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Do Ex-Fundamentalists Over-Emphasize Spiritual Abuse?

I wrote recently about some of the junk I’ve went through in church. One of the easiest things to do would have been to portray myself as a victim and bail on church completely. But I didn’t. As I wrote in that piece, I believe healing from religious abuse lies in giving grace, not mockery; letting go, not hanging on. Of course, there is nuance. Each situation and person is different. There’s no simplistic or cookie-cutter approach to processing extremely toxic, deeply traumatic, even cult-like religious experiences. The point is to not fossilize in a state of perpetual victimhood, but to be restored to God and the church. To become, pardon the cliche, an overcomer.

Which is why I am so leery of some of the religious abuse watchdogs out there.

On one end are those groups (which I’ve labeled the Anti-Evangelical Hate Machine), “an entire movement bent on cataloging, ridiculing, scoffing at, lampooning, and mocking evangelical culture.” Some suggest their satire is meant for “healing.” I don’t doubt their good intentions, nor that healing occurs in many cases. However, these recovering religious victims occasionally seem to foster ongoing animosity, if not a genuine hatred for anything “Christian” and organized religion in general). Just read through some of the comments on their sites if you don’t believe me.

At the other end, but not so “in your face,” are groups like The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Network, which highlights and champions bloggers who are “working together toward a shared goal of increasing awareness of [the] issue of spiritual abuse.” They aim to end religious abuse “not through vitriolic campaigns, or hate, but through thoughtful, honest communication. ”

Frankly, I tend to be suspicious of groups like this. Why? It’s not because I don’t believe spiritual abuse occurs or that the effects can be devestating. Please understand me here. Having been active in the Church for over thirty years, a staff pastor for eleven years, and publicly disciplined for “personality issues,” before watching our church disband, I think I have sufficient first-hand experience of the power plays and psychological manipulation that can occur in Christ’s Body. So why am I suspicious of the “spiritual abuse survivors” movement?

For one thing, I’ve read many of these “spiritual abuse survivors” blogs and often struggle to see the non-vitrioloc, non-hateful, “thoughtful, honest communication” they aspire to. Of course, any sampling of blogs / bloggers will render different findings and everyone is definitely at different places in their detox. Sometimes being mad as hell and saying so is good therapy! But reading some ex-Fundamentalist blogs you’d get the impression that ALL Fundamentalists are extremists and all ex-Fundamentalists never actually  get well.

Once again (and I dislike having to qualify everything, but it’s almost necessary when discussing this issue), I am not trying to minimize spiritual abuse or diminish the work of good people helping souls overcome trauma and get on the right path to God. I am questioning whether or not Fundamentalism is as widespread a threat as often portrayed, spiritual abuse is a label far too easily applied, and the “success rate” of such groups justifies their existence (a squishy measurement indeed).

Charles Clark, in his article Overemphasizing Spiritual Abuse? suggested that “…Fundamentalism is a vice from which we millennials are in very little danger.”

Sociological studies suggest that the real danger for millennials is not “spiritual indoctrination.” On the contrary, we are perhaps the least catechized, the most theologically and ethically illiterate generation ever. We are in less danger of being dominated than of being hopelessly (and even unconsciously) adrift. This unmoored way of living then, in turn, opens us up to all kinds of more subtle social control, though advertising and other consumerist cultural liturgies. This is not to say that fundamentalism is a preferable alternative to our present fecklessness, simply that of the two ways of straying from the Golden Mean, we seem much more prone to the latter but spend more time worrying about the former. 

Instead, Clark warns of something potentially more destructive than fundamentalism: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. MTD is a moralistic approach to life that embraces a generic view of God and Scripture (“all roads lead to God,” “good people go to heaven,” “Jesus was a great prophet like Buddha, Mohammed, etc.”), and teaches that living a good and happy life, and being a good, moral person, is central to life. MTD is a low commitment, minimal dogma, highly emotive mode of living.

Clark summarizes:

The blogosphere should be outraged by the accounts of spiritual abuse that brave survivors are bringing to light, and the church should make every effort to bring healing to these individuals. At the same time, we should not be distracted from the less overtly offensive, watered-down, undisciplined Christian derivatives, like the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that is rampant among millennials.

In other words, Millennials have more to fear than Fundamentalism, and are far more “victimized” by a screwy view of God, Scripture, the Church, and themselves, foisted upon them by secular culture and/or well-meaning believers.

Which brings me to my second point.

I wonder that the spiritual abuse survivor movement feeds into the victimhood culture that permeates the United States. Nowadays, we are conditioned to see ourselves as potential victims of numerous groups, races,  organizations, institutions, chemicals, climates, and people. It’s almost humorous the degree to which some will go to apply the label of “victim” to themselves, despite the harm it does to those who genuinely have been victimized. Nevertheless, I fear that some spiritual abuse survivors, rather than encouraging forgiveness, promote antipathy; rather than long-term spiritual and relational healing, condone a sort of perpetual state of victimhood; rather than build bridges back into the church, they pave the way for a justifiable exit.

Even worse, is when these help groups tap into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, framing Man in humanistic psychological terms rather than biblical terms, and portraying the path to healing as a path to a very wishy-washy, undemanding, un-Scriptural deity. After all, to assert any sort of dogma is a turn-off to the over-dogmatized.

Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Am I misreading this? Or do some ex-Fundamentalists over-emphasize spiritual abuse and potentially lead astray those they seek to help?

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Susan April 11, 2013, 9:57 AM

    I don’t think that perpetual victim-hood is good. I went through a whole bunch of acting out and being angry. I even discovered via my therapist that the pastor of the last church has a delusional personality disorder which was a whole lot of healing all in itself. But at some point my anger and disgruntlement just wasn’t worthwhile. It was time to move on. It wasn’t instant healing, and I still have some triggers that pop occasionally. But I work through it and then get on with my life. Once I got to a certain point, I no longer felt that some of the groups that I was hanging out in were helpful anymore, and I just stopped going there. The value of what I learned through the groups is helpful when other victims of religious abuse come to me for help. So, even that awful situation has been transformed in a way.

  • C.L. Dyck April 11, 2013, 10:28 AM

    Dave and I were involved as doctrinal commentators in the noise and mess surrounding a fringe preacher’s linkage to several child deaths a few years back. At issue was a book marketed to fundamentalist homeschoolers and teaching them to spank their children into total spiritual, moral, psychological and physical submission from the earliest infancy. It included instructions on how to spank them with plumbing hose so as not to leave surface bruises.

    More than a few children have been pulverized by parents who fell for the preacher’s theology that unsubmissive children were in irrevocable danger of eternal damnation. Some have been killed. The guy’s a loon–his theological background is that of a huckster, and he’s a practiced liar and manipulator.

    So, yes, it was definitely bad.

    But we soon saw the awareness movement devolve into a general witch-hunt against all spanking, with weird allegations of perversion and other strange psychological theories about the long-term effects on kids. The vitriol against religious homes in general just gushed.

  • Tim George April 11, 2013, 5:49 PM

    We live in the shadow of Pensacola Christian College along with its ABEKA Books empire and know many that have left that community. Just as with ex- Gothardites (count me in that number from years ago) there is a whole cottage industry of web sites and books offering help for those “abused” by the school. Some have made it their life long crusade to “expose” the legalism found there. But in the end, those seeking God’s direction tend to find their place in the Body of Christ in more settled spiritual settings. I tend to think the remaining crusades would be shaking their fists at something else if PCC was not such an easy target.

    • Heather Day Gilbert April 13, 2013, 7:50 AM

      Tim, I’m a Bob Jones grad, and there’s a huge Anti-Evangelical hate movement going on among those grads who…in my opinion, “fell off the wagon.” Something or someone confronted them, usually about rules they were breaking, and now they will never let it go.

      Usually the claim is MENTAL abuse. Come ON. From what I see, the mental mind-games are far more rampant among this group of haters. If you join them, then change your mind (when you see the hate spewing forth), they gang up on you and publicly belittle you. I think the REAL mind games/cult mentality is going on in this Anti-Evangelical group. “Truth” is only the “truths” they choose to highlight–and they’re SELDOM biblically based. Or if they do use verses, they’re taken out of context (then they say we take them out of context). If you follow any of their blogs, you realize they’re using every trick in the book–bandwagon, straw man, ad hominem–pretty much all the dirty attack styles.

      And Mike, I totally agree with the quote that it’s the most “theologically and ethically illiterate generation ever.” I could add something about “praise songs” versus hymns here…but I won’t. Hee.

      I’m glad you’re pointing this out. It might earn you a big target on your back. The funny thing is that this group accuses everyone else of hating, when in reality, they’re refusing to forgive and letting bitterness drive their lives (and when you say, “bitter,” WATCH OUT, because it’s like lighting a stick of dynamite). Ah, well…the truth is out there…

      • Tim George April 13, 2013, 11:45 AM

        Heather – there’s plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the goings at places like PCC. There are indeed ex-students who are haters leading me to wonder why they went there in the first place. And there are also those whose spiritual life was stunted by a system that thought for them rather than teaching them how to think for themselves.

        • Heather Day Gilbert April 13, 2013, 12:09 PM

          I don’t think any educational system worth its salt prohibits students from thinking for themselves. And I received an excellent education @ BJU. I went with the purpose of getting a great education, knowing there would be rules to follow (some of which I might not embrace…some of which I never agreed with, and some of which I understand MUCH better now that I have kids of my own). I think an education at one of these places better prepares you for thinking for yourself than perhaps some state colleges, which continue to shove all kinds of liberal teachings down your throat. Christians who take a stand seem to be a minority these days, so I support colleges that teach kids to think OUTSIDE the world’s standards.

  • Lyn Perry April 12, 2013, 3:36 AM

    I have a friend with a fundamentalist view of God/scripture who recently experienced a tragedy and in this person’s grief whipsawed between blaming self (for not living correctly and therefore God was punishing) and blaming God (because “I’ve left everything to follow you”). When a person like this finally loses faith in that kind of god, then I think it can result in the kind of hate machine mockery you’ve mentioned…as well as embracing MTD, as you put it. Seems about right.

  • Jon Mast April 12, 2013, 6:12 AM

    I very much agree that for most in our culture, the greater threat is the apathetic, vaguely moral god.

    Mike, have you heard of “Broken: 7 “Christian” Rules Every Christian Ought to Break as Often as Possible” by Jon Fisk? It talks a lot about this — I’m actually basing a sermon series off it this summer. We want to worship our own works, so we start worshiping a “moralistic” god. Or we worship our own feelings, so we worship a “mystic” god.

    Basically, what you wrote struck a cord, reminded me of the book, and the threats this world presents to my congregation with false gods.

  • Bob Avey April 13, 2013, 9:42 AM

    I admire you, Mike. Your intelligence, and your grasp of the subjects you blog about impress me, even intimidate me at times. But I feel I must comment this time. I don’t want to see a good man lose his faith.

    People will change, governments will change, the world will change. But God does not change. Jesus does not change. Trying to reinvent Christianity is a useless endeavor. We all need to get back to the basics and remember what Jesus said, “I am the way and the only way. No one can get to the Father except through me.”

  • D.M. Dutcher April 13, 2013, 6:51 PM

    The thing is, there really is a lot of abuse. There’s more of a focus of controlling from cradle to college, and that creates kids and young adults who will become ex-fundamentalists and violently so as a way to make their own identity. Homeschooling, purity balls, kissing dating goodbye, paranoia about worldly things and more make for kids who aren’t given the ability to make the faith their own instead of accepting it by parental fiat.

    I think there’s a danger where ex-fundamentalism snowballs into an identity rather than as a way to heal, and general Christian practices are lampooned as an overreaction to a hyper-pure environment. You have to make peace with your past, and perpetual snark never really heals a person. But we kind of need to clean up our act some, and loosen a fist tightly clenched out of fear.

  • Morgan L. Busse April 15, 2013, 8:26 AM

    I once wrote a post where I talked about when we are wounded by the church or other Christians. I called that hurt “bullet wounds”. There are 3 ways to handle bullet wounds: hide them, display them, or get the bullet out.

    Some people when hurt by the church or Christians hide their hurt. It’s like pulling a shirt over the wound, hoping no one will see it; that the wound will go away on its own if left alone. The problem is the bullet is still in there, festering.

    Then there are those people who go around, lifting their shirt up, pointing at the wound, and yelling, “I’ve been shot! Look!” Yes, bullet wounds hurt. But running around showing people your hurt doesn’t heal it. The bullet is still there, for everyone to see. I see many ex-fundamentalists in this group. They never removed the bullet.

    The third option I shared is letting God remove the bullet. Surgery is painful. Allowing God to remove the bullet is going to hurt! But once the bullet is gone, healing can happen. There is no longer a chance for a bitter infection. Yes, there might be a scar, but a scalpel scar is much cleaner and smaller than a scar left by an infected wound.

    • Heather Day Gilbert April 15, 2013, 8:28 AM

      Morgan, this is BY FAR the best analogy I’ve ever heard on this subject. Do you have a link to your post? I’d love to share it.

  • Morgan L. Busse April 15, 2013, 8:37 AM

    I do, Heather 🙂 Here you go:


  • VC September 15, 2013, 4:30 AM

    Do ex-fundamentalists over emphasize abuse? As a spouse of a fundamentalist considering divorce… I don’t know about the physical but I know about the emotional. Tired and worn down from not been good enough. But I think it will be the bullet I will have to remove. At this point. I NEVER want to see the inside of a church again. I never want to speak with a stepford church lady again that can give me advice on how to submit. So today I can tell you no it’s no over emphasized.

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