Spiritual Abuse: My experience and recovery

On October 30th of last year, I attended a social event with my church on campus at CU. It was an incredibly fun evening, as it was our Halloween celebration, so everyone from the church was there and everyone was dressed up in their costumes. That evening, I spent time with some of the closest friends I’ve ever had in my lifetime, people that I’ve done life with and who I’ve had countless fun experiences and incredible conversations with. And as I left the party that night, I left knowing that I would most likely never see most of the people in that room ever again.

Simply because I was leaving the church.

Let’s rewind two years, to the beginning of my freshman year of college.

In August of 2013, I was setting foot on CU’s campus for the first time as a student, attending band camp for marching band as all first-year instrumental Music Education majors are required to do. At the time, I was interning at my then-current church, an internship that would end shortly after the start of the next year. I was looking for a new community of Christians, specifically people my age, to get connected and grow in community with. It was in these first few weeks during band camp and the early weeks of school that I met Sarah. I still firmly believe that Sarah is the closest and dearest friend that I have ever had. In my first few weeks on campus, Sarah and I spent a considerable amount of time together, discussing our interests, our lives and histories, and some of the finer points of faith. She invited me to come visit her church sometime, which wasn’t really possible at the time because of my internship.

During my first semester, I visited a few different campus ministries and got connected with one of the campus evangelists from Sarah’s church after hanging out with people at the events they hosted on Friday nights. He and I would meet and discuss the Bible and different Bible studies that his church made once a week. I didn’t always understand or agree with some of the things in these Bible studies when I first read them, but he was usually able to reference certain scriptures that would make me accept them. Once the second semester started, my internship ended and I was able to visit Sarah’s church. This church was filled with young people, people my age who were passionate about Jesus and sold out for Him.

And that was exactly what I was looking for.

Early on, I had my hesitations with this church because I had concerns with some of their odd exclusivity; There were certain things that made them seem like some sort of weird club, namely their special Saturday meetings that only members of the church were allowed to go to. But, as they continually referenced different scriptures to justify their reasonings for what they do, my defenses were gradually broken down and I eventually decided to become a member of their church.

During my 15-or-so month stint at this church, I made some of the closest friends I’ve ever had, and I felt for one of the first times in my life that I truly belonged. I also was gradually enlightened to all of the things that I was doing horribly wrong in my life and needed to change, was taught how to submit to and obey authority, was encouraged to practically sever all ties with my family, was taught legalism as some sort of misunderstood grace, and gradually lost who I was; My personality, my humanity, my calling, my agency.

What I endured during that time was a year and a half of spiritual abuse.

There were multiple instances during this time that my mom approached me and asked me to consider leaving; Each time I said no. Until, through miraculous circumstances, people who I’ve never met who live in Arizona got in contact with my mother and knew about my situation and certain situations happening behind the scenes at the church I had come to call home. I had had multiple instances of doubt and considered leaving the church multiple times during my time there, but the people on staff always convinced me otherwise, that Satan or demons or the fear of man or whatever were trying to make me leave. But this intervention from people several states away whom I’ve never met before was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I determined that October 30th, 2015 was the last event I would attend with this church, and that I’d never go to that church on Sunday ever again.

I left campus that night and haven’t seen or heard from most those people since.

Unfortunately, I knew it was coming.

On November 2nd (or perhaps a day or two after, I’m not entirely sure when anymore), I sat down with Sarah to break the news to her, that I was leaving. She knew what this meant as well. She was my closest friend, even in spite of the church intervening in our friendship, telling her on more than one occasion that she basically couldn’t be friends with me any more because we were getting too close (in one instance, we literally didn’t speak for two or three months because of this). But the fact that I was leaving meant that, most likely, we would never see each other again. Though at the time we both reached a conclusion that neither of us wanted that, I believe that deep down we both knew that would be the case. I reached out to my other close circle of friends as well and notified them that I’d be leaving. At the time, they were very accepting, and said that they still wanted to keep in contact with me, that I was still welcome to come over and hang out with them, that they didn’t want me to be completely cut out of their lives. Less than a week later, they changed their minds, deciding to cut all ties. The worst part was that I still had stuff at their house that I needed to get back. When I went to their house to retrieve it, they simply sat in the other room, continuing their conversation, denying my presence and existence for about half an hour as I separated out two sets of a card game that we had mixed together. Those were the most painful thirty minutes of my life.

I left their house that night and haven’t seen any of them since.

Sarah and I still had classes together for the rest of the semester and things were still civil and, honestly, completely normal, as if nothing had happened, until the end of finals. The last day I saw Sarah that year, I didn’t say good-bye. I knew it would be too difficult. The only time I’ve seen Sarah since that day was when I helped one of her roommates, one of my fellow excommunicatees who left shortly before I did, move out. There were few words exchanged and you could feel the tension in the room.

I left her house that day and haven’t seen or heard from her since.

Though I did recently send her a message just giving an update on how I’m doing since I left. Which I don’t believe she’s read and hasn’t responded to. Not that I expect her to.

This church I became a member of thrives off exclusivity. They don’t associate with other churches besides their sister churches, and when people leave on terms they don’t agree with, they cut all ties, leaving the person isolated and alone. I, along with so many other people, made friends at school within that church and nowhere else. So when people want to leave, they have no one and nowhere else to go. This can cause people not to leave in the first place, though if they do they often don’t know what to do after that.

This is what spiritual abuse looks like.

Spiritual abuse isn’t talked about much in most circles, though it’s a common thread through many different churches and denominations. It’s also a main reason people decide to leave their faith and hate the church. There are actually several books and articles on the subject if you know what to look for. In their book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen define spiritual abuse, saying that

Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being.”

Spiritual abuse involves taking people and turning them into obedient, subservient shells of human beings in the name of Christ. This involves different levels of severity of leaders using these people for personal gain. In some situations, the pastor, or whoever may be in charge, may even use church finances for their own luxury, spending it on cars, houses, vacations, among many other things. In my own experience, there didn’t seem to be as much abuse for personal gain as in other scenarios, but there was a very clear hierarchical pyramid scheme in my environment. A pyramid scheme that was based entirely around submission to authority, the main authority being held by a single person.

Mary Demuth, a Christian writer and blogger who also does speaking tours around the world, identified ten main aspects of spiritually abusive ministries that I’ve abridged:

Spiritually abusive ministries…

  1. Have a distorted view of respect.
  2. Demand allegiance as proof of the follower’s allegiance to Christ.
  3. Use exclusive language.
  4. Create a culture of fear and shame.
  5. Often have a charismatic leader at the helm who starts off well, but slips into arrogance, protectionism, and pride.
  6. Cultivate a dependence on one leader or leaders for spiritual information.
  7. Demand servanthood from their followers, but live prestigious, privileged lives.
  8. Buffer [themselves] from criticism by placing people around themselves whose only allegiance is to the leader.
  9. Hold to outward performance but rejects authentic spirituality.
  10. Use exclusivity for allegiance.*

These ten aspects of spiritually abusive environments are a good measure and indicator when trying to recognize these environments. My church exhibited all ten of these to some degree. The control exhibited over followers or members can also delve into the realms of financial, emotional, relational, and, obviously, spiritual control. They will tell you what to feel, who to be friends with, what to believe, when and how much to give financially to the church. They will gradually break you down piece by piece, picking apart your personality until you’re whittled down to fit the mold they believe to be Christ-like living. In my situation specifically, control was forced onto children within the church. In this church, all children are literally beaten into submission, justifying physical abuse with scriptures like Proverbs 22:15, which says “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.” So the rod of discipline is used as the solution to all instances of a child acting out at whatever age. More spankings are encouraged for children who have mental handicaps. I didn’t really know about any of this until after I left, unfortunately.

This control has an incredibly powerful detrimental effect on people, and it can even be multiplied when people leave or attempt to leave these environments. Mike McHargue, commonly known as Science Mike, was asked how he would define spiritual abuse, and what happens to the brain when one experiences it. This was his response:

“I think when we hold our ideas and agreement on ideas as a test for fellowship in our life, that borders on spiritual abuse: ‘What you believe is more important than what you do.’ If people are doing harmful behaviors, confront them in love. But if people just believe things and we start to ostracize them and push them out of communities, it creates this state in the brain of escalated stress hormones, of reduced pre-frontal activity, because we’re a social species…Our only hope as a species is to stick together. And so we have an existential angst about rejection when we kick people out of churches or use the connection people feel, the good sense of connection religious communities offer, as a way to marshall people, and control them. Spiritual abuse and religious PTSD are inevitable results.”**

My own personal friendship and fellowship was based on agreement with the ideas of the church. When I decided I didn’t agree any more, they decided that they could not, and would not, associate with me any more. Their reasoning is that I would be a detriment to them; That I would corrupt their way of thinking and the unity (or mindless subservience) that they had established. When I left this church, I didn’t know what to do. I had lost my closest friends over night. I didn’t quite spiral into depression, but I was about two steps away from the edge of that cliff. I’m fortunate enough to have friends and family who live here and love and care for me dearly, but some of my friends who left that church and some people who are still there, having moved to Colorado from out of state, don’t have those faith communities to fall back on.

When I left this church, I had to re-learn so many things: Who I was, what I believed, what grace was and how it operated in my life. I also had to rewire my brain to block out the exclusive judgmentalism that the church had developed deep inside me. I’m still working through some of these things. All this to say, leaving wasn’t easy. It hurt. And I’m still recovering from the after-effects. Science Mike described his experience leaving his church when defining spiritual abuse:

“…When I left my Southern Baptist church, I went to pieces and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to go to therapy for weeks. And weeks, and weeks. And that leaving the church where my oldest daughter was baptized, and that I got married at the altar, hurt a lot more than when my parents got divorced. That leaving that church was a death in my life.”

Suffering from spiritual abuse is painful. But leaving the environment is just as painful, if not more so. And the fear of dealing with that pain, the fear of going through what people may have seen some of their closest friends go through, can cause people to remain in it, to continue submitting to the authorities that have worked so hard to break them and control them.

But even with the pain involved, if you happen to be in a spiritually abusive environment, my one exhortation is this: Leave. Get out as soon as possible. Staying in that environment is only toxic, and even though the church will try to convince you otherwise, you won’t grow in your faith. I firmly believe that faith grows through questioning it and God giving you the answers. When that pathway for growth is restricted by spiritual leaders, growth is practically impossible. So you need to leave. And, speaking from experience, it will hurt. A lot.

But there is hope. If you have suffered or are suffering from spiritual abuse, there is hope. When Science Mike was asked to define spiritual abuse, he was also asked how people can recover from spiritual abuse. He boils it down into a three-step process that I believe covers all of the bases. I’ll reflect on my own experiences with these steps here, too.

Step 1: Grieve.

Don’t try to be tough about it. Don’t try to avoid it. When we experience pain, oftentimes we try to turn away from it or leave it behind. My exhortation would be to face it head on. Press into it. Trying to put it in a box in the closet doesn’t change the fact that it’s there; If you don’t deal with it and allow yourself time to grieve (and honestly wallow in misery for a little bit), healing won’t come as easy, if it comes at all. If you’re not familiar with them, there are five stages of loss and grief: Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. And sometimes all of them happen at the same time. Journaling, praying, and talking with people you trust through these phases are really good options to help you get through it. The best therapy I’ve had was talking through my experiences and pain with my friend Seth, who went through experiences similar to my own not long ago. Over six months later, I’m still working through my own grief. It takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. For some people, actual therapy may be a really good option. It will still take time. But have hope that things will get better.

Step 2: Re-engage with the Church.

This step will happen at different times for different people. Some people need to jump into a new church right away, some people need to take some time away from church to sort through their own issues with the capital-C Church during their phases of grieving. But, ultimately, you need to re-engage with the Church. Not the same church you went to before, obviously, but a different one. When it comes to finding the “right church,” I thoroughly appreciate Science Mike’s approach:

“One, your faith community must affirm, accept, and celebrate exactly who you are today. In all your beauty and all your warts. Your church has to love it. But your church must also challenge you to become who God is making you…It’s really just a two-prong formula: Accepts you as you are, helps you grow to who God is making you.”

That’s really the key. Find a community of believers who accept you as you are today. You’ll have questions. You’ll likely be angry and confused. Find people who are okay with that. And, more importantly, are more than willing help you on your quest to find answers. For me, due to the fortunate situation I was in, I was able to find a church that does exactly that. It’s a church filled with people who really, authentically love Jesus (even the people on staff, which is honestly surprising in most mainstream churches today), who engage with their community, who pursue issues of social justice, and who love like Jesus. One of my church’s vision statements is that “We believe it’s okay not to be okay.” But my church also believes it’s not okay to stay that way. And that “We don’t go it alone.”*** Find a community of believers who accept you as you are today and help you grow into the person you were created to be. It may take some time, but it’s so worth it.

Step 3: Recognize the way your experience can and will transform the way that you love other people.

In our world today, it can often seem like the church does more harm than good. We live in a country full of spiritually abused people. They may not have a name for it, but so many people have been affected by spiritual abuse. Those of us who have gone through it and lived to tell the tale have an opportunity to touch the lives and hearts of those who may be in the thick of it, or who may be in the middle of their own stages of grief. We have an opportunity to be a light in the darkness they’ve found themselves in. So many people today have been hurt by the Church. So have we. The difference is that we can turn it around and speak into other peoples’ lives from it. I firmly believe in the promise of Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” I believe that my experience at this church will be used for good. My experience at this church awakened me to what I believe to be my own mission field in my own ministry in the future. While I can’t say I’ve particularly enjoyed the experience, I wouldn’t trade where I’m at with God now because of it for anything. My heart’s been broken for people who have been hurt by the church, either by its action or its inaction. And there’s a desire in my heart to help people in those situations that wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t gone through my own experience with spiritual abuse.

At the end of the day, the main issue with spiritually abusive communities is that they aren’t representative of Jesus and who He is and what He stands for. Jesus is about service and surrender. Spiritually abusive churches teach service that benefits those higher up in their pyramid scheme. Jesus taught love and acceptance. Spiritually abusive churches teach judgment and exclusivity. Jesus taught that we are saved by grace through faith. Spiritually abusive churches teach that you need to fit the Christ-like mold they’ve designed, and not fitting into it means you are not aligned with Christ. Jesus pursues us even on days when we are angry with Him, when we don’t know where He is or if He even exists. Spiritually abusive churches cut ties as soon as you decide you don’t agree with them any more.

I’m still dealing with my own grief and recovery from leaving this church. I’m still harboring bitterness and anger and resentment toward them in my heart. But, when it comes down to it, I still love each and every one of them. And I pray that my friends — that Sarah — will realize the lies they’re being told, and that they’ll wake up to the reality of who Jesus really is and what He truly stands for. I hope that I’ll have the opportunity to reconnect with them again in this lifetime. But if not, I’ll wait until I see them on the other side.

As my final thought, I figured I’d share one final anecdote from a friend of mine. My friend Seth who I mentioned before has a specific story about leaving his church that has basically become my own mission statement when it comes to spiritual abuse. When he and his wife were leaving their church, his wife was still on staff at the time and decided to go into the church’s database to remove the two of them from the church membership archives. When she went to change their status, there were three check boxes that members could be categorized in: Dead, Missing, or Heretic. Only three options. Because simply deciding this toxic environment wasn’t one you belonged in any more isn’t an option. She checked the box for “Heretic” and left.

I’m a heretic.

But at the end of day, I’d rather be a heretic who loves and pursues Jesus with everything that I have than a lifeless shell of a human being that’s been forced into the mold deemed acceptable.

So if you’re in a spiritually abusive environment, please, come join me and countless others here in the body of Christ who would love nothing more than to meet you where you’re at and help you become who you’re meant to be.

Be a heretic.


P.S. — If you are currently in a spiritually abusive environment, I really do believe you need to get out as soon as possible. What I would recommend is connecting with someone outside of your church; It could be your family, a local campus ministry, or the pastor of another church, and get help leaving. Find people to fall back on. And then once you’re out, don’t turn back. Move forward. When I left my church, the biggest thing for me was re-learning the reality of grace. The best thing I’ve found for that is the book Proof: Finding Freedom Through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace, by Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones. When it comes to dealing with the pain and the grief that comes with leaving, take time to press into it. I would recommend going to therapy to work through some of the more deeper-rooted issues you may not be able to recognize right away, but talking through your pain with trusted friends can be incredibly therapeutic as well.


P.P.S. — If you aren’t in a spiritually abusive environment but know someone who is, please, try to help them. They will most likely be resistant, and their church will most likely try to convince them not to leave, but trying is better than leaving them to suffer without doing anything. As someone who is able to see things from the other side, please, do what you can to help them, before it’s too late.


*For more details and information from this article, read it here: http://www.marydemuth.com/spiritual-abuse-10-ways-to-spot-it/

**I reference this several times throughout this blog. To hear Mike McHargue’s full answer, listen here, starting around 11:28. http://mikemchargue.com/asksciencemike/2016/4/10/episode-64-ask-science-mike-live-in-ventura-ca

***Taken from Northern Hills’s “Our Story” page: http://nhills.org/our-story-2/