by Ben Williamson
Benjamin Williamson is Associate Professor of Theology at Ohio Christian University in Circleville, OH. Additionally, he serves as executive pastor at Riversong Church in Springfield, OH, and planted a church outside of Indianapolis early in his career. He has degrees from Asbury University (BS, Secondary Education), Wesley Biblical Seminary (M.Div.), and the University of Dayton (Ph.D. theology). He is currently working on a book for Fortress Press based upon his doctoral dissertation, out of which comes much of the material in this post.
In a 2022 article published by The Daily Beast, Emily Shugerman interviewed 25 former members of the Columbus, OH megachurch about alleged excessive use of controlling authority into the lives of its members. Sadly, this is not a new accusation to be leveled at this church. It has been publicly accused of cult-like behavior since a few years after its founding in the early 1980s.
“Dwell” (formerly Xenos Christian Fellowship) has been wildly successful since establishing itself as Xenos Christian Fellowship in 1980 and currently boasts a membership of 5000. Its origins coincide with the rise of what has become known as the Jesus People Movement (JPM). They began as a group of students who published an underground paper and rented a house near Ohio State University in 1969.
The JPM was the result of a brief confluence between the sixties counterculture and conservative evangelicalism. (Note: I use “conservative evangelicalism,” “mainstream evangelicalism,” “fundamentalism,” and “neo-evangelicalism” interchangeably, as in my estimation they are all fruit from the same tree.) It began sometime around 1967 and reached its peak from 1971 to 1972 before merging with mainstream conservative evangelicalism in the late middle and later seventies as hippiedom faded into the past. To be sure, one can see the marks of the JPM in current evangelical Protestant churches through rock-inspired worship choruses and a casual atmosphere both in dress and general informality.
However, the sixties counterculture’s emphasis on inner enlightenment was diminished within the JPM as it was absorbed into mainstream evangelicalism. The emphasis on a personal encounter with the Divine remained because that was always an element of conservative evangelicalism. While this attracted countercultural youths, the JPM was largely swept up in the rise of the Religious Right that grew into power in the late seventies.
The truth is that Dwell/Xenos was never as countercultural as it would like to claim. The founders, brothers Dennis and Bruce McCallum and Gary DeLashmutt, were highly influenced by the former’s mother Martha (who had strong ties to mainstream evangelicalism, and was a member of the John Birch Society), and by castoffs from the evangelical organization, Campus Crusade for Christ.
In fact, Dwell/Xenos is a cautionary example of what can happen within mainstream evangelicalism. As I see it, here are three assumptions common to conservative evangelicalism, and how they relate to what happened at Dwell/Xenos.
First, conservative evangelicalism takes for granted its ability to interpret and apply the Bible, considered absolute in its authority, to the lives of its members in a manner that is also absolute in authority. This confers a high degree of power to the pastor and/or small group leader. In the case of Xenos/Dwell, the church consists of a large and varying number of small groups. Small group leaders, trained by the church, lead these groups. These leaders naturally hold a high degree of authority in their interpretation of the Bible, a dynamic that is amplified by the age of the congregants (median age = 25).
Kathleen Boone’s book, The Bible Tells Them So, suggests that there exists within fundamentalism an invisible authority that operates under the guise of a proper, approved interpretation. Such interpretation has the effect of finalizing the text and denies the interpretive authority of the community. The interpreters themselves impose their authority on their hearers “by effacing the distinction between text and interpretation, an effacement especially apparent in literalistic reading when it is claimed that the interpreter does nothing more than expound the ‘plain sense’ of the text.”
Jim Smith, a psychology professor at Ohio Christian University, recalled visiting one of these early Bible studies as a student in 1970. They were packed into the living room of the Fish House and listened as Gary DeLashmutt shared a teaching from the Bible. There was some conversation invited, but the teaching was “more didactic.” Smith kept in touch with the church over the years and described their style of teaching as a “hardcore cognitive process. They teach what the Word says, and if [you don’t] match up, you’re the problem. They don’t want to hear anything you have to say. Also, if it’s emotional, they don’t want anything to do with it. It’s like if it’s emotional, it’s evil or something.”
Second, conservative evangelicals, particularly those in non-denominational churches, tend to assume that the Bible provides a blueprint for church polity that is absolute. As they formulate their church authority structure, they believe that they are doing so in a way that restores the model found in the first-century Church. Dennis McCallum and Gary DeLashmutt made ecclesiology the subject of their master’s theses at the J.C. Light and Powerhouse Seminary in Los Angeles, CA. This was a seminary run by former Campus Crusade leaders, and thus was a product of evangelical assumptions. The product of this specific assumption results in a structure of church government that is perceived to be absolute, deriving its authority from the Bible itself.
Third, there is a belief in the necessity of every Christian to have a personal encounter with the Divine. The individual Christian can receive a personal message from the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures. They can also receive personal direction through prayer. Finally, conversion happens through a “personal encounter with Jesus Christ.”
This third assumption of conservative evangelicalism could protect members of such churches from potential authoritarian overreach in the first two assumptions. Xenos/Dwell is an example of what can happen when the individual’s ability to hear God for themselves is marginalized. For example, important personal decisions such as where to send one’s children to college have been subject to vetting by the leadership of the church. In my dissertation, I referenced an article from 2001 co-written by Dennis McCallum argued,
“Since God has sovereignly placed these students in Xenos, shouldn’t the burden of proof be on why should go away to school? If someone had a perfectly good job and decided they would leave their church and established relationships to move. To another city to take a slightly better job, wouldn’t we critique that decision? Why wouldn’t the same critique apply if we’re talking about colleges?”
This said, in their book, Spiritual Relationships that Last: What the Bible Says About Dating and Marriage, DeLashmutt and Dennis McCallum affirm the sovereignty of the individual Christian to hear God in the process of making important life decisions such as deciding when and whom to marry. More than this, they speak out against churches who “have tried to minimize the significance of the individual decision making by dominating every area of their members’ lives,” and they mention that these churches use terminology such as “shepherding” to dominate the lives of their members.
However, and as I establish in my dissertation, this is likely a reference to former evangelical mentors with whom they had a subsequent falling out. Put another way, DeLashmutt and the McCallums recognize the issue as a problem in other evangelical churches, but cannot or will not see it in their own church.
Dwell’s model, built upon a network of smaller cell groups that meet in homes, provides community and the possibility for deep friendships. It fends off isolation. This is also true of their Dwell-sponsored student housing. No one at Dwell must face isolation . . . unless, and this is significant, they disobey the leadership.
If one reads Shugerman’s article in its proper context, and listens to the stories of these former members with the proper gravity, one realizes that these are often impressionable young adults in their mid-twenties. They are taught the three assumptions of evangelicalism, with an emphasis on the first two. They receive love and community from Dwell and their small groups. But in story after story, they also talk about being isolated from friends and family. And once isolated, the church gains a very powerful and authoritative presence in their lives. Leaving Dwell means loss of the identity and community one has earned through great personal sacrifice.
Post-Covid evangelicalism has begun to promote the viability of house church models reminiscent of Dwell/Xenos. Evangelical leader and former megachurch pastor Francis Chan is a significant proponent. Chan’s “We Are Church” movement is committed to the evangelical approach to the Bible with an acknowledgment that individual members can and should hear God for themselves. However, their statement that “The body of believers is supposed to be closer to us than our own families (Matthew 12:46-50, Luke 14:26)” carries the potential of a future authoritarian and isolating tendency. (And notice that they reinforce their assertion with the Bible).
Dwell’s story is important for evangelicals to consider in such a historical moment. As a person who affirms the inerrancy of the Bible and the possibility of a personal encounter with the Divine, I think it’s crucial to recognize that the assumptions undergirding evangelicalism have the potential to be interpreted in ways that allow for a destructive authoritarianism.