blind and deaf to spiritual abuse

blind and deaf to spiritual abuse cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward
“Blind and Deaf to Spiritual Abuse” by nakedpastor David Hayward

(Those receiving this in your inbox, click on either title “Blind and Deaf” and it will take you to the nakedpastor site.)

I frequently get really sweet emails from really sweet people who say they’ve been in a perfect church their whole lives and have never seen anything I talk about, nor have they experienced it. They usually believe that what I talk about is a very rare occurrence and that I’m blowing it way out of proportion. Once in a while I believe them. But that’s rarely. Usually I smell denial.

Almost always the blindness and deafness is willful. Most people believe a certain amount of manipulation, control or coercion is necessary to make the machine we call church work. They believe that lording it over others is the only way organizations work efficiently and so the behavior of leaders is indisputable, unquestionable and excusable. It’s just how things work. They learned this from their families and schools and their long history with the church and other institutions.

And most people just can’t handle suffering… their own or others’. The problem is perniciously pervasive and seems overwhelmingly impossible to fix. There is also great fear of repercussion if they speak out and address it. Plus it is very difficult to expose when it is cloaked in what looks like love, care and what is called biblical discipline.


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  • Alvin Gongora

    Reminds me of Jose Saramago’s “Blindness” a wonderfully crafted satirical novel on the capital city of an unamed country whose inhabitants suffer from a sudden plague of blindness.

  • Georgina

    And many that I have known are just plain ignorant. Never having left their cosy little circle, they just don’t believe that people would do things that they would not do ….
    and everything else has to be either prejudice or exaggeration.

  • Erika

    The biggest thing that promotes and lets this denial continue is the “Don’t talk, don’t ask……just trust that the leadership is doing what’s right” rule in many churches. Because, if you don’t settle for this rule, you’re being rebellious/disobedient toward God himself since he’s appointed those in authority. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle to keep the people subordinate & ignorant. Also, it’s the sweet sheep eager to please who fall prey to this most easily. Just my take from experience!

  • love Saramago, and “Blindness” is great. thanks for your comments folks. the more who talk about it the better.

  • Patti

    Erika, Coming from a Church like you describe I have experienced “When people talk about problems out loud they do not cause them, they simply expose them”. Where I came from they called that gossip or slander and silenced me.
    In abusive spiritual systems, there exists a “pretend peace” – what Jeremiah decried saying, “The prophets say “peace, peace’, when there is none.” If what unites us is our pretending to agree, even though we don’t agree, then we have nothing more than pretend peace and unity, with undercurrents of tension and backbiting”. It is a double edged sword because if you do talk or do go to ask questions, you are accused of slander and gossip. But if a Christian who feels violated stops talking, then the perpetrator will never be held accountable for his behavior. And the victim will have to “freeze up” the pain and anger of being spiritually abused. I refuse to do that ever Again.
    I broke free after 20 years of this and as I look back, I often can’t believe what I was trying to force myself to believe, act upon and Become. They are hypocrites declaring their truth, the only truth, their ways, the Only ways.

  • Pat Pope

    And other times, I think that people agree that there is abuse, but they feel like, “Why don’t you just let it go?” They figure they let stuff go or overlook it and you should do too. But you see, we’re all different people and for me, I refuse to stay in any relationship where abuse is accepted. That to me is the height of dysfunction. We’ll deal with everything else — making plans for the next potluck, planning the next special worship service, figuring out how to raise more money–but abuse? Ah, let’s just ignore it.

  • Pat Pope

    Very true, Patty, about pretend peace. It’s just a facade and I get tired of being around people who want to embrace crazy and call it normal whether it’s in the church, family relationships or friendships.

  • Gary

    Patti I too have experienced what you describe here so well. A very close friend of mine was spoken to very harshly by a person in authority at my former church in public. It was humiliating, unprovoked and abusive. When this person shared their upset with another close friend it became a public dialogue on facebook with a large number of members stating how this thing keeps happening at the church while others tried very harshly to silence them, citing that they were willfully sowing discord in the body. I even had a private email exchange with a former youth minister (initiated by him after I came to the defense of the one who was still being attacked by the members) discussing the situation. I will never forget the way he deliberately ignored the problem and sought to blame the victim for speaking up about the situation. After I pointed this out to him he responded with letting me know how much he appreciated my civil exchange with him, and then launched into a nearly identical repeat of the denial of the problems and an attack on those who would speak up about it. It was not long after that incident that I began to seriously evaluate the health of the Christian religion as a whole. Like you, I broke free after many years of enslavement to that abusive system nearly 2 years ago.

  • Pat Pope

    I’ve even had people to complain about the abuser behind closed doors, but when you try to take a stand, they’re nowhere to be found. After I left the last church I was in, I even had someone ask me about one of the culprits by name and said, “…because I know how he can be.” Well, if you know how he can be (and this personal was one of his personal friends), then do something about it! Particularly as a friend, you have the ability to speak to them in ways that others maybe can’t. Use your influence as a friend to point out their wrongs. But instead, we value our friendships over the health of the church. We don’t want them mad at us, so we’ll continue to see people hurt and leaving the church versus being brave and speaking up. Also, even though they know who the abusers are, having seen what happens to those who risk standing up, speaking out and working against the wrong, they’d rather just clam up. Hey folks, no one said exposing evil would be easy. But it’s about what’s more important to you–your personal comfort or the integrity of the organization?

  • Patti

    I tried to point things out that I was seeing to be able to discuss these things, for problems solving not gossip. I saw potential harm every where I turned. My friends would ask why I didn’t leave these things to the Lord and my Leaders. I couldn’t understand that at all. How could I? I left and when I did, none of my “friends” for over 20 years ever contacted me at all. They say I am backsliding and other nonsense. It hurts deeply that those relationships meant nothing. The pain continues because they remain there. Im trying to work thru that still. How do you find new relationships at 50 if you do not belong to a church..? Its a new adventure that’s for sure… The worst of it is they would not even hear me out. They refused to listen. What is that? What I think partially is that “The real problem cannot be exposed because then it would have to be dealt with and things would have to change; so it must be protected behind walls of silence (neglect) or by assault (legalistic attack) If you speak about the problem out loud, you ARE the problem. In some way you must be silenced or eliminated.” Those who Do speak out are most often told, “we didn’t have all these problems until you started shooting your mouth off.” Everything was fine before you started stirring things up.” Or else to make it sound really “spiritual” they say “you were angry- you didn’t confront the matter in a loving way, so it proves you were not handling the matter in a mature, Christian manner.” In either case, the problem still remains. I am an outcast still.
    I would think that now since Child sexual abuse cover up has come to light there, Spousal abuse cover up, etc. that some of them would see truth and try to talk to me. Nothing at all. Then I think, why in the world would I want them in my life? The sanity search continues…

  • Michael Good

    When church becomes big business it treats it followers accordingly. Find your self a church which acts like a community instead and you will find a church where Jesus is. Sadly they could be far and few between. I guess that’s where pilgrimage comes from. When you find that church support it with all your heart. Remember Jesus told us to love one another like Jesus loved us.

  • I agree with your comment Michael.

  • Robyn

    Got the whole thing in me email this morning. Thanks!

  • you’re welcome robyn… although that might not be permanent. lol.

  • Kris

    As much as people like to talk about having freedom, they will listen to anything a pastor tells them. Many people don’t want to think and put all their trust in someone who says they have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I explain insurance to people all day and they do not want to believe what I tell them. It is really annoying because the answers “yes or no” answers but they have already formulated the answer to their question.

  • Yeah, the cartoon showed up in my e-mail and now we have notify buttons. Good job, David.
    I think the phrase “spiritual abuse” is weird. Psychological abuse using spiritual bullshit seems more to the point. But then, you know my slant on that.
    But I think your phrasing will be very useful to many. Excellent job, David.

  • Carol

    I don’t think that we can separate psychological and spiritual abuse.

    The human person is a spiritual being whether s/he holds theological beliefs or not.

    I also believe that sentient animals have a spirit, although the human spirit differs statistically, and even in most individual cases, from it in some rather important ways.

    Some evolutionary social scientists refer to our species as “the moral animal,” which I suppose means that we have the potential to reflect on the affects of our behavior rather than simply be blindly driven by survivalist insticts. That is not to say that we always make the “moral” choice, especially when the odds are that we can get away with pursuing our own survivalist advantages or disordered desires at the expense of others.

  • Well, Carol, as you know, it all depends on definitions. For similar to your sentence, I would say:

    We are all meaty animals [NOT spiritual beings], no matter what theological beliefs you hold.

  • Erika

    Patti, your experiences sound much like our own. We left a ‘church family’ after 24 years of faithful participation. The leadership called us in for a meeting because we were friends with a couple who were having serious problems with leadership. The pastor gave a long preamble about how they’re trying to facilitate a better way for people to get their questions/problems addressed and then ended with the statement that problems ‘always boil down to issues with spiritual authority’. So basically we were doomed before we even opened our mouths. We left quietly shortly after, leaving behind all our ‘friends’ who never contacted us. And we have close family members who still are dug in so it’s hard to leave it all behind mentally & emotionally.

  • Patti

    “Church” as a community gathering in a building, Sunday after Sunday, doing good within its own community, (with an occasional bonus mission trip) living as a private culture in itself. Never! There is no love in these communities. It is teaching and doctrine with no functional ideas of how to love. It is not a family, we cannot disagree with elders, or use our own judgements. Our motives always being questioned and never acknowledged as good. No grace. No love. Never again. The church community like we have in the US is not what was intended for us anyway. The self righteous self serving people who refuse to discuss anything that has not been “taught” to them by pastors… I hope people are wise to their false love and bait they use to get you in….