“I woke up one morning and realized I had not thought my own thoughts for three years.”
“One of the things that has been most distressing to me is to see the way the church can discard people the way you throw an old banana peel out the window, with no apparent care for them.”
“The emotional adjustment of leaving has been really difficult for me. I think at times I was even suicidal because it’s so drilled into your head that if you willingly put yourself outside of that church, you’re obviously not in God’s will anymore.”
“It happened gradually. But after four years in the campus fellowship, I realized I had been stripped of my God-given individuality.”
“There are so many heartbreaking things we have been through. Part of the difficulty is that we love those who led us down the destructive path. We now realize that for a long time we hated ourselves and found ourselves lacking in many ways, only to find out later that it wasn’t us at all!”
“After leaving the movement, it has taken us two years to become semi-normal again, just semi-normal. It has been hard to associate with other believers, not to judge them. It’s like a death in the family, like you’ve lost your best friend.”
“I began asking a lot of questions, and then everything got worse. I was accused of having a pattern of slander and was given my three warnings. I was told I would be disciplined if I ever talked to anyone else about my questions. I was told over and over that I was in sin and that they feared for my life.”
“We wonder, ‘Why did God allow this?’ But we also know that we never go through anything just for ourselves. When we come through it, we’re equipped to help the next guy who is stumbling along, going through the same thing.”
“I was thrown out of my church almost three weeks ago, excommunicated. I asked too many questions. I continue to pray for everybody who’s still in the church, and I wish that I could talk with them. I wish they would come talk to me.”
So speak former members of churches that abuse. They have experienced spiritual confusion, emotional pain, and relational disruption. Each is at a different place on the road to recovery. The churches that have contributed to their problems represent a broad spectrum of evangelical and fundamentalist traditions. Some are on the margins of mainline evangelicalism and would be considered quite extreme compared with conventional Christian church experience. However, many of the unhealthy churches I have encountered in my research are mainstream evangelical. I have received reports of spiritual abuse in congregations from many denominations, parachurch organizations, and organized ministries. I emphasize this fact, because we often want to believe that abuse happens only in radical churches far out on the fringe of religious society.
The people I have interviewed come from charismatic churches and noncharismatic churches, from large congregations in urban areas and small congregations in the countryside, from churches in the United States and churches in Canada. Unfortunately, spiritual abuse can probably be found almost anyplace in the world where there are large numbers of Christians. The church of Jesus Christ is, after all, composed of many segments, all subject to human frailty and temptation. And while there are many healthy churches to choose from, there are no perfect churches to emulate.
Cecily Talbot grew up in a fundamentalist church in a small town not far from Philadelphia. The little church could best be described as very legalistic and controlling. Among the taboos were jewelry, makeup, and school dances. Of all the members of her family, Cecily suffered the most from spiritual and emotional abuse, especially during her high school years. Cecily is now married and trying to put her past to rest.
“One of the biggest effects on my marriage is that I tend to overreact in my relationships with my husband. We are having an argument and he says something my fault, it strikes a nerve in me, whether or not it is true. My church blamed me for things over which I had no control. I was outspoken and often challenged the leaders and their teachings. No one in the church was supposed to challenge anything, and questioning those in authority was especially frowned upon. We were all clones who followed ‘the man of God’ no matter what. I refused to do that because I wanted answers to my questions. Yet years of being in an environment of blame and accusation have taken a toll. So today, when my husband says that something is my fault or that I should have done something differently, it affects me and our marriage seriously.”
Victims are always on the receiving end of blame.
Because abusive church leaders typically blame members for anything that goes wrong, those who break free of the abuse either find it difficult to accept blame for anything or find themselves wallowing in self-blame. Madeleine Tobias comments, “Ex-members have a tendency to continue this practice of self-blame after they leave … They may feel that there is something lacking in themselves, or they were not good enough for the group or the leader.” 
For Cecily, sorting out the abusive system she had recently left and adjusting to the dynamics of marriage led to a crisis.
“When my husband and I had been married for about three months, we had a serious argument. I tried to take my life by swallowing an overdose of pills. In reality, it was a cry for help. What I was trying to say was, ‘I need help. I need you to understand what I have gone through.'”
Cecily’s experience with legalistic and performance-based Christianity had familiar results: a distorted self-identity, feelings of inferiority, and a sense of inadequacy. “My most vivid memories of that church are the yelling and the condemnation from the pulpit. Members were told that we were nothing and that we could never amount to anything. Now that I have left the church I know it is not true, but they destroyed my self-esteem nevertheless … They took away what God gave us, the ability to take pride in what we had accomplished … Everyone has something about yourself that you treasure and that you are proud of. They found the light that kept me going and took it away.”
David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen write, “People who have been spiritually abused tend to have a negative picture of self, or a shame-based identity … Shame is an indictment on you as a person … You feel shame even when you’ve done nothing wrong; you feel defective as a human being, and like a third-rate Christian undeserving of God’s blessings and acceptance.” 
Cecily also adopted self-destructive behavior. “I went to a Bible college in New England for one year. The church didn’t want me to attend this college because they wanted me to be home where they could keep an eye on me. I was considered a rebellious teenager. All the other kids were given going away parties as they left for college, but when I left, I didn’t get anything.”
At college Cecily had a casual affair with another student and then had a string of relationships in which, as she puts it, “I used men as building blocks to make me callous to the hurts of the world and the self-esteem problem I had.” She dropped out of college after one year, returned to her hometown, and found friends who drank and used drugs. She ran off to New York soon afterward, she said, “to get away from the church and everything I thought was holding me down and causing me to hate myself. I was looking for someone or something to guide me in my life. I didn’t want direction from my parents and the church, but I knew I needed it in my life.”
In New York she started a serious cocaine habit and became promiscuous. “I didn’t know at the time why I was doing it. I snorted cocaine because I was around people who did and I wanted to fit in.”
Cecily did not recognize then, as she does now, that the real problem underlying her behavior was largely the stifling, controlling atmosphere of the church that for years had put her down and regulated all aspects of her life. “No matter what the church tried to say about me, I wasn’t basically a rebellious person. I believe I was a normal teenager who wanted to dress like other sixteen-year-olds and wear my hair and use makeup the way they did. I was not allowed to do those things. I was made to be something I wasn’t.
“As hard as I tried, when I moved to New York, none of those values that were supposed to have been ingrained in me meant anything. There was a point at the Bible college when I felt extremely close to God, but when I went home, the church would have nothing to do with me. I was the black sheep. No one wanted anything to do with me except the people who drank and partied.
“Only in the last few months has my downward slide begun to change for the better. I have started to climb back up and am beginning to come to grips with what happened to me. I attribute most of my personal problems–my lack of self-respect and the abuse I inflict on myself–to that church. I don’t know if I can recover. I don’t know if there is a light at the end of the tunnel for me. It doesn’t feel that way, and it doesn’t look that way.
Cecily had found herself in a cycle of abuse. Like other forms of abusive behavior, emotional and spiritual abuse is sometimes perpetuated by being directed at other innocent people. “I was verbally abused by the pastor and his wife as well as by my parents. Because of that experience, I too have become an abuser, to myself and my husband.”
Cecily has had recurring nightmares, some of them about leaders or other people in that church. Once she dreamed she was being burned and tortured by them. I woke up because I literally felt the sensation of being burned. I woke up visibly shaken. It really alarmed my husband.”
Research shows that it is not uncommon for victims of spiritual abuse to have disturbing dreams and nightmares. Re-experiencing trauma through painful memories or recurrent nightmares is one of the elements in diagnosing what has come to be known as “post-traumatic stress disorder.”  This disorder should be treated through professional counseling.
Another effect of the abuse for Cecily was a lack of trust. “The church destroyed my family’s unity and my ability to trust people. They pitted my sister and me against each other, but God has healed that bitterness and we are now friends. Every time I confided to somebody in that church, they turned against me or betrayed my confidences. My teenage concerns and problems became common knowledge to the whole congregation. When someone breaks down a family’s sense of unity and an individual’s personal trust, they are destroying two areas that are especially important to a teenager. That had major repercussions for me. Even today I have difficulty talking to people and believing in them.”
Cecily is working to reestablish trust in others. Tobias comments, “The betrayal of trust by the group, with its residue of hurt, rage, and fear, presents problems for the ex-member. Knowing whom to trust and to what extent takes time … The key to trusting is to proceed slowly. Trusting is a process, not a final act. It must be earned by those who desire to get close to you.” 
By learning to trust again, the victims of abuse also discover that they can tolerate and trust themselves, an important part of the recovery experience.
Besides trusting people, victims like Cecily also need to learn to trust God again. Cecily struggles with the question of why God allowed her to experience all the pain. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?” I keep asking myself, why can’t I recover from this? Why can’t God take it away and make it disappear? If I could, I would let him. Maybe I am holding on to it as an excuse. I don’t know. I’m very confused about why God would let me go through these things.
“I need answers. I need to find out where I go from here. If there is help, where do I find it? I know others have suffered much more than me. But my experiences have hurt me and affect me today. I sense the oppression of that church in my marriage. I don’t know how to vent my feelings. I don’t know how to look at my experiences and make something good come from them. My ways for crying for help, like taking overdoses and scaring my parents and husband, aren’t working. I am anxious to find help and to talk to someone who can relate to my experiences.
“Sometimes I think about the day of judgment and standing before God. That terrible church will be accountable for what it did to me. I will be accountable for myself, for all that has happened to me since the day I stepped out of the church.
“I want to be spiritually, mentally, and emotionally stable. That church took away not only my self-esteem, but also my love for God. The only way I knew God in that church was from the screaming and yelling that went on in the pulpit. Yes, I turned away from God, but when I turned back toward him, he was still standing there, waiting. Now I need some guidance in my life and I want God to take residency in my heart again. I pray that I will find that help and that it won’t be too late.”
Cecily’s story is typical of victims who have not received some form of professional counseling. Whether that failure is owing to a lack of resources, a distrust of professionals, or uncertainty that help is really needed, this kind of person frequently is pessimistic about the prospects for full recovery. “The most frightening thing to me right now,” said Cecily, “is the thought that I won’t recover, that the actions of that church will affect me for the rest of my life. I don’t know where to start or who to talk to. I have spoken with friends and ministers, but it seems that no one can help me. No one has ever said, ‘I can help you. I’ve been there. I know.’
“Counseling takes time, and I have been hesitant about talking to anyone. But I know that I need help because it is affecting my marriage. The constant dreams are scary. I have to take pills before I go to sleep so that I don’t dream, or at least so that I don’t remember the dreams. It is horrible when you can’t even sleep without these people creeping into your mind and thoughts. In my dreams I am always standing back looking at myself and seeing the people around me as uncaring and unaware of what is happening to me.”
There is a sad irony in Cecily’s cry for help in that she has not availed herself of professional counseling. That may be a result of the confusion and disorder that impede the process of re-socialization into mainstream society. I believe that people like Cecily cannot make a full recovery strictly on their own. Some victims may find substantial help in talking with other former members of their church, attending special seminars, or reading books. The support of friends helps many through the ordeal; two friends helped Cecily kick her cocaine habit. But for some victims, these means alone are not enough.
Dr. Paul Martin, a Christian psychologist, believes that, although there may be obstacles such as a lack of finances standing in the way, a formal, systematic program of professional counseling is essential. A structured program enables victims of spiritual abuse to have a framework for dealing with their post-departure problems, thereby facilitating the recovery process.  However, Martin points out, it is important that the counselor not be a secular mental health professional having a bias against religious beliefs, who would discourage the victim from giving any regard to religion whatsoever. 
A Christian counselor is needed, whether a pastor or professional therapist. It must be someone who understands the dynamics of abusive systems and who, in a relationship of trust, can provide the warmth and caring necessary to support the victim. The survivor must be assured of God’s unfailing grace and be able, in effect, to rediscover the gospel.
Cecily’s family has been affected by the spiritual abuse as much as Cecily herself, especially in terms of the legalistic atmosphere. In Breaking Free: Rescuing Families from the Clutches of Legalism, David Miller states that legalism in a church renders dysfunctional everything a person touches, including family: “There is a corruption in the heart of the legalistic family that will eventually break through the surface and adversely affect the children … The damage comes not from what is done to the children but rather through the more subtle messages they learn about themselves and others … Legalism inevitably turns children into church mice and Christian leaders into authoritarian monsters.” 
Cecily’s family’s only exposure to Christianity came in one church. For many years they accepted its performance-based teachings and incorporated them into their family life. Now her parents, who have since left the church, are torn with guilt for rearing their children in that traumatizing religious environment. Cecily’s father says, “I’m glad that I left the church, but it was fifteen years too late. It is like being released from a prisoner of war camp. You get so accustomed to the guarded conditions that it is hard to understand what freedom is. You wouldn’t go back, but it is difficult nevertheless.”
Cecily’s mother agrees. “You feel so glad to be out when you first leave. For all those years we weren’t allowed to visit other churches, so it was great to be able to find other Christians, people who studied the Bible and who loved the Lord. We settled into a church fairly quickly after we got out. After the newness of being out wears off, you begin to feel the tremendous loss of the years that you were there. You don’t feel that you really fit in anywhere.”
The anxiety felt over “the lost years” is common to many former members of abusive churches or cults. Sometimes people go through a kind of grieving process as they reflect on “what might have been” if they had not been trapped in their situation for a long time.
Not being able to fit in is another common feeling of the victims of spiritual abuse. Studies reveal that when people experience what sociologists call “role exit,” they frequently endure a period of anxiety and feeling in a vacuum. In one study of people who have left a wide array of social roles and become “exes” (ex-nun, ex-cult member, ex-doctor), sociologist Helen Ebaugh found that more than three-quarters went through a period of feeling anxious, at loose ends, and scared over not belonging or fitting in.
The experience is best described as “the vacuum” in that people felt “in midair,” “ungrounded,” “neither here nor there,” “nowhere.” It is as though the individual takes one last glance backward to what he or she has been involved with in the past but knows is no longer viable. Yet the person isn’t really sure at this point what the future holds. It seems that this last glance backward is necessary before actually taking the leap forward. 
Cecily’s father observes that “we continually see the people who are involved in that other church. The leaders do not understand how badly they treated us. They think a simple ‘I’m sorry’ will make us feel better. They just don’t get it. To this day, my family has nightmares about these people. We pray with the children at late-night hours because they have had nightmares about things that happened to them at that church.
“I enjoy visiting other churches and hearing the Word of God preached. But it is hard for me to read my Bible every day because of the regime I lived with for . twenty years. I don’t like to read the Bible. I don’t feel a part of anything. I don’t want to feel a part of anything.
“What would help me in recovery is to talk to someone who is farther along in recovery than I am. The honeymoon stage of being fresh out of the group, which for me was like being saved all over again, is over. I’m almost cynical.
“It is hard to be a part of anything anymore. I want to go to church and hear the Word of God preached, but I don’t have any desire to become involved. How do you explain to other Christians the last twenty years? People try to be nice, but it is hard for them to understand.”
The problem of not being understood is common among victims of spiritual abuse. Just about the time they find a “normal” Christian church and develop friendships and a trust relationship with the leadership, they tell their story to someone and in response are likely to encounter suspicion and skepticism about their spiritual stability, their mental health, or both. As a result, the victims feel guilty, misunderstood, and even rejected. They wonder whether they should ever again risk revealing their past.
Christians who want to be helpful to those who have come out of abusive experiences must be sensitive, nonjudgmental, and accepting-even if they find it difficult to understand how something so bizarre could happen to another Christian.
In the meantime, both Cecily and her family are making progress, however slow, toward a wholesome recovery. Yet the process is not without regrets. Cecily’s father states, “The greatest pain we suffer is over what has been done to our children. That is my hardest struggle.” He adds hopefully, “We are seeking God. We ask his blessing and for him to direct us in what we do. We know he has taken us down a very rough path, but we believe that this experience will help us strengthen others. Maybe God can use us to help others recover, because we understand what they have been through.”
Despite her uncertainty about the future, Cecily feels she is slowly moving forward. She is grateful for God’s grace and for the married couple who helped her get off cocaine. Through her husband she has gained an appreciation of herself. “He came into my life at a point when God must have known that I needed someone to say, ‘I love you. You don’t have to sleep with men to be something; I love you for who you are.’ My husband loves me for what I am, not what I can do for him.”
Cecily, too, has regrets. “Now, I am a bit crass with people because that is my defense. I feel that my armor is to pay back all the hurts I have received. I would like for my shield to be God’s love, but I have too much anger stored up inside me toward the church and my parents, and I don’t know how to release the bitterness.”
Such is the experience of one family who, having escaped an abusive church, are trying to rebuild their lives. The next chapter tells quite a different story about a woman whose family abandoned her early in life and who suffered through a succession of abusive churches before finally breaking free.
Scripture tells us, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matt. 7:16). From whatever perspective you view it, the fruit of Community Chapel was bad. Family boundaries were broken down, conventional biblical understandings were turned inside out resulting in moral chaos, and hundreds of individuals suffered psychological impairment of indescribable proportions. It is a sobering lesson in what can happen when abusive churches go over the edge.
1 Madeleine Landau Tobias, “Guidelines for Ex-Members,” in Recovery from Cults, ed. Michael D. Langone (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), 305.
2 David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1991), 44-45.
3 Charles R. Figley, ed., Trauma and Its Wake (New York: Brunner / Mazel, 1985), xx.
4 Tobias, “Guidelines for Ex-Members,” 313.
5 Paul R. Martin, “Post-Cult Recovery: Assessment and Rehabilitation,” in Langone, Recovery from Cults, 203.
6 Paul R. Martin, “Dispelling the Myths: The Psychological Consequences of Cultic Involvement,” Christian Research Journal 11, no. 3 (1989): 12
7 David R. Miller, Breaking Free: Rescuing Families from the Clutches of Legalism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 34-35.
8 Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh, Becoming an Ex: The Process of Role Exit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 143.
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.
We ask that you respect this copyrighted work by linking to it instead of copying and pasting the text without permission.
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