This is going to be a multipart post namely because I'm still trying to process the reality of things, but this has happened to many church members in many denominations ranging from Southern Baptist to Presbyterian, even in the Presbyterian Church in America. For the victims, it often results in apostasy and distrust of church leaders as well as distrust of God Who the victim may often describe in terms of what the abusing party did or was like. It has happened to me personally even in a variety of ways.
The first step is to recognize that the problem exists. Just like a victim often stays in an abusive relationship with a spouse or significant other, sometimes the victim stays with a church that has become abusive as well.
Why would the victim stay? Because of the need for relationship, love and intimacy. My parents were together for 20 1/2 years before what I called World War III. It was rough. The summer of their separation, I had had as much as I could take of the fighting and moved closer to the college I was attending (I was a year-round fasttrack student) into an apartment that I had to leave due to abuse of privileges by roommates who abused my phone number by refusing to get their number established as advised since mine needed the Internet. It was during that fateful summer that I had the vivid flashback of being beaten with his belt. Over and over. I was around six. "Daddy stop. You're hurting me." He threatened to kill her if I ever told anyone. She'd be driving me to school some mornings during high school and I'd see bruises. During that summer, something else happened. I was visiting home and packing more things for the apartment when he came and got very violent because he no longer could get in the workshop. She changed the locks. My grandmother was there. He shouted through the door as we waited for the sheriff, "She's not mine!" She yelled, "Do I need to have a paternity test on her to prove she's yours because if I have to, I will!" My heart shattered into countless pieces that day.
But I didn't give up on him. At least not then. It wasn't until a friend in some of my classes and my co-ed dorm suggested writing a letter that summer to see what would happen that I gained some closure. I asked why he did it. The response I got was the first time I ever got a headache reading a letter, it was so loud. But that closed not only the door but also the window. That chapter closed. Until about four years ago when the night terrors came. And pieces of a fragmented memory that suggest when I was even younger, still a toddler, that something else happened.
Why did my parents stay together so long when he was so abusive? Because of me. Because she didn't know. Because I kept quiet. I blocked it off. After all, he threatened to kill her if I ever told anyone.
So for victims of prior abuse, it's harder to recognize when they end up in another abusive situation. Victims think it's normal because it's all they've known.
But it's never normal for abuse of any kind to happen. Not physical, not emotional, not spiritual. Whether it's bullying, socially isolating someone who speaks up and questions authority and calls them out for the wrongs the leaders have done (what I call excommunication without process), or what, it's not normal.
The victims are left with broken pieces as they face the fact that if they leave the abusive situation, they stand to lose job, friends, home, reputation, and even faith in God. The churches that commit spiritual abuse often are unaware until attention is called to it, but stand to lose a potentially committed person willing to do anything to help in any activity they can as well as reputation and standing in community, and worse, risk causing apostasy.
The leadership that are guilty often abuse their power as they continue to make the victim even more socially isolated and mentally and emotionally, sometimes physically and definitely spiritually hurt. They make demands to comply without question and abuse their authority to such extent that they leave the victim with no right to ask questions, even for clarification, and with no resource.
The thing that is most heart-sickening is that they often act in a manner that I have personally experienced and even start accusing the victim of being the abuser! And sometimes these leaders can be so blinded that they don't even recognize that they are doing it.
How many churches will commit spiritual abuse before it's addressed? How many victims will lose faith in God or apostatize before it's addressed?
Shamefully, it's not just the members that suffer. In some churches, it's both the victim and the pastor who suffer spiritual abuse from the leadership. I recognize that in a case where a member and a pastor have become friends, close friends, not best friends but closer than most members and pastors and even almost closer than other leaders and pastors. But the friendship gets hurt because the pastor does something. However, the two as friends keep trying to move toward restoration and resolution only to have the other leaders deliberately block any and all efforts to move forward toward restoration and resolution because they are resentful of that relationship being as close as it is. The member and the pastor both want to work it out, but trust on both sides is broken because the leaders are hindering the restoration and resolution process by adding more and more to the victim being socially isolated such to the extent that the member is having doubts in their salvation and wanting to apostatize and even begging them to show grace and bring them under church discipline outlined in Matthew 18 because it makes more sense than acknowledging the truth that they are being spiritually abused!
In the next article, I will address more specifics about the signs of spiritual abuse and outline some of the research on it.