Yesterday, in my home town of Montreal, a major news outlet released a front-page story about a pastor’s alleged spiritual abuse and money mismanagement. Although I currently am in West Africa, it wasn’t long before my social media feeds were burning hot with the news. And it hurt.
It hurt and still hurts at so many levels. I feel for the people that are the victims of such abuse. Their pain is so that they could only get justice by exposing the perpetrators. It hurts because it doesn’t look good for the Church. Yet, we have to address these things. It hurts because it hit home. Once again.
What Spiritual Abuse Is
GotQuestions.org says, “Spiritual abuse happens when a spiritual authority, such as a cult leader or abusive pastor, seeks to control individuals and ensure obedience.” Let me put it this way:
Abuse is anything that defiles, disrespect or diminishes the God-given dignity and agency of those made in the image of God.
Here are signs that you may currently be part of a spiritually abusive church/system:
- You feel like there is no better church than your church;
- Your pastor has saved your life, or so you believe;
- You meet the needs of your church and/or pastor(s) before that of your own family;
- When trying to do things on your own without your church community, you feel uneasy;
Spiritual abuse can be quite complex to identify for someone who’s in it. Why? Because abuse is systemic. People growing in dysfunctional families are prone to join other dysfunctional environments later in life because they find their place in a familiar dynamic. Church where spiritual abuse occurs can be that place.
I was comfortable in an abusive church because of my dysfunctional family background.According to experts, abusive dynamics and systems have arguably three or four roles to fill and those roles are interchangeable: the persecutor, the savior, the enabler and the victim.
The persecutor does the victim wrong. The enabler fails to help and makes the victim feel unworthy of being helped. The savior comes to the rescue as they stand between the victim and abuser, but are not necessarily truly helping. In the case of spiritual abuse, it can be many victims, many abusers, etc.
At times, the abuser becomes a savior to the victim, e.g. when asking for forgiveness, or wanting the victim to believe the abuse was for their good. Because the roles are interchangeable, a victim can become an abuser given the right circumstances. The cycle needs to be broken and help is needed.
Why It Hurts
Because of the dynamics described above, it is easy to understand that abusive relationships revolve around a web of confusion. You can truly love someone who is perpetrating abuse because they are more than that.
Fitting into the “family” can also be addictive. When you don’t truly know what dignity-respecting, life-giving, freeing love looks like, it’s hard to recognize what is truly taking place. Everyone needs to feel loved. “Love” that hurts still feels like love.
To break out of such cycles, people sometimes need an epiphany or a miracle. I know that’s what I needed. At all cost, let me tell you this: if you suspect that you are in a relationship that is abusive, or an abusive church, seek help. You can be happy. You can live free. Act today.
How I Got Out
My journey (emphasis on journey) out of systemic abuse and into healthy living started with knowledge. The Word of God says that the “Truth shall set you free.” I couldn’t agree more. Two books allowed me to recognize where I stood and how abuse had affected my whole life.
In Woman Thou Art Loosed, Bishop T.D. Jakes explores trauma and abuse and sheds light on how a broken life can be restored. In Hurt People Hurt People, Dr. Sandra D. Wilson shows us how broken people bring brokenness to others. I first recognized my issues, and as I worked on them, certain things became unacceptable to me.
As I became increasingly aware that my surroundings and habits were unhealthy, I became increasingly opened to change and truth. The book Strange Fire, Holy Fire, helped me make peace with my imperfect walk with God and my insatiable need of performance for Him.
At some point, I was ready. I had made up my mind, but I was scared. God’s Holy Spirit helped me out, and He began writing a new chapter.
Time to Heal
Leaving an abusive church or system may be some of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do. But it will make you strong, believe me. Once you’re gone, the healing process can begin, but it might take a minute.
I remember just how furious I was at the thought of the precious years that I felt had been stolen from me. I was heartbroken. My life was a mess, and I was confused. The grieving process had begun.
The grief and confusion made way to a tiny speck of light through the verse Philippians 4:8. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (NIV)
When I began to look back through the lenses of that verse, I remembered all the good I got from that church and my church family. After all, it was where I had turned my heart to Jesus, got baptized, received a ministry call on my life and met lifelong friends.
No matter how I felt after leaving, this remained true about my experience, what I had gained, and what I had given: none of it was in vain. I had given my life, but it was first and foremost to the Lord. And even if humans abused it, God saw. And He’s still faithful through it all.
A Word of Advice
If you’ve read this and think it’s all bogus and spiritual abuse doesn’t really exist, I respect your opinion. Just know that whatever your opinion is, other people also have theirs. Some people are ready to throw stones at the lady who outed the abusive pastor in the media, but that’s just not right.
What’s unfair is to put on her the responsibility of the Church’s reputation. How about we begin to hold accountable the people in the pulpit for their actions when they cross the line? Wouldn’t that prevent stories like what is happening in Montreal?
If we really love our pastors, we can’t turn a blind eye to their wrongdoing. Because eventually, what’s done in the dark will come to the light. The church should always be a safe place to heal and find peace and joy. That’s why we CANNOT tolerate abuse at any cost.
If, on the other hand, you are or have been a victim and all you want to do is shame that abuser for all it is worth, I understand. But I would also recommend to take it one step at a time. Focus on your healing, and see if taking action would truly benefit you and others.
If you want to do something for the sake of other people, I also understand. Perhaps seek wise council, so that perhaps through your actions, you will also help bringing the abuser(s) to repentance, and healing in the body of Christ.
Healing is Possible
Where I stand today is nothing short of a miracle. I am comfortable writing this article because I am no longer frustrated or even upset at those who hurt me. It doesn’t mean I will go back by any means. But I am free. And I hope God has freed them too. Spiritual abuse hurts everyone.
Father God, heal Your body. Please, put a stop to abuse in Your Church. May a new day dawn on the Church globally. May we stop sticking our heads in the sand and may we throw out what’s of the devil so that our light may truly shine. In Jesus’s name, I pray. Amen
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Books that can help on the journey: