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. 

To Lie or Not to Lie: That is the Question

“Because the governor has mandated masks, we ask that if you conscientiously object to wearing masks, that you just don’t come to church.”

Many God-fearing followers of Christ are hearing these words, or words like them, coming from the lips of their pastors these days.  They are being told they are not welcome at their own church, in their own church families.  They are being excluded from fellowship and worship.  The justification?  Well of course, Romans 13 tells us to blindly obey the government no matter what.

What I hear these pastors saying is that it is okay for you to lie as long as you are obeying the government.  It is okay to give false pretense because you have been told to do it by a politician.  It is okay for you to bear false witness.  After all, it’s the kind thing to do for your neighbor.

You see, I’ve done a lot of research on this topic.  Medical experts (real experts, not politically motived experts) say, “Cloth masks will be ineffective at preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission, whether worn as source control or as personal protective equipment (PPE)” (Singleton, 2020).  Furthermore, “Surgical masks are better than cloth but not very efficient at preventing emissions from infected patients” (Singleton, 2020).  Additionally, medical experts suggest that face masks can actually pose significant health risks to people who are not sick (Blaylock, 2020).

For me to wear a face mask knowing what I know is lying.  I know they do not work, especially not the little makeshift cloth masks that everyone is wearing.  You know, the masks you see nearly everyone wearing which they believe is providing protection against the “monster” virus.  I know these face masks can make people sick.  There are countless research studies that point to these concerns (cf. the source of scholarly research studies at Blaylock, 2020).  If I wear a face mask knowing these things, I am bearing false witness to my neighbors.

I’m not the kind of person that just blindly does what I’m told by whatever person allegedly in a position of authority over me tells me to do to.  Scripture tells us to test everything (cf. I Thessalonians 5:21), so I do.  This is why God gave us his Word.  Everything must hold up against the Word of God in context.  Passages of Scripture do not exist in a vacuum apart from other portions of Scripture.  If this were true, I could interpret a passage of Scripture to fit into the narrative I need it to at any given moment in time.  This is not rightly dividing the Word of Truth (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15).

I say this because while Romans 13 tells us to be subject to the governing authorities, Scripture also tells us not to lie (cf. Exodus 20:16; Proverbs 6:16-19, 12:19, 12:22, 19:5, 19:9; Psalm 101:7; John 8:44; Ephesians 4:25; Colossians 3:9-10; I John 2:4…need I go on?).

The government is telling you to wear a mask to protect those around you…to be unselfish…to be kind…to stop the spread of a virus.  However, scientific research suggests mask wearing does just the opposite of what politicians are saying.  Therefore, if I wear a mask because the government tells me to, I am giving credence to the government’s narrative for wearing a mask which is a complete falsehood based on what is known by experts who actually practice medicine in the real world!   I am telling those around me to believe the lie.  I am telling my neighbor that I agree with the false narrative.  I am suggesting that I believe what I am doing is protecting others when it is in fact only giving them a false sense of security.  I am encouraging them to continue to live in fear.  God has not given us a spirit of fear (cf. 2 Timothy 1:7).

So no, pastor.  I am not going to lie to obey the government (not to even mention that these mandates are not laws, so they are not being established following the governing authority of the Constitution of the United States…but that is an entirely different story).  I am not going to bear false witness to others and call it the Christian thing to do.  And I can’t really believe the shepherds of the flock are letting the wolves dictate what goes on inside God’s holy church, although I am not surprised.  It has been done before.  “I have seen also in the prophets of Jerusalem an horrible thing: they commit adultery, and walk in lies: they strengthen also the hands of evildoers, that none doth return from his wickedness; they are all of them unto me as Sodom, and the inhabitants thereof as Gomorrah” (Jeremiah 23:14 King James Version).

 

 

 

 

References

Blaylock, R. (2020).  Neurosurgeon: Face masks pose serious risks to healthy individuals.  Principia Scientific International.  Retrieved from https://principia-scientific.com/neurosurgeon-face-masks-pose-serious-risks-to-healthy-individuals/

Singleton, M. M. (2020).  Mask facts.  Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.  Retrieved from https://aapsonline.org/mask-facts/?fbclid=IwAR1kdBo4vFBlzLVfwGi8US7Mv0JV2ROPkBLcIEQOSjzYWO1ZKCclviq4hJw

A Matter of Conviction

Last night I had a conversation with my husband.  You see, our church is opening back up on Sunday with a long list of state-imposed rules.

We have never been mask wearers, nor do we believe we should be forced to wear masks by anyone.  We believe there are all sorts of reasons, psychological and health-wise, not to wear a mask.  However, our pastor has indicated that even if we are not afraid, he recommends we wear a mask for others, especially when we sing.  It is not mandatory, but it is recommended.

So back to the conversation I had with my husband last night.  I told him that I was really nervous about going to church.

“Nervous about what?” he said.

“Confrontation.” I replied.

“What are you going to be confronted about?” he queried.

“Not wanting to wear a mask and being told it is because I am not being kind” was my reply.

Our conversation moved to other things.  Fast forward to this morning.  My husband opens the day as follows:

“Do you know how I know that Satan is involved in all of this?”

“How?” I responded.

“You are nervous about going to church because everyone is so divided.  Why should you be nervous at all about going to church?”  he responded.  “The devil is involved.”

So this got me to thinking back to the days when I was actively counseling clients.  So many times, I would have clients that came into my office feeling extreme guilt over things that were not sinful.  This guilt would keep them from doing all good things including reaching out to God, being around people, and going to church.  I would have to explain to them the difference between true guilt and false guilt.

This circumstance is no different.

You see, true guilt is when you stand before a holy God sinful because you have broken one of His Commandments.  We are all truly guilty before God because of our sin.

False guilt is when people tell you that you should feel guilty about something because of what they believe or think.

True guilt brings you to repentance and a restored relationship with God.

False guilt keeps you from God because it comes from emotional manipulation and not truth.  It keeps you from people because there is a part of you that almost believes the manipulation.  This is by design.

Ephesians 6:10-20 (English Standard Version) states, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”

It is not wrong for me to not want to wear a mask anymore than it is wrong for you to want to wear a mask.  It is a matter of conviction not a matter of sin.

I am going to church today, and Satan is not going to separate me from other believers with emotional manipulation.

The battle belongs to the Lord!

Where the real people are

“Do you know what I like about this church,” said my husband.

“What?” I replied.

“The people are real,” was his response.

He is right.  They have real pain and real hurt.  They have real joy and real peace.  Whatever it is at the moment of our interactions, they are who they are with no apologies.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that.

You get kind of used to being around people who do the whole “how are you”—“fine” exchange.  Nothing ever goes any deeper there.  No one truly knows (and maybe even cares) how you really are doing on the inside.  I’ve been in churches where you slip in, and you slip out. No one even notices.  I’ve probably even been guilty of not noticing.  If I’m being honest, I’ve been guilty of not caring.  It’s hard to be real with others.

I know I’ve shared this same passage before, but I think it really describes how a church family is to relate to one another.  Romans 12:10-13 (ESV) states, “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.”  When God’s people behave in this manner, that is real.

I’m not going on and on about these people because I’m trying to put them on a pedestal or anything.  It’s just that when you notice a church being a real church, it’s pretty amazing.  I’ve read in Scripture about how the people of the Lord are supposed to interact with one another; I’ve just not really seen it all that often.  I’ve dreamed about it.  I’ve prayed for it.  I’ve wondered if it existed.

No church is perfect, but it’s nice to know there is a place where real people are!

The Place Where All the Nice People Should Be

I recently wrote a post, “The Place Where all the Nice People Are”, which garnered quite a few views all over the world–to my great surprise.  Based on my blog stats, people must be Googling to find out where the nice people are.  This got me thinking: I wonder if there is an absence of nice people around which causes people to go looking.

One place you would expect there to be nice people is at church.  Or maybe you have come not to expect that at all.

We spent several years in search of a church family.  The problem is that it was quite common to find ourselves among people who seemed to care less about anyone.  We went to a couple churches for several months where not one person even asked us who we were–not even once–not even the pastor!  We would come and go week after week without any real interaction with others.

Then there was the church where a man came to us and boastfully greeted us by stating, “We are an accountability church.  We will hold you accountable for what you do.”  Really?  How about putting your own pride in check there buddy?  (Sorry, that one made me a little angry.)

I even had a woman at a church (actually, the pastor’s daughter) tell me that she may consider allowing me into their clique.  May consider?  Lady, I wouldn’t want to be part of a clique that excludes others.  That’s not what church is all about! (That one made me angry too!)

You know, John 13:35 (NIV) says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  If the church is to be anything, it is to be a place where people love each other…you know, like a family does but only better (especially if you come from a dysfunctional family).  In a functional family, you realize your loved ones aren’t perfect, but you still accept them because that’s what God did for you.  You weren’t perfect.  There was nothing you could do on your own to be part of God’s family.  Christ bridged that gap, being the atoning sacrifice for your sins.  This is what let you be part of God’s family, the church, in the first place.  Therefore, we show love to others because of what Christ did for us not because they are worthy of it and most certainly not for our own power trip.

Maybe people wouldn’t be at a loss for finding where all the nice people are if more of those who claimed to be Christ’s disciples loved one another like Christ commanded us to do instead of judging, gossiping, controlling others, and even just ignoring people altogether.  After all, church should be the place where all the nice people are because people will know we are Christians by our love.

The Place Where All the Nice People Are

Yesterday, we went to a new church.  I shouldn’t say “new” church because we’ve been there before.  Last year we went for several weeks throughout January and February.  The problem became that it was nearly a 50 mile drive and the weather became bad.  In addition, we were desperately hoping to find a church family closer to home with family members.  Nevertheless, we found ourselves wanting to go back.  My youngest son asked me two days ago where we were going to go to church.  I said we were going to the one we had gone to last year.

He said, “Oh, you mean the place where all the nice people are?”

So we went back to the place where all the nice people are.  I am going to be very frank with you.  I have never been to a church where so many people live out the faith they claim to espouse.  Even when we were going last year, they cared about us.  They tried to get to know us from Day 1.  They even loved on us.  You see, my husband was going to have open heart surgery.  The pastor offered to come sit with me during the surgery which would have been over a 2 hour drive for him.  People were praying for us, and they barely knew us.  The only thing they really knew was that we were brothers and sisters in Christ, and that was all that mattered—our connection in Christ.

Yesterday, we went back.  It was like going home after having been away for a very long time.  Everyone remembered us, and we picked right back up where we left off.

The church family had just lost a young member, 20 years old, to a car accident laying her to rest the day before.  It was heartbreaking.  The father spoke about his young daughter.  He shared a letter from a young girl who had her life touched by his daughter in a way that changed her relationship with God forever.  I cannot honestly say that were I in his place, I would have handled it the same way.  I would have been a wreck.  Perhaps I might have even been angry at God.  I’m just being honest.

What made this father different was the peace he had.  He was confident in the promises of God through Christ Jesus, knowing that His daughter was now in her glorified body with Christ.  No longer was she affected by the sins and the hardships of this life.  No, now she is with God worshiping Him in glory for eternity.  This brought the father great comfort.  I am not sure that I have ever witnessed this type of saving faith so deeply flowing from one whose heart was broken.  All glory goes to God.

After the service, this father came to greet us and welcome us back to the church.  I think this is what God intended when He created the church.  I think this is what God meant when He said:

“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Romans 12:9-13 ESV).

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us take from this poignant example of true faith and hope in Christ.  Let us indeed love one another deeply, regardless of our own trials and tribulations.  This is my prayer.  This is my own heart’s desire.  God help me!