Apologetics Index

Chapter 9: Abusive churches make leaving painful

Abusive churches make leaving painful
Abusive churches make leaving painful

Chapter 9: Exit and Adjustment

Abusive Churches Make Leaving Painful

Estimated reading time: 29 minutes

“I feel lost. I don’t know where I’m going; I don’t know what I’m supposed to do; I don’t know what I want; I don’t know who I am, and I want to know who I am .. .it was just like one morning I woke up and collapsed …. I don’t understand why it seemed to work before, and why it’s not working now. There’s a lot of confusion …. And I want to tell you something about my husband-he’s gone. There’s not anybody there in him-he’s a void. He just can’t communicate … A lot of my life’s gone … a great portion of it is gone …”

As Beth Farrell described her exit process from Hobart Freeman’s Faith Assembly, it almost seemed as if she was trying to retain her grip on sanity. Having lived for several years almost entirely enveloped in Freeman’s anti-intellectual, isolationist, name-it-and-claim-it subculture, she, her husband, and their ten-year-old son were in agony as they attempted to return to normal society and regain some sense of themselves. Her son, having been born and raised in Faith Assembly, has never known anything but spiritual legalism, and, consistent with the group’s beliefs, is deathly afraid of physicians.

Hobart Freeman began Faith Assembly (not affiliated with the Assemblies of God) after both his dismissal from the faculty of Grace Theological Seminary and his excommunication from the Grace Brethren Church in Indiana in 1963. Holding a doctorate in Old Testament Theology and Hebrew, Freeman was a successful minister of a large congregation and the author of several books. However, he held some variant positions on doctrine and practice that became increasingly extreme over the years.

Of greatest significance was Freeman’s position on medicine and physicians. He referred to doctors as “medical deities” and claimed that medicines had demonic names and, if taken, opened one up to demonic influence. Members of Faith Assembly were, and still are, strongly discouraged from seeking medical attention for any maladies suffered. As a result, at least ninety persons of Faith Assembly have died of preventable and treatable illnesses. One report indicates that the church has averaged about one preventable death per month since 1978. These deaths include forty-two infants, ten children between the ages of one and seventeen, seven mothers who died of complications related to home births, and numerous adults who suffered illnesses that were inadequately treated.

According to Freeman’s “faith-formula theology,” God is obligated to heal every sickness if a believer’s faith is genuine-so that Faith Assembly members felt they could actually avoid death. After a “positive confession” is made concerning the healing, symptoms of illness or injury that remain are viewed as deception from the Devil. If death occurs in spite of this positive confession, it is seen as either discipline from God or a lack of faith, or even, as in Job’s case, a testing of faith. Freeman himself died of severe cardiovascular disease and mild bronchopneumonia in 1984, an embarrassment to his church. No Faith Assembly folks attended his burial. Leadership has been passed on to his sons-in-law.

Although Faith Assembly is most noted for its positive-confession approach to healing, where believers must “claim” healing by acknowledging that it has taken place before any indication of the fact, its members also follow a number of other questionable doctrines and practices. They are discouraged from reading newspapers, watching television, and meeting with members of other churches. They buy no insurance, wear neither glasses nor contact lenses, and remove the seat belts from their cars, preferring to “live by faith alone.” Wives are expected to be submissive, obedient homemakers who practice no birth control. All members are to put the “Body” first and their familial relationships second (Beth’s own husband and another Faith Assembly elder caused her to be disfellowshippedshunnedfor months). Higher education is strongly discouraged, and, because most members give the bulk of their income to the church, they live in relative poverty-in contrast to the allegedly wealthy life-styles of Faith Assembly leaders.

Celebrations of Christmas and Easter, considered pagan customs, are forbidden. Freeman’s teachings are to be accepted without question, no matter how twisted the scriptural basis. To question Freeman, a self-acknowledged “prophet of God,” is to risk the charge of blasphemy. Since Freeman believed that the Trinitarian formula of Matthew 28:19 is improper, although he held to a traditional, orthodox view of the Trinity, members are baptized in the name of Jesus only. Members are told to pray only once concerning a matter to avoid “vain repetition.” Married individuals should not have sexual foreplay, or sex for pleasure, so as to avoid inciting “lust.” Members are not to swear any oaths in a court of law, and they are prohibited from consulting attorneys.

This is only a sampling of the types of strictures under which Faith Assembly members live, but, looming above them all, is the constant need to have a “positive confession.” “We were taught to practice thought control … to deliberately empty our minds of everything negative concerning the person, problem, or situation confronting us.”

Out of this maelstrom stepped Beth and her family. Already having experienced the pain of the break up of their house fellowship in 1975, they are now devastated by this most recent event in their pursuit of faith. Ten years of study and work had enabled them to become leaders and teachers in Faith Assembly. They learned Hebrew and Greek for Bible study and a whole theological system interpreted according to Freeman’s personal beliefs. Having left Freeman’s fold, they were in a quandary. No other fellowship of Christians could possibly measure up. Other believers do not show the same sincerity and seriousness about their faith. Consequently, Beth and her family do not know where to go. The mainline denominational structure is what drove them to an informal home fellowship and then to Faith Assembly in the first place. However, they realize there is no going back to a group where dead newborn babies are secretly buried by their parents for fear that the “Body” will find out and their lack of faith become evident to all.

Beth had never been able to attain “the faith” as did her Faith Assembly leader models, and therefore she was unable to garner the benefits of a fulfilled life. Even though at the beginning of their involvement, she and her family would buy Freeman’s tapes and books before they would buy food, her zeal never measured up to the standard. At this point she feels as if she is “leaving the truth … leaving the Word of God … leaving everything, and there’s no Christianity outside. I guess that’s why I feel lost. I don’t know where I’m going; I don’t know who I am.”

Beth now feels extremely guilty for having minor surgery, for getting contact lenses as soon as she left Faith Assembly, and for being “sentimental” about her son. In Faith Assembly, showing strong affection and protectiveness toward one’s children is tantamount to idolatry. She feels guilt because of the number of physical ailments her son has had to suffer over the years-without treatment-and for the fact that he has never visited a dentist. She harbors guilt for feeling angry toward the Faith Assembly leaders and toward herself, and most especially for having left the only anointed work of God on earth.

Unfortunately, not only is guilt a terrible burden, but there is a lack of trust toward anyone who is a religious authority figure. Having been leaders and teachers in Faith Assembly, Beth and her husband now have no one to turn to for guidance and support. All of their significant relationships of the past years are still within the group. Who counsels the counselors? Beth wants to speak with someone who is “safe,” but she is unable to trust her own abilities of discernment and evaluation since they were so long labeled as unspiritual. Consequently, she says she “goes into these periods where all I’ll do is feel like I’ve died.”

Beth’s husband is also having great difficulties. Although capable of functioning at work, all emotional moorings are gone in other aspects of his life. He and Beth have very little relationship, and he has lost what she terms “aspects of his personality.” No longer having a context in which to place himself outside of his work, he is emotionally isolated and unable to sort out his experiences with Faith Assembly. He is in shock.

Beth’s son is also having a hard time. The context of his entire life has changed. Having grown up within Faith Assembly, nothing is familiar or comfortable now. He had to have all of his childhood shots in order to enter the sixth grade at a public school and went into hysterics during his first physical examination. He refuses to take vitamins or medications, and has had great difficulty socializing at school. Because his parents are still emotionally unstable, he has a tenuous and shaky home life. Many childhood ailments, including a broken foot, have gone untreated and are still in need of attention.

Beth, having stifled all of her maternal affections over the past ten years, is not even sure if she knows how to love her son. Within Faith Assembly, she says, “your children are under subjection to you and you teach them that. If they don’t submit [appropriately] .. .if you don’t take care of your children, then the church will. … It breaks you all up!” Beth is confused about how to raise her son within a new and entirely different world-the world outside of Faith Assembly.

Beneath the insecurities of all the sociological and psychological changes that Beth and her family have experienced are the shaky underpinnings of a faith in God that is no longer firmly anchored. Theology, doctrine, and works have been ends in themselves over the past years. Although the Faith Assembly motto is “God is faithful,” the outworkings of that motto required an unswerving and unquestioning obedience to Freeman’s doctrines and beliefs. Members, not God, were required to be faithful. So the “overcomers” and “manifested sons of God” of whom Beth and her family were supposed to be a part, have experienced neither freedom in Christ, nor liberation from the oppressive works-not-grace orientation.

Restoration, after experiencing the effects of an abusive-church situation, can be a long and painful process. This can be true even if the exposure to that influence was only of short duration. Individuals have even been devastated after only a few short months. Much assistance from family, friends, and the church is needed.

Beth and her family were for over ten years exposed to toxic faiththe sort of abusive religion that made them sick. But now they are beginning to receive the help that they need. They are rebuilding relationships and addressing such practical issues as insurance and health care. And they are in the process of finding God againin a new and different light.


As one can see from Beth’s case, leaving an abusive church situation can be extremely difficult, calling into question every aspect of life members may have experienced for the period of time they were involved. I want to discuss the range of emotions and issues that ex-members may face when they exit an abusive-church situation. Then I will provide a general overview of the changing experiences, feelings, and needs that emerge over the course of weeks, months, and even years after departure.

Leaving a restricted and abusive community involves what sociologists call the de-socialization process whereby the individual loses identification with the past group and moves toward re-socialization, or reintegration into the mainstream culture. There are a number of emotions and needs that emerge during this transition process. How one deals with these feelings and affective experiences has a significant impact on the overall healing that is required.

Many have described the aftermath of abusive-church involvement as comparable to that of rape victims, or the delayed stress syndrome experienced by war veterans. It is recovery from what might be called spiritual rape. You feel like something has been lost and you will never be the same again.

Initially, victims may have a total lack of feeling regarding their experience. They may not evidence pain, anger, sadness, or even joy at being free. Such lack of feeling may be a protective mechanism from the strong surge of emotion that is sure to come. Victims need a safe and secure environment in which to vent their emotions. Such venting was often labeled as “sin” in their previous environments, and it may take some time until they give themselves permission to allow these feelings to surface.

Whether or not they show any emotion, victims are in great need of empathetic, objective individuals who will not treat them like spiritual pariahs or paranoid storytellers. The events they have just been through are as unbelievable to them as they are to their listeners. They have experienced great social and psychological dislocation. An open attitude on the part of friends, family, and counselors greatly assists the healing process.

Feelings of fatigue are common among people when they first disengage. It is not unusual for them to need to sleep for long periods. As one former member recalls, “Emotionally drained, I was often physically impaired … As a result, it was sometimes difficult for me to function … I was frequently emotionally unavailable to my husband and children, and much of the time I simply wanted to be left alone.”

Victims are extremely vulnerable at this point. They have come out of an all-embracing religious environment where there are no grays, only blacks and whites. While members of authoritarian groups, they have had to put aside their old relational and coping styles and learn the ones acceptable to the group. Often these are antisocial and confrontational. And coming out of a context where they developed strong dependency needs, they are extremely suggestible and vulnerable to those whom they feel they can trust, whether counselor, immediate family member, or pastor. Betraying that trust can wreak havoc on them, only validating the warnings of their previous leader concerning the “outside world,” and perhaps driving them back into another (or even the same) regimented environment where they feel they can at least control some of the variables. Lack of control can be terrifying.

Having been in an environment that frequently includes spiritual manipulation, emphasis on experience, and focus on demons, victims of abusive churches may experience a lack of reality upon leaving the group. They may believe that they can easily pick up where they left off before entering the group, regardless of the changes in the larger society and in their friends and family. They soon discover that reentry does not involve simply returning to one’s previous lifestyle. In short, they can’t go home. The future may appear to be unrealistically bright or ominous, depending on the condition in which the person reentered the mainstream. As one ex-member of the Church of the Great Shepherd states, “It is an extremely important factor whether a person leaves an abusive-church situation knowing that the group was wrong, or believing that he was wrong and is now sinning against God.”

Vague and undefined anger is common at this point. Victims may be easily upset and frustrated, yet they have no focus for their anger. They may also be strongly repelled or fascinated by spiritual issues, either completely rejecting or consuming literature that might explain and give reasons for the ordeal they underwent.

A letter I received from a woman in the midwest describes some of these feelings. “It’s only been a year since we’ve left and there are days when I still feel I have had the air punched out of me. The cult books really don’t address the issue that I find hardest to reconcile: I can’t dismiss these people completely because, while they are ‘cultic’ in terms of psychological control, they still claim Christian doctrine and therefore they are still my brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Feelings of isolation can be devastating, especially for those who have walked out of abusive churches on their own without any support. Victims may feel a sinking sense of loss and be unable to relate to other people, even in the midst of a crowd. They are lonely and alone. Very few can understand what they have been through. As one woman describes it, “The complexity of the experience is so great that it is impossible to adequately communicate it to someone who has not gone through it.” Vietnam veterans have expressed very similar feelings.

If the group from which they defected was tightly structured, and the victims have cut off all previous ties to friends and family, they may come out into the real, cold world without any support systems whatsoever. Consequently, they may have great difficulty trusting those with whom they have no history. They have left behind their best friends, their spiritual family, with whom they have shared intimate, daily experiences for years. Those same friends now shun them and treat them as enemies and traitors. Without help, victims may become suicidal or severely ill, either physically or mentally. Depression is almost inevitable.

As one ex-member of a small, East coast church stated, “When I left the group, I experienced hell. I felt an unbearable separation from God. I felt that God had left me, that I was divorced from someone I was deeply in love with. My whole life was over. I felt like a floating cloud. I felt extreme guilt over leaving my ‘family’ and betraying those I loved. I felt that God would kill me … I used to take long drives and just scream as loud as I could, the pain and the guilt were unbearable.”

It is possible, though difficult, to come through such an experience without a support system of any kind. However, victims who have not had the opportunity through a support system to sort through their varied emotions, thoughts, and spiritual confusion, may end up with deep, unresolved hurts. The development of a new social-support structure, therefore, is crucial.

I have had the opportunity to follow the progress of one young woman who left an abusive-church group on her own. She has finally reached a point where she understands what happened to her, but it has taken her several years to sort it all out. “The majority of my recovery took four years,” she writes. “It took me two and a half years of continual searching for the truth, gradual healing, encouragement, reading the Bible, and spending much time alone with God before I was healed and renewed in my mind enough to face the fact that I had been deceived. The mental, emotional, and spiritual hold that the group had on me was not broken until I personally renounced them and divorced myself from them. It took two and a half years to be ready to do that.

“When I did, I was able to see that they had gradually become my God and took the place of my relationship with him. It was so painful to face the truth. I remember feeling like God was watching me and longing for me while I was pouring out my love on someone else. I’m so glad that he never left me, but was waiting the entire time for me to come back to him even though I was convinced while in the group that I was serving him with my whole heart.”

Every person exiting an abusive-church situation has a different story to tell, and they have differing needs and emotions. The immediate post-involvement phase may last for weeks or months, depending on the trauma experienced and the amount of assistance received. Although there are no clear-cut boundaries between one wave of experiences and emotions and the next, ex-members soon begin to have a secondary set of issues to deal with, particularly as reality begins to set in.

The real world of conflict, bills, crime, diapers, in-laws, auto repairs, and employment may have been very far removed from some victims. Upon their return to life in the “real world,” defectors will experience a variety of emotions-the strongest being depression, frustration, and alienation. The world often appears to be cold and uncaring.

Individuals exiting after a span of years may come out in completely different life contexts, bringing with them an entirely different set of experiences and values. Single persons may exit married, or, conversely, married persons may leave divorced. Couples may exit with children, some of whom may be damaged because of exposure to the group. Parents may have no idea how to care for their children. They have guilt feelings over holidays missed, birthdays overlooked. There is a mourning over lost years, and a desire to return to life-as-it-was. One ex-member, reflecting on Joel 2:25, told me that he would pray, “Lord, return those wasted years.”

Along with the need to recapture the past and rebuild relationships, the ex-member experiences a growing level of anger, frustration, and powerlessness. The vague anger associated with first leaving becomes more focused and intense. There may be strong desires for revenge along with guilt and self-condemnation for having such feelings. The frustration and powerlessness of knowing that one has been taken advantage of, and the awareness that there is little that can be done about it, are very difficult emotions to handle.

Questioning one’s past experiences also becomes more acute. Victims begin to experience guilt over, a variety of issues. How could I have let this happen to me? How could I have treated my parents that way? Have I really left the Lord? Am I in sin and committing blasphemy at this moment? How could I have let my children be so abused? What’s wrong with me? Was it really all wrong?

Alternatively, ex-members may assume a posture of avoidance, desiring to retreat from their painful experiences in the group and wanting to maintain a certain level of anonymity in their life circumstances. They are not yet ready to handle all of the issues that seem to be assaulting them. They do not question the past, and they prefer to lose themselves in harmless and engrossing diversions like sports, shopping, crafts, novels, and games.

If they have been able to maintain employment independent of the group, ex-members might use their careers as anchors, something in their lives that has not been turned upside down. They will throw themselves into their work with abandon, getting “lost” in their jobs for a period of time in order to sort out the many problems of transition. Some will seek an entirely new identity by acquiring a new occupation with its attendant opportunities to gain new friends.

During this phase, professional or pastoral counseling can be of great benefit. Victims begin experiencing a growing awareness of their own needs. They are not as confused as when first exiting, and may very well be in need of more than just a listening ear. Complicated issues need to be addressed and worked through. Relationships are in need of repair. A safe environment is essential for venting their feelings, doubts, and questions. Therapists who blame them for their involvement in the abusive-church situation, or, who attempt to focus on the dysfunction that led to their victimization, may hinder the process of reintegration.

I have found that individuals often experience great embarrassment at being so “taken in” by the leader of the group, and for acting so foolishly during their time of membership. A Baptist pastor from Massachusetts, the Reverend James Wood, has counseled at least twenty former members of the Community of Jesus; he has noticed the same phenomenon. “There is also a sense of shame, an embarrassment for the things they allowed themselves to be manipulated into doing.” Reverend Wood also observes that ex-members have a difficult time committing themselves to anything again. “They feel betrayed. Their commitment was abused and now they are reluctant to commit again.” [1]

A caring and competent counselor can help sort through these post-involvement feelings, as well as the anger, frustration, and depression. It is important for the counselor to keep in mind that the decision to join probably came out of a sincere desire to love and serve God.

However, the ex-member may very well be doubting the existence of God at this point, and may have focused his or her anger at God. People should be permitted to express that anger. They may also be ambivalent about their past commitments and have mixed feelings about their past membership. One former member described a canopy of diverse feelings during this phase of her readjustment, including “intense humiliation, guilt for leaving loved ones, condemnation, hopelessness, confusion, fear, lack of purpose for living, deep depression and despair, distrust of other Christians, abandonment, and betrayal by God.”

The experience of a former member of the communal Emmaus Christian Fellowship in rural Colorado illustrates many of these feelings and is typical of the many accounts I have documented in various groups during years of research. “Two of the elders yelled at and talked to me for four hours,” she reports. “I was told I was a stubborn, rebellious woman, that I was throwing away my salvation, hanging onto pagan holidays [Christmas and Easter], and wanting my boy to play baseball.” One elder also told her “that when he stood before Jesus Christ on Judgment day, he would tell Jesus that I didn’t really want to make it to the kingdom of heaven.”

Like so many of the ex-members of spiritually abusive groups that I have interviewed, this woman left with a heavy load of guilt, somehow feeling that she was to blame and at fault for what had transpired. “I doubted my salvation. I had lost all my best friends whom I had shared my life with for five years. I was literally devastated. I was pregnant at the time, and I lived in mortal fear that something would be wrong with the baby, that God had cursed me and my child.”

This woman lived in a very small town. Following her departure from the group, she found it difficult at first to confront her former church members in public. “I just couldn’t face anyone. I dreaded going to the post office or the store, afraid I would run into someone.” Then, when she was able to reach out to them, her efforts were rebuffed, “with either excuses or by their outright ignoring me.” The reason: “I had broken covenant. I had turned my back on God. I was the worst kind of heathen there was. I was lost and there was no hope for me in their eyes.”

As we have already seen, this kind of spiritual intimidation was also commonly used in Maranatha Christian Churches. “If you leave without the leadership’s approval,” states one former Maranatha member, “condemnation and guilt are heaped upon you. My pastor told me he thought it was satanic for me to leave and he wondered whether I could continue in my salvation experience.” This kind of teaching was used as spiritual leverage to keep people in the church.

In a now-defunct ultra fundamentalist group in California, members were informed in writing of the only acceptable way to leave their church and remain “in God’s will”:

“1. Pray about the matter alone for three months (husbands and wives only may consult each other during this period).

2. Bring the matter to the superintendent and leaders for their guidance. They will pray over the matter for another period of one to three months. (You are not to mention your desire to leave to anyone other than your husband or wife during this period as well).

3. You must abide by the decision of the leaders whether to leave or not at the end of their deliberation.”

As one former member of this organization commented to me, “Why bother to pray; the leaders make the final decision in any event.”

Former members of extremist Christian churches often compare the process of leaving to marital separation. As one ex-member of a church in the South describes it: “We who left were labeled ‘rebels against God’ and cut off from fellowship with those who remained, those we had worshiped, worked, and prayed with as a close-knit family for five years. It was like a divorce.”

In writing about Great Commission International (GCI), an organization founded in 1970 by “apostle” Jim McCotter, former member Jerry MacDonald notes that the group compares its leadership structure with a marriage. “GCI elders frequently refer to ones that have left the church as divorcing themselves from their family. They twist Scripture on God’s hatred of divorce and use it as a coercive technique to keep people from leaving their churches. Thus, ones who leave are taught that they have actually left God and sinned. What it really means is that the elders have usurped the loyalty and the devotion that is due Christ alone and refocused it on themselves.” [2]

MacDonald points out that the proof-text for the idea of “marriage” in relation to elders and leaders in GCI is found in Ephesians 5:22-6:9. The group cites 5:22 (“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord”) as the key to their hierarchical system of authority. “Just as wives are to be in subjection to their husbands, so the church is to be in subjection to the elders. It seems that the elders are the physical manifestation of the authority of Christ. Just as a family mirrors the church’s relationship to the elders, so a wife and husband in the bond of marriage reflect the subjection the congregation should have to the elders.” [3]

In the Great Commission International, much emphasis is placed on “trusting God’s leading through others” -the “others” being those in leadership. In reality, this means surrendering one’s independence, obeying in all things, and submitting to the leaders. As numerous ex-members of GCI have told me, it amounts to the subjugation of members to the leadership. Failure to comply with the authoritarian dictates of the group can result in ex-communication, a common practice in GCI and other abusive-church groups.

If you do not give up your independence and follow in harmony, you will be reproved for “sowing discord in the body,” and if you still do not “harmonize,” you will be excommunicated for faction-since, according to GCI, there is no difference between trusting God and trusting a GCI leader. [1]

As I have noted elsewhere in this book, excommunication is almost always accompanied by shunning behavior instituted by the leadership. For example, whenever members were disfellowshipped from Community Chapel in Seattle (and that was a regular occurrence), this action was mentioned in the Sunday bulletin. “The pastor requests that members of our congregation have no further contact with [names of the persons involved are listed]; they have been disfellowshipped from this church. Do not call them for advice or ask their opinion about spiritual and soulical [Pastor Barnett’s own term, equivalent to “fleshly”] relationships, the church leadership, or any other matter. If they call you, politely hang up as quickly as possible. These people are not-and never have been-in a position to give direction or advice regarding the move of God in our church. Your cooperation in this matter will help you, and is greatly appreciated by the pastor.”

One need not have psychological training to understand that such a procedure also operates as an effective control mechanism within a church. Those who are the “boat-rockers,” those who raise uncomfortable questions and who challenge the leadership in any way, are prevented from sharing their legitimate concerns and criticism with other members. Dissent is muffled, and disinformation can be “spiritualized” or manipulated by the leadership.

Even while admitting how badly they have been treated by an abusive church, former members may vacillate between rejecting the past and defending the group they have left. In the latter instance, they may feel like they are betraying their old “spiritual family.” Many times while talking with ex-members I have heard them speak positively about the close, interpersonal ties that they developed while in the group and how difficult it is to recreate that intimacy on the outside. Or they defend the worship style of the group.

Another common response I have noticed among former members is the feeling that they were alone in their struggle-even thinking they were perhaps “a little crazy” for having had such experiences. “Am I the only one to have experienced this kind of thing?” many would ask. Discovering a published article on the phenomenon has also benefited some victims greatly because they realize that they are not alone. Even more effective is encountering someone who has experienced the same abuse. “There is actually someone else out there like me who understands!”

The best persons to reach out to church abuse victims are former victims. As one ex-member puts it, “The two main things that helped me more than anything were reading the Bible frequently and talking to people who had had similar experiences.” I am aware of several informal support groups that have formed to serve the needs of individuals leaving specific organizations. The Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, Ohio, is a unique, residential counseling facility’ that provides professional assistance to victims of spiritual abuse. Its capable director, Dr. Paul R. Martin, psychologist and evangelical Christian, was once a member of Great Commission International (GCI), an organization mentioned in this book.

It may take victims years to sort out experiences, begin to make definitive choices for themselves, and reach a point of full integration into the mainstream culture. This is especially true if they have received no support or assistance. One ex-member reports, “During the first year after leaving, all I did was hide from everyone. I grew a beard and a moustache, let my hair grow long, and took non-descript, low-paying jobs. I didn’t see my parents, my brother, no one. And, I thought God was going to kill me.

“The second year, I planned on leaving for Alaska, but then a job dropped into my lap, and I took it. I started looking around for a church to attend, but I just couldn’t take it. I moved into my friend’s garage, remodeled it, and just lived day-to-day.

“This is my third year out, and I feel like I can finally look back on the experience and say that God is using it to teach me wisdom about the world. I know that God is not condemning me and I can go on. I am attending a church now, have made some new friends, and feel like I can live again.”

Even as victims begin to assimilate their abusive experiences and adjust to normal life, certain problems may persist, stemming from the programming they experienced while in the group. There may be difficulty relating to supervisory personnel in the workplace. Understandably, religious authority figures represent a major source of uneasiness on the long road back. Victims may also have difficulty trusting new friends, workmates, and acquaintances, all the while feeling guilty for having a judgmental attitude. There may be deep fearsabandonment by a spouse, death of one’s children, or never again having a date-that are triggered by certain circumstances. Additionally, healing may need to occur between victims, friends, and family, including spouses who were pitted against one another by the church leader, children who verbally abused their parents, and friends who were rejected when they expressed concern.

As confidence grows and decisions become easier to make, the reawakening of spiritual needs and desires will occur. After months or years apart from conventional Christianity, former members may again want to ask questions like, What does it mean to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength? How do I love God more than my own life? Can I really live out discipleship without being hurt again? Can I share all things in common with others and not be part of an abusive church?

The idealism and zeal for God that initially drove these persons into abusive-church situations is now coupled with insights on distorted spirituality and human manipulation that is more than academic. They feel “wiser for the experience.” However, a benign naivete on the part of both old and potentially new friends regarding spiritually abusive churches often makes it difficult to establish understanding relationships. By this I mean that ex-members often sense that they are the objects of uncertain acceptance when they try to share what they have been through. Unstated though clearly communicated sentiments like, “There had to have been something wrong with you to get involved in a church like that,” can be a real discouragement to those hoping to regain normalcy.

A bit of advice for those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid any experience of spiritual abuse: When you encounter someone from an authoritarian church background, listen to them with an open mind, and don’t perpetuate unkind stereotypes. Above all, they need our love and acceptance.

Churches That Abuse, by Ronald M. Enroth
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  • 1 Greg O’Brien, “Ex-Community Members Deal With Fear and Guilt, Two Counselors Say,” The Cape Codder (April 19, 19985).
  • 2 Jerry P. MacDonald, “Manipulation of the Scriptures Within Great Commission International,” unpublished paper (1985), 186.
  • 3 Ibid.
  • 4 Ibid., 187.

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First published (or major update) on Friday, December 19, 2008.
Last updated on May 11, 2022.

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Apologetics Index: Research resources on religious movements, cults, sects, world religions and related issues
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