Over the summer of 2020, Kingston, Ont., resident Tianna Weatherdon found herself incensed while researching a non-denominational Christian church in her hometown, called Third Day Worship Centre.
As a gay Christian, she was shocked by the church’s views on the LGBTQ2 community.
“I was pissed,” she says. “I was like, this is my city and these people hate me.”
She began reaching out to former church members, and says she quickly realized how traumatized they were by their experiences with Third Day.
Over the last several months, Weatherdon has tried to bring Third Day’s controversial teachings into the limelight. She launched a video podcast in which she interviewed former church members. As they brought forward their stories, further information has leaked out, including a controversial video in which church founder Francis Armstrong strongly condemns homosexuality.
Following this leak, Armstrong released an apology for the “hateful tone” of the videos.
“That is not a true representation of my character, heart, or the heart of the church,” he said in a statement released at the time. “We have never promoted hate of any kind toward any group of people; we chose to love the way God loves us.”
The situation has even ensnared Kingston’s mayor, Bryan Paterson, a former member and youth pastor who left the church in September to distance himself from Armstrong’s sermons.
Weatherdon’s goal is to give former members a voice and to advocate for government legislation that would protect people from being exploited in so-called “high-demand groups.”
According to Stephen Kent, a professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in sects, cults and new religions in North America, “high-demand groups” function by using undue influence to create obedience and dependency in their membership.
“A high-demand group uses various social and social-psychological pressures to constrict a person’s behaviours and judgments,” he says.
Over the last several weeks, Global News spoke with more than 10 people who have left Third Day. Many say they experienced religious trauma while at the church. Others have come forward to raise awareness about the dangers of high-demand groups, and to advocate for support for those suffering after leaving these organizations.
In response to continued criticism and allegations put forward in this story, on Dec. 13, Armstrong provided the following statement:
“There have been hundreds of people over the years who have walked through the doors of Third Day Worship Centre, they have been met with love, not everyone has stayed with us, some have left. Some of those who left us, left with hurts. That was never our intent, and we continue to learn, leaning into His grace and mercy, what it means to live as a body of believers, it is a learning that we are committed to seeing to its end.”
What happens after you leave
Melanie Farrell says she was once so afraid of the church that she worried she might be struck by lightning if she spoke ill of Third Day.
Farrell left in 2015, and in 2016, she legally separated from her husband. Even through those proceedings, Farrell says she was too afraid to mention the church.
“I wouldn’t talk to my first lawyer when I first left out of fear of God being mad at me,” Farrell says.
During her 17 years at Third Day, Farrell was intimately involved in the organization.
Former members say Francis and his wife Edith Armstrong, who started the church together in 1996, have assigned bodyguards, called “armour bearers.” In the Bible, these are often soldiers assigned to kings.
Farrell says she was an armour bearer for Edith — it was Farrell’s job to protect Edith from spiritual and physical attackers, but also to stand with her while she and other leaders prayed over members of the church.
“You’re her source of strength,” Farrell says.
Despite holding a high position in the church, Farrell says she was suffering.
“Church is supposed to be a safe place, and I’m feeling constantly defeated. I’m feeling constantly drained mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually,” Farrell says.
When she left, she says her husband at the time continued to attend Third Day, despite being initially supportive of her decision to leave. That suddenly changed, according to Farrell.
“One day he came home and told me that I had a Jezebel’s spirit,” Farrell says.
According to the 1 and 2 Kings in the Old Testament, Jezebel is a Biblical figure who betrayed a king of Israel. Britannica says she has “come to be known as an archetype of the wicked woman.”
Farrell was one of several people who decided to leave the church at that time. She says her husband, and others at the church, accused her of “brainwashing” others with her “Jezebel spirit” to leave Third Day with her.
“I had nothing to do with that. Some of them I was friends with, but it was more, we’d sit and actually talk about what we were going through and it was the first time that we could talk,” Farrell says.
After struggling with the decision, Farrell decided to leave her husband.
“He picked the church over me … That was a hard time for me for sure. And I know that I left him, but I also left the church. I had to make the best decision for me because I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t, it was killing me,” Farrell says.
Like Farrell, all former members who spoke to Global News say they were shunned and denigrated after leaving the church.
“When you left, they would make all these lies about you, and people would believe them because I believed them. Everyone that left was in the wrong. (They) had done something horrible,” says Corinne Vadala, who also left the church five years ago.
When she was still attending Third Day, Vadala says she remembers having the urge to wave hello to a former member she spotted at the mall.
“But I remember thinking, ‘I can’t, if I say hi to her, I’m going to be in so much trouble,’” Vadala says.
Kent says shunning is a common form of protecting a high-demand group’s image.
“Defectors are people who knew the teachings, who indeed had followed the practices and then made decisions to renounce them,” Kent says.
In Jenn and Grant O’Rourke’s case, Grant left in 2015, before Jenn, and she also struggled between choosing her husband and the church.
At first, she decided to leave with Grant.
“They had excommunicated me. So I had left and they were encouraging others, obviously, to have no contact with me. So I lost my entire support system,” Jenn says.
This sudden isolation from the church she called home for over 15 years was torture, so she asked to come back.
Jenn says Armstrong agreed, but only if she went through an elaborate apology process that included a meeting with him, a public admission of guilt on Facebook, personal apologies to members, a rehabilitation program with the counsellor, approval from the board of deacons, a public apology in front of the church and a guarantee that Grant approved of her attendance.
Kent says reintegration processes for those who return to high-demand groups often force the defector to prostrate themselves in front of the group or leader.
“If they want to come back, they have to go through an apologetic process that reinforces the group’s perspective that the group was right,” Kent says.
In fact, Kent says people often don’t leave these groups because their information and social groups are often restricted to the group itself. Members are also often threatened with retaliation for leaving, their options for living outside the group are often restricted and outsiders are demonized.
Former members say Third Day, a non-denominational church that is believed to have about 300 to 500 members, has deacons who are in charge of specific ministries and who are chosen by Armstrong. The church also had elders, who former members say are also chosen by Armstrong, who act as spiritual advisors. But, according to former members, the final say for everything falls to Armstrong, the church’s self-described apostle.
Armstrong noted that major expenses are approved by the board of directors, also known as the finance committee. He serves as chairperson and president on that board, but says he does not have final say on spending.
“I do not have sole authority to approve expenses and I am not a signer to any bank accounts,” he says.
His wife Edith Armstrong also serves on the board as a director.
“As the apostle and senior pastor, I cannot emphasize how important it has been to build up a strong team around me,” he says.
“As we continued to grow, it became clear to me that one man cannot do everything. As the church grew, so did the leadership team around me, comprised of pastors, elders, deacons and a small administrative team. Each hold these positions with the authority to serve and govern them working as a team to ensure continuity, clarity, and cohesiveness.”
David Guretzki, resident theologian and executive vice-president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, says protestant religions have various governance structures, most of them democratic, except one called an “apostolic leadership.”
“It’s usually quite a bit of power concentrated on an individual,” he says. “It’s often a charismatic type of person who is visionary.”
According to Andre Gagne, a professor at Concordia University whose research focuses on the (neo)charismatic right, Pentecostalism, evangelicalism, fundamentalism, religious violence and the interpretation and reception of the Bible, what he calls “spirit-filled” or “spirit-empowered” Christianity is the fastest growing strand of Christianity globally, with about 645 million believers worldwide. By 2050, Gagne says that number is expected to surpass one billion.
In Canada, there are about 2.7 million people practising spirit-filled Christianity, but in the United States, that number jumps to 65 million, Gagne says.
“These groups exist. It’s not something that is uncommon,” Gagne says.
Gagne says spirit-empowered Christians focus on the power of the Holy Spirit over their lives, and often believe in spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues, prophecy, miracles and healing. He says Third Day would fall under this category.
But, Gagne says a smaller number, about 325,000 people in Canada, of these spirit-empowered Christians are members of non-denominational churches.
Gagne says a denomination — like the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, for example — acts as a governing body that ensures its churches and pastors are meeting prescribed standards.
“If, for example, there are leadership issues in a particular church, then the governing body of a denomination can intervene and remove a pastor from a particular church,” Gagne says.
Non-denominational churches do not have this mechanism in place, he adds.
Gagne says there are various forms in which independent churches can self-govern. One way is to have democratic governance through elected pastors and board members, which is the traditional evangelical way.
“It’s a way, in fact, to guarantee against spiritual abuse and leadership abuse because the congregation has the final say or the authority is in the hands of the congregation,” he says.
But, in cases of apostolic governance, where the ultimate authority is in the hands of the apostle, usually a charismatic figure, there is little room for checks and balances.
“You have an apostle that decides pretty much what’s going on, and the prerogatives are all on that person. This is where sometimes the danger lies,” Gagne says.
He notes that Third Day Worship Centre says on its website that it is part of the Open Faith Bible Fellowship. This does not exist anymore and has been replaced by the Ministers Network of Canada.
Gagne says such a network would not act as a denomination, and therefore, a church like Third Day would run truly independently of any religious oversight.
“We are in fellowship with Ministers Network in Canada, formerly known as Open Bible Faith Fellowship. We are members in good standing with this group and often go to them for guidance on church related matters or issues of governance,” Armstrong noted.
“This so-called apostle is exercising, it’s authoritarianism. It’s essentially the authoritarian type of leadership that is the problem,” Gagne says.
Gagne says for people who grow up in these churches, or who are brought in at vulnerable times, it can be difficult to leave because it’s all they know.
But, Gagne says, people can always leave.
“People still have agency. It’s true that sometimes it turns out negatively and they exercise that agency when they started realizing that it didn’t work for them anymore,” he says.
Through her conversations about Third Day, Weatherdon says she has learned of the possible dangers for members of non-denominational churches, and is hoping these conversations might lead to some type of legislation.
“The biggest threat is the non-denominational evangelical churches, because there is no accountability,” she says.
But would it be possible to pass such legislation in a country that guarantees religious freedom in the constitution?
Cara Zwibel, director of the fundamental freedoms program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says it’s not impossible to enact legislation over voluntary organizations like churches, but the territory is murky.
“We believe in freedom of religion, and that means that there should be some restrictions on what the state can do in terms of governance. But it doesn’t mean that a church is a zone where anything goes,” Zwibel says.
She pointed to the Societies Act in British Columbia that came into 2016, which, according to the province’s website, “governs how societies (not-for-profit corporations) are created and run in B.C. The Act includes significant updates to allow for more flexibility in how societies operate, while still protecting the public interest.”
Churches and their leaders are also not immune to criminal charges if, say, they were engaging in fraudulent activities.
And, of course, former members are also able to take churches to civil court. But Zwibel says litigation isn’t the most efficient way to help vulnerable people dealing with religious trauma.
“That’s a pretty big undertaking. It’s time-consuming and expensive and also it can be pretty emotionally taxing,” she says.
She also notes that courts’ decisions on religious freedoms cases can be unpredictable because they do not want to be seen as “arbiters of religious dogma.”
Courts often prioritize sincerity of belief over scriptural proof, Zwibel says.
“On the one hand, that’s important from a freedom of religion perspective, and on the other hand, it’s also open to abuse,” she says.
She says courts may be more amenable to protecting youth from what could be seen as a predatory group, but less so with adults, who have the choice to simply leave.
Finally, Zwibel says there’s a fair argument to be made about courts not having a role in “private and voluntary” relationships like people have with their churches.
Zwibel says governments might be able to put their weight behind advocacy, or funding for mental health supports for people suffering from religious trauma, as more efficient ways of dealing with predatory or high demand groups.
Protecting the vulnerable
Jenn joined Third Day when she was 17, while recovering from various forms of severe trauma.
During this time, she says she first started noticing Third Day Worship Centre’s advertisements on the bus. Through her friends from high school, she knew other teens who went to Third Day, and finally, was formally introduced to the church through a religious conference.
“It was a happening place, lots of music, lots of people, and a very good experience that I consider to be a God experience there. So I knew that I wanted to make that my home church,” Jenn says.
At Third Day, she says she got connected with free counselling quickly, and with a new family unit that promised her safety and certainty if she agreed to submit to the church’s teachings.
“You got that prophetic word, and you start to feel like you belong, and they work on that, and you start doubting yourself despite your red flags. You put your trust in them because they’re supposed to be a spiritual authority,” Jenn says
Over 15 years, Jenn was admitted to the church’s Esther House program. She became a leader in the church. She found her husband Grant there.
She attributes some positive aspects of her life to the church and what led to be a close relationship with Francis Armstrong.
But, in the end, she feels like she was gaslit while at Third Day, and was susceptible to this type of manipulation because of trauma she experienced earlier in life.
She says other vulnerable people have fallen into the same trap at the church and others like herself have paid with loss of time and agency and severe mental health issues.
Armstrong did not specifically address any allegation put forward in this story, but says it’s the church’s goal to “to raise up leaders, people who represent Christ well in everything they do.”
“All are worthy of the love that God has for them and we are determined to keep being an expression of that love, maintaining a commitment to righteousness, justice and a peace that surpasses all understanding,” Armstrong says.
In the end, Jenn chose to be with her husband rather than the church.
Like many who spoke to Global News, suddenly leaving Third Day was a jarring and traumatic experience. Jenn suffered from severe anxiety, confusion with the secular world she was facing and loneliness.
“My leaving was horrific. I felt like I was losing my mind,” Jenn says.
In her own recovery, Jenn says there were limited resources to help people like her, and those resources are not easily accessed by all sections of the population.
“Ultimately, it would be nice to have a variety of creative mental health resources for people who have experienced religious trauma,” she says.
Now, after four years of being out of the church, Jenn says she’s telling her story to try to bring light to the effects of what she calls religious trauma, and to give others the courage to trust in themselves.