Phil Aguilar, the Harley-riding, leather-jacketed, pony-tailed pastor of Orange County’s unconventional but wildly successful Set Free Fellowship, is “just like Jesus on this earth,” enthuses Trinity Broadcasting Network televangelist Jan Crouch.
That opinion, however, is far from unanimous, even among the California church leaders who have known Aguilar for years. In a recently compiled 318-page report, several of the 43-year-old pastor’s ex-supporters and associates charge that Aguilar employs peer pressure, intimidation, and Scripture twisting to ensure obedience from his flock; breaks apart families, separating those who are loyal from anyone who dares to ask questions; and enriches himself at the expense of his followers.
Aguilar’s critics concede that Set Free, where ushers dress like Hell’s Angels and hymns have been supplanted by “Christian rap,” is succeeding where lots of churches are failing or not even trying: presenting the gospel to society’s outcasts. But Ronald Enroth, an evangelical cult watcher and professor of sociology at Westmont College, says that far from being rehabilitated, the people who move into Set Free’s two-dozen group homes or retreats in California, Texas, and Illinois become virtual slave laborers.
In the 318-page report, Aguilar’s critics describe Set Free as a near-dictator-ship. Aguilar’s homes, according to the report, are ruled by “overseers” who tell followers when to eat, what to believe, what to do, and when to do it.
While strict rules are common in programs set up for recovering substance abusers, many of the people in Aguilar’s homes are neither addicts nor ex-convicts, but ordinary Christians attracted to Set Free by the unusual services or Aguilar’s charisma.
Aguilar told CHRISTIANITY ...1
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