In a previous article, I discussed the characteristics of abusive churches. Pat Zukeran, “Abusive Churches,” 1993, Probe Ministries, . As a result of the questions and feedback, I felt it might be helpful to share some positive steps to recovery from an abusive church experience.
Leaving an unhealthy church situation can leave some very deep scars. One example of the collateral damage is a very painful exit process. Those who leave an unhealthy church situation suffer isolation, bitterness, embarrassment, grief, and anger. This is coupled with confusion and wondering how God could let this happen. They also chide themselves for getting into such a group and staying in the organization as long as they did.
One man who left an unhealthy situation stated, “I am confused over the emotions I feel. At times, I am glad to have left the organization. I enjoy the new freedoms I have in Christ and relief from the burdens I was carrying for many years. Other times I suffer the pain over the lost years and lost friendships. It’s like experiencing a death in the family.” The Ryans, who left an abusive situation, state, “Spiritual abuse is a kind of abuse which damages the central core of who you are.
It leaves us spiritually disorganized and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God.” Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse, (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 15. Since so much of their identity was based on their status and relationships in the church, many exiting members have difficulty readjusting to daily life in society. Many suffer from what sociologists label “role exit.” Their purpose was so connected to the church that many suffer from the anxiety of not knowing where they fit in or what their future will be. They are in a “vacuum.” In severe cases, former members were so dependent on the church that they even had to relearn daily tasks like opening and managing their own bank accounts.
Many end up forsaking the church or religion. One ex-member wrote, “I know that when people finally decide on their own to leave, they are so beaten down and confused that they don’t know what is true to hold on to versus what is false to discard. Many quit seeking God and give up on the church all together.” Ronald Enroth, Recovering From Churches that Abuse, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing, 1994), 26.
In his book, Recovering from Churches that Abuse, Dr. Ronald Enroth states that victims of church abuse suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. Ibid., 39. Many are unable to trust anyone—including God—which complicates the process, since developing healthy relationships is essential to the recovery process. Although exiting is difficult, recovery is not impossible. There is hope! Keep in mind the healing process is not the same for each person. For some, healing may take years; for others it may happen in a few months. Some will be able to recover through the help of a mature Christian community while others may need professional Christian counseling.
Discerning Good from Abusive
How do we discern a healthy church from an abusive church? Unfortunately, abusive churches can exist in evangelical and mainline denominations. They are not just fringe churches on the outer circle of evangelicalism. Churches that can be labeled “spiritually abusive” range from mildly abusive—churches with sporadic abusive practices—to the severe cases of being manipulative and controlling. Here are some questions that can help show if you are in an unhealthy situation.
First, does the leadership invite dialogue, advice, evaluation, and questions from outside its immediate circle? Authoritarian pastors are threatened by any diverse opinions whether from inside or outside the group. Group members are discouraged from asking hard questions. The rule is don’t ask questions and don’t make waves. A healthy pastor welcomes even tough questions, whereas in an unhealthy church disagreement with the pastor is considered disloyalty and is virtually equal to disobeying God. Spiritual language is used to disguise the manipulation that is going on. Questioners are labeled rebellious, insubordinate, and disruptive to the harmony of the body. Attempts are made to shut them down. The only way to succeed is to go along with the agenda, support the leaders, scorn those who disagree.
Second, is there a system of accountability or does the pastor keep full control? Authoritarian pastors do not desire a system of accountability. They may have a board but it consists of yes-men whom he ultimately selects.
Third, does a member’s personality generally become stronger, happier, and more confident as a result of being with the group? The use of guilt, fear, and intimidation is likely to produce members with low self-esteem. Many are beaten down by legalism, while assertiveness is a sign that one is not teachable and therefore not spiritual.
Fourth, are family commitments strengthened? Church obligations are valued more than family ones. Although many may verbally acknowledge the family as a priority, in practice they do not act like it. My colleagues at Probe, Don and Deanne, know of a mother who needed to gain special permission from her church to attend her son’s wedding because it conflicted with a church event. The church made her feel guilty because she was choosing family over God. In another case, I know of women who missed their son and daughter’s prom night to attend a church meeting which was held twenty minutes from their homes. The mindset is loyalty to God means loyalty to his church. One’s spiritual quality is determined by one’s allegiance to the church.
Fifth, does the group encourage independent thinking, developing discernment skills, and creation of new ideas? Abusive churches resort to using pressure to have followers conform, and there is a low tolerance for any kind of difference in belief (of non-essential nature) and behavior. There is a legalistic emphasis on keeping the rules, and a need to stay within set boundaries. Unity is defined as conformity. These leaders evaluate all forms of Christian spirituality according to their own prescribed system.
Sixth, is the group preoccupied with maintaining a good public image that does not match the inner circle experience?
Seventh, does the leadership encourage members to foster relations and connections with the larger society that are more than self-serving? Abusive churches thrive on tactics that create total dependence on the church while protecting and isolating themselves from the “sinful” world.
Finally, is there a high rate of burnout among the members? In order to gain approval or prove you are a “true disciple,” abusive churches require levels of service that are very taxing.
If these are character traits of the group you are attending, you may be in an abusive church and should consider leaving the organization.
Profile of an Abusive Leader
Philip Keller gave us a stern warning in his book, Predators in Our Pulpits: “The greatest threat to the church today is not from without but from our own leadership within.” Philip Keller, Predators in our Pulpits, (Eugene, Ore.: Harvest House, 1988), 12. Often an abusive church is built around the leader who practices some unhealthy forms of shepherding. Many such leaders come from churches that were abusive or have an unmet need for significance. Many may have begun with noble intentions, but their unresolved personal issues cause them to become dependent on their ministry to meet their needs. In his book, Healing Spiritual Abuse, Ken Blue does an outstanding job identifying unhealthy leadership. Here are a few characteristics of an abusive leader.
Abusive leaders use their position to demand loyalty and submission. Ken Blue states, “I have heard many pastors say to their congregations, ‘Because I am the pastor, you must follow me.’ Their demand was not based on truth or the God-directedness of their leadership but on their title. That is a false basis of authority . . . any appeal to authority based on position, title, degree or office is false. The only authority God recognizes and to which we should submit to is truth.” Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse, (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 27-28. Other leaders use titles such as “God’s man” or “the Lord’s anointed” so that others will treat them with special reverence and keep themselves above accountability that others in the congregation are held to. “If by appealing to position, unique claims or special anointings, leaders succeed in creating a hierarchy in the church, they can more easily control those beneath them. They can also defend themselves against any who might challenge them.” Ibid., 29.
One of the lessons from the Bible is that all men and women are fallible. Therefore, all people, especially leaders, need some form of accountability. Although pastors are called to lead their congregations, they are under the authority of God’s Word. When they act in a manner contrary to Scripture they need to be confronted, and improper behavior needs to be corrected. In 2 Samuel 22, the prophet Nathan confronted King David about his sin. In Galatians 2, Paul confronted Peter, the leader of the Apostles, for not acting in line with the truth. “Paul declared by this action that the truth always outranks position or title in the church. Truth and its authority are not rooted in personality or office. It is derived from the word of God and the truth it proclaims.” Ibid., 30. Blue continues: “Paul taught that the body of Christ is a non-hierarchal living organism.” Ibid., 34.
Instead of feeding and caring for the flock, these pastors feed off the flock and use them to meet their needs for significance. Ken Blue gives an example of a “pastor whose church has not grown numerically in twelve years. Frustrated by his manifest lack of success, he turned to the congregation to meet his need. He has laid on them a building program in hopes that a new, larger, more attractive facility will draw more people. The congregation has split over this issue.
Many have left the church, and those who remain are saddled with the debt.” Ibid., 65.
I know of other pastors who have chastised their staff and congregation when they did not show up at a church function. Many members were busy with family commitments, work, and needed personal time for rest, but were pressured to attend the numerous church events. These leaders saw their success in the numbers that attended their functions and needed their turnout to satisfy their sense of worth.
True spiritual leaders are defined by Christ’s example. “Whoever wants to be great among you must become the servant of all” (Matt. 20:26). Christ-like leadership is servanthood. True leaders gain the loyalty of the sheep because of the quality of their character and their attitude of servanthood. The members freely submit to Christ-like leadership and do not have to be coerced to follow. Good shepherds lighten the load of the sheep while false leaders add to the load on the sheep.
Should you find yourself in such a situation, the first thing to do is pray for the leader. Second, in a loving and graceful way confront the leader addressing what you see as unhealthy practices in his leadership. It may take a while for your words to sink in, so be patient. However, as in many cases, the leader may get defensive and reject your advice and in turn make accusations against you. In such cases realize you were obedient to God, and now you must let the Lord work on the leader’s heart. James 3:1, Ezekiel 34, and other passages bring stern warnings that God will judge shepherds who use the sheep to fulfill their needs and not shepherd God’s flock as a steward. It is best to leave the situation and let God deal in His way with the leader and his organization.
The Road to Recovery
As we discussed earlier, exiting an abusive or unhealthy church situation is a very painful process, but recovery and healing is possible. Dr. Ronald Enroth in his book, Recovering from Churches that Abuse, and Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton in their book, Toxic Faith, provide some very helpful steps to recovery.
When you realize you are in an authoritarian church, it is best to leave and make a complete break. Many members remain, thinking their presence will help change the situation, but this is highly unlikely. In fact, remaining may perpetuate the existence of the organization. Acknowledge that abuse has taken place. Denying this will only stall the recovery. Next, develop relationships with mature Christians who will listen to your story and support you in the healing process.
In a safe and supporting environment you will be able to share your feelings, experiences, hopes, and struggles. Although it may be difficult, understand that recovery rarely happens in isolation. You must learn to trust again, even if it is in small, tentative stages. Yeakley, Flavil. The Discipling Dilemma. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate Co., 1988.
Expect to wrestle with some difficult emotions. Recognize that you will go through a grieving process–grief for lost years, lost friends, and the loss of innocence. You may also feel guilt, shame, and fear. It is natural to feel foolish and experience self-doubt. These are actually healthy emotions that should not be bottled up inside. Regret over poor decisions is a sign of growth, and you will eventually leave those emotions behind. Therefore, it is crucial to find people who will be supportive and help you address hard feelings. For some people, professional Christian counseling is necessary. Seek out a counselor who understands the dynamics of abusive systems and can provide the care and warmth needed.
Renew your walk with God again. Admit that you acquired a distorted picture of Him, and focus on regaining the proper biblical understanding of His attributes and character. Don’t give up on the true church despite its imperfections. In fact, I encourage you to visit numerous healthy churches. It is refreshing to see how diverse the body of Christ is, and that there are many different ways to express our love and commitment to Christ. Then, relax! Enjoy your new-found freedoms. Take time for physical recreation, art, music, and just plain fun. After leaving, ex-members may feel guilty for not serving God in a church but this is incorrect. The Lord knows that we need time to grieve, reflect, and heal from our loss.
Finally, remember forgiveness is crucial to recovery. Forgiveness is often more for the benefit of the one giving it than for the one receiving it. Healing takes time, so be patient with the process you are going through.
Becoming Stronger Through the Experience
Although exiting an abusive church can leave us scarred mentally and emotionally, there is hope for recovery and wholeness. In fact, this fiery process can strengthen our faith and understanding of God and what it means to walk with Him. Here is some counsel that may help you overcome the past experience of spiritual abuse.
One of the ways we can grow from this experience has to do with a proper understanding of God’s character. While in an authoritarian organization, our view of God becomes distorted. God becomes viewed as one who loves us because of what we are doing for Him. Anytime we miss a Bible study or fail to win converts, God somehow becomes displeased and we must work harder to regain His approval.
In contrast to this false image, 1 John 4:8 states that “God is love.” In other words, God accepts us unconditionally. He only asks that we receive the gift of grace He has provided for us, His Son Jesus Christ. Once we receive His Son, our acceptance is never based on our works but on our position as His sons and daughters. For many who have lived under a false image of God, coming to grips with God’s grace and love can be a renewing experience.
Related to this is the addiction to church activities. Many equate business at church with spiritual maturity. However, this business actually keeps us from dealing with the pain and real issues in our lives. Our addiction to religious activity becomes a barrier to an authentic relationship with God.
Another valuable lesson to learn is that our identity is in Christ, not the organization or relationships in the group.
Many of us find our significance in our ministry, our church status, the dependence others have on us, or the respect we gain from others we minister to. Once these are taken away, we feel empty, even without purpose. This is an opportune time to realize that our value and self-worth is secure because of our relationship with Christ. This helps us become more dependent on Christ and less on others.
Finally, the Bible teaches that God can bring good out of a bad situation. Romans 8:28 states that, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This promise applies even for those who have been spiritually abused. Through the pain and healing process, God can mold us to become more like Him. In Genesis 50, despite all the evil that Joseph’s brothers did to him, he is able to say in the end, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” If we draw closer to God in our time of need, we can be healed and overcome our painful past.
Can Abusive Churches Change?
Those who find themselves in authoritarian churches often remain despite the difficulties because there is an underlying hope that the church can change. Even after they leave they often remain keenly interested in the affairs of the former church because they hope restoration will still occur.
Can abusive churches change? Although with God all things are possible, it is my opinion that it is highly unlikely that this will happen. Although a few have, they are the exceptions.
Why is change in these organizations so difficult? One reason is that change usually begins in the leadership. However, the leadership structure is designed so that the leader has control over the personnel. Although there may be a board, the individuals on the board are ultimately selected by the authoritarian leader. He selects men and women loyal to him, who do not question him, or hold him accountable. Therefore, he insulates himself from dealing with difficult issues or addressing his unhealthy practices.
Dysfunctional leaders also resist change because it is an admission of failure. In order for a genuine change of heart, leaders must first acknowledge a problem and repent. However, a leader who considers himself “God’s man” or the spokesman for God will rarely humble himself to confess his shortcomings. Spiritual wholeness and renewal cannot be achieved until unhealthy behavior is recognized and dealt with. Unless this behavior is confronted, the likelihood of real change is diminished. Enroth, 152.
In most cases, the leadership focuses the blame on others. Those who left the church were not committed, were church hoppers, etc… Stephen Arterburn writes, “Anyone who rebels against the system must be personally attacked so people will think the problem is with the person, not the system.” Arteburn, Stephen. Toxic Faith, (Nashville, Tenn.: Oliver Nelson Publishing, 1991), 260. It is often useless to point out flaws because an abusive church lives in a world of denial. Many of the leaders are themselves deceived. Although sincere in their efforts, they may have no idea their leadership style is unhealthy and harmful. They are usually so narcissistic or so focused on some great thing they are doing for God that they don’t notice the wounds they are inflicting on their followers. Blue, Ken, Healing Spiritual Abuse, (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press), 13-14.
These leaders often twist Scripture to justify their unhealthy behavior. Most members will go along with this because they assume their pastors know the Bible better than they do.
Lastly, authoritarian churches make every effort to ensure that a good name and image is preserved. Therefore, the leadership often functions in secrecy. Disagreeing members are threatened and told to remain silent or are quietly dismissed.
For these reasons, it is my opinion that it is best to leave an abusive or unhealthy church. Learn to let go and let God deal with that group. Only He can bring people to repentance. Although painful, leaving an unhealthy church and joining a healthy body of believers will begin the healing process and open new doors of fellowship, worship, and service for you.
Arterburn, Stephen and Felton, Jack. Toxic Faith. Nashville, TN: Oliver-Nelson Books, 1991.
Blue, Ken. Healing Spiritual Abuse. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Enroth, Ronald. Recovering From Churches that Abuse. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan Publishing, 1994.
Enroth, Ronald. Churches That Abuse. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1992.
Johnson, David and Vanvonderen, Jeff. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Publishers, 1991.