I read with interest a post in Relevant magazine that made the rounds yesterday. What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Been Hurt By the Church covers what the author suggests are “6 misguided responses to spiritual abuse.” Jonathan Hollingsworth admits to having suffered spiritual abuse. As a result, he’s seen victims addressed in awkward and inappropriate fashion. Interestingly enough, as I read his list of things NOT to say to someone who has been hurt by the Church, I found myself hedging.
It took me a while to admit I was a victim — and a perpetrator — of spiritual abuse. The story is long, with lots of twists, turns, and technicalities. But, in a nutshell, after 10 years in the ministry, I was publicly disciplined for the sin of pride, stripped of my title, given a cut in pay, and removed from the pulpit. Within a year of that unfortunate experience, our church fractured and disbanded. It sent members hurtling in different directions, some angry and bitter, others lost and confused. It didn’t take me long to realize that I’d been in a spiritually abusive relationship. That realization was slow and very painful. Returning to the Church was difficult.
Along the way, I’ve encountered many Christians who have been hurt by the Church. But unlike me, they have become entrenched in their grievances and embraced the narrative that so many other “leavers” have — “It’s the Church, stupid!” Frankly, I tend to see articles like Hollingsworth’s as potentially reinforcing attitudes and beliefs that could discourage, rather than promote, healing. At the least, they do not provide a clear pathway to recovery but potentially offer the victim a license to keep their distance.
So let me offer six alternative responses, first quoting from Hollingsworth’s article, followed by my own thoughts.
1. “No Church Is Perfect” — 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.
Ignoring the Church’s flaws by concentrating on her accomplishments is misguided. However, learning to admit that the Church IS flawed is an important part of recovering from the scars of spiritual abuse. Because the Church is comprised of sinful people, it is inevitable that members will be hurt, offended, and let down by others. Sometimes it is our trust in people that actually leads to our own hurt. This is not to say we should distrust fellow believers. Nor is this to dismiss incidents of genuine abuse. But our ultimate trust and focus should be upon God, not a pastor, a church, or other Christians. When we expect people (see: Church) to act perfectly or always meet our expectations, we are in danger of disappointment. No, the Church isn’t perfect. And with humans in it, it will never be.
2. “Are You Working Toward Reconciliation?” — 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.”
The burden of reconciliation is not solely on the victim. But this doesn’t mean they are not obligated to pursue it. In fact, Scripture sometimes places the burden of reconciliation on the offended. Like Matthew 18:15: “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back” (NLT). Yes, in some situations it would be inappropriate (and probably futile) for a victim to attempt to initiate reconciliation with an abuser. Nevertheless, the victim most definitely bears some responsibility to work toward reconciliation. Furthermore, the Bible is clear about the danger of harboring unforgiveness. The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18: 21-35) even likens unforgiveness to a type of “torture” (vs. 34). Reconciliation does not necessarily mean a victim’s grievances will be fully acknowledged, addressed, or recompensed. Like forgiveness, it is the pursuit of reconciliation that often keeps hurt from festering. We cannot demand that every relationship be reconciled. But we can live in freedom knowing that we’re not holding someone (even a guilty party) hostage to our hurt.
3. “I Don’t Want to Gossip” — As Christians, if we’re going to start taking spiritual abuse seriously, we need to stop comparing it to gossip.
It is totally appropriate for a victim of spiritual abuse to confide in others. Indeed, part of the dynamic of spiritual abuse is the climate of secrecy that is often cultivated by perpetrators. Gossip played a huge part in the disbanding of my old church. But knowing where “legitimate concerns” ended and “gossip” began was not always easy to determine. Frankly, what some people called “legitimate concerns” was gossip, and what some called “gossip” was really “legitimate concerns.” Either way, allegations of sin and spiritual abuse are very serious. They can destroy a church and a person’s reputation. Which is probably why Jesus framed the process of accusation as a series of confrontations that progressively involve the entire church (Matt. 18:15-17). Hollingsworth is right that stigmatizing a potential victim with the charge of gossip is wrong. However, the Bible DOES condemn gossip and false witness, so we must be cautious when a charge or insinuation of spiritual abuse is made. This requires discernment and tact. Sometimes it may be appropriate to hear out a plaintive and help them resolve the issue personally. Other times, it may be appropriate to expand the circle of confidences and/or address the possible abuser. And other times, it may be totally appropriate to consider whether or not entertaining the charges are actually gossip.
4. “What are Non-Believers Going to Think?” — If you’re more concerned about the church’s reputation than you are about the abuse itself, you might have your priorities mixed up.
The writers of the New Testament seemed pretty concerned about the Church’s witness to the world. The apostle Paul exhorted the Corinthian Christians to purge immorality from their ranks as part of their witness to outsiders (I Cor. 5:12-13). In other words, the Church’s reputation was at stake. Paul mentions “outsiders” again in chapter 14 of the same book, this time regarding corporate worship and its witness to non-Christians (I Cor. 14: 23-25). Individually, Christians are to act in such a way as to “win the respect of outsiders” (I Thess. 4:12). If the Church is comprised of individuals, then those individuals play a part in how outsiders form their opinions about the Church. There are many other verses. Of course, if charges of spiritual abuse are deflected or downplayed because it might damage a church’s reputation, this is wrong. Sadly, some churches have insulated themselves against such charges with institutional barriers. However, the person who has been hurt by a Church must remember that — unless they have defected from the faith — they are still a part of the Body. Their witness to outsiders IS still important. Portraying the Church as an abusive place, whether intentionally or unintentionally, can seriously influence an outsider’s opinion and potentially implicate the Church at large. If abuse has genuinely occurred in a church, the church’s reputation should not be of first concern. However, being unconcerned about the Church’s reputation to outsiders could be equally damaging.
5. “Stop Being so Bitter.” — 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.”
Bitterness is a very real danger for victims of spiritual abuse. In my encounters, this is the most common and the most crippling issue for victims. I have spoken to individuals who underwent the disbanding of our church and, years after the event, they still distrust spiritual leaders, are angry with God, and aren’t in fellowship. Some have even fallen away. Hurt doesn’t have to lead to bitterness. We can perpetuate a person’s hurt by diminishing their role in seeking healing. Part of that responsibility is to not allow legitimate hurt to become bitterness. Part of the danger of harboring bitterness is the effect it can have on others. The writer of Hebrews said, “Pursue peace with all men… See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled” (Heb. 12:14-15 NIV). Bitterness, like cancer, spreads. If victims are told they are in the wrong simply as a way of “letting the abuser off the hook,” then this is obviously wrong. Underemphasizing or ignoring a victim’s role in healing — to forgive, let go of their anger, and move on — is equally problematic.
6. “Is This Worth Dividing the Church Over?” — 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.
If genuine spiritual abuse has occurred, division is perhaps necessary. Again, sin should never be hidden simply to protect an individual or an organization. The difficult thing is accurately discerning the nature and severity of the charges. Not all “hurt” is worth dividing a church over. Sometimes it may be totally appropriate to keep something confidential or simply leave a church without making charges. It just depends. If the hurt levied is severe enough and/or involves a leader in authority, a public hearing may be necessary. Scripture allows for such processes. It does not portray spiritual leaders as above rebuke or correction. The Apostle Paul touched on this process: “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses” (I Tim. 5:19). Yes, there are situations when entire leadership bodies are corrupt. Nevertheless, when genuine abuse has occurred in a church, the biblical means of address is to speak to the offender, and if no headway is made, bring witnesses. Sure, if the charges are serious it could eventually split the church. Which might be needed.
I confess to being somewhat skeptical of the numerous claims currently being made against the Church. After the public humiliation and fallout from the collapse of our church, I could have easily bailed on the Church. As much as anyone, I had dirt on God’s Bride. But I realized that pursuing healing was my responsibility, and no one else’s. About a month after the church’s disbanding, I did one of the hardest things I had to do. I spoke to the pastor who had publicly disciplined me and admitted that I felt manipulated and wrongly judged. I forgive him, even though he felt he’d done nothing wrong. We probably still see things differently. But I was determined to not be held hostage to hurt. Which is why this subject is so close to my heart. And why I fear so many of these discussions unintentionally keep people from finding grace and healing.