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Blog Series: Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery by Pastor Ken Garrett, Wk 2

Spiritual Abuse, Pastor Ken Garrett, Spiritual Abuse in the church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery


Pastor Ken Garrett, Spiritual Abuse, Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery
Pastor Ken Garrett

Ok, here we go, plowing through Pastor Ken Garret’s dissertation about spiritual abuse. I used the word plowing intentionally. For some of us, it will be work. It is not enjoyable to be reminded about difficult experiences. However, some push that pain under the rug and haven’t been able to process it in a safe environment. If you feel ready to do that, come along and join us. Even if you don’t feel ready, you can still read. And for those who have never experienced spiritual abuse, I’m grateful that you are reading, too. Having compassion and understanding is so important in helping someone who has gone through spiritual abuse.

Just an FYI, Ken has removed his dissertation from his blog because he plans to publish it into a book. Ken has graciously allowed us to continue using his original dissertation for this series. (Thanks, Ken!!!)

Well, let’s dig in. Here is the very meaty paragraph we will start with this week:

Abusive churches, past and present, are primarily characterized by strong, control-oriented leadership. These leaders use guilt, fear, and intimidation to manipulate members and keep them in line. Followers are led to think that there is no other church quite like theirs and that God has singled them out for special purposes.

Other, more traditional evangelical churches are put down. Subjective experience is emphasized and dissent is discouraged. Many areas of members’ lives are subject to scrutiny. Rules and legalism abound. People who do not follow the rules or who threaten exposure are often dealt with harshly.

Excommunication is common. For those who leave, the road back to normalcy is difficult, with seemingly few who understand the phenomena of spiritual abuse.

I don’t know about you, but I can identify with 100% of this paragraph. There were so many things that resonated with me when reading it. Let me share my personal experience jumping off of these following two sentences from Ken’s dissertation:

Followers are led to think that there is no other church quite like theirs and that God has singled them out for special purposes. Other, more traditional evangelical churches are put down.
The doors of Grace Bible Church, the church where Ken pastors. It is the 2nd oldest church in Portland, Oregon .

Julie Anne’s experience: My ex-pastor came across as if he had the correct and only true Gospel message. He had us all convinced that there were no other churches that taught the true Gospel message in all of the Portland and surrounding area. He prided himself that there were a couple of regular attenders who drove from 45 minutes away because there was “nothing else out there.” Not only did we hear that the Gospel message was the most correct from the pulpit, the congregants echoed these sentiments.

Everybody was convinced that we were at the best church and any other church would be inferior. So, ultimately, this meant that if you left for any other reason besides a distant job transfer, to take care of your ailing parents in another locale, etc, you were being rebellious and not allowing “God” to work in your life. Whoa! So, imagine the pressure we felt to remain there. 

I remember various families leaving after being there for a few months and asking Pastor Chuck why they left. Every single case (except the move for a job), someone left because there was something wrong with their faith, or they were in rebellion, according to Chuck’s response. It was never any fault of Chuck’s, or anything wrong at BGBC. The blame was on “them.” And “they” were talked about negatively, you know, the “let’s pray for them because they are being led astray,” prayers.

I often wondered why Chuck didn’t not seem to be friendly with other local pastors. In fact, he criticized pastors (except John MacArthur, Steve Lawson, and a few others who weren’t local). Having been in the military and moving a lot, we experienced many churches and I never heard of a pastor who put down other local pastors/churches like Chuck O’Neal did.

This might be confusing, but I need to say up front that I never liked going to BGBC. I tried to like it because my husband liked it so much. But . . . . I did get sucked in to some degree – not as much as others, but I truly drank the Kool-Aid so much that I felt sorry for other people in Portland area who were not getting this good teaching and were missing out. I even had some thoughts that perhaps some of my “Christian” friends may not have been truly Christian because they were not getting the full message that we were getting. I prayed for their souls. (Little did I know, some of my friends were praying for my soul and for us to get out!)

There was truly a sense of elitism and pride among the congregants, and at times I went along with it, thankful that we were finally getting the truth and we were so privileged. Interestingly, when I see this kind of elitism and arrogance from others trying to claim that theirs is the only correct doctrine, Gospel, belief, etc, I am repulsed. Blech! I want none of that arrogance.

How about you? Does the excerpt resonate with you and your church experience?

15 thoughts on “Blog Series: Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery by Pastor Ken Garrett, Wk 2”

  1. Followers are led to think that there is no other church quite like theirs and that God has singled them out for special purposes. Other, more traditional evangelical churches are put down.

    In my area, this expressed itself as “There can be no salvation outside of Calvary Chapel”. And most of the little splinter “fellowships” in the Seventies followed the Calvary Chapel model.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The church where I became a Christian was similar, although not quite as extreme. It was IFCA, and we only fellowshipped with other IFCA churches, of which there were only a couple in the large city where I lived. There were many rules, the majority of them unwritten but culturally agreed upon. If you were a member (I thankfully never joined), you signed that you would never drink, go to movies, play cards, and on and on. The unwritten rules-women should always wear dresses, no TV watching on Sunday for the truly spiritual were not “legalism”-they were for a good testimony. I was only there for two years, and although they were very sincere, I discovered I wasn’t as dedicated to the rules. I was, however, very dedicated to Jesus and I joined a much more balanced church when I went off to college. Interestingly, many of my friends from this church also ended up joining less rigid congregations, and the “mother church” has eased up quite a bit. However, I am very wary of churches who claim to be the only game in town.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It is downright eerie how much you have echoed my thoughts! I once felt exactly the same way about my former church. I look back at my Facebook memories and it sends chills down my spine when I realize how much time we wasted drinking the Kool-aid and revolving our lives around the church.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. When I left a rather authoritarian, legalistic church, I found that about a third of the members of the church we went to had left the authoritarian church for exactly the same reasons I had. It was uncanny.

    I also knew a fair number of people who had been affiliated with the authoritarian church that I’d be far more likely to see at the bar. This kind of fertilizer sends people to Hell.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks, Julie Anne, and all who are discussing! One of the ways we acted on our elitist mindset in my abusive church was that we fully believed that we had every right and responsibility to recruit Christian friends and family members away from their churches (some of which they’d belonged for decades) and into our church, which we believed as truly the church that any “serious discipline” would want to be at.
    I would ask someone, “Do you feel it it God’s will for you to grow as a disciple?”
    (Of course) they would answer, “Why, yes, I believe God wants every Christian to grow in their faith.”
    Then I would say, “Do you believe God would want you to attend the church where you expect to find the greatest growth as a Christian?”
    And they would say, “Yeah, sure. It seems I should go where I can grow the most.”
    At which point I would A) poke and prod about their church experience, with the goal of demonstrating that they were not really growing, or, B) begin to list the biblical areas of Christian growth that were pursued at my church, and how “serious” we were about growing, etc.
    And then, “So, I wonder if God might be presenting an opportunity to you here to join a church that will challenge you more, and facilitate more growth.”
    Once in awhile, the guild-tripping worked, would routinely snag husbands into our church, against their wives’ better judgment.
    The irony, of course, is that the abusive church would simply NEVER concede that anyone should leave IT, should they find a better change to “grow” in faith! Like all traps–easy to get into, very difficult to get out of!


  6. Julie Anne
    JUNE 1, 2017 @ 8:49 AM
    I agree, Sunshine! Isn’t it interesting how so many of us were in different churches and share similar experiences? As I have been on the journey out of Fundy land, I have read so many stories that are eerily similar to mine. So many that I wonder why these spiritually abusive churches are able to hide in plain sight. I honestly never knew there was such a thing as spiritual abuse until very recently and now I can’t believe how many people have gone through the same thing.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Ken, after reading your comment up thread, I am reminded of how various controlling churches have a particular hobby horse to draw people in. For my former Christian cult it was being the bearers of True Bible Interpretation. And being that we lived communally, no other Christian Church or community was as sold out and zealous for Jesus as we were.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Darlene, Our tag-line was that we were practicing biblical discipleship, with an inordinate amount of time and energy spent on bible study. Our criticism of other churches was mainly that they just weren’t “serious” about making disciples, like we were, as demonstrated by the fact that we (like you) lived communally, and were constantly evangelizing co-workers, family, old friends, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. @Darlene:

    For my former Christian cult it was being the bearers of True Bible Interpretation.

    Yet another of the thousands of One True Churches…

    And being that we lived communally, no other Christian Church or community was as sold out and zealous for Jesus as we were.

    More-Godly-Than-Thou/Can You Top This.

    On fire for The Cause like the Young Communists or Chairman Mao’s Red Guard.
    Remember: If The Cause is Righteous enough, it justifies Anything.

    Aside: A LOT of these high-control splinter churches have “communal living”, usually in some sort of pseudo-barracks arrangement in their cult compound. Never-ending Boot Camp indoctrination, plus eyes and ears everywhere to report thoughtcrime.


  10. Coming out from an IFB background, most of this resonates with me.

    The main thing that doesn’t resonate with me is the “excommunications were common.” I only witnessed one excommunication, and it was regarding a young man who refused to publicly apologize to the church for getting his fiancee pregnant. The young woman complied with the wishes of the leadership and was made to publicly confess before the church. It is only looking back that I see how twisted it was for the church to treat people that way.

    More commonly, people would leave of their own accord, and afterwards, a story would go around explaining why they left. Typically the story would make the family who left sound shallow and wishy-washy, not truly caring about important spiritual matters, etc.

    Some of our best friends are people who we met at that church, and now none of us go there anymore. Go figure.

    There was also a very strong attitude that ours was the only good church in town, although the leadership would probably not admit to teaching that. The attitude was that people who attended other churches might be believers, but that other churches didn’t have solid preaching and teaching, didn’t take God’s word seriously, and that the contemporary worship music used in mainstream evangelical churches was irreverent, dishonoring to God, etc.

    Our old church used a variety of Bible versions, but I’ve been at other IFB churches that are strictly KJV-only, thus most other churches in town can be put in a bad light automatically, because they are not KJV-only.

    Guilt and shame were definitely used to control people, and harsh physical discipline and guilt-based parenting techniques were pushed on young parents. If you weren’t strict enough with your kids, you were sending them to hell.

    The preaching and the preacher were put on a pedestal. He would scold the congregation because of people getting up to use the restroom during his sermons. The reason? The devil is stirring you up, trying to get you to cause a distraction, and then someone will fail to get saved because you weren’t sitting perfectly still. Hah! I always knew the devil was behind my overactive bladder!

    There was definitely a use if exclusive language. Words and phrases like “Biblical” and “Christ-honoring” and (my least favorite) “godly MEN” had an exclusive meaning. Whenever the pastor would use those words, he was getting ready to say something that was obnoxious and​ based on his own opinions.

    Interestingly, you would often hear the term “Christ” or “the Lord Jesus Christ,” but very rarely just “Jesus.” It’s like they were trying to erase the humanity and compassion of Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were rarely taught except for around Christmas and Easter, and the message always focused on Jesus dying for our sins, not on what Jesus said or did or taught, or how he understands our humanity and our suffering.

    So glad to be free and learning more about the real Jesus.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Hi Wary Witness! I resonate with all of your points! I wonder if “excommunicate” is really the best word to describe the shunning, character assassination, and withdrawal that is the actual currency paid to those who leave abusive churches, or are kicked out. I know a lot of churches still use it–but in reality, how many really have the physical-judicial power to make anyone do anything they don’t want to do in this political and cultural climate.
    For example, you can “excommunicate” someone all you want, but if they show up in your church on Sunday, even uninvited, what are the pastors going to do, besides bluster? Call the police? (“Yes, 911–there’s a guy in our church who we’ve told not to come here anymore, because he keeps on playing the lottery with his paycheck, and other stuff. Please, send an officer or two, right away!!!!,” etc.?) Most of our survivors left–a few were kicked out, but most sneaked out, and few stormed out. The word “excommunication” probably would have been thought to “Catholicy-Reformed” by our group, and, the shunning and withdrawal did not involve the overt denial of baptism and communion, as did historic “excommunication.” Thanks for reading! Ken


  12. More commonly, people would leave of their own accord, and afterwards, a story would go around explaining why they left.

    I suspect some of these people simply see the light (in bad churches) and others are maybe akin to jobs where someone resigns rather than be fired?


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