Church Abuse

Lies in the Church by Angela J. Kaufman

Identifying warning signs: 
First, spiritual abusers typically have some type of control problem.  They make their life and family life seem perfect.  Second, their spouses often help perpetrate the lies or the crimes of untruths.  Third, they play the role of the victim. They state that certain persons or people in the church have it in for them or they are against them in some fashion. Fourth, they are masters at twisting scripture for their own benefit. I’ve heard some people call this “ scripture spam ”. A particular pastor, for example, would take paragraphs out of context and preach an entire message on that premise.  Fifth, they don’t keep their promises even if they say they’ll take care of it. Sixth, in one case, there were three to four sermons on giving every month. Seventh, they would hang onto successful people or those they thought had money.  Then they would use them as examples for others to give more.
A man abandoned by church abuse
“People who ‘ survive’ spiritual abuse often wander in a kind of limbo; they are confused, hurt and angry.  Some victims of pastoral abuse blame themselves for their suffering, thinking that they must have deserved it.  Others indulge in self-hate for foolishly submitting themselves and their families to such humiliation.  Others focus their hatred on the abuser.”

One Christian columnist put it well.  “If the world was ordered for truth, then lies are its destroyer. Every time you or I justify a lie, we debase the God-ordained order for life.  And as truth is soiled, trust is diminished.”  In the book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Johnson and VanVonderen give two options.  We will either stay and fight or take flight.  I would add that some people freeze with inaction.

Individuals who stay in their church  instead of leaving the problems and conflicts, have personalities and qualities about them that keep them loyal, determined, faithful, and ever-enduring in spite of unsatisfactory circumstances.  They may be perceived as tough, bull-headed, stubborn, unmovable and unchangeable by staying with a ship even as it is sinking.

From the book, The Contentious Community, by John M. Miller, he states that we have a fantasy outlook on the church. “ The fantasy is that the church of Jesus Christ should be a company of people among whom there are no divisions, no disagreements; only harmony and love.  What we understand so rarely is that the church can have both harmony and love while at the same time having divisions and disagreements.  Disagreement does not necessitate disharmony. Division need not spawn hatred. Contention can exist within community."
Well, okay.
The blunt questions, however, are these: When is it okay to stay?  When is it time to leave?
Staying or leaving. When we are caught up in this predicament with the church, Johnson and VanVonderen offer questions that may help us calculate and discern the outcome.
Question #1: “Does grace really have a chance?” One key to staying is if the leadership exhibits grace, even if the sheep do not. Usually sheep will follow that type of shepherd. A second key is if leadership is only into power. When that is the case, the chances for grace are greatly reduced. “Once again, sheep follow shepherds.  And those who do not leave will tend to become entrenched in domination and legalism, whatever form those take.  If this is the case, you should probably leave.” The power trip is the sign that it is time to go.
 Question #2: “Are you supporting what you hate?” Are you enabling the behavior by giving your time and money? If you remain in this ministry, you may be empowering pain and lies.
Question #3: “Do you need to be right?” You may struggle with asking why the ones who are right have to leave? Often, we find that the messengers of truth were either run out of the church or left on their own due to lack of progress. You may have found yourself in this place. Yes, it is a lonely place, but it does not change the purpose God has for your life.  God is always ‘up to something’ in our spiritual journeys. Are we willing to seek the next step on this path of trust and truth? 
Questions #4: “Can you stay, and stay healthy, both at the same time?”  It is probably not worth it to risk your spiritual, physical, mental, emotional and psychological health.   If you stay, would you also be modeling unhealthy behaviors to your family? Human nature is to start behaving like those around us.  Do you have enough of a support net in place to help keep you healthy if you stay?
At the same time, an even more critical question to consider is next.
Question #5: “Can you decide your own limits – and stick with them?” Make a plan.  How long can you endure without seeing healthy results? Then keep accountable to others about the limit you set. Notice we need to be surrounded by healthy people to keep us on track.  We often forget we need this exactly when we are in the middle of struggles, not just after the fact when we need support for healing.
Question #6: “Do you believe God cares more about the church than you do?”  Is God capable of correcting the injustice and lies? Or is our pride blinding us to the reality of our abilities to change and control outcomes?
Question #7: “Is it possible the system might need to die?” “Leaving does not kill a dead system, it just makes it look as dead as it is.” When people leave, it is showing themselves, the congregation, and the world that this is Truth. The remnants of dust tell the story of a lifeless place.
All of those questions will take time and thought about how you proceed in your choice to leave or stay. Sometimes you will find leaving is your personal answer. At the same time, do not be dismayed if you choose to stay.

And finally, let’s acknowledge the pain of this struggle. Here is how Flora Slosson Wuellner in her book, Release, Healing From Wounds of Family, Church, and Community, acknowledges the journey for Christians.
                “We long to be part of a miracle of transformation.   We long to be loyal, to be part of the healing of others.  We feel defeated, guilty, ashamed that we have not been able to bring wholeness to our relationship or community.”

On the other hand, she sees a gift given to us through this struggle. “The released, healed person also sees the empowered, gifted potential of such a group – if it were healed.” Imagine that. The very struggle we want to avoid will give us the gift of discernment.  That is exactly the profound need we want to acquire in order to navigate through these spiritual waters of truth and lies.


Human Brain            

People who have been wounded in church abuse also display PTSD characteristics of hyper-sensitivity.  They are very watchful to the words and behavior of others. According to Marshall Shelley, in his book Well-Intentioned Dragons, it feels like this: “You don’t know when to attack, when to withdraw, or when to call for help.  All you know is your head pounds, your blood pressure rises, and the tension doesn’t go away.”

A wolf pretending to be a sheep.
The problem is that in church there was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and now every church person could be another wolf. Beware of the lurking wolf. This is how the person who was hurt feels. The “flock” or “sheep” they used to hang around with for safety is now an unsafe “ herd.” And so they have to start looking for a safe herd again.

I particularly like Chuck Swindoll’s analogy of the church as a hospital.   A hospital is a place to find healing, comfort, hope and health.  But hospitals are also known as a place that can make you sick; a whole lot sicker than you were.  We need to be truthful and acknowledge to the world around us when that happens. (Radio Spot, Wed. April 23, ’03, Obviously, being a church of truth must also mean being honest about problems.

Consider how Marshall Shelley, in his book Well-Intentioned Dragons, states this concept.  “The church, indeed every Christian, is an odd combination of self-sacrificing saint and self-serving sinner.  And the church, unlike some social organizations, doesn’t have the luxury of choosing its members; the church is an assembly of all who profess themselves believers.  Within that gathering is found a full range of saint/sinner combinations.  Ministry is a commitment to care for all members of the body, even those whose breath is tainted with dragon smoke.”   Shelley reminds us that dragons are known for their flames, but less noticeable are the deadly gases and the forked tongues.

Animals in the wild will search to the brink of death to find or join a herd for survival. The safety of the herd is absolutely crucial for survival.  Similarly, we look for others who are like us in order to feel safe and comfortable.  Ask people who have moved to a new community what helped them decide which church to join. It invariably has to do with finding a place where “we felt like we belonged” or a place where “ it felt like we were home.”

Let’s step back and look at this from a wounded, traumatized point of view.  If we have found a group that is open to questions, willing to listen and thus honest enough to hold one another accountable, this may indeed be a ‘safe’ place for healing to begin.  Perhaps our hyper-sensitivities can settle, when we finally find such a group.   
Don’t give up, keep looking.

a man the under the foot of church abuse.

The Trauma of Assault

Let’s look at some of the stages of trauma, often called Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder (PTSD).  After an emotional or physical assault, there is the initial shock or numbness.  Then, after this initial stage, anger can become the stage that manifests. Sometimes this anger triggers violence. In conjunction with this, denial – even survivor’s guilt can show up in the survivor’s profile. For a person to have their trauma lessened in intensity, it is important to talk about the trauma as soon as possible so it does not get internalized and become PTSD in the first place.

We must not take lightly any abuse or the effects it has on people. It is irrelevant if the experience is  large or small. The only issue at stake is how the trauma affected the victim. 

We may find ourselves experiencing aspects of PTSD with our church involvement.  We may recognize symptoms in the people around us.  What forms of PTSD do lies become in someone’s life?  How can we develop sensitivities to such pain?  If we have been hurt, lied to, abused, used, misused or seen as a hypocrite, then God’s love that resides in us can cover and assuage all of the sin committed against us. 

What power there is in love! Love is the symbol of Christ’s church.  Perhaps loving God has to do with how we love each other.

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Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse, How to Break Free from Bad Church Experiences, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill, 1993,  p. 15.

Schaefer: Lessons from Frey:  We are a lying people, Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, SD, February 4, 2006,

p. 3D.    



John M. Miller, The Contentious Community (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), 16.

David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1991), p. 215.

Ibid., p. 215.

Ibid., pp. 216, 217.

Ibid., p. 217.

Ibid., pp. 218, 219.

Ibid., p. 219.

Ibid., p. 219.

Ibid., p. 220.

Ibid., p. 220.

Ibid., p. 220.

Ibid., p. 221.

Ibid., p. 223.

Ibid., p. 224.

Ibid., pp. 224, 225.

Ibid., p. 226.

Ibid., p.227.

Ibid., p. 228.

Ibid., p. 228.

Gail B. Houston, “Church:  When It’s Time to Move On,” Focus on the Family, May 2008, 27.

Ibid., p. 28.

Ibid., p. 27.

Flora Slosson Wuellner, Release, Healing From Wounds of Family, Church, and Community, (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 1996), 73.

Ibid., p. 104.

David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (MN: Bethany House Publishers, , 1991), p. 24.

Marshall Shelley, Well-Intentioned Dragons, Ministering to Problem People in the Church (Waco, Texas: WORD Books, 1985), 60-61.

Chuck Swindoll, Radio spot, Wed. April 23, ’03,

Marshall Shelley, Well-Intentioned Dragons, Ministering to Problem People in the Church (Waco, Texas: WORD books, , 1985),  48.

Ibid., p. 51.

Wade Clark Roof, Spiritual Marketplace, Baby Boomers And The Remaking Of American Religion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 54.

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Copyright 2018: Angela J. Kaufman, Sioux Falls, SD 57106

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