Distortion of Truth
Not only do abusive churches experience a misuse of power, but they are usually marked by a distortion of truth. The first and most important distortion of truth that occurs is providing the church with a faulty view of God. The view of a pastor is distorted in an abusive church. Instead of being able to trust pastoral leaders for guidance, healing, and nurture, toxic leaders manipulate, deceive, control, and dominate. Victims of spiritual abuse also receive a distorted image of the church. Arterburn and Felton describe one rule of a toxic-faith system as having at all costs to keep up the image of the organization – even if you have to sacrifice the truth. The church’s flaws “must be covered at all costs. . . . If a financial crisis arises, the co-conspirators must work closely and quickly to figure out a way to communicate the problem without destroying the image of the organization or leader. Deception and lies may be the only way to uphold the image.” Image is equal to success. And success is more important than truth and integrity. The abusive church lives in a world of denial.
The closed communication inherent in the system breeds deception and gossip. Often authoritarian church leaders will deceive followers by withholding information and misinforming followers. This could consist of reporting wrong facts about money or attendance, harsh treatment of persons who questioned leaders, and the perpetuation of various lies about members. The abusive pastor can amazingly control a flow of gossip aimed at punishing certain members: “they can keep people confused or intimidated and thus under control.”
Dupont describes the results of his being abused by a church: “Trauma, fear, and isolation replaced trust, respect, and relationships. The trauma I have experienced due to the abuse of spiritual power and control have been catastrophic. The pain and shame I have suffered has been massive and immobilizing, the losses almost unbearable. It has taken over five years to diagnose and label what happened to me emotionally, physically and spiritually. I watched my life and the lives of many other good Christian people fall apart and break into a million pieces. We are still trying today to understand and pick up the pieces” (33-34).
Another distortion of truth in an abusive system includes a persistent call to unity. However, the unity called for is not balanced. Imbalances come from overemphasizing one truth. An unhealthy call to unity calls people to never disagree with the leaders. Followers are expected to always agree, almost always vote affirmatively, always give unquestioned obedience. Chrnalogar writes that unity in a toxic system is a powerfully exploited concept. The misuse is subtle but powerful. Most abusive leaders use the word unity incorrectly; what they actually want is unanimity. Blue explains,
Christian authoritarianism confuses spiritual unity with unanimity. Unity
is achieved as free people freely submit to one another. How it happens is
a mystery; the process is often very messy and requires mutual risk-taking.
Unanimity or uniformity, on the other hand, can be achieved with
autocratic controls. It can be prescribed, measured and monitored. It
is essentially external, whereas true unity is first internal. Uniformity
looks for correct behavior, whereas unity wants a right spirit. Unanimity
demands that we all experience God in the same ways and express that
experience with the same vocabulary. Unity delights in differences.
Spiritual abusers are able to impose unanimity and uniformity because of the
authoritarian hierarchies they construct.
A call to unity can actually be an attempt to cover-up any critical examination of the pastor, the inner circle of supporters, or of existing ministries and the use of resources. Followers are expected to in no way question or oppose their leadership. Obedience and submission to the pastor may become key ideas. Any criticism of the pastor is considered an attack and a threat.
Arterburn and Felton write, “Often a strong leader mistakes a position of leadership for a position free from accountability. The leader will set up a toxic-faith system that allows for free rein and no accountability. There may be a board of directors, elders, or deacons, but when the authoritarian ruler picks them, he or she picks people who are easily manipulated and easily fooled. What appears to be a board of accountability is in fact a rubber-stamp group that merely gives credibility to the leader’s moves. These board members become the co-conspirators of the persecutor and permit the toxic leader to persecute without interruption. Then when a practice is called into questions, such as an extremely high salary, the persecuting dictator justifies it by saying the board made the decision or approved it. The illusion of accountability becomes more dangerous than those organizations that blatantly disregard accountability,” 141-142.
In many abusive churches the leadership emphasizes Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority,” in a way implying absolute obedience, or obedience unless asked to specifically violate a clear biblical teaching. Mary Alice Chrnalogar points out the error in this approach. First, the Greek word translated obey, peithomai, refers to voluntary trust in response to proven character and the power of persuasion, not absolute obedience. The Bible uses another Greek word, peitharcheo to refer to implicit obedience (Acts 5:29). Second, the word translated “submit” means to yield or get out of the way rather than following an order. It implies not hindering the leader’s work. Third, the word authority, though inserted in the New International Version and the J. B. Phillips, is not found in the Greek text. So, the verse means to listen to your leaders , and if they win you over by persuasion, yield to their advice. Mary Alice Chrnalogar, Twisted Scriptures: Breaking Free from Churches that Abuse (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 43-44, 90-91.