ABUSE & VIOLENCE IN THE CHURCH, Abuse Systems and Transformation Tools, Beaverton Grace Bible Church, Blog Series - Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery, Chuck O'Neal, Leaving the Church, Spiritual Abuse, Spiritual Authority

Spiritual Abuse: How Unsanctioned Friendships Can Enable People to Leave High-Controlling Churches

Kathi and I attended the Spiritual Abuse Forum for Education (SAFE) meeting last Friday in Portland. This is a group that SSB friend and spiritual abuse expert/survivor, Pastor Ken Garrett hosts in a community room at a local restaurant/pub. (If you are ever in Portland, you are welcome to attend. It’s at McMenamins Kennedy School, in a very cool non-churchy environment. Kathi and I even had wine while at the meeting!)

In the meeting, Ken was discussing why people leave high-controlling groups (churches or cults). One reason he mentioned was “unsanctioned friendships.” Those who have read my story know that I have discussed this, but didn’t use that label.

Ken described unsanctioned friendships in his dissertation:

Abusive churches know that genuine friendship between members and non-members present a threat to the church’s control over its members, so such friendships are discouraged. Friendship with outsiders presents the possibility of second opinions, other voices, and input that has not been filtered by the dogma of the abusive church.


“Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery” by Kenneth J. Garrett



Cult leaders are smart. They understand that relationships can be influential, that’s why they try to make it so that you do not have meaningful relationships outside the group – after all, they cannot control what outsiders say and do. They can only control you!


Photo by Ulrike Hu00e4u00dfler on Pexels.com

I was in my high-controlling church for only two years, but I experienced unsanctioned relationships. Do you know what the strange thing is? This topic was never discussed out loud. No one ever told me I could not meet with friends from my prior church. No one told me I couldn’t meet with my girlfriends and knit, but I sure sensed that I was doing something wrong. I later found out from our friend who was on staff at Beaverton Grace Bible Church (BGBC) that my ex-pastor, Chuck O’Neal, was not happy to find out that I was regularly meeting with my friends. Can you believe that Chuck actually told him he didn’t like me knitting with my friends!

But it has left me wondering how did I sense that I “wasn’t supposed” to meet? What was this strange vibe I got without anyone explicitly talking to me?

I also got that same vibe if I didn’t show up at a mid-week service – even if I had a good excuse, like playing the piano for the local high school choir concert. Once again, I was out among unsanctioned people. These people did not know what I knew. These were the “them” that Chuck talked about, people who didn’t have the real truth, who didn’t have correct doctrinal beliefs, who thought they were Christians, but probably weren’t . . . well, that’s what Chuck used to imply.


Photo by Bryan Geraldo from Pexels

Part of me wanted to be “rebellious” and skip church to play the piano for the high school choral students. But part of me felt guilty for missing the church meeting at the same time. Any time I did something with an unsanctioned friend, I had mixed feelings: one in which I was thinking clearly and using critical thinking skills, and the other in which I felt guilty for disobeying those unspoken rules. But in both cases, I was emotionally tethered to the unspoken rules. Isn’t this nuts? There was a constant battle raging inside of wanting and not wanting to follow Chuck. It still baffles my brain that I unknowingly allowed Chuck access to my brain at some level. This stuff truly is creepy!

Ken was right – unsanctioned relationships certainly played an important part in me leaving BGBC. I was not willing to give up the relationships I had built with friends from our former church. I enjoyed those ladies. It was because of them that I saw unconditional love. I saw the freedom they had. I saw grace modeled and it was nothing like I was experiencing at BGBC. They showed me grace even though they could tell I was being influenced by a spiritual tyrant. They gave me a reality check to the world outside of BGBC, while I was still debating in my mind whether my dear friends were truly Christians or not. Ugh!

The local high school choir was also instrumental in me leaving because these “unsanctioned” kids were in my community. They were my neighbors. I didn’t know it before because we were kept so busy at church, we didn’t have time to get to know the people in our neighborhood. But as I continued to be choir mom and accompanist, I recognized choir students as they walked up our street and chatted with them. These students would have been considered outsiders, but now they were friends that I treasured. Sure, they didn’t go to my church, but they weren’t evil and bad liked Chuck had talked about. They were lovely young students that I got to work with and encourage.

How could I experience so much beauty from my knitting friends and the high school choir director and students? Wasn’t that kind of joy and positive experience only for privileged members of Chuck’s church? Wait . . . this was even better than what I was experiencing at BGBC! How could that be if Chuck was so right? That is part of what convinced me that it was Chuck who was evil, not my friends and neighbors.

I have thanked my dear friend who directed the choir, telling her that she and the choir likely saved my life. I’ve also thanked my close knitting friends for loving me and showering me with grace. They knew something was off with me and my church, but they were willing to maintain the relationship we had. I probably was not the most kind person during the time since I had all the right spiritual answers! But they continued to show grace.

Here is how Ken explains his beautiful unsanctioned friends after he got the courage to leave his dark and evil group:

They were candles left in the window, giving hope that there might be a place to escape the darkness, where I might be welcomed with kindness. They saved me from the loneliness that so often accompanies a departure from an abusive church. They taught me that sometimes the exit door of an abusive church is held open by the gracious hands of friends who have nothing to do with church, or even with Christianity, but who simply would never turn their back on a friend.


“Spiritual Abuse in the Church: A Guide to Recognition and Recovery” by Kenneth J. Garrett


Thank God for those unsanctioned friends! Those are friends for life!



25 thoughts on “Spiritual Abuse: How Unsanctioned Friendships Can Enable People to Leave High-Controlling Churches”

  1. Looking back over our history in multiple churches we even distanced ourselves from family as we grew convinced the church has our real family . . . excellent article.

    Like

  2. Thanks for continuing to share your experiences. I don’t know if everything resurfaced after talking about unsanctioned friendships, but I know the memories of these experiences don’t go away easily.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a beautiful article Julie Anne, filled with mercy, grace and hope! Ken Garrett is correct in his teachings of the characteristics of a “cult” as they first “love bomb” their targets, then weasel their way into the lives of those innocent victims, unawares.

    I am so THANKFUL that you are free Julie Anne, and experiencing the true freedom and liberty that Jesus Christ speaks of in His teachings. Appreciate you sharing this with us.

    Like

  4. I didn’t know it before because we were kept so busy at church, we didn’t have time to get to know the people in our neighborhood.

    How can you be ‘salt and light’ in the world if you are never in it, if all your time is spent doing churchy things hidden away somewhere?

    I think I must have inherited a streak of being bolshy. I’ve known a control-freak or two in my time, and been in churches I would describe as spiritually claustrophobic, but if you insist on thinking for yourself, getting out and about seeing other churches and groups and how they operate, read widely, they can never get too much of a hold on you, or at least not for too long.

    I’m glad I was brought up not to regard any one denomination as being “the church” or having “the truth”.

    PS: was any wine (1 Tim 5:23) left over at the end of the meeting? ….

    Like

  5. My former church was odd that way. I would say that the poisoned the well more than actively discouraging friendships outside the church. It was “us” vs. “them”, but only in the sense that those outside the church could not really understand the unique doctrine of the church, our level and would think it was odd. It happened through straw-man arguments and hasty generalization – the opinions of one fringe church were being assigned to all Evangelicals, or they were accused of shoddy theology or giving into culture because they weren’t willing to follow God to the extent that our church was.

    That said, I really didn’t have close friends inside or outside the church, so it was the progressive understanding of being and having been abused that pushed me out the door.

    Like

  6. KAS
    — start quote—
    I’ve known a control-freak or two in my time, and been in churches I would describe as spiritually claustrophobic, but if you insist on thinking for yourself, getting out and about seeing other churches and groups and how they operate, read widely, they can never get too much of a hold on you, or at least not for too long.

    I’m glad I was brought up not to regard any one denomination as being “the church” or having “the truth”.
    — end KAS quote -0

    Yeah, like for years, my Christian parents, who were into traditional gender roles, and the churches they dragged me to (complementarian Southern Baptist), taught me that the Bible supposedly says all women are to marry and have kids AND be submissive to their spouse.

    I began realizing later in life that is a bunch of nonsense. So I rejected comp in my adult years.

    I began noticing more often how a lot of Gender Complementarians start telling me, and women like me, false stuff in their blogs, things like, women like me who no longer buy into their gender role garbage are “capitulating to the culture” or that we’re “liberal feminists,” or that we’re baby and man-hating shrews.

    Complementarians really don’t want me to think for myself or make choices for myself.

    Many complementarians think there is only one acceptable way for a woman, especially a Christian woman, to live: marry, have kids and “be submissive.”

    -Talk about those complementarians being control freaks in regards to women and what they choose to do with their lives, or judging them for how their lives turned out.

    Complementarians think they hold the only truth about gender roles, women, dating, marriage, etc.

    Like

  7. Re: Churches and Friendship,
    another aspect.

    One problem many American churches have, regardless of denomination:

    The people at the churches only want to be your friend so long as you attend their church regularly.

    And these are not even churches that are formally practicing cult-like, formal ostracization against those who leave… they just lose interest in you if you stop showing up to church services.

    The moment you decide to quit church, or you are sick and have to skip months in a row because your health is terrible, all your former church friends bail on you.
    They dump you like you’re a hot potato.

    It’s not a formal policy to bail on you, they just drift away.

    If you’re willing to dump someone as a friend merely because they stop going to church altogether or they decide to change churches, that tells me that your initial friendship was not sincere or meaningful in the first place.

    You don’t just dump people you are friends with because they change religions or stop going to your church.

    You should still stay in contact with the person (unless they make it clear they want nothing to do with you).

    Like

  8. “You don’t just dump people you are friends with because they change religions or stop going to your church.”

    I think your statement and my experience should serve as a warning about controlling pastors. If you’ve got a pastor who is trying to control who you can or cannot spend time with, leave. No pastor should have that kind of authority in your life.

    Like

  9. Let me rephrase what I said above, “the memories of these experiences don’t go away easily.” The memories never go away. We learn how to navigate when they come up to the surface.

    The interesting thing about the “unsanctioned relationships” is that when you’re in a controlling environment, you may end up isolating yourself from your former relationships with family and friends. If you end up leaving the controlling environment, then you’re isolated from the relationships that you had in that group. If your former relationships don’t accept you back, then you have to start all over again building a support system, which can makes someone feel very lonely.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. When our daughter was excommunicated, and my husband and I also left our former church, we often commented to each other that it didn’t hurt us as much as it would others in the church. Why? Because we had a network of friends we’d been in ministry with over the years (not local) who were understanding and sympathetic and supportive to us. Those others whose only friends were in the church would have been devastated. Of course, I suspect that there were others who received the same threats we did, but caved in… because they couldn’t handle the thought of being ostracized. And it makes me sad to think of all the abusive marriages continuing on for that very reason.

    Like

  11. I can completely understand everything that was expressed here. The difference in my situation is that when I left my former Christian cult, I had no unsanctioned friends in which to find consolation. It was a lonely exodus leaving that harmful environment. But loneliness was preferable to the spiritual abuse I had suffered. In those alone moments after leaving, gradually my mind and heart began to heal. Slowly, the voices that would attempt to guilt-trip me, echoing the loaded language and cult-speak that I had been in bondage to, began to fade. This process of inner healing occurred over the course of many years. The struggles along the way were well worth it in order to be freed from the grip of spiritual abuse.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. One might note that if you’re trying to love, you don’t need to try to control–and if you are trying to control, love won’t be in the mix, either. I am struck as I interact with a couple of young men from church, one of whom appears to be hurting pretty badly (I’m in deeper than I can swim and I’ve admitted that to him), and the thought that comes to me is that we can be so into our “programs” and “getting the achievements done” that we forget about our John 13:34-5 purpose here.

    We need to spend more time laughing, playing, eating Panera pastries and drinking wine (I recommend a nice prosecco with pastries), and less playing like we’re succeeding at “programs”. Sometimes we suck at loving one another.

    Like

  13. Thanks, gracious hostess. A couple of other confessions; I don’t know why, but I have never seemed to accept the isolation some people would put on me. I don’t know if I’m just weird (though I am to a degree), or whether there is something to why I respond that way that someone else might benefit from. My basic response is “if I see this person as a huge threat and avoid him, I’m going to win him for Christ exactly how?” (your mileage may vary, of course) But I really have avoided, I think, a lot of bad situations with that attitude. You don’t succumb to control, they tend to show you the door.

    Also, on the light side, if I can make (good or bad) recommendations for pairing wines with pastries, I am obviously not a very good Baptist. :^)

    Like

  14. Do you know what the strange thing is? This topic was never discussed out loud. No one ever told me I could not meet with friends from my prior church. No one told me I couldn’t meet with my girlfriends and knit, but I sure sensed that I was doing something wrong.

    Oh wow. This is so similar to my experience.
    I stayed in one of these churches for 15 YEARS! I raised my kids in one of these churches.
    We stayed even when the feeling that something was definitely “off” kept getting stronger and stronger.

    Yes, I know that teaching that claims that just about every other church has it wrong, but “we” have it right.

    I was quite close with the pastor’s wife from my former church. She would tell me that the Anglican church was “not spiritual at all.” That those people were not even saved. (And don’t even get me started on what was said about the Catholic Church…) Christians who had sex before marriage were “fake Christians.” Christians who chose not to go to church were fake Christians. Homosexual Christians were definitely fake Christians. People who chose not to spank their children weren’t following biblical authority and were highly suspect. (I could go on and on.) My personal favorite was her firm belief that a true Christian woman could never be raped, because the Bible states clearly (somewhere) that God will protect his faithful. Yes, I sat through this garbage– to my shame.

    I was continually told that those friends of mine outside the church were not the ones who “really” loved me– how could they? They were unsaved and didn’t even know what real love was. If I happened to mention that I had gone out to lunch with one of them, I would be met with one of those tight, disapproving smiles. Of course, I was never told that I couldn’t see friends that were outside the church, but the unspoken message was quite clear.

    I am so thankful that my few unsanctioned friends did not walk away from me and that I did not desert them. They have been more loving and forgiving and tolerant than I deserve.

    Like

  15. I appreciated you mentioning knitting with friends, because as our time with our last church was coming to an end, I realized that I was getting from my knitting group what I wished I was getting from my church. In knitting my teaching and leadership skills are encouraged. People aren’t always telling me my outfit would be cuter if the skirt were longer or the neckline different. My technical knowledge isn’t automatically deferred to any male in the vicinity (yes, there are men in our knitting group, and while the gender bias usually runs the other way from churches, we view men and women as equal in knitting and educate people to that view.). We forbid discussing controversial topics at official gatherings for the sake of group harmony (No politics! You can always talk about knitting.). People spend very little time sitting around talking about their fears and anxieties, compared to the last church’s women’s group, and much more time talking about new things they’ve learned, experiences, they’ve had, and people they’ve met. Yes, we talk about personal challenges, but fear does not rule the group and constant self-deprecation is actively discouraged. It’s not always perfect, but it’s a refreshing place for me right now.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Daisy: The people at the churches only want to be your friend so long as you attend their church regularly.

    I think some of this is a question of friendships built around a place…when you leave that place they require more effort to maintain and if a deep connection has not been built, or sometimes even a connection outside of that place, they may fall away. Everybody has, for instance, ‘work friends’ who you may be very close to because you spend so much time together, but it’s never outside of work. Sometimes it take breaking through that place connection to form a different one?

    And some of those people make it into the other style of friendship, and some don’t. It tends to take conscious effort to move them through the layers, though.

    Like

  17. Booknitter “I realized that I was getting from my knitting group what I wished I was getting from my church.”

    At a high controlling church I was a member at, it seemed that there were a lot of people involved in multi-level marketing. When some very close friends got involved, we realized why it was so compelling. The MLM they were a part of was essentially a counterfeit church. The leadership conducted Wednesday night meetings with uplifting big-picture talks about how their system fits into the big picture American Dream. They vocally wink-winked about how they could use their system as a way to proselytize people. They wink-winked about how they were Christians too and how their vision was to use the system to profess Christian principles in society. I think that was so attractive to our friends for the reason that the church was so anemic and stifling the work they wanted to do.

    And, Booknitter, I’m not saying anything about the knitting group – I think that’s wonderful, but I think that there are not-so-wonderful organizations that are out there to manipulate well-meaning Christians from high-controlling churches for their purposes. (Maybe CC is one of those organizations).

    Like

  18. but I think that there are not-so-wonderful organizations that are out there to manipulate well-meaning Christians from high-controlling churches for their purposes.

    Mark, I think that any group that is based around money is going to be one you want to watch. MLM is highly manipulative for these reasons. I have only done one in my life, and we had a big fun convention where they try to draw you in but like most people I didn’t make as much money as I would have working minimum wage somewhere. Lesson learned.

    Community is something we all crave, and finding it can be challenging at times. I was talking to someone the other day about adult friendship and about the number of hours spent together needed to create a friendship and I found the article it seems to be based on.

    https://www.businessinsider.com/heres-how-many-hours-it-takes-to-make-a-new-friend-as-an-adult-2018-4

    50 hours together for a casual acquaintance to 200 hours for a real friendship. Interesting! I can see how something like knitting would work well for that – exercise seems to also be a good way to form communities as well.

    Like

Thanks for participating in the SSB community. Please be sure to leave a name/pseudonym (not "Anonymous"). Thx :)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s