This coming week Wine and Marble, Joy in this Journey and Shaney Irene will be hosting a Spiritual Abuse Awareness synchroblog. Many bloggers will be posting one blog a day for several days, describing their own experiences of spiritual abuse, how it has affected them, and what they wish they could tell others. I am a once-a-week blogger, so I’ve decided to just do one post in which I give shorter answers to each of the three sets of questions to be addressed.
As I shared in my post Don’t Talk About It:
In Ephesians 5:1-13 Paul . . . says in verse 11-13:
“And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them. For it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret. But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that is visible is light.” . . .
[I]n the light is where the enabling stops. In the light is where the perpetrator must face himself and his deeds. In the light is where the victim can see that the shame is not hers to bear. . .
[So] do talk about it. Stop sweeping it under the carpet. The stories must be told.
I’m happy that so many people are being encouraged to tell their stories. And I’m going to tell a little more of mine. So here are the questions set forth on the synchroblog, followed by my answers.
What is your story? Share your experience — showing the details without going into specifics about places or people involved. What made the environment spiritually abusive? Was it language, unspoken social codes, beliefs, assumptions, expectations? How did these factors enable the abuse? How did you eventually leave, and why?
When I started college in the early 1980s, it was in a new state and a new town. I had lived all my life till then in a little town in Colorado, but my parents and I moved to Oregon for my father to start a new job there, and I moved into the dorms in a town about an hour’s drive away from them. For the first time in my life I was completely alone. I remember the loneliness I felt as I walked for the first time into the dorm dining room to see not one face I recognized.
I had been a Christian for a couple of years and quickly began looking for a church. The one I found was a campus ministry that had established churches in college towns all over the United States. The people there welcomed me with so much warmth and enthusiasm that I immediately felt at home there. I know they were sincere– but what I didn’t know was that they had been taught to treat newcomers this way; it was a technique I later learned is called “love bombing“– but the rank-and-file members of the group, I still believe, were as ignorant as I was that this was a cult recruitment technique and were simply doing as they were told out of a sincere desire to follow Christ. In any event, my loneliness made me especially vulnerable, and I soon joined.
It was only after I was committed to the group that the coercion and control began. We were required to attend each and every meeting of the church, including long weeks of outreach meetings where services were held every evening. Many students’ school work suffered; I managed to keep my grades up by having no activities whatsoever outside of classes and church. We had to have the church leaders’ permission to go home to visit our families, and permission was not given during outreach weeks. We were also required to go out before meetings and pass out flyers on the sidewalks to draw people into the services. In fact, we had to get permission for anything outside church, school and jobs; I remember being forbidden to go see a free showing of the Disney movie Fantasia, because it was “demonic.” The Star Wars series was also forbidden; I had seen Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back before I joined the church, but it would be years before I got to find out how the series ended with Return of the Jedi!
The church leaders never actually said, “We forbid you to go to these movies.” It was subtler than that. “I believe seeing this movie would be bad for your spiritual health and your walk with Christ, and He has given me watch over your soul according to Hebrews 13:17, which also tells you to submit to my authority.” That was the message. Anyone who disobeyed an elder was privately rebuked, and sometimes became subject to a session of “casting out of demons” where all the elders gathered to pray for hours over the disobedient one and cast out the “spirit of rebellion” and (if she was female) the “Jezebel spirit.”
If you persisted in going against the leadership, you would be publicly rebuked in front of the entire congregation, which would be called to a special meeting for this purpose. If this didn’t bring you back in line, excommunication resulted. People who were excommunicated, or who left on their own, were considered either apostate or covenant-breakers, and remaining members were expected to ostracize them under threat of excommunication themselves.
Control was enabled through a hierarchy called “shepherding,” where longer-term members were appointed as “disciplers” of younger members. Disciplers and disciples were expected to meet together at least once a week, when the disciple’s life that week would be reviewed in excruciating detail, followed by prayer and Bible study. Most of us who eventually became disciplers ourselves were at least a little embarrassed by this and never did as detailed a job as was actually expected; I know that I didn’t. But I tried to do what was expected of me, and I remember being confused at the feelings of hidden resentment and avoidance I received from some of my disciples, a few of whom later left and were considered my failures.
The story of my group is unusual because eventually the campus ministry organization voluntarily dissolved. Many of the pastors of individual churches banded together and forced the resignation of the founders and the dissolution of the ministry in 1989. Local churches like the one I (and now my husband) still attended were left to either dissolve or become independent, non-denominational congregations. My local church did the latter, and my husband and I continued to attend there until 1999, when we left because of fears that a new central organization was arising to bring the former member-churches back under its sway. Our local church was no longer controlling, however, and we left amicably and with the respect of the then-leadership.
As far as I know, the central organization that did reorganize the remaining churches is not controlling or cultic in nature (friends who remain in the church seem happy and healthy), but once we joined a new church (chosen above all for its openness and the humble, non-controlling stance of the leadership), we were happy not to return, for reasons set forth in my answers to this next set of questions:
How has your experience affected you? What has it done to you emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.? What has your journey been like? How have you gotten where you are today? Do you feel you’ve healed? What do you still struggle with?
I suffered less than many who leave cultic groups because of the voluntary disbanding of the group. I was never a victim of excommunication, and I was never shunned by friends who stayed. Still, I find I have a kind of shuddering disgust at the mere thought of certain common church activities like church conferences (mandatory regional and national conferences were another method of group control that I’ll share about in more detail someday) or prayer meetings. Even the thought of attending events like this triggers old feelings of distress, resentment and helplessness. To this day certain words such as “total commitment” or “sold out for Christ” give me soul-deep, knee-jerk reactions of nausea and repulsion. I have no desire to return to the old church because of these memories and the possible reactions that returning would trigger, even though I don’t believe my former church is spiritually abusive today.
I don’t believe the question “Do you feel you’ve healed?” can be answered with a simple yes or no. Healing is a process that I’ve come a long way in, but I probably will never be completely “over it” once and for all. Nor do I feel I should seek to be. The Resurrected Christ still keeps the wounds in His hands and side, which tells me that our wounds are part of who we are and remain valuable to God. As long as my old, continually healing wounds keep me sensitive to the sufferings of others, and help me hold my current doctrines and beliefs lightly and with humility and willingness to be persuaded to change should I find them harmful to myself or others, then these scars are worth keeping.
Why should those who haven’t been hurt care about this issue? What do you wish you could tell those who want to help but weren’t close enough to know or see your situation? What do you wish every pastor knew before starting ministry? What would make the church a safe space for you?
The shepherding/discipleship movement didn’t die when my group disbanded. Although the term “shepherding” is no longer used, and though some of the original founders of the movement have renounced these spiritually abusive teachings, they are still alive and well today, most notably in Sovereign Grace Ministries, which is currently involved in a class-action lawsuit alleging abuses directly related to shepherding-style hierarchical control.
Involvement in spiritually abusive religion can happen to anyone. I would say to most evangelical Christians that at least one person they know probably has been, or is now, under the influence of one of these groups. Many evangelicals and their pastors are involved in, or being strongly influenced by, current incarnations of spiritually abusive religion. If you do know or suspect that a friend or loved one is in one of these movements, the best thing to do is stay in their lives. Don’t let them drive you away, but– and this is equally important– don’t confront them directly. Instead, ask them gentle, non-confrontational questions about what they share with you. “Do you think this is the way Jesus taught His disciples to act as leaders?” or “Is this how brothers and sisters in Christ should treat one another?” could be good questions, but if they respond defensively, back off. If you can just start them thinking, without thinking of you as an enemy who is trying to make them break their “covenant” with their church or its leaders, you may be able to be there for them if they do decide they want out.
Church is a safe place when questioning is welcomed and dissent is allowed, where leaders don’t seek or allow themselves to be treated as stars or celebrities, and where each person’s walk with Christ is considered to be his or her own business. I wish and hope pastors starting ministries are being alerted to the catchwords and pet teachings of spiritually abusive movements, and I think classes on the warning signs of spiritual abuse should be taught in Bible schools and seminaries. Pastors especially should be aware that some of the most well-known and vocal religious leaders today are influenced by and/or propagating spiritually abusive doctrines and practices, and to carefully weigh and test everything, holding tightly only to what is good, just as Paul advises in 1 Thessalonians 5:21.
It is for freedom that Christ set us free. As Christians, we should be combating spiritual slavery, not living under it or promoting it. We have the opportunity of being Abolitionists, denouncing spiritual slave-holding wherever we find it. Many of us may also have the chance to be a spiritual underground railroad for those seeking to escape.
If I and the other bloggers this coming week can influence others to become spiritual Abolitionists, it will help bring a sense of meaning and resolution to all we went through. I for one am grateful to the synchroblog organizers for this opportunity.
[Editorial Note: This article is intended for those readers who have chosen to accept the Bible as authoritative for faith and practice. If you are not one of those readers, please be understanding of the intended audience and refrain from commenting on the assumptions on which it is based. Please refrain from this pertains to all Christians everywhere and show some respect for the writer please. For more info on the site please visit – Is NLQ an Atheist Website?]
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‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce