“I felt like I was put out to pasture, like an orphan, unwanted and unloved. No one but me knew the deep scars that I had inside. Even now, almost nine years later, I am still sensing great emotional scars that I thought were long gone.”
These are the words of a woman who was rejected and abused, not by a boyfriend or a husband, but by a church. She still is not fully rid of the emotional and spiritual residue left from years of exposure to a church environment that was controlling, legalistic, guilt-inducing, and highly manipulative. “It’s still hard for me to expose my wounds, to admit to other Christians that I have been hurt spiritually and that my emotions have been damaged. I thought I was able to put it all behind me, but I guess the memories will always be there.”
Most people have been made aware by the news media of the tragic problems of child abuse and spouse abuse in our society. Physical and sexual abuse, unfortunately, are not new to the human scene. But until recently, very little attention was paid to what has become known as spiritual abuse. It takes place where we would ordinarily least expect to find something so harmful-in churches and religious organizations. We expect to be helped, not hurt, by pastors and others in positions of religious influence.
When our trust is violated by those who have been accorded society’s respect because of their special role as spiritual caretakers and shepherds of God’s flock, the pain, injury, and disillusionment can be devastating. Juanita and Dale Ryan state, “Spiritual abuse is a kind of abuse which damages the central core of who we are. It leaves us spiritually discouraged and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God.” 
Spiritual abuse takes place when leaders to whom people look for guidance and spiritual nurture use their positions of authority to manipulate, control, and dominate. Or, as David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen describe it, “Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.” 
Most people who are victims of spiritual abuse are sincerely seeking God, either out of a desire to serve him and know him more intimately or out of a deeply felt need to resolve problems. Being vulnerable in their spiritual journey, they would not knowingly subject themselves to pastoral or spiritual abuse. When they later realize that they have been involved in an unhealthy, abusive system, it is understandable that they may harbor resentment and bitterness against the leadership and against God himself. “Why did God allow this to happen to me when I was sincerely trying to know his will?” “How can I possibly forgive these people for the hurt and confusion they have caused me?” They may feel shame for having been deceived.
Do the abusers intend to inflict hurt? In most cases, probably not. They usually are unaware of what they are doing to people in the name of God. They may, in fact, be convinced that their behavior is what the Lord has mandated. What others interpret as control they may view as caring for the flock.
Ken Blue notes that “spiritual abusers are curiously naive about the effects of their exploitation. They rarely intend to hurt their victims. They are usually so narcissistic or so focused on some great thing they are doing for God that they don’t notice the wounds they are inflicting on their followers.” 
What aspects of authoritarian churches are hurtful? What happens to members when they decide to leave or are dismissed? Are they likely to end up in another abusive situation, or are they able to find a “normal” church? What about those who find it impossible to return to church, any church? Is it possible to break the cycle of spiritual abuse? Can people find true freedom in Christ after years of bondage in performance-based lifestyles?
These are some of the questions we will address in the pages that follow. This is a book about the process of recovering from churches that abuse. You will be introduced to real people who have struggled with leaving dysfunctional churches and Christian organizations. Not all of their stories have a positive ending, but many of these people have discovered that it is possible to recover from spiritual abuse. We will try to identify the various paths toward recovery that the survivors of church abuse have found to be helpful. With a minimum of psychological jargon and considerable emphasis on case histories, we will explore the patterns of recovery that provide hope for healing and a context in which God’s amazing grace can be experienced.
But first we need to describe the patterns of abuse, the factors that contribute to an unhealthy spiritual and emotional environment. We will begin with one young man’s odyssey, a man we will call Carlos.
Carlos Garcia’s story is typical of those of young adults who join what are sometimes called high-intensity or high-pressure Christian groups during their college years. Carlos became involved with an organization that is variously known as the Boston Movement, the Boston Church of Christ, or the International Churches of Christ (not to be confused with the mainline Churches of Christ denomination). Time magazine called this group “one of Protestantism’s hottest churches,” but in the same article critics called the movement “a real menace,” “an authoritarian sect,” and a “dictatorship.” 
The movement is often associated with Boston because it was in the Boston area that the group was founded by Kip McKean in 1979. It spread rapidly through the United States, taking root primarily in metropolitan areas and recruiting many converts from university campuses. Wherever the church has expanded, controversy has followed. Carlos’s story, though more extreme than some, illustrates why.
Carlos was born in Latin America into an upper-middle-class family and lived abroad in several countries before moving with his family to Los Angeles when he was fourteen. His multicultural background affected him a lot. He was fluent in several languages, but not English. To gain social acceptance he sought to excel in school. “I feel that I basically lost my adolescence because of the enormous cultural turmoil I was going through. I never really felt that I fit in anywhere.”
After high school, Carlos enrolled at a West Coast university and lived away from home for the first time. He had a few friends-his roommates and a classmate or two-but still felt the emptiness of leaving his home and friends in Los Angeles.
As a pre-med major Carlos thought it would be good to learn something about Christianity in that most Western medical care systems are based on Judeo-Christian principles. His parents are atheists, so he brought no religious background to his university studies.
During the second quarter he was approached on campus by some young people from the Boston Movement. He accepted their invitation to attend a “Bible Talk.” What impressed him most there was the sense of being “bombarded” by love, of receiving attention and acceptance given in Christ’s name.
Eventually he felt pressured to attend more Bible Talks, and he went reluctantly, more because of the people he met than the theology he heard. Also, within the first week of his involvement with the group, they held one of their semiannual retreats at a downtown hotel. Looking back, Carlos said that the main purpose of the retreat was “to badger you into becoming a Christian.” The retreat, featuring seminars conducted by key Church of Christ leaders, was directed mainly toward young adults and was an important part of the outreach program.
Carlos recalls that seminar leaders “made fun of other churches and other so-called Christians, including those who had the fish symbol on their cars. But they made it clear to all of us that the real Christians were the people who belonged to their church, the Church of Christ. They are the real Church.”
This elitist attitude is an example of what some call a “Christ plus something else” doctrine. That is, its advocates believe that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation, but the faith must be demonstrated within a particular church and in particular ways to be valid. Founder Kip McKean claims that he never taught that a person has to be a member of the Boston Church of Christ to be saved, but he admits, “I do not know of any other church, group, or movement that teaches and practices what we teach as Jesus taught.” 
One “something else” for the Boston Movement is the view that water baptism is necessary for salvation and the forgiveness of sins. Within two weeks of that first encounter with the movement, Carlos was baptized. The acceptance he felt then overshadowed any misgivings he had about their teachings and theology.
Carlos stayed with the group for nearly a year. He was expected to be available to the church on what members called a “24/7” schedule: twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The daily regimen on weekdays included a prayer group at the start of the day and then, after college classes, recruiting teams to solicit new members, a Bible Talk, sometimes follow-up phone calls to prospective recruits, and a meeting with his “discipler.” On Saturdays there was often a church-sponsored barbecue party, and on Sunday there were worship services. Studying had to be done late at night, and with the exhausting schedule, Carlos’s grades slid steadily downward from the 4.0 grade point average he had achieved during the first quarter.
As a new member Carlos was assigned a “discipler,” a person with whom he “fellowshiped” every day. Discipling-one-on-one instruction in the faith is a common practice in many conventional churches, but the Boston Movement’s approach has been criticized because the element of control is central to the relationship. Carlos soon discovered that his discipler sought to control the most personal aspects of his life. “They encouraged a kind of isolation from society,” Carlos relates, “teaching that the world is corrupt and anyone criticizing the Church of Christ is speaking the words of Satan. We were told not to associate with those people.” If the criticism came from family members, loyal followers were told not to associate with them either. When Carlos did go home for visits, he was asked to check in at least once a day with his discipler, who would always ask if Carlos had “shared” that day with family members and anyone else with whom he had contact.
Then Carlos was pressured to break his contract with the dormitory and move in with “the brethren,” but his parents did not allow it.
Dating with “the sisters” was permitted in the form of a double date or group dating, but dating outside the church was strictly forbidden. Touching of any kind, including holding hands, was prohibited, and couples were encouraged to change dating partners every week. “If you really wanted to see a person again, you had to ask for approval from your discipler, who in turn would ask his discipler. If the person was new to the church, continued dating of that individual was discouraged. You were told that before you could have a serious relationship with another person, you had to have a good relationship with God. Marriage was encouraged only between ‘seasoned’ members of the church.”
Carlos attempted to “share” with the few friends he did have outside the church, but they were skeptical and eventually lost interest in him. He felt alienated, but the response from the church members was, “See, this is how the world treats you. Now you can be with us until you die!”
In the meantime, the church was encouraging Carlos to become an evangelist because of his multicultural background. It would mean dropping out of the university. Carlos feels he was manipulated by a sense of guilt: “If you were asked to do something and you did not want to do it, you were told to ‘Get out of yourself,’ or that you were going to hell. You would be told that it was ‘Satan telling you not to do it’; ‘Christ didn’t live a life like that and you must follow his pattern; if you are lukewarm, Christ will have nothing to do with you.’ ‘You’re going to end up like the rest of the world.'”
Guilt was imputed in other ways also. Questions about the church or the Bible were tolerated, but answered with Scripture. If you questioned Scripture, you were made to feel very guilty. You were commended for being “fired up for God” and excited about the church, but if you demonstrated what were viewed as inappropriate emotions, more guilt was inflicted. Feelings of depression or sadness or doubt were discredited. Other members would ask Carlos, “What are you thinking right now?” and he got to the point that, no matter what he was really thinking or feeling, he should automatically answer, “Fired up for God!”
As Carlos became increasingly involved with the church, his mother realized that his personality was changing. She became anxious and eventually got in touch with someone who helped her understand that Carlos was involved with a cult-like church. She voiced her concerns to Carlos, but he would simply invite his parents to his church and remind them that they were going to hell. He never told his discipler about his parents’ concern, but as his mother persisted, he began to have doubts about the group.
During the summer after his first year at college, Carlos was feeling depressed about his failing grades and asked the people at church what he should do. They replied, “If school is interfering with your relationship with God, then you should quit schoo1.” Carlos was not ready to do that, and this advice, he says, was the beginning of the end of his relationship with the church. When he told a staff member he wanted to leave the church, the leader replied, “You’re free to go, but it’s not God’s will for your life.” The leader brought up memories of friendships, the baptism, and other church events and started to cry when Carlos told him that he was determined to leave.
Carlos soon discovered that when you leave the Church of Christ, the members will not talk to you. He Was shunned completely. His former non-Christian friends were not there for him either, so he had no one to turn to. He became very depressed and was unable to study or attend class. He received three warnings of academic dismissal, which he successfully appealed. However, he began hanging around the pool hall to pass the time. This pattern of poor academic performance, depression, and loneliness lasted for three more quarters. Finally, late in his second year at the university he was expelled with a GPA of 0.74, but he could not bring himself to tell this to his parents.
The university allowed him to gain credits at a community college and then return to campus if he did well. He took six academic units and was living by himself in a condo. On the weekends he would go with some new friends to a pool hall in another nearby city. About three months later, he met some people who turned him on to crystal methamphetamine, which he used daily for the next six months. He was feeling very angry toward the Boston Movement. His experience had left him feeling embarrassed and bitter and, worst of all, isolated.
At this low period in his life, his parents paid him a surprise visit, but he still lacked the courage to tell them that he had been kicked out of school. Soon afterward, Carlos returned home and told his parents that he wanted help. He was considering suicide. His parents obtained counseling for him, and Carlos considered enrolling at another college.
Today at age twenty-one, however, Carlos is still a confused person with many unresolved emotional problems. He still feels angry toward the Church of Christ. He attends meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, where his feelings are understood and he is accepted for who he is. He has nothing to do with church or religion.
The case of Carlos Garcia demonstrates how an abusive, manipulative religious system can devastate lives. Carlos was a young man passing from adolescence to adulthood without the familiar support system of home and family. His multicultural background had left him feeling uncomfortable and unsure of himself socially. The Church of Christ entered his life at the “right” time: he was vulnerable. The group surrounded him with an instant family of loving, accepting people. The church gave Carlos a focus, a sense of purpose, and an opportunity to avoid his anxieties and insecurities. Their theology meant little to him.
The evidence is compelling to those who have studied the phenomenon: involvement in a high-intensity Christian group can bring welcome relief from the pain and frustrations of everyday life. People in transition can be exploited and abused by spiritual leaders who turn out to be more like tyrants of the weak than shepherds of the sheep. In the book Toxic Faith, Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton characterize the plight of people like Carlos:
Persons with low self-worth feel alienated and isolated. They want to belong and be accepted. Toxic faith leaders know this. They can pick out wounded followers who are looking for someone to make them feel important. Under the guise of ministry they cater to people’s weaknesses until those people believe they are receiving genuine caring … Toxic faith practitioners find those with low self-worth and minimal boundaries. They ask them to trust just a little. With that first step of trust, the persons are flooded with affirmation and love. 
Like many other victims of spiritual abuse, Carlos feels embarrassment that he allowed himself to be “taken in” by the group. He wonders why he stayed as long as he did. Arterburn and Felton explain why: “The new followers don’t turn astray, even when they see the exploitation, because they continue to reinforce their own decisions. They feel bad about themselves already, and admitting they had been duped into submission would be devastating … If their self-worth had been present in the beginning, they would have discerned the unhealthiness of the group and refused to be part of it. … They don’t see the exploitation because their low self-worth has allowed them to be exploited all their lives, so it seems almost normal.” 
This pattern recurs frequently in my research. Its traits are recognizable in other case histories related in this book. Not all people who have low self-esteem or come from dysfunctional backgrounds end up like Carlos, but they are the most vulnerable to the wiles of abusive religious groups.
Another former member of the Boston Movement describes the plight of some who leave. “I know that when people finally decide on their own to leave, they are so beaten down and confused that they don’t know what is true to hold on to versus what is false to discard. Many quit seeking God and give up on the church al together.”
Other high-intensity Christian groups besides the Boston Movement can be found on university campuses or in college towns. Parents of students involved in such groups often notice two characteristics: personality changes and a disruption of family relationships. One mother wrote to ask for more information about the Boston Movement: “I have a son involved with this church … and it has destroyed our family relationship.” A letter from another mother was printed in a Boston Church of Christ publication as part of a response to an earlier article about” detractors and deprogrammers” who are critical of the movement. The woman stated that her son changed after joining the movement; he was no longer able to make rational decisions, concentrate very long on anything but the Bible, or function without the continuing help of others in the group. 
How can we discern an unhealthy, abusive Christian church or fellowship from one that is truly biblical, healthy, and worthy of our involvement? LaVonne Neff states that it is important to examine the effects that groups have on the people who join them. “Good results will not sanctify bad doctrine, but bad results can serve as warning lights, even where [the] teaching appears sound. … What happens to members’ personalities, relationships, job commitments, community involvement? Is the group’s overall effect on those who come in contact with it-members and nonmembers-positive or negative? Is it an agency of healing, restoration and reconciliation ?” 
To distinguish between healthy and unhealthy churches, Neff poses eleven questions.  Each question points to conditions that make it difficult for people like Carlos to put their lives back together upon leaving an abusive church situation.
In an abusive church, the use of guilt, fear, and intimidation to control members is likely to produce members who have a low self-image, who feel beaten down by legalism, who have been taught that asserting oneself is not spiritual. A leader in one group mentioned in this book used to tell members, “God never meant for you to be happy in this life.” This is not to say that all members of authoritarian churches are unhappy, guilt-ridden people. However, one of the first disturbing characteristics to be reported by relatives and friends of members of these churches is a noticeable change in personality, usually in a negative direction.
Nearly all unhealthy churches attempt to minimize commitments to family, especially parents. Young people may be told that they now have a new “spiritual” family, complete with leaders who will “re-parent” them. Church loyalty is seen as paramount, and family commitments are discouraged or viewed as impediments to spiritual advancement.
Control-oriented leaders attempt to dictate what members think, although the process is so spiritualized that members usually do not realize what is going on. A pastor or leader is viewed as God’s mouthpiece, and in varying degrees a member’s decision making and ability to think for oneself are swallowed up by the group. Pressure to conform and low tolerance for questioning make it difficult to be truly discerning.
A legalistic emphasis on keeping rules and a focus on the need to stay within prescribed boundaries is always present in unhealthy spiritual environments. Lifestyle rigidity in such groups increases a member’s guilt feelings and contributes to spiritual bondage. This rigidity is often coupled with an emphasis on beliefs that would not receive great attention in mainstream evangelicalism.
In intense, legalistic churches and religious organizations, the official, public proclamations usually place special value on high moral standards. In some instances, however, there is a double standard between those in leadership and those in the rank-and-file membership. For example, abusive churches tend to have incidents of sexual misconduct more often than most conventional churches; leaders sometimes exhibit an obsessive interest in sexuality. Unhealthy relationships and confused thinking often result for the members.
Authoritarian pastors are usually threatened by any expression of diverse opinions, whether from inside or outside the group. Displaying an attitude of spiritual superiority, they will reject any invitation to genuine dialogue and will often make a conscious effort to limit influence from outside the church. When outside speakers are given access to the pulpit, they are carefully selected to minimize any threat to the leadership’s agenda. Coercive pastors are fiercely independent and do not function well in a structure of accountability. For the sake of public relations, they may boast that they are accountable to a board of some sort, when in actuality the board is composed of “yes-men” who do not question the leader’s authority.
Another hallmark of an authoritarian church is its intolerance of any belief system different from its own. I am not referring to clearly heretical teachings and doctrines that contradict the historic Christian faith as it is expressed, for example, in the Apostles’ Creed.
Indeed, abusive churches are usually very orthodox in their basic beliefs. The problem is that pastors in such groups are likely to denounce and discredit other Christians’ beliefs and their expression of them. Authoritarian pastors tend to be spiritually ethnocentric-that is, they tend to measure and evaluate all forms of Christian spirituality according to their own carefully prescribed system, adopting an “us-versus-them” mentality.
A cardinal rule of abusive systems is “Don’t ask questions, don’t make waves.” A healthy pastor welcomes even tough questions. In an unhealthy church, disagreement with the pastor is considered disloyalty and is tantamount to disobeying God. People who repeatedly question the system are labeled rebellious, unteachable, or disharmonious to the body of Christ. Persistent questioners may face sanctions of some kind such as being publicly ridiculed, shunned, shamed, humiliated, or disfellowshiped.
Whether they admit it or not, abusive churches tend to view themselves as spiritually superior to other Christian groups. This religious elitism allows little room for outside influences. There can be no compromise with external sources, who, the leadership will really don’t understand what is going on in the ministry anyway. The only way to succeed in an abusive organization is to go along with the agenda, support the leadership, ignore or remove troublemakers, and scorn detractors and other outside critics who seek to attack the ministry.
Sometimes abusive groups illustrate what I call “split-level religion.” There is one level for public presentation and another for the inner circle of membership. The former is a carefully crafted public relations effort, the latter a reality level experienced only by the “true believers.” Recruitment tactics are usually intense; even if they are not actually deceptive or fraudulent, they can be manipulative or exploitive. Sometimes high-pressure religious groups are evasive about their true identity: “We really don’t have a name; we’re just Christians.” A healthy Christian group should have no qualms about revealing who it is and what its intentions are.
Sometimes it is difficult to discern the motives of a pastor or church group upon the first encounter. As in all of life, first impressions are not always correct. Sustained contact with an unhealthy church, however, will usually reveal a pattern that is consistent with the characteristics we have identified. Members will be requested to serve, to become involved, to sign up for a variety of activities that, upon closer inspection, appear designed to maintain the system and serve the needs of the leadership. Abusive churches thrive on creative tactics that promote dependency. Emphasizing obedience and submission to leaders, these churches often require a level of service that is overwhelming to members, resulting in emotional turmoil and spiritual breakdowns. Instead of serving God and their neighbors, members are robbed of relationships with family and friends, which hinders rather than nurtures their emotional and spiritual development.
Carlos’s experience in the Boston Movement impeded that development. The anxieties and insecurities that he sought to resolve were only intensified in the Church of Christ. Upon leaving the church, he found himself more depressed and isolated than ever. His life gives testimony that not everyone who leaves an unhealthy religious group will experience an adequate and wholesome recovery. All too many remain like Carlos-angry and confused people who bear the scars of spiritual and emotional damage and have not yet understood or experienced God’s restorative grace.
1 — Juanita and Dale Ryan, Recovery from Spiritual Abuse (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 9-10.
2 — David John and Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1991), 20.
3 — Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 12-13.
4 — Richard N. Ostling, “Keepers of the Flock,” Time (18 May 1992), 62.
5 — Kip McKean, “Revolution Through Restoration,” Upsidedown, no. 2 (1992): 8.
6 — Stephen Afterburn and Jack Felton, Toxic Faith(Nashville: Oliver-Nelson Books, 1991), 34-35.
7 — Ibid., 35-36.
8 — Letter to the Editor, UpsideDown, no. 6 (April 1993), 8.
9 — LaVonne Neff, “Evaluating Cults and New Religions,” in A Guide to Cults and New Religions, ed. Ron Enroth et al (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 196, emphasis mine.
10 — Ibid., 197. The questions are quoted, but the commentary is mine.
The full text of Recovering From Churches That Abuse has been placed online at Apologetics Index by permission from the book’s author, Dr. Ronald M. Enroth.
© Copyright 1992 by Ronald M. Enroth.
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Churches That Abuse – online book, also by Dr. Ronald Enroth
Research resources on abusive churches and spiritual abuse
Guidelines for selecting a counselor/cult expert