By Dr. Ronald Enroth, published in Christian Counseling Today, August 1996, who graciously sent us a copy of this article, along with a memo letting us know that the article contains material from interviews with former Assembly members (whose names have been changed to protect their privacy).
I remember my first contact with Colleen. She had read my book, Churches That Abuse, and had written to thank me for the help it had been to her. As I read her letter, however, it became clear that Colleen was far from fully recovered from the spiritual and emotional damage she had briefly recounted. She had been tossed from pillar to post in a series of unhealthy church experiences that had left her extremely frustrated and confused. As she put it, "There was an equation with an answer, but I could never find it."
Colleen had fashioned a protective fence around herself, uncertain whether to let anyone--counselor, pastor, or friend--penetrate that wall. "Nothing is allowed through my fortress anymore," she said. "There is a tiny mailbox on the outside of the thick castle wall. It hold 'help' for people like me. But I cannot reach it. I am a prisoner, alone and almost without faith."
I recall a similar letter from a man who had been a member of an authoritarian church for years. "It has been a very long, hard road back to health of mind and spirit," he wrote, "and I am still carrying 'baggage' from my 12-year ordeal."
The 'ordeal' that he described sounded more like a cult experience than a church experience. He told of an environment in which members live in fear. "The emphasis is on 'death to self,' confession of sin to those in authority, and strict, unswerving obedience. The leaders control through fear and intimidation."
One would not ordinarily expect to find conditions so conducive to high levels of stress in a church context. Church is where we go to find comfort, restorative grace, compassionate understanding, spiritual guidance.
Yet, for some Christians, their church experiences have been marked by a misuse of ecclesiastical position and power by pastors who turn out to be more tyrants than shepherds. Former members of such churches have told me how they surrendered personal autonomy to a spiritual leader, suffered a loss of identity and self-worth as a result of that submission, and frequently experienced spiritual paralysis and confusion.
How can this happen? How do churches cause high-level stress and emotional damage? How can we be sensitive to the needs of people leaving spiritually abusive environments? How can the church be an agent of healing for those who have been wounded?
To answer these questions and better understand the problem, let me share three actual case examples. I have changed the names of the former members and disguised the real names of the churches they once attended.
For eight years, Richard was a member of what I will call "The Church of Bible Faith." The founder and pastor of this East Coast church is a man who claims that God speaks directly to him and that he is the sole possessor of the only correct method of interpreting and understanding the Bible. Richard now sees this claim as one of the many control mechanisms used by the pastor.
"If he had this special direct relationship with God, how could we dare question him? Criticism was kept under control because it was tantamount to questioning God and causing dissension, serious sins that none of us wanted to commit. Critics were made to appear like 'persecutors of the righteous.'
"In the Church of Bible Faith, independent thinking was discouraged while at the same time, a blind faith was encouraged. The pastor would drill into our minds how, like sheep, we were stupid and needed our shepherd and the safety of the sheepfold, which was our church.
We were encouraged to quote the Bible and the words of our pastor, but not to come up with our own ideas or our own interpretations of Scripture.
"While I was fairly new at the church, I was promised that one of the goals of our 'training' was 'development at individuals.' This, however, was like a carrot on a string. In reality, we became carbon copies of one another. We dressed similarly, spoke similarly and acted similarly.
"We always used charts as one measure of our faithfulness to the Lord. One daily chart we kept was called the 'Accomplishment Chart.' On this chart we would award ourselves points for how many tracts we distributed to non-believers, how many times we explained salvation to them, and to how many people we gave Bible studies.
"During my hears at the Church of Bible Faith, what bothered me most was the fact that I never had assurance of my salvation. Unsure of my eternal destiny, I constantly lived in fear of going to hell. In order to gain God's favor and 'keep my salvation,' I was zealous to do good works. But I never had any confidence that I had attained my goal of assurance.
I realize now that I lived under a false guilt that kept me in spiritual bondage for a long time. The standards that the pastor imposed on us in order to be faithful Christians were impossible to attain."
As this case history demonstrates, one of the primary characteristics of stress-producing churches is a preoccupation with a performance-based faith. Such churches make people feel that they never quite measure up to the high standards set for them.
Members are often individuals who have extreme feelings of inadequacy. Their personal feelings of value are linked to another person rather than to God. This kind of legalism promises spiritual security as long as one does what the authority figures demand.
I interviewed a young woman who understood performance-based Christianity well. She was the daughter of a leader in a network of churches I will call "the Fellowship." She told me that she didn't really have a childhood, that her entire life revolved around the church, the church school, and her home, which also was a focus of much church activity.
By the time she was eight she had read the Bible five times. At 12 she was expected to pray with, greet and interact with Fellowship people because her father was in leadership. "I was overworked as a kid," she said. "There was always something I had to do--I never had fun."
Stress-inducing religion is based on conditional love. In helping victims achieve spiritual and emotional wholeness, it is absolutely essential that people understand how destructive a works-oriented approach to life really is.
Restoration to healthy spirituality requires that we acknowledge that God's love and grace are not dependent on our behavior or how we measure up according to the standards of some spiritual power abuser.
In their book Toxic Faith, Arterburn and Felton remind us that Christian legalists have a distorted view of God. "They see God as a critical Parent, waiting to say, 'It's not good enough. Try harder. You could do better.' Their faith is so toxic that they turn to a faith in self rather than a faith in God. They depend on their performance, not God's wondrous love."1
Debbie saw the futility of trying harder after years of doing just that in Fellowship. "Everybody strived to be what they termed a 'Worker,' because being a Worker meant that you measured up, that you had respect from [the founder] Brother Charles.
Such a valued person attends all the meetings and is always available to do whatever needs to be done. You find yourself constantly trying to be that sort of person, but never quite measuring up.
"When I finally decided to leave the group, it was hard because I believed what Brother Charles had always taught--that you're leaving the covering of God when you leave the Fellowship.
I thought that if I left, anything could happen to me. It was like I was coming out from under a spiritual covering that had protected me from the time I was 17 years old.
"It was difficult to sort out what I believed because I didn't have anybody to tell me, 'This is right, this is wrong.' My roommate at the time also left when I did. We both ended up living in apartments in close proximity to one another.
We spent an entire year just talking about our experiences and feelings. It was a necessary part of our recovery, even though there were times when we felt guilty and thought, 'We really shouldn't be talking like this'"
Debbie started attending a large evangelical church that had an excellent counseling department.
"I spent four months in counseling. That was very helpful because after you leave an unhealthy church, you tend to have a lot of beliefs and feelings that you can't sort out on your own. You don't know whether or not to throw them out, and it can be very confusing.
"I went through a stage of being very angry because 14 years of my life were lost. And there are times when I still think that my time there was largely wasted, even though I've tried to come to terms with those years and recognize that there were some good aspects, too.
"Although I was programmed against other Christian churches, I was curious about those other Christians. And even though it was against the rules to listen to Christian radio, I would listen to Chuck Swindoll and his 'Insight for Living' program.
But I could never talk about that with my fellow church members because if the leadership found out, they would say, 'If you have time to listen to that, then you have time to...' Then they would give you a list of things you had to do, what they called a 'consequence list.' In other words, you were being punished for listening to somebody on the radio."
The concept of employing sanctions in the form of "consequences" is part of the Fellowship's special vocabulary. They teach that every action has a consequence, a good or bad consequence.
Debbie illustrated for me the extreme to which the notion of consequence sometimes was enforced. "One of my roommates had been told that she wasn't to drink coffee. She drank it anyway, but she didn't tell anyone. One day she had a cup of coffee and was caught. They charged her a fine of one hundred dollars for that one cup of coffee. That was her consequence."
One of the more extreme manipulative tools that some church leaders use to control their flocks is to encourage the severing of ties with relatives outside the group. The network of churches to which Debbie belonged holds three important seminars each year, taught by their founder, Brother Charles. She explains why these seminars function not only to provide information for members, but also to divide families.
"They were scheduled to be held three times a year: New Year's weekend, Easter weekend, and Labor Day weekend. That effectively prevents you from seeing your family on holidays.
Members were strongly discouraged from spending any holiday time with family, especially at Christmas, which we considered a pagan holiday. You were to consider the people you spend the most time with--your brothers and sisters in Christ--to be your family."
Healthy churches do not disrupt family relationships and create the accompanying stress that we see in authoritarian churches. When a Christian is asked to sacrifice family relationships for church loyalty, it's time to find another church.
Many of the victims of churches that inflict emotional damage have personal backgrounds that include experiences which have predisposed them to victimization. As Ken Blue illustrates in his book Healing Spiritual Abuse, victims are often unwittingly groomed to yield to the manipulative, controlling style of spiritual abusers.
When emotionally damaged young adults from dysfunctional natural families get involved in a dysfunctional church situation, they feel right at home because it is a 'cleaned up' version of what they have experienced all their lives.2
Another pervasive practice that produces stress in the lives of members of control-oriented churches is the labeling of certain members. Jason, a former member of a Midwestern church I will call "God's Covenant People," told me that it was common for people to be informally assigned uncomplimentary labels such as "unsubmissive," "rebellious," "independent," "troublemaker," or "discordy" (members who make waves in the congregation). Jason reports,
"As a member of God's Covenant People, I could not express what I really thought without being labeled and manipulated through that label. A member takes a big risk in expressing true feelings. Especially when it comes to disagreeing with authority."
Arterburn and Felton point out that,
"Labeling attempts to dehumanize persons so that dismissing them or their opinions is much easier....Rather than say that John Smith has made a negative statement, the [authoritarian leader] proclaims that they are 'detractors,' 'traitors,' or 'malcontents' who would destroy the ministry or organization. The labels become rallying points under which the other followers can be moved to action to squelch a revolt."3
Leaving an authoritarian church can itself be stressful. Jason's comments about the anxiety he felt when leaving God's Covenant People are typical of the responses I have encountered. "I was afraid to leave because I thought I would be leaving God's will," he said. "The leaders became God's voice for me. I experienced a form of spiritual intimidation when I suggested leaving."
In unhealthy Christian churches, members are discouraged from leaving. As Peter Sommer describes it,
"Good members prove they are 'good' by not leaving at all--unless they are told. Just as in sick families, there is a heavy atmosphere: a more or less constant undercurrent of anxiety over who is really loyal, who is 'in' and who is 'out.' This may be given an elegant biblical or psychological basis. It sounds so right; but in time, it feels so bad."
Although it is sadly true that some churches inflict pain and hurt individuals, we must remember that most churches do not abuse. The larger, caring Christian community must demonstrate to victims of unhealthy churches that it is possible to find healing, a cure, a way back.
As one former member tells it, that will involve learning to trust again, learning to establish relationships with others in an accepting church or small group setting:
"Recovery from spiritual abuse is similar to other kinds of victim recovery in that deep healing usually occurs within and through relationships with others.
People who have been deeply hurt tend to be angry loners, gun-shy, and committed to self-protection. But learning to trust and allowing yourself to become vulnerable to others and to God, by definition, requires relational input."5
That input also may include professional counseling or the sensitive, listening ear of a pastor. Victims of spiritual about need to find someone who will listen to their story, believe them, and support their desire for healing and restoration.
Unfortunately, there are those in the Christian community who trivialize what they term the "abuse victim mentality" and belittle the experiences of those who have been hurt by pastors and churches. To disparage or scorn such accounts of abuse will only further isolate the victims and drive them away from the church.
It is always difficult to forgive those who have caused us great stress and hurt. But forgiveness is crucial to the healing process. Most importantly, restoration means trusting in the God of grace, the God of all comfort, the God who is far removed from the harmful tactics of stress-making churches.
1S. Arterburn and J. Felton, Toxic Faith (Nashville: Oliver-Nelson Books, 1991), 50.
2K. Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 104.
3Toxic Faith, 184-185.
4P. Sommer, "High Pressure Christian Groups: The Broken Promise," Unpublished paper (1992), 7.
5R. Enroth, Recovering From Churches That Abuse (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 144.
Ronald Enroth, Ph. D., was professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California at the time of this writing, and author of Recovering From Churches That Abuse (Zondervan, 1994).