Secrets From Their Past
Disturbing claims about the church the stars of HGTV’S Fixer Upper credit with guiding their lives
It’s hard not to love them. In the past three years, fans have fallen hard for lovable goofball Chip Gaines and his down-to-earth wife, Joanna, as they renovate homes for families on their hit HGTV series, Fixer Upper. “We’re just being ourselves,” says Chip, who admits he’s surprised by the show’s success — and that avid viewers have recognized the couple’s devotion to their faith. “We [aren’t] being evangelical or sharing the gospel by any stretch of the imagination, but they still [feel it].”
But fans may be surprised to learn that where they choose to practice their faith has a controversial past. Chip, 41, and Joanna, 38, are active members of the Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas, and In Touch has learned that the house of worship, which Chip has said is a “mandatory” part of his life, has been the target of claims by former members who allege psychological abuse, intolerance for mental health problems and practices that include exorcisms. Lynda Gruen, a former member of Antioch, tells In Touch she believes viewers would be troubled to learn the realities of the church, calling some of its behavior “frightening.” “The church holds very strong beliefs,” adds Keith Reich, another former member who went to Baylor University with Joanna in the late 1990s and also led a worship group she was in. “I can see why people say it’s like a cult — it meets some of the criteria.”
Some past members say the church attracted them with messages of love and compassion, then revealed a different side. Becky Oberg claims she was kicked out of the church in the late ’90s after she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. “They thought I was possessed by a demon,” says Becky, adding that church lead- ers told her it was her fault and tried to treat her with an exorcism. “They pinned me to my floor and yelled for Satan to leave. They want you to confess your sin and be healed or cast out the demons.” Becky says her private struggles were broadcast to the entire church and that some people were even encouraged to go off their medications and meet with unqualified church counselors. But Antioch’s founder, Jimmy Seibert, tells In Touch that’s not the case at all. “We help people with prayer and healing and the recovery process and we send them to medical professionals as needed,” he insists. “It’s a prayer and truth journey. We don’t use the term ‘exorcism’; we would say, ‘Hey, we want to pray with you and identify truth and lies,’ and when you need professional help we guide you in that way. We do recognize demonic oppression. It happens to people who have been through a tough time and have not submitted their lives to God, and darkness has a place in their lives.”
One former member felt that being called “demonically oppressed” was abusive. Prior to Lynda’s exit in 2005, she was placed in one of the church’s smaller “Lifegroups,” where she claims she was psychologically abused by a group leader for months. “I was told I wasn’t good enough and demonically oppressed,” she claims, adding that the abuse was so severe, she required hospitalization. “The leaders were so controlling and would abuse their authority. It was an unhealthy dynamic.”
Chip and Joanna defend their church. “As we know, any thriving organization will always have its critics,” Joanna — who along with her husband is raising kids Drake, 11, Ella, 9, Duke, 8, and Emmie, 6 — argued while praising Antioch for “outreaches that help the needy, addicted and hurting” in a 2012 issue of Wacoan magazine. “I am privileged to call it my church home.” ◼
BELIEF SYSTEM “Without my faith, I’m not the best version of myself,” says Chip (with Joanna).