Welcome Young Believer! I genuinely hope that you're here as a brand-new baby Christian who hasn't been scarred by abuse and corruption in the Church. Sadly there are many of us who have not been so fortunate. It's why we speak so strongly about knowing God's Word so you will recognize when your leadership is lying to you and why we spend probably more time than is necessary being thorough in our explanations of touchy subjects. In a perfect world, no one would ever walk out of a church feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually scarred. That's just not the world we live in, so there will always be those of us who walk through the difficult journey of having to recognize abuse and hold those abusers accountable.
As I was formulating how I wanted to address this for you, I had a lot of time to ponder my own experiences in several different churches having attended no less than a dozen over the last two decades. That number alone scares me! However, something that often shocks people is that through all of the challenges I faced in these churches my faith in God was not weakened, just my faith in people... particularly earthly authority. And I found that I'm not alone, there are faithful people who have spent decades in churches only to realize that they've been abused by false teaching, self-righteous justifications of sin from the pulpit, bullying, and spiritual leadership from people who were sexually abusing children, women, and very likely men though we don't hear of their pain very often. I'm going to tell you right now that all of those things break the heart of our Savior and justice and vengeance belong to Him! Absolutely He is merciful and just to forgive those who repent, but He takes very seriously those who lead His flock astray.
And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Luke 17:1-4
I believe, even though I wrestle with this in my heart, that we have to have grace for these leaders who do repent even when they've caused irreparable harm with their teaching and actions, because of the grace that we have received, yes. But I also believe we have to forgive because anger and grudges aren't hurting those people in the way we'd like to think they do... they only turn and consume us as we hold them in our hearts. However, that by no means is to say that you need to stay under that person's teaching or anywhere near that person at all! Perhaps, especially if you have a family you should get as far from that toxic situation as possible and get into a healthy church with God-honoring leadership.
Recognizing Spiritual Abuse
- Do the leaders of your church fit the Biblical outline/requirements for leadership? Or are seeking to do so to the best of their abilities? We absolutely have to acknowledge that our leaders are human too. They don't have to be perfect, but they must be faithfully seeking the heart of God, leading their flock according to God's Word, and when they fail be transparent and repentant. If however, your leadership is living in open flagrant defiance to God's Word especially the Biblical requirements for leadership, then it's probably time to do some assessment and bring your concerns to their attention.
- How do the leaders of your church respond to your concerns and/or correction? When you've brought your concerns, convictions, and questions to your leadership their response is going to tell you a lot about whether true spiritual abuse is going on. If they respond in equal concern, repentance, and true desire to listen to where you're coming from then it's time to wait and see if behavioral change results. On the other hand, if they somehow manage to turn your loving concerns into them feeling attacked, that you're the problem, or they simply don't listen to you... that is spiritual abuse and you probably won't have to look very far to find someone else in your church struggling with this leader's actions and attitude. It's time to go with that person and confront this concern head-on once more with that leader. If that doesn't work then your last step is to go to the church members, if they're seeing the same concerns that you see then you will all confront this leader together and decide on the next steps as a body if this person still is unrepentant. Unfortunately, it might be the case that the church members don't see the same problem that you and the other victims of this abuse see and in that case, it's time to shake the dust off your feet and go find a healthy church with God-honoring leadership. Keep praying for that church and for that leader, but don't continue under bad spiritual leadership once you've gone through the full measure of church discipline given to us for this type of correction by God's Word!
- Are there church members who have mysteriously stopped coming to church that you feel someone in your church leadership would be offended to know that you reached out to? If you realize that you haven't seen a family from the church in a little while, there should be no reason on earth why you can't check up on them and make sure they're doing alright. It could be they need the church's help because they're dealing with sickness, a loss in the family, or financial struggles that made them feel isolated and unable to come to the church. However, they could also not be attending anymore because they were experiencing spiritual abuse that you've only more recently recognized. Either way, you should not feel guilty for loving these individuals and wanting to know what has happened to them. Listening to their concerns can perhaps help you to know how to best approach your leadership with your own concerns and also serve as a step in the healing process for these members who have stepped away from attending your church whatever their reasons might be.
- Is the church valuing talent or skill above character? This point was brought up very clearly in a conversation Alissa Childers had on her podcast with a friend who went through these struggles at their church alongside Alissa. One thing they noticed in other Christians who had had similar experiences was that often these churches got to a place where they were accepting or perpetuating spiritual abuse because someone was a great band leader or they gave entertaining sermons. What these churches forgot is that the character of the person in these leadership roles mattered one hundred times more than their talent for music or teaching. An English teacher might be the best speaker you've ever listened to and give a real passion for literature, that doesn't mean they should be your Pastor.
- Are you or other members of your church finding that you're defending something that is not right simply because your leadership is participating in it? This is another great point they addressed, we are not to be followers of men but followers of Christ. If we find ourselves willing to defend the evil actions of our leaders simply because they are our leaders... that is a dangerous place to be and is often why a membership that should stand up to the spiritual abuse of their leaders fail to do so and the church splits.
- The pulpit is used as a place to put members down who bring forward their concerns and are willing to ask the leadership hard questions. This last point is why I advised, in the beginning, to wait for behavioral change before you get all excited that your leadership has compassionately heard out your concerns. I've heard too many accounts at this point, where this is how the conversation goes, but Sunday morning the specifics of that concern are used to beat that member over the head from the pulpit. This is never acceptable!'
I'm certain that I could keep addressing red flags that you will see in this situation, but I think I've given you a place to start and I'm linking Alissa's conversations below so that you can explore her perspective more on the matter as well.
What are red flags? Resource: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suiB7_MUv2I
Their Story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dseigzUaGRI
How Christians Can Respond to Spiritual Abuse: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQc0L08azl4
Think about what the signs would be for other forms of abuse, you'll probably find them in these cases as well. Now that we've recognized this issue, we're going to talk more about holding our leaders accountable and the Biblical outline for Church Discipline in the next couple of posts. If you would like to know more about recognizing spiritual abuse or need us to pray for you or someone you know that is experiencing this please message us in the chatbox. I would also bring this to your mentor and see what they have to say about your questions and concerns. Remember that this is one journey we're not meant to take alone!