What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Been Hurt By Church

6 misguided responses to spiritual abuse.

A few years ago, I had my first experience with spiritual abuse.

Compelled to serve God in a radical way, I dropped out of college, gave away all my possessions and moved to Africa, only to be manipulated, controlled and taken advantage of by the leaders in the mission organization.

When I got home, my pastor gave me two options: I could either lie and make up a nicer-sounding story, or I could just keep my mouth shut. Either way, I was forbidden from telling the real story, inside or outside the church.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It’s one thing to be abused by people you barely know, but it’s another thing to be betrayed by someone you trusted and looked up to. I was angry and depressed, and I fell away from church for the first time in my life.

Thankfully, some of my friends understood what I was going through. Others, not so much. But what I’ve come to realize is that Christians can be pretty bad at handling spiritual abuse.

Many of the responses below I’ve witnessed firsthand. In the past, I’ve even been guilty of saying a few of these myself.

Here are a few things not to say to someone who has been hurt by their church:

If you’re more concerned about the church’s reputation than you are about the abuse itself, you might have your priorities mixed up.

1. “No Church Is Perfect.”

Instead of empathizing with those who have been hurt by a church, some Christians go right into defense mode.

They might argue that the victim just had a “bad experience.” Or, they’ll say the Church is full of imperfect people who are “only human” and make mistakes just like the rest of us.

But can we agree that these excuses only distract from the problem? No one wants to be told to “focus on all the good things the Church does” when they’ve been hurt by one. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of people have been positively affected by a church or ministry. The good experiences don’t cancel out the bad ones.

2. “Are You Working Toward Reconciliation?”

The last thing a victim of spiritual abuse needs to do is go right back into the environment that hurt them in the first place.

If someone has been attacked by a dog, would you tell them to go back and risk getting bitten again? Christians who insist on reconciliation in the face of spiritual abuse are forgetting one important thing: Abusive people can’t always be reasoned with.

Not only is it dangerous to ask a victim to make amends with their abusers, it also puts an undue burden of responsibility on the victim to come up with a solution. It’s like saying, “They’re the ones who hurt you, but now it’s your job to make it right.”

3. “I Don’t Want to Gossip.”

If a pastor or staff member is mistreating someone in the congregation, it’s not gossip for that person to talk about it. In fact, it’s not even gossip for you to talk about it.

Imagine if you found out your brother-in-law was beating your sister. Would your first response be, “That’s none of my business”? The same way domestic abuse involves a whole family, spiritual abuse involves a whole church family. The abuse may have taken place in private, but that doesn’t make it a private matter.

As Christians, if we’re going to start taking spiritual abuse seriously, we need to stop comparing it to gossip.

4. “What are Non-Believers Going to Think?”

Have you ever read a headline about a Christian going public against a church or ministry and thought to yourself, “Is this providing a good witness?” If you’re more concerned about the church’s reputation than you are about the abuse itself, you might have your priorities mixed up.

As Christians, we can get so preoccupied with how outsiders view the Church that we put appearances before the truth. When we try to control the narrative, we substitute the reality of the Church for our own ideal of the Church. All we’re showing the world is that we prefer a false witness over a bad one.

5. “Stop Being so Bitter.”

People who have been hurt by a church have a right to be angry. Not only is anger an appropriate response to injustice, it’s a healthy response if it's channeled the right ways.

So why do Christians have such a hard time letting each other express negative emotions? Why do we always have to fish for some deeper spiritual problem like a root of bitterness or unforgiveness?

Not only is anger an appropriate response to injustice, it’s a healthy response if it's channeled the right ways.

The other day I heard someone put it this way: “Religion will molest you, then accuse you of being bitter about it.” Do you see the double standard? When victims react to being hurt by someone in a church, we treat them as though there’s something’s wrong with them. This is why abusers are so often exonerated. It’s easier to justify letting the abuser off the hook if both parties are “in the wrong.”

6. “Is This Worth Dividing the Church Over?”

How it might affect the congregation should never be the deciding factor in whether or not to expose abuse.

This one especially hits home for me. When I escaped my abusive situation in Africa, my pastor wanted to sweep the whole ordeal under the rug. My silence, I was told, was for the greater good of the Gospel. It wasn’t a suggestion—it was an ultimatum. If I didn’t keep quiet, he warned, I would bring division to the entire congregation.

One of the most effective ways to silence a victim is to fill them with a false sense of guilt. The victim is led to believe that talking is only going to make things worse, and whatever happens as a result is their fault.

Certainly, exposing spiritual abuse can divide a congregation. But that’s not a consequence of the victim talking. It’s a consequence of the abuse perpetrated in the first place.

There’s one thing that’s even more important than knowing what not to say to someone who has been hurt by church. And that is, to simply listen.

Top Comments

Kimberley Garrett

2

Kimberley Garrett commented…

This is a very difficult article to ingest without a definition of what spiritual abuse is. Please explain.

Susan Doney

4

Susan Doney commented…

Thank you for the courage to speak out in an excellent article and subject yourself to more Christian well-meaning but at times, misguided commentary. I, too, experienced spiritual abuse. I followed the Matthew 18 guideline in how to deal with a brother in sin and was met with a refusal to acknowledge or take responsibility for personal sin. Since it was with a pastor and there was an attitude among the leaders that pastors are God's annointed and should be protected, the other leaders refused to hold him accountable. Therefore, the way they chose to deal with the situation was to make the victim the problem. What followed were incredibly hurtful meetings. After 30 years there (many in leadership), my husband and I quietly left. Without explanation so as not be divisive. Four years later, I am still unable to attend another church. When spiritual authority that is charged by scripture to love, protect and care for the flock instead uses its authority for selfish reasons and covers sin, the affect on the victim is devastating. Church members have a right expectation to be treated fairly and lovingly. When instead they are abused, there is confusion, resentment and, most of all, a loss of trust that naturally follows. Spiritual abuse is real and a serious problem. What makes it worse is church members refusing to consider that something this serious is happening in their midst and their leaders are behaving as humans (sinners) who need to be held accountable. Only when the church is willing to get involved and recognize and confront sin will this problem begin to resolve.

118 Comments

Kimberley Garrett

2

Kimberley Garrett commented…

This is a very difficult article to ingest without a definition of what spiritual abuse is. Please explain.

John Caldwell

3

John Caldwell replied to Kimberley Garrett's comment

There is already a generally accepted definition of what spiritual abuse is.

Jim Randall

1

Jim Randall replied to Kimberley Garrett's comment

This is an important question! To get a good picture of what is and is not spiritual abuse, read: The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen. It's the best I've seen on the topic.
In short, I would say that spiritual abuse is when a person in a position of spiritual authority uses their position to manipulate, harass, control or silence those under their authority.

Jessica Missy Coombs

1

Jessica Missy Coombs replied to Kimberley Garrett's comment

I was thinking the same thing!!!! It's an unfinished thought.

Noah Gregory

2

Noah Gregory replied to Kimberley Garrett's comment

Spiritual abuse is abuse in a spiritual sense. I know that is circular reasoning but let me explain further: If God has set it that He wants you to do something and is telling you that with His Spirit, and that is met with opposition from the church, that is spiritual abuse. Whenever the church misuses their power to negatively impact others, that is spiritual abuse.

David Schultz

14

David Schultz commented…

I generally agree with this article, but one thing that kind of bothered me was in point #1 about saying it was a "bad experience." While I agree we need to focus on people and not just the needs of "the church," I also think it's equally irresponsible for a person to get hurt by a single church, and then condemn the whole collective church as a result.

I understand that there is pain and hurt there, and I agree that those responsible need to be confronted, but we need to do just that---confront those responsible---not just blame the entire church and then leave. I just feel like in our highly offended and victimized culture, it's way too easy to just sink into self-pity than to actually work at relationships and trust God to get us through our troubles.

Josh

11

Josh replied to David Schultz's comment

Institutional Christianity needs reforming hence why we have rampant abuse. Church has become a club with political brokering and God has turned into the poker chips. It's more than just people, its the entire institution that needs reformed. Remember... the reformation isn't over.

Heidi Underhill

1

Heidi Underhill replied to Josh's comment

I am so sorry this happened to you! It was wrong.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

LA

8

LA replied to Heidi Underhill's comment

[Edit: This is a reply to David's comment, not Heidi's.]

Or could it be wrong of you to condemn how someone is dealing with an experience rather than just to listen to the person and love them? When a church does you wrong, the last thing you want to do is go to another one that could do the same thing to you again. You feel that the church, as an institution, has hurt you. You're dealing with a lot of pain and trauma, and you come to understand that there are a lot of bad churches out there and a lot of bad people in them, and your instinct is to protect yourself. Spiritual abuse and harmful dogma is, in fact, a widespread problem. Don't ask people not to judge your church while you're in fact judging them for doing so without having walked in their shoes.

Natalie Yahagi Sanches

1

Natalie Yahagi Sanches commented…

I understand your point, were you able to forgive those who have hurt you? Did you find another church to go?

This subject is very delicate and we are officially lost nowadays with so many corrupt leadership.
However is "Get out if you got hurt" the answer for all the kind of problems inside church?

Rachel Murray

54

Rachel Murray commented…

Thank you so much for writing this and thank you Relevant for posting it. I just got out of a spiritually abusive situation myself. Every last point on your list resonates with me and other people, I'm certain. Being told to keep quiet about some very terrible wrongs has been so painful. When I left the situation, I got angry emails from people within the organization telling me that I hadn't "left well." I had been put in a highly abusive, manipulative situation for a year as leadership kept telling me that the abuser just needed to feel love by others to stop their patterns of abuse. I love the church. I love Jesus and working with and for Him, but if you are in a bad situation, please get out of it! Take whatever strength you have left within you and leave it. There will no doubt be some guilt trips from people who don't understand or know your situation, but it is not wrong to RUN from abuse and not linger in it.
http://truthandtravels.blogspot.com

Drew

2

Drew commented…

Thanks so much for sharing. It's always heart breaking to hear stories of "God" led organizations falling into the traps of greed/lies/etc... that can really hurt people.

I do think it's ok to ask about reconciliation. At some point there must be some form of forgiveness and moving on or else the wound won't heal. The point of "abusive people can't always be reasoned with" I think can be true, but if you aren't working towards forgiving them there will be resentment, bitterness, and anger inside of you. Meanwhile they probably continue to go about their lives, likely not thinking twice about you because the odds are you aren't the only one they've wronged and they've probably learned to suppress that piece of conscience. If we want the fullness Jesus offers, we must try (even when incredibly difficult) to live like Him. He literally was the victim who took it upon himself to come up with a solution. Jesus would look at us and say "They're the ones who hurt you, but now it's your job to make it right."

Granted "make it right" can take many forms and it may not be something you can truly work toward with an abuser, but forgiveness is something we are all called to be about. I don't think it's a bad thing to ask (lovingly) how they are dealing with it. Love people, but don't be afraid to challenge them. I know I'm thankful for the friends that challenged me (and sometime angered me) in the midst of a struggle. They helped me grow from it.

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