Imposters in the Church: Spiritual Abuse

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about abusive relationships.  Most people relate abuse to primary relationships such as in a marriage or in a dating relationship.  However, did you know that abuse can incur at a spiritual level within the visible church? 

You don’t really expect to go somewhere where they are claiming to preach the word of God and be abused.  No, you think you’re going to find love and acceptance in a group of people who seem to espouse the same beliefs as you.  So it is shocking when you find yourself in an abusive relationship with a church family. 

If you think about it though, it really does make a lot of sense that this can happen.  After all, churches are made up of people, and people are fallen and sinful.  Add to that someone becoming a pastor for the wrong reasons (e.g., God complex, power and control, narcissism), and people attending church for the wrong reasons, and you have a recipe for disaster. 

Church was never meant to be about humans.  Church was created for God’s true children to come together to worship and glorify Him.  In the process, God grows and changes His children to be more like Him.  Unfortunately, many treat church as a means of finding personal importance, having friends, or trying to look good to others.  There are many in churches these days who have little to do with trying to understand God’s holiness or His purpose for the lives of His children.  Many are wrapped up in comparing themselves with everyone else to make them feel better about themselves. 

When I was growing up, whether you were a good Christian always seemed to be measured against other people.  When other people were more spiritual than you, you always knew about it.  I finally came to a realization.  I can remember clearly thinking, “Wow!  Why am I so concerned with so and so.  None of us measure up to God!”  As God changed the way I thought about things, I realized that Christianity wasn’t about comparing myself to other people.  In comparison to a holy God, none of us measure up.  I needed a savior to save me from my sinful self.  Reading my Bible 3 hours a day, praying on my knees at 5 a.m., only wearing skirts, and even going to church every time the doors were open were never going to save me.  These things were not what made me a child of God.  They may have made me look more spiritual to other people, but they were only a cover-up for the true nature of my heart which was desperately wicked.  I was behaving just like the Pharisees, and Jesus never had kind words for their religious behavior.

When you are in a church where what you do is a measure of your Christianity in the eyes of other people, you are in a very dangerous place.  You may just be in a situation rife with the potential for being in a spiritually abusive relationship.  I’ve noticed some similarities in churches were spiritual abuse occurs. 

First, there is almost always a pastor who is larger than life.  He is very vocal, sometimes even yelling at people during the church service.  People hold him on a pedestal, and it doesn’t seem like he can do anything wrong.  Even when it’s clear he’s doing wrong, no one questions him.  He is the supreme authority, and you cannot question that authority.  If you do, you’re not a good Christian. 

Secondly, there is an attempt by the church or people within the church to control your life including where you go, what you do, how you dress, and who you spend time with.  You are made to feel guilty or ashamed if you are not doing what everyone else is doing.  If you do not appear humble and subservient like everyone else, if you wear the wrong article of clothing or go to the wrong place, you are vilified and pointed out.  If you don’t dress the same way as everyone else, if you aren’t at church every time the doors are open, and if you don’t do what the pastor tells you to do, you are not a good Christian. 

A third indicator is an attempt to isolate you from the outside world.  You are told that you should not seek any help from people outside the church.  The only true Christians are the ones in your church family or churches that are just like yours.  So you cannot trust anyone else’s advice.  If you seek input from others outside the church, you are not a good Christina.  This isolation is designed to keep you from realizing that something is wrong. 

Another indicator that you might be in a spiritually abusive church is a violation of your privacy.  Everything you do, everything you say, must be accountable to the church and/or pastor.  Now there is a place for accountability within a church.  However, God has a very specific prescription for how that accountability is to take place, and it is not in a spirit of judgment or control.  A spirit of love and restoration must dominate that accountability. 

When we were looking for a new church family many years ago, I can remember walking into a church where the first thing a man said to us was, “We are an accountability church.”  He was quite proud of this fact.  But what I heard him saying is, “We are going to be in your business all the time, and we who think we are spiritual are going to be the judges of whether what you are doing is right or wrong.  You’ll be beholden to us, not God.”  That’s a very scary place to be!

Another indicator of being in a spiritually abusive church family is that you are treated with disrespect by people actively making you feel ashamed of who you are, blaming you for problems, and putting you down.  Any little perceived misstep is broadcast to the church, often from the pulpit, and then when you don’t fall into line, you are told you are responsible for confusion, disunity, and chaos in the church.  You become public enemy number one, and others in the church badmouth you and blame you.  The goal of this behavior is to try to pull you back in line and make you follow lock-step with what everyone else is doing to be a “good Christian”. 

It is important to remember that abusers have a very difficult time showing compassion.  They are only concerned with themselves and looking good.  They want to appear spiritual and more religious than anyone else.  Because they must maintain the appearance that they are better than other people, they have very little concern for the feelings of others.  The thing that makes them look the best is when you and others are made to look their worst.  They don’t truly care about others.  The are full of pride. 

Finally, abusers want you to do what they want you to do, and you are not allowed to have any individual opinions in the matter.  You are not allowed to be the individual God created you to be.  Your gifts can never be better than the other “important” people in the church.  You must believe what the pastor and/or church wants you to believe at all times, without question, even if it doesn’t align with Scripture.

It can be very difficult to remove oneself from a spiritual abusive church.  It can be very hard to recognize when you are a part of one.  Nothing irks me more than to see the harm inflicted on people by a spiritually abusive church.  The enemy is alive and well in the visible church these days.  His goal is to take as many people down as possible and keep them from a true saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ. 

I can remember going to a Christian college and discovering that there were true believers who did not live legalistically.  Their faith was based on a true and honest relationship with Christ and not on how they measured up against other people.  Being able to be around a community of true believers opened my eyes to the fact that something was not quite right in the church I had grown up in.  My heart’s cry for those who are in a spiritually abusive church relationship would be that they would see the truth, separate from that body, and seek out a true church.  

The focal point of a true church will be on God’s Word, not people’s actions.  There will be an emphasis on worshiping God because of who God is and not because it gives you an emotional high or makes you feel spiritual.  Good churches are churches where people are growing to be more like their Savior and not based on looking good on the outside or how they measure up to others but based on the work God has accomplished in their lives. 

There are many imposters these days, but it is possible to find a body of true believers.  Do not give up hope. 

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