Each section of the Religious Power and Control Wheel describes a tactic used by abusers to maintain power and control over their victims. According to Laura Anderson, when the tactics are combined, a system is “designed and intended to exert power and control over others by their rules, requirements, punishments and consequences for not adhering to the specific requirements of the group.”
On the wheel, threats, accusations, and intimidation is described as:
*Threatening abandonment or ex-communication for sinning/going “outside the group”
*Leaving the church = the devil will try to get you
*Fear of going to hell
*Accusing you of going against God
*Using their position to require you to do, say, or believe something
*Not allowing you to seek external help (e.g. medical, police)
One word best describes this section of the wheel – fear. Abusers know that the use of fear keeps people in their place. Members of the group never know if they are safe and fear repercussion if they do not follow the rules. Fear may cause members to act against other members. It’s one thing to fear the leader, but when friends within the group act against each other to protect themselves, it can cause additional harm.
Our friend, Ken Garrett, gave me permission to share his experience:
As my wife and I became embedded within our church and increasingly identified with its pastor, I became vulnerable to his control in what seemed every area of my life. I realized that he had gained tremendous power and influence in the most important relationships in my life – those with my wife and my children. He could also turn my closest friends in the church against me, belittle me before the congregation, question the sincerity of my faith, and discourage people from becoming friends with me.
He could institute a dozen different types of shunning against me – without me even knowing I was being shunned until I sensed the coolness and withdrawal of friends. He could suggest to my children that I was a substandard father. He could mention to my wife the he had noticed my lack of attention to her, and that I did not seem to love her as much as she loved me. He could remove me from valued positions of responsibility in the church and betray private issues of sin and confession that I had shared with him. He could chip away at my self-esteem, confidence, and sense of worth.
When listening to people’s stories where fear was used as a control tactic in a group, most describe a sense of unease with the unknown when they left. Fear kept them in line for so long. But, the longer they were away from the fear and control, they began to feel more light and free.
If threats, accusations, or intimidation were used in your spiritually abusive church, you may experience physical and emotional reactions toward members of the church, God, and the use of the Bible. Fear, anger, and distrust are valid responses to your experiences and trauma. You may need a lot of time to work through the healing process. But, you can be free of fear!