Spiritual Abuse Must Stop (a blog post)

Every single time I check my email there’s one more, one more person raising their “digital” hand and saying “That’s my story, too. I was spiritually abused.”

They’re responding to this story. Part 1. Part 2.

Most don’t stop there. These people–men, women, some pastors, some laypeople–go on to describe in detail their stories, the events that happened from their perspectives, that led to some sort of “spiritual abuse”. Many tell stories of being shunned by people who they believed were their friends, families, and confidants. Some were betrayed. Some were lied about. One man says he was interrogated in a dark room with a light shining in his face. And every deed was done in the name of Jesus.

One man wrote this:

“I just read your blogs about Andrew and Mars Hill. I was struck with how eerily similar my story–I live in Texas–was with his, even down to the “community” site that was exclusive to the church and being denied access to it after I was excommunicated. (Which, by the way, was caused by a text message that I sent to someone who had left.) Much like Andrew, I spent my time being manipulated and controlled, and my heart really goes out to him. I know in my case it’s still hard for me to think about the place and all the friends I suddenly lost. It’s sort of like have Post Traumatic Stress, but you also get to deal with the doubt caused in your own mind by the accusations thrown at you.”

There are often many sides to one story. But when it comes down to two, your story and the story of some sort of religious establishment. The establishment’s story almost always overpowers the story of the one who has been hurt. And that story of one is silenced. They get called troublemakers, liars, sinners, cynical, unhappy, mean, etc, etc, etc. And then, even when they do share their stories, nobody listens. Again. Silenced.

One lady said, “I sat down with my best friend and tried to tell her that the stories being told about me weren’t true. But she refused to listen. The church was always right in her mind.”

Many of the letters have come from former members of Mars Hill Church. One of those letters said, “I witnessed and experienced the spiritual abuse at MHC and its pastors on many different levels. I even felt forced to participate in them at times. I’ve felt the social & theological pressures, exclusions and have lost friendships over my leaving. It’s painful as hell and it’s irrevocably changed me.”

I could keep sharing. But to only share bits and pieces is not fair to them or their story. But we need to hear these stories. We need to weep with them over their stories. We need to validate their stories. Some of us need to confess our associations with their stories, our ignoring their stories, our unwillingness to trust a victim’s word against the word of a religious machine.

In my opinion, despite all the good deeds that might happen inside the machine, in order to measure a church’s worth, one must also take into consideration the souls, the people that church has bruised.

So many wrote that they’ve pretty much given up on the church. And that might be true. But in many instances, the church gave up on them. We, members of the universal church of Christ, need to stand up and speak out on behalf of the victims of spiritual abuse. All too often, because of fear or because of disbelief or because “the church must have had their reasons,” we ignore and devalue the stories of hurting people. Sure, sometimes a person’s story might turn out to be farfetched. But that is an excuse we have used for far too long. That is how abuse continues to occur inside the walls of churches.

Church, the truth is, sometimes our establishments, our rules, our hoops and hurdles, our fixes, and our leadership are abusing people, good people, people who are not being heard or listened to, people like you and me, people who will try to experience life at another church but will likely fail, people who might not trust you at first, people who are cynical and skeptic, people who are dying inside looking for somebody to shine a light on their story, their situation, their pain.

I tweeted last night that, it seems to me that far too many lost get found and then they get effed up. Effed up in a variety of ways. And that’s not amazing grace.

That’s a disgrace that each of us, every congregation, every member of a church staff, and every layperson can help remedy.

We begin by listening. And giving those who have been spiritually abused an opportunity to tell their story. Because only when we have the freedom to share, can we begin to walk on a path toward being free.

Let’s help people get free.

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  1. Shelley B says

    The church is often so worried about committing the sins of gossip and anger that they fail to have important dialogue about legitimate wrongs that need to be brought in the light.
    Mars Hill just planted one of their video venues in my town (Portland), with the claim that they were “loading their guns with ammunition of the gospel.” That is about the stupidest thing you could possibly say to a town that is passionately anti war!!!

    Gay and women’s rights groups planned to picket their first service, which was allegedly canceled because of the Belmont Street Fair happening the same day. (They spouted off some crap about wanting to be good neighbors, but we all knew the truth. They were trying to get the protestors to forget. They didn’t, even though their second attempt at a grand opening was done very quietly.)

    When a church friend and I started an innocent dialogue about it on Facebook, other Christians freaked out and thought we were stirring negativity. They said “we may disagree, but we’re on the same team!”

    It was so frustrating that we were looked down upon for speaking up. Anyone else experience this?

  2. says

    Greetings to Matthew and All,
    Yes, spiritual abuse happens. It shouldn’t, but it does. Kathryn and many others might be interested in my doctoral research on this topic. My book is entitled: Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Dynamic Research on Finding a Place of Wholeness. It was an amazing journey. Information about my book can be found on my website.

    My website is: Church Exiters http://www.churchexiters.com.

    I resonate with so many of the stories. We are not talking about spiritual abuse in the context of a cult, but in the context of a local church–whether big or small. So many people don’t know about spiritual abuse–until it happens to them! There is not much an individual or a couple can do when they face church leaders in certain church cultures. The leaders are right and are not to be questioned. Who is there to support the individual or couple who have a different of opinion, or whatever??

    More and more people are finding concord with others through the internet. People have a place to share their story and for others to affirm that what happened to them is just plain wrong. Unfortunately, in those type of church cultures, there is not much room for any positive change, so leaving is probably the best plan for one’s spiritual health.

    Contact me through my website. My email is: info@churchexiters.com.
    I would enjoy hearing from you!

    • Kathryn says

      I will check it out, Barb. I still haven’t narrowed down my exact design….thinking of something qualitative though to see what themes emerge from those who have suffered spiritual abuse. Really, I just want to hear stories, assess what’s going on….and eventually get to some resources that can help counselors provide better services for the abused and help churches prevent abuse.Thanks for the link!

  3. says

    Perhaps it is our own fault that abusers have found their way into our most precious relationship in life. . .the one we are meant to have with Jesus Christ. The one that first requires us to make Him preeminent. I know that I had to think this through recently.
    What we call “faith” is now being tested. The bride of Christ is being purified before His return.

    Do we love the sound of His Voice or not?

    If we love the sound of His Voice, we will be the ones listening to it daily via His precious Holy Word and we will be following the True Shepherd instead of anyone who happened to go in and out of seminary doors to get a diploma, dressed in religious garb, or placed themselves behind some pulpit.

    If we are willing to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is preeminent and go back to the Word of God with that in mind, we have His promise that He will give us the simple Truth about eternal life.

    We have already begun to enter into the time of that great apostasy, mentioned in 2 Thess.2, that will take place before the return of Christ. He is therefore teaching us to discern good from evil and how to function in a fallen world. Only His Word and His Spirit can help us successfully maneuver around the spiritual pitfalls ahead so that we might overcome and endure to the end.

    Spiritual abuse is Christian persecution when you are being attacked because you are endeavoring to stand on the Truth of the Word of God.

  4. says

    Yes. Yes. And yes.
    When one is rejected by a church, one feels rejected by God. And when the church turns their back, where is that person to go? Another church?

    When the abuse comes from a system that owns the credibility of a large building, a huge Internet presence, several book deals, and thousands of nodding heads, who dares to come forward and tell their truth?

    A pretty brave soul, that’s who.

    Thank you for using your platform here to champion those who have no voice against systemic spiritual abuse. You’re making a difference out here in the trenches, Matthew.

    Folks like Andrew have been forgotten. What’s one body when you have a lot of others to take his place? Doctrine should never trump the rights of a human being. Never.

    We’re often told that freedom comes at a price. That it is never free. Thank you for being one of those souls willing to pay that price.

    Andie Redwine
    Writer/Producer, “Paradise Recovered”

  5. says

    Thank you, Matthew, for giving a voice to those who have been silenced. I love what Preston Yancey is doing at his site this month, sharing stories of hope about what the church has meant to people. That’s important for us to remember. But I’m thankful for what you’re doing here as well, allowing people an opportunity to grieve some of the ways that the Church has hurt folks.
    The two sides of the story that I want to hear ARE the good and the bad sides. It’s easy to focus on one aspect of the Church and ignore others. I don’t want to do that. The beauty of Christ can be reflected in his Bride, but only if we continue to polish the areas where She is already doing that and scrub out the parts that are not. And we can’t do that without stories of both parts.

    Thank you for being a place where Isaiah 61:1-3 can be lived out.

  6. says

    Amen Matthew. Your series of posts by Andrew got me thinking that loving authority and leadership can be corrupted and abused so easily. It really is important to point out the times when leaders are abusive and fall short of what Jesus desires for us. Somehow Jesus managed to be the Lord of all while washing feet rather than demanding that his followers bow down and submit at his feet. If we don’t have leaders in the church who wash feet, a red flag should go up.

  7. says

    Again Matthew, thank you for not giving up on those people who suffered from that kind of abuse of power. They need a voice and they need to be heard.

  8. Josh C says

    I couldn’t have said it better.”Church, the truth is, sometimes our establishments, our rules, our hoops and hurdles, our fixes, and our leadership are abusing people, good people, people who are not being heard or listened to, people like you and me, people who will try to experience life at another church but will likely fail, people who might not trust you at first, people who are cynical and skeptic, people who are dying inside looking for somebody to shine a light on their story, their situation, their pain.”

    I want to show people faith, love and the amazing Grace of Jesus Christ. But quite often I can’t in good conscience send them to a church.

  9. says

    Matthew, thank you for raising awareness about this. This kind of abuse cannot be addressed by the government, it’s up to us..the Body..as you said, the universal CHURCH. WE need to speak up. The Body is equal and no one member of the Body has power over another. Jesus said not to lord over each other. We are not slaves to each other or to institutions that call themselves a ‘church’.
    Many of us have this same passion you write about and we established January as Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month. We have a facebook page http://facebook.com/SAAwareness

    Post Traumatic Stress is indeed something that ex-cult members experience upon leaving. Many churches have no idea how to help these folks. Read Ezekiel 34 http://www.esvbible.org/Ezekiel+34/

    People are free to CHOOSE where they worship and are free to leave. Sadly, many churches do not truly honor the US Constitutional rights and freedom of the people once they enter their “membership”. So many of them brainwash people into thinking they don’t have rights.

    We are all equal.

  10. Kate says

    Long time reader, first time commenter…I live in Milwaukee, I grew up and went to school in the Bible belt. MKE is not the Bible belt. I have never really seen church abuse first hand till we planted a church here. I am also a professional counselor and know psychologically things that go on with all that, let alone feeling condemned by “Christians.” This is such a scary and uncomfortable topic, yet, it needs to be raised up and brought to light. Thank you for taking a stand against church abuse of any kind, and for allowing these beautiful people and their stories to be shared. The first step in a lot of the healing that needs to take place is having a voice, being heard, and truly just being loved. I think that is exactly what Christ commands us to do.

  11. says

    “In my opinion, despite all the good deeds that might happen inside the machine, in order to measure a church’s worth, one must also take into consideration the souls, the people that church has bruised.”
    I hope every single Mars Hill defender and sycophant pays attention to those words.

    • Katy says

      Yes. The organization (not actually a church) that I was with would always point this out. Err, they would point out the opposite. “Look how much good this organization is doing. Does this not point to God’s blessing on the organization? Who are we to criticize something that God has blessed! We are Christ’s bride so we shouldn’t be spreading such criticism about…”

  12. says

    OMG. Andie…
    “When the abuse comes from a system that owns the credibility of a large building, a huge Internet presence, several book deals, and thousands of nodding heads, who dares to come forward and tell their truth?”

    I’ve been told there are pastors and there are revolutionaries. One cannot be the other.

    But is that true?

    When do we say enough is enough?

    Thank you (Turner and Redwine) for your bravery. Maybe someday soon I’ll join my story with yours.

  13. says

    Bravo, Matthew. I applaud this, and I hope that everyone heeds your words.
    All of us need to own up to the fact that even well-intentioned ministries are capable of inflicting spiritual wounds, and realize that the only way to deal with this is not to bolster the reputation of their abusers but to listen and love with true empathy and compassion.

    Those of us who call ourselves Jesus’ followers have to take Him seriously when He called out the abusive religious leaders of His day (Matthew 23) and reached out to those who had been marginalized by religion– the Samaritans, the tax collectors, the lepers, the man born blind. Jesus is concerned about spiritual abuse, so we should be too.


  14. says

    At the end when you said it is a disgrace that people are getting effed up, I read it as a dis-grace. The counter to actual grace. It’s a shame that this happens. I grew up in a good church, so it’s hard for me to relate to this, but having listened to Driscoll’s sermons for years and read his books, I can see how this happens at Mars Hill easily. I just have to wonder how many people suffer under this abuse that aren’t at big churches that everyone knows about. There are plenty of 50 member or less churches that I’m sure people are suffering under and need an outlet and some help.

  15. Luke says

    Thank for for writing what you have the last few days. To be honest, I have become somewhat annoyed with how much “air time” Driscoll and MH get, usually from people who dislike them. But the story you gave us this week needs to be told, not simply because what MH did was cruel and abusive, but because they are not unique in this. There are many churches that do this, and it must stop.
    As well, the more I read the stories here this week, the more I think that what happened to Andrew was not simply the result of bad people, but of unchecked power structures in the church. The church is supposed to be the place where we lay down the ways and power systems of the world, and this is one awful result of what happens when the church doesn’t do that. Now I think there were are factors as well (a rigid theological system for one), but the church was never supposed to be a place where power and control were needed to “help” people. I hope and pray that this idea of church becomes a 20th century relic.

  16. says

    I think that one reason that it’s so widespread in our country is that “spiritual abuse” is tough to pin down in light of of what is considered abuse in our society.
    A church is an odd community. it’s not like work where you are a hired person working alongside other hired people for a specific job description to create a product. More often at work, you’re not held accountable to volunteers, or pastor’s spouses or kids. Aside from paid church staff, everyone is there either by choice or lineage. And the central idea of that gathering is a particular faith and mission. People give of their time, money, and loyalty over….well…God. Not just God, but prospects of salvation vs. damnation/sin vs. righteousness. In our reformed, evangelical churches, there is a constant molting going on over truth and how a community organizes their truth. For a church community to be healthy is far more complicated than your average workplace.

    People who do not return to churches seem to understand that this problem is not just a particular church. It seems to be an underlying virus within modern Christianity as it is currently established. So many well meaning Christians say, ” Come to my church. We have beer at our Bible studies and we take all kinds of sinners. We don’t have the abuse.” But those who have left the church have gotten a defensive skin, and for good reasons.

    Many pastors see a mass exodus from the church as a crisis. As a former pastor, I don’t. People leave sinking ships not because they are cynical, but because they don’t want to die. The crisis to me, are people like Andrew, who in the name of my blessed Jesus was deeply scarred.

    • John F says

      Indeed, as I read Andrew’s story, I thought that many of the things that happened seem entirely justifiable (except the church-only website), but the problem is the way they were done and especially the seeming need for control and the lack of empathy for the person ‘under discipline’. The people involved probably aren’t ‘bad people’, but they have likely become ensconced in a culture that is usually benign, but can get harmful in certain circumstances.
      I’m in a church denomination that has a new leader every year, and I get frustrated sometimes that we don’t have a big long-lasting vision, or inspiring leaders who make a big mark in the community and the media, but then I look at a denomination that broke away from my own nearly 60 years ago, led for most of that time by one Rev Dr Ian Richard Kyle Paisley and I think that my denomination isn’t so bad after all.

  17. Leanne says

    Amen. Those of us who have been hurt by churches need to know we are not alone. The abusive systems blame the victims. Somehow the abuser is justified because the other person hurt them. Thank you for giving people a place to share their stories. Thank you for trying to make it a safe place to share those stories and also call churches to be better. There will always be those who want to blame the victim and justify the abuser. But hopefully as we all share our stories, those who have been hurt will also be called to find healing and hope.

  18. Sarah says

    The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church by Jeff VanVonderen & David Johnson
    When my women’s group announced an upcoming study on this book, my initial response was, “What is spiritual abuse? Is that even possible?” After just reading the first chapter I sat bolt upright and suddenly had a new paradigm for understanding a dynamic I have seen before but didn’t fully understand.

    “Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person…Spiritual abuse can also occur when spirituality is used to make others live up to a ‘spiritual standard.’…The unspoken attitude might best be stated in words like this: ‘I’m the authority, and because I’m the authority my words are not to be questioned. Since you did question, it’s proof that you are wrong.” Sometimes they will directly say that if you disagree with their teaching then you actually are disagreeing with God Himself.

    The book is a good resource and I just wanted to share it with any who are looking for understanding or healing.

    Matthew, thanks for doing this.

  19. Hal says

    It seems to me that we are forgetting that the church is comprised of people who are sinful, selfish, and fallible, and the people who are ‘abused’ are sinful, selfish, and fallible.
    I’m not advocating the kind of treatment that some have described, simply an adjustment of our viewpoint. To rail against these churches and leaderships for their sin of being unloving is not much better than their railing against those they abuse for their real or perceived sin.

    • greg says

      hmmmm . . . on one hand i see the point you’re making, but then on the other hand i hear the clear, strong words of Jesus as he time and time again said EXACTLY the things you’re cautioning against: “to rail against these churches and leaderships for their sin of being unloving”.

    • Lynne says

      I think the difference is that the leaders come from a position of authority, and declare that their position is God-ordained. Jesus was gentle with anyone who came to him for forgiveness of sin, but he was never-endingly harsh with the Pharisees, who were the ones who behaved this way. He made it clear that their attitude kept people out of heaven, and that is an enormous concern. When anyone takes the view that they are virtually the mouthpiece of God, then problems are going to arise.

  20. Outsider says

    We should consider this abuse, and the abuse of all religious power, as a logical result of its source. The Bible is a book that can be used to justify atrocities, abuse, neglect, and greed. Yes, it can be used for good as well – but only by ignoring large parts of it. There are so many great leaders throughout history, so many lessons of humility, grace, and kindness. Whatever god you believe in, it is only one of thousands humans have created over the centuries. Anything systematically abusive, such as established religion (which has no human recourse), shouldn’t be given the respect it does.
    Yes, I am an atheist. I read these posts with sadness, for those who are hurt by religion and the narcissistic leaders it attracts. I don’t expect you to like this comment, but I would hope you could pause for a moment and consider why such stories – of hurt built on Biblical principles – gets so many “me toos”.

    • says

      Outsider. I like your comment because I understand it. While I hold on to my belief in God, Jesus, I will stand alongside of you and fight the travesties that get committed in “God’s name” all day long. We might not agree the idea of God. But your story, opinions, and sadness are welcome here.

    • LRA says

      Outsider– There are several non-believers who are regulars here– myself included. We are always welcome to express our disagreement and our dismay at things people do in the name of “God.”
      My own spiritual abuse story involves my father’s church– I tried to tell them about his wrongdoings, but because he was a member of the board and a big financial contributor, they basically called me a liar and dismissed me.

      That’s not the only reason I became a non-believer, but it is among the reasons.

      • says

        LRA — i too was victimized by a “christian.” he wasn’t a family member, though. i can only imagine what pain that added to your experience.
        i found my faith in God again 10 years ago. but i understand how difficult that can be.

        i’m sorry for what happened to you, and glad that you have found a place here. i hope to get to know you.

  21. says

    MatthewThanks so much for all you do to “out” people that devote themselves to religious abuse like the unparalleled crap I’ve just spent the last thirty minutes reading about in your last 3 posts. My family and I left 20 years in “traditional” ministry about three years ago to start a church for people who would probably have a hard time fitting in at most churches. We have had some resistance from the religious community and lots of strange stares to say the least. But what we do experience in our faith community is a group of people hurt by life, churches and religion that show up every week responding to love, acceptance and understanding about where they are on their own personal Journey. I’ve had tremors at times hoping I’m leading people down the right path after spending my life in churches much like the ones you grew up in. But, I’m confident in one thing, when this is all said and done here on earth what is going to matter most is did we love people. Not did we tolerate people but did we love people. People who are not like us, don’t hold our same values, don’t agree with some of our core “doctrines.” But, will we have genuinely shown them what God has shown us? Unconditional, un-swerveing, absolute love. Thanks for having the balls to hold leaders accountable who claim love but are more about power. You are doing great things here and inspiring a generation to practice reckless love.

    • Jennifer says

      Thank you for sharing the way you are loving hurt people! We are people deeply wounded by the wounds inflicted to others by the spiritual authority figures. We are currently praying for a ministry like yours to our community. If you wouldn’t mind praying for us, we are also facing a lot of opposition from the formal church community.<Jennifer

  22. says

    I haven’t read the rest of the comments so if this has already been offered as an idea I apologize. I enjoy your writing style and your content always challenges me to think. It sounds like this could be the making of your next book.

  23. T... says

    I am so thankful you are publishing these articles. My heart is so heavy with these very concerns and experiences. Not only my own, but those I’ve witnessed and who continue to experience the ramifications. I cannot handle it, I want it to end! But so often find it an overwhelming and daunting task. I’m glad someone is speaking up & out, despite the criticism it clearly heaps back. How now do we proceed? How can we help heal those who continue to ache and whose emotional scars are not yet soothed? And how do we stop it?

  24. Patrick Olp says

    My initial response to the first part of Andrew’s story was to call the story controversy for controversy’s sake, but I know that’s not the case. These are real abuses that are happening to real people in Jesus’s name and it is such a bastardization of everything good and right about the church that it makes me sick. What I wrestle with is this: what are we to do about it? I like people sharing their stories and finding support and healing, but what can we DO to stop things like this? As long as we are on this side of eternity, I suppose abuses of power will occur with or without people making a concerted effort to stop it, but how can we lessen it, especially in egregious examples such as this? Where do you even start?

    • kisekileia says

      Creating power structures in our churches that involve checks and balances on the pastors’ power, and that give laypeople specific rights to autonomy and freedom (e.g. the right of confidentiality when confessing sins, to the extent that the law allows), would be very helpful. We can also vote with our feet, by choosing to attend churches that don’t revolve around a charismatic personality, have structures through which pastors are held accountable to the congregation and possibly to a larger denomination, and don’t see fit to exert control over the details of members’ lives. We can loudly denounce spiritual abuse when it occurs, refuse to support pastors and churches that engage in abusive practices, and help spiritual abuse victims find healing. We can evaluate our doctrines, beliefs, and practices partly based on how conducive they are to spiritual abuse. We can prioritize Jesus’ great commandments of love for God and others over lesser doctrines that are used to control people (e.g. most of what evangelicalism teaches about sex–I ultimately abandoned evangelical doctrines about sexuality in favour of a sex-positive feminist perspective because I felt they were incompatible with loving one’s neighbour as oneself).
      So there’s actually a lot we can do to stop spiritual abuse. Having a discussion about how to do it and why it’s necessary is a good start.

      • Patrick Olp says

        That’s all good and fine, I suppose what I’m really trying to get at is what can we do in a situation like this e.g. MARS HILL [?] Clearly I’ll never support what’s going on there, but do you let it just exist in a vacuum without any repercussions? It’s not like any of the committed are going to see a problem with what they’re doing since it still serves their bottom line— make an example of one to keep everyone else in check. How do we respond as a larger body to deal with this kind of cancer? Or do we just keep catching people as they come out of the wood work there, burned and scared?

        • kisekileia says

          I think there’s real work to be done in evangelicalism in stamping the kinds of attitudes among both clergy and laity that enable spiritual abuse. The ideas that people who get in trouble with a pastor must have done something to deserve it, that pastors are ordained/called by God and thus unlikely to really mess up, that it’s okay for churches and parachurch organizations to assert authority over members’ personal lives, and that it’s okay for churches to kick out people who are not actively causing serious harm to the community are hugely problematic and need to be fought.
          As for what to do when there’s a spiritual abuse situation going on? Don’t support the pastors, and do support the victims. Don’t buy Driscoll’s books. Don’t go to events where he’s participating. When another church or parachurch group invites him to speak, write to them and tell them why you won’t be going and why you don’t think they should associate with him. Speak your mind when people say positive things about him. Comment negatively on articles he writes and articles praising him, with links to stories of people he’s abused. Comment positively on the sites of spiritual abuse survivors. Financially support spiritual abuse survivors who must pay for mental health care to help them recover from the abuse. Actively support and encourage spiritual abuse survivors, and don’t condemn them if they’ve left the church or Christianity behind due to the abuse.

          Ultimately, it would be great if someone set up a nonprofit organization to work on spiritual abuse issues: advocacy for spiritual abuse survivors, education of pastors and mental health professionals on spiritual abuse, financial support for people incurring financial losses due to spiritual abuse, legal support for people in need of legal help due to spiritual abuse, and raising public awareness of spiritual abuse. I know some websites dealing with spiritual abuse (e.g. http://www.batteredsheep.com/), and a couple of small nonprofits that deal with specific subsets of spiritual abuse (http://www.safepassagefoundation.org/, http://www.takeheartproject.org/). I don’t know of any group that’s trying to take on the whole issue or that has gotten the funding to do the sort of comprehensive support and advocacy work I’m envisioning. Does anybody have the know-how and ability to get something like this started?

  25. says

    You said:

    ” And then, even when they do share their stories, nobody listens. Again. Silenced.”

    Yesterday, my story was shared at The Wartburg Watch (read it here): http://thewartburgwatch.com/2012/01/25/mark-driscolls-mars-hill-a-tutorial-on-spiritual-abuse

    My husband’s version can be found at the bottom of the article. While my friends at TWW have been wonderfully supportive, I am somewhat more discouraged than I was before I shared my story. Like Andrew, my husband and I thought and prayed long and hard about whether or not to share our stories. What would happen? Would there be repercussions? Will people blame us? Did we do something wrong?

    I found the courage and I shared my story. I guess I thought there would be more of an outrage that this happened to me. Andrew’s story is horrific, and we got out and did not subject ourselves to the meetings they wanted us to participate in. In our case, we did not do anything to warrant the treatment except to choose not to become members and let them know we would be going somewhere else. The lack of response to our story is discouraging.

    We should be listening. We should be outraged. We should have compassion. The commentary on Andrew’s situation was troubling…people judging whether or not he got what he “deserved” or whether he was truly repentant. The problem is…when blog posts move on to something else, Andrew and myself, and others like us, are still here, picking up the pieces. Thank you for speaking for us.

    I started a blog (marshillrefuge.blogspot.com) for people who have left Mars Hill (and other spiritually abusive situations), or for those who are questioning what is happening to them so that they may find that their experiences are not isolated.


    • Deana Holmes says

      Sophia…I wish I could give you comforting words, but my experience in eighteen or so years spent confronting a notorious space-alien cult in my spare time (got to eat, you know) is that these things take time. When something is called a religion here in America, even if it’s not of the Christian variety, it takes a long time for a critical mass of people to realize there is a problem. And for Christian churches, I simply have no idea. It’s especially difficult in Christian circles because I perceive that this kind of “discipline” (abuse) is considered normal, rational and reasonable.
      I don’t know what else to say but patience. That’s a hard, hard, HARD lesson I’ve had to learn over the years. But when I look back to the beginning, I can see how much our effort to get the word out has worked. It’s a satisfying moment, but I also know we’re nowhere near the end.

    • Jennifer says

      Sophia, What you and your husband identified is very similar to our church and small group experience, though we have no connection with MH. We have recently gained a new pastor that is espousing much “reformed theology.” We are equally concerned with the teaching about the Holy Spirit. Thank you for sharing and affirming with us the truth of examining all that is taught.<Jennifer

  26. Martin Stillion says

    I can only count myself fortunate that my own experience with spiritual abuse lasted only a couple of weeks. Nonetheless I dumped about 50,000 words on it, as a way of processing what happened:

    Before reading Andrew’s story I thought Mars Hill was just a church pastored by a guy with a big mouth who liked the taste of his own feet. Now I see it’s much worse than that.

    Andrew mentions working as a security guard at Mars Hill. I’m thinking that when you see security guards at a church, that might be an early tipoff that something ain’t quite right.

    • Sarah says

      We have security guards at my church, but that’s only in case someone, say, walks in with a gun with the intention to shoot or tries to start a fight. We don’t look out for people we personally don’t like and bounce them from the service.

  27. dcarpenter says

    An excellent book on the topic is The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen. It was written in the early 90’s, but is still in print and astonishingly and sadly relevant. I go to Dave Johnson’s church and can attest to his integrity in leading with theological soundness AND unwavering love and grace. After being pulled through three church splits in my adolescence, I am grateful for the years of healing I’ve found in such a church environment. I wish everyone could experience the same.

  28. james says

    So much to think about, but I always find it funny that people will take Matt. 18 15-17 literally, super literally, then assume treat people as a pagan/tax collector its as harsh (slander, gossip, betraying trust(saying very private matters), (what does Jesus say about treating your “enemies”), ignoring the plank in their eye, then not taking the matter of 18:18, and 19 literally, 19 especially, and then totally ignoring verse 21 and the context of verse 12-14.

  29. says

    Matthew, Thanks for getting the word out about another example of spiritual abuse in the church. This is an ongoing systemic problem. Right now, another denomination called Soveriegn Grace Ministries (also, like Driscoll’s church, endorsed by people like R.C. Sproul), is going through a huge exposure of their spiritual abuse and highly controlling tactics. Interested readers can visit http://www.sgmsurvivors.com to read similar stories as this one.
    I contend the root of all this is a literalist “biblicist” view of the Bible that must take everything at face value (and in this case even go beyond Matthew 18) and the paranoia that results when one doesn’t apply or obey Scripture. It creates controlling systems that strain out a gnat (anal interpretations of biblical stipulations) and swallow a camel (ignoring the only thing that counts–treating others with love). I write about in on my blog: http://deepthoughtpub.blogspot.com and my forthcoming book, Confessions of a Bible Thumper. Again, good job exposing this.

    • John F says

      Not a literalist view, but an impatient view, not acting out of love and putting themselves in the place of God.

  30. Matt says

    This story broke my heart – mainly because I’ve had the same failings as Andrew and was in a sexual relationship with a girl who attended church with me and confessed it to the senior leadership there – that’s where our stories begin to diverge – instead of condemnation we where prayed over, disciplined by confession and apology and then helped to heal. I’m so terribly heart broken by this story and at the same time glad that I’ve found a church home where this didn’t occur. Until I’d read this I had no idea that this treatment occurred. We the church are the enemy we must fight against the hardest.

  31. Anonymous says

    I have grown up in the church, and I have seen spiritual abuse at its “finest”. Every prejudice I have fought to overcome, I learned in church. As a gay man, I am constantly reminded by the evangelical community, that God cannot love me, that I am more of a sinner than anyone else because I am “choosing” to be this way, and that I am a second-class citizen who doesn’t deserve equal rights. The bottom line is, like Andrew, no one in the church can tell me where I stand with Christ. That is something that is between Him and me. It would be so easy to walk away and give up. There have been times when I wanted nothing more than to do just that. But Jesus calls us to a life that isn’t easy. If I don’t stand up and put a stop to the abuse, I am just as guilty as the pastor at Mars Hill who wrote that horrific letter. What I have often found is that most of the time, it’s really just a case of the pot calling the kettle black. People like those at Mars Hill (and every church in America) always seem to forget that none of us is perfect. There was only one guy who was good at being a Christian, and he was so good, they named the whole thing after him.
    Thanks for helping to bring light to these issues.

    • Leanne says

      I am sorry. I am sorry for believing the lies I was taught and keeping those alive. I believe Jesus loves you. you are not a second class citizen. I am sorry for how I have added to treating gay people like second class citizens. I am sorry.

    • kisekileia says

      I abandoned the belief that gay sex was a sin because I saw that that belief was incompatible with “love your neighbour as yourself”. I learned that, at least with gay and lesbian identity, “love the sinner, hate the sin” doesn’t work–it is virtually never experienced as love. I wish I’d learned that lesson sooner.

      • says

        There is no reason to abandon the belief that a sin is a sin, even sexual sin, such as homosexuality. I agree that the “love the sinner, hate the sin” terminology is extremely harmful regarding homosexuality. Most “gay” people make no distinction between themselves and their sexuality, just like heterosexuals. When we judge and condemn based on sexual identity, we build barriers to the truth that make us very ineffective. We need to speak the truth, but do it in a compassionate manner. That doesn’t result in any compromise and opens a door to change for those who, like me, believe homosexuality is unacceptable as an identity because of our faith. As Christians, if we believe in the Word of God, then it’s clear. That doesn’t mean we will be struggle-free, but it does mean we struggle with a clear purpose: to be free.

        • kisekileia says

          Believing and teaching that homosexuality is wrong is incompatible with Jesus’ command to love your neighbour as yourself. LGBTQ people basically never experience love from points of view that condemn their orientation (or put “gay” in quotes, as if that’s not really who they are). Since Jesus explicitly states that “love God with all your heart, soul, and mind” and “love your neighbour as yourself” are the greatest commandments, encapsulating all the others, those commandments take precedence when there is an apparent contradiction between them and other Bible verses. The verses condemning homosexuality are few, mostly ambiguous in translation and/or intent, and clearly less essential to the Gospel than loving one’s neighbour as oneself. Therefore, a reasonable interpretation of Scripture does not include believing homosexuality is a sin.

      • Steve says

        It doesn’t work because contrary to Christian ideology, homosexuality is not a behavior. It’s something intrinsic. Some people simply have romantic feelings for someone of the same gender – in the same way straight people naturally and invariably develop these feelings during puberty. Whatever happens as a result – sex, relationships, etc. – is just a consequence of acting on those feelings. Feelings that can be suppressed – with usually disastrous consequences – but not shut off.

  32. says

    Matthew–in case you hadn’t had the opportunity I thought I’d recommend Stefan Ulstein’s book “Growing up fundamentalist, journeys in legalism and grace”. Stefan is a Seattle based journalist who quite a number of years ago now sat down in a Fremont cafe with person after person who had experienced fundamentalism, often at it’s worst. He interviewed a large number of people and he took a couple dozen of those stories and published them. It’s out of print but you can buy used copies on Amazon. I grew up in a Spiritually abusive fundamentalist church and I found reading the stories of others so refreshing and validating.

  33. Lily says

    Thank you for exposing the dark underbelly of “successful” churches. Like the Sovereign Grace survivors, these stories need to be told. People need to be affirmed in what they have suffered and given hope that there are good churches. It takes a lot of strength to try a new church after these kinds of experiences.

  34. says

    Matthew, we live in Richland Center, Wisconsin, and it happened to us, too. The church we left is 27 years old and has left a string of literally hundreds of men, women, and children who fell victim to their heavy-handed legalism. When it happened to us, we spoke out and former victims came out of nowhere. As we get to the other side of our own experience, we, like you, have been amazed by their scope and number. We are baffled, though, at their reluctance to talk about it. The church beat them up spiritually, many are still bleeding from it, but they keep the same code of silence to which the church originally bound them. Why? Every one of these people would pull someone from in front of a runaway train, but seem incapable of making it harder for this church to continue to do what they do.
    Why do we do this? Why do we think that our silence makes us better Christians? As I recall, Jesus was not shy to speak plainly about the Pharisees of His own day. Can we not do the same with ours?

  35. says

    Very interesting blog piece and right on target. It seems some churches latch on to “church discipline” and bear it as a badge of honor, putting it above much more important things, such as accurately sharing the Gospel and living out the commandment to love one another. I was disciplined and removed from Trinity Baptist Church in Norman, OK more than five years ago for an admitted sexual sin. Even though I confessed and work through repentance, which was difficult to do separated from the support of my former church family, the pastor of the church still intervenes in my life to make sure that people in my current church and others know of my past sin. My understanding of the purpose of Christian discipline is to restore the brother, not destroy him.
    I now write often about the lack of grace exhibited by fearful churches and pastors who are so busy “protecting the flock,” that they are alienating much of it beyond anyone’s reach.

    I love the Lord and I hate to see Him so misrepresented by Christians.

  36. says

    Holding up my hand too!
    Thank you for speaking up and out, Matt!

    The pain that churches and controlling leaders have inflicted wittingly and unwittingly I think is beyond what current comprehension is.

    I lost a friend to the cult I was in….he despaired of life and shot himself. Controlling leaders must be spoken against!

    Please keep speaking!

    Here is my story: http://bit.ly/xtXnHB

  37. says

    I know you were down about not getting the interest you expected from your publisher about the children’s book, but I’m thinking this might have the potential to be something big. A collection of published letters from those spiritually abused by the church.
    Obviously, it’s a lot more complicated than that, but it was just a thought. I can’t express how much I appreciate your willingness to take a stand. I’ve been abused, and I’m still reeling from the pain. But knowing I’m not alone makes it a little easier.

  38. says

    words fail to describe the anguish and pain caused in reading this. i know the Church is a product of flawed humans, but must we make her to be such a (pardon me) whore? i thought this was what the Reformation fought against. i have prayed that we were past this point, but that proves to be but foolish blindness. my heart aches because i have experienced a church like this and can say that i have some idea (little it may be) of what this feels like. this is a dark page indeed of the beloved bride of Christ. i suppose the only recourse is to pray all the more and love one another with that much more intention that we might indeed be the change we wish to see in the Church. thanks for sharing this, painful as it must have been.

  39. says

    I’m so glad you are giving a loud voice for those who have suffered through this. It’s horrifying what can be done to others under the pretense of the term Christian. All it takes is one man to totally turn an entire congregation into a mess. A controlled mess. It’s so important for those who have suffered this to feel heard and I applaud you for giving them a voice and a sounding board! Bless you!

  40. One of the abused says

    We can stop, just as the Good Samaritan, and bind up the wounds of the battered. That’s a good thing. But at some point, we must also look over,our shoulder and ask, “Why are there so many in this very same ditch?”. There is something systemic here which begins with the very kind of hierarchical leadership Jesus clearly told,his followers not to have. It’s called “lording it over the flock” …
    Your voice in this matter , Matthew, may be one of the most important uses your voice has ever had …

  41. St. Ralph says

    Hm. Here’s another book, ‘Recovering from Churches That Abuse’ by Ron Enroth. Published 3 years after the Johnson & VanVonderen book. Don’t know if it is still in print, but the link below has the full text online (in an old-school HTML format, but what the heck). Haven’t read it myself.

  42. Been There... says

    I just finished reading the two posts prior to this. Unfortunately, Mars Hill isn’t the only church in the area that puts their members through this. I attended a church for 12 years and worked there the last half of my time there. The most unhealthy, spiritually abusive place I have ever been. I took part of the quiet excommunication of members who had “sinned” in the eyes of leadership and weren’t deemed worthy of Christian fellowship any longer. I have since apologized to those people. Once I began experiencing the same shunning after I quit my job there and subsequently left the church, I lost nearly every single person I once held dear. It has taken many, many years to overcome what I went through there. There is no restoration with that body – until one of those members are hurt themselves and find my email and ask to talk. “I didn’t believe what you shared with me at the time, but the same thing happened to me. I’m so sorry.”
    It has made it nearly impossible to find a new church home. Working to overcome cynicism, distrust and a general dislike for anything that looks like big church, smells like pre-programmed zombies following the word of a pastor who may or not be the “real deal” and being able to live in fellowship with others has been impossible for me. Surely, this can’t be what God meant for his Church?

    I have recently landed in a more liturgical setting, which shocks me. Based on my previous church experience, I’m not even sure I thought this people were saved. I find comfort in the small community, the repetitive words in services, the seemingly kind and simple heart of their Pastor who is under the rule of something much bigger than himself and self-appointed elders. I don’t want the community I had in my previous Christian life. I just want to hear from God. I want a safe place for my daughter to be.

    I didn’t commit sins in my previous church. I just didn’t line up with the abuse I dished out and I spoke up as I left. The excommunication I experience (and a handful of others) was quiet, but fierce. Sad stuff.

    Prayers for your brother. I know too well what it feels like to overcome this – but it can be done. It just takes time and amazingly, infiltrates every piece of life. Thank you for this post. It’s comforting to know that I’m not alone.

  43. BrianD says

    There are many Christians (although perhaps not most) who believe that Reformed/Calvinistic theology is the right way to go theologically.
    There are many Christians (perhaps most) who believe in some form of commitment by the believer to a local body, and in their being an active part of that local body.

    And, there are many Christians (perhaps more, or less) who think that some form of church discipline is necessary as an ongoing practice within said local body of believers.

    All of those ideas take a hit with this story about Andrew.

    You think people are going to be attracted to Calvinism or its Reformed variant when they see the fruit coming from MH and like churches?

    You really think that people are going to buy into church discipline when they see a real example of how badly it can go off the rails?

    And do you really think that people will jump to sign a MH/Sovereign Grace/IX Marks-type covenant when they see how badly they can get treated under it, and endorse such a covenant as something every church should have???

    No. No. No.

  44. says

    Matthew – I really think this subject needs a documentary to get these stories out. I’d like to think we could raise money a la Kickstarter to get a project funded.
    Your platform and your writing is invaluable. Keep it up!

  45. says

    Not listening is such a powerful silencer. And I find that it comes the most from the Christians that I know because when your faith relies entirely on a certain doctrine and worldview that has a judgment and opinion on every little thing, then they can’t here you because even the slightest reassessment on their part will rock their faith. Everything hinges on them being absolutely correct in all ways.
    I didn’t really experience spiritual abuse. I’m in this interesting place where the messages from that I got from conservative Christianity, that (from what I can tell) the Christians around me found good and wonderful, seem dark and sinister when you’re directing them toward a survivor of sexual abuse. There were the messages of a woman’s worth being in her purity. Now think of a survivor hearing that message. The message that once you are married, your body belongs to your husband. Now think of a survivor hearing that message. In fact, the very message of who god is – someone who wants ALL of me, who upon me asking for salvation, asks in return for every last aspect of me, and is holding hell over my head as his way of getting it. All the while that I must consider this loving and good and right. There is nothing that causes more flashbacks, more memories, all the same emotions from when I was sexually abused, than a sermon on the nature and character of God. All the while that these are the messages that the majority of Christians (at least the ones I see and know and know of) happily endorse. There’s no way they are able to listen to how the messages that define their entire belief structure are the absolute worst things you could tell someone like me.

    • kisekileia says

      Thank you for posting this. I think most conservative Christian theology about sex is pretty toxic, and this is another contributing factor to that toxicity.

  46. says

    MPT… thanks for putting yourself out there and writing about this (especially the Driscoll posts). And God bless you for putting up with all the crap that you have to read in the responses. Seriously.

    • BrianD says

      Amen, Kevin. MPT, what Kevin said.
      The silence of the Reformed world is deafening on this topic. Thank God that you spoke out and that you weren’t the only one.

    • kisekileia says

      Agreed. It amazes me how many people think that what Mars Hill did is okay, even on a blog like this that is generally somewhat critical of the worst excesses of evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Authoritarianism within evangelicalism and fundamentalism is a cancer that needs to be cut out.

  47. says

    I appreciate your reporting on stories of spiritual abuse, and I have no argument that those you have presented are clear cases of that abuse.
    But I do have a concern: other than what you have done, Matthew, how can you help remedy the problem? Being against spiritual abuse is like being against child abuse or sexual abuse–of course we should decry and expose these wrongs.

    Yet the words “church” and “discipline” are not obscenities. There are (or should be) shepherds of the flock who are responsible for our well being. Now that you have called out the bully and invited people to tell their stories, can you suggest a healthy way to go about the very necessary practice of church discipline?

    Blessings to you, MPT!

  48. says

    Spiritual abuse is…there’s not even a word strong enough for it, really. My husband and I left the fastest growing church in Idaho and possibly the nation (I’ll leave you to figure out what church that is) over three years ago and we’re still hurting. It’s not as bad as it was at first, but you just don’t realize how this kind of thing will touch every single part of your life until it’s already happened. We lost all but a few of our friends; people just won’t even look at us if we happen to run into them. How dare we question the leadership? How dare we believe that God was calling us to be somewhere else? And how dare I, as a woman, disagree with the leadership’s position on certain issues?
    I was called too many foul names to print, and my husband was told he needed to put me in my place.

    God will hold these people accountable. That is my consolation right now.

  49. jonas says

    wow. i began reading from a sympathetic, yet detached perspective, having been through my own bad experience decades ago. i expected to simply write a hearty “amen!” then i got to the line
    “So many wrote that they’ve pretty much given up on the church. And that might be true. But in many instances, the church gave up on them.”

    that shocked me. i was suddenly aware that maybe i’m not completely over “my story”. i’m one of those who has given up on the church, but i carry an unspoken sense of failure over that. to hear that maybe it’s the other way around is such a liberating thing. i need to let that sink in, but, wow.

    and thank you.

  50. says

    HI Matthew,
    So many thoughts that I know I won’t be able to vocalize in a response…but I talk about abuse over on my site as well. I think this problem of abuse – which is really to have the power over another…is so rampant in our society and especially in our church. I am so thankful to find another voice out here in the www that is bringing attention to it…for the more we bring attention to it – the more we normalize that this IS happening to people, the more healing we can bring to all that are involved.

    I have been involved personally in an abuse recovery program called Life Skills, Intl – their class “Learning to Live, Learning to Love”…has completely changed my life and my view on people – especially those that are leading our churches. Learning that most of us come from a less than good childhood, and learning that unless we confront, deal and heal from those childhood traumas/problems…we are going to continue to have behaviors that are not mature adult behaviors – the “Christlikeness” that we so desire to have. No, the behaviors that many if not most of us adults exhibit in situations like these are more like those of a kid…the kid in us that was traumatized at a young age and never learned how to grow up into adulthood. Its the phenomenon that is getting more airplay now called “Arrested in Development.”

    I believe that until our pastors and church leaders learn how to heal their own pasts…they will be susceptible to acting out their own hurts on the rest of us…in the form of abuse. It is a vicious cycle that gets worse and worse with every generation – unless we call it out of the dark, expose it to the light and ask God to bring healing on a grand scale.

    Furthermore, as I have been on my own journey these last months and years…I have come to whole heartedly believe as I have studied God’s word more closely that the power struggle in life is based on the gender roles that society has set up over the years…not God.

    I used to believe in the Mark Driscroll approach to gender roles…that I was a “weaker sex” and that I must submit my will to that of my husband – even if that will was not in line with God nor my best emotional/spiritual interest. In a way, this made life “easier” because I didn’t have to take full responsibility for the lack of spiritual development or whatever went wrong in the household…because ultimately that responsibility was on my husband right? When decisions got hard, I could just default to my husband and back out of the way. This line of thought also allowed me to ignore my God given gifts of leadership and of speaking up against the true “evils” I see in the world…for who was I to lead anyone but women and children.

    However, as God has brought me to organizations like Christians for Biblical Equality, to books written about a different way to view God’s view on genders…I have come to believe that God never meant to set up a power struggle from the beginning. This was a result of the Fall, but no means what we should strive to copy in our marriages or churches. This puts men and women, women an children, men and men at odds.

    While we say in our modern age that men and women are equal – we still don’t exhibit this equality within our homes or churches and so the subconscious really knows that there is not true equality…and the power struggle begins. This sets up arguments about what the right “hierarchy” shall be. This is implementing the way the world has done things …well forever. This allows people to get into power trips over one another…for when you have been a victim of abuse – until you properly learn how to deal with it – you most likely will pass on the abuse to a victim who is weaker than you – our children being most susceptible to our hurts and pain exhibited in our abuse of them.

    I cannot believe that God would mandate the Church to automatically set up this type of system…telling men that they have to bear the brunt of responsibility for the state of our homes and churches. I cannot bear to think that God, who created me in His image – really would call me the “weaker sex”. He would then be calling part of Himself weaker than the other – wouldn’t he?

    No, I have come to see that if we would just all stop trying to put ourselves one over the other…that if we would start looking at others as individuals not as male/female, white/black, asian/european…but as individuals gifted by God to do their part in the kingdom – that the focus would get off of us and back on the KINGDOM – where it belongs. And that perhaps, instead of bickering and trying to abuse one another – we could do what God commanded us to do – to make the Garden Flourish!

  51. reader says

    As long as our evangelical leaders will not step up and provide some sort of accountability to wayward powers in their midst, the people will need to keep shouting. I’m afraid many leaders are too afraid of their reputations to speak up.
    In addition, part of this larger problem, regardless of doing it well or doing it abusively, is the identity of the church wrapped up in organizational terms. The organization is a periphery of the church, not the church itself. It is a functioning arm, not the center of the Body… and it’s formality is optional not required. The “assembly” has been morphed.

    Thanks for speaking up. We do a lot of speaking up in our non-profit as well as we know many, many who have been abused in this way, from churches to families to colleges…

  52. says

    Interesting post, but I would say that our spirituality should focus on Christ and not us and how we’ve been abused or discouraged or disappointed in others…we need to just focus on Him and not our own hurts…thanks

    I came to your blog from the church relevant site top 200 list. They have created a tremendous forum for finding new blogs that impact people.

    I hope my blog can be an encouragement to you also.

    I write it for encouragement and motivation daily.


    Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to watching the connections grow!

  53. Kathryn says

    Hi!! I follow your blog loosely and have considered emailing you before to pick your brain (though I know you’re suuuuper busy)….I’m a PhD student in psychology and hoping to do my dissertation on spiritual abuse/spiritual trauma….surprisingly there’s not tons of research out there on it….mainly just on cults and and other “obvious” forms of abuse….but not much on mainstream (whatever that is), evangelical christian churches who don’t meet the criteria for being a cult….so yes….I will keep reading your stuff and some day I may try to bug you about any ideas you have for actually getting people’s stories out…using qualitative and quantitative data….maybe this can stop…or lessen…eventually! I just don’t think there has been a widely-understood label for this sadly familiar phenomenon for lots of people…but thanks for putting a label to it – this will help people to heal from it!

  54. says

    The picture at the top of your page is exactly what I call: ‘a muddy tunnel church experience’.

    I coined that phrase a number of years ago. There is a tunnel on a campus nearby, that is a path that goes under a train track. You must even bow your head a bit when you walk through it. Certainly captures the feeling of someone in the middle of the emotions of spiritual abuse. The darkest place and the muddiest place was right in the middle of it. We took photos of it to frame what I was saying with words.

    You have captured the same idea!

  55. frogla says

    MPT thank you for being a voice for those of who’ve been spiritually abused & for speaking out against spiritual abuse. it must stop!!!

  56. Sara says

    “Effed up”…be in the world but not of it…poor, poor choice of words to make a point no matter which direction you choose.

    • says

      Thanks Sara. I’m sorry that one word choice caused you to miss the point of all of the other words in this post. If that truly is the case, I fear that you would have missed it regardless of whether I wrote messed up, effed up, or fucked up. In the end, that one word doesn’t change the meaning of this post.

    • KatR says

      I was in an abusive church for 12 years. I am still unable to attend church on a regular basis. I’ve been in counseling for years. So please understand the spirit in which this is intended when I say “fuckity fuck fuck fuck”.

  57. Rev. Robin Swieringa, M.Div. says

    The Matthew 18 discipline process says to confront a Christian sibling who does not believe s/he is sinning about her/his sin, and if s/he repents, you’ve won that person back to The Way, and the discipline process STOPS. Andrew didn’t even need to be confronted — in church lingo, the Holy Spirit convicted him, he confessed it to his ex-fiancee and his community-group leader, and he repented of it.. When he was further confronted about the duration and extent of his sin, he agreed with them and repented. At that point, Jesus’s instructions on how to handle sin in the church say to stop the process.
    Even if one agrees with the church that, following his confession and repentance, Andrew’s participation in church ministries should have been limited for a time, and that a “discipline contract” was a reasonable response to Andrew’s confessed-to-and-repented-of sin, when Andrew rejected the contract AND RESIGNED HIS MEMBERSHIP in the church, the church leadership no longer had ANY legal OR ecclesial “standing” to continue to treat him as if he were a member — that is, they had no legal standing to continue into Step 2 of the Matthew discipline process (by making his sin public within the church), or into Step 3, by instructing people to shun him. Put another way, once he’d resigned, they had no more standing to do Steps 2 and 3 thn they have today — right now — to send a visitor who is having extramarital sex a discipline contract instead of a “thanks for visiting” letter, publish the visitor’s sexual activities on the church website, and instruct their membership to shun that visitor if s/he ever darkens the door of the church again!

    In short, It seems to me that Mars Hill is doing a “You can’t quit us, you’re fired!” dance, and that to do so they are preaching a false gospel regarding Christian confession, repentance, forgiveness, and the church discipline process that Jesus gave His church. The Bible is quite clear about what any believer is to do when they encounter a Christian brother or sister who is preaching a false gospel: “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds” (2 John 1:9-11).

    I am praying that a group of clergymen (I limit it to clergymen only because he wouldn’t listen to a clergywoman) in the Seattle area will decide to meet with Marc Driscoll and attempt to apply Jesus’s discipline process to him in this matter, just as such a group did in 1997 or ’98 when a then-well-known Kirkland pastor and his church denied that pastor’s sexual sin and the testimony of a number of his victims. Otherwise, Seattle-area non-Christians will believe that what Mars Hill is doing represents The Christian Response to sin, and will continue to stay away from any church.

    • Different Andrew says

      Rev Swieringa
      Matthew 18 is not church discipline. Rather it is how to deal with someone who you believe has “sinned” against you. It is Christ’s formula for conflict resolution between believers.

      Here is Matthew 18:15 in the KJV

      15Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.

      Here is the problem modern translations have which are causing a problem. I will use the NIV here

      15 “If your brother or sister[b] sins,[c] go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.

      These two translations alone contradict each other. The KJV says sins against you. The NIV says just sins in general and you have learned about it.

      The reason these two contradict each other has to do with the underlying Greek. KJV uses Textus Receptus, NIV uses a different greek that the translators refer to as a Eclectic set of texts which means variations of Vatinicaus and Siniaticus. These have resulted in the Greek NT known as Nestle. The root of the problem with how Matthew 18 gets intepreted by ministers lies in which Greek text they accept as the truth.

      There is absolutely no scripture that supports Mars Hill position and action in this matter. The Andrew in the article confessed publicly simply because he at least was remorseful which helped to serve as evidence that he was most likely repentant.

      There is only one thing that the church should have done which is to have prayed over him since he had freely confessed in the first place.

      Church discipline is described in 1 Corinthians where the church discovers an obvious black and white sin that is publicly known.

  58. Janice says

    This is what happens when you succumb to the pressures of corrupt leaders. After you come crawling back begging to be let back in, they will write a letter which places all of the blame on you and then make you sign it. They will take no responsibility for their part in the dispute but make you the scapegoat!
    Read this letter that was penned by church leaders who forced former members to sign it in order to be reinstated – http://graftedin.com/openletter.html

    This church in particular teaches on church authority on a regular basis. You can see the archives of their sermons here: http://graftedin.com/sabbathpod_archive06.html

  59. says

    You wrote: despite all the good deeds that might happen inside the machine, in order to measure a church’s worth, one must also take into consideration the souls, the people that church has bruised.
    Very true: A bruised reed He will not break,

    Thank you for highlighting spiritual abuse. It is a secret, festering problem in the church and largely ignored.

    (Also, Thanks, Been there/still there)

  60. Florence says

    I visited Mars Hill a few times in 2006. I encountered a number of people with a lot of hatred in them; at least one of them was a functionary of some kind…deacon, or whatever. I was rather taken aback by their visible show of intolerance and sheer hostility. Then, there was the off-duty police officer doing “security” in the lobby of the building (Ballard campus). As a side note, just exactly why would a church need a security presence anyway? In any case, his job appeared to be to snarl in the nastiest way at anybody who wasn’t accepted there, which is the experience I had. I came away thinking of Mars Hill as a place of spiritual darkness. This recent article in the “Stranger” confirms my feelings about the place. It’s extremely creepy.
    A cult begins as soon as church leadership gets into a power struggle with God, as to who’s house the church really is. I think Mars Hill became a cult a long time ago: by requiring more obedience and loyalty from members than God would require. They’ve stolen his house from him. As for that “security” officer…security people are present only when there’s something to be possessed, and fought over. It seems to me like the elements of a power struggle: a fight with God.
    I’ve also been at a small church in the past year, Church of the Undignified. Last year a fellow got thrown out of that church. He never caused any trouble; he was only sending private email, and criticising the church. In this church, privacy was not allowed. It seems there’s an epidemic of this kind of overbearing behaviour. These people don’t seem to know where the line is drawn, in terms of their real power.

    • says

      The book “The Power” By Rhonda ByrneHas helped me to get myself back…
      In the end we all know that it is all about LOVE!
      I forgive all the nonsense I have created in this life, and all the nonsense anyone else has caused that effected me in a negative way.

      “all things work together for my GOOD” In the end…

      Forgetting the past I press forwards to the prize…

  61. says

    Thank you for being so bold to share this story. I would like to ask permission to share links to this story and brief quoted snippets of this story on my blog? In my blog, I am sharing my story of spiritual abuse and recent defamation lawsuit. Thank you.

  62. says

    Hi Matthew,
    Good to see all the interactive comments on your site about spiritual abuse and related topics.

    You and your readers might be interested in a couple of new articles posted on my Church Exiters site.

    1. Spiritual Abuse and the Book of Galatians by Barb Orlowski

    2. Authoritarianism not Legalism by Wade Burleson

    Just check out the right side bar of http://www.ChurchExiters.com


  63. Jill says

    Great information and glad to have stumbled onto your site.May I add my personal thread to this vital tapestry of stories? I can speak to a spirit-centered life outside of and beyond church, but for me it did involve stepping outside of the Christianity box. Which, oddly enough, led me back around to Christ.

    I admit freely I am no longer a bible-thumper. I’m not convinced it is the full and complete holy word anymore. But I do believe it is one aspect of the truth, one facet of the whole story, and I respect it as such.

    When I view my Buddhist, New Ager, New Thought, Hindu, and Christian beliefs—and those whom I love that fit these descriptions—I look for what commonalities they hold. And I see the core value of love, respect, and acceptance. These are the things of Spirit, and these are the values I hold. A gentle apology goes out to those that are offended by such ideas of mixing Christ with Buddha or Shiva, but considering Jesus was unconventionally pro-Samaritan (doctrine meant nothing when it was about mercy and kindness), I feel I walk on well-worn ground.

    I instead believe in Christ, God, Buddha, etc., every person and every living thing as Love Incarnate. What kind of responsibility do I have in relationship to everyone and everything, past and present, if you, me, everything is made of the same stuff as God? If I’m built out of Love, and you’re built from Love, and my Muslim friends are built of the same Love stuff, then what level of accountability do I have to my fellow beings? Do I not have to apply the law of Love myself = Love others? Agree or not, the Love factor ratchets up the equation to one I cannot hide from. I could hide my bigotry behind my bible-thumping as a young girl in a fundie church, but I cannot do that anymore. There’s no ‘shield’ I can hide behind.

    And that—the living, breathing, believing in the doctrine of Love—is what I gained after leaving the church, searching the Eastern doctrines and the metaphysical, and coming back around to see that Christ is everywhere. You just have to open your eyes to see.

  64. says

    Everything is very open with a precise clarification of the challenges.It was definitely informative. Your website is useful.
    Thanks for sharing!

  65. PS says

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article. My husband is a survivor of severe spiritual abuse by a megachurch and the missionary in which he did work as a young adult (YWAM – check out some of the testimonies at Rick Ross’ website, they are a toxic group). His family also believed the church was always right and always paramount. They used that over his head to justify other forms of abuse, including beating him and neglecting his basic physical and emotional needs.
    I was also spiritually abused by them after we married and moved closer to them. I am a Catholic convert who grew up in a Unitarian household, so you can imagine how well that went over with their fundamentalist bent. As with other types of abuse it was subtle at the start and became more aggressive and ostracizing, cruel as the years passed. The more we set boundaries, the more they justified their behavior in God’s name – or as my husband put it, hiding behind Jesus’ robes.

    My past and current beliefs have meshed over time to where I believe in treating all with kindness, dignity, and respect, no matter what they’ve done, what they believe, or who they are. So my in-laws’ mistreatment of people was nothing like I’d ever seen, shocking even. More startling was to discover how many people are like them.

    My husband left his childhood church over 20 years ago and is still so traumatized he gets panic attacks if he sets foot in *any* house of worship. So far he’s yet to find a counselor (forget asking a pastor, it’s a trigger) who “gets it” and doesn’t automatically give the advice, “Why don’t you just find a different church/religion/spiritual path?” Once he tells them that’s not an option, they throw their hands in the air and say sorry, can’t help.

    His parents had also left that church for a while, and had apologized for their abuse, but they got sucked right back into that environment several years ago when there was a family crisis, and now they’ve not only gone back to that same church (claiming “Oh but they’ve changed” – uh huh, sure they have), they’re worse than ever, including rescinding their previous apologies and insisting they were “good Christian parents.” My MIL went on to verbally and physically abuse her grandchildren. We had to cut off contact so my husband can heal and our child could feel safe.

    My in-laws are like the adulteress in Proverbs who wipes her mouth and insists she’s done no wrong. Sorry to use such a harsh reference but in respect to their lack of conscience and spiritual conviction it’s the most accurate picture that comes to mind.

    • says

      PS, thanks for sharing your story. Everytime I hear a story like yours and husband’s it touches my heart and reminds me of all the abuse I went through and many of my friends. YWAM has come up a few times as abusive, but I wasn’t aware how much. The insidious part of this is, just as you said, how subtle and sporadic it is in the beginning–and even nonexistent if one always toes the party line–but then blows up the more a person thinks for themself or questions anything.
      Personally, I believe the root of it all is a warped Christian worldview that idolizes the Bible and justifies the abuse in the name of “submitting to scripture” or believing in such crazy doctrines as “eternal punishment,” which justifies trying to convert nonbelievers or discipline strayers from the faith through spiritual manipulation. Despite this contradicting the heart of Christ’s message of love, people think they are doing the right thing. They are literally brainwashed.

      My advice for your husband is to find a secular, cognitive therapist to help him—someone who won’t care about his spiritual belief.. There are many out there. There’s a book called “Feeling Good” that is a good place to start with understanding cognitive or “talk” therapy. It revolutionized my life and helped cure my depression and anxiety attacks, which developed after working under a spiritually abusive missionary. Also, the classic, Toxic Faith, may help. It’s written by Christian psysologostis but they understand abuse and it can be read in isolation to any religious involvement.

      Don’t let people tell you or your husband to just find another good church. If that doesn’t work for you, don’t pursue it. God is way beyond our man-made rules and religious institutions. I wish you and your husband hope and healing. Thanks again for sharing your personal story. It will help others.

      • says

        To: Matthew Paul
        Please clarify. I understand what you mean by attempts to justify abuse in the name of submitting to Scripture. However, your choice of words regarding “a worldview that idolizes the Bible” is a bit troubling and then you recommend a book called, “Feeling Good.” Hmmmm.??

        • says

          Idolizing or worshiping the Bible is putting the Bible above God. I know it sounds strange, but if you think about it, that’s exactly what the Pharisees did and what cults do. So, churches with authoratative structures justify their spiritual abuse of members by citing some scripture on church order and leaders, church discipline, or the like. For example, telling members they need permision to get engaged or involved in a ministry, or something, and saying they are just submitting to scripture as leaders and the people should too. Scripture becomes more important than loving and respecting people.
          Hmm… not sure why some people don’t like the title “Feeling Good.” I guess it’s because some of us are taught in churches that we shouldn’t have good feelings but rather the joy of the Lord, as if genuine feelings of well-being aren’t of God. You feel good when you are loved and when you learn to receive love, both self-love, people love, and God’s love. The book I suggested, although not Christian, helps people to reject negative thoughts and accept positive thoughts, or as a Christian might interpret it, truth about one’s place in the world as one beloved of God.

          Still troubled? Thanks for asking.

  66. says

    Another way to put idolizing the bible perhaps is to say the Church by in large has made Doctrine their god instead of making Love our God. When u make doctrine the god, u must make people see ur way, they must buy into the doctrine and they will use whatever means they can to “help” u do this…which these ways are abusive. This is anything but what Jesus did. Again, I have a post coming up later this month comparing an abusive marriage to the relationship with the church most people in this country have. http://Www.practicejoy.info.
    “Feeling good handbook” by David barns is superb and I had a few Christian counselors plus my recovery class use this material. It is called cognitive behavioral therapy and is HIGHLY effective. For Christians I describe it as learning to take every thought captive and making it obedient to Christ…another way to put it is there are 3 ways to feel in the world: good, bad or numb. The last 2 block the flow of energy in ur body. It’s like having the gung blocking ur arteries…in fact maybe it is literally. Think about it next time u either feel bad or numb, how does that actually feel? It is awefully hard to share the love of the divine from these two places vs when u feel good…

  67. says

    Practice Joy, Yes, great way to put Bible worship. Author of Feeling Good is David Burns and I’m so glad you are using it in your practice. I used just the way you described for my own recovery from spiritual abuse along with a book called Toxic Faith. This whole thread is inspiring me to do more to expose, prevent, and help heal victims of spiritual abuse. Anyone in Seattle, are you interested on meeting each other to discuss in person? Perhaps we can do something beyond this blog, which is a great starting point. Matthew, have you connections with people addressing this on the trenches?

    • says

      The Holy Bible is the Christian’s final authority regarding truth and eternal salvation. The reason most professing Christians get involved in false doctrines, is not because they haven’t found the right man standing behind the right pulpit or the right psychologist who has acquired the right degree and has written the right book to address the right issue, but because they haven’t made Jesus Christ and His Word (found in the totality of the Bible) genuinely preeminent in their life. Our salvation and happy feelings do not depend on mind-management, but on the Holy Spirit which comes into our life when we submit to Jesus Christ and His Word alone….Still sounds to me like you guys are looking somewhere else…If this is the case, I would remind you that now is the day of salvation, man (without the Word of God) is devolving and actually self-destructing, regardless of how many great authors he reads…and believe it or not, time is running out.

      • PS says

        I find it interesting – perhaps ironic – that you are using a blog post about spiritual abuse to try to scold other adults and play God police against someone whose opinions and values differ from yours… which, in essence, constitutes spiritual abuse. Hmmm…

        Not only that but have you ever *read* the book Toxic Faith? I have, and the author (Steve Arterburn) uses Scripture throughout to make his case about false and damaging beliefs that pervade in Christianity. He defers to the Bible and God’s authority. So your argument that it somehow contradicts the Bible because it isn’t the Bible falls flat.

        Appropriately enough, Arterburn points out how rejecting things of this world that aren’t mentioned in the Bible in some way is a false and unsafe belief. Just because Jesus doesn’t specifically mention psychology or therapy – at least not in those words (Scripture does talk about ministering and counseling) – doesn’t mean God didn’t gift certain people’s minds to grasp the human mind and behavior, and be able to use it to help others. Those they help, in turn, can function better and can be of more loving service to their church communities and families. Therapy saves countless marriages, mends countless families, and saves countless lives – is that not honoring God by preserving the sanctity of marriage, family, and human life?

        The same false beliefs mentioned in Toxic Faith are causing disillusionment among otherwise good folks in all faith traditions. As a result they are leaving in droves because they think they aren’t good enough, or they have become resentful and embittered against the human beings who are making a mess of God’s divine institution.

        We have no business condemning or shaming those who leave. Rather, we have a responsibility to bind up their wounds and work toward reconciliation. Otherwise, we are the ones who risk being thrown in the ocean with a millstone about our necks for destroying followers’ abilities to be child-like in Christ, if you will.

        We MUST address spiritual abuse and the misuse of Scripture to manipulate and mislead. That includes using it as a tool to intimidate and shame. Perfect love casts OUT fear so it can bring people to Christ.

    • says

      Perhaps “doing something beyond this blog” was your initial intention all along. Could it be that you guys are trying to use this blog (and the Bible) to solicit business contacts in the Seattle area? Just in case…I will be praying that those who are genuinely interested in the Word of God, will beware.

      • says

        Kay: Perhaps you are right. It is “doing something beyond this blog”. Maybe you were implying business for profit. I’m not sure about that. Maybe that “doing” means spending time with others at a coffee shop instead of church because the spiritual abuse done at church makes it difficult to step one foot in church again. Maybe it means reading the Bible aloud to someone who has difficulty opening the Bible on their own because of the spiritual abuse they endured results in panic attacks every time they try to open their Bible. Maybe it’s in sharing their stories of spiritual abuse, connecting with others, that there can be healing so that one can get back into the Bible or church and on the road to healing. The Bible tells us that wolves creep in unnoticed. They devour and destroy. What I’ve read in these comments are compassionate people who understand spiritual abuse and who want to help. It seems you think they have ulterior motives. That’s for God to judge. But at least you are praying. That’s a great start. Thank you. 2 Cor 1:4 talks about comforting others with the same comfort we have received. It doesn’t sound like Spiritual abuse is something you have experienced, so please let those who have walked this journey use their experience to help others.

      • says

        Kay, I really wish I had a perfect way to reply to your comment. To be honest, your comment has dug in deep into my very soul and is wrenching bitter tears from its heart. I could certainly try again to help you understand the rest of us…but I can see you are not interested in that. So all I have left to say with as much remorse and love and tears as I can express through this keyboard is thank you for being willing to throw the first stone at the rest of us.

      • says

        I wanted to let you all know that I started my series on Divorcing the Church and Its god (power and abuse) this weekend and will run through Feb. It saddens me to have to be at this point…but at the same time I have found so much healing and freedom as I separate myself from Doctrine that is keeping me oppressed. I hope that in sharing my story…others will find hope, peace, freedom…and most of all the deeds to their own lives so they can fully own what is rightfully theirs.
        #1 – why I use language the way I do: http://www.practicejoy.info/2013/01/semantics-language-propehcy.html
        #2 – why attack a system and not people: http://www.practicejoy.info/2013/01/why-criticize-system-and-not-people.html
        #3 – Divorcing the Church – comes out on Wed

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