Snake in the grass: The ‘toxic’ religious teachings that nurtured former House Speaker Lee Chatfield

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Additional reporting on the  Independent Fundamental Baptist Church:

Mother alleges church inaction, retaliation after abuse claims surface

Sex abuse survivor challenges IFB culture to face itself

Ex-House speaker’s sister-in-law reveals abusive life behind the church

ALANSON, Mich. — Tucked off a poorly paved, unplowed road across Burt Lake from the sleepy Up North vacation town of Indian River, the Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church would struggle to fit in a congregation of 100 people. One Sunday morning in January, only about three dozen people sparsely dotted the pews in the modest sanctuary.

Each week, Rusty Chatfield, the father of former House Speaker Lee Chatfield, stands at the pulpit behind a humble wooden cross — no flashy jewelry and gold; only a Bible and a few pages of notes guide him through a sermon. It’s a place where everyone knows your name.

But hiding behind this humble country church veneer, critics said, is a loose confederacy of similar minded people. Driven by an idea of life drawn from the pages of the King James version of the Bible, which they believe to the only word of God without error or omission, the leaders of these churches are deities of sorts, who nurture a cult-like sphere of influence prone to extreme sexism, purity constructs, bans on interracial or inter-religious marriages and education that fail to address anything beyond the insular communities in which they live.

It’s a theological landscape that leaves the vulnerable — children, women and LGBTQ folks — at the mercy of a strict Old Testament theology that is backed with commands to still their rebellious souls, even if it requires a paddling that leaves bruises or welts on their behinds. 

It was into this world that Lee Chatfield was born and raised. And critics said it was that environment that allowed him to allegedly sexually exploit women, including accusations that he abused a former 15-year-old student who went on to become his sister-in-law.

This is the Independent Fundamental Baptist Church movement. And while each church is subject to the pastor who leads it, the confederacy churches share a circuit of camps, retreats, evangelists, spiritual mentors, experts, private colleges and universities — constantly cross-pollinating their controversial theologies.

It is easy to miss Chatfield’s out-of-the-way church on Burt Lake, though visitors are still enthusiastically welcomed, including a City Pulse staffer. Rusty Chatfield — among others — quickly welcomed the lone visitor with a smile and a handshake.

“I haven’t seen you here before. Welcome,” Chatfield said, who asked, “Where are you from? What do you do for a living?”

Having a journalist at the Sunday service made Chatfield “uncomfortable,” he said. “But you’re still welcome to stay. And you’ll certainly get a sermon.” 

Chatfield’s church is only one of hundreds of IFB churches scattered across the U.S. 

Nearly every person interviewed for this report, both on the record and off the record, referred to IFB as a cult. A cult is generally a group with an ideologically driven belief system and adoration of one person as their leader. At the movement’s core is a fundamental set of beliefs, seasoned by the personalities of each individual pastor, and most important is what is referred to in IFB circles as “The Umbrella of Authority.” This teaching is key to understanding how abuse — mentally, physically and sexually — can go undetected and unreported for years while the survivors hide the trauma out of shame and threat of exposure.

“Independent Fundamental Churches, for those who don’t know, is a very extremist form of Christianity. They don’t do dancing. They don’t do drinking,” said Eric Skwarczynsk, the host of the “Preacher Boys” podcast, which is dedicated to uncovering mental, physical, sexual and emotional abuses in the IFB church movement, often through the direct stories of its survivors. 

He added: “I would go so far as to say the majority fit the category of cults by definition.”

The ‘Umbrella of Authority’

The IFB church movement does not have centralized leadership, with each church setting up its own governing authority. Some might have a council of deacons who work at the direction of the pastor. In other churches, pastors are the head of the church and a direct conduit to God.

This direct messenger of God is a fundamental prism through which the IFB churches and theology must be viewed. Under this belief, authority comes from God and is bestowed on the pastor, who is always a man. Men in the church are also bestowed with authority over women and their wives, as well as children. Women who are mothers have authority as it relates to the children, but they must submit to their husbands. It’s a strict reading of the Bible that places women in servitude — people to be seen but not heard. The same applies to children.

Rebekah Chatfield, 26, said she found herself thrust into the middle of this culture in the fourth grade. That introduction to the Northern Michigan Christian Academy and the Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church, in turn, put her into an orbit with the Chatfield family.

She confirmed that the strict authoritarianism of Chatfield’s church and school was a contributing factor to her alleged abuse and exploitation by Lee Chatfield. She met her future brother-in-law when he was a teacher, coach and the school’s athletic director.

“It was also a place where women, I feel, didn’t really have a choice to listen to the rules. It was either you were in this community and you were in this church and you were in this school — either all in, or you kind of disobey the rules,” Rebekah Chatfield explained in a video interview with City Pulse about her experience in the church and school. “If you don’t really fit in, you’ll be kind of kicked outside; or, even, people have left the church and the school because they just didn’t agree with their rules and guidelines.”

Chatfield’s church was created in 1987. Its first school superintendent was Norm Olson, an Alanson native who came to national prominence during the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings, which killed 168, as a cofounder of the Michigan Militia. The two men convicted of the bombings, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, may have attended Michigan Militia meetings, according to media reports.

Male authority is an essential tool in IFB teachings. And it’s a rigid patriarchal sort of existence: When men are wrong, God is said to protect women and children if they follow the directions anyway.

Justin Woodbury, 41, has left the IFB. In an interview with City Pulse, he alleged that he was sexually abused by a woman at his IFB church in Ann Arbor beginning when he was a 17-year-old member of the congregation. 

(Attempts to independently verify Woodbury’s claims were unsuccessful.)

His IFB church, Ann Arbor Baptist, focused on the importance of the ‘Umbrella,” he said.

“If your parents were wrong, God would still protect you from anything bad happening because you are under that umbrella of protection,” Woodbury explained.

He also recalled an instance from his youth involving a particularly physically abusive father, who he said pulled out a gun after he had been abusing his wife and children one evening.

One of the children called the pastor “begging” for help, Woodbury said.

“He told her, ’As long as you are under your dad’s roof, you must submit to his authority and God will protect you from anything bad happening,’” Woodbury recalled. “There is a strong emphasis that a man could do no wrong.”

Challenging the decision of male authority is considered a grave sin and an act of rebellion. In IFB culture, that means the “will” must be broken — including through corporal punishment.

Spare the rod. Spoil the child.

Ruthie Heiler was steeped in IFB culture from birth. Her two sisters were sent to Gaylord, in northern Michigan, to a program run by Grace Baptist Church. It was a program for girls who were “troubled,” she said.

Homes and schools such as those run by Grace Baptist were designed to reform rebellious children and develop them into better Christians, Heiler said. She said that a child could land in one of these homes for the most simple church missteps — anything from “a rebellious spirit” to “listening to rock and roll.”

“In IFB circles, what they would deem as rebellious is more so a typical child-like acting out,” she said. “It’s normal behavior for a child to have, but to them they feel like you need to break a child of that rebellious spirit.”

At age 12, Heiler’s mother moved to Gaylord, where she attended Grace Baptist Church and school. That’s where Heiler met her abuser, who has already been convicted in Washington state for sexually assaulting her and is awaiting trial in Michigan for another alleged assault.

And breaking a child’s “rebellious spirit” is a philosophical construct throughout the IFB faith.

Spanking kids stems from the book of Psalms, where readers are implored not to spare the rod or risk spoiling the child. The fundamental belief: All people are born into sin and rebelliousness against God, so children require a firm hand to be “saved” from this sin-stained existence.

The leading practitioners of spanking as “training” your children into godliness are Michael and Debi Pearl. The duo have published four books and volumes of articles on the topic, starting with their 1994 book, “To Train Up a Child.” It was updated and republished in 2015.

The books present spanking as a benevolent act of love by a parent. In one volume, Michael Pearl repeats the tale of teaching parents to control their toddler. A couple was driving down a backroad returning from a church session and their child had become antsy and whining.

Pearl advised the father to tell the child to be quiet or he would be spanked. When the child didn’t stop, Pearl directed him to pull over and get a switch from a tree. He disciplined the child, and put the toddler back in the car and began driving again. When the toddler started acting up again, Pearl directed the father to repeat the action. This continued for miles.

The Pearls also teach that a tool such as “a wooden spoon or a spatula” should be used rather than a hand. Michael Pearl demonstrated the lesson with flexible plumbing tubing on the Dr. Drew show — smacking Drew Pinsky’s hand until he said it hurts. Pearl responded: “It’s supposed to.” Pearl also said the physically abusive training for kids should begin as early as 9 months.

A 2017 study from the University of Michigan — which had included more than 8,300 people of all ages — determined that being spanked was linked to adulthood mental health issues.

Woodbury, the teenage abuse victim, said that the use of an implement was designed to separate the hand from the act and leave it only to be seen for a loving embrace. During his religious studies at the Baptist College of Ministry in Wisconsin, he took a parenting class where he was taught to use a “long glue stick,” he explained. The reason?

“They sting and you can hit somebody really hard and a glue stick won’t leave a mark,” Woodbury said.” It’ll make you red, but it won’t leave a bruise so there’s no evidence.”

Woodbury said he was spanked using a wooden dowel as a child. And his spankings would include an entire discussion of what the bad actions were, followed by additional discipline.

Paddling, or corporal punishment, is allowed at Chatfield’s church. Lee Chatfield, in a 2014 interview with the Petoskey News-Review, defended the practice. When asked to define spanking, Chatfield told the newspaper’s editorial board it was “normally a swat on the behind.” He also said he thinks spanking is “good” if “a child, at a young age, is misbehaving.” His church requires written approval from a parent or guardian to administer spankings during school hours. 

A “swat on the behind” is not what Rebekah Chatfield witnessed during her time there.

Chatfield recalled an instance in which her then-boyfriend and future husband, Aaron Chatfield, had run around the school in his boxer shorts. She mentioned it to other members of the church. Two days later, Rusty Chatfield appeared in the gym and summoned his son. He was repeatedly struck with a wooden paddle so hard that his buttocks were bruised, she said.

City Pulse recently reported that after an 11-year-old boy sexually assaulted another boy of the same age at the church school that Rusty Chatfield oversees. Chatfield’s solution was to tell the pupils to beat up the offending child if he assaulted any of them. 

Aaron Chatfield has hired East Lansing attorney Mike Nichols to represent him. Nichols declined to explain why he is representing him, confirm this story or facilitate interview requests with Chatfield.

Skwarczynski, the podcaster, said he remembers the paddling instrument well.

“I saw the paddle,” Skwarczynski said. “It was called Mr. Blue. It was a blue ping-pong paddle that they used to spank kids. It was this idea that the control of the children is the church and parents’ responsibility. Is a parent responsible for training a child? Yes. But do I think wailing on a kid in the office with a ping pong paddle is raising a kid? No.”

Modesty

Heiler said that IFB churches also have rigid expectations of modesty and purity, which extends into strict dress codes. In all the churches referenced in this report, women are prohibited from wearing pants. They’re instead expected to wear dresses and skirts that hang below the knee.

After all, bare skin on a woman at IFB churches is seen as an impure temptation for its men.

“It is taught from a young age that you, as a woman, as a girl, should dress modestly. You don’t want to cause a man to stumble, is what they say. You don’t want to cause a man to have impure thoughts,” Heiler explained to City Pulse. ”It’s definitely something that is imprinted to children’s brains that the female’s responsible for purity and for modesty.”

Courting between young couples also requires them to have another person in the room. Holding hands, kissing and hugging are all strictly prohibited. Theologically, this conception of the temptress is biblically based on the story of man’s fall in the Garden of Eden.

“Women are definitely positioned as the temptress,” Skwarczynski explained. “They’re the people that can mess up a guy’s chance at being pure. Men are taught really that you have this uncontrollable sexual desire and for women, it’s your responsibility to help men.”

Skwarczynski called this concept a “powder keg.” Men are taught a cornucopia of conflicting ideas about sex — it’s awesome, it’s forbidden, you can’t control it. Women, on the other hand, are “taught if something happens to you, it’s your fault,” Skwarcyznski said.

These confused and contradictory teachings are combined with a lack of reproductive health education from the church schools. Heiler wasn’t even taught the basics about menstruation.

“When I reached the age to have a period, I didn’t know what was happening. I thought I was dying,” Heiler said, noting that she was also never taught about the male reproductive system.  “I didn’t know anything about anatomy. You didn’t even know how a baby was made.”

All of the people interviewed in this story said that interracial relationships, or relationships with someone from a different religion, even other Christians, were either banned or discouraged.

In one memo that Skwarczynski reported on his podcast, a minister encouraged students to pray about God’s intent (and seek parental input) before engaging in “exotic” relationships. The flagship university of IFB, Bob Jones University, also banned interracial dating until 2004. Even after lifting the ban, the university still required parental permission for interracial relationships.

Dating in an IFB church is not like it is in the secular world. Fathers pray about matches, then discuss it among themselves. If they decide God wants their respective child to marry, they are introduced to each other and are given a month to “court” — which requires constant adult supervision and prayer. If the couple agrees that God wants a marriage, it is done — quickly.

Having sex out of wedlock, Rebekah Chatfield explained, was tantamount to being married in the eyes of God. If such physical relationships were discovered — as was the case with Chatfield and her husband, Aaron — marriage in the church is required in order to satisfy God’s commandments.

Skwarczynski heard sermons and teachings about rape. The messages from those teachings was not “men shouldn’t be raping.” It was “women shouldn’t be going to parties,” he said.

Emily, who is using an alias to discuss what she described as the brutal sexual assault of her young daughter, was a teacher at a school attached to another rural northern Michigan IFB church. When she brought allegations to church officials, as well as law enforcement, she was encouraged not to discuss it publicly, she said.

“You don’t want people looking at her in 10 years, when she’s 15, and singing her heart out in the choir and saying, ‘Oh, that’s that poor girl who was abused,’” she said a pastor had told her.

When she refused to stay quiet, her home and vehicles were vandalized. 

“It was all addressed in a way to somehow place her at the center and the cause,” Emily said in a phone interview. “I told him that I wanted them to see her standing up there and say, ‘That’s a strong young woman who has fought back and healed.’”

In a homeschool curriculum produced by former evangelical IFB lead Bill Gothard, there’s a two-page explanation and justification about why a 4-year-old boy’s molestation by a teenage male neighbor was ultimately good for God. Gothard resigned from his ministry in 2014 after allegations of sexual harassment in his operations arose. He was also sued by 12 women who alleged he had sexually, physically or emotionally abused them. That lawsuit was dropped in 2018; neither party will discuss why, according to NBC News. 

Gothard’s curriculum was used by the Duggar family of the television show “19 Kids and Counting.” In 2003, the couple’s eldest son admitted to touching two of his sisters. And in December 2021, he was found guilty by a federal jury of possessing and receiving child pornography. The Duggars endorsed Lee Chatfield in 2014.

Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta in Canada, is one of the few academics to study the purity movements in conservative churches. He said that congregants and leaders simply do not expect such abuses to happen in their midst — not under God’s eye.

“What they fail to realize is that manipulative individuals can use their presumed spiritual purity as a cloak under which they can commit offenses without being suspected or reported,” he said. “If caught, then these predatory men may only face calls for repentance within a doctrinal atmosphere that sees young, abused women as a seductive temptress rather than groomed, manipulated, and exploited targets.”

(Kyle Kaminski contributed to this report.)

Editor’s Note: The Independent Fundamental Baptist Church movement is separate from the New Independent Fundamental Baptist Church, which the Anti-Defamation League has designated as a hate group. 

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