Apologists already making excuses in the Word of Life beating-death case

Word of lifeIt’s painful enough to learn that at least eight members of the Word of Life Christian Church in New Hartford, New York, allegedly took part in beating to death 19-year-old Lucas Leonard and left his younger brother, 17-year-old Christopher, in critical condition. Two of the alleged perpetrators were the victims’ parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard.

But it’s also highly upsetting to hear members of the public so quickly defend those accused of such an egregious crime.

Last Sunday night, after church services concluded, a group of members sat Lucas and Christopher down for a “counseling session,” according to police. Later, it came out that a “sin” Lucas had to be forgiven for was stating that he had wanted to leave this tight-knit, secretive group. According to witnesses, group members took turns holding the boys down and beating them, a torture session that lasted for 12 hours. The boys suffered injuries all over their bodies, including their genitals. When Lucas stopped breathing, the group drove him to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. He had been so severely injured that staff there thought he had been shot. Two of the alleged perpetrators, the boys’ parents, have been charged with manslaughter. Four other members of the church have been charged with assault.

And yet, despite the horrifying news of what took place inside the Word of Life, despite the fact that two of the alleged perpetrators are the parents of the victims, onlookers can’t bring themselves to criticize them. “I think they’re good people that made a bad decision,” said a woman who used to work at a church next door.


Lucas Leonard

A woman who attended a Word of Life church service described it as “very family oriented.” While she was stunned by news of the beatings, she also implied that the boys somehow deserved the torture session. “There had to be a really good reason,” she said, “for something like that to happen.”

It’s obvious that when it comes to crimes that involve religious people, many Americans simply can’t bring themselves to condemn them. In a CNN news report (no longer viewable), the anchor kept referring to the Word of Life as a “so-called church,” indicating that it didn’t fit with her idea of what a church actually is. Apparently, she couldn’t imagine that anything violent or ugly could be tied to a place of worship.

One can only wonder how people would react had the same crimes occurred in a home, a store, or a secular school. Would people be so willing to defend those accused? If the crimes were committed elsewhere, would a commentator feel obliged to call it a “so-called pet store” or a “so-called home”?


Christopher Leonard

I seriously doubt that would be the case. Instead, I believe people would be rightly calling for those responsible to be punished to the full extent of the law and wouldn’t give a fig about their worldview.

The meaning of church or Christian are highly subjective. Deborah Leonard’s attorney said Word of life was much like any other church, holding regular services and Bible study and providing food to the needy. An ex-member denied reports the church is a cult. “I realize this situation makes it look like this,” she said, “but if you listen to the teachings, they are accurate to the Bible.”

Those who have read my book Breaking Their Will know that religion has both a nurturing and a damaging side. The nonprofit organization the Child-Friendly Faith Project seeks to work with faith communities so that they can feel assured their teachings are beneficial to children and not harmful. This kind of work can’t be done unless people acknowledge that religious worship sometimes can go seriously, even fatally, wrong.

Let’s not allow naive perceptions about religious belief and doctrines to cloud our judgement of individuals who are both religious and monstrous.



  1. Trond A. Harman says:

    This is egregious! What a terrible outrage and tragedy in the name of religion. I see no way that this group is not a cult. What other churches do this? What sin could have been so bad that this was what needed to be done? And I wonder if the adults inflicting the punishment are free of sin? If so, let me congratulate them on being the only other people who are perfect outside of Jesus! This is not religion least of all Christianity. I am sick and tired of seeing things like this done in the name of religion!

  2. A.R. McFarlane says:

    When Obedience is a virtue, disobedience is a sin and grounds for punishment. Why apologies for punishing sin and disobedience? Thus saith the Lord.

    • A.R. McFarlane, your comment is only valid in an obsolete law-oriented system which has been surpassed, confounded and left in the dust by a new Way built upon servant leadership, nurturing love and unconditional acceptance of others we are responsible to care for or train into a thriving life. Many of us who have been rescued from a legalist, abuse of power, and punishment paradigm of social relationships have found that healthy and fruit-bearing behavior only thrives in young and adult humans when the threat and fear of punishment is removed from the equation. This is the amazing mystery that seems foolish to law and order folks, but it is the foolishness of this good news that is a new wisdom for us to grasp. When we live as a model of kindness, respect, and intentional self-regulation of action and emotion, this is waht effectively in the long term leads others to breathe more calmly in their daily life and begin to turn from immature or self-destructive behavior.

    • Trish Taylor says:

      Vengeance is God’s not ours.

      Besides, the young man didn’t leave….he just said he wanted to leave. Is expressing your feelings really a sin punishable by death?

      There is no way you will ever convince me that the people who did this were following Christ’s example.

    • No one at that church has apologized for their actions as far as I know. The article’s title refers to the practice of another person trying to excuse (generally really vile) actions or choices.

      Also, brutal beatings and death are not “punishment” — the correct term for those two is “assault” and “murder”.

      I suspect you’re trying to be satirical but you mostly seem kind of snide.

    • Having been born and raised in a fundamentalist, legalistic, Pentecostal-style cult that promotes corporal punishment, I have sympathy for both where this group came from and where it ended up. The question, “When Obedience is a virtue, disobedience is a sin and grounds for punishment” comes from a very similar doctrinal stance of the “Message” cult following of William Branham, who also loosely used the phrase “Thus saith the Lord” almost 1700 times on recorded sermon. But my sympathy is for the people who mistakenly chose a pathway that led to death, not for the belief system that caused the death.

      Answering A.R. McFarlane from a Scriptural standpoint, there is virtue in obedience according to the Christian Bible, however that obedience is not to a group of people, a church, denomination of faith, or cult of separatists. That obedience is to be directed towards God through belief in the Gospel. And the Gospel sums up this obedience in two fundamental rules to Christianity, rules that Christ states to have been the basis for the Law (books containing the Mosaic Law), and the Prophets (the Old Testament books of prophecy).

      Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
      On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
      – Matthew 22

      What we see with this example of the “Word of Life Christian Church” is an example of breaking both of these rules. One cannot slay his brother if his love is towards God instead of his cult group, nor can he love the slain as himself if he is involved in killing him.

      This tragedy is horrific evil, and to support it with any type of response is a threat to Christianity itself.

    • Canth Decided says:

      ‘Why apologies (sic) for punishing sin and disobedience?”

      How about… ‘Thou shalt not kill’

      I’d say ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’… but that, like many parts of the bible, is a forgery.

      None the less, it’s still a good saying.

      Or how about this:

      1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.
      2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
      3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
      4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
      5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
      — Matthew 7:1-5

      Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things. Romans 2:1

      But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Romans 14:10

      But then again, the book you’re quote, A.R. McFarlane, is so rife with contradictions that you can make the damned thing say anything you want it to…I’m sure that’s useful when you want to murder somebody.

      Handy, that.

  3. Kim Shinabery says:

    How is wanting to leave an abusive cult a sin? One need not obey those who call for abuse and destruction of the spirit.

  4. John Wilwerding says:

    Violence coming from religious authorities is often whitewashed as something good, as in punishment. Until religious leaders understand where violence is accepted in their own theologies people will be harmed. How can anyone person have and exercise their own “free” will within a religion if not given the freedom at all times to question and decide to accept or reject it? Crimes of punishment are a severe problem in most religions, because they are not recognized for the damaging violence that they are, all in the name of supporting a divine being. Judgment of human behavior and the consequences of it that are violent as instructed by the spiritual supreme being need to remain in the divine afterworld, not in human life on earth.

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