Elizabeth Coleman was just 16 when she stood up in a Canberra school hall and publicly declared she was ready to follow Jesus.
It was 1990 and she was standing amid a group of people professing her faith to the worldwide but nameless religious group she had been born into.
She was a late starter, and for years she had been plagued with pressure from her community to profess.
The moment was followed by congratulations from others in the hall, who threw their arms around her. Some were even crying out of sheer joy.
“I was a bit shocked afterwards when people were coming up and hugging me and literally crying and congratulating me. I found it quite strange and off-putting. I don’t know why, but I wasn’t expecting that,” she told 7NEWS.com.au.
Before her commitment, meeting attendance as part of the group’s requirements was more than twice a week. Often after school hours and Sunday nights.
But now, as a professing member, she was expected to actively partake in the Sunday morning meetings too.
Every Saturday night she tried to come up with a spiritual message to share with the group the next morning. She knew that keeping up appearances was important if she was ever to be allowed baptism under the unique rules of the sect’s doctrine.
But for the next meetings, Coleman – who shied away from publicly sharing her spiritual messages with the group – struggled.
After often experiencing shortness of breath and panic attacks she stopped speaking in the meetings for weeks. She was eventually taken aside by one of the preachers.
“If you weren’t speaking in the meetings, maybe you had a troubled spirit. But if you are doing all the right things, buying all of their living rules and their external rules and how you look and speak in the meetings and putting on a show, then you have a good spirit,” Coleman says she was told.
She remained a professing member until her emotional exit from the group in 1993.
“I had too many questions and by that time I had started to uncover information about the background of the group and started to realise that I had been deceived and manipulated in various ways,” she says.
What the church is all about
Coleman was a fourth-generation part of a global religious sect known by outsiders and ex-members as the Two-by-Two.
For over a century, the sect – which remained strictly nameless among its members – gradually gained a number of pseudonyms worldwide despite successfully remaining largely under the radar.
Apart from the Two-by-Two, other common labels given to the group over the decades include The Fellowship, The Meetings, The Way, Cooneyites or The Nameless House Sect.
And if questioned by outsiders, Coleman was told to say that the doctrine she followed was the only one that went directly back to Jesus’s teachings in the New Testament.
It was said to be of apostolic succession, which meant that the teachings had been passed down in a continuous line from the disciples to the sect’s preachers today.
The sect worked in a rank-layered hierarchical system with two tiers: Workers and Friends.
Despite the name, the Workers were placed at the top of this system with those attaining this rank considered spiritual messengers, like Jesus’s disciples. It was the Workers who were believed to have received their teachings through apostolic succession.
At the bottom were the Friends – or layperson members – such as Coleman.
And in accordance with the sect’s interpretation of Jesus’s teachings in the New Testament of the King James Version, Workers were to remain homeless and stay with the Friends.
Coleman says their slogan was: “The meetings in the home and the ministers without a home.”
Besides “catching the spirit” from the preaching in the meetings, it was the only thing they could tell you about what they believed.
The rules she had to live by
There weren’t a lot of places Coleman would feel like she fit in.
Attending a public school in Australia’s capital, Coleman already knew she was different from the other kids.
She wore knee-length dresses and wasn’t allowed to wear pants, jewellery, makeup, nail polish or even cut her hair.
To participate in entertainment and sports alongside outsiders was seen by the sect as putting her at risk of being contaminated by “the worldly”.
Even worse was interacting with other Christians.
She says it was almost unheard of for sect members to attend Christian schools.
Owning a TV was also not allowed, but while watching such devices or listening to recorded music or the radio was not encouraged, it wasn’t sinful.
As a result of having been excluded from electronic media, Coleman felt out of the loop compared to other kids.
“I still got to hear some music at school. But you always feel like you’ll never quite know what is going on out there in the world, as we would say, because we didn’t see the news, we didn’t listen to music, we didn’t watch the television shows,” she says.
One of the few places she felt most normal as a child was at the sect’s remotely held annual conventions at private farms.
And although the same rules applied there, at least everyone dressed the same.
The day contained three meals, each followed by nearly two-hour meetings. Then they slept in white tents lined up row after row at night.
“We had so many children there, and we weren’t allowed to do anything. We had to be dressed in our Sunday best all day every day, out on a property in the middle of nowhere in heels and Sunday frocks, sometimes in the mud, (and) there were pit toilets,” she says.
A startling new chapter
Shortly after professing as a 16-year-old, two massive discoveries were about to wake Coleman up to the nature of the world that she was locked into.
The first came from Coleman’s passion for reading.
With watching TV and listening to music deemed too worldly, Coleman became an avid reader and would borrow one book a day from her school’s library.
But little did she know that her passion for reading would lead her to a book whose cover she could never completely close again.
Shortly after professing, Coleman found herself spending the summer holidays at her grandparents’ cattle farm. One day she was browsing her grandparents’ library for some new reading material.
“So, I found this book called The Secret Sect,” she says.
“I started reading and I was horrified. And I said to my grandmother ,‘This guy reckons that the group was started by this man called William Irvine and he is telling all these lies about us’, and she said to me, ‘Well, sometimes, God has to use a man to raise up his true way again’.
“That shocked me even more, that she wasn’t denying it, but was telling me that this was probably true.”
Shocked and confused, she decided to bury what she had read for the next three years.
But once the holidays came to an end, and she returned for her last years of school, the secret would become harder to keep buried as she was confronted by the second major discovery about to shake her faith.
“So, I walked into my first English class in that new school and saw him across the room and this thing went through my mind like writing on a wall, ‘what would you say if someone told you that was the man you’re going to marry one day’, which made me completely freak out,” Coleman says.
Coleman says she backed out of the room, thinking it was a strange reflection to have. Knowing full well that it wasn’t encouraged to associate with outsiders, she tried to ignore the new male classmate she was strangely captivated by. She says she even asked God why this boy had been put into her life.
“But I can only say that he started to haunt me over the next few months, and I became more and more agitated but had this very deep burden that I had to speak with him,” she says.
After having struggled to stay away from him for months, Coleman finally decided to talk to the new male classmate. His name was David and he was a conventional Christian.
From the day of their first conversation and for many more to come, they were almost inseparable. It started with having lunch together every day to him walking her to and from school.
He told her about his religion, and she repeated the lines her sect had told her to tell outsiders.
As time passed and their friendship grew stronger, David’s household eventually became like a second home to Coleman.
But the thought still nagged at her: How could his family, which was as devoted as hers in their service of family and God, be in the wrong?
Twelve months into their friendship, Coleman and David became romantically involved.
At this point and for the next two years, she describes living a double life. While she was still attending her Fellowship meetings, she also started attending David’s church.
And, more importantly, sometimes he attended hers.
But after David went to several of her Fellowship meetings and started to ask questions, the Workers were no longer interested in having him attend.
“They were questions really relating to fairly key elements of Christian doctrine, and actually fairly mainstream and simple ones. So, that is what perplexed me about the different answers of two men who were preaching together,” David says.
The Workers gave Coleman an ultimatum.
“The Workers came to me and said, ‘You know, we have had some chats with David, and he is not very receptive. We don’t think he is going to keep coming along. But don’t worry, there is plenty of more fish in the sea’. That’s what they said to me,” she says.
Exodus: Coleman leaves the church
In 1993, at 19 years of age, Coleman decided to leave the sect. She would marry David two years later.
She says it had been a terrifying prospect for her to leave but the previous years had been exceptionally difficult.
“Once the doors have been opened, I’ve learned too much and seen so much. It is impossible to shut the door and be shut in the dark room,” Coleman says.
She told her parents early on a Sunday before her father was set to host a morning meeting.
“Of course, my parents were fairly devastated that first Sunday morning when I told them I wasn’t coming to the meeting and that I was going to church with Dave. That was pretty heart-rending for my parents and a very, very, traumatic event,” she says.
Coleman says her exit from the sect ultimately left her suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. For some time, she thought she was going crazy.
“(I had) panic attacks and terrible anxiety, very deep fear, and a lot of physical symptoms. I did get some counselling for that but even that took sort of six to 12 months for the worst of the daily manifestations of that to ease off,” she says.
A crisis of faith
With her entire family still based in the sect — along with everything she had previously believed to be true — Coleman says she struggled with shame and doubt for several years after her exit.
One of David’s friends eventually suggested she search about the sect on the internet. The results turned out to be more than they anticipated.
Among ex-members’ stories, Coleman says she found books and pamphlets that further revealed the same kind of deception that she had experienced within the church without a name.
She collected the books and pamphlets and called the Workers she knew to organise a meeting.
At first, Coleman says they were unreceptive. Eventually, they agreed to meet with her – but only if certain conditions were in place.
“I was never to reveal their names. I was not to admit to anybody they had come to see me, I was not to reveal any of the contents of the conversations that they had with me and if I did tell anybody they had been to see me that they would deny it and call me a liar. Wow,” she says.
When Coleman expressed to them that her understanding of the gospel had changed from that of the sect and that she now believed Jesus to be God, one of the Workers declared her the Antichrist.
”One of them called me the Antichrist and he said, ‘You’ll never be happy, you will come back. It might take years, but you will come back to us and be sorry and we will take you back when you want to come back,” she says.
But even after she sought professional help, found ex-members, and confronted the Workers, her trauma continued for almost 20 more years.
“So, I did decide to do a lot more study on cults. Learn about how the conditioning of the brain happens. Learn about thought-stopping phrases and I realised what those have been in the group,” Coleman says.
In 2015 she published Cult to Christ: The Church With No Name and the legacy of the Living Witness Doctrine and found healing in the process of learning about her experience – and hearing about the experiences of others.
“So, I feel as if that was the most therapeutic thing. Telling my story. And of course, the other therapeutic thing is to hear other people’s stories. And I have had a lot of feedback for my book, I get a lot of letters from people saying how much it has helped them,” she says.
“The more of us that tell our stories, the more people go, ‘Yes, that has been happening to me as well, and yes that has happened’.”
What Coleman is up to now?
Almost three decades have passed since Coleman decided to leave the sect.
Today she lives in Canberra, is still happily married to David, and says she enjoys life without the sect’s restraints.
She became a lover of storytelling through films and also enjoys tennis and Champagne.
“Look, we understand that there are some who are complete die-hards and want to stay in the group and not hear any of it. We can only do what we can do and support each other and support others who are trying to leave,” she says.
Last year, Coleman was a finalist in Lifeline Canberra’s 2022 Women of Spirit Awards at the National Gallery of Australia, for sharing her story and helping others going through similar experiences with religious groups and trauma.
And only recently has she started to have contact with one of her good childhood friends from the sect.
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