One of the founding members of a Palmerston North parish that has come under fire for its "cult-like" practices says he knew something was awry but was unable to speak out.
Former church members have expressed concerns about practices including financial coercion, relationship manipulation and spiritual abuse.
Jeff Phillips, from Phoenix, Arizona, was sent to New Zealand with two other pastors from the Faith Christian Church in Tucson in 2003 to set up a sister parish in Palmerston North.
A minister from New Life Church in New Zealand encouraged the leader of Faith Christian Church, Steve Hall, to consider Palmerston North and he chose Phillips, Peter Tomlinson and Joel Miller for the mission.
The trio first joined the Gateways Christian Fellowship, a pentecostal church in Palmerston North, but the intention was always to create their own church, with Miller as senior minister, Phillips said.
"The goal was we would come and spend some time as members of that church in order to become acclimated to the culture and to give us some credibility in the community, so it wouldn't appear like we were coming in as brazen Americans."
Phillips, who had come over with his wife and then three-month-old son, had noted something was off about Faith Christian Church and Hall's teachings, especially concerning the expectation to hit babies into submission.
"When we were away from that immediate oversight from the church in Tucson we began to start to think for ourselves and start to use some common sense," he said.
"We began to question the whole teaching and training about spanking infants and that was the first thing we disagreed with . . . but we did not dare tell Joel or anyone else because if we had told them we would have gotten into trouble. But that did open up a can of worms for us and we began to reassess the church's practices."
In 2005, Phillips left New Zealand to help set up another off-shoot of Faith Christian Church, in Florida, and Miller established Palmerston North Victory Christian Church.
Phillips said he was concerned at teachings regarding romantic relationships, marriage pairings, financial coercion, alienation from parents, public shaming of members, leaders' authoritative attitude and excessive control over members, but he couldn't speak out for fear of being shunned.
However, problems did become more apparent over time and Phillips left the religious movement in 2010, setting up a Facebook page called "Former Members of Faith Christian Church Tucson and its OffShoots". Tomlinson also left.
Miller remains the senior pastor of Victory Christian Church in Palmerston North. He has not replied to calls and emails.
"The mindless following that goes on in these churches is rampant," Phillips said. "The thing about it that is so insidious is that the leadership teaches that they are God's authority . . . and to disobey or to disagree is tantamount to disagreeing with God and it goes beyond what the scripture says."
Through the Facebook page Phillips has been in contact with about a dozen people connected to Victory Church. It has a subsidiary branch called New Zealand Campus Ministries Trust. Messages to the trust have gone unanswered.
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