Friday, March 22, 2013

Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week

This week is Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week, hosted by Hannah Ettinger, Joy Bennett, Shaney Irene, Rachel Held Evans, and Elora Nicole. Tons of bloggers have been telling their stories of abuse they experienced in the church. It's super-important to hear their voices so that there can be healing and the church can become a safe environment where abuse does not happen.

I don't have a story to tell here, since I haven't experienced spiritual abuse, so I'll just give an overview and direct you to go read everyone else's posts.

First: What is "spiritual abuse"? 

The common theme in most of the stories shared this week is pastors and other church leaders being incredibly controlling. Pastors who told everyone what to do, and there was no questioning permitted- to disagree with the pastor is to disagree with God. Taken to the extreme, this means you are not allowed to think for yourself- clearly you don't know what you're talking about.

Rae writes, "It was the perfect catch-all. Someone doesn’t agree? Well, obviously they haven’t (as was also said to me) 'let Jesus have every area of their life' and they just needed to repent. When you've been raised to doubt yourself, that tactic is a powerful bit of mind-buggery."

Forgedimagination writes of a pastor's wife confronting her, "No, no– you don’t understand. If you keep on playing the piano, but you don’t use your talent to glorify God, he will take it away from you. If you think that God will let your rebellion go unpunished . . . God will not be mocked, and you can’t serve God and mammon. You know that. You need to repent and come back to God– you need to be willing to play for Him, even if it causes you pain."

In a second post, Forgedimagination writes, "We left– and when we did, the leader excommunicated us. He forbade me from speaking to his daughter ever again, and he blamed my mother for 'turning my father away from God.'"

Another theme is women being told (explicitly or implicitly) that they are worth less than men. That they are only good for cleaning and taking care of kids, not teaching. That their bodies are intrinsically bad.

Lana recalls what she was taught, "Why the heck did God make me a girl? I asked myself."

And one result of spiritual abuse is a TON of fear. (See you know something's wrong when your system produces fear. I believe Jesus wants to set people free from fear.)

Grace writes about her anxiety, "And some of it is because of the messages I grew up hearing in church – about how horribly depraved I was, about how even the best and most noble thing I could ever do would be nothing but filthy rags before God."

Amy Mitchell writes, "I must have looked surprised, because she added that it was about his baptism, which is scheduled for the Sunday after Easter. I nodded and told her that was no problem. But inside, I was panicking."

And often, those who have experienced spiritual abuse in the church have a hard time imagining a God who's not angry and controlling. Sometimes they find it nearly impossible believe in a God who loves and accepts people and gives grace. On the other hand, many of the stories shared this week also involve finding healing in God.

Kierstyn King writes, "I stopped praying because my prayers didn’t do anything good, they only made things worse. I stopped praying because god obviously never listened to me."

Jessica Bowman writes, "My understanding of God has been razed to the ground and is slowly being built back up on the foundation of Jesus, one brick of love and grace at a time."

And Sarah Moon says that abuse has its roots in the very things we believe about God, when we teach that abusive acts of God are "loving": [trigger warning] "That’s why [my ex-boyfriend] grabbed my arm so tightly that it left hand-print-shaped bruises after I tried to walk away from him after a fight. He 'loved' me too much to let me walk away."

Rebekah Hope describes the process of being able to heal, "So here's to recovery through uncovering. He's always been faithful to me."

Ruthie Dean writes, "God isn’t like the men who have hurt you, used you, left you, blamed you, or abused you. He doesn’t want you to be silent. He isn’t afraid of your feminity, your beautiful body, or your sexuality. He won’t shame you; He’ll give you a white robe of righteousness."

Also related is the issue of sexual abuse in the church. Kristen Rosser writes about her experience with spiritual abuse, and how she saw the same behaviors and attitudes within church culture being used to cover up the rape of a 17-year-old girl by a pastor. "This girl consented, didn't she? And anyway, no sin is worse than any other sin in God's eyes. We need to show mercy to this pastor. ... This is an internal matter for the church involved. Stay out of it. You are casting stones at a man of God. You should just be quiet." That same attitude where leaders are above questioning and no one is allowed to point out anything bad fosters a culture where children can be abused and no one seems to care about/ believe the victims.

Mary DeMuth writes about being abused as a child [trigger warning], "So I decided not one person on this evergreen-treed earth would protect me. Only I could."

And Grace Biskie also tells her story and the long process of healing [trigger warning], "One day I will see Him face to face, when all things will be made new for this tattered heart of mine. Until then, I press on in my messy-as-hell journey toward healing."

An anonymous blogger says, "I would pour over these letters with my friends trying to see if he was romantically interested in me, because then I could 'break up' with him or if he was mentoring me which would be inappropriate in our church because we were different sexes and I could get help from church leadership."

And another anonymous person writes, "I don't want to be the girl who was molested repeatedly by a pastors son, believed the lie it was her fault, and then refused to speak of it because of guilt and shame over sins she DID NOT COMMIT."

Boz Tchividjian, executive director of G.R.A.C.E. (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), writes a post addressing what churches should do. "Too many within the Christian community respond to the prevalence of child abuse with a dangerous and very hurtful silence. A silence that is too often preferred over acknowledging the existence of such evil within our midst. A silence that is too often preferred over openly discussing how to protect our little ones from perpetrators. A silence that is too often preferred over the hard work required to develop and implement effective child protection policies. A silence that is too often preferred over the cries of hurting children."

So anyway. Spiritual abuse is WRONG. It's a distortion of Christianity- emphasizing certain teachings, ignoring other ones, using it as a tool to keep the powerful in power and the weak weak. For example, the teaching that "everyone is a sinner" is held up as the most important thing about you- as if that means you're worthless and you can't even trust your own sinful mind and heart. NO! NO! People are also made in the image of God, with great capacity for good. And if anyone's only teaching one side of the "are people good or bad?" question and ignoring the other half, something is terribly wrong.

So I pray for healing for those who have been abused. I want everyone to know that they are valuable and worthy of love. I pray that Christians would work to address this problem and make the church a place of love and acceptance and honesty and justice. (You know, like Jesus.)


More links:

Spiritual Abuse Awareness Link-up Day 1: What's your story?

Spiritual Abuse Awareness Link-up Day 2: Consequences of Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual Abuse Awareness Link-up Day 3: Why should those who haven't been hurt care about this issue?


  1. It's so messed up, the things that people say and do in the name of Jesus. I cringe every time I read this stuff.

  2. Thank you for speaking out!