It is a sad reality that many folks have bad church experiences in Christianity. These experiences range from mild disappointment to severe abuse, and in some cases, even criminality. Recovery from one of these experiences can be a painful and at times, a lengthy process. People who have experienced hurtful church experience can suffer from symptoms similar to PTSD or Stockholm Syndrome.
It can be helpful on the path to recovery, to be able to reflect upon our history, or perhaps our current circumstances, to provide either the inner healing and recovery from spiritual abuse, or, to find the inner motivation necessary to make changes to get out of a very toxic, unsafe, unhealthy church environment.
Everyone makes mistakes. All of us are prone to imperfections, mistaken opinions, errors in judgment, belief systems, and practices. However, when isolated errors multiply, become compounded, systematized, institutionalized, and defended; and conformity to these errors is demanded, a very dangerous line has been crossed.
You MIGHT BE in a cult if . . .
- honest disagreement and asking questions are interpreted as being of a “Jezebelian” or “Absalom” spirit, or being disloyal, a rebel, etc.
- Matthew 18 is used by leadership as a mandatory speech and thought control template to stifle thoughtful criticism, dialogue, discussion, and disagreement.
- Old Covenant leadership motifs are practiced: “Mosaic” style leadership “hears God for you,” rather than equipping you to hear God for yourself.
- your group’s identity and existence is dependent on a single individual and his/her gifts and talents; celebrityism; personality idolatry.
- you are rewarded for conformity by relational “access to the leadership,” and “punished” (overtly or covertly; openly or subliminally) for nonconformity by denial of relational access to leadership.
- you are told your heart is desperately wicked, and not trustworthy, but leaders expect you to trust theirs.
- transparency in relationship is demanded before trust in relationship is established; “transparency” is leveraged and used against you.
- leadership “de-gifts” you; that is, proclaims to be able to remove your gift, grace, and calling from you for alleged nonconformity.
- you are told you cannot make a personal decision without approval from your “covering.” There is no such concept as covering in the NT.
- leaders nurture a culture of infantile dependency upon themselves, rather than maturing, equipping, and releasing the saints; corral and control rather than equip and release.
- your leaders tell you who you can date (or if you can date at all!), who you can marry, if you can have children, how many children you should have, where you can live, what job you can take, when and where you can take vacation, etc.
- your leaders mandate how your children are to be educated (home school or not, etc.).
- Godly boundary lines of natural family (immediate and extended) are violated: “spiritual fathers and mothers” manipulate the affections of natural family members; natural family members are estranged and devoted to “spiritual parents.”
- you are told to sever all relationship with natural (blood) family members who are not “believers;” don’t go to their birthday parties, anniversaries, etc.
- your leaders discourage women from getting an education under the guise of being “keepers at home.”
- you are discouraged from getting an education, pursuing a career, saving for retirement, or buying insurance, etc., because it is the “end times” and Jesus is coming “any minute.”
- you are taught that only your group has the “real truth;” your group is the “remnant,” every one else is wrong, apostate; your group is in the Holy of Holies, others are “outer court.”
- you are threatened with dire spiritual peril should you leave the group; belonging to your group is considered being in the “ark of safety.”
- those who leave are “black-balled,” socially ostracized; you are forbidden from contact with those who leave.
- anyone who leaves your group is called a “covenant breaker.”
- you are told to “turn your mind off, and turn your spirit on;” that the exercise of rational faculties is somehow “not spiritual.”
- honor, authority, submission, loyalty, etc. are inordinately emphasized and only flow one way: up the hierarchy, a lack of a culture of mutuality–submitting one to another in the fear of the Lord (Eph. 5:21).
- leaders foster a culture of elitism or superiority; a fraternity of insiders: the clergy-laity divide.
- your time, talent, and treasure are fuel for another person’s ambitions of greatness; you are consumed by another’s carnal drive for significance.
- you are psychically manipulated with music under the guise of “worship.”
- leaders can correct you, but you cannot correct leaders.
- you are told that correcting or criticizing a leader is “touching the Lord’s anointed;” in the NC, all believers are equally anointed.
- leaders try to get you to do things for them for free (babysitting, lawn mowing, house repairs, etc.) under the guise of teaching you “to serve.”
- insistence on titles of rank and position are required under the pretext of “teaching honor and respect.”
- devotion to the scripture replaces devotion to the Person of Jesus.
- devotion to the scripture does not produce character transformation.
- your leaders only associate with young people – they have no peer level, age-level, and maturity level equals in their social sphere.
- the “leadership team” is stacked with family members, cronies, and yes-men.
- you are not allowed to say “no” at appropriate times and in appropriate ways, to leaders; godly boundaries are not honored.
- the finances of the group are managed in secrecy. Only official “leadership” is allowed to see the money, how it is spent, where it goes.
- loyalty to leadership is thought to be equivalent to loyalty to the Person of Jesus.
- emphasis on being doctrinally right is valued more than being relationally right with God and humanity.
- leaders live a lavish lifestyle of privilege and “perks,” while the poor, orphans, widows, etc., are ignored or thrown some scraps to ease the conscience.
- pursuing holiness results in isolation and insulation rather than transformation, integration, and societal penetration.
- the teaching emphasis is on obscure and esoteric topics, rather than the things that really matter; majoring on minors.
- flattery is used to manipulate behavior.
- giving/finances are used as tools for emotional extortion; giving monetary gifts to influence thought and behavior.
- you are made to feel inferior if you do not routinely demonstrate supernatural manifestations, gifts, miracles, etc.
- you are accused of being unspiritual, judgmental, or critical for questioning the source of unusual supernatural manifestations; for desiring to “prove all things,” you are accused of not understanding “the things of the Spirit,” or of being “an intellectual rationalist.”
- leaders with a vested self-interest, try to tell you where to give your money.
- typological teaching from the OT is not Christ-centered; selective proof-texting in preaching and application; legalism.
- your group uses insider language/jargon that makes others feel like outsiders.
If you have experienced, or are experiencing any of these symptoms, you need to make some changes. You can be healed and find restoration to spiritual vitality. Your trust can be restored: trusting God, trusting God in you, trusting others who genuinely love without an agenda, and trusting your Heavenly father to make up the difference when honest human beings let you down. We will always have to deal with human weakness and frailty, but we do not have to put up with systematized abuse and corruption. Spiritual abuse may have marked your past, but it does not have to define your future. We hope that some of the resources and articles that you will find here on this blog, and at www.stevecrosby.com will assist you on your hope-filled pathway to recovery.
Copyright 2013, Dr. Stephen R. Crosby, www.stevecrosby.org. Permission is granted to copy, forward, or distribute this article for non-commercial use only, as long as this copyright byline, in totality, is maintained in all duplications, copies, and link references. For reprint permission for any commercial use, in any form of media, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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