My Story part 3:
My Return to Christianity: The Early Years
In the last part of the story, I left off where the apostasy had begun at the Brooklyn Bethel headquarters in 1979, and some of my friends had been asked to leave. Former Governing Body member Ray Franz left a few months before I did, forced out by the anger of several power-hungry autocrats. For the first time since their appointment as part of the elite Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses, the newer GB members would get the taste of power that they had been craving. They got their power shortly after Knorr’s death in 1977.
Was the Governing Body paranoid of losing their control due to the doctrinal questions of some Bethel family members in 1979? Perhaps, but I believe that they were not so much afraid or paranoid as they wanted to flex their muscles. This seemed obvious to me, because of their previous ploys for power, and their haughtiness and lack of shame in how they presented themselves. They acted like gloating hyenas just having made their kill. President Knorr was out of the picture, and they were now in charge. I had to get out of there! Any respect I had for these leaders was lost within a few weeks of listening to their morning diatribes to the Bethelites, attacking the so-called “apostates.”
Coming to the Bethel table in the morning was traumatic for two reasons. Number one, it was extremely depressing; like getting verbally abused by an alcoholic father. Number two, I often knew in advance (from my friend Tom Cabeen, close friend of Ray Franz) who was going to be kicked out or disfellowshipped. I could barely eat! I would just sit there trembling and looking around wondering if anyone suspected that I was an apostate. You see, although in my heart I knew that the way I felt about the Bible was right, I was still programmed not to go against the existing leadership, and it was kind of scary. This organization was all I knew! I had no intention of leaving Bethel, and I really liked my first five years there! What would I do now?
In the meantime, my summer vacation (1980) was coming up. While I was out in California riding my motorcycle, I sprained my leg. The doctor said I could not go back to work for a month. Things started clicking in my head. I remember how strongly I felt the moment I got on the plane to California—I did not want to go back to New York! Now I had a reason not to go back. I called Governing Body member Dan Sydlik on the phone and asked him if it was okay to leave Bethel without coming back there, because I could not come back to work for a while. I also gave a reason for my leaving: I needed to take care of my family. He said that would be fine, but “we will miss you.” I called up my Bethel roommate, Robert Sullivan, and asked him if he could ship my belongings out to California. He agreed.
I felt very relieved that I did not have to go back and face the “gestapo” at Bethel—not that they suspected me of anything yet—only a few people at Bethel knew how I felt. So I was back home in Cali, and much happier. I decided that I had to think about what I wanted to do, so I just read the Bible for a month by myself. This was the best thing that had happened to me yet—time alone in meditation and prayer. This meditation time would soon figure in to my new identity as a born again Christian.
Yet I felt that I still had to give the Watchtower Society a chance. I was programmed to believe there is no other church that could represent God. Besides, I did not want to be alone. I looked to the nearby kingdom hall in El Segundo and arranged to have my elder’s papers and field report records transferred to the new kingdom hall. I did not want to request to NOT be reappointed as an elder, because that would lead to suspicion as to why.
I was reappointed as an elder and went door-to-door with the rest, but only with the Bible, no Watchtower. I met a lot of nice Christians in El Segundo! My most memorable experience in that kingdom hall was this: I was teaching the book study in the hall on a Tuesday night, and we were out in the parking lot afterwards, and some "Jesus freaks" came by and started witnessing to me about the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. I laughed and said, "Hey guys, I already know, it's cool." And we hustled off. Little did those Christians know what I was thinking.
What was my final defining moment that clinched my decision to leave the Witnesses? One day I saw an ad in the local paper about a church called Hope Chapel in Hermosa Beach. It was called "The People Place" and advertised a laid-back pastor teaching the love of Christ. I went to an evening service, and loved it so much! I was crying with unbelief, yet joy! I knew I would be back. After a few services I knew I had found my new home. These were my people. I grew up in the beach areas of So. California. I could worship the Lord Jesus Christ in my bare feet if I wanted to… and I did.
The thought of going back to a kingdom hall was now repulsive. It would be kind of like moving in back home to an abusive parent! So I decided to write a letter of resignation to the Governing Body members personally, and did so on January 22, 1981. I also sent a copy to the local body of elders in El Segundo. They responded by calling me to a committee meeting, but I wasn't going to go. I told them that they already had my letter. I went surfing on the day of their committee meeting, and they disfellowshipped me for apostasy. I couldn’t have been happier.
I was soon baptized in a pool at Hope Chapel as a witness of Jesus Christ. I had found my Lord after many years. I enjoyed many new friends in various churches in the area, and began studying early Christian history.
One doctrine that fascinated me when I first started going to church was the “deliverance movement.” I had already experienced the "spiritual gifts" (speaking in tongues, prophecy, etc.) with mixed feelings, but hey, I'll try anything once, so I had to see what was really going on.
We had a young woman in our church that was having serious emotional swings, and we thought maybe she needed to go to a deliverance session. Church counseling had not helped. So we took her to a downtown Los Angeles church that practiced deliverance, according to the teachings of Win Worley (author of Battling the Hosts of Hell: Diary of An Exorcist).
A deacon in the church chased her up and down the aisles while trying to deliver her of demons, and the church kept up the gospel music and the elevated chorus. It was straight out of “Pass the Ammo” (If you haven’t seen this movie, you have got to rent it.)! Even the girl couldn't take the drama seriously. We left before they could grab her.
Then my sister’s friend, who was also an ex-Witness but now into Christian “deliverance,” wanted me to come to her church. Her pastor was a guy named Randy Broadhagen (I just searched him on the net and he has his own TV show now!). Anyway, I witnessed one of their “deliverances” incredulously, my theology screaming “No!” while I watched this demonic-looking face on a writhing body turn around at my very moment of my doubt and said, “What are you doubting?” I jumped backwards in surprise (another unexplainable moment of life like the one with the black cat and the “Truth” book incident as mentioned earlier). Randy Broadhagen had his theology down on this subject of deliverance within Christians. I rejected the whole thing as carnival deception, but sometimes you still wonder when the unusual occurs. I guess I really don’t have to understand the universe entirely after all.
Once I attended a prayer session for the future of Hope Chapel and its outreach. The focus was on starting new churches. One young pastor by the name of Bob Mallord came out and asked me if I would accompany him as assistant pastor to start a new church in Venice, Calif.
Now Venice is a place that has many a burnout who are lost on drugs and alcohol, and not a few leftovers from the hippie generation. Bob wanted to start a halfway house for the homeless as well as the church (which we did). I decided to help out with the church for a year, because I'd felt the Lord was leading me to do so during the prayer meeting.
We started the church with about 40 people for our first service, and afterwards I went out with Bob and preached to the kids on the boardwalk. Sometimes we would buy some of them breakfast.
We held our Sunday services at a local school, and often these very same homeless people attended, as well as a few local families and quite a few singles.
Bethel Christian Fellowship
K____ was a very pretty girl who decided to come to our Venice church one day. She was going to a church called Bethel Christian fellowship, which caught my curiosity plus, I wanted to see more of her. One day I drove up to the church parking lot with my car, with the “XBETHEL” license plate (see cover). Pastor Craig joked that he thought I was some kind of heretic from the church, but I explained that I had been a Jehovah's Witness at their headquarters called “Bethel.”
Funny how much a custom license plate can draw out conversation. I like to stir up controversy, as you might have guessed. Well, I fell in love with K____, the smart beautiful young girl from Bethel, for about two years. We hung out a lot, but it was only a platonic relationship. I wanted more, but she ended up falling for a young man who was an “ex-gay.” I was miffed.
Nevertheless, I kept going to Bethel Christian Fellowship, because I liked Craig Johnson the pastor, as he had many natural gifts. He was a child prodigy, and could speak Hebrew and Greek fluently at the age of 25. He would preach barefoot with a half-opened shirt while quoting Hebrew Bible phrases as he spoke. We all learned a little Hebrew and Greek. Craig was a most lovable and usually humble person, unless defending the faith was involved, and then you had better know your subject well!
I learned a great deal from Craig Johnson that shaped my own theology. Having been to Israel several times as a tour guide, Craig often visited rabbinical schools and seminaries so as to better his understanding of Bible languages and times. The coup-de-gras of our friendship was in 1986 when eight of us from the church took a three-week trip to Israel, Egypt and Greece to study archaeology and Biblical culture. We took a boat down the Nile River and visited the Valley of Kings and the Valley of the Queens. We stood next to the sarcophagus inside the inner chamber of the Great Pyramid in Gizeh. We prayed at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and even obtained entrance to the Wailing Wall tunnel, the closest access to the original Holy of Holies site. One of the rare privileges we had was to enter the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. I was thrilled to go down into the sacred prayer chamber underneath the Dome, where Muslim women regularly offered prayers up to Allah.
Five days were spent excavating the old city of Jerusalem. We traveled up north to several old synagogues from the first few centuries. Standing at Megiddo, the fame site of the "future Armageddon," we could understand so much more about Bible prophecy. This trip later aided me in composing my articles on subjects about the cross, Pharisaical theology, the Essenes and the Teacher of Righteousness, as well as subjects such as the immortality of the soul, hell, and the rise of the early Christian church.
Looking back, this church affected me more for the better than any fellowship in my life. For that, and for Craig Johnson, I am very grateful. I was also spending $100 a month on theology books, in my hunger to learn more. It has paid off in my thinking.
Hope Chapel West Manhattan
Meanwhile, home in California, another girl just started going to Hope Chapel in Venice. She was a stunt double for a famous actress and lived in a little house in Venice (Calif.). I talked her into taking long rides on my motorcycle up into the mountains and we ate pizza at Michelli’s. She had started attending a church that had a black woman pastor and a body of elderettes (no men) who sat in the front row during the service facing the audience. The foremost teaching seemed to be being "slain in the spirit" and the laying on of hands. They also taught mandatory tithing, which bothered me. I detected several manipulative ploys used by the pastor. Time for a special visit from the “churchbusters”!
Many in my little study group were former cult members, and were concerned about churches that might have cultic leadership issues. Always looking for ways to entertain ourselves and learn in the process, we developed a game to expose manipulative pastors. We attended the church in question with three couples to gauge the response of the pastor to various stimuli from the audience. It became the first of many disguised visits to numerous questionable churches. One couple in our group would feign total enthusiasm over the service, the second couple would seem indifferent, and the third would seem visibly upset. We took notes and recorded the service. Then we would go back to our study groups and talk about how the pastor responded to our three pairs of actors. I think D_____ got the point. She saw through the manipulation and took a liking to another local church. D____ dropped me when I made attempts to get closer to her.
Soon, our group began meeting at my house by the beach on Wednesday evenings. We often had 12 to 15 people, seated on folding chairs in my living room. It was like having church on the beach.
The main Hope Chapel in Hermosa Beach supported my ministry in principle (though not in funds) and appointed me as a licensed Foursquare minister. I could then funnel all funds from Bethel Ministries through Hope Chapel as a non-profit organization, and I could use their computer equipment. I bought a 1200 baud modem, a computer terminal and a IBM Selectric Typewriter, connected by phone to the mainframe computer at Hope Chapel a few miles away. I had them leave the computer on in the evening, and I could work slowly via modem, keeping a database and even flipping a switch on my local terminal to print out what I had typed. Hope Chapel also had a printing press that they allowed me to come in after hours and print my newsletter on. All that training in running a printing press in Brooklyn now paid off in my ministry! (To this day I still print this Journal myself, on a large laser printer in my room. All my work is done in-house.)
The main focus of Hope Chapel at that time was to start churches and outreaches. So Ralph Moore eventually left Hermosa Beach and started several churches on the Island of Hawaii, where he still is today. The new pastor, Zac Nazarian, often encouraged me to start my own church of ex-Witnesses since I was already licensed as a pastor. It did not seem like a good idea to me, as ex-Witnesses tend to have a lot of odd baggage and generally need normal people to fellowship with, but normal people we soon got and I started Hope Chapel West Manhattan Beach. We rented a property owner's building on Sunday evenings, and also met in my living room on Wednesday evenings. I was never paid by the church, but pastored voluntarily for three years.
During my earlier time at Bethel Christian Fellowship, I had been busy researching and writing on all the major doctrinal issues in the Bible that I could think as important, such as salvation, the trinity and soul, hell, the cross, and so on. It took several years, but I compiled quite a few articles and a book on the subjects (Refuting Jehovah’s Witnesses). This complemented my earlier phase in which I spent time exposing the errors of the Watchtower and their false prophecies, etc., documented in the book, Thus Saith the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses (now called Thus Saith Jehovah’s Witnesses, since the Governing Body is playing less of a part in the whole picture nowadays).
Today I often write about psychological principles, freedom of speech, etc. but I am especially angered when I see people who are fragile and hurting and recovering get told they have to believe some pet doctrine to be whole. It snaps them right back into fear and dread mode! Wholeness is a state of mind, not a state of doctrine. I have been an exit-counselor, or more appropriately a thought-control consultant.
My Interaction with Other Ministries
As yet I have not told much of my “interfaith” stories, so I will share some of my experiences, starting from when I left Bethel in New York.
The first ex-Witness I contacted was Edmond Gruss (author of the first real apologetic against the ex-JWs by an ex-Witness, entitled Apostles of Denial—1970). After spending a day with Ed, he encouraged me to write about my experience at Bethel headquarters. I came home so inspired that I wrote the tract, “What Happened at the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses In the Spring of 1980?” that night. This was the beginning of my ministry to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Pastor Ralph had 10,000 of these printed up for free for me to spread the word, and that I did. I sent them out to Christian ministries and people all over the world. Through that effort, I soon became friends with author Rob Bowman, the MacGregors, Bill and Joan Cetnar, Duane Magnani, the late Walter Martin, and pretty much all the major JW ministries. I became well-respected in the Christian community and have appeared prime-time on Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) as well as dozens of television ministry spots. I was invited to speak several times by radio talk show personality Rich Buehler, and have been featured on D. James Kennedy, Hank Hanegraaff (Christian Research Institute) and Spiritual Counterfeits Project. I have also been guest speaker at several Full-Gospel Businessmen's meetings. I can name many fine churches in my home town of Manhattan Beach.
HAPPY TIMES from the “Witnesses Now for Jesus” convention in PA (yearly). Shown: Carol Dreher, Bill and Joan Cetnar, Grant Lindsey, Ernie Zenone, Randall Watters, Cris and Norma Sanchez, circa 1984.
I met Chuck Smith (pastor of Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa and founder of the Calvary Chapel movement) and had actually went to one of his ocean baptisms a year before I became a Jehovah’s Witness. Now that I was out, I visited him, as he was also a friend of Bill Cetnar (a prominent ex-JW and former Bethelite). I brought a friend of mine who was in financial need to see Chuck personally one day, and Chuck whipped out his checkbook and wrote a check to Larry for $1000 on the spot, no questions asked. I have never seen another man do this for a stranger in my life.
Witnesses always bash the churches. I fell into that pattern as a JW, but I should have known better. Churches are made up of normal people, and each has its own personality, gifts and odd heresies (read Rev. chapters 1-3 regarding the variety of problems found in churches in the first century). I grew up a Baptist in my pre-teen years. The last church I went to was the Garden Grove Community Church, the first drive-in church in the world, with pastor Robert H. Schuller. Schuller later became founder of perhaps the world’s first megachurch, the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA. Back in the 60s my mother worked as a secretary to Schuller, and she would drag me along in the car to the drive-in church (the Crystal Cathedral was not dedicated until 1980). I hated it, sitting in a car watching some white-robed pastor in a staged background, and I could hear him through speakerboxes perched in the car window. It was little better than sitting in a church to me. I had my reasons for not liking churches, and refused to go any more when I reached 13 years old.
Yet I really knew very little about churches and historical Christianity. It is no wonder that the Watchtower magazine once said of those who were “apostates”: “They say that it is sufficient to read the Bible exclusively, either alone or in small groups at home. But, strangely, through such 'Bible reading,' they have reverted right back to the apostate doctrines that commentaries by Christendom's clergy were teaching 100 years ago." (WT Aug 15 1981 p. 28-9) Modern churches are just like the early churches—same problems, same blessings. Among those blessings one can find a great deal of joy, faith, kindness and generosity. I found that the churches far outweigh Witnesses in terms of kindness and generosity, the marks of Jesus. Worship is not just a Biblical word; it is a joy in the spirit of the believer, a desire to be with God. Witnesses do not want to be with God, they want the paradise earth, and their whole way of life reflects this selfish concern. Where will we live in the New System? What will we eat? Will we have to bury the non-Witnesses after Jehovah destroys them? What will we do for work?
Baptism is a sign to the world that you have given up your former way of life and have given yourself over to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not a sign of membership in any man-made organization. I have baptized many ex-Witnesses over the years, but never into a church.
Once Steven Hassan and I were hired by the late Michael Piller, former producer of Star Trek: The Next Generation (co-producer of 13 episodes, from 1989-1992) to get a relative out of the JWs. What a joy to have a part in the rescue of others from authoritarian religions!
Robert Sullivan and I baptize former Witnesses.
I first met Steven Hassan while attending a cult conference on “Satanism, Deception and Discernment” in Berkeley in the 80s. Years later, after working together on a few exit-counselings (most involving Jehovah’s Witnesses), I was getting pretty sharp at discerning the common traits of all cults, which are mostly sociological rather than doctrinal. Cults are groups which use common control tactics under the guise of something more benign. They create a deception designed to control others for their own purposes. That is a simple explanation of what a cult is, sort of like “a family gone bad.”
Hassan (author of Combatting Cult Mind Control and Releasing the Bonds) was instrumental in a big part of my own deprogramming from the cultic techniques of the cults. During exit-counselings, my goal became NOT to convert the person to Christianity (which I have always refused to do apart from the direction of the Holy Spirit), but to bring a person back to the point where they made wrong decisions regarding their beliefs and their future, as promoted by some cult leader, and then teaching them how to make good personal decisions based on the facts. Trying to lead a vulnerable person out of one religion into another without giving them the tools to lead their own life and make their own decisions is immoral, as far as I am concerned. I can’t see the God of the universe operating in such a manipulative way.
Yet, in nearly every case in which the person stayed for the intervention for three days or more, the person would eventually start asking me a lot of questions about what to believe about the Bible. At that point I couldn’t help but smile, as I knew what was coming. They were crying out for help. My notes were set aside, and I would be moved to open to some passage in the Bible such as John chapter three and start reading, often being choked up. I was not following any routine, but was just being obedient to the leanings of the Spirit in that moment. I knew what was coming! My work then became my joy, and I had a new brother or sister in Christ from that moment forward. There is no greater joy!
Public speaking did not come natural for me. Yet years in the Watchtower as an elder and speaking representative meant that I spoke to groups of 100 or more on the average of 3 times per week. I eventually learned to enjoy it and it became much easier. I have spoken to many church groups in the 80s and 90s regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Starting in the late 80s we began holding ex-JW potlucks about once a year at Hope Chapel in Hermosa Beach, and would have about 70 in attendance, many of whom were still JWs but who wanted to see what we had to say. We filmed these sessions, which were typically a 45-minute lecture by myself followed by a question and answer period of about an hour. I highly recommend these DVDs. When a person can’t socialize with other ex-JWs, these offer the next best therapy in my opinion.
Bethel Christian Fellowship
Dr. Johnson is an Evangelical Protestant clergyman. He is the founder and Pastor of Bethel Christian Fellowship in Agoura Hills, California. Founded in 1982, Bethel is an independent, non-denominational work.
Craig felt the hand of God guiding his life from a very early age. Born and raised in the small town of Fairmont, Minnesota, Craig received a vision from the Lord at 4 years of age, and received Jesus as His personal Lord and Savior when he was 12 years old.
Craig was signed to a Capitol Records recording contract at 13 years of age. To facilitate his music career, Craig and his family moved to Los Angeles, California. He appeared on many television shows, performed on stage at the original Grand Ole Opry, as well as touring in U.S and the Far East.
It was during the early Jesus Movement of the 1970s, as his career was rapidly on the rise, that Craig heard the Lord call him to ministry. He walked away from his entertainment career, and dedicated his life and talents to serving the Lord. His early ministry began with God using him in healings, and deliverances, which opened many doors for ministry opportunities at a young age.
Craig's ministry is best characterized as a balance of "meal and oil." His early ministry comprised gifts of the Holy Spirit combined with a solid foundation of orthodox Christian theology. His ability to communicate Biblical truths with humor, insight, wisdom and practical application bring God's word to the hearts of His people in ways that transform lives.
Craig's ministry includes the broadcast and print media. Craig is currently the host of two weekly television programs: Another Cable Show about God and The Veritas Forum, and he has authored three books: Nehushtan: The Enemy of Revival; The Alexander Code: Alexander the Great and the Hidden Prophecies of the Bible; and Tardemah: The Deep Sleep that Awakens Your Dreams. He was a guest for ten years on KABC's Religion on the Line, (Los Angeles radio station 790 AM).
Craig's now uses his talents as a singer, composer and musician to serve the Lord, and he continues to compose and record Christian music. He currently has two CD's available: Valley of Vision and New Words.
Craig has held the position of Theologian in Residence at Chalcedon Academy in Agoura Hills, California, from 1987 to the present. Chalcedon is an apologetics institute dedicated to the study of the Christian world view. In addition, he is an adjunct Professor of Ethics at Shepherd University in Los Angeles, a senior lecturer for the Biblical and American Archaeologist, and a contributing writer to Sacred History Magazine. Craig also served as Professor of Philosophy at California Pacific School of Theology in Glendale, California, from 2001 to 2005, and he served as Associate Professor of Christian Apologetics and Ethics at California Graduate School of Theology from 1988 to 1992.
Vineyard Christian Fellowship
The Association of Vineyard Churches is one of the fastest growing church-planting movements in the world. The Vineyard story is about ordinary people who worship and serve an extraordinary God. The Vineyard is simply one thread in the rich tapestry of the historic and global Church of Jesus Christ. But it is a thread of God’s weaving.
From the beginning, Vineyard pastors and leaders have sought to hold in tension the biblical doctrines of the Christian faith with an ardent pursuit of the present day work of the Spirit of God. Maintaining that balance is never easy in the midst of rapid growth and renewal.
John Wimber was a founding leader of the Vineyard. His influence profoundly shaped the theology and practice of Vineyard churches from their earliest days until his death in November 1997. When John was conscripted by God he was, in the words of Christianity Today, a "beer-guzzling, drug-abusing pop musician, who was converted at the age of 29 while chain-smoking his way through a Quaker-led Bible study" (Christianity Today, editorial, Feb. 9 1998).
In John's first decade as a Christian he led hundreds of people to Christ. By 1970 he was leading 11 Bible studies that involved more than 500 people. Under God’s grace, John became so fruitful as an evangelical pastor he was asked to lead the Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth. He also later became an adjunct instructor at Fuller Theological Seminary where his classes set attendance records. In 1977, John reentered pastoral ministry to plant Calvary Chapel of Yorba.
Throughout this time, John’s conservative evangelical paradigm for understanding the ministry of the church began to grow. George Eldon Ladd’s theological writings on the kingdom of God convinced John intellectually that the all the biblical gifts of the Holy Spirit should be active in the church. Encounters with Fuller missiologists Donald McGavaran and C. Peter Wagner and seasoned missionaries and international students gave him credible evidence for combining evangelism with healing and prophecy. As he became more convinced of God's desire to be active in the world through all the biblical gifts of the Spirit, John began to teach and train his church to imitate Jesus’ full-orbed kingdom ministry. He began to ‘do the stuff’ of the Bible that he had formerly only read about.
As John and his congregation sought God in intimate worship they experienced empowerment by the Holy Spirit, significant renewal in the gifts and conversion growth. It became clear that the church’s emphasis on the experience of the Holy Spirit was not shared by some leaders in the Calvary Chapel movement. In 1982, John's church left Calvary Chapel and joined a small group of Vineyard churches. Vineyard was a name chosen by Kenn Gulliksen, a prolific church planter affiliated with Calvary Chapel, for a church he planted in Los Angeles in 1974. Pastors and leaders from the handful of Vineyard churches began looking to John for direction. And the Vineyard movement was born.
Twenty-five years later, there are more than 1,500 Vineyard churches worldwide, an international church planting movement, a publishing house and a music production company. Vineyard worship songs have helped thousands of churches experience intimacy with God. Many churches have been equipped to continue Jesus' ministry of proclaiming the kingdom, healing the sick, casting out demons and training disciples.
ON TO PART IV