Saturday, January 21, 2017

Recovery from Spiritual Abuse



God’s people don’t always act like God’s people should.” 

So writes Anne Graham Lotz in her book Wounded by God's People, where she shares her own experiences of mistreatment by churches, pastors, and spiritual leaders.

Years ago my parents and many people we loved went through a deeply painful time in the church they had attended for 25 years. Eventually, they left the church deeply hurt, dismayed, and maligned, later describing the time as the greatest disappointment of their lives. As the church continued to divide and splinter, about 400 other people left. The pastor of the next church where my parents joined told them, I don’t know what happened there, but I know that everyone who comes here from that church is hurting deeply. 

As a new, young pastor right out of seminary, for a couple of years I found myself hesitant at denominational meetings around our state to mention the name of my home church. Time and time again, sitting around tables with other pastors, someone would ask, "So what church did you grow up in?" I would cringe and tell them, and inevitably someone at the table would immediately erupt with, "Have you heard what is going on at that church these days?!" or a similar question. On more than one occasion I heard other pastors use the word "rape" to describe the situation.

Through that experience I witnessed the destructive force of spiritual abuse. I saw how devastating spiritual-pastoral abuse is to a Christian’s psyche, their sense of worth, their relation to the local church, and at times their personal relationship with God. I saw how the kingdom of God can be hindered when God’s people are abused. During that time I came across Ron Enroth’s book Churches that Abuse and was introduced for the first time to the term spiritual abuse or pastoral abuse. I then began reading and researching the subject and making some of my findings available to others whom I knew had experienced similar abuse. Over time I developed a burden to see victims of spiritual abuse helped, healed, and restored. I desire to see those persons who have been abused by the church to not become casualties in the kingdom of God but instead to become resilient, bouncing back closer to the Lord and more fruitful for His kingdom. 

I wrote an almost 300-page doctoral thesis called Moving Forward: The Factors that Make People Resilient to Spiritual Abuse in Southern Baptist Churches. Please pardon the fancy, academic title! And the study was in no way a slam against Southern Baptists nor pastors. I belong to that denomination, have been an SB pastor, and interviewed people who had been in SB churches. The following are some excerpts from that study . . .


Amazing and Punitive

People take routes in the name of leadership that are sometimes shocking and breathtaking . . .

Like the pastor who wanted his church to relocate. They disagreed, so he paid his son to burn down the building!

Or the realtor who voiced opposition in a business meeting to the pastor's grandiose dream of relocating the church to a price of more than $10 million. Shortly thereafter, the man was called into the pastor's office and told he was not qualified to teach Sunday School anymore (after teaching for about 20 years in the same church) because he had been divorced decades earlier.

The pastor who had people write down the names of people who disagreed in business meetings with his ideas.

The senior pastor who taught his people that their job was to submit to him and obey him - even if he was wrong!

Or the denominational worker who came in to handle a church conflict between a staff and the senior pastor, and he and insisted that the women who worked in the church office were not allowed to discuss with their husbands what went on in the church office!! (That is a huge red flag, and it reeks of manipulation. The Bible says that a husband and wife are one flesh.)


In my own experience years ago, an old evangelist from my home church came to visit me one day to rebuke me for my and my parents not being in favor of the senior pastor and his leadership. He went on and on about how wrong my mother in particular was for not backing him. Before he left he told me, "I am praying that God will remove some of these people from our church - and by death is necessary!"

Those are just a few of the many, many nauseating situations I have heard of, experienced, or read about.

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

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).

Another scriptural citation often used is telling people to not touch God’s anointed. Many times, practically, this is used to protect the abusive leader from accountability. This is a misuse of Scripture. The New Testament teaches that every Christian has an anointing available to them, as opposed to the Old Testament, when an anointing was reserved for select leaders over the people.

Don't be deceived or manipulated to follow or protect a leader displaying punitive behavior in the name of "not touching God's anointed."


Roles in a Toxic System

What are the different roles in an abusive church or system? Arterburn and Felton explain the five types of people in a toxic-faith system: the religious persecutor, the religious co-conspirator, the religious enabler, the victim, and the outcast. The persecutor, usually the pastor in an abusive church, feels an excessive need to be in control. Self-centered, narcissistic, and compulsive, he creates an environment aimed at protecting his self-interests, distancing himself from true accountability and intimacy, and lacking genuine integrity.

The co-conspirators, driven as well by the need to conquer, are the most dangerous followers whose goal is to make the persecutor look good. They are the caretakers of the entire system, staying close to the persecutor; their role is to protect the leader’s image. This person or persons will be the heavy, or sometimes colloquially called “the hammer,” in carrying out the desires of the persecutor; often it is the co-conspirator who organizes the other followers for polarization, mobilization, and labeling. Because of his proximity to the persecutor, he often gains the trust of other followers. Wayne Oates calls the co-conspirators the “palace guard.” According to Oates, in “order to stay in power and on top, they [the persecutors] surround themselves with a palace guard that protects them from and informs them about those whom they distrust.”[1]

The enablers, unlike the co-conspirators, are driven to survive, not conquer. Instead of rocking the boat, they give blind adherence to the system and its leaders. It is almost impossible for these people, usually good people, to embrace the notion that the establishment could be wrong. The enablers carry out the dirty work of the persecutor and co-conspirator, have the primary goal of maintaining peace and the status quo, and turn a deaf ear to criticism of the system. Much like enablers in the dysfunctional family system of an alcoholic, they overlook the wrongs done and support the leadership, unable to bring themselves to leave or dismantle the system in order to do what is right.


The fourth role in an abusive system is that of the victim. These people are compliant, blindly supporting the leadership and never rocking the boat. They may go to great personal sacrifice in order to support the pastor and church. Because of a deep need to be valuable to and a part of the system, they will easily play into the hands of the persecutors and co-conspirators, who manipulate and exploit them. The persecutors and co-conspirators will use manipulation and threats to silence the victims and keep their victimization a secret if necessary. If the victims ever discover the system is abusive, they feel a great sense of betrayal and disillusionment.


Many of the people in these systems are victims. They are good people. They love the Lord, their pastor, and their church. They want to do right. So if you find yourself in such a situation, try to remember that many people are good folks just caught up in something bigger than them, not as good as them, and often that is using them.


The Bible reserves some of its sharpest, most stinging criticism for religious leaders who misuse and mistreat others (Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 23, for example). If the prophets, John the Baptizer, or Jesus showed up today and rebuked a spiritual abuser, that pastor or spiritual leader would likely quickly have people telling the prophets how ungodly they were in their remarks, rallying his inner circle to protect him from further attacks, and reminding the people to “not touch God’s anointed” (book after book on spiritual abuse say that line is used repeatedly in abusive situations to “protect” the abusive leader).  

When people begin standing up and speaking truth, acting as a prophet in the system -  going against the system and unmasking the abusive tendencies, those people tend to be labeled, discredited, and scapegoated. John the Baptizer told the Pharisees to “repent” and likened them to a brood of vipers and called out the sins he saw -   and he got his head cut off. It tends to not go well in those situations. Most of the prophets and Jesus received similar reactions. They became the outcasts.

The final role in the abusive church is that of the outcast, who refuses to play the dysfunctional games, becoming one of the lone voices crying out for change – change that “will not come as long as the persecutor dictates power, the co-conspirators manipulate the system, the enablers allow it to continue, and the victims fall in line with blind faith. When outcasts surface, they are identified as troublemakers and pushed out of the system as soon as possible.”[2] The outcasts are unimpressed by position or title; they see through the delusion and are willing to suffer great personal loss in order to make a stand and leave the system. Unfortunately, these outcasts will be discredited by the leadership immediately through the process called labeling. [3] Even if they are long-time supporters of the church, the leadership will be glad to see them leave.


Misuse of power

A dysfunctional system is one that does not function the way it was intended. God intends the church to function as a place characterized by order, health, and edification. Leaders receive entrusted authority to guide people in God’s will and to benefit followers. When that power is consistently misused, abuse occurs. Bloomer writes, “Spiritual abuse, much like sexual abuse, is the perversion of something beautiful; this altering disrupts God’s designed order in the life of a person, family, church, or other system.” The misuse of power includes several qualities: authoritarian, punitive, demanding, closed communication, and no accountability.

Abusive churches have authoritarian leadership that expects unquestioned obedience to her pastors or other structural leaders. Arterburn and Felton say that the first rule of a toxic-faith system is that the leader must be in control at all times. This attempt at controlling the church fosters “an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and interpersonally, by focusing on themes of submission, loyalty, and obedience to those in authority.”

Some authoritarian pastors may have been misled by a historical mentor. Watchman Nee, noted Chinese pastor and author, wrote a book entitled Spiritual Authority. Nee argued that God delegates his authority to human leaders who represent God to their followers. The response of the people should be unquestioned obedience; authority replaces reason, right, and wrong. Even if the authority is wrong, Nee argues, one should obey them unto the Lord. Though Nee provided many helpful resources to the Body of Christ, this one teaching has probably added to much confusion and misuse among spiritual leaders. Both Henry Blackaby and Ken Blue challenge Nee’s teaching. His error may have added to the tendencies and structures of some abusive leaders and structures.

Blackaby writes, “It is easy to see how dictatorial leaders could abuse this teaching in order to justify their tyrannical leadership style. Cult groups demand absolute obedience to their leaders. They denounce independent thought by their followers. Nothing could be more unbiblical! . . . God does appoint leaders into secular as well as religious leadership positions. . . . Nevertheless, while God may choose to work through leaders to accomplish his purposes, obeying a leader is not necessarily equal to obeying God. God will tolerate no substitutes for a personal relationship with Him. He exercises his lordship directly over his followers. People who obey leaders as though they were responding to God are in danger of committing idolatry. ” Henry Blackaby and Richard Blackaby, Spiritual Leadership: Moving People on to God’s Agenda (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2001), 90-91.




The Emperor's New Clothes

As the story, The Emperor’s New Clothes, portrays, in this type of system people rally around a leader, sometime even ignoring blatant, naked reality, because they have been trained to submit to the leader and not question him. If the sky is blue, but the narcissistic leader convinces people it is purple, they will circle the wagons and think how awful it is that those other people who said the sky was blue left their group, and the leader will organize a system to protect himself from people who say the sky is blue.

Used by permission from Pixabay

Most likely, the leader will not deal directly with people that disagree with him or her. They will, instead, get people around them to confront, warn, rebuke, or punish others.

In one church, a senior adult couple, long-time members, disagreed with the way the pastor was leading the church. She was the church librarian and had devoted many hours to serving her church in that venue. One day, they received a call from the pastor’s right-hand man that the church would be closing the library and turning it into bathrooms and that her service was no longer needed. This greatly upset her, and in a few days her husband went to the church office and requested to see the pastor for a few minutes. He was told the pastor was not available. He responded that he was retired, had nothing to do, and could wait all day until the pastor had about ten minutes. He sat down, and shortly thereafter, the right-hand man informed him that if he stayed, they would call the police and have him arrested. 

This type of bullying becomes quite common in these type of scenarios. People continue to protect “God’s anointed” as he or she systematically punishes and attempts to silence dissenters.


Ken Boa writes how God’s people got into trouble in the Old Testament when they “trusted in human power and ingenuity rather than relying on the One who had gotten them this far in the first place. They found out the hard way what happens when you trust a person to accomplish what only God can do.”


Healing  Spiritual Abuse

have given away Ken Blue's book Healing from Spiritual Abuse probably several dozen times. Years ago, I gave a copy to a lady who had just left our home church. She emailed me in a few days and told me that she had ordered ten more and given them all out!

Blue's book is very practical. One person told me as they read the book it was like reading a play-by-play account of what happened in their church. 

Blue shares helpful insights, such as the "no-talk rule" that often occurs in an oppressive religious situation . . .

"One of the most troubling abusive traits in the dysfunctional church or denominational family is the unwritten 'no talk' rule. This rule implies that certain problems in the group must not be exposed because then the group might look bad and things would have to change.

Allowing such deception and suppression to exist within a fellowship not only fosters numerous abuses but is a flat denial of the meaning of Christian fellowship. If there are certain issues – such as leadership, decision-making, or how money is spent – which you cannot discuss with members of your church, you do not participate in Christian fellowship with them."

Another abusive result of the “don’t talk” rule is that when people from inside the group finally break the silence and begin to talk about the group’s problems, they are persecuted. They are told that everything was just fine until they started causing trouble. (Incestuous families react in the same way toward the first daughter to blow the whistle on her father and her family.)

If the whistle-blowers reveal the group’s problems to the outside world, the group will mobilize to discredit them. Often the troublemaker’s mental and emotional state is brought into question. Almost never are the actual issues raised every admitted, let alone dealt with. The real problems are not acknowledged; instead, the whistle-blowers themselves become the problem. Thus honest examination is averted and denial maintained.



Hope in Jesus

I never saw my own parents so devastated and defeated as I did then by the way a few people treated them during that time many years ago. My mother told their next pastor that if her father and sons weren’t pastors, she would have never gone to church again. One woman I interviewed told me me at the time that leaving her church was more difficult emotionally than going through her divorce.  I’m so thankful those days are over and that so many of the people who were treated maliciously did for the most part move forward positively. And that the church itself eventually regrouped and moved forward positively to better days.

People abused by churches can easily wallow in bitterness, shame, or dysfunction. Some can even lose their faith. 

How important it is to slowly move forward. Some of the resources highlighted in this article can be a great help if you or someone you love is going through such a situation. If you want to start with just one resource, I recommend Ken Blue's Healing Spiritual Abuse.

I’m thankful that our hope is not in a church, structure, or person(s), but our hope is in Jesus! There is help and healing in Him!!




For additional help about spiritual abuse, check out the following resources:

Arterburn, Stephen, and Jack Felton.  Faith that Hurts, Faith that Heals.  Nashville, Tenn.: Oliver-Nelson, 1992.

________.  Toxic Faith: Experiencing Healing from Painful Spiritual Abuse.  Colorado Springs: Shaw, 1991.

Bloomer, George.  Authority Abusers: Breaking Free from Spiritual Abuse.  USA: Whitaker House, 1995.

Blue, Ken.  Healing Spiritual Abuse: How to Break Free from Bad Church Experiences.  Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1993.

Burchett, Dave.  When Bad Christians Happen to Good People.  Colorado Springs, Colo.: Waterbrook, 2002.

Chrnalogar, Mary Alice.  Twisted Scriptures: Breaking Free from Churches that Abuse.  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1997.

Dupont, Marc.  Toxic Churches: Restoration from Spiritual Abuse.  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Chosen Books, 1997.

Anne Graham Lotz. Wounded by God's People.

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