Saturday, August 22, 2009

My Experience with Toxic Religion

What Went Wrong at Peniel?

I would like to thank whoever posted the talk, “The Peniel Vision” ( by Ed Miller. It is good to have this man’s teaching available because although he makes many fine points his ministry ultimately became a destructive cult. For this reason, I think it is important to examine the causes of this all too common phenomenon.

My family and I spent over ten years in Ed Miller's church located near Atlanta Georgia, spanning the period from the mid 1980’s to the mid 1990’s. I think all seven of us would agree that our years spent there were very detrimental to our personal growth and mental health. What developed there, in my opinion, is a true example of toxic faith. This is the opinion of many former Peniel members. I know one young man who spent several years in therapy trying to undo his time at the church.

First off, let me say that I very much agree with Ed Miller that any true “knowing” of the Divine must be experiential. That is his core teaching and I have no doubt that he came to this knowledge by encounters with the Divine. I think this is a very beneficial foundation concerning a spiritual life and I appreciate his emphasis on experiential knowing. However, we must also realize that no matter how genuine anyone’s experiences are a structure will be built upon them to create a worldview from which we encounter life. Such mental structures are the basis for religion. Religious frameworks help us to interpret our experiences and guide us in our real world choices. It is in the religion created by the Millers that the danger lays.

The religion espoused by the Millers was both exclusionary and domineering. Only certain individuals ever “got it”. Rather, than seeing every individual as containing the light of God and nurturing their flock to develop the light within, the Miller’s taught that only a few select individuals would ever have divine revelation. Those were the special few just as their own congregation was depicted as the only one in many thousands that really knew the will of God. The Miller’s thought of other ministries as mere children compared to their advanced state of spiritual development. Such hubris is often the harbringer of a forthcoming fatal crash.

In deed, their own parishioners were thought of as children. As the church members accepted the demotion from adulthood to childhood they abdicated their personal responsibility and yielded their authority in the normal affairs of life. The parishioners called Ed “Papi” and ran to him for his input on the most mundane decisions concerning daily life. The pentultimate consequence of such meddling was witnessed in the Miller’s penchant for arranging marriages which often ended in disaster.

When a person chooses to ignore their own gift of humanity and instead feels they can only be completed or “saved” by having a special experience outside of themselves, they lay themselves open to be dominated by others who seem to be facilitating such experiences. This is the danger of a place like Peniel. Over the years I watched as many fellow church members desperately struggled in vain to be included in the club.

This doctrine of inclusion of only a select few has both ecclesiastical and social implications. The church was an oligarchy run by Ed and his eldest son Robert. No one who stayed in the church questioned their authority in anything from theology to carpentry until the entire sham was exposed due to their obvious personal misconduct. The social structure of the community mapped the Miller’s “chosen few” theology. They deliberately created a pyramid type of society with their families at the top, followed by a tier reserved for a few special ones determined by talent or wealth. The unwashed masses made up the base, serving the higher ups with labor, tithes and attention.

As is often the case, such unnatural structures can only be maintained by fear. At Peniel there was a pervasive fear of not being included in the society the Miller’s created or in having a genuine (as defined by the Millers) experience of God. Although Ed conceded that most would make it to heaven, he exhorted that failing to enter the higher realms, (as described by him) would lead to their works being destroyed. Fear of course is the great paralyzer of development and is the hallmark of all cults. Accepting such doctrines greatly limits one’s own ambition to develop their own unique talents and gifts. In deed, in part three of the talk entitled, “The Peniel Vision” 9:24-9:42, Ed describes how disheartened he and Robert were when members concerned themselves with academic degrees and advanced positions in the “world”. Interestingly, Ed liked to use the title, “Dr.” in front of his own name.

My time at Peniel has taught me that I do not need any man’s aid to come in contact with the Divine Life that is within us all. Trust the Life that is within you. You need no one else to explore that which is within. Any worthy guide will tell you this truth and lovingly encourage you to discover that you have been included since the worlds were formed. To live in any other way is a disservice both to yourself and to your community.


  1. Awesome writing my friend. Thank you.

  2. Thanks melissa--How did you happen to wander over here?

  3. Nice article. I was there too from 1980-1989. Bad stuff at that church!

  4. Nice article. I was there too from 1980-1989. Bad stuff at that church!

  5. Hey Sean--I just saw your post. How are you? I do remember you. Aren't you a bit older than Evan? He'll turn 40 in November.
    I'd you happen to find this post?

  6. Yes. I'm 47. Mike...what's your last name? I found this post by surfing around while bored at work one day. I'm doing well.

  7. Hey Sean--Last name is McNary--I still live in Monroe, GA--If you're on Face Book I have an account over there.