Thoughts on leaving a spiritually abusive church

But why did you stay in a spiritually abusive church for as long as you did?

Not many people ask this question out loud. I think I would have preferred it if they did. That way it wouldn’t fidget at the edge of my vision; that way I would know for sure if this really was what people thought, or if I was just projecting on to them a question I keep asking myself.

Why did I stay so long? Why did I allow this to happen to me?

I have to remind myself constantly that the “abuse” in “spiritual abuse” isn’t just window dressing. It isn’t hyperbole. It isn’t the churlishness of those who have been through the ringer of church politics. It is, in fact, abuse. I have to remind myself to ask, Why do women go back to their abusers so often? Because the answer is the same.

They hope he will change.

They don’t think anyone else will love them.

They’re afraid.

They’re co-dependent.

I don’t want to write those things down. I don’t want to admit that it was a mixture of self-esteem issues, habit, and reluctance to take a chance in some new environment that kept me going back to a church where my initial suspicions that something was very wrong were confirmed within a few months. I don’t want to admit that despite that, I was a part of that church for almost four years. It’s embarrassing. I should have been stronger, wiser, better. I shouldn’t have been so susceptible, so gullible. I shouldn’t have been so weak.

(But then I also think that my biggest mistake was trusting that any church would be a place of God. My hardest lesson has been that not all churches are.)

This fear of exposure as ultimately, a vulnerable human being, is exactly what spiritual abuse relies on, of course. This fear of admitting that you feel more bullied than loved; those moments when you realise you have been, and are being, manipulated and lied to; made to feel small, ruthlessly criticized, silenced, exploited. As with most kinds of abuse, spiritual abuse promotes a conspiracy of silence. As with most kinds of abuse, spiritual abuse does this by implying complicity. You wanted this. You wanted to be a part of it. It’s your own fault.

Now add to this already volatile mix the question of God. Inevitably spiritual abusers claim, implicitly or explicitly, that God is on their side; that he does things the way they do them, that they alone really understand God and the Bible and church. That if you don’t believe this, too, you are in the wrong. That your perceptions and experiences of God are at best questionable. That you cannot trust your own relationship with God without the guiding light of the spiritually abusive environment.

And add to this the inevitable question: Why, God, are you allowing this to happen? In your own house?

For me the answer to that question has been hard won. It took me a really long time to understand that God doesn’t allow this to happen – but that we do. We who go to church on Sundays, who volunteer for coffee duty, who attend church fêtes and sit on church councils. We who are just happy to be there. We who think it’s someone else’s problem; we who think it can’t possibly be that bad, contrary to all evidence; we who ignore the evidence because we like having somewhere to go on a Sunday morning.

(We who think it doesn’t happen in our church. We who think even if it does, well, at least it’s not happening to us. We who think maybe that person deserved it. Maybe they really weren’t good enough, or committed enough. Maybe they never really were like us after all.)

As victims we are not complicit. As bystanders we most definitely are.

So why did I stay in a spiritually abusive church for as long as I did?

That’s not the question I’m going to ask myself any more. I’m going to ask myself how, despite what happened, I can continue to love others without fear. I’m going to ask myself how I can use this experience to extend fellowship to those who need it most, mercy to the ones who don’t deserve it, kindness to everyone in-between, and forgiveness all around. Instead of asking God why he has allowed this to happen, I will ask him for faith, mercy, courage, discernment, wisdom, perseverance, patience, and justice. I will trust his word when it says:

On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the Lord.

(Zephaniah 3:16-20 NRSV)



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