Episcopal Church, that was my moment of reconnection. It was another moment of conversion for me that really reconnected me with God. And so, we ended up joining that little church and went through confirmation, and we’re still Episcopalians. And, you know, it’s still spiritual home for us, I still feel that same connection to God every Sunday morning when we go and we have communion.
JULIE ROYS 39:24
I know what you’re talking about. I grew up very low church, and looking down, you know, as all of us evangelicals did, down our nose at all the high church and liturgical stuff it’s too Catholic or whatever. And it’s beautiful.
After you’ve read some of those prayers, then the prayers that you often hear that are just made up on the spot seem kind of trite. I mean, it’s like that somebody put a lot of time into a prayer that actually leads you in prayer, in expresses things and reminds you of things that you need, that are already on your heart, but you know, maybe hadn’t been so beautifully expressed that way and will remind you again. To me it’s gorgeous and that the Eucharist in an Anglican service is just absolutely, I mean, it takes you to the throne. I mean, right? I mean, it’s phenomenal. And I love that the Eucharist is the high point. And that is where the church comes together. That we are one body, and Christ is our head. Not a pastor, not a leader, that Christ is our head. And I think that’s just so critical.
You wrote a chapter on reconnecting, returning to church, and I thought it was so good. The red flags, that you said, you know, here are some things to look for when after, you know, coming out of spiritual abuse, you’re looking for a church. Although I would say these are things that just generally are probably good things to look for. The first one was, be careful of a church that inhibits your relationship with God. Explain why.
DOUG DUNCAN 41:05
Church should not put itself in the place, and certainly, this is what I experienced with Ole. Like, they’re in control of the spigot, and they can turn your relationship with God on and off. Your relationship with God is between you and God. And I understand you express that in you know, in service and in fellowship and other things. But your relationship with God doesn’t belong to your pastor. That’s something that’s between you and God> People who put themselves in the position of saying, you’re on the outs with God, that’s a huge red flag very, very cultic.
JULIE ROYS 41:49
You also talked about your faith not being just an intellectual exercise, and I will even put in there, a doctrinal exercise. Why is that so important?
DOUG DUNCAN 42:01
Well, it’s because it’s not doctrine over person, it’s person in relationship over doctrine. When I read the words of Jesus and the Gospels, and again, I’m not saying the doctrine is not important, or that is not real or anything. But Jesus talked about relationship. And he talked about love. And he talked about service and giving and all the things that that really, truly make up who we are. And certainly, the doctrine informs that, but it’s not really the main thing. It’s not really the main thing with God. God desires our heart, he desires our trust, he desires our faithfulness, our faith. And I think that’s really what the walk is about, is walking in trust in love with your father.
JULIE ROYS 42:49
And I think a lot of the other things that you bring out are things even in our discussion, you know, like, permitting questions. It should be an environment where you can ask, not using scripture to control. I mean, when that scripture becomes a tool in the hands of the leadership, to make you do things, often for them, not even for God, but for them, or for their initiative. We’re going to do this thing or that thing.
I remember being at a church, and there were extra biblical things I was being asked to do. And I couldn’t be in leadership unless I did. And I’m like, wait, I don’t even agree with this. So, I think that’s another big red flag that you point out that I think it’s important. And then I think over emphasizing those harsh demands of discipleship. I mean, being a disciple of Christ, He does say, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Him. Yet,
DOUG DUNCAN 43:44
He also says, My yoke is easy, and my burden is light. And so, you have to interpret Scripture in the light of all scripture. And I think that’s another thing that cults do, is the proof texting that they will red-line one scripture and say, Okay, this is the thing. It’s a thing, it’s in Scripture, but it’s not the only scripture, and you have to interpret it in the light of other scripture as well. So, they get out of balance, and interestingly, Ole hated the word balance. You would always irritate him if you said anything about balance. You know, I find balance is an important thing for believers to have. And I think that that was what drew me into Trinity Foundation is because, you know, I was already obsessive in my evangelicalism. I don’t think my walk was healthy, prior to running into Ole. You know, looking back on it. I think it was performance driven, it was obsessive. That set me up to be easy to manipulate, you know. Whereas I think, you know, a mature Christian faith and walk is much more about balance and understanding that, sure, you don’t want to be lackadaisical. You don’t want to be lukewarm. But at the same time, you know, fanaticism, I don’t think really that’s what Christ is calling us to do.
JULIE ROYS 45:08
Well, I so appreciate, again, your work that you’ve done. And this book, I think is an incredible resource for folks. I would add two more things on that. One is church governance. And I’ve said this before in podcasts. People’s eyes glaze over when you talk about church governance, but it is so important, because whenever you see abuse, if you look at church governance, you’ll find that there’s almost always no accountability. So there has to be real accountability there. And the other is transparency. If you don’t know what your pastor makes, and don’t give me this, you know, that’s private, whatever. No, I’m paying my money to you. And if you were a secular nonprofit, you would have to publish your 990 with all of the top wage earners public. And so, I expect the same transparency from a church. In fact, I would expect more than from a secular nonprofit, and cannot we do that for our people? And if we’re embarrassed, or we think our people wouldn’t understand the salaries or the way we’re spending our money, then maybe you shouldn’t be spending your money that way, because they’re the ones who are giving you the money. So again, I think that’s so critically important. Ironically, that is one thing Trinity Foundation was big on, was the financial part. But some of these other ones not so much.
WENDY DUNCAN 46:28
It is so important for people that are listening to your podcast to know that there is hope. That they can recover from spiritual abuse or cultic abuse. That there is hope they can reconnect with God. And you know what? We tell folks all the time, it’s not easy. It’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve done, but recovery, you can recover.
JULIE ROYS 46:50
Thank you for the work you’ve done. I know you’ve done so much speaking and helping other groups of people find their way out of cults, or out of spiritually abusive environments, and find health again, in this road to recovery. So, I just really appreciate that and appreciate the time we spent. So, thank you.
DOUG DUNCAN 47:08
Thank you. This was fun.
WENDY DUNCAN 47:10
We really appreciate all that you have done.
DOUG DUNCAN 47:12
Yeah, for sure.
JULIE ROYS 47:13
Again, thanks so much for listening to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And just a reminder that we’re able to do this podcast and all our investigative work at The Roys Report because of the support from people like you. And this month, if you give a gift of $30 or more to The Roys Report, we’ll send you a copy of Wounded Faith: Understanding and Healing From Spiritual Abuse. To give, just text 22525 on your phones and the word REPORT. Or go to JULIEROYS.COM/DONATE.
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We asked the Trinity Foundation to respond to the Duncans’ allegations, which are outlined in Wendy Duncan’s 2006 book, “I Can’t Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult.” Trinity provided the following written statement:
Trinity Foundation has an unusual history for a religious non-profit organization. Founded in 1973, after Ole Anthony experienced a dramatic conversion to Christianity, Trinity Foundation hosted Bible studies for almost forty years. In 2010, the church part of Trinity Foundation became an independent organization named Community on Columbia which functions as a small church in Dallas, Texas.
Ole learned his theology, not in the church pew or the Christian college classroom. Instead, he was self-taught, spending many hours studying the Old Testament scriptures in a synagogue library. Trinity Foundation began observing the Jewish feasts, from the Passover to the Feast of Tabernacles, believing they pointed to Christ.
In 1988, Ole began the Dallas Project to pair homeless families with churches to end the homeless crisis in America. Trinity Foundation members took the homeless into their own homes. One such person was Harry Guetzlaff whose personal life was falling apart as his company was collapsing and he needed a place to live. His arrival at Trinity Foundation forever changed the course of the non-profit organization.
Guetzlaff was a filmmaker who committed to giving televangelist Robert Tilton $5,000 in hopes that God would bless this seed-faith money and save his floundering business. His story infuriated Ole and resulted in Trinity Foundation aggressively investigating prosperity gospel-preaching televangelists.
In 1991, Ole assisted Prime Time Live journalist Diane Sawyer in investigating three TV preachers: Robert Tilton, Larry Lea and W.V. Grant.
My involvement with Trinity Foundation began in the early 2000s by sending tips to investigators. In 2005, after reading a Chronicle of Philanthropy article about Dean Zerbe, aide to Senator Chuck Grassley, I contacted Ole about working with the U.S. Senate to investigate televangelists. Ole sent the Senate Finance Committee attorney a brief challenging Benny Hinn’s tax exempt status and encouraged Zerbe to hold hearings into religious fraud.
Our goal was to radically expose the financial crimes of televangelists. In the 1950s and 1960s, Congress held the Kefauver Hearings and Valachi Hearings into organized crime. Mafia figures received subpoenas requiring them to testify and the public learned vital information about the American mafia. Could the same kind of hearings bring critical exposure to televangelists that also operate in a criminal manner?
I moved to Dallas in 2012 and served as a volunteer investigator for Trinity Foundation. In 2019 Trinity Foundation received an anonymous grant for its investigations and I was hired as a staff investigator.
Even though I didn’t live in Dallas or interact with Wendy and Doug Duncan during their time at Trinity Foundation, I have read Wendy’s book and have several concerns.
On page 109, Wendy writes, “Ole had been an expert hypnotist before becoming a religious believer …” Expert? In my opinion, this is an exaggeration. In my view, Ole exaggerated at times and so do the Duncans.
One of the biggest criticisms of Trinity Foundation was the “hot seats.” During questioning, members confessed their sins to the community. On page 91, Wendy claims these “psycho-torture sessions … became a daily part of life for the members.” Daily? Based on conversations with Bible study members that attended and participated in hot seats, none of them agree with the characterization that this was “a daily part of life.” Some members claim these sessions helped them tremendously to move closer to God.
Page 114 suggests that Ole believed people had to speak in tongues to be saved: “He had said things before about me not having the Spirit because I didn’t and couldn’t speak in tongues. I wasn’t charismatic; therefore, in Ole’s mind I wasn’t saved, I wasn’t one of the chosen ones.” However, a few pages earlier, the book says, “Now, Ole never used the word save.” (page 107)
In my own conversations with Ole, he never said that speaking in tongues was a requirement for salvation. I have also talked to long-time members of Trinity Foundation/Community on Columbia and none of them recall Ole ever teaching this. Current Trinity Foundation president Pete Evans has never spoken in tongues and he has been involved in Trinity Foundation since 1974.
Page 132 reports, “Actually, Ole’s theology was very Calvinistic …” What Wendy leaves out is that Ole rejected the belief in perseverance of the saints, a key tenet of Calvinism. Ole believed that Christians could lose their salvation, rejecting the idea of once saved, always saved.
Wendy also writes that Ole “often referred to himself as an apostle.” (page 133) I never heard Ole refer to himself as an apostle and questioned several long-time members if they heard Ole call himself an apostle. Two denied this charge. One member said that it is possible Ole referred to himself that way a long time ago but not in recent years.
On page 178, Wendy summarizes Ole’s view of God: “The only thing God cared about was the church and, of course, the only true church was Trinity.” If Ole really believed that, then why did Ole select several board members for Trinity Foundation who did not attend Trinity Foundation/Community on Columbia Bible studies? Ole never pressured me to attend the local Bible studies and never told me that Trinity Foundation/Community on Columbia was the only true church, and I attend a different church in Dallas.
After the Prime Time Live broadcast former members of Tilton’s church sued the televangelist and Tilton countersued his critics and Trinity Foundation. Wendy’s book approvingly quotes (page 181) attorney J.C. Joyce who represented Robert Tilton, but her book doesn’t mention the most controversial, satanic comment of Joyce: “The right to believe what we choose to believe is absolute. We even have the right to defraud people with that belief.” That quote would come back to haunt Joyce as Trinity Foundation’s attorney Gary Richardson would use it during cross examination.
While the Duncans deny they contacted televangelists to get funding for their book, we have indisputable evidence that Wendy went to another attorney for numerous televangelists (in fact this attorney represented Tilton, Benny Hinn, Paul and Jan Crouch, etc. at the time) for assistance.
For a balanced view of Wendy’s book, I recommend Jackie Alnor’s statement. Pete Evans can recommend several former members of Community on Columbia and Trinity Foundation that would be willing to be interviewed regarding Ole’s character, integrity, and teaching.
Doug and Wendy left the Trinity Foundation community in 2000, having met only once I know of with Ole during the last 20 years of his life. Evans says the Duncans have repeatedly misrepresented Ole’s character. Ole poured himself out as a living sacrifice until the very end.
On Facebook, Doug defended Christianity Today’s slanderous obituary of Ole. Reporter Daniel Silliman wrote about Ole, “He never stopped being a hustler.” In his final years Ole was mostly bedridden. On rare occasions he would speak to the press. What was the hustle? Silliman and the Duncans were not present when Ole apologized on various occasions to people he hurt.
According to Pete Evans, the elders of the home church got together after the book came out and decided they didn’t want to respond to the Duncan’s allegations, to turn the other cheek and to not respond. Additionally, no-one wanted a back-and-forth social media war with the Duncans. Ole agreed with them and never defended himself, despite numerous friends begging him to do so.
Evans says that Trinity Foundation suffered financially for over a decade because of the Duncans continuous slander and that Ole personally kept it going by donating his own money to the non-profit organization.
While the Duncans use their “testimony” to establish “cult-expert” credentials, Evans worked undercover in a real cult armed with a hidden camera to capture video for Inside Edition. His experiences are told by a couple of AP reporters in chapter 3 of the book, “Broken Faith: Inside One of America’s Most Dangerous Cults”, by Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr.
There are people that have left Christianity that attended Trinity Foundation. Unfortunately, that can also be said about churches across the globe. It is our prayer that people will return to Christ like doubting Thomas.
7 thoughts on “Holding On to Faith After Spiritual Abuse”
Excellent interview and content from the Duncans. It was instructive to see that no matter the name of the church or its stripe, we are called to be vigilant and not put anything before relationship with Jesus. Not rules, not ideals and certainly not authoritarian or charismatic leaders. Ironic that Trinity Foundation was a watchdog group and your guests ended up experiencing it as a cultic Christian experience, almost exactly what Ole Anthony railed against with the prosperity gospel preachers. No one is immune, I supposed. Follow God and not man. The only cult of personality you follow should be Jesus Christ himself. All others are flawed and don’t understand the fullness of Christ by definition.
What we humans centrally have, is personal agency. A locus for understanding and action, attaching to who and what we find ourselves to be, across our beginning and our developmental circumstance. Then we may encounter the Bible and its living word, with all it has to say about G_d/God and humanity resolved (Messiah/Christ) across that Word and its G_d/God. That nexus invites us to consider the totality of our humanness and its setting, invites us to divine what holds beyond our extant human senses. It seems we are invited to grow, mature, set out on an unending process. Can we then keep ourselves authentic, balanced, truth-orientated.
The world of otherness is then mixed. Part of that world is systemically abusing (in the TRR sense). Part is not. To differentiate we cannot but rely on personal agency; and this our crucial and only compass. Doing all this we may come to have a matrix which mediates self and God.
Theologically that leaves a complexity. Our self made in the image of our God. Our God made in the image of our self. And both provisional, as the journey goes on.
For more information, I recommend reading a) “Trinity Foundation Response” found in the podcast transcript and b) Christianity Today’s obituary of Ole Anthony.
The obituary is well written; it rich in informative detail.
Taking just one element: ““The words that really got to me,” Anthony later said, “were: ‘You were meant to be a failure. That is the only way God can use you. Look around you with honest eyes. Don’t you see that all human effort is futile, empty and vain? All that is necessary for you is: Abandon yourself, pick up your cross and follow Him.’””
That’s not the God-human relation I commit to. Human effort is a wonder, cleaving to God being one instance of human effort. But it may succinctly capture the atomic energy informing OA. It explains his approach to others. Leaving the question of whether he truly applied this edict to himself.
Regards morality, OA failed by his own admission (and the testimony of others who knew him), and may have taken even that failure as a cleaving to his understanding of God and the relation of God to humanity. Again, to me, and thinking metaphorically, OA seems like a nuclear reactor, streaming human life as fuel into that reactor, incinerating its very essence, to sustain a questionable personal experience of cognitive and psychic transcendence.
The response too is interesting. Albeit partaking somewhat of he-said/she-said content.
“… I have read Wendy’s book and have several concerns. On page 109, Wendy writes, “Ole had been an expert hypnotist before becoming a religious believer …” Expert? In my opinion, this is an exaggeration. In my view, Ole exaggerated at times and so do the Duncans.”
This “hypnotist” metaphor chimes with something said in the obituary. OA having the capacity to eviscerate another person’s sense of self; leaving that other dangling over an abyss, saved only by the experience of the imperfection of their cleaving to God. An imperfection open to being salved by following OA’s lead.
Contrast this experience of interface with OA, with that of a therapeutic counsellor. In this latter the self and being of the other is preserved, and guided to a nominally healthy self-resolving. You discover the truth for yourself and by yourself, albeit with the support of the counsellor. In the OA interface you are absolutely eviscerated, to leave only a nominal view and understanding of God, where you need ongoing directing by OA.
I want to briefly respond to Trinity’s response to us, but I hope this does not lead to a tedious back-and-forth. Generally, the author (whose name is Barry Bowen) counters our claims about what Trinity Foundation was like for us by asking the people who are still there. This is like going around and asking current members of the Unification Church if they are a cult, and when they say they are not (as they have a vested interest in doing), just taking their word for it.
Wendy interviewed many former members of Trinity Foundation when she was writing her book, and we still have tapes of all of those interviews. We know what we are talking about. However, I understand that the foundation has organizationally separated itself from the church community since we left, and I commend them for that. It is something they should have done years earlier. Barry is part of the non-profit, and not a member of the cult/church, so he is not really in this. I commend the foundation for its watchdog activities, and I think they are doing a service to the Body of Christ. It is unfortunate that the Community on Columbia was all entangled with the foundation back when Wendy and I were there, so it was all called Trinity Foundation, and that is the only thing I ever referred to it as when I was there.
I understand Barry wanting to defend his employer, and I want to make clear I am not opposed to what he and Pete are doing in their function as watchdogs. However, Barry just does not have the information to be opining on our relationship with the cultic church group led by Ole Anthony, which I was involved with from 1977 to 2000.
As an ex member myself I think that Trinity foundation was a mixed bag. It had good intentions but a flawed and at times vicious leader. The following article is pretty close to the truth as far as I see it. The author investigated Trinity and published this a few years ago.
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