Church fighting pandemic restrictions is cult-like, former worshippers, expert allege
Church controls internet access, relationships, dress code, ex-members say
Two former parishioners of a rural Manitoba church that has been in the spotlight for breaking public health orders allege the organization controlled many aspects of their lives and relied on members to report on each other when their peers didn't comply.
"I believe Church of God is a cult," said former member Tina Wall, adding she felt that "you can't think for yourself, nothing. You just follow the leaders."
Wall left the Church of God Restoration, south of Steinbach, Man., in 2019 after being a member for almost eight years.
The church, which prides itself on being open and transparent, says it operates on a belief system, and those who agree will stay, those who don't will leave.
WATCH: Former Church of God Restoration members speak out
Wall fell in love with the church almost a decade ago. She remembers hearing passionate words about the love of God during services at the church and before long was hooked.
"Within a short period of time, you just feel like, 'If I want to go to heaven, this is a place to be in,'" said Wall, 30.
The church — an apocalyptic sect that believes the end of the world is near — started making headlines last fall as it fought pandemic restrictions.
It's led by 11 apostles based around the world, including one in Aylmer, Ont. Its chief apostle, Ray Tinsman — who is responsible for all congregations of the church — is based in Ohio.
'Kind of anti-modern medicine': leader
Church of God Restoration enforces strict rules members must follow that dictate things as specific as dress — such as stipulating that women must wear white underwear and have dark stockings on at all times outside the bedroom.
It also has rules around adult medical care during times of critical illness, promoting a doctrine of divine healing.
Wall recalls in 2013, a member of the Manitoba congregation diagnosed with cancer died after choosing not to get treatment.
"She was in tremendous pain," Wall said.
"It was horrible seeing it. I remember when I saw that, oh, my fear of illnesses increased so bad.… It was like, every day, 'What if I get cancer? What if I get no treatment, no help, no nothing?'"
Wall and another former member, Gloria Froese, said they had routine visits to dentists or chiropractors, but maintained that getting help during critical illness — which they never required — would have been forbidden. The church's website says anyone who is sick should call church elders and let them pray.
Tinsman, who hasn't returned multiple requests for an interview over the last month, spoke publicly in 2019 at a forum in Greenville, Ohio, about the church's doctrines, which include calling elders when someone is sick and letting the elders use prayer and an oil to heal.
When asked at the forum if a member could face disciplinary action for getting medical care, Tinsman said that would happen "only in a case where someone would throw away something they once stood for."
"We've had my own family members who have died [and] have done that from a very personal conviction. And if they didn't personally feel to do that, I would never, ever encourage it or expect it," he told the forum.
Tinsman said while the church is "kind of anti-modern medicine," any child that is seriously ill would be taken in for care.
Preachers instilled fear of hell: longtime member
Wall said the church discourages getting medical care during times of critical illness, promoting a doctrine of divine healing instead. She alleged the more restrictive measures started for her about four to six months after joining the church.
"There's a lot of brainwashing that goes on there," said Wall, who alleges the church interpreted the Bible to suit the organization's doctrines. Before long, she said, she could only see the scripture in their view.
She alleged within a few months of joining the church, it felt like preachers turned their focus to instilling a fear of hell and enforcing the need for members of all ages to obey the ministry.
Members who spoke to CBC say they lived in fear of the apostles, who say they have the ability to take away someone's salvation, according to Wall.
"If you question the apostles, your salvation gets taken away from you. So you don't really dare, questioning them."
She says she was encouraged to cut off contact with anyone outside the church, including her parents.
"Being told that they're wicked and, you know, they're the devil, and not being able to see them is just a horrible feeling.… It's very painful," Wall said.
'We wouldn't coerce': chief apostle
Tinsman was asked at the 2019 forum if his church used a process of indoctrination or persuasion called brainwashing.
"We're probably guilty of that," he said. "I would say so is CNN and Fox News and everyone else."
The church's approach, he said, is "minus the coercion. We wouldn't coerce."
Tinsman was also asked at that forum to respond to concerns his church is like a cult.
"We would have to define a cult," he responded.
"And in my opinion, some broad explanations of a cult is the Christian church, of the Book of Acts," which deals with the founding of the Christian church.
"But again, we would be broad. And the fact that we think like-minded people are together — I mean, that's the case in the Republican Party, that's the case in the Democratic Party, that's the case in a lot of other things."
Wall said as she "grew" as a member, she wasn't allowed to go on the internet without a pastor present. She alleges her phone was locked with a code by the ministry.
Members are usually kept off the internet, with some exceptions for businesses, Tinsman said in 2019, adding children are prohibited from going online.
Wall alleges kids in the Manitoba congregation, who attend school at the church, are made to constantly fear hell.
"They would demonstrate, like sometimes with physical items, like how the kid is going to drop into hell," she said.
The former members CBC spoke to said they felt the need to obey the ministry.
"They would never tell us, 'You have to.' But with time, if you don't do what they expect us to do, we knew we were going to hell or whatever," Wall said.
"The conviction was so strong, right? Like, you don't question them, and that's how they get you to obey their rules."
Spouses expected to be reported on: ex-member
She and another former member allege children are taught to report on their parents if they break church protocol.
"Any doubts or questions that you have, you'd have to be very careful — and especially with your spouse, unless you know that they're on the same page as you, because that is expected to be reported," said Gloria Froese.
She joined the church when she was nine, along with her parents, who became ministers.
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Leaving the church is difficult, Wall said. She was scared she would be shunned for walking out.
"They basically shun you.… The people that you thought were your best friends, you also find out they don't really care for you. They completely leave you alone."
'They question your sex life': ex-member
Tinsman said the church believes in excommunication in cases where someone would try to "lure away people to maybe a lifestyle in which we would not approve of."
Wall says no detail of life is off limits to church leadership.
"When you're married, they question your sex life — like, 'How's it going?'...They want to know what's happening," she said.
Froese said as a teenager, she was forbidden from having a crush on anyone, which she was told was sinful. God would lead her to her partner when the time came, she was told.
"We were expected to be perfect. They taught the sin-free life, and that starts from babyhood," she said.
"You cannot be talking back. You can't be rebellious. You can't do anything wrong.… You have to do everything just so — how the powers that be see it," she said.
Frustrated with media attention: ex-member
Froese, who left during a church-wide split in 2000, expressed frustration with the amount of media attention the organization has received in Manitoba and Ontario, where it has also defied pandemic restrictions.
"That's their game. That's what they want," said Froese, who is in touch with other former members of the church in Canada and the United States.
"I think they have this idea that if they get attention, if they get people to see who they are, that people will flock to them."
The former parishioners said other churches are disparaged, and the sect presents itself as the only path to heaven.
Tinsman said his church is "not just non-denomination, but we are actually against denomination."
He said members face a lot of pressure to stay. He was asked at the Ohio forum if there is any legitimate reason to leave and if former followers who leave the church are "always wrong in leaving — they are negative or even evil."
Tinsman responded: "Yes."
History of controversy
The Manitoba church, which registered as a non-profit in the province in 1994 and as a charity with the Canada Revenue Agency two years later, has gained widespread attention in recent months. It is one of seven churches that are part of a high-profile court challenge fighting the province's pandemic-related public health orders.
The Church of God Restoration has congregations in Mexico, the Philippines, Austria, Bolivia and Ireland, and is no stranger to controversy.
It made national headlines in 2001 when social workers and police officers seized seven children from their Aylmer, Ont., home after learning their parents, who were members of the church, had disciplined them with a belt, fly swatter and electric cord.
The children spent about three weeks in foster care before being returned to their parents under a court-sanctioned deal, the Toronto Star reported at the time.
That same year, an 11-month-old girl named Julia Wiebe died in a Los Angeles suburb after getting treatable meningitis. The girl's parents — a couple from Aylmer, Ont. — relied on prayer instead of medicine and were ordered to serve 364 days in jail after her death, the Press-Enterprise newspaper reported.
The Associated Press later reported the church's founder, Danny Layne, would allow parents to bring sick children to doctors. Parents were also allowed to discipline children without violence.
A 2001 Hamilton Spectator article documented the tight rein Layne kept on members.
Layne, who died in 2011, claimed to have spent 19 years as a heroin addict on the streets of San Francisco. He later preached in the 1980s in Guthrie, Okla., before founding congregations in Ohio, Washington state, Manitoba, Ontario and California, according to the newspaper.
In Manitoba, the church has 29 directors listed with the province's Companies Office. Of those, 20 have U.S. addresses, including Tinsman, who would sometimes come to the Steinbach-area church.
Pastor Jacob Braun is listed in documents as the Manitoba church's president. He was in charge of the congregation when Wall was a member but has since moved to the United States.
Pastor Heinrich Hildebrandt has been a spokesperson for the church in recent months and is now the contact listed for the Manitoba congregation in its online newsletters. He declined an interview request.
'Personal choice' essential: lawyer
Pastor Tobias Tissen, who has become the public face of the organization in recent months as he publicly fights the province's pandemic restrictions, also declined interview requests.
In a statement sent through his lawyer, Tissen said he has had no dealings with Froese or Wall.
"Anyone who has a sincere question about where we stand as a church may write us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be happy to respond," Tissen said.
Tissen's lawyer, Allison Kindle Pejovic — from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which has challenged pandemic restrictions in courts in several provinces, including Manitoba — said it's normal for churches and other organizations to have their own belief systems.
"Those who agree with that belief system will join the organization, while those who disagree will not join or will leave that organization," she wrote in a June 11 statement.
"Personal choice is the essence of the fundamental freedom to associate."
Church 'at war' with secular world: expert
A former pastor of the Steinbach-area church told the Hamilton Spectator that Layne started to add rules in the early 1990s, including requiring permission to get married or travel, and the church's strict dress code.
He also enforced a rigid doctrine of divine healing in place of medicine, the newspaper reported, which included forbidding children from being vaccinated.
The church's website features newsletters speaking out against vaccines, and against major pharmaceutical companies — which it links to the opioid epidemic.
"It appears that Big Pharma is in its finest money-making hour," a recent newsletter on the site claims. "This begs the question — is the world population in for something far worse than the opioid epidemic?"
A University of Alberta professor who studies alternative and controversial religions says the church "really is at war with the secular world."
Stephen A. Kent says he first became aware of the church years ago, when child abuse allegations surfaced in Ontario. He's been watching it more closely as it made headlines during the pandemic.
"The patterns of control that are manifesting themselves around this group are fairly typical of high demand, manipulative cult-like groups," he said.
Kent, who defines a cult as a group that uses undue influence to create obedience and dependency, said the difference between a church and a cult is their relationship with the outside world.
"More or less, churches have integrated into wider society. They are more tolerant of people who hold differing belief systems," he said.
Cults, however, "are very restrictive, very constraining on their members, and in extreme cases, cults — in true cult leaders — intrude themselves in more or less all aspects of people's even private lives."
Asking family members to snitch on each other when rules are broken is "typical in these high-demand manipulative organizations," said Kent.
Use 'love bombing' to recruit: expert
A U.S. expert on cults said it's common for the organizations to use "love bombing," where a newcomer is flooded with so much praise and attention it's difficult not to join — something Wall said she experienced.
Steven Hassan said ethical Christian churches tell people up front who they are, what they believe and what will happen if they make a commitment to the congregation.
"The commitment is to Jesus and to God, and not to the leadership and the actual human institution. And therefore, if a person wants to go to another church because they're moving, they're not being told they're going to hell," Hassan said in an interview from Massachusetts.
"The unethical groups want people not to think for themselves, use their conscience. They want rules-based obedience."
Wall says the breaking point that ultimately led to her leaving the church in 2019 — after three attempts — was when pastors started replacing references to God during worship with Tinsman's name.
Hassan said that's another common warning sign of authoritarian groups.
"The leader says, 'I get direct revelations from God, so I am your conduit to God,' when the typical churches say, 'Jesus is your conduit to God, and not humans.'"
At the 2019 forum in Ohio, Tinsman was asked to explain why a pastor had prayed in the chief apostle's name.
"Please don't pray in my name. There's some times I sleep and I won't be able to answer," he said with a laugh.
"But let me say, to be fair to the question, that there is a basis in which that rumour or that misunderstanding comes from.… We do think that we have to recognize God's earthly representation."
Wall says while her family raised red flags about the church, it wasn't until about a year ago that she started believing that she had been part of a cult.
"My mom would sometimes talk to me about it, and she'd be like, 'You know, we're very sad that you're part of this cult,' or my brother would message me," she said.
"Eventually my mind started wondering, 'Is it true?' But I would always fight against it."