Apologetics Index

Chapter 3: I’d Like to Really Live, Not Just Survive

It was a sad letter. “I love God, I hate people,” she wrote. “Is there any hope for me? I think I will eventually take my life if I cannot find peace and Jesus.”

Colleen Roberts (not her real name) had been tossed about in a series of church and personal relationships that had left her literally without hope. She had written to say that my book Churches That Abuse had helped her greatly. But it was clear from her letter that she was far from recovered from the spiritual, psychological, and physical abuse she briefly recounted.

Colleen had constructed a mental fence around herself and was not sure that anyonecounselor or pastor especially-would be able to penetrate that defense. “Nothing is allowed through my fortress anymore. There is a tiny mailbox on the outside of the thick castle wall. It holds ‘help’ for people like me, but I cannot reach it. I am a prisoner, alone and almost without faith. I am scared. I’d really like to die, but I know it’s wrong to think that. I don’t think I’ll ever come around. I just pray for God to take me quickly, with the last bit of hope I have left.”

The letter led to a series of events through which Colleen was able to reach into that little mailbox and begin her journey toward spiritual and personal wholeness.

Colleen’s story will help us to understand two concomitants to spiritual abuse. First, like many members of abusive churches, Colleen had a personal history that predisposed her toward victimization. Second, her experience demonstrates the essential need for help from competent counseling and caring Christians in the process of recovery.


Colleen’s parents gave up custody of her when she was a teenager because they thought she was incorrigible. But she had watched many television shows about families and desperately wanted her and her parents and brothers and sister to stay together, to be, as she put it, “a real family.”

“I wanted a mom and a dad who cared about me. My parents were very wealthy. My father was a businessman who traveled extensively, and my mother was rarely home. I took care of my little brother, who was ten years younger than me. I was the only one who ever got him out of the playpen. As children we were very isolated and lonely.

“My sister dealt with her pain by overeating and becoming very overweight. I was more vocal about wanting attention. I asked for my parents’ attention in more ways than they could handle. I ran away from home a couple of times and stayed with friends whom I felt cared about me.

“The first time my parents tried to give up custody, the judge refused, and they were quite angry at having to take me back. They locked me in my room on my birthday. I snuck out; they took me back to court, and I was put in a group home.”

Her parents’ rejection drove Colleen to attempt suicide at age sixteen, after which she was placed in a private mental hospital in Baltimore. After three months she climbed a ten-foot-high, barbed-wire fence, dyed her hair, and hitchhiked to see some Christian friends in Connecticut.

“Even though I didn’t understand much about Christianity, these people seemed different to me. Because they seemed to care about me, I felt I would be safe with them. They let me stay with them for a few days, but were unable to keep me because they were trying to adopt children of their own and I was a runaway. They did what they could for me by sending me to a Christian group home for troubled teens called His Mansion.”

His Mansion is an independent organization run by Stan Farmer, a man who, according to Colleen, has no formal training or official connection with any established church. “Stan arranged for me to stay at the Mansion until I was twenty-one, at which time the State of Maryland would allow me to leave. Stan became a father figure to me, and I called him ‘Dad.'”

Colleen’s first impressions of His Mansion in 1973 were favorable. She was able to complete high school and enjoyed structure and attention, a loving “father,” and a group that told her how much they cared about her. It seemed that this was what she had been looking for. But Colleen soon learned that appearances were deceiving.

“Stan had been in the military, and he treated us as if we were in the army. One time the only meat in the house was a turtle that someone had caught. I slept and ate very little. I used to stay up until midnight doing laundry. They made us do it over if we didn’t do it right. We had to cook and clean up after about twenty people. Then we had to do homework and the Mansion’s required Christian studies. We were often exhausted. I remember hiding in a closet hoping they would think I was sick and leave me alone.

“There were seven or eight girls and the same number of boys living at His Mansion. It was one big home, but the girls and guys lived on opposite sides of the house. We were never allowed to have much contact with the opposite sex. Most of us came from needy families. We didn’t have strong father figures in our backgrounds, and Stan loved playing the role of father. If we were told that we needed a spanking, we knew that it was for our own good.”

Colleen says that Stan began to have sex with her when she was eighteen, after she had graduated from high school. “His Mansion was my first encounter with Christians, and I was very trusting and desperate to be loved. When I went to live in Stan’s home with his wife and children, something seemed strange, but I wasn’t too worried because they claimed to be Christians. Stan would come up to my bedroom in the mornings to wake me up. It seemed odd, but nothing happened at first. I didn’t have a model of what a father should be, and I wanted a father. I thought that was what fathers did. I was very naive.

“The main philosophy at His Mansion was to obey authority at all times. I obeyed everything, including having sex with my ‘dad’ and running away when I got pregnant. There definitely was a form of mind control at His Mansion. Stan was the central figure, and we all did exactly as he said. In addition to Stan, there were two female counselors on the staff. Looking back, I don’t think that the counseling I received there was very professional. My interaction with the counselors was very limited. Stan made all the important decisions. I didn’t think anything of it; I thought that it was because my ‘dad’ loved me.

“I came from a dysfunctional family into a Christian family that taught me about Christ, authority, and sex. I had been raped twice at age fifteen, and all I knew was that I had been forced by two strangers and now I was having sex with Stan, my ‘father.’ He had taken the place of my father who had rejected me completely and I loved Stan as a parent. I replaced my own unhappy family with Stan and his family. I was so thrilled to have a family of my own.

“Stan continued to have sex with me at least twice a week for two and a half years. When I became pregnant with his child, he manipulated things to look as if I ran away. The rest of the group didn’t know that he was the father. I looked like the bad daughter who had backslid and would always be that way.

“Stan had found an apartment for me and my daughter near His Mansion. Since he would not admit to being the father of my child, I had to go on welfare. He had a key to my apartment. I remember waking up in the morning and his fondling me even though our daughter was in the same room. I felt I had no other choice because this was my dad. If I got rid of him, I was afraid that I would have nobody.

“When I turned twenty-one, I received papers from the State of Maryland saying that I was free to go. For the first time in my life, chains had fallen off me. I knew no one could come after me and get me if I ran away. I could do whatever I wanted to do.”

Colleen had no employable skills because the Mansion taught girls little except domestic tasks and Bible studies. She had been totally dependent on the group. Left destitute with no one to turn to, an elder in the church Colleen was attending at that time suggested that she try to work things out with her parents and perhaps return to them.


When she finally contacted and met with her parents again, her father would not acknowledge Colleen or her daughter, but her mother admitted that she felt guilty. Her sister, who was in Silver Spring, Maryland, invited Colleen to move there to join her in a Christian group that I will call “the Community.”

“I moved back to Maryland and joined the Community, whose name has changed several times. The group was not communal in the strictest sense of that word, although most members live in the same neighborhood.

“For the first two months I was there, I was told to call my elder every day. I was a single mom, which put me in the lowest level of the community. Single moms needed to be watched because we weren’t ‘spiritual.’ I soon learned what heavy-handed shepherding was all about. For example, when I joined the Community, I was told that if I wanted to know what God was saying, I was to go to my discipling elder and ask him. If a member wanted a job, he had to go to the elder who would pray about it and then tell you what God wanted you to do.

“When we joined, we gave our allegiance to the Community, not to God. I remember saying, ‘I pledge that I will obey my elder, no matter what.’ Everyone clapped when I said that. I never said anything about being loyal to God. We even signed a covenant.”

Friendships outside the Community were forbidden, even with high school friends who lived nearby and wanted contact with Colleen. There were forms of isolation inside the Community as well. “The elders told me to spy on the people in my household. I was not allowed to eat or fellowship with them, but I was supposed to spy on them. The more I spied on them, the higher I rose in the elders’ opinion. In return for betraying my friends, I ate like a king at the elders’ houses. I was praised continually and I felt very loved.”

Colleen eventually moved into the home of one of the home group leaders, who converted the basement to an apartment for Colleen and her young daughter. This was a common arrangement for single mothers in the group, who were then put to work in the elders’ homes.

When working for the elders, their cleaning “duties” as well as their lives were closely scrutinized. “Everything we did in the Community had to be thorough.” A preoccupation with thoroughness is common in abusive systems-what Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton call the “tyranny of perfectionism.” These writers comment that victims of spiritual abuse, because they are taught that they are part of a special church, “believe they can attain perfection, believe they need to attain it, and feel terrible shame when they do not attain it. They all strive for perfection and make themselves sick in the process.” [1]

Colleen found that being obsessed with faithful performance brought, not joy, but feelings of humiliation and inadequacy. “I remember washing their marble floor with a toothbrush, sweat pouring over my headband into my face and then seeing the elders come in wearing their three-piece suits. It was humiliating, yet they told me that it was good for me to humble myself.”

She continued to experience guilt manipulation and performance-based Christianity. “I was told that I would never be good enough. Now, years later, I have learned that the Law says I will never be good enough, but God’s grace is sufficient and God really loves me. There is no difference between an elder and me. I am not worse because I am a single mom. I am not a second-class Christian, which is how I was treated in the group. I felt like a pig, sweating on my knees, preparing for the elders who were coming in for a meeting and a luncheon. I was supposed to regard it all as a privilege; it was a privilege to work in the elders’ homes and to be that close to them.”

Some people fall prey to spiritual abuse because they have compliant personalities and do not realize soon enough how they are exploited. People like Colleen, write Arterburn and Felton, “cause no problems because they believe everything that is passed down from the top … They never make a fuss and never rock the boat. They just wait to carry out the next duty that is assigned … Everyone acts as if it is a great privilege to be taken for granted and lost in such a worthwhile mission.” [2]

In addition to controlling weaker members with unreasonable demands, the Community leadership arranged and supervised dating relationships. “They had me set up with one man whom I never liked. I loved the Lord and wanted to know more about him, and so I wanted a relationship with someone who wanted the Lord as much as I did. Instead they deliberately put me with ‘John’ because he wasn’t very interested in the Lord. I was a single mom and therefore could not be considered spiritual. I went to the elders several times about John because I didn’t love him and the relationship wasn’t working out.”

It was five years before she was allowed to date another man they had chosen.

While living in the home group leader’s home, however, Colleen found once again that her single-mother status and her need for love made her vulnerable. The home group leader began to harass her both physically and sexually. One time Colleen’s sister saw some bruises and became concerned. Colleen relates, “I didn’t tell her because she was the one who had brought me into the Community. I told her that I was mugged in the parking lot.” Nevertheless, her sister reported her suspicions to the elders. That, Colleen said, “was the beginning of the end.”

The elders did not believe Colleen’s sister, and Colleen found herself subjected to many forms of harassment in daily activities.


Being a creative person gifted at flower arranging, Colleen was eventually allowed by the leaders to take a job at a floral shop even though it was standard policy for single mothers to receive welfare and work in the elders’ homes. She held down a full-time job and took care of her daughter, but she was still expected to watch the home group leader’s children and do half of the housekeeping. Colleen increasingly despaired of meeting the expectations of the group. “1 was exhausted. There was no way I could do everything they wanted. I became worse and worse in the elders’ eyes. I was a rebellious backslider.

“My discipling elder and I had a pretty good relationship until that time, but he started saying things like, ‘I’m going to have to let you go if things don’t change. You’ll have to get another person to sponsor you if you want to stay here.'”

At that point, one of Colleen’s friends who had left the group earlier stopped by to see her at the floral shop.” I showed her the bruises, and she was horrified. She started seeing me every day at lunch and told me about her church. She was going to the National Presbyterian Church because she wanted something as far removed from the Community as she could get. She insisted, ‘You have to talk to somebody. You can’t keep getting beat up like that.’ I eventually agreed to get counseling from someone at National Presbyterian Church.”

She was not in counseling for long, but long enough for the elders to become suspicious of Colleen’s activities. Her elder told her she would have to leave. For the second time Colleen had experienced graceless religion. “The Community never preached the grace of God. I could never be good enough. That was their key to controlling me. I felt like I was being whipped the entire time I was with them. I was the kind of person who could easily be controlled. I would have done anything they said. ‘Obey’ was the key word at both His Mansion and at the Community.”

Like others, Colleen discovered that it is folly to dissent and point out flaws in an abusive system. An abusive church exists in a world of denial, and all steps must be taken to ensure that the good name and image of the group are maintained. There can be no admission that there might be chinks in the armor. Arterburn and Felton comment, “Anyone who rebels against the system must be personally attacked so people will think the problem is the person, not the system … Anyone who hints at not following the rules is dealt with quickly so the organization … will not be damaged.” [3]

Colleen did tell the elders about the physical abuse, and one appeared to believe her but later on turned against her. At that point she decided to leave the group. I was upset that this elder could use as an excuse to change his mind the fact that I was a single mother and then tell me that I was loose, had no morals, and had probably encouraged the home group leader to come on to me. I could not win, so I left the group.”

Colleen remembers her last encounter with the home group leader who had harassed her. “I had one box of glass momentos left in his house and was told to pick it ” up when the leader and his wife were not at home. It turned out that he was home when I came by, and I watched him drop the box down the stairs. Everything in the box shattered.”


“I went to the parents of some of my non-Christian friends, saying that I was afraid I was going to die because I was out from under the spiritual protection of the Community. They let me stay at their house for about two weeks. They called the police to arrange for police protection because my old boyfriend had bothered me. Finally, the woman who had encouraged me to get counseling at the National Presbyterian Church and another ex-member took me and my daughter into their household. They had set up a home for people like me who had left the Community and had no place else to go.

“The man I eventually married, Bill, had also been a member of the Community. In fact, he was considered to be elder material. We liked each other while we were there, but we were not allowed to date. One time, when I was working in the flower shop, I brought him a plant and had to sneak it to him when nobody in our household was home. That was the beginning of our relationship, although we were never allowed to date or see each other.

“Sometime after I had left the Community, he, too, had to leave because he had gotten a girl pregnant and was no longer considered elder material. He was crushed because all this time he had been groomed to be an elder, and now he was being treated like dirt. He found me at the house of my two friends. We became like two scared chickens, holding on as tight as we could to each other. He was on drugs at the time, and I was an emotional mess.

“Bill and I found another church called the Temple [a fictionalized name], which turned out to be very much like the Community except that they met in an actual church building. We naively thought that having a building meant that they were different enough from the Community so that we could feel safe. But they had the same kind of structure, the same kind of rules. It was a nondenominational church. They didn’t live communally, but we were encouraged to live in households if we could. I had my own place, but it was right across the street from the church. They kept in touch with me all the time. I had counseling once a week with a woman who was a very powerful elder in the church.

“Bill and I were married in the Temple, but we didn’t stay there very long. Bill’s parents wanted us to leave because they could see how much control the church had over us. Our marriage was already in trouble. Bill was abusive to me. When I was pregnant with our son, I almost miscarried. Bill was the child of alcoholic parents, and I was very immature. We clung to each other. We thought we were Christians, but despite years and years of being in Christian groups, neither of us knew Christ at all. Neither of us knew how to depend on Christ. When we were in the Community, other people had told us what God was saying, but now we had nobody.”

Colleen and Bill eventually divorced. Once again she had to try to pick up the pieces of her life and start over. “The Temple found out that I had left Bill. They invited me back and set me up in an apartment near the church. I was also placed in counseling with the same woman elder who had worked with me before. I became very close to her and almost loved her like a mother. I was still very needy. I loved her despite the fact that she told me what to do all the time.”

When she rejoined the Temple, Colleen continued to be controlled and rejected. “I was being humiliated again. I was divorced, and divorced people were discouraged from dating and never really forgiven.

“When my ex-husband came back into my life and wanted to spend more time with me and our little boy, I felt that, according to the Bible, I should try again to make my marriage work. The Temple said definitely not; I could not remarry him. They encouraged the divorce, but when I was divorced, I became a nobody.”

The leaders at the Temple used various forms of spiritual intimidation to add to Colleen’s confusion. “One day, when I was supposed to be at a meeting, I wasn’t feeling well, so I sent a note explaining that I was ill and would like to be excused from the meeting. The counselor referred me to Pastor John. He and the woman counselor talked to me, and she asked, ‘Do you want a spanking from Pastor John?’ He said, ‘I will spank you if that’s what you’re looking for.’ He was really going to spank me. I couldn’t believe it! I was embarrassed.

“The Temple taught that if you did not speak in tongues, you probably had sin in your life. They believed in what is called ‘slaying in the Spirit.’ If your eyes rolled while you were slain in the Spirit, you had an evil spirit. They always emphasized the activity of demons. I supposedly had lots of demons, and they prayed over me many times because I was being rebellious. I was being stubborn because I wouldn’t let it out, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to let out.”

Eventually Colleen moved to California to be near her mother. “My parents are divorced. I wanted grandparents for my kids because they had no one. The Temple was still in contact with me in California. At that point I was almost suicidal. I had been in abusive churches all my life. I didn’t know if I could ever find a safe church. I had been controlled all my life and now I was on my own in another part of the country with no money. I was a mess.

Despite a brief, long-distance encounter with the Temple, Colleen’s recovery began after she returned to California. An initial step was to contact some friends from her days at His Mansion. She was determined to set the story straight about her daughter’s father. “I had to speak up,” Colleen said. “I had kept quiet too long.” Stan tried unsuccessfully to intimidate her into silence.

Stan has acknowledged his paternity and his sin and has contributed to the financial support of his and Colleen’s daughter. His Mansion, which Stan Farmer still directs, remains a highly structured program. Living conditions have improved considerably over the last decade at least with respect to better food and counselor training. The rehabilitation program has had a beneficial impact on the lives of hundreds of young people.


What made Colleen aware of her psychological and emotional needs as a victim of spiritual abuse? Through the recommendation and financial aid of Christian friends, she entered the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, a professional and residential community near Columbus, Ohio. Wellspring is devoted to helping persons who have come out of what staff member Larry Pile calls “TACOs”–“totalist aberrant Christian organizations.” The director is Dr. Paul R. Martin, a Christian psychologist, who along with others on the staff was once a member of an abusive church.

“For the first time in my life,” Colleen relates, “I heard about the grace of God. And for the first time I understood what it meant that Christ died for my sins two thousand years ago. While in those bad churches, I kept thinking that I was getting more wicked all the time. I loved God so much, yet I believed that he thought I was dirt. Everything depended on how much my abusers loved me. If they were mad at me, God was mad at me too. I really believed that.

“The most important thing for me was realizing that God loves me. I always accepted what the elders told me, which was that you had to earn love. I thought God responded in the same way. God picked Cain and Abel; one he liked and one he didn’t. I was the one he didn’t like. Now I realize that isn’t how it is.”

Some victims of spiritual abuse are reluctant to pursue professional counseling because they are wary of allowing another authority figure into their lives. Colleen was apprehensive as she entered Wellspring because she did not really know what was in store.

“When I was picked up at the airport, I thought, ‘Here we go again. I’m just in another group situation where they will tell me more of the same stuff: what to do and what to believe.’ It took me a few days to get used to it, to feel safe. I remember asking Dr. Martin, ‘Do you even care about me?’ He said, ‘I care.’ And I could tell that he really did. I wasn’t just another ex-member; I wasn’t a number. He was not just repeating things he had told a hundred other people before me. By the end of the week, he knew me and my life.” [4]

She had begun the journey to recovery.

According to Martin, the people he sees at Wellspring usually go through three stages of recovery after leaving a cult or authoritarian church. [5]


The first stage of recovery involves “exit counseling” and confronting denial. Victims will tend to deny their experiences and blame themselves for what happened to them. They need to be shown that they were controlled by very clever, manipulative people.

Learning to trust others in authority without creating a new codependent relationship is one of the first issues that victims of spiritual abuse confront. They need to understand how the control mechanisms that were at work in the church continue to affect them even after they have left. They must experience true acceptance, love, and a sense of belonging. They need to understand what has happened to them emotionally and psychologically.

It is important to help victims experience positive fellowship. The intensity of relationships within an abusive group must be matched by intense relationships in a wholesome setting.

The first stage also must address the doctrines of the abusive church. It is important to examine and carefully refute any unorthodox teachings. Most of the churches mentioned in this book are theologically orthodox, although nearly all would be guilty of distorting the Bible’s message in some way. Peter Sommer observes, “These groups are rarely heretical in theory. They don’t deny Christian basics; they tend to brush by them. Instead they focus on what makes them different from other churches or groups. They have lots of teaching, but it tends to be on such themes as commitment, submission, and prophecy.” [6]

Stephen Martin, a staff member at Wellspring, considers instruction in sound study methods and the interpretation of the Bible important. In abusive groups, twisted hermeneutics are often used to instill fear and guilt and thus become a form of spiritual intimidation. “Since leaders of abusive churches typically twist the Scriptures, education in hermeneutics would help the ex-member gain the right perspective on Scripture passages. In talking with former members at Wellspring, I have found a number of them who have difficulty with or even an aversion to reading the Bible because it has been misused by the group to abuse them. Learning the proper application and interpretation of Scripture goes a long way toward healing the wounds of abuse.” [7]

Sommer advises, “It may be wise not to read Scriptures that the group has emphasized; their interpretation may be deeply grooved into your thinking. Read instead the many texts that they did not teach you.” [8] I suggest that these people attempt to rediscover God’s Word through the Psalms because those writings validate a person’s individual spiritual life. Paul Martin feels it is wise for victims to use a different translation of the Bible from that commonly used in the group.


The second stage of recovery from Wellspring’s perspective is both a time of grieving and a time for regaining a sense of purpose. Tears will be shed over wasted years, missed opportunities, and severed friendships. It helps to talk about the past. Colleen comments, “Talking to others about what has happened to me has really helped me.” Former members need a safe place to tell their story fully and freely, even if they feel confused and embarrassed.

The abusive church experience is often a crisis of faith, as Paul Martin and others have pointed out. Victims must be able not only to rebuild self-esteem and purpose in life, but also renew a personal relationship with God. That can be difficult for those who have yet to resolve the tough question, “Why did God allow this to happen to me when I was sincerely seeking him?” As Rachel, one former church member, puts it, “I had been taught that nothing was ever God’s fault. The problem was that I was a true, believing Christian, but when I asked God for spiritual bread and water, look what I got. Was I praying to the wrong God? Was I dishonest? Secretly evil? Was I demonic, like the church kept telling me I was? How could an honest, sincere believer get tricked like this? How could God let this happen?”

People like Colleen and Rachel need the assurance that it is possible to have a rich relationship with God. In Sommer’s words, the victim must be turned “to faith in the living God from faith in a distorted image of him. Your break with the group is a step of obedience to the first commandment: No graven images!” [9]


For Wellspring, victims of spiritual abuse have reached the third stage of recovery when they begin to talk less about the past and begin to focus on the future: career pursuits, new relationships, and family. It is a time for picking up the pieces that are worth retrieving from life as it was before the abusive church experience.

Paul Martin describes his experience of retrieval this way: “Without question, parts of me died during those years in this group. I have been able to take the discipline that I learned in the group into my current career. But I constantly try to recover the parts of me that died during that involvement.” [10]

One woman tells of her having been forced to discard all her prized record albums of a certain kind of music upon joining the Jesus People USA. During her recovery she searched second-hand shops so she could replace those lost albums. The third stage also means coping with re-socialization and the practical matters which it entails such as managing time and money, relating to public agencies and institutions, learning parenting and other special skills, and adjusting to making decisions for oneself. Establishing credit, preparing a job resume, and even opening a bank account may be new experiences.

Wellspring exists because recovering emotionally, restoring a loving relationship with God, and re-entering society are not easily accomplished on one’s own. The accounts in this book reveal how tortuous the path to recovery can be without professional, caring help. The tragedy is that for the victims of spiritual abuse, the options are disappointingly few. Not many programs are especially equipped, as Wellspring is, to treat victims of spiritual abuse. Moreover, the costs can be out of reach for people upon leaving a control-oriented group because they have few financial resources. It is also the case that beyond the sphere of Christian counseling, some psychologists and psychiatrists are biased against all religious beliefs and may encourage clients to rid themselves of all religious entanglements, proverbially throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

But for many victims, like Colleen, counseling offers renewed hope.


As Colleen continues to sort out the experiences of more than twenty years in abusive situations, she is beginning to understand more clearly the ugly dimensions of her victimization and why she cannot trust other people. Tragically, like other victims of abuse, she sometimes feels that she deserved the abuse, that she was a bad person, that she didn’t measure up, that she could never make it on her own in life. She made this very insightful observation: “As much as people like me are not acknowledged as important in abusive groups, we are the ones who build them up. I have given them much energy and power because I can be controlled so easily. They love to control people like me, but in reality they think we are dirt. It all adds up to a very exploitative relationship.”

In the book Toxic Faith, Arterburn and Felton reinforce Colleen’s observation:

Victims make great sacrifices … They unknowingly sacrifice their needs so that persons they esteem can be saved from experiencing the consequences of their own behaviors. Although they are unaware of it, their attitude of sacrifice has more to do with a lack of self-worth than anything else. In the name of God, they sacrifice far beyond what God would demand. The ways in which they give of their time, money, and themselves perpetrate the exploitation by a ministry that is not dedicated to serving God. The more the victims sacrifice, the more victims are created by the ministry. [11]

Colleen’s moving from one abusive situation to another points out a dilemma of victims. More than half of the people I interviewed in the research for this book come from dysfunctional families. They endured abuse, lacked love and attention, and had very low self-esteem.

Colleen has learned that she fits the profile of a passive-submissive-dependent person. “These kinds of people,” she explains, “begin with a clinging neediness and a search for acceptance. They deny their own strengths and see those whom they are dependent on as stronger persons. They readily submit to abuse and look up to authority figures. They feel empty. They don’t absorb well. They limit their world. They look for the good in suffering situations. The churches that I have been in look for that type of person.

“The other people in the groups I joined were just like me,” Colleen says. “I thought my sister was a much stronger person than I, but when I remember how she ate her problems away, I recognize that every one of these traits fits her too. It makes me ill to think that a strong person could actually be on the lookout for someone like me and say, ‘We know she thinks she’s dirt, and that is what we’ll feed on.’ To do that kind of thing consciously is the worst kind of abuse.”

In view of all that Colleen has experienced, it would not be surprising if she had concluded that God is a “victimizing” God. Others who have been repeatedly disappointed by a shabby, exploitive substitute for biblical Christianity have discarded the faith altogether. That is not the case with Colleen. She confesses, “Through all of this, I really love the Lord. I know he is real. He has protected me so many times; I am a survivor. But I’d like to know how to really live, not just survive.”


1 Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton, Toxic Faith (Nashville: Oliver-Nelson Books, 1991),247. Perfectionism can become one form of spiritual intimidation. In Healing Spiritual Abuse, Ken Blue tells of a young man associated with a Christian organization that stressed the notion that total dedication, sacrifice, and dying to self are essential for spiritual growth. The leadership assigned the young man one degrading job after another in order to “refine his spirit.” When he objected to one particular task, “the leaders told him that he was showing signs of rebellion and that he had a long way to go in ‘dying to self.’ Feeling guilty for once again failing to measure up spiritually, he submitted all the more to the heavy loads of the … leaders.” (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 53-54.
2 Arterburn and Felton, Toxic Faith, 228-29
3 Ibid., 260, 262.
4 Interviews have strong therapeutic value, as I have discovered over many years of conducting research. Social scientists distinguish two types of interviews: the therapeutic or clinical interview, the purpose of which is to modify the client’s behavior, and the information interview, which is designed to gather data. As a sociologist, I use the latter type. I have found that as I try to balance objectivity with empathy and Christian concern, interviewees are sometimes helped to see aspects of their experience they had not considered before or to sort through feelings they have not confronted. In Becoming an Ex: The Process of Role Exit, Helen Ebaugh writes of similar phenomena (p. 217). My point in relating this is that one need not be a psychologist or social worker to make a difference in people’s lives. We can be good listeners, come alongside those who have been abused, and point them in the direction of professional counseling.
5 Paul R. Martin, Cult-Proofing Your Kids (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 179ff. In this section I rely heavily on chapter 14, “Pitfalls to Recovery.”
6 Peter Sommer, “High Pressure Christian Groups: The Broken Promise,” unpublished paper, 1992, 2.
7 Personal correspondence.
8 Sommer, “High Pressure Christian Groups,” 16.
9 Ibid.
10 Martin, Cult-Proofing Your Kids, 200.
11 Arterburn and Felton, Toxic Faith, 36.

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See Also

• 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

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First published (or major update) on Sunday, November 29, 2009.
Last updated on February 24, 2012.

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