Years ago my parents went through a deeply painful time in the church they had attended for 25 years. Eventually, they left the church deeply hurt, dismayed, and betrayed, 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.
Through that experience I witnessed the destructive force of spiritual abuse. I saw how devastating 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.
Two years ago I completed my doctoral thesis via Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. The thesis is entitled Moving Forward: A Descriptive Study of the Factors that Make People Resilient from Spiritual Abuse in Southern Baptist Churches. People who have endured spiritual abuse, also called pastoral abuse, are wounded in ways that can have devastating results in their lives. Some victims of spiritual abuse move away from the Lord and the church; other persons, however, become resilient. My thesis project studies the factors involved in the healing process.
The next couple of months I will be posting some of my findings from this subject.
Though different authors from distinct backgrounds, faith-groups, and experiences provide varying lists, several similar themes emerge through the spiritual abuse literature. Spiritually abusive churches display these three symptoms: a misuse of power, a distortion of truth, divisiveness characterized by paranoia, and a habit of attacking dissenters.
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 leadership and structure of an abusive church is punitive in nature. Countless Christians experience tremendous hurt in the midst of a toxic church environment. Book after book on the subject of spiritual abuse emphasizes this horrific fact. The primary reason for the field of study is to help people avoid being hurt in the future and to assist those who have been hurt in the past. The betrayal that occurs in spiritual abuse can be “ruinous to the overall mental and spiritual health of victims.” Authoritarian churches often impose discipline to members who do not practice unquestioned submission. Biblical church discipline is always redemptive in nature. Though sin has to be addressed and exposed, the goal is always restoration. In abusive churches, the discipline often involves ridicule and humiliation. Not only are Christians hurt, but spiritual abuse impedes the work of God in a place. Bloomer writes, “Countless numbers of people have been hurt by the institution originally established to bring them healing. Thus, there are many who truly and wholeheartedly love God but have no regard for the organized church.” The strong hand of authoritarian leadership results in the wounding of followers. Leaders of punitive churches seem to be motivated by the wrath of God more than the compassion of the Lord.
Abusive religious groups are often demanding in nature. Several authors share stories of exacting cult groups. Chrnalogar and Enroth’s books draw from numerous stories of cultic involvement. Hutchinson’s work focuses on helping ex-cultists return to the church with encouragement. Cults and other authoritarian groups often place high demands on members, expecting them to follow many rules and meet many demands.
Another misuse of power in a toxic church is that the leaders-pastors have no accountability. In an abusive system the person at the top of the flow-chart has no one to practically and tangibly ask him hard questions and hold him accountable. Enroth shares, “Members of all abusive churches soon learn that the pastor or leader is beyond confrontation.” If an abusive church appears to have a system of accountability, the pastor has usually hand-selected a few persons who act as puppets around him, attempting to provide a veneer of substantive accountability when in reality the pastor is controlling those persons.
Another quality of abusive religious groups includes their closed communication. Information flows from the top-down and is very guarded and secretive. Constructive criticism is never wanted or encouraged; in fact it is often punished. Unwritten rules create an atmosphere of the authoritarian leader controlling the flow, or lack, of communication. Blue calls this phenomenon the no-talk rule. Certain problems must not be talked about openly, particularly as they relate to the leader’s dysfunctions, mistakes, or sins. Certain issues such as hiring and firing, the use of money, the selection of leaders, church discipline, former church members, and pastoral accountability may not be allowed to be discussed. This practice of closed communication completely denies the essence of Christian fellowship.