A few years ago, I had my first experience with spiritual abuse.

Compelled to serve God in a radical way, I dropped out of college, gave away all my possessions and moved to Africa, only to be manipulated, controlled and taken advantage of by the leaders in the mission organization.

When I got home, my pastor gave me two options: I could either lie and make up a nicer-sounding story, or I could just keep my mouth shut. Either way, I was forbidden from telling the real story, inside or outside the church.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It’s one thing to be abused by people you barely know, but it’s another thing to be betrayed by someone you trusted and looked up to. I was angry and depressed, and I fell away from church for the first time in my life.

Thankfully, some of my friends understood what I was going through. Others, not so much. But what I’ve come to realize is that Christians can be pretty bad at handling spiritual abuse.

Many of the responses below I’ve witnessed firsthand. In the past, I’ve even been guilty of saying a few of these myself.

Here are a few things not to say to someone who has been hurt by their church:

1. “No Church Is Perfect.”

Instead of empathizing with those who have been hurt by a church, some Christians go right into defense mode.

They might argue that the victim just had a “bad experience.” Or, they’ll say the Church is full of imperfect people who are “only human” and make mistakes just like the rest of us.

But can we agree that these excuses only distract from the problem? No one wants to be told to “focus on all the good things the Church does” when they’ve been hurt by one. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of people have been positively affected by a church or ministry. The good experiences don’t cancel out the bad ones.

2. “Are You Working Toward Reconciliation?”

The last thing a victim of spiritual abuse needs to do is go right back into the environment that hurt them in the first place.

If someone has been attacked by a dog, would you tell them to go back and risk getting bitten again? Christians who insist on reconciliation in the face of spiritual abuse are forgetting one important thing: Abusive people can’t always be reasoned with.

Not only is it dangerous to ask a victim to make amends with their abusers, it also puts an undue burden of responsibility on the victim to come up with a solution. It’s like saying, “They’re the ones who hurt you, but now it’s your job to make it right.”

3. “I Don’t Want to Gossip.”

If a pastor or staff member is mistreating someone in the congregation, it’s not gossip for that person to talk about it. In fact, it’s not even gossip for you to talk about it.

Imagine if you found out your brother-in-law was beating your sister. Would your first response be, “That’s none of my business”? The same way domestic abuse involves a whole family, spiritual abuse involves a whole church family. The abuse may have taken place in private, but that doesn’t make it a private matter.

As Christians, if we’re going to start taking spiritual abuse seriously, we need to stop comparing it to gossip.

4. “What are Non-Believers Going to Think?”

Have you ever read a headline about a Christian going public against a church or ministry and thought to yourself, “Is this providing a good witness?” If you’re more concerned about the church’s reputation than you are about the abuse itself, you might have your priorities mixed up.

As Christians, we can get so preoccupied with how outsiders view the Church that we put appearances before the truth. When we try to control the narrative, we substitute the reality of the Church for our own ideal of the Church. All we’re showing the world is that we prefer a false witness over a bad one.

5. “Stop Being so Bitter.”

People who have been hurt by a church have a right to be angry. Not only is anger an appropriate response to injustice, it’s a healthy response if it’s channeled the right ways.

So why do Christians have such a hard time letting each other express negative emotions? Why do we always have to fish for some deeper spiritual problem like a root of bitterness or unforgiveness?

The other day I heard someone put it this way: “Religion will molest you, then accuse you of being bitter about it.” Do you see the double standard? When victims react to being hurt by someone in a church, we treat them as though there’s something’s wrong with them. This is why abusers are so often exonerated. It’s easier to justify letting the abuser off the hook if both parties are “in the wrong.”

6. “Is This Worth Dividing the Church Over?”

How it might affect the congregation should never be the deciding factor in whether or not to expose abuse.

This one especially hits home for me. When I escaped my abusive situation in Africa, my pastor wanted to sweep the whole ordeal under the rug. My silence, I was told, was for the greater good of the Gospel. It wasn’t a suggestion—it was an ultimatum. If I didn’t keep quiet, he warned, I would bring division to the entire congregation.

One of the most effective ways to silence a victim is to fill them with a false sense of guilt. The victim is led to believe that talking is only going to make things worse, and whatever happens as a result is their fault.

Certainly, exposing spiritual abuse can divide a congregation. But that’s not a consequence of the victim talking. It’s a consequence of the abuse perpetrated in the first place.

There’s one thing that’s even more important than knowing what not to say to someone who has been hurt by church. And that is, to simply listen.

7 comments
  1. I recommend reading Ken Blue’s book: ‘Healing Spiritual Abuse: How to Break Free from Bad Church Experiences’ (my favorite on the topic)

    http://www.amazon.ca/Healing-Spiritual-Abuse-Church-Experience/dp/0830816607

    Here’s a few snippets from a review, hope it’s helpful 🙂

    Ken Blue offers this list of characteristics of Spiritual Abuse::

    1. Abusive leaders base their spiritual authority on their position or office rather than on their service to the group. Their style of leadership is authoritarian.
    2. Leaders in abusive churches often say one thing but do another. Their words and deeds do not match.
    3. They manipulate people by making them feel guilty for not measuring up spiritually. They lay heavy religious loads on people and make no effort to lift those loads. You know you are in an abusive church if the loads just keep getting heavier.
    4. Abusive leaders are preoccupied with looking good. They labor to keep up appearance. They stifle any criticism that puts them in a bad light.
    5. They seek honorific titles and special privileges that elevate them above the group. They promote a class system with themselves at the top.
    6. Their communication is not straight. Their speech becomes especially vague and confusing when they are defending themselves.
    7. They major on minor issues to the neglect of the truly important ones. They are conscientious about religious details but neglect God’s larger agendas.

    However, Blue excels at discussing the phenomenon of spiritual abuse from a theological and Scriptural point of view. The book is loaded with pastoral insights that are well founded and well expressed. A few excerpts illustrate this clearly:

    In Luke 12:42 Jesus gives a picture of true spiritual authority in the form of a parable. He asks, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time?” True leaders are not necessarily profoundly gifted or conspicuously talented; they need no exalted office; they need no titles to validate their words; they need no seat of Moses to support their effectiveness. All they need to do is be faithful and wise, serving food to their followers as it is needed (p. 32).

    Both Ezekiel and Jesus condemned one fundamental error in the shepherds: they used the sheep rather than than served them. They acted as if the sheep existed to meet their needs rather than the other way around. When shepherds today look out over their congregations and see their people as church growth statistics, tithing units and workers in their programs, they follow the pastoral style that Jesus and Ezekiel prophesied against (p. 41).

    The modern “yeast of the Pharisees” is what we call legalism. The term legalism covers any variation on the notion that if we do the proper Christian disciplines well enough and long enough, God will be pleased with us and will reward us. It is the idea that if we do more and try harder, we can make a claim on God’s favor so that we need not rely totally upon his mercy and grace.

    Legalism is the great weapon of spiritual abuse. Multiplying religious rules to gain control over followers is authoritarianism’s primary tool. Legalism is an expression of leaders’ compulsion to seek security and predictability. If they can enforce an exhaustive list of dos and don’ts, they think, they will gain that security and predictability they crave (p. 44).

    Jesus promises rest for all who are weary of trying to please religious leaders. He offers an easy yoke to all those laboring under a load of spiritual performance. If your religion is wearisome and burdensome, God’s answer is not a longer quiet time, a firmer commitment, attendance at one more conference or one more trip to the altar. God’s solution for spiritual tiredness is rest– rest in the loving acceptance of Jesus and his perfect load-carrying work for you (p. 59).

  2. @David – A few thoughts.
    This is real. This is systemic.
    – A systemic problem is a problem due to issues inherent in the overall system, **rather than due to a specific, individual, isolated factor.

    – It’s just too easy to hear these stories and talk about ‘specific, individual, isolated factors. It’s too easy to defend the church
    – It’s been happening too often, for too long ( to too many people) and wishing it were not so, won’t change a thing.

    – It’s more damaging than many of us are prepared to accept.

    – To accept it would mean we’d have to change our way of thinking.
    How many of us are prepared to do that?

  3. Or could it be wrong of you to condemn how someone is dealing with an experience rather than just to listen to the person and love them? When a church does you wrong, the last thing you want to do is go to another one that could do the same thing to you again. You feel that the church, as an institution, has hurt you. You’re dealing with a lot of pain and trauma, and you come to understand that there are a lot of bad churches out there and a lot of bad people in them, and your instinct is to protect yourself. Spiritual abuse and harmful dogma is, in fact, a widespread problem. Don’t ask people not to judge your church while you’re in fact judging them for doing so without having walked in their shoes.

    1. Or could it be wrong of you to condemn how someone is dealing with an experience rather than just to listen to the person and love them? When a church does you wrong, the last thing you want to do is go to another one that could do the same thing to you again. You feel that the church, as an institution, has hurt you. You’re dealing with a lot of pain and trauma, and you come to understand that there are a lot of bad churches out there and a lot of bad people in them, and your instinct is to protect yourself. Spiritual abuse and harmful dogma is, in fact, a widespread problem. Don’t ask people not to judge your church while you’re in fact judging them for doing so without having walked in their shoes.

  4. Hi Danville

    I can’t speak for the author, but I know from personal experience that question is problematic because it usually isn’t a genuine question. Often that question is rhetorical and has assumed that you have been offended and you haven’t already tried. I have found that most cases, especially with people who are deeply involved before leaving, there have been numerous attempts made, before there is a decision to leave. However, due to the fact that there is an inequality of power in these conversations, the impetus is usually put on the member to change and make it work rather than both sides owning responsibility and working toward a solution. Also, some situations are so egregious that a boundary has to be set. There can be forgiveness but there may not be reconciliation. So, the question sounds as if it is diminishing the hurt if the issue was really one beyond the bounds of propriety. It sort of sounds like when your parents told you and your siblings to just “hug it out.” These things are rarely that simple.

  5. Im an ex christian i left for a few reasons and stayed away from going back to christianity for many more my family had a falling out because of different beliefs in christianity but i fully left when a liberal christian started badmouthing his fundy brothers and sisters in christ I am a die hard Buddhist Pagan and not even meeting jesus would change it because after my deconversion Aries and Tyr contacted me i will never udnerstand people that stay christian i think theyre cowards and decieving themselves bad experiences happen for a reason and a warning the religion/relationship is toxic!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *