Emotional Responses, Leaving the Church, Personal Stories, Spiritual Abuse, Spiritual Authority

Personal Story: Feeling Stuck after Spiritual Abuse


Mark is new to the blog and left a comment on another post yesterday and I have decided to make it into its own post so we can focus on these issues. Maybe some of you have experienced some of what he is going through and can share how you dealt with these issues. ~ja



Hi, someone from RecoveringGrace recommended that I check this blog out, and this question was very close to mine. I’m still, technically, a member of a authoritarian and legalistic Reformed denomination, but I left it for a so-called liberal church. I feel like I was abused for decades because I was smarter and more knowledgeable than many of the leaders. When I questioned things, they resorted to their “superior gifts”, the church culture, and even poisoning the well with other members so that I wouldn’t become too influential.

I feel like I am in a good church, which is still Reformed, but they have a completely different view of the role of leadership, and, in fact, have been stressing lately that our spiritual leaders are not those in some church position, but are instead the people that we recognize, in the Spirit, that God is using to help us.

That said, my old denomination is very ingrown, and it’s hard for me to escape it. My wife recognizes my need to heal, but she was not abused in the same way I was, and she really values her friendships. So much so that I’ve gotten roped into a few church retreats. I dread the retreats because I feel like someone is going to try and win me back (I think it’s more a phobia than something realistic). Interestingly enough, my wife is the last remaining member of that denomination in her family, and I am the only one in my family who isn’t.

I struggle with how to heal. I feel like I can’t heal when I get sucked back into conversations with people who are still at the old church. I feel stuck with my relationship with God because I can’t disconnect him from those who represented him so poorly for so long. Yet my wife and children still love to go to the old church when they can and see their friends and are upset that I don’t go with them. I have some friends there, but even seeing them reminds me of what I went through. I started blogging, but so far writing articles about how screwed up my old church is more like ripping off scabs than healing.

I’ve thought about professional counseling, but I don’t know where to start to find someone who has the necessary skills.



65 thoughts on “Personal Story: Feeling Stuck after Spiritual Abuse”

  1. So sorry to hear what you are going through and have been through. I am also in the process of leaving my old church because of its harsh oppressive teachings. May the God of peace, mercy, and justice sustain you.


  2. This stuff is a doozy. I’m not sure if there’s one solution that will fit everyone, but there is a solution that is right for you.

    I can’t heal when I get sucked back into conversations with people who are still at the old church.

    I can relate. At first we were being outright shunned by the members of our former church. When they saw we didn’t give a hoot they shifted more towards love-bombing. (Of course, nobody has apologized for the way we were treated.) My in-laws also try to have secret rendezvous down the driveway with my older kids.

    Dealing with this takes some discernment, If you feel like they are being manipulative, you may need to cut the relationship off. Even if they’re not being manipulative but simply make you uncomfortable, maybe put the relationship on hold until you’ve had time to heal.

    Yet my wife and children still love to go to the old church when they can and see their friends and are upset that I don’t go with them.

    This can be very hard on marriages. Hopefully your wife and kids can recognize that you are simply doing what you have to do to heal. You aren’t stopping them from spending time with their friends. Could they please respect your needs at this time.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I know others who have left like me and I know others who stay despite their recognition that something is wrong with leadership because they agree with the other teachings. I agree with much of the teaching, but the subtle and continued abuse became overwhelming. That was part of the reason that I interacted with my old friends. I thought if I could show them the abuse that we could support each other to bring healthy change. The more I dug, though, the more I found a disconnect. Those who truly recognized the abuse were afraid to deal with it, and those who were willing to deal with it couldn’t see how much it was wrapped around authoritarian theology, and instead thought it was dealing with a few outbreaks in an otherwise wonderful situation.


  4. The more I dug, though, the more I found a disconnect.

    Cognitive dissonance. It’s the reason we stayed as long as we did, too. IMO, you’re probably not going to sway your friends. The advice given to family and friends of cult members is to just be there for them. Keep the relationship open and let them figure it out for themselves. They’ll know that you’ll be there for them if they ever make a break.


  5. BTDT: As I said, it’s more of a phobia. I think the general view when people leave is that they couldn’t handle the truth, be it holding on to bad theology, or not taking correction well. As far as I know, nothing has been said and the pastor, who is a very kind, but IMHO authoritarian leader has not told anyone why I left.

    Other than an elder who met with me once, no one has tried to point the finger at me, and mostly people just ask how my work is going, since that is a “safe” question. (That is no different from when I attended regularly).


  6. “I’ve thought about professional counseling, but I don’t know where to start to find someone who has the necessary skills.”

    While taking an abnormal psychology class at a nationally recognized university, the professor said something that has remained in my memory through the intervening decades. His advice was simple: If you need counseling, talk to a friend rather than a professional. While a friend will listen, a professional will be too busy analyzing you to listen.

    Of course, finding a friend to listen, and not gossip, may be more difficult than finding a professional. Nevertheless, many problems associated with rigid religious indoctrination can be overcomes by realizing others have survived similar disasters in their life.

    For starters, if I were in your shoes, I would consider talking to my wife. The two of you could become an unbeatable tag team.

    It is also worth remembering that, much like bullies, soul-winners are deeply insecure persons. At their core, they are trying to compensate for profound inadequacies in their life. Much like someone afflicted with OCD, they can’t stand anything to be out of place. And, you are not in your proper place so far as they are concerned.

    Furthermore, for the most part, soul-winners aren’t interest in you as a person. Instead, they are chasing some promised eternal reward. You are merely a means to that end.

    Among the best antidotes is to turn the tables. When confronted with some pushy peddler, don’t hesitate to tell them what their brand of faith did TO you rather than for you. Properly executed, this form of “witness” can be absolutely devastating to those for whom pat answers is a substitute for diligent inquiry.

    Finally, learn to become comfortable with who you are as a person. Treat your former experiences as a course in life from which to learned important lessons. Above all, understand that you have value beyond that seen by those intend to using you to achieve their ends.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It has now been about two years since my own experience of spiritual abuse (pastor threatened me with excommunication and a church trial, accused me from the pulpit and in person to my long time friends and fellow church members, etc. etc). For me healing has mostly been a matter of time and distance.

    First, it was important to cut all ties with those who participated in my abuse. I highly recommend going ‘no contact’ as much as possible. With one exception, no one from my former congregation is even a facebook friend; why would I want to be reminded? Like you, I have family members who remain tied to that church, and so occasionally see congregants. I smile politely and shake hands, but remain distant; keeping conversation to polite niceties only and revealing nothing about my own life (which has been astonishingly blessed and successful since the abuse). A few people have gotten in touch, but they always want to act as if nothing happened. That isn’t honest, and it certainly isn’t Biblical repentance, so I have no reason to re-open a relationship. If someone wanted to approach me to seek forgiveness in a Biblical fashion I’d be happy to receive that. But I don’t need it to move on myself either emotionally or spiritually.

    Second, online communities like this one and tww and stuffchristianculturelikes and warrenthrockmorton were an important part of my healing. I saw that I was not alone, and that there were/are patterns to this sort of abusive behavior that weren’t unique to me. This helped solidify my understanding that it hadn’t been my fault. It has also give me an education in recognizing the warning signs of authoritarian pastors, and the dangers of authoritarian theologies. I consider this a real ‘good out of evil’ that God has done, because the blessing I’ve received personally since the abuse will soon enable me to donate large sums of money. I am now acutely sensitive to keeping those funds away from leaders/systems/theologies that would tend toward abuse. Prior to my own experience, I simply wasn’t aware of those pitfalls, and I shudder to think what and who my funds might have unwittingly enabled. I knew I was healing, though, when I needed the support sites less and less, and I was able to engage with them more for learning than for emotional catharsis.

    Third, I did eventually become comfortable at church again, and was able to stop reading every situation in light of my past abuse. Just a couple of weeks ago I realized on Saturday that I was looking forward to church the next morning. I hadn’t felt that in a couple of years, and it was good to reach the point of feeling again that I could be “glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord.” I’m a mature believer, secure in my faith, and so it was never a question of whether I would leave either faith or church behind, but sometimes I did despair of ever finding joy there again. I attend a church of a different denomination than that in which my abuse occurred, and it has been interesting to observe both the strengths and weaknesses of their different practices and policies. No ecclesiology is ‘abuse-proof’. It’s significant that the New Testament includes the list of requirements for spiritual leaders not just once, but twice. The best protection against abuse is for individuals and the body of believers that is the church to obey those passages, to discern and evaluate whether or not a leader is of God, and either remove or get away from them if they are not. I am committed to doing that personally. But it’s doubtful whether I will ever officially ‘join’ a church again.

    I don’t know if any of that helps, but it was helpful to me to process where I have been and have come to over the last two years since my spiritual abuse, so thanks, and blessings on your own journey of healing. It will come.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “For starters, if I were in your shoes, I would consider talking to my wife. The two of you could become an unbeatable tag team.”

    She’s been great, but she would prefer to be at the old church, and I think she’s gotten tired of hearing the same stuff over and over as I process some new article, conversation or understanding.

    “Among the best antidotes is to turn the tables.”

    I’m pretty good at this and yet have much to grow. Emotions are not generally considered a valid argument, but I have found when I’ve talked about how their approaches to things have hurt me emotionally, they can’t discount it. I’ve excelled at turning the tables for years, and that’s why my leaders refuse to challenge me directly. Instead they have found ways to cast doubt either generally, against non-elders, or specifically against me by things like tone of voice, non-verbal cues, etc. My wife and I had our inside joke about all the “great ideas” the leaders came up with that I had told them six months earlier to scorn and derision.

    Where I excel is also where I find the greatest difficulty. It’s easy to rip apart narrow scripture twisting by showing how the approach taken on one prooftext fails when used on something else, but it’s not easy to try and pull together a cohesive argument on something like appropriate bounds of authority from different areas of scripture when people just want to thump a verse like “submit to your leaders”, as if that is the only instruction we ever need.


  9. L.J. Thanks for your comment. It is very helpful.

    My abuse was more subtle than that and over a longer period of time. I grew up in the church and I knew the broader leadership, doctrine, policies, procedures and a lot of the cases that had been ruled on better than many local leaders, so I think they were afraid. A former church invented a “gag rule” when they went after a friend of mine and specifically ordered him not to talk to me. I was never threatened with discipline, but I was called a hypocrite and a complainer. My abuse has also been primarily just the leaders. Fellow members seem to be completely oblivious that there was any issue.

    I went through about a month or two ago and had that realization – why am I connected to all these church people? So, likewise, I removed virtually all of those.

    I guess a follow-on question is, what did your healing process look like? I feel like I’m stalled. I’m still angry and still trying to figure out who I really am apart from who I became. I guess part of it is that it’s really hard to feel like I can forgive someone who is and will remain blissfully ignorant to all the hurt he/she caused, and yet, I know if I confront the offense it will get thrown back in my face like many offenses like it have been.


  10. The thing that helped me the most after spiritual abuse was a book entitled The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.


  11. Irene, thanks! After I came up with the idea now five years ago, that what I had gone through was abuse, I found that book. Three books are at the top of my list in helping so far. That book, Boundaries, and The Highly Sensitive Person have really helped me diagnose a lot of what happened and what the results were. Perhaps I need to re-read them because it’s been awhile, because at that time I think I was more interested in the diagnosis than the healing process.


  12. Withheld, I also agree with your conclusion about “soul-winners”. I grew up being taught that I was worthless. We were taught that after we are saved, we still have this horrible sin nature that clouds everything. However, teaching about church leaders never seemed to talk about how to deal with leaders who have clouded understanding, that is unless they don’t hold some doctrinal standard. That teaching led me to believe that the only way to be valuable was to seek to be a leader. In two churches I was starting a process towards leadership. One ended when I moved away, and the other ended when the leaders discovered some of my views – which the church held, but they had protested against.

    I believe now that God protected me from perpetuating the cycle of abuse. My views on leadership were pretty bad at that point, and it was my deep insecurity, as you said, that drew me to desire the recognition and worth showered upon the leaders.

    I think this is one of the church characteristics. The vast majority of church leaders are simply insecure. They, instead, defer to other leaders in the church who seem to be stronger. Yet, most of those who are appear stronger are portraying a mask of confidence to hide people from their own insecurity. There is a huge amount of fear of rocking the boat, and this is reinforced by the claim that the church has “remained steadfast” through generations of decline.


  13. This reminds me of the time when I was a kid that my dad went to a different church for a couple years, because he was irritated at what our leadership had done. I think he was right, but he was also maybe right not to yank us out either. He came back, and then sometime later we all left.


  14. Mark,
    As someone who has had to work around, or resolve problems caused by authoritative leaders, the best advice I can give you is to seek the Holy Spirit’s leading and infilling in all that you say and do. When leaders are entrenched in their position and are not open to constructive criticism nor to challenges to their “authority”, there is little one person alone can do. Your experiences prove the point.
    The problem is not just how they are acting or believing, but what they desire and believe in their heart. John 16:8 tells us that when the Holy Spirit comes, he will convict the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment. It would be good for you to starting praying for the Spirit’s work in the thoughts and hearts of each of the leaders. He can do in answer to prayer things you can never. Do not try to fight this batlle, nor “win the victory” on your own. That is just the flesh fighting against the flesh. Seek to depend on the Spirit in any occasion you have to share or to address the situation. You can also pray through Galatians 5:19-23. As the Spirit works in the church body, you’ll see more of His fruit and less of the flesh’s.
    One last thing: I encourage you not to put every single leader in the same boat and making the situation totally black or white. Most situations are never all white or all black. An example is the comment about “soul-winners”. Just because some might be that way does not mean every single evangelist in the world is. Evangelism is part of my pastoral work and I am neither insecure nor power-hungry. Seeing those leaders as “all-black” may prevent you from speaking to them with love and grace. Some of them might only know what other leaders have taught/modeled and words filled with grace will speak louder than words of anger or bitterness.
    I’ll pray for you in the coming days for the Spirit to give you insight and direction.


  15. Mark, I am sorry that you are feeling “stuck” right now. I know the feeling. Much of my extended family is caught up in “authoritarian” religion. When I returned to my hometown about six years ago, the pressure to conform caused me to doubt the faith that I had held for decades.
    I am still processing how I view scripture and Jesus. My biggest advise is to be patient with yourself. Faith is not static, but an ongoing journey. I had to remove myself from church and am learning to “sit still and listen”. I believe God is revealing more of Himself to you as you continue in your struggle.
    Whether they admit it or not, people attend a specific church for a variety of reasons. Social interaction with likeminded people is at the top of the list. Familiarity, safety, and having a so-called expert (pastors and elders) tell them what God wants from them and how to worship are other reasons.
    There are many believers who share your experience. You show great insight in recognizing that your family’s church community compels them to stay. You can still support their choices as you explore what God has placed in your heart. God cannot be contained in a doctrinal box. I applaude you for desiring to break out and explore where God wants you, not who some elders tell you to be.
    I believe life has many grey areas and is not just black and white. Many people in the authoritarian church culture have trouble recognizing that much of what we encounter is a mystery. IMHO, learning to rest in the mystery of God and trusting in His goodness trumps any church hierarchy that teaches that they hold the the keys to salvation. I wish you the best as you continue your spiritual journey until the day you come face to face with God.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Hello, Mark. I am so sorry to read of your painful church history but, as you can see, you are not alone. It takes generous measures of time and room to detox after coming out of such a situation, and you need not suffer any guilt should you need to claim both.

    It may take some time to relearn how to trust your instincts, as you have been essentially trained by abusive people to ignore or override yellow and red flags in order to accommodate their twisted religious culture. If, for the time-being, you need to keep a safe distance from certain people, so be it. Your emotional safety is a priority, and ultimately this time of healing is primarily between you and God.

    I agree that it’s helpful to have a trustworthy confidante in this process, preferably someone who will not try to fix you or squeeze you back into a little Christian box but will accept you right where you are as you slowly work your way back to where you want to be. It took a long time to get where you are, and healing will not happen overnight – but it will happen.

    In time, I am confident you will find your friendship with God stronger than ever because you clearly want that – and so does He.

    I sincerely wish you all the best in this journey. I have every confidence that He will restore to you the years that the locusts have eaten…


  17. Woe be to those, like Mark, apparently, whose gifts, talents, training and life experience qualify them to serve in capacities the professional clergy would too often reserve for themselves. It becomes particularly problematic when dealing with “pastors” who have mistaken their lust for narcissistic supplies for a calling to ministry. They simply cannot handle what they perceive to be a threat to their prestige and control.

    Other than commiserating I cannot offer much. Still, one thing that has been helpful to me personally has been to recognize that any authority-based organization is not truly a church. Church is people bound to one another, in Jesus, by love, not authority. If people wish to continue to participate in organized church, that is likely o.k. in most instances. For myself, however, I have found that I could be dedicated to “church” or I could be dedicated to Jesus. I cannot be dedicated to both at the same time.


  18. I understand. I left an abusive church 3yrs ago. I still have a few friends I see or Fb but very limited. My kids still attend once in awhile because of relationships.
    I want nothing to do with the church or leadership …I stay away.


  19. ” Still, one thing that has been helpful to me personally has been to recognize that any authority-based organization is not truly a church. ”

    Bingo. Succinct and the truth.


  20. Mark, when I got out I could not listen to sermons anywhere. I decided to only read the Gospels and did so for 3 years. No Paul. I needed a Jesus filter. And He is nothing like what they claim He is.


  21. Hi Mark!

    You’re out! That’s a great start, brother! My two cents, regarding recovery from abusive churches, is this:

    Information–it is imperative that you continue to gain information about the beliefs, practices, policies, etc., of the abusive church. Don’t do this in order to store up ammo for arguments with the church, or your family, or other members of that church, etc., but to provide the way back to sound, rational thinking. There are some great books out there–some have been mentioned here already. One that I’ve really enjoyed is “Toxic Faith.” Not the most popular, but a great source of information and encouragement.
    Friends–the most valuable sources of relational healing comes from others who have left the same group you were in, then (in order), those who left that denomination, that form of ministry practice, etc. Hours of talk time with people you trust, who have also experienced spiritual abuse, has been shown to be as effective as formal counseling, esp. if the counseling is with a counselor who is not an expert in cult recovery. When I left the Christian cult I was in, I spent hour after hour with other survivors, just telling the stories over and over, and working through our feelings. Also, I might add–don’t let your post-cult friendships crowd out investing in your marriage, despite your wife’s level of abuse experience.
    Your emotional/spiritual and physical health–God isn’t waiting for you to “do” anything special, but in my experience He is certainly able to handle every last snarky, angry, hurt feeling that you have. He loves you, really. As for yourself, say good, nice things to yourself, and don’t allow yourself to dwell on shame or guilt (those are common feelings that survivors carry out of their situations). Anger is sometimes okay, because it at least acknowledges that something wrong has happened, but you should be careful not to let anger fuel mistreatment and attacks on others who happen to get in your way. Physically, do whatever healthy, physical thing you enjoy, often, just because you enjoy it. Also, physically, if you drink or smoke, be careful about how much of that you do: it’s a very tempting time to fall into self-medicating behavior! You probably aren’t sleeping well–don’t medicate your way to sleep, it won’t work, and you’ll have even worse dreams.
    Grace–Finally, don’t try and theologize your way through recovery. Esp. if you come from a text-heavy, reformed situation, it might trigger some unhealthy patterns and such. But almost every abusive religious group/church I’ve had anything to do with functions with a horrible understanding of, if not rejection of, the application of grace in the life of the member. Don’t read or study any teacher or preacher who is not ridiculously committed to free grace. It’s what you need.

    Too long, sorry!
    Good luck, don’t quit, it really keeps getting better!

    Liked by 2 people

  22. Church is people bound to one another, in Jesus, by love, not authority.

    Well put. The entire idea of this top down authority structure seems to be the complete opposite of what it should be.


  23. L.J. said:

    I don’t know if any of that helps, but it was helpful to me to process where I have been and have come to over the last two years since my spiritual abuse, so thanks, and blessings on your own journey of healing.

    I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to tell your story. L.J. even identified it above. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just gotten out, or have been out of the cult/church for a dozen years, sometimes you just need to share it again. I often wonder if this is because when we were in the cult, we were in essence programmed, so by sharing our stories, we are actually telling ourselves the truth of what happened.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. BTW, Ken, you gave some really practical suggestions that I haven’t read anywhere else – – discussing ways we sometimes deal with numbing pain. The whole post was very helpful. Thank you!

    Liked by 3 people

  25. I think the journey from spiritual abuse to healing is a rough one and the gentle advice from others here who’ve been through it is sound.

    Some days are better than other days for me. I was ordered to be excommunicated and shunned from my former NeoCalvinist, authoritarian, independent Bible church (with a John MacArthur/Master’s Seminary graduate as the head pastor).
    I had opposed the pastors/elders bringing their friend a Megan’s List sex offender/child pornographer to church, giving him membership, a leadership position in which people trusted him and did not know, access to all church events, and inviting him to volunteer at a 5-day children’s basketball camp in the summer that the church hosts without telling all parents, including those in the community who aren’t members and entrusted their children to us.

    My ex-pastors/elders are pathological liars and bullies. They threaten and excommunicate anyone for dissent. They even excommunicated a friend of John MacArthur’s, a doctor in his 70s, faithful husband and father, on some trumped up charge.

    I think the books that others have recommended are good. I have a stack of them.
    The blogs are good. Sharing. I didn’t realize, sadly, how many people are in churches like this.

    I wish I didn’t love people at my ex-church so deeply, there are good people there. I wish I’d had the good sense to walk out sooner. There were people who were visiting and didn’t even stay for the entire service and got up and walked out. I used to shake my head at what Biblical wisdom they were missing. I wish I had been like them: Get up and walk out.

    What I’ve learned. I will only:

    *Join a church that has congregational votes.
    *Join a church that has women in all leadership positions.
    *Join a church that has some kind of accountability.
    *Join a church that doesn’t have membership covenants (which exist to support authoritarian control).
    *Join a church that had comprehensive child safety policies.
    *Join a church that is not NeoCalvinist.
    *Join a church that doesn’t practice the ever-spreading, dangerous Patriarchy
    (a Semi-Arian Heresy that is based on a lie “The Eternal (a lie) Subordination of the Son”)
    *Join a church that believes in outside professional therapy and treatment and not this Biblical non-sense/unauthorized practice of medicine called “Biblical Counseling” (untrained people running their mouthes about things they know nothing about and doing a horrific amount of damage).
    *Join a church where voices are heard.
    *Join a church that doesn’t have members buff & shine their hatred. It got so very old.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. “Your emotional/spiritual and physical health–God isn’t waiting for you to “do” anything special, but in my experience He is certainly able to handle every last snarky, angry, hurt feeling that you have.”

    Ken, this has been enlightening for me and my wife. We were always taught to approach God a certain way – best defined as the way that we would be expected to approach any abusive narcissistic leader. You can, perhaps, see how it is hard to get beyond mere mental acknowledgement that God is close and loving. It was incredible to hear my new pastor talking about the fact that God can handle it all and he wants a REAL relationship with the REAL me, not a fake relationship with a fake me. In fact, a few weeks ago a couple shared their testimony that God had brought healing to the husband’s cancer. The wife said, “I prayed to God. I said, if you take him away from me, we’re done.” It was so powerful to see that raw emotion, and especially that there was no apology or smoothing over.

    Velour, I wouldn’t say that I had a list, but I have seen how abusive virtually every one of those things is, by name. My current church passes most of the standards outright. I’m still unsure how decisions are made, but I know that a few concerns I shared were not only taken graciously, but have brought about change. That is the opposite of where I came from where constructive criticism was taken as borderline insubordination.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Mark –

    I can’t say that I have been through exactly what you have, but I understand when one spouse is in and one is out. My husband and I experienced that twice at two separate churches. The first time he was ready to go and waited a year until I was ready. The second time I was ready to go and waited for him for a while until he was ready. So, I understand how difficult it is when you and your spouse are in two different places of understanding.

    All I can offer is to give it time. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to give up your needs. Go to church when you feel like you are able and bow out when you don’t have the strength within you to do it. I know how hard it is to sit in a service and be around people that you have a difficult time with.

    Thanks for finding us and joining us! I hope you will find this to be a place where you can feel comfortable being open and being supported.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. I think the last item on the list was a wake up call. My old church proselytized by primarily sheep-stealing. Actually, I would say that the sheep found us. As I said, the doctrine is polished, so people that start reading Reformed doctrine are going to eventually stumble upon resources in the greater family of churches and be attracted to that.

    However, I think there is some sort of authoritarian, legalistic edge to the doctrine, and as such, it wasn’t the battered sheep that were attracted out of other denominations, victimized when they tried to sharpen their fellow members. Instead, I think it was the members who already felt superior who beat their fellow members over the head with the doctrine, and ultimately lost their friends and their credibility. Those are the ones who got attracted, and they think they’re victims because they made themselves odious to everyone around themselves.


  29. Hi Mark,

    I grew up independent fundamental baptist and then moved to reformed when I was older. I’ve been working my way out of that mindset for a few years now. One thing that is helping me is contemplative prayer. I think everyone does it differently, but the way it generally works with me is I sit in a quiet place and I say, “God, I’m here to meet you.” Then I just sit still and sometimes God shows me something, and sometimes nothing happens beyond a moment of refreshment. The very first time I did it I felt a swelling in my chest, like the kind you feel when you’re very happy. It felt like God was glad I was there. Another time I remembered a very painful experience from many years ago. God showed me the people who hurt me were in great fear and pain themselves, and that they did what they did intending to help me and were doing the best they knew how to do at the time. I came to understanding and forgiveness for them that I had never had before. It was very healing for me. Since I’ve started this I have had healing realizations at other times throughout the day that I think are fed by my quiet moments waiting on God.

    Just wanted to pass that along to you. I wish you the very best.


  30. Mark, thank you for responding. Thank you also for pointing out the weaknesses in my suggestions. At the same time, they were only suggestions.

    That said, it may be worth pointing out that what some people call faith is actually an addiction. Like all addictions, faith addiction controls the person rather than the other way around. As a result, these addicts are perpetual children in need of care and supervision. Hence, religious addicts are easy prey for religious authoritarians.

    Typically, addicts are only good for one thing. That is creating other addicts.

    Consequently, classifying rabid religious indoctrination as an addiction can go a long way in helping to deal with the problem.

    Next, remember that the writings of Paul fall under the rubric of Pauline Christianity, That is to say that there is some divergence with the life and teachings of Jesus. For example, whereas Paul writes in Hebrews 13:17 and I Peter 2:13 to fall in line with authority figures, Jesus was less than charitable in his descriptions of the religious leaders of his day in Matthew 7:4, 15:7, 23:13, 23:15, 23:16-17, 23:23-25, 23:27-29, 23:29, 23:33, Mark 12:38-40, Luke 11:39, 11:43, 11:52, 12:1, John 8:44, and 8:55.

    Furthermore, born in the 17th century, the RCA is a relative newcomer to the Christian faith. The RCUS is even newer. In either case, being Presbyterian in design and Continental in origin, Reform, along with Lutherans, Anglicans (as well as later Puritans, Congregationalists, and Methodists [and eventually Adventists and Holiness]) and Anabaptists (and later Baptists), is numbered among the fruits of the Luther’s rebellion against the authority of Rome! John Calvin also instigated an early rebellion against Vatican rule.

    More interestingly, in the late 20th century, the RCA violated Paulinian doctrine (I Corinthians 14:34) when it allow the ordination of women!!!

    The point of the above is that simply knowing a little about the internal contradictions of Bible as well as some church history can make for fun and games with authoritarian addicts. However, to do this requires expanding one’s educational horizons.

    One way authoritarian sects control individuals is through intellectual isolation. If a child is raised in an authoritarian intellectual environment, he or she is overwhelmed by isolation imposed by church and parents. They are fed a debilitating diet of fear, guilt, and magical thinking. They are also frequently given impossible expectations and then punished for not achieving them.

    In turn, these children are woefully ignorant of science, sex, and society. Psychology is portrayed as demonic. Approved views of history and politics are so narrow as to oscillate between being dangerous and being useless.

    Like religious addicts described above, children raised by authoritarian sects experience emotional, intellectual, sexual, and social developmental delays such that they may never grow up to become fully functioning adults!

    These are the chains you must break of you are ever to be free.


  31. Thank you for offering Mark’s concerns.
    I too, feel badly for you Mark and I am still without a church fellowship. What has become lost is a true and holy worship of a very awesome God and like you I started asking questions and because the man I married no longer professes any ‘faith’ … won’t discuss anything with me … well, the ‘c’hurch judges me for expecting too much??
    I agree with so many others, Mark. We must give this time. I remain in the Word and am grateful for internet access to many blessed Scripturally based teachers / preachers.
    Praying for all as we seek to be Bereans and desire God-centered worship and not man-centered. http://www.gotquestions.org/true-worship.html


  32. Hi, Mark.

    I’ve been in similar situations. A few thoughts come to mind.

    *God is bigger than any one denomination can articulate. Bigger than the sum total of all denominations’ conclusions put together. And they all fall short and are off track somewhere.

    *All churches are heady environments. A person’s ability to be objective will not be able to function on all cylinders.

    *God is as available as air. As present as the next breath you ingest.

    *Take a year of Sundays off. Detox. Remove yourself from the consternation and counfounded-ness. Simplicity instead. Do things that put back into you, that bring you peace and pleasure. A bike ride to a favorite breakfast place. Eat your favorite foods. Watch the sunrise and sunset with favorite hot or cold beverages. Watch favorite movies. Go to live concerts, immerse yourself in the vibrations of live music. Read well-written fiction (not Christian — detox from that overlay & agenda). Game nights with family and friends, with great music playing and great snacks and beverages. Go camping. Hiking. Backpacking.

    Be physical as opposed to cerebral, trying to figure it all out. You can’t figure it all out.


  33. Mark, God always finds a way for us. Sara2 interestingly enough has found some relief with contemplative prayer. That was also a safe way for me to dip my toe in the spiritual water again. Generally you can find contemplative groups through Catholic Churches-although they are usually ecumenical. (I am not Catholic).
    The focus is listening to God, which is a major change from 1 hour “prayer warrior” sessions where some people ramble on about what they want from God. (No offense meant to people of prayer). It is safe for me, because I am in a group of believers who are open to God. There isn’t a lot of fundamentalist jargon and God is the authority.
    I have read some helpful responses here. Mostly, know that you are not alone in your struggle. This is a very safe place to be authentic with you questions and thoughts. Hope you and your family have a beautiful weekend!


  34. Thanks for more great responses. I would say that there is an apparent contradiction between Paul’s writings and what Jesus said. There are other passages that seem to stand out as well. I will say that there is a general truth to “there is no male nor female” in the spiritual sense.

    My current question regarding women in authority is whether we are truly understanding Paul’s writings. For example, do we forbid people today from eating in Middle Eastern restaurants? They use “Halal” meat, which is sacrificed facing Mecca to the false god Allah. But in Acts 15, and repeatedly throughout the NT, it is reiterated “do not eat meat sacrificed to idols”. For this one example, we have a reasonable explanation. There is nothing wrong with meat sacrificed to idols. However, there were Christians at that time who had converted out of pagan religions of the day, and the religious significance of that meat could potentially cause them to fall back into that. We have, in a sense, a similar concern about alcohol today. There’s nothing wrong with drinking alcohol, but doing so in front of someone you know to be a former alcoholic could cause big problems.

    What if Paul’s instructions regarding women are more surrounding the pagan religion of the day, which had “oracles” = women who commanded people to do things, religious cult prostitution, and other things? Perhaps Paul’s instruction was that to avoid Christianity looking like just another religion in the pantheon of Roman/Greek Gods, there might be a need to temporarily restrict the formal role of women in the church. But… we take that out of it’s context as instruction to a specific church over specific matters and blindly apply it to every church everywhere.


  35. Mark, I empathize heavily with your comment about being “smarter and more knowledgeable than many of the leaders” in your Reformed church. When I walked away from Harvest Bible Chapel a number of years ago, it took me a considerable amount of time to realize that not only was I subject to spiritual abuse during my time there, particularly while I was serving in one of their ministries.

    I also had to realize that two of the root causes of spiritual abuse perpetrated by pastors and church leaders, are the inherent feelings of insecurity and obsessive need for control many of them struggle with and, in too many cases, celebrate as if these flaws were gifts of the Holy Spirit. While my lack of willingness to “drink the kool-aid” of the cult prostitute known as nouthetic counseling was definitely a factor at Harvest, the primary issue between the leaders of that ministry and me was that the pastor over the ministry, and his favored lay leader, were incompetent and inept.

    I had much more experience in this area of ministry than they did, in fact, and there were regularly arguments about how different situations should be handled. While I served under a different lay leader who was competent in this area of ministry, and to whom I submitted in all ministry matters by design, virtually all final decision-making authority was centered around two men who quite literally had no idea what they were doing.

    In dealing with one of those situations, the lay leader I served under and I discussed our options, agreed on how the situation should be handled, executed that plan and mutually stood behind our decision when it was questioned. That is, until the other, favored lay leader, with the support of the pastor over the ministry, unilaterally decided that a situation he had no direct knowledge of, and that a response to had already been decided upon under legitimate authority, would be handled differently, based solely on the prejudices he and the pastor over the ministry had against me. I’m not sure what discussions took place after that, but ultimately the lay leader I served under turned on me and adopted their position.

    By God’s Grace, I was able to cut ties with Harvest immediately thereafter, and have had no association with Harvest Bible Chapel or any of those I served with since. I do recall how another serving in that ministry contacted me not long after I left. He tried to portray himself as my mentor, but then demonstrated how incompetent he was for that role when he told me that, according to Romans 13:1-7, I should do what leaders at Harvest wanted, because “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad”.

    Nouthetic counseling, anyone?

    Today, I regularly attend a church, support that church financially, benefit from the preaching and teaching ministries of that church and am in agreement with the church’s overall direction. I’ve even seen the flock leader I served under at Harvest, and others I’ve served with at Harvest, attending services at that church, in the wake of the scandals caused by the pastoral and personal misconduct of Harvest’s overseer, James MacDonald.

    However, I’m not a member of that church and currently have no desire to become one. At one time, I felt positively about Harvest, and about other churches I have attended, and I ultimately found myself being led by the Lord to abandon those associations. There is plenty of time for me to become a member of a church if that’s the direction the Lord chooses for me. In the meantime, I don’t need any more spiritual abuse from church and ministry leaders than I’ve already experienced.

    Mark, I encourage you during this time to praise God for your spiritual gifts. In the same way there are people who have been blessed by God through me, there are people who have been blessed by God through you. In addition, I would also encourage you to not be ashamed of your intelligence and knowledge. The inability of your previous church’s leaders to understand the blessings they willingly gave up, in order to glorify and gratify themselves, is absolutely a reflection of my experiences at Harvest Bible Chapel.

    Finally, I praise God especially that He has given me the knowledge of His Word, the wisdom to discern spiritual abuse and the freedom to walk away from those who attempt to create the appearance of glorifying God, when all they’re really doing is seeking to gratify themselves at the expense of the victims they are creating.

    Liked by 1 person

  36. “…an apparent contradiction between Paul’s writings and what Jesus said.”

    Without the writings of Paul, or someone like him, there would be no organized Christianity. Paul was so necessary for the Roman way of thinking that, had he not already existed, Christianized Rome would have invented him! Jesus was, and still it, simply too radical for a lot of people. This can be especially true of those with a little too much wealth and power for their own good.

    Another thing worth considering in analyzing the Paulinian epistles is that were written by a man pressed for time and laboring under less than idea conditions. Also, much like many of us, he was a man of the times in which he lived. Had Paul known the enormous amounts of time and energy future Bible scholars would spend nitpicking his texts, he might have been more careful in his wordsmithing.

    Even within Christianity, alcohol is largely cultural and, in the United States, a regional issue. Catholics in the Northeast have fewer concerns than do Protestants in the Midwest and South. And, needless to say, Christianity has a notorious problem with sex dating back to time of Augustine.

    Biologically, however, women are remarkably similar to men. Then, so are monkeys and pigs! This can be especially true in the embryonic stage. The men most likely to have trouble with women are those less comfortable in their own skin. Of course, the reverse is also true.


  37. Hey Mark, if you are still reading here, my sympathies to you. I’ve gone through my own version.

    Being angry is a human God-given response to injustice. It is an uncomfortable feeling, of course, so we generally avoid it when we can. “Be angry and sin not” simply means that we don’t take our anger out on the innocent, don’t make those around us pay for our own suffering.

    Anger lasts as long as it lasts. Sometimes it takes a week to get through, sometimes years—depends on the depth of the injustice and one’s personality. It will go away but usually takes far longer than seems proper. Hang in there. Let it out in non-cruel ways and be kind to yourself. God can surely handle it—He is big enough, you know? Eventually, you will be finished and will feel tremendously relieved. But meanwhile, give it respect, don’t shove it down as illegitimate. The imprecatory psalms and OT prophets might be helpful.

    I also learned that one cannot make another person change. No matter how rational, how carefully evidence-based, or how emotionally balanced—if someone is not willing to see, they simply will not. This is as true for those who are low-grade authoritarian as for those who are aggressively abusive. It is an unfortunate stubbornness that drives their blindness. And the more they are challenged, the more threatened they feel, and the more they strike out.

    I eventually recognized that even God lets abusive authoritarians go along in their blind destructive ways. He hasn’t struck them with lightning, you know? Many of them thrive! Eventually I just gave the people who abused me over to God, to bring to justice when He will. It was out of my hands. (I also know that I will not be a chosen tool for His eventual action. Some of the abused eventually become that tool, but in my case, no.)

    As most everyone here has said, it is important to leave abusive people. Low-grade or extreme, their carelessness (setting their faces against you) continues to scrape at your heart when you are around them. You are still healing and it is not helpful to keep getting wacked on the same sore spots. So if your wife wants to attend that church yet, ok, but it is not good for you. Patience with her and protection for self—I hope that you two can find a way to manage it.

    I wish you the best.

    Liked by 1 person

  38. Mark, I know you were the one reaching out for comfort with your comment. But please know how uplifting and faith building it was for me to read your conclusion that titled leaders are not necessarily our spiritual authority. Even many churches that used to operate like they believed that too are now hiring authoritarian minded leaders. The authoritarians refuse to translate Hebrews 13 correctly to reflect what you said “not those in some church position, but are instead the people that we recognize, in the Spirit, that God is using to help us.” After I dissected Hebrews for myself, I realized that was exactly why I had obeyed my “spiritual mom” when she was counseling me. It was not because she held a women’s leadership title. But it was because I recognized where she had gone before me (leadership according to Hebrews 13). So when she told me to do this or that before meeting with her again, I did it. And she always welcomed my independent interpretations when I saw something different from what she did. I cannot even stomach using that word “obey” in any other church context when I speak. But in cases as I just mentioned, it feels like freedom, because it is truly my choice. I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church singing “Trust and obey, for there is no other way, to be happy in Jesus, trust and obey.” I’m sorry to trigger anyone here with that. Just writing it still makes me feel like throwing up because it always meant trust and obey all pastors, parents, and all other earthly titles whether or not they were abusive. That same feeling always comes back when I here Christians say we must submit to our titled leadership.
    I think the best thing for your relationship with your family is to live in the joy and freedom that you now know Jesus was talking about. To force them your way would feel to them right now as the same oppression that you intellectually left and ache to physically leave taking them with you. Which reminds me, where are you at intellectually with the complementarian doctrine?


  39. Dear Mark,

    In my eyes, your courage in telling this painful story is one more step in your recovery. This is how you’re fighting for your wife and children, and all the good people still left in that abusive environment.

    I probably can’t give you much direction or advice, but I hope this song will at least encourage you:


  40. Patti, I visited an RCUS church and they sang “trust and obey”. It actually made me really angry because I felt like I trusted and obeyed and yet I wasn’t “happy” as it seemed to indicate I should be. I went back with my wife because she thought we should give it a chance, and the sermon was on how God gifted certain men to lead because we’re all dumb sheep.

    I think the problem isn’t complementarianism as much as it is our view of authority. Our idea of authority seems to derive from brinkmanship – “someone has to make the decision and someone has to bite her lip and submit”. Yet I’ve never found that to be true. I find that we make better decisions together because we each bring different gifts and abilities to the table. I also find that we don’t have to have a unified front for the children. They see us argue. They see us angry and they see us work things out. Our eldest is the most uncomfortable with conflict and sometimes, after the fact, we explain to her how we needed to understand each other and figure out each others’ concerns so that we could make things better. That we shouldn’t be afraid of being emotional.

    I’m actually very troubled that what I see as societal improvement is coming from outside the church rather than inside. Companies have started realizing that hierarchical, demeaning jobs aren’t attracting workers, and they’re finding that having liberal vacation policies isn’t hurting. People are being empowered to confront abuse more than any time in the past, and it pains me that the primary force trying to bring back abusive, authoritarian, demeaning society is the organized church.


  41. Mark, your logic sounds so refreshing (I’ll let the complementarian argument slide for now). I am almost finished with my 10 page I/O psychology final, an objective job analysis of where my daughter works at a large almost profitable tech startup called MOZ. They are scooping up the talented young people with the low power, put the worker first mentality. Its working. I’m taking online classes from a Christian University so I also have to integrate a Christian world view into my essay. I am writing that the model of leadership at her company should be used in the church. Back to the complementarian ideology, I am finally in school at age 55 instead of going to school after high school because of complementarianism. Complementarianism drove me away from God before the word was invented. But for me, even if complementarianism didn’t prevent me from going to school, or if I had the ideal complementarian man who provided me with the whole world, it wouldn’t be enough to satisfy me. I never was and still am not very good at math, thanks to complementarianism, but saying that I am equal to my husband but I am subordinate to my husband never stops sounding like 2+2=5. Neither can I be intimate with an authority figure. Please forgive my snarkiness. I just spent 18 hours straight on my final and its 2:39 A.M. But really, I really do appreciate all you are saying here. You are on the right track.


  42. Patti, I think it’s all wrapped up together. In my old church, we were prepared to submit to the elders by being told that our understanding is darkness and even the best things that we can bring are worthless. It was encouraged to read the Bible every day because that’s what we’re supposed to do, but I think it was only to the extent that you didn’t think too much about what you read.

    I actually had the opposite discussion with my now wife. She didn’t want to go to college because of complementarianism. She was homeschooled. I said, how can you teach your kids math if you don’t understand it? There’s a lot I didn’t get of high school math until I had math in college. We also had the example of a couple where the husband was laid off and the wife, who had in-demand training, was able to get by with her taking more work.

    I think that authoritarianism is a characteristic of Western society. Japanese companies have much more of a “servant leadership” (trying not to throw up) aspect to them. Not our version where it means serving people by making them feel worthless. If authoritarianism were correct, then Japanese companies wouldn’t be eating our lunch, but… they are. They’re more profitable, more efficient, higher quality, and happier work environments where people feel valued. Yet somehow we can’t get past the idea that the purpose of those under me is to make me feel more valued and more important, when it is the opposite. The “superior’s” job is to help them understand how valued and important they are.


  43. “I think that authoritarianism is a characteristic of Western society. Japanese companies have much more of a “servant leadership” (trying not to throw up) aspect to them. Not our version where it means serving people by making them feel worthless. If authoritarianism were correct, then Japanese companies wouldn’t be eating our lunch, but… they are. They’re more profitable, more efficient, higher quality, and happier work environments where people feel valued. Yet somehow we can’t get past the idea that the purpose of those under me is to make me feel more valued and more important, when it is the opposite. The “superior’s” job is to help them understand how valued and important they are.”

    Mark, I worked with many Japanese companies and I have a totally different take. They are very hierarchical BUT they have an extremely long view when it comes to planning and success. This changes how they approach things like teams, management philosophy, compensation for leaders, etc. they are all about long term profit. We live by quarterly profits. They are planning 100 years out and are thinking of their great grandkids.

    We, on the other hand, are about instant results. Instant fame, instant wealth, instant fixes, etc. and those things come about easier when you can control people around you.


  44. “As most everyone here has said, it is important to leave abusive people. Low-grade or extreme, their carelessness (setting their faces against you) continues to scrape at your heart when you are around them. You are still healing and it is not helpful to keep getting wacked on the same sore spots. ”

    Most important advice!

    Liked by 1 person

  45. Mark,

    I felt like I was reading my own story written out. I too was in a Reformed church and worked in a Reformed organization that had abusive and deceptive practices. Whenever someone would leave the organization, a story was made up about them that would put the best possible spin on the situation. When no spin was possible, the leaders outright lied. I watched friend and colleague after friend and colleague suffer through this. I heard stories of people who were before my time. Then I became one of the stories told.

    I crossed the leader and that’s when it all began going downhill for me personally. He had tried to manipulate me into believing that a friend of mine had refused extra responsibilities because my friend was greedy and wanted more money. My friend had told me about their conversation the day before and what my friend said directly contradicted the leader. I refused to be swayed by the leader and take his side against my friend. The leader came back to me THREE times that day attempting to convince me. I can still see his face and the darkness in his eyes. There was evil there which I felt so strongly that day and can still feel now. It literally was like he was trying to be a Sith Lord and use the Force on me!

    From that point on, I knew I needed to leave the organization, but I also knew how influential this leader was. I knew the way he had called ahead of others and sabotaged them for other positions. I knew the way he undermined people. I felt stuck, and fear and insecurity began to drive me. I began failing in my ability to function.

    Eventually I began to see a professional counselor who I would trust with anything. He felt strongly that I was experiencing PTSD from what I had experienced and walked me through EMDR therapy (see http://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/). The starting point for each of our sessions was that moment when the leader exerted so much to manipulate me against my friend. The counselor would ask me to think about that moment and then would ask what I felt and where I felt it. Over months I began to see glimmers of light and hope. It broke the chokehold that the trauma had on me but restoration takes such a long time.

    I’m not in the church, denomination, or organization any more. Actually moved to a new state for work and have become part of a church here that is very different. It was hard for me and my family but was the best possible thing to happen. Getting out of the environment with so many reminders was huge and healing.

    But like you, my wife has so many good friends in the old community. She didn’t experience the abuse the way I did, and it took her a while to accept what I was going through. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe me but was more that it created such cognitive dissonance for her. (That is such a great term!) How could a man who preached and wrote what he did treat someone as I said he treated me and others? Was I sure I didn’t misinterpret it? Over time, she fully accepted it and saw the broken people. Her righteous anger began boiling and from time to time still erupts! We were cleaning out books last weekend and I was going to keep one that the leader wrote because of the effect it had on my life when I read it. She said, “Nope! Lots of books made an impact. I’m tossing it! Too much of a gap between what he wrote and what he lived!”

    I really resonate with the title of this post – feeling stuck. I have moments where I feel unstuck and feel progress and that gives me hope. But then I have moments when I’m triggered and can’t get my racing heart and nerves to calm down. I struggle with confidence in the gifts and abilities God has given me. I doubt myself a lot but less these days. My dad used to be a mechanic and how I feel reminds me of hearing him try to crank up the cars he was working on. Everything looks right and the engine turns over but just won’t crank! Something will happen at work or home and I KNOW that I know what to do or how to handle it but the engine won’t crank!

    What helps? Listening to people like Julie Anne and Dee at Wartburg Watch. Brad at https://futuristguy.wordpress.com/. Jeff at https://cryingoutforjustice.com/. The many wounded who still have so much courage.

    Brene Brown – just hearing her talk about shame and guilt and worthiness. “When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.”

    Julie Anne and LJ were spot on about telling your story. What’s hard is finding a new community where you can tell your story, where people will listen, believe, affirm, encourage, challenge. It’s difficult for that to happen in your old friendships from the former church. Some friends that I shared things with didn’t believe me. Some of them thought I was just bitter and angry. That I needed to get past it. Matthew 18 came up a time or two. 🙂 I don’t think all my friends had those thoughts or didn’t believe me, but when a few do, it’s hard to not be insecure and wonder what they are thinking. Are they doubting me too?

    As a result, I feel pretty disconnected with my friends from that time. I think the feeling of fragmentation is hard to get past. My friends are different, my sense of self is different. I don’t know what to do with that chapter of life.

    Counseling and EMDR therapy were huge for me. Recognizing the lies I was telling myself based on lies others had told.

    Spiritually I have found so much rest in the Book of Common Prayer. It allows me to just follow the path of other saints. I don’t work myself up over how I apply this passage or that passage. I trust that Jesus is forming me without my beating myself up over a personal development plan.

    OK, that was longer than planned but Julie Anne has forbidden us to say it was too long! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  46. While professional treatment options may vary, such as using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) instead of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), exploring the link between authoritarian religious brainwashing and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is most certainly valid.

    At the same time, please remember you are also dealing with an addiction. Hence, as with all addictions, relapse is a very real possibility.


  47. “It wasn’t that she didn’t believe me but was more that it created such cognitive dissonance for her. (That is such a great term!) How could a man who preached and wrote what he did treat someone as I said he treated me and others? Was I sure I didn’t misinterpret it? ”

    This is key. Like most people, it is very hard to understand that the leader’s very position feeds this and makes such a dual personality more likely.

    Christian leaders are rarely like their stage/public persona. In fact, they often view themselves as what they teach and rarely connect the dots. We don’t get to see it often unless we work with them. And most who do work for them make excuses for them in order to be close to the power.

    Tullian is a recent glaring example. His cheap Grace Schick did not extend to the person closest to him- his wife. It is rare for these things to become public. People love the persona and know little about the real person.


  48. Bonaventure, thanks so much. This is really similar. I didn’t work at a church institution, but I grew up in that environment, and the hypocrisy drove me away. Every now and then, I get someone trying to pull me back in, but I realize it’s pointless.

    Part of the cognitive dissonance is that it’s not as much abusive people, as it is cool, wonderful people that have bought into the theology of an abusive office. With few exceptions, the leaders I interact with are really godly, honorable people, but something happens when they put on their “spiritual office” hat that makes them abusive. They don’t need to be respectful and caring anymore because now they’re speaking the very words of God to me, and I need to change or I’m the insubordinate sinner.

    That creates all these abusive and hypocritical double standards. So, their confrontation is loving by nature, regardless of the love or respect shown, since it is from a position of God-given authority, but my confrontation is insubordinate by nature unless it properly shows the deference and respect, and of course unless I take their response as the very word of God.

    That creates an intriguing dynamic. Talking about the weather is a pleasant experience, but any church talk turns into a monologue of authority-based instruction. Since my wife likes to talk about the weather and I like to talk about church, one can imagine how we have two entirely different perspectives.


  49. Mark, when I have left abusive churches–I’ve done so twice–I’ve found it very helpful to emphasize what I do believe. This was especially the case when i figured out a church where I was a deacon was closet KJVO–I emphasized the Solas and the real Fundamentals afterwards, as opposed to fights over Greek Bible manuscripts and “I don’t drink and I don’t chew and I don’t go with girls that do”.

    A bit of “navel-gazing” can be good, too. OK, so I thought that I was smarter than my former pastor–OK true enough, but am I really holding to what I think is important, or am I just wanting things for myself? Being smart can be an excuse for all kinds of things.

    For reference, the most recent church my family left was a difference over whether they ought to be using James MacDonald’s work–as Sean can note, there are some reasons we ought not be encouraging him. My favorite one is greeting a non-Trinitarian pastor, TD Jakes, as a brother, and then encouraging prosperity theology as he bought a two million dollar home.

    Suffice it say you don’t need a MENSA membership card to figure that one out.


  50. Yeah, there is a lot of soul searching. I was upset at the abusive preaching. A congregation full of Christians and yet the sermons week after week were about how horrible and wretched we are. Nothing about now that we’re forgiven and adopted and have great worth before God, how do we live that from day to day. That became a litmus test when I went to other churches. Were the sermons preached to Christians or Non-Christians?

    I guess I don’t see why we have to be reminded week after week how depraved and horrible we are so that we can better experience the proper attitude of thankfulness toward God. I guess they call it meat, but if that’s true, why do I still feel like a baby?


  51. From Lydia: “This is key. Like most people, it is very hard to understand that the leader’s very position feeds this and makes such a dual personality more likely. Christian leaders are rarely like their stage/public persona. In fact, they often view themselves as what they teach and rarely connect the dots. We don’t get to see it often unless we work with them. And most who do work for them make excuses for them in order to be close to the power.”

    Yes, absolutely this, Lydia! I think about how much it contrasts with Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. He appealed to their relational experience of him to affirm the theology he wrote and taught. There was an interweaving of the relationship and the teaching. But with leaders we’re talking about, they use their writing and teaching to shape people’s assumptions of what a relational experience with them is like.

    I would often meet people who would speak so glowingly of the leader and talk about how great it must be to work with him. I read an article on PTSD a couple of years ago that talked about how it often has to do with a violation of strongly held morals. In situations where there was such praise of the leader or the organization, you have a choice – what do you say? Do you say, “Actually, he is a pretty narcissistic and paranoid person who doesn’t practice what he preaches”? In addition to getting you fired, there’s a lot of cultural pressure to just “smile and wave”. But you know you’re lying and you feel your integrity breaking.

    So you’re violating your morality on being truthful AND you feel powerless in the situation. Nasty!


  52. So you’re violating your morality on being truthful AND you feel powerless in the situation. Nasty!

    Exactly!!! That puts you in such a vulnerable position.


  53. Absolutely! That’s where the trap is. And even if you did speak, you would have to overcome the persona that has been built up through the preaching and teaching!

    To Mark’s point about “something happens when they put on their “spiritual office” hat that makes them abusive. They don’t need to be respectful and caring anymore because now they’re speaking the very words of God to me, and I need to change or I’m the insubordinate sinner.”

    There’s research out there about this effect of power. In his book Good Boss, Bad Boss, Bob Sutton shares the following:

    “To appreciate how such power poisoning plays out for bosses, consider the ‘cookie experiment’ reported by psychologist Dacher Keltner and his colleagues. Three-person student teams were instructed to produce a short policy paper. Two members were randomly assigned to write it; the third member evaluated it and determined how much to pay the two ‘workers.’ After about thirty minutes, the experimenter brought in a plate of five cookies. It turned out that a little taste of power turned people into pigs: not only did the ‘bosses’ tend to take a second cookie, they also displayed other symptoms of ‘disinhibited eating,’ chewing with their mouths open and scattering crumbs.”

    Sutton says this illustrates how when people wield power, three things happen. Leaders…
    *become more focused on their own needs and wants;
    *become less focused on others’ needs, wants, and actions; and
    *act as if written and unwritten rules others are expected to follow don’t apply to them.

    This is the same dynamic we see over and over again in abusive churches. Reminds me of what Jesus said: “You know how the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them… Not so with you.”


  54. Yes, and like the pigs in Animal Farm, they claim that taking the second cookie is really an act of selfless service that will benefit all in the end, and the dogs bite anyone who disagrees.


  55. When I was in the youth group, there was a recurrent theme. My peers talked about living a double life – one inside church and family, and one outside where they weren’t watching. It was often when these kids “took their faith seriously” that they realized they needed to get rid of the second life.

    Looking back, I realized that for many of these kids, the life that they walked away from was the real them and what they embraced was a religious poster of themselves that they held up to avoid the nagging and judgment.

    My experience was different, mainly because I’m somewhat avoidant. Instead of putting myself out there and suffering rejection like many do, I put out a little bit of me as bait. If someone took that bait, I might open up a bit. If someone rejected that bait, it wasn’t a huge loss, and it was something I was prepared for. My Achilles Heel was pastors. They were lifted up as the gold standard of shepherding, and with the exception of a couple, they rejected me as well.

    I can’t remember the commenter, but he said that he was very guarded in what he let out. That’s been my life story. I feed a bit of information out and I see what the response is. I watched Natalie Greenfield’s presentation last night and the church aspect was really close to home. I wanted help and I wanted to tell my story, but when I shared bits of my pain I got rejection and denial. Much of my healing has come from online communities where I was able to see that others have gone through similar things. I think she said it better than I could. My parents and my church represented God in a powerful and unique way in my life, and it’s been especially hard because of that to separate God from his representatives.


  56. Mark, if you’re still reading, your comment about “meat” struck me. Look up Hebrews 5:12-6:3–“meat” apparently is doctrines beyond the nature of man and salvation, and the nature of baptism.

    As I look at your note, it appears that at your former church, the doctrine of total depravity became more or less a bludgeon used by elders on the rest. Am I getting that close to right? The interesting thing here is that whether one agrees with it or not, total depravity is all about the nature of man and salvation.

    In other words, it’s emphatically milk, not meat. So we might infer that one characteristic of sub-par or abusive churches is that they are spiritually immature to the point of missing basics like this.


  57. Mark: Stopped by tonight because I have been super busy and haven’t been here for a while.

    When I left my last fundagelical church, I sought a counselor using that most important of criteria: one that was covered by my insurance. 😉 I explained to the person on the insurance hotline that I wanted a counselor who was a Christian, because I didn’t think an atheist or someone of another faith would understand. But I did NOT want a “Christian counselor” because I thought I would barf if someone threw one more Bibke verse at me. I also asked for someone with experience in cult deprogramming, if that were available.

    She reocmmended someone in the practice where I’d sought counseling when I got divorced. This woman was a Methodist who understood the churches I’d attended. She introduced me to the concept of “spirital abuse” and helped me work through those fears and hurts. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

    So, I hope you see this and it helps. If you want that counselor’s information, please reply here and I’ll send it to Julie Anne.


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