Australia's first gay missionary church, with a congregation barely in double figures, is in schism with disaffected former members claiming it operates like a cult and could damage vulnerable people.
David Witte says he was asked to leave Acts2Faith because the leadership found his enthusiasm and ideas threatening. His partner, James Nevein, left at the same time last November.
Acts2Faith is a Pentecostal-style church launched by Encounter International, the missionary arm of an American church. It ministers especially to "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer people - all the colours of the rainbow", according to its Melbourne leader, Becky Bauer.
Mr Nevein said he and Mr Witte were the first to meet Ms Bauer when she arrived in Australia from the United States two years ago and became involved in the church, including hosting the meetings at their house. Thrilled to find a church that was Pentecostal and pro-gay, he said "we spent a lot of time trying to get her immersed in what it means to be Australian".
But they became distressed at Ms Bauer's authoritarian approach, as numbers swelled to 20 then dwindled back to six, Mr Nevein said.
They attended international conferences in the US and came back last October highly motivated. Mr Witte, a songwriter, was filled with ideas and sent them to Ms Bauer, without response, he said. Then, without warning, Mr Witte said, he got a letter asking him to leave. "I felt so small. I'd wasted so much time and effort. They told me I ask too many questions."
Mr Nevein said another former member had been turned away at the door of the church. "The core of the place's existence is to be embracing, but it's imposing an American cult model and entrapping some very vulnerable people. There are no checks and balances, and no grievance procedure."
Ms Bauer said Acts2Faith was Christ-centred and definitely not a cult. "A lot of people have been hurt, and they carry that hurt. A lot of people have been blessed by this ministry. We are a safe place - we don't turn anyone away."
She said Mr Nevein and Mr Witte had a different vision for the church, and "unfortunately it became very bitter".
Ms Bauer said Acts2Faith was a fellowship that would become a church. At present five to 15 people attended weekly services at Northcote, and it also had a social group for people who were not quite ready for church. "We tell the truth about homosexuality. We make sure people have a good foundation of what Scripture says, we don't deviate from Scripture at all… A lot of people have been kicked out of churches because of who God called them to be, and we say it's possible God is just redirecting you."