Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Characteristics of Persons Mistreated by Churches

Spiritual abuse results in deep wounds occurring in the lives of people. The hardest struggle of those who have been spiritually abused may be dealing with the realization that they have experienced spiritual molestation. They will feel as if they have been raped, leaving their minds and spirits stripped of self-respect and filled with a sense of distrust in God and organized religion. A Christian who has been an active disciple and church member for decades may struggle with feeling betrayed by the Lord and wanting to not go to a church again. They may wish to distance themselves for a season or for the rest of their lives from Christianity. Other areas in which victims of spiritual abuse struggle are as follows: a distorted image of God, a distorted image of self, a hard time accepting grace, problems with personal boundaries, difficulty with personal responsibility, a lack of living skills, a hard time admitt
ing abuse, a hard time trusting people, or a preoccupation with spiritual performance.

Various authors offer different characteristics of people who have been abused spiritually. In this research, six correlating qualities emerge of people who endure this abuse: a loss of trust, shame and guilt, gripping fear, problems with personal boundaries, distorted images of God, self, and others, and the facing of a break-through barrier.

First, victims of spiritual abuse experience a distorted image of God, the Bible, self, and others. Because of this distortion, spiritual abuse is “ruinous to the overall mental and spiritual health of the victims.” People view God as distant, a tyrant unconcerned by the harm that came into their lives. Spiritual abuse causes people to view God wrongly. Arterburn and Felton explain, When a defective pastor crops up, those who have placed ultimate faith in him or her (rather than in God) come to believe that God is defective. They attribute all the evil of that one individual to all people of faith. While this toxic leap is irrational, it is the reason many people turn away from God. But just because a particular individual lacks pure faith doesn’t mean that the object of faith is impure.

Because the Bible has often been misused to control them, they may have a fear or even abhorrence of continuing to study the Word of God. They view themselves as failures, as unworthy of love and acceptance, and as fools. They view other people with the characteristic lack of trust.

Victims of spiritual abuse experience this loss of trust often characterized by disillusionment. To be disillusioned is to be disenchanted or to lose the illusion one kept. Church members under a toxic leader often have an illusion they cling to that their pastor is a wonderful, godly man. Even when the warning signs of abuse arise, these people keep believing the illusion. When finally faced with the reality that their leader was abusive, they experience a tremendous deflation. Some never come to terms with the truth of the situation. Some spend a lifetime and never recover.

In an abusive system the leader subtly takes the place of God. The perversion of roles in the system creates an unhealthy dependence on the pastor. Because people place so much trust in the abusive pastor, when they finally realize he has manipulated them, an incredible loss of trust occurs. The persons feel extremely violated and used. Johnson and VanVonderen write, “Those who have been spiritually abused will have a hard time trusting a spiritual system again. This is extremely significant, because the essence of living as a Christian is a trust relationship with God, within God’s family.”

Third, victims of spiritual abuse experience guilt and shame. People feel great guilt if they were used as pawns by the abusive pastor. Co-conspirators and enablers who were tools to victimize, scapegoat, and silence outcasts will experience waves of guilt if they ever accept the reality that their leader was toxic. One author shares that one of the results of long-term spiritual abuse is shame. Shame makes one fell worthless, like something is wrong with them. One feels flawed and alienated. Shame is a wound felt on the inside. Shame will cause a person to withdraw from other believers who could help them. Like Adam and Eve’s hiding from God due to the shame of being naked, victims of spiritual abuse feel the need to hide from even healthy churches and spiritual leaders, sometimes even from God, because of the shame they feel. They are often deeply embarrassed that they allowed themselves to be deceived and abused. This pain is “massive and immobilizing.” Sandra Wilson explains the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt says, “I made a mistake.” Shame says, “I am a mistake.”

Fourth, victims of spiritual abuse experience gripping fear. In extreme cases, when the practice of cursing is used by authoritative leaders, victims experience incredible fear related to being cursed by the leadership if they oppose the leadership structure or leave the church. People fear their name being publicly maligned. But they also deal with the dysfunction of removing themselves from the umbrella of the toxic leader; while in the past they trusted and respected his judgments, now they have to teach themselves that his rejection of them does not actually reflect reality. What a difficult transition for many people. Some people will allow themselves to continue to be abused mainly because they cannot break free of the fear of going against that leader.

Fifth, victims of spiritual abuse experience problems with personal boundaries. A boundary is an invisible barrier that tells others where they stop and you start. Spiritual abusers disregard the boundaries of other people and institutions. Given enough time under an abusive pastor, a person will begin thinking that it is wrong to have personal boundaries. They will feel that they are being selfish if they do not let other people take advantage of them. This violation of boundaries could take the form of being expected to share too much personal information about self and others, to give money by coercion or manipulation, to give approval to plans without knowing enough facts, or to blindly and without question support a pastor’s decisions. People who leave a situation of spiritual abuse have to learn again to put up appropriate personal boundaries.

And sixth, victims of spiritual abuse must experience a break-through barrier in order to move forward.
This barrier describes the point when they are confronted with the truth that the system is abusive and they must decide to leave the abusive church. An authoritarian pastor will perpetuate the myth that there is never a legitimate reason to leave that church. Those who do leave do so without his blessing. Mike Fehlauer shares pointedly,

If you find yourself needing to leave an abusive and controlling church, you
need to realize that many times it will bring attacks against your character.
If you discover that you are in an abusive or unhealthy church and must make
the decision to leave, it will be one of the most difficult challenges you will
ever face. How you leave will determine and affect the condition of your heart.

When someone decides that the best decision for their well-being is to leave an abusive church, they must break through the barrier in spite of the risks. They will be attacked. They will be maligned by others in public and in private. They will lose friends. They will lose their church. They will experience a death, leaving one season of life for another. They will experience emotions and hurts similar to that of a divorce. But they must break through the barrier in order to move forward toward healing.

As victims recognize their break-through barrier, they come to the realization that to stay and support the church and pastor means becoming enablers of a toxic system. A pastor can be dysfunctional and an entire system can become dysfunctional. One unfortunate result of abusive leadership is that a church that has basically been healthy in the past, after hiring a pastor with abusive tendencies, will gradually move toward becoming dysfunctional, unhealthy, and a system that enables abuse unless the pastor is dealt with and removed. As the church begins to assist or enable the abusive pastor, victims may realize that their continued presence will actually feed the system, not stop it. 

If the pastor has already positioned certain people to have power, if the church is characterized by a consistent misuse of that power, if there is closed, secretive communication among a few, if truth is regularly distorted, and if a spirit of division and paranoia overcomes the church, then the system, though once healthy, has become abusive. Not only is the pastor abusive, but the church as a system has become abusive. Therefore, not only does the pastor need to change, but the “new” church must change. Even as individuals need to repent, or change, so the church system must go through repentance, or serious changing, if she is to regain health. However, it is highly unlikely that a system that is enabling abuse will quickly recognize and admit their faults and change. 

It will often take much time and much carnage for real repentance of a system to occur – if ever. The victim stuck in this system realizes that for him to continue to support the church in attendance, service, and money is to enable an unhealthy, dysfunctional one. To stay in the church but not support the church financially and with their service is not healthy for anyone. To remain quiet while a pastor and church system manipulate and abuse people is unethical and unhealthy. So, the victim comes to the realization that in most cases he must prepare to leave the abusive church.

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