A Review of Press Reports on Cultism and Unethical Social Influence
Concern about Set Free Christian Center, Calvary Chapel Outreach in Costa Mesa. Phil Aguilar. Oden Fong.
Some pastors and cult watchers have expressed growing concern over alleged Scripture twisting and authority abuses at the Set Free Christian Center in Anaheim, California.
Officials at Calvary Chapel Outreach fellowships of Costa Mesa, California - which is the ministry that oversees the more than 380 Calvary Chapels (affiliated with Pastor Chuck Smith) worldwide - have transcribed testimonies from former Set Free members. They intend to call Set Free pastor Phil Aguilar to account for the alleged abuses at the church - if this action proved to be warranted. Calvary's office, led by Pastor Oden Fong, has produced a 318-page report containing the testimonies of 28 people - most of them former Set Free members - that allege serious problems at the church and near-dictatorial rule by Aguilar.
At the same time, Set Free, which claims 4,000 attendees at its Sunday morning worship services, has become increasingly thrust into the public eye due to the close ties pastor Aguilar has with the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), and certain political figures in the Southern California area.
Known as the "bikers church," Set Free takes in former gang members, prostitutes, drug addicts, the homeless, and others - and claims to help set them free from their old lives of bondage. They maintain ranches in Texas, Illinois, and California, and they own a number of group (communal living) homes in the Anaheim area, some of which were paid for with direct gifts from TBN.
Calvary Fellowships has stopped its investigation, but the transcripts, tape recorded testimonies, and other data were recently turned over to the Christian Research Institute. Calvary has also given a four-page analysis of the testimonies to CRI that indicates potential problems with "accountability and authority," living conditions at both the homes and the ranches, alleged intimidation of members by Aguilar, and Set Free's biblical doctrine. Prior to the documents being turned over, CRI had begun its own preliminary inquiry due to complaints swirling around about the sect. (CRO has not yet determined, however, whether it will launch a full-scale investigation of the group.)
Additionally, Westmont College Sociology professor/cult expert Ronald Enroth has been investigating Set Free in recent months and has become increasingly concerned about the alleged authority abuses.
Aguilar did not return several phone calls pertaining to this story. But Eli Hernandez, a spokesman for Set Free ministries, says the ministry denies all charges of authority abuses leveled against the church, and they deny all allegations presented to Set Free in the four-page list compiled by Calvary Fellowships.
Calvary's list, which had been sent to Aguilar for his comments, alleges that:
Set Free members increasingly have been appearing on TBN, manning the phones, and in recent days Aaguilar has been named to the board of the "TBN-linked National Minority Television Network (along with TBN President Paul Crouch, Crouch's assistant Jane Duff, and TBN's Jim McClellan).
Set Free has made for some colorful copy in the Southern California area. Members are often dressed in black as they tear along the freeways in motorcycle processions. They produce Christian rock videos, and during worship services will have an extensive time of mouthing Christian "rap" lyrics (not praise worship songs familiar to other charismatic fellowships) while members dance on a large stage in a converted warehouse.
William M. Alnor is News Editor of the Christian Research Journal and author of the forthcoming UFOs and the New Age (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI).