Spiritual Abuse and Linking Other Abuses


When you delve into any one form of abuse, you quickly find that there is relationship with other abuses–physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, and spiritual. Where you find at least one of them on the surface, you often find all the rest of them lurking nearby. This article looks at how spiritual abuse specifically ties in with some of these other forms of abuse, and why.

We normally think of spiritual abuse as inflicted by ministry leaders in a church setting or in parachurch groups, where someone is believed to hold a special role in connecting people with God. Because this role of leadership deals with wielding power, authority, and responsibility over others ‘in the name of God,’ it can also be found in the home.


Getting to the Roots of the Spiritual Abuse Issue

In contexts where patriarchy is valued or where certain aberrant teachings abound, spiritual abuse is evident.*

When a culture puts greater value on males, as being:
Central, Superior, and Deserving,

the converse is that females are of lesser value in that society:
Peripheral, Inferior, and Servants.

*For information on the Christian Patriarchy Movement, see the article entitled: “Spiritual Abuse and Patriarchy” [soon to be posted ] on this website.

In patriarchy, men are viewed as divinely mandated or authorized to hold power over women and children. So, a misuse of position in this case is actually spiritual abuse. This kind of bullying with hiding behind spiritual authority can occur in homes, churches, and ministries–wherever God is brought into the picture (rightly or wrongly) as the source of the leadership authority. Thus, to go against the man in authority is to go against God Himself.

So, what happens when the ‘man of the house’ yells at his wife and children? Or when he hits his wife, whether behind closed doors or in front of their children? Does she deserve such verbal or physical reprimand and subjugation for serving imperfectly? Does he deserve to do such things, because he is a man? Are children traumatized by these actions? Or do these violent scenes merely serve as life lessons for how boys should treat women and children when they grow up and how girls must learn to silently suffer through such hardship?

The root issues to violence and its cover-up are often based on a faulty view of males and females and their place in society. What people believe about the place of males and females in society is crucial. What people believe directs how they will actually live. Entrenched belief systems are hard to dismantle.

A clear interpretation of the New Testament points to the fact that in the Kingdom of God, the equal value of men and women is a valid biblical view regarding gender. However, one emerging problem in North America is that patriarchal, authoritarian church leaders are demonstrating deficiencies in theology–and not just by their placing less value on women and children.

In particular, they do not understand the overlaps between sins and crimes, they hold a skewed view of the relationship between Church and culture, and they end up misusing their own power to cover up crime and in the process they abuse others–typically, women and children.

To get a bit more specific, certain sins are also actually crimes. (As we’ll explore shortly, these include physical abuse, sexual abuse, and other forms of violence.) But these leaders suggest the church is not of the world and, therefore, is biblically required to deal with sins inside the church, just as the man is in charge of dealing with issues in the home.

Therefore, these church leaders do not involve civil authorities immediately as they ethically (and legally) should. Instead, they try to resolve situations between perpetrators of crimes and their victims strictly through supposedly biblical means, leaving out the very system of criminal justice and consequences of the country in which they live.

Ultimately, they falsely justify the negation of some scriptural commands about obedience to civil authorities in order to fulfill others. And the victims in such cases usually end up further traumatized by these theologically mangled efforts at forgiveness and reconciliation.

Presumed authority over sins does not give church or ministry leaders a ‘pass’ on their obligations as citizens. Therefore, what are the civic responsibilities and legal requirements when we know or suspect that criminal acts occur? And, what are the spiritual responsibilities of leaders to the victims and perpetrators–without bypassing the laws of the land that we are biblically bound to obey?


The Issue of Reporting Abuse

When it comes to sexual assaults, child sexual abuse, child abuse/neglect, and domestic violence, these are crimes that must be reported. Failing to do so goes against the law and brings further anguish to those harmed.

When it comes to sexual abuse and domestic violence, there seems to be a problem in understanding: What exactly is a crime that needs to be reported to the police?

When people, especially Christians, can comprehend the crime factor and the need to take appropriate action in reporting crimes, then the keeping it ‘in house’ and dealing with individuals through the church, as a tradition of the past, can stop. There is a better chance of helping the victims and seeing that justice is served when a violation of the law committed against an individual is reported without delay.


1.  Understand first that crimes need to be reported to the police–and in fact, legally MUST be reported to officers of the law.

2.  Report the situation to the police and allow them to do their job and put their investigative skills to work.

3.  After this, then the church could be part of the aid provided to the victim, to his or her family, and to the perpetrator.

4.  If church ministers are ill-equipped to help the victim, the family, and the perpetrator–which is often the case–then they need to involve professional counselors.

5.  The church can be a support with ongoing resources and church community care after the police and professional counselors have been involved.

6.  Failure, neglect, or delay in carrying out ANY of these actions not only inflicts further damage on victims and their family, it also actually gives perpetrators the opportunity of a ‘silent mandate’ to re-victimize those they have already harmed, or to move on to victimizing others.

The urgency to understand the scope of our responsibilities to report gets amplified when we grasp how widespread these various criminal actions are. Sexual abuse and violence are ‘hidden’ in the shadows all around us. Will we be sources of light for those harmed in the dark? Or will we be complicit with the Kingdom of Darkness through our silence, excuses, and/or negligence?

*S t a t i s t i c s*

Statistics Regarding Sexual Violence

*  Every 2 minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. In their lifetime, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be a victim of sexual assault.

*  College-age women are 4 times more likely to be sexually assaulted.

*  60% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.

*  Approximately 73% of rape victims know their assailants.

*  Only 6% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail.

Source:  RAINN


Statistics Regarding Child Sexual Abuse

*  90% of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator in some way; 68% are abused by family members.

*  A report of child abuse is made every ten seconds.

*  Child abuse occurs at every socio-economic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education.

*  About 30% of abused and neglected children will later abuse their ownchildren, continuing the horrible cycle of abuse.

Source:  Childhelp

Statistics Regarding Domestic Violence

*  One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.

* An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.

*  85% of domestic violence victims are women.

*  Females who are 20-24 years of age are at the greatest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence.

*  Most cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police.

*  Witnessing violence between one’s parents or caretakers is the strongest risk factor of transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next.

*  Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.

*  30% to 60% of perpetrators of intimate partner violence also abuse children in the household.

Source:  National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Fact Sheet

Sexual Abuse, Power, and Effects

*  Sexual abuse is much more about power than it is about sexual attraction.

*  Most sexual deviancy is about power.

*  There are long term effects on individuals and families.

*  “It is important to know that the serious effects of any sexual molestation at any age are devastating to the victim and their family for many years. It doesn’t just “go away” after forgiving the person!” Mother of a Victim


*R e s p o n s e s and R e s p o n s i b i l i t i e s*

Some Questions That Arise

*  What is the proper protocol for pastors when they find out or suspect someone has been abused physically or sexually?

*  What should church members do when they know someone has been abused and nothing has been done to help the victim?

*  Do other churches in their area provide counseling–after church leaders become aware of the abuse in their fellowship?


When Churches Fail  . . .  

*  When churches fail to take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of children under its care, then that provides a place for predators to operate.

*  When churches fail to adopt any processes or policies to deal with sexual predation and fail to train workers in direct control over children, then they have failed to protect children and their families from life-changing crimes.

*  When churches put their reputation and their financial status above the protection of children, the mentally challenged, or anyone who is vulnerable for any reason in their church family, then they are grieving God’s heart, putting individuals at risk, and harming the witness of Christ in that community.

*  Justice is not served and individuals are again harshly victimized when churches fail to report known incidences of sexual predation to law enforcement, encourage parents to refrain from reporting the assaults to law enforcement, and/or interpose themselves between the parents of the victims and law enforcement in order to mislead law enforcement into believing parents have ‘forgiven’ those who prey on their children.

*  When victims are silenced and churches fail to report abuse and act wisely, then it creates a culture in which sexual predators are protected from accountability.

*  Who are churches trying to protect and why?

People are not willing anymore to tolerate the fact that leaders overlook or cover up sex abuse. Pastors and church leaders must take note.

Sexual deviance and domestic violence are already far reaching. When uneducated and/or misguided people try to ‘cover’ it up, it only gets worse.


Clergy Sexual Abuse Compounded by Clergy Spiritual Abuse

One way that things get even worse is when sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone who holds a leadership role in a church or ministry. The covert action of clergy to abuse their ecclesiastical power and violate a congregant sexually rightly shatters trust in them–and understandably can shatter the victims’ trust in any clergy. Clergy sexual abuse is thus a double wound of crime and sin against an unsuspecting child of God.

On top of this horrific behavior of a church leader, other church leaders often take the position that this episode needs to be dealt with ‘in house’ and covered up. But, what church or denominational overseers seem to forget, is that when they victimize and/or cover up, they are failing in their role as shepherds over God’s flock. They are using their power to their own advantage and to the detriment of those they were charged to serve–not given permission to subjugate.


Pastoral Training with Gaps

The consequences of churches poorly handling abuse issues is that the cover-up is worse than what would have been if it had been handled properly in the first place. When those who are responsible do not appropriately handle sex abuse and ignore the victim, the victim is re-victimized. The victim first experiences sexual abuse by the perpetrator and then spiritual abuse by the pastor, other church leaders, and even denominational leaders. This is both crime and sin; it must be stopped!

In fact, in many places, failure of clergy to report child abuse and neglect, when it comes to their knowledge of it in their church community, can have grave repercussions. Clergy can be charged with a crime for their failure to report. Also, we are beginning to see an emerging trend where they may face civil lawsuits for neglecting their legal obligations by remaining silent, for their ‘pastoral malfeasance’ in failures to provide constructive care for victims and families, and/or for their outright destructive treatment of victims and their families. But here again, bad theology compounds the problems.

What helps to create a situation where pastoral leaders and/or denominational leaders prefer to cover up accounts that come to their attention rather than expose them? The answer could be that twisted teachings about sin and the role of the pastor are what have led to situations where these sorts of crimes seem to be minimized and perpetrators are quickly restored to good standing within congregations. Poor handling of such matters in the church create unsafe places for congregants.

There are plenty of printed and personal resources available for situations of sexual abuse, child sexual abuse, and domestic violence. The time for congregational ineffectiveness in these crucial areas is now past. It is important to be a resource for hurting souls and for their abusers.

Church leaders need to know who has the skills needed to help, have a list of resources available, and then use them as needed. For instance, in most communities, both Christian and secular experts or agencies can be engaged when dealing with issues beyond the training and skill set of the pastor and other church officials.

But it takes commitment to a healthy environment, with no power games, for churches to lead the way in helping those in need. And we must work to lead the wave of help and healing, rather than play catch-up or else be rebuked for our dismal approach in these areas.

But how do we do that? How do we create the commitment and momentum to be a force for good in these issues of sin/crime?


Change Begins When Faulty Belief Systems Are Changed

The FaithTrust Institute has developed their guiding principles. These include: What We Believe. These sentiments provide a worthy guide for anyone.

The following are The FaithTrust Institute’s five principles:

1.  We believe that our religious values of justice and the equality of persons summon us to affirm the dignity and worth of every human being and to affirm the right of each person to live without fear and threat of violence.

2.  We believe that the teachings of our religious traditions have been a source of pain and confusion as well as a source of strength and healing for those facing sexual and domestic violence.

3.  We believe that the teachings of our religious traditions obligate us to work towards an end to sexual and domestic violence in our individual communities and in society at large.

4.  We believe that it is possible to transform individuals, families, communities and institutions through education and the power of our faith traditions.

5.  We believe that the voices of survivors of sexual and domestic violence are a primary source of knowledge and direction for our work.



Knowing the statistics and knowing what to do as individuals in our society and as church fellowships is important in raising awareness about horrific social issues of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and dealing with them in a suitable way.

You can be part of the solution!

* * * * *

Websites Resources

Over time, the internet has proven extremely helpful in providing information and resources suitable for this need.

The following are a sample of websites that can be accessed.

*Abuse Resource Network

• The Abuse Resource Network strives to raise awareness about abuse and help to motivate and train the church to respond to abuse in a biblical way.

• The Abuse Resource Network has been formed to provide a comprehensive hub of information with resources to help people find answers to questions about their own abuse and to help church leaders, workers, and counselors to find and share resources–in order to help people to properly grieve, to come to terms with what happened, to progress towards healing, and to help to find closure.

• The Abuse Resource Network has also been designed to provide interactive resources for support and healing.

 ~ ~ ~

*Faith Trust Institute

FaithTrust Institute is a national, multifaith, multicultural training and education organization with global reach working to end sexual and domestic violence.

Founded in 1977, the FaithTrust Institute offers a wide range of services and resources, including training, consulting and educational materials.

We provide communities and advocates with the tools and knowledge they need to address the religious and cultural issues related to abuse. We work with many communities, including Asian and Pacific Islander, Buddhist, Jewish, Latino/a, Muslim, Black, Anglo, Indigenous, Protestant and Roman Catholic.

 ~ ~ ~

*Christians for Biblical Equality

Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) is a non-profit organization of Christian men and women who believe that the Bible, properly interpreted, teaches the fundamental equality of men and women of all ethnic groups, all economic classes, and all age groups, based on the teachings of Scriptures such as Galatians 3:28:

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

 ~ ~ ~

*PASCH Peace and Safety in the Christian Home

Peace and Safety in the Christian Home (PASCH) is a loose coalition of academics, professionals, clergy and lay people who are alarmed by domestic violence in the Christian home and are interested in solving the problem of abuse in the Christian home. Our goal is to increase peace and safety in the Christian home, and in the world it serves, by addressing and decreasing all forms of abuse.

~ ~ ~

*RAVE Religion and Violence e-Learning

The RAVE Mission Statement:

“There is no place like home; when abuse strikes, there is no home.”

RAVE seeks to enable religious leaders to respond to domestic violence in ways that are compassionate, practical, and informed by the latest research and best practices for professionals;

RAVE seeks to enable religious leaders to respond to domestic violence in ways that are compassionate, practical, and informed by the latest research and best practices for professionals;

RAVE seeks to walk alongside victims and survivors on their journeys toward healing and wholeness;

RAVE seeks to forge pathways between the Steeple and the Shelter;

RAVE seeks to hold abusers accountable for their actions, while offering hope for a transformed life.

 ~ ~ ~

*Speaking Truth in Love Ministries


Speaking Truth in Love Ministries addresses the difficult issues of Sexual Abuse and Domestic Violence within the Body of Christ.

 ~ ~ ~

*The Hope of Survivors


The Hope of Survivors provides support, hope, and healing for victims of pastoral sexual abuse.

 ~ ~ ~

*A Cry for Justice


Awakening the Evangelical Church to domestic violence and abuse in its midst.

~ ~ ~

*SNAP—Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests


We are SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.  We are the largest, oldest and most active support group for women and men wounded by religious authority figures (priests, ministers, bishops, deacons, nuns and others). We are an independent and confidential organization, with no connections with the church or church officials.


* * * * *


For Further Reflection

“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

                                                                                               Isaiah 1:17

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say:  Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
                                                                                         Isaiah 58:6-12

* * * * *

© 2012 Barb Orlowski, D.Min. and Brad Sargent

Spiritual Abuse and the Book of Galatians




Reflections on How Paul Confronted a Corruption of the True Gospel Among the Churches in Galatia

The Contaminating Power of a Corruption of the True Gospel 


Galatians is one of my favorite books of the New Testament. Paul’s writing is straightforward and precise. Although Galatians initially appears to deal with legalism, Paul is actually zeroing in on the fundamental error of an altered Gospel. There are things to be learned from this New Testament book regarding deviant theologies and questionable practices–that are based on a faulty foundation, rather than the true Gospel of Christ.

Paul takes aim and fires at the defective belief system that was gaining ground in the churches in the region of Galatia. Paul was perplexed and grieved by what he labeled as: ‘a different Gospel.’ What may initially look like a works-based legalism that was filtering into the churches, it was more complex than that. What was rearing its head in this region of the early Church was not so much the need to confront aberrant teachings—that is, deviations from what was orthodox and acceptable, but an altered Gospel altogether. This current persuasion was a syncretized belief system of mingled Jewish traditions with the new Christian faith. As Paul strongly argues, this combination belief turned out to be no Gospel at all! Though it promised salvation—it really couldn’t deliver.

Therefore, though Galatians initially looks like it is dealing with legalism in the Christian churches there, what Paul was correcting was a far deeper problem—an entirely erroneous belief that was fraught with the potential to undermine the true Gospel of Christ. Once the reader of the Book of Galatians grasps what the main issue at stake was, then this book will hold a far richer understanding. From that key perspective, the idea of church leaders ‘changing’ Christian beliefs today, by adding or subtracting from the true Gospel message, can be followed with interest. The need is to question if there is anything that would lead a follower of Christ away from sole reliance on him as Savior and Lord. This would gauge if a belief system is sub-Christian and, therefore, would need to be condemned.

 As a researcher on the topic of spiritual abuse, I have been exposed to many painful stories from Christians who got caught up in following a recast version of the truth of the Gospel. They became prime candidates for spiritual abuse. So many believers have been stifled in their Christian walk by what they had been taught or not taught in their former churches. Many have been spiritually undernourished in understanding the whole Gospel message. Christians, who had blindly followed what their leaders had taught them, without personal examination, later found out that they were beguiled and that they did not get the ‘full meal deal.’ Spiritual abuse had taken its toll.

Paul didn’t waste any time getting to the point in his Galatian epistle. It was one of his earliest letters to the growing Christian communities. In stark contrast to the Gospel that Paul preached, zealous Judaizing Christians held that the ceremonial practices of the Old Testament were still valid and that any deviation from this accepted tradition must be examined and then jettisoned. It was apparent to them that the Old Testament religious practices were still binding on Gentile Christians. Paul vigorously challenged that assumption. Urgency was paramount. A Gospel founded on grace, mingled with Old Testament Law, was no Gospel at all.

In Paul’s absence, these Judaizers claimed that Paul was not a ‘real apostle’ and that he was watering down the real message so that it would have appeal for the Gentiles. Paul also responds to this further challenge in his letter.

Grasping the message that the Apostle Paul plainly articulated in the Book of Galatians can set believers in Christ free to serve him more passionately–because they are no longer weighed down or enslaved to a flawed model of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

Though the apparent foundation of the Gospel may remain intact among diverse groups today, the additions to this Gospel–the keeping of endless rules, whether spoken or unspoken rules–creates a church culture that is weak and dependent. Those in modern church cultures, who hold to an elaborate or a more simplistic form of legalism, can run the risk of spiritual fatigue among those who adhere to its various forms. The book entitled: Tired of Trying to Measure Up encapsulates the weariness factor among so many of God’s people today.

 People, who value Paul’s exhortations to the believers in the churches in Galatia, are intentional about living up to their full potential in Christ by walking in the liberty they have received through him. For those who have rested from their own labors and who have fully put their trust in the finished work of Christ–are those who follow the Gospel that Paul preached and modeled–and no other!

Gleanings from Galatians

In Paul’s introduction, he identifies that he is not alone in sending greetings, since his letter includes “all the brothers with me.” Though Paul had apostolic authority to address issues in the various churches and could speak as an apostle, leader, and evangelist to these Gentiles, Christian community was also represented by this letter. 

This letter was not addressed to a single church community, but to all the churches located in Galatia. This was a far wider reach than many of his other letters. Galatia was in Asia Minor, also called Anatolia. We know it today as the Republic of Turkey.

Paul acknowledged Christ’s substitutionary death in order ‘to rescue’—this rescue was inclusive of all believers, from ‘the present evil age,’ in the here and now (1:3). Paul makes it clear that he is astonished about two main things in their reworked Christian belief system: 1. Their desertion from the One who had called them and 2. They were turning to a different Gospel. The end result of these two actions he distinctly names as: “Confusion and Perversion” of the Gospel. Paul’s precise assessment of their corporate belief system now pointed to the fact that they were teetering on the verge of heresy, or perhaps, they were already there![1]

Paul uses strong words to arrest their attention. Essentially, Paul affirms that any other Gospel was not only worthless, but the one preaching it was to be considered “eternally condemned.” The apostle verifies that he was not a man-pleaser since, if that were the case, then he would not be pleasing Christ or serving him with undivided motives.

Paul challenges these Christians with this sentiment: “Get a grip here, guys, you know that the Gospel that I preached is NOT something that man made up!” If Paul could be maligned in his presentation of the Gospel, his authenticity and motives could also be questioned. This apostle was put in a position to both defend the Gospel and himself for preaching the Gospel–exactly how God intended it to be proclaimed.

Serious things were on the line here. Paul declared that his understanding of the truth of God’s message was based on the fact that he received it by revelation from Christ and not from man. He backs up this contention by giving a brief look back at his own life before his encounter with the Risen Christ. Since Paul, formerly Saul, was a poster child for Pharisaic Judaism, it was appropriate that he factually declare how this change in traditional Jewish belief unfolded for him. Yahweh’s intervention in his life made all the difference to his understanding of redemption and how to walk that out in his daily life.

Paul’s quest for understanding this revelation took a turn toward the desert of Arabia to ponder his traditional beliefs, in light of Christ’s direct appearance to him. He, like the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, could ponder “all that had happened recently in Jerusalem.” Later, Paul returned to Damascus. A period of three years passed before he made contact with early Church leaders in Jerusalem. At this time, he got acquainted with Peter and also with James, but apparently he did not visit with any of the other apostles. Paul carefully recounts these events in his life for the Galatian Christians–to verify that he was on track.

Paul established that:

1. He was called by God—that is, through the direct presence of the long-awaited Messiah–the Resurrected Christ.

2. That he shared with the Apostles the very Gospel message that he was preaching to the Gentiles.

3. That he and his message were accepted by the Apostles in Jerusalem without any reservations.

4. Furthermore, though he took Titus along, Titus was not compelled by anyone there to be circumcised, even though he was Greek.

Interestingly, Paul refers to “some false brothers” who had “infiltrated” with a goal to spy on their freedom in Christ and to make them slaves. Even though difficult and with extreme pressure from those determined ‘to keep things orthodox’ brigade, they did not succumb to their tactics. 

This former persecutor of the Church was now recognized as the very one who was “entrusted by God with the task of preaching to the Gentiles, as Peter to the Jews.” Not only was Paul called to preach to the Gentiles, he was given the message by the special revelation of Christ, himself. All in all, it was evident that God was at work in both Peter and Paul’s lives and ministries. Paul and Barnabas were welcomed by the pillars of the Church, James, Peter, and John, since they all recognized the grace given to Paul. With Paul’s affirmation documented by the leaders in the early Church now in place, he tells a story—it is about a major encounter with the Apostle Peter. This encounter took place around the time that Peter came from Antioch. Paul found himself opposing Peter, a fellow apostle, with much intensity. 

In Galatians 2:11-21, we read this stirring account of this event. 

“1 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” 

How to deal with a crucial theological issue with a fellow apostle in the early Church was modeled by the Apostle Paul. When it came to the critical issue of the basics of the Gospel, Paul took action. The beliefs and practices of both leaders were brought forward publicly. Paul respectfully, but directly, challenged Peter’s recent behavior. Paul’s course of action was not only demonstrated between them, but was also presented before the Christian community for their consideration, examination, and affirmation. 

One element was the fact that believing in the grace of God for one’s eternal salvation was just “too good to be true”! The beliefs of Judaism had portrayed a religious lifestyle in order to obey Yahweh and to be a nation set apart in the pagan cultures of the Middle East. So, although many individuals and families, in a multitude of people groups were now turning to Christ, those who had a Judaizing belief system had evident struggles with how to synthesize faith in Christ with the faith of Abraham and Moses. They were assuming that the Gentiles who believed in Christ alone had an inferior faith and that they, of course, had gotten it right. These Judaisers were endeavouring to persuade those listening to them that in order to be acceptable Christians that it was necessary to be circumcised and to observe the Law of Moses

The strength of their long tradition and that which was culturally comfortable to them put a strain on accepting the Gospel message as it had been declared–without adding any of the richness of their cultural heritage to it. These Judaizing Christians influenced the Gentile believers who had come to Christ through Paul’s evangelism there. Although the intention to follow along with this persuasion of their Jewish brothers seemed orthodox, the Galatians were unaware that this synthesized belief was not only completely erroneous, but that it was harmful to everyone’s spiritual life. It was not the essence of the true Gospel. The corporate impact of the Gospel of Christ on the pagan culture, as the united people of God, was now in jeopardy. 

In Chapter 3, Paul rigorously challenges the main elements of this belief structure that was unfolding there. He is direct in his choice of words: “You foolish Galatians!” They had not discerned that what they had confidently believed in, in light of the true Gospel, had fooled them—they were captivatedby it and now they were captive to it

Paul exhorts them by reminding that: “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse!” Simply put, if their trust was in the law, then their belief was not based on faith.

 On the contrary, the facts of the ‘real Gospel’ include: 

1. Christ redeemed his people from the curse of the Law.

2. Christ redeemed his people in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ. 

3. By faith, believers must receive the promise of the Spirit.

It is either one or the other. If the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on promise. Bottom line was that God, in his grace, gave it to Abraham through Promise. Therefore, the purpose of the law, according to Paul, was to lead people to Christ—to be justified by faith. This meant that since faith had come, then there was no longer any reason to remain under the supervision of the law for their salvation! Yet, the law was still in effect for right living and ethical principles.

Paul’s key points to the Christian believers in Galatia were:

  • You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. (3:26)
  • For all of you who were baptized into Christ have ‘clothed’ yourselves with Christ. (3:27)
  • There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female   =  All ONE in Christ Jesus. (3:28)
  • If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the Promise.

The underlying question was: were they still, only children–which equaled being a slave, even though the child technically owned the whole estate? Paul was trying to get through to these early Church believers that YES, they now had the full rights of sons! The rights of sons included intimacy with the Father.

Paul reminds them that because they were sons, God sent the Spirit of His Son into their hearts, and they could express that relationship by saying: “Abba Father.” Not only did they know God, but they were known by God.

Paul rehearsed to them the realities of their new status with Yahweh:

1. You are no longer a slave, but a SON.

2. Since you ARE a SON, God has made you an HEIR. 

What was perplexing to Paul, and maybe to anyone else, who reads this letter, was: Why did they wish to be enslaved—all over again?? As a parent, longing for more for their children caught in a dilemma, we hear Paul emphatically groaning within: “Why? Why? Why?!”

Again, as a brother to his dear brothers, he entreats them by stating:

“I plead with you brothers . . .” and “What has happened to all your joy?” The motives of those who were zealous to win them over and to alienate them from Paul and others in the community needed to be examined. Although it is not wrong to be zealous about a good thing, it is dangerous to be zealous about things which add to or detract from true and wholesome Christian beliefs and practices.

In the first verse of chapter five, Paul heralds the truth of the ‘true Gospel’:

“It is for freedom that Christ has set you free!”

He urged them to take some action for themselves:

a)  To stand firm         and

b)  To not allow religious slavery to subtly take them over ever again!

Paul also exhorted them that there is offense to the preaching of the true Gospel (5:11). If Paul avoided offending people, he would definitely not be representing the Gospel which included the message of the cross. He summarizes two related thoughts: Brothers, you have been called to be freeand your freedom is an opportunity to serve one another (not to indulge in the sinful nature). In fact, the law can be summed up by stating: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (5:14). 

In conclusion, Paul reveals the motives of those who were trying to dictate to them how they should live. These people were really trying to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ! 

**The whole point of our Christian life is not that we ‘camp around’ the fact that we know that we are sinners–that is certainly obvious, since we needed a Savior–but that we move into our permanent residence by recognizing that we are redeemed and that we are under the roof of God’s grace-full hospitality. It is from this vantage point, or better, from this ‘spiritual dwelling place,’ that healthy Christians work out from.



So my questions are also:  Why? 

* Why, after all the centuries since Paul and the New Testament writers taught and informed Christians about the way of Christ and the liberty found in the Gospel of Christ, are there so many Christians who still don’t understand the freedom that comes by faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross?

* Why are so many believers enslaved to legalism and suffering from the inevitable consequences of a flawed and tiring works-based belief system? 

Paul challenged the believers in the churches in the region of Galatia to recognize that:“It is for freedom that Christ has set you free!” Maybe those of us, today, who accept the teaching of God’s amazing grace, provided through Christ’s finished work, can be faithful to share this missing piece of information with others who need to hear it—those both inside and outside of the Church.


* * * * *


For further study: The NIV Application Commentary is a good series. 

For this article, I referred to: The NIV Application Commentary on Galatians authored by Scot McKnight and the New International Biblical Commentary: Galatians by L. Ann Jervis.


© 2012 Barb Orlowski, D.Min · ChurchExiters.com™


[1]  Heresy can be defined as: that which is not orthodox (orthos “straight” and doxa ‘belief”).



Spiritual Abuse and Feeling So Alone

Why Do I Feel So Alone?!

People who leave churches because of spiritual abuse find themselves in a very lonely place. They have lost association with a primary social connection. Even though they feel devastated at this time, they still seem to be able look back to some of the good times that they had with this church family. There were a number of relationships that they had as regular church members and now those relationships have been severed.

Once people have been forced to leave, either by being asked to leave by the leadership or by their own decision to leave because of the unhealthy church environment, the fact that people have left a church is emotionally unsettling. The crucial feeling of being alone meshes together with the concert of other painful emotions.

This isolation is magnified when church leaders instruct the members that this person or this couple are in a church discipline situation. When people are falsely accused, labeled, and now must be avoided because of some unnamed sin, then their emotional rejection is intensified.

You would think that individuals who have exited from a toxic church atmosphere would feel major relief from leaving such an oppressive environment. Although this is probably one of the more positive emotions, the feeling of isolation far outweighs any feeling of relief.

The realization of what has just hit them and their descent into depression wreaks havoc with their emotional stability. It is often a long road back to reignite the sense of joy, peace, and purpose that has been ripped away from them.

The following encapsulates this feeling among people who have experienced spiritual abuse in their home church.

“Thank you so much for reaching out to me. Sometimes it feels like a lonely place when one is abused because people are more inclined to believe a pastor over a congregant. Your comment here is validating and much appreciated.” These were my initial encouragements back to this person:

“Many people who are in the middle of these devastating church issues feel so alone. There is so often no one who they can turn to in their church or in their denomination. They are already branded as ‘the troublemaker’ so other church pals stay away from them. They feel abandoned and alone.

If loyal church attenders are labeled as ‘causing strife’ or ‘dissenting against the leadership’ and Scriptures are used as a weapon against them, then they are further branded and marginalized.

What works for people who have been wounded by church leadership is connecting with others on the internet. There are a host of people raising the awareness about their disheartening church experience of spiritual abuse.

People find that they are not alone and they are realizing that they have become part of a huge family of people who have experienced the effects of this dysfunction in the Body of Christ. Take heart, there are many who understand.”

Feeling ‘So Alone’ Comes with the Territory

Feeling ‘so alone’ after experiencing spiritual abuse is a real factor that adds to the whole torment of the situation. People don’t visit with those in their former church for fear of being named as gossips. Congregants in the church are now leery of visiting with them. Former attenders also have a hunch that their former church pals just wouldn’t understand their concerns and so often, they are correct.

There are often very few who share their unease about what is going on with their church leadership. So many people don’t get what they are talking about. They come across as rebelling against God’s anointed. Their attitude is suspect, their ideas are far-fetched, and they are church members to be avoided.

There may be a chance to share concerns with denominational leaders, but that often is a dead end. As a rule, the assumption is that pastors are considered to be ‘in the right’ which makes congregants to be ‘in the wrong.’ Support is generally given to the pastor in conflict situations. Since many pastors have had to deal with troublesome people in their churches, the idea that the congregant is ‘the problem’ is the general perception.

When there is an independent church involved, then things are compounded, since there is often no one to appeal to in spiritual abuse situations. The pastor’s word is law and the elder board rally around to protect the pastor to the neglect of the congregant’s concerns. It is very difficult to find a neutral arbitrator to facilitate in such situations.

Although some people may find others who have been alarmed about this church’s direction and have left, simply raising concerns comes across as negative and most congregants don’t want to hear anything negative about their home church. Only those who have experienced spiritual abuse seem to be able to understand and offer support to exited congregants in their time of need.

The Muddy Tunnel

Since one’s social and spiritual network has suddenly come to a grinding halt, people who have left their home church now feel so disconnected, so disenfranchised. They did not know that their belief structure would take such a turn in their lives and that they would be without a church family, just like that.

Many emotions now cloud their thinking. Emotions range from negative to positive. Feelings of grief, loss, disillusionment, and devastation rise up. There are feelings of anger about the whole situation. Many people acknowledge positive emotions such as a sense of relief after leaving a toxic environment. Though difficult, many realize that there is a newfound freedom after leaving a toxic group. One emotion that remains is the intensity of aloneness.

Here is a participant response from my original study:

“As some of the soul bleeding stopped and the dust settled, there was a deep sense of relief that I was no longer tied to the manipulative, controlling authority structure; that I was free of those men and their filters on my thinking. But I mourned deeply the loss of the relationships, the friendships that I had nurtured over the course of eighteen years.”

Many times, with these excruciating feelings, there are doubts about the decisions that have been made. One’s decisions don’t only affect themselves, but others are affected, like those of close family members and friends. People regret having put their spouse or other family members through this unsettling experience. The feelings of isolation from church community amplify the whole situation and one wonders if they truly made the right decision/s.

When there are so few to talk to during this intense time of confusion and reeling emotions, there is often a tendency toward self-doubt and regret. This adds to the increasing emotional pain already being experienced.

Though exhausted and troubled, individuals and couples slowly come to realize that they have made the right decision based on the mounting factors that they have gone over in their minds over and over. After all is said and done, there was not much that they could have done to change the inevitable trajectory and their decision to leave their home church.

Finding an Ear

As time moves on, there is a chance for some clarity and a better perspective on all that has happened. What works for so many individuals is finding a confidant to share with. If there are people who they trust and who they can share their rocky and raw emotions with and get their perceptive feedback of the situation, then healthy processing can be started.

Confidants can be found in a number of places. Many find family and friends to be their first resource. Some discover those who were marginalized in their former church and can compare their mutual stories. These people often form into a support group. Numerous find mature Christians in other fellowships who will hear their story and affirm them. Being told that ‘one is not crazy’ seems to bring much comfort.

My Friend Google

The majority of people who have been faced with the decision to leave their home church and recognize the aloneness factor closing in on them, turn to the internet for comprehension, comfort, and encouragement. The online family of those who know about spiritual abuse, how devastating it is emotionally, and who write about it, are those who can provide immediate support for folks who connect with them online.

Strategic connections can be made online and the host of people who are available to support hurting folks is really quite astounding. Internet support is not bounded by location or time. People can connect with others in numerous locations, even around the world, for insights and support.

Flesh and Blood

Sometimes these online contacts can work into telephone chats or even face-to-face visits. Many lasting relationships with people can be forged through this common experience.

Finding internet community, especially at a time that a person is the most vulnerable, is without a doubt, so empowering. Finding others who know and understand about spiritual abuse and recovery from it gives support in so many unique ways.

As good as the internet community is, there is also a need to find people in one’s own location in order to have personal contact. This may take a while, but it is a goal to aim for. So, having both ways to connect would be the best scenario.

Journaling and Blogging

Having all this new found free time provides an opportunity for personal reflection. Countless people take up journaling about their disheartening experience. There are two ways to do this: some keep a writing journal, while others blog online. Some do both. Keeping records and documenting events, feelings, and one’s progress through this muddy tunnel season helps to give purpose and meaning to this untimely occurrence.

Church Relationships

People who have left a church begin to consider relationships in general. They recognize that it is not so much the number of friends but it is the level of intimacy that one could have is what one longs for. So often after a critical church experience, one can better define the kinds of relationships that one has had, including the kinds in their previous church.

Although some church relationships may have been deeper, other relationships may have been superficial. So, even though there were activities and meetings with others, this new season has caused people to realize the nature of those relationships as well as to recognize what a healthier dynamic might look like.

Here is a comment from a participant in my study:

“An open calendar after leaving my church was both very liberating and very terrifying. There were people who had been close to me who no longer spoke to me, and that was hurtful until I was reminded in spirit again and again how tiring and surface-level most of my relationships had been (our things in common were almost exclusively church-centered).”

The Innate Need for Spiritual Community

The ideal is to find those who are keen to love and serve Christ and then to hang out with them. Though it may take a while to find these kinds of Christians, it is worth the wait and worth the time to seek them out. It is good to make relationships with people who can thoughtfully and fairly consider the church today and to be renewed in the understanding of a biblical view of godly leadership. It is important to pursue a healthy lifestyle in all aspects of life. This can be a time of stretching and personal growth.

Seeking to examine why things happened the way they did and seeking to understand why these scenarios keep happening in the local church can be an opportunity for change. One’s personal time of reflection, as well as times for sharing in healthy community settings, can be a time of renewal and deeper faith. Considering one’s former ideals and what they value now can be a lonely and painful road, yet ultimately it can be an enriching experience.

Here are some thoughtful words from another participant’s learning experience:

“When one’s faith has been tried in the fire and you know what is left of it, what you truly have is gold. And that can never be taken away from you.

I think when you are challenged in your faith that it forces you to realize that you hold a bunch of lies and untruths as true. You have to lay it all down and pick through the pieces and figure out what is yours to go forward with and what to leave behind. So this experience has birthed a maturity in that sorting process.”

When One Door Closes . . .

The old saying, “When God closes a door, he opens a window,” is very true here. Now is the time to look for those God incidences in your life. It is time to stretch out into new areas that you haven’t even thought about before. There is potential for personal growth through classes and activities outside of a church. There are opportunities to check out other churches. There is time to work on old or new hobbies, to make new connections, and to try new things.

Loss, and the grief that comes with loss, are all part of life. We cannot escape it. Change is part of the dynamic as well. There is need for grief to be valued and processed. This is one of those times. It is time to grieve all the losses that have been identified through this experience.

It is a time to recognize the range of emotions that are now being processed. You won’t always feel this way. Your heart will encourage you to be more self-reliant and to recognize that this experience can be part of the complex tapestry of your life.

For Those Who Want to Help

This article is also addressed to those who may be seeking ways to help individuals who are processing the emotional aftermath of spiritual abuse. It is important for helpers to know about the range of emotions that people can experience during such a disheartening time as this. It is important to know how ‘alone’ people can feel.

Being a good listener can speak volumes to someone who has experienced a huge church crisis. Having ‘big elephant ears’ is a crucial need for anyone who seeks to help and support someone experiencing grief and loss in their lives. Just being there and listening to others can be the best thing you can do.

Should I Seek Professional Counseling?

This is a very personal decision. There may be other personal issues in your life that need to be addressed while you process this occurrence as well. Having a Christian counselor who is familiar with the needs of those who have experienced spiritual abuse is important. Not grasping the magnitude of emotional pain that is encountered by congregants after experiencing spiritual abuse in their home church is not the type of counselor that you should be looking for at this time.

Some people prefer a secular counselor since their experience of church has made them wary of Christian leaders. Some secular counselors have been most helpful to a number of people. This need in the Body of Christ should be understood and addressed by professional Christian counselors. Again, seeking a professional counselor who understands spiritual abuse is a very personal step.

Resources for Counselling can be found in the Resource section on this website.


Knowing that your heart longs for authentic Christian community is a goal to aim for. This may be shaped in a number of ways suited to your own personal wiring. It may take a while to find such individuals as well as authentic community in your area. Don’t give up. Pace yourself and see how things unfold over time.

Survivors of malignant ministry situations can be a huge help to others who face these troubles. You can be one who is there when others are in need. You can be part of the solution!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.

                               Psalm 27: 4-5, 14 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

For Further Reflection

A number of years ago, some friends shared a cassette with us. It was the story of Joseph, the Dreamer. It is an award winning musical by Cam Floria from 1983. The entire musical story is worth listening to. It portrays the life of the biblical Joseph. It traces the difficult journey of his life and the insurmountable odds he had to overcome.

When I think about people who have exited from a church and have no idea what is next for them, this one song comes to mind: “When God Closes a Door, He Opens a Window.” The words and the music are by Ronna Jordan.

It can be found on YouTube:  Song: “When God Closes a Door, He Opens a Window.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

© 2012 Barb Orlowski, D.Min.

Spiritual Abuse and Why These People Left Their Churches

Spiritual Abuse and

Why These People

Left Their Churches



The fact that people are leaving their home church has drawn the attention of many church practitioners, theologians, researchers, and Christians in general.  There have been many ways suggested to welcome people into a church community as well as to retain them in that church family.  What may be lacking is a more complete understanding why people are leaving and for what specific reasons.

There have always been a number of reasons why people choose to leave their church.  Unfortunately, there are many people who have been put in the precarious position that they have to exit from their home church.  These reasons need to be explored more fully.  The reasons that these people give need to be listened to more intently.

One of the main reasons that needs to be factored into the whole is the issue of spiritual abuse.  The question is:  Has this negative dynamic been considered as much as it should be?  When it is felt that spiritual abuse only occurs in marginal cult-like groups, then there is less awareness about this recurring church problem.

I get regular emails from people looking for assistance after they have realized that their church is unhealthy, that is, toxic and that they must make the inevitable decision to leave.  Church exiting for them is now a harsh reality.

One of the questions that I asked participants in my study to describe was:  What factors influenced your decision to leave your home church?

As we consider ‘why’ people have left their home church in the context of their experience with spiritual abuse, then we can get a grasp on the dynamics that took place while they attended that community.  From these reports, we can observe, consider, and draw some reasonable conclusions.

As stated in many ways before:  People who leave churches because of spiritual abuse are in a distinct category from those individuals who might be classed as troublesome people in churches.

It is important to break down stereotypes of what some church leaders think are the contributing factors to the ‘church leaving’ issue.  Labeling ‘leavers’ as backslidden or choosing the way of the world does not get deep enough when investigating this negative church ministry issue.

Often those who leave a church are perceived as those who have left Christ.  This, also, is an inaccurate assumption.

The fact is:  Church members who were supportive of and compliant with their leadership, were regular attenders, givers, and volunteers are a description of those who ended up experiencing the effects of spiritual abuse.  This is a situation for Christians to ponder further in order to see if they have a valid assessment.


Why Do People Leave Their Home Church?    

It is important to just ask people.  Participants in my doctoral study were asked to identify what factors influenced their decision to leave their church.  It might be interesting to note that a few people acknowledged that no one had ever asked them that question before.

A number of reasons were described for leaving their home churches.  The main reason for church exiting revolved around authoritarian and controlling pastors and the leadership team. The following are the common terms that were recorded by participants: authoritarian, controlling, manipulation, and abusive.

There were twelve people who were asked to leave their church by the pastor and/or the leadership team.  Most of these people were married couples, so it is not hard to double the numbers to see how many people were impacted, not to mention children or other family members who attended the same church.

Since these congregants had been deemed as regular attenders, fairly mature in their faith, and were involved in voluntary service in the church, the notion that they were excommunicated because of some moral sin is not reasonable to consider.

Another factor that influenced people to leave was the fact that they perceived that the leader seemed to be accountable to no one.

Selected excerpts from the participant questionnaires will be included in each category to illustrate the point.  These comments can be instructive.  Explanations have been edited only for the purposes of clarity, spelling, punctuation, and spacing.

The following comments describe the reasons why these Christians left their home church:

“Yes. There was a tremendous dichotomy between what was said by leadership, and the message they actually conveyed. They often spoke of the freedom we have as believers, as well as our individual value in God’s eyes. But any attempt to think or act with any degree of freedom was quickly and firmly labeled as unsubmissiveness to leadership. 

An overarching theme in most of the subtle messages was that only a few were actually spiritual enough to hear and follow God for themselves, and that everyone else must follow them.”

“The main problem stemmed from the fact that the leader was not submitted to anyone and yet wanted submission.  His doctrine was off and his tactics were abusive and the church showed no fruit.”

“It was clear that the pastor was never going to address any problems: present or future. . . . I was told that the Lord spoke to my pastor, so if I disagreed, I was in error.” 

“Deception, manipulation by a pastor who was absolutely accountable to no person. . . . Negative feelings were mostly the fact that there was nothing we could do to stop the misbehavior of the pastor, and the natural feelings of failure in such a situation.

We had invested greatly in this congregation. It was also hard to understand how people in leadership positions could ‘put up’ and even enable this kind of behavior by the pastor. . . . Leadership and authority exercised by one person in a congregation is not only un-biblical, but is inherently abusive and destructive.” 

“Previously I was taught I must not speak against a leader, either to voice concerns or disagree—that was the teaching, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed,” you were not allowed to say anything that didn’t agree with the leader. “ 

“He [the pastor] had left such a trail of hurting and damaged people, and I felt that I could no longer be a part of that type of destruction.”

“We were falsely accused by the senior pastor of being rebellious and unsubmitted. . . . The church that we left is still being destroyed by authoritarian leadership, control, and abuse.  It was a wonderful community of people that was ruined by false spiritual leadership.” 

“I learned that if a man is truly led to be the shepherd of a group of believers that he will be in among them and teach truth from his heart and not be a controlling, manipulating, and dominating person—lording his position over them.” 

‘We had felt like something was wrong over the years, but always ‘stuffed it’ thinking it was ‘just us.’  Whenever we went to the pastor with grievances, it was denied or turned around on us. We finally realized that we had major doctrinal differences (they taught a harsh gospel lacking grace and mercy), along with the fact that we felt stifled, controlled, and intimidated. . . .

Yes. I believed so much of what they said.  I towed the lines they put up. You need to understand something. These people (the leaders) were my life.  I took care of their children for them. I put my own interests last and served them for years.    

I made it possible both physically and financially for them to exist. As far as the rest of the group, I really thought they would know our hearts and at least come to talk.  Only one couple did.”

“Our eyes were opened to seeing that our church was run by a manipulative and oppressively controlling pastor who had just enough charisma and mountain charm to bamboozle the masses into believing and following him as “God’s anointed,” appointed for this church and the surrounding area of the county.  Adding to his ruling hand is an Elder Board of “Yes Men” of which the pastor was chairman.”


Just Plain Asked to Leave

The following are six accounts of those who were asked to leave by their church leadership.  Some of them made an effort to meet and communicate with the leadership and seek some type of understanding and/or resolve.

Couple 1:  This couple had been involved and served at this church for 7 years.

“When I declined the opportunity from the pastor to be on staff my husband and I sensed a change in relationships from the pastor and staff members.  We were no longer invited to social functions with the staff. I no longer received support in the church sponsored ministry work I was doing. Staff hindered opportunities for me to serve in other areas of the church.

I stopped attending church sponsored events outside of the Sunday service because I did not feel welcome. I approached the pastor’s wife and explained the events that were happening and feelings of not belonging and the pastor’s wife said, “at the risk of further alienating you, maybe you should leave the church.” My husband and I experienced passive aggressive behavior toward us and our work in the home group we were leading.

Meeting with the pastor to discuss issues was non-productive, passive aggressive, overly authoritative, and extremely controlling. I began to notice that the size of the church congregation had dropped from 1000 to 600 in the past seven years.

I discreetly sought out a few people who had left the church and learned of the same root causes as to why they left.”

Couple 2:  This couple was involved and served in this church for over 10 years.

“After the first excommunication we applied to the courts to have our membership reinstated—the elders immediately agreed to the mediation we had originally requested. The Christian mediator found the elders at fault and had our membership reinstated—a process that took 6 months due to delays by the elders.

Although the elders apologized in writing we were subjected to shunning and stalking by the elders and most ministry leaders. We were put under incredible pressure to leave.

Six months after returning we were once again excommunicated—virtually no reason given for the decision other than we seemed to make the leadership uncomfortable. Although the church membership held meetings to discuss our situation we were not allowed to attend to defend ourselves.”

Couple 3:  This couple was involved and served in their church for 15 years.  They were involved in this denomination for 67 years.

“We were asked to leave by leadership. . . . I was charged for having a hard heart, by someone. My first response was to go to the Lord to check from Scripture what that means. . . .

After I did a lot of soul searching before the Lord, I knew that the accusation was not true because the Scripture seems to indicate that when someone’s heart becomes hard they cannot turn to God, and that was not my experience, but it took several days for me to come to that realization.” 

Couple 4:  This couple was involved and served in this church for over 10 years.

“The hireling [the pastor] telling us to get out was why we left—we were so into the cult that we were trying to stay after all of the abuse we suffered. We were trying to communicate our problems with him and his wife, and their treatment of my wife and I, when the end came.” 

Couple 5:  This couple attended this church for 1 year and 6 months.

“The first church was totally under the control of the pastor and when we became aware of the lack of accountability, we spoke with the pastor, who kicked us out for questioning him.” 

A Single Person.  This person attended this church for 18 years and was involved in the core ministry leadership of the church. The participant describes their response to a comment made by the pastor.

“You must be 100% loyal to the Senior Pastor or you can’t be in leadership. I’m cleaning house—you must be enthusiastic about the church.

You are not enthusiastic or happy and everybody knows it. I’m going to have to ask you to leave [the church].” I was totally devastated, spinning in confusion and disbelief.”


Then There Is Legalism

Legalism was referenced by twelve participants as their reason for leaving.  These included things like:  public rebuke, shunning, or being falsely accused; private rebuke by leadership in the church office or a home; or extreme church discipline.

Questionable doctrines and beliefs which were deemed unhealthy were also reasons given.

The following are some of the descriptions given by the participants on the topic of legalism:

“Legalism, discipleship over evangelism, family of believers over “unsaved/un-churched/lost,” Sunday attendance and tithing pressures and judgment, kept too busy doing things for the church to live much as a Christ follower among my neighbors, most of all:  Lack of focus on the cross of Jesus Christ and prayer.”

 The leadership had become cult-like in its leadership.  Two or three men, including the preacher decided what happened in the lives of everyone else; this included who one could marry, whether one could look for another job and, if offered one, whether one could take it, whether one could buy a house, etc. The teaching on submission to authority was taken to ridiculous extremes.” 

After the following participant had left, they described their thinking this way:

“I viewed every decision and action through that legalistic lens. Realized I had a hard time thinking and making decisions on my own. I lost quite a few ‘friends’ who ceased to associate with me once they realized I wasn’t of the same ilk any more.   I was free to think and yet at the same time, afraid to do so.” 

A number of people defined the concept of carnal treatment of God’s people by the lead pastor or church leadership.   This often influenced the shunning behavior of the congregants towards the participant.   Some commented on the pastor or the leadership’s lack of integrity.  Others noted either the pastor’s impropriety or the pastor’s outright moral failure.


The Woman Thing

Gender hierarchy was a factor for men and women alike.  A lack of biblical understanding of the place of women in the Church and women treated without respect was evident for a number.

The following are examples of how participants perceived this issue:

“First church held that women had to be submitted to the overseeing of men in anything they did.  Even held that a woman had to check with a man to see if what she believed was correct.  Second church was not that extreme.  However, women’s input was not welcomed.” 

“Women were not allowed to serve in areas where they felt called to serve.  In this particular church women were not even allowed to read Scripture from the pulpit during the Sunday Morning Worship Service.”


We Were Fired!

The following are a few comments from those who felt that they had to leave a position or were asked to leave (were ‘fired’) from a church position; or those who found no room to use their gifting in service.

“I got fired from the Assistant Pastor position for questioning the authority.  Hardest part, for me, was to forgive myself for being duped by a pastor who I should have seen through much earlier on in the 14 years I spent under his ministry.  Second part of the pain was working through my anger with God at letting it happen to all the wonderful people who had dedicated their lives to such spiritual fraud.” 

“The Senior Pastor while able to be quite charming to the congregation and others in the community, was emotionally abusive to his staff in general and had become increasingly abusive to me my last year on staff. The dynamics in the office were often hard for me to understand, but in the last months working there I saw the Senior Pastor’s behavior as deceptive, grandiose, and highly manipulative . . .

It was the denomination on the district and even national level that we believed could have come to our aid, but they chose to ignore the situation. Their behavior leads one to conclude that they don’t believe a pastor should be held accountable by a lay person because they were upholding and employing a pastor who sued a parishioner for taking a concern in private to the elders.”

“The realization that there was no hope for most of us in ever following what God put in our heart; the fatigue with lots of hype but no real change; the growing disillusionment with the traditional church pattern; and the realization that it had little connection to the life that Jesus and his followers exhibited.”


Church Governance Issues

Disagreement with the pastor or the church leadership regarding church governance was commented on.  The fact that there was no dispute resolution process in place was noted.

Although the term elitism was referenced only once to refer to leadership, this descriptor could be validated by similar terms used.

“I was disappointed with the leadership because I perceived that I did not get a fair hearing and opportunity to dialogue.    I went into meetings where decisions had already been made and any listening was really only waiting for their turn to lower the boom.

My hope had been that as a minimum, we would clarify our differing views and come to an understanding of each other’s positions before agreeing to disagree, accommodating each other, and getting on with ministry.

If the views were differing enough, we could painfully, but      at least amiably, separate. Unfortunately, the leaders just couldn’t survive the ‘fog’ of life, differing ideas, and had to believe they had God’s will and as such had to stick up for  God by booting us out the door.”


Disillusioned by Church Governance

Based upon the surveys, these participants indicated that they had come from churches with a significant level of authoritarian and controlling behavior from the lead pastor and/or the leadership team.

This leadership style was the expected ministry style and seemed to go unquestioned among the congregation until a certain point, which involved these congregants.  After this point, this behavior took on greater vigor and simply got worse.  Individuals or couples were faced with the realization that any hope of change in behavior or restoration of fellowship was unattainable at this time, if ever.


Disillusioned by Church Teachings

Legalism was another main reason for leaving.  An apparent faulty view of the grace of God provided grounds for leaders to place ‘heavy loads’ or theological ‘burdens’ on people.  This corruption of the Gospel of grace placed participants in a vulnerable position to be manipulated by leaders. Public or private rebuke, shunning, or being falsely accused by leadership in the church office or a home seemed to be a form of extreme church discipline to intimidate congregants and seemed to be unwarranted in nearly every case.

Furthermore, the entire concept of biblical church discipline seemed to be a topic that was misunderstood and misapplied and needed to be revisited by the local church as well as by denominational overseers.

The mar factors which had been recognized in the majority of participants, demonstrated that these damaging teachings and the hurtful actions manifested by church leaders were evident among them at that time. It pointed to the fact that participants were lacking a secure and reliable theological foundation.

Distortions in understanding the Christian faith included the following: not fully understanding salvation and sanctification by the Holy Spirit by grace; having poorly developed skills for interpreting God’s Word; inability to discern whether teachings were biblical truth or not; not to blindly trust leadership without exercising discernment; not fully grasping how God’s people actually should be treated by Christian leadership; and not fully understanding how to experience authentic Christian community.

Specific areas of Christian belief are often distorted in abused people—these misbeliefs need to be discerned and set straight so that their spiritual life can be restored. The distortions in these basic beliefs and the personal impairment they created were evident among the majority of participants.

A renewed biblical understanding in these areas helped people to be restored and to establish balance in their spiritual walk.



Church leaving is much more complex than initially understood by church leaders and congregants.  When church exiting is seen through the lens of the harm of spiritual abuse along with faulty belief systems, then there is a much broader scope to process this occurrence.

Considering the voice of those who have left the church and what reasons led up to their exiting allow for their reasons to be affirmed and valued.  Listening to the emotional trauma that was involved through this distressing season helps to shape our thinking.

Leaving a church for reasons of work transfer, home relocation, or other natural reasons for attrition are difficult enough but to add to that situation the torment induced by spiritual abuse can make this experience very painful for those who go through it.

Most people appreciate when people understand the depth of their personal pain after an untimely personal loss.  Such an incidence that happens in and through the local church needs to be understood much better.  It is hoped that others in the Body of Christ can provide solace and safety for those who find themselves in this type of dilemma.

It is important to be among those who:

Aim to Understand and to

Raise the Awareness about Spiritual Abuse.

* * * * *

For Further Reflection

Though parents may forsake their children, as the Scripture states in the Psalms, those who are forsaken by their church family can take comfort in the fact that the Lord will be there for them too.

Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.                                                                 Psalm 27:10

Psalm 27 is a wonderful psalm to think more about.  It begins by stating the fact that:

The Lord is my light and my salvation —whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?

The psalmist longs to be taught by the Lord and to be led by him in straight paths, in spite of his oppressors.

Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in a straight path

because of my oppressors.

This psalm ends with hope that things will gets better and the exhortation to wait for the LORD, which always is a good practice.

I remain confident of this:

I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart

and wait for the Lord.


* * * * *

© 2012   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.

Spiritual Abuse and Coping, Finding, Counting, Peeking

Spiritual Abuse and

Coping, Finding, Counting, Peeking



This article will look at some basic areas that individuals need to work through as they process the aftershock of spiritual abuse.  The topics covered in this article will include:  Coping, Emotions Felt, Finding People Who Listen, Counting Your Blessings, and Peeking Around the Corner.



Finding coping strategies pretty much describes the state that people who have just suffered spiritual abuse in their home church find themselves in.  After the initial shock of what has hit them begins to settle, then their next steps are coping with the results of the emotional pain that comes with this unnerving church situation.

How people cope with distress can depend a lot on how they are wired, that is, their personality type.  Some people are just more optimistic than others and that will influence how they manage this new situation.  How one copes is also influenced by social resources.

It helps to have a look at a definition of ‘coping’:

“Coping is defined as the process of managing external and/   or internal demands that tax or exceed the resources of the person.   It is a complex and multidimensional process that is sensitive to both the environment and the personality of the individual.  . . .

During any stressful period of time, focusing on positive emotionsmay provide a psychological break or respite, support continued coping efforts, and replenish resources that have been depleted by stress.  Positive emotions may help to build social, intellectual and psychical resources that can become depleted under chronically stressful conditions.”[i]

For a while, coping may be the only way to survive emotional stress directly related to spiritual abuse.  Coping will involve the many emotions felt at this crucial time.


Emotions Felt

There are a variety of emotions that will come tumbling in at this time.   The following are some excerpts from how the original participants in my study described their many conflicting emotions after experiencing spiritual abuse in their home church.

The question that they were responding to was:

How did you cope after making the decision to leave?

“I felt lost, abandoned, angry, lonely, hurt, misunderstood and just plain tired.”

“My wife and I agreed that we would try to fade out quietly, and to say nothing negative about the church we were leaving.  We spent a lot of time talking to each other about what we were feeling and what we thought God might be saying to us.”

“Spent a great deal of time alone with God and in Scripture, as well as among strong Christians.  Started serving others more than I had my church . . .”

“Was questioning all I had been taught during my time at that church.”

“It was VERY difficult… our life was SO intertwined with everyone in that church, it felt like we lost all our friends and family in one day.”

“I should point out that a year after I left the abusive church,   I was still plagued by inordinate feelings of worthlessness, unresolved anger, rejection, and insecurity.”

“Sought legal, professional Christian counseling, and advice of mature respected Christians.”

“At first we talked, prayed and cried a lot.  There were a few of us family members and friends who were going through this time of separation together, so we were able to express our frustrations and fears within our small group.”

“Initially, I didn’t cope very well at all and I was just barely surviving.  That had to be the darkest moment of my life.          I remember thinking “what have I done?”  These were some  of my closest friends in the world and their ministry was flourishing, so I really struggled with trying to figure out who was right.”

“On the positive side, I’ve never regretted my decision to leave. Christian Counseling did help me to:

1. Recognize I was angry “I’d like to lock him up and throw away the key.” “I think you are quite angry.” “What me, angry, whatever gave you that idea?” “Well, that was quite an angry statement.” “Nah !” “Let’s make another appointment for a couple of weeks’ time . . .”

2.  Allowed myself permission to be angry.  I didn’t want to give them another stick to beat me with.  I’d left, but they were still condemning me in my head.  I think I figured the rest out on my own (with God).”

“One thing I think was very beneficial was to give myself all the time I needed.  Another was to separate God and the church.  God was not the problem; the problem was the church.  I believed God had answers; I just had to walk out relationship with Him to find them.”


Finding People Who Listen!

This is someone’s comment post on a pal’s blog that keyed into the necessity to encourage people to just listen to others in need.  For those who seek to help others, this is good advice.  For those who need a listening ear, this can be a guide for the type of person, listener, that you should be looking for:

“Just be and LISTEN to the person in the place they are at. Let God do the work, you be the presence of his love and grace.

We do not change people, heal people, save people, HE does. HE is the way, the truth and the life, NOT ME, not the church, BUT JESUS.  Let’s get the first commandment down, first:  love God, love man.”

The following is from a participant who found a caring church in their area and found that these Christians were there for them emotionally.  This is the kind of church that the wounded need to be able to find in their time of need.

“We went to another church and poured our hearts out about the problem that we experienced.”

Other people found help through counseling, family, and friends:

“I sought counseling.  I kept to a very small group of friends who understood what had happened and who were able to be sympathetic.  I kept a very low profile in our small town.”

“We spoke to various people who we trusted.  My brother was  a massive help through it all providing vital support.  He even risked his own job supporting us, with a warning from the leadership that he may be compromising his job by standing by us.  We also spoke to a local vicar who gently listened–massive help to have someone listen!”

On Matthew Paul Turner’s Blog, Feb. 4/12, there was a good comment from someone pen-named “Been There.”

Been There’s comments covered many areas that relate to how people cope after the untimely experience of spiritual abuse.

I have bolded the comments that resonated with me.  I have added more paragraph breaks for ease in reading.  Here is the excerpt:


Been There…says:          February 4, 2012 at 10:38 am

“During this post in particular, I was thinking of some of my friends with whom friendships ended and what they would think after reading this. The post would be tagged as something “from another complainer” and forgotten–or talked about during “prayer.”

What I’ve come to is this:  unless a human being is unbelievably gifted and sensitive, the majority will not understand something or want to, until they have experienced it themselves.  Example: Before losing a parent, I was not understanding of the grief process. When someone experienced a death, I sent a card and flowers and wished them well.

Now that I know the way that undoes a life and what navigating through grief looks like, I respond SO differently when someone experiences a death.  I am in it with them.  I open myself to them. I’m not trying to rush their grief because it makes me uncomfortable.  In fact, I am far more sensitive to any type of hurt or being misunderstood–because I’ve had to swim through it myself.

I think the same is true for this topic– being hurt by the church.  Or any other topic that brings pain. While I don’t love that I’ve been navigating painful waters for six years, it has been a time to take people off of the pedestals I put them and seek God himself.

While I still believe in the need for a “church family,” I don’t know exactly what that looks like. It’s nice to be at a place where things are spoon-fed to us and opportunities to serve are there for the taking. It’s also been a journey to be Jesus to those in my neighborhood, my workplace or those I run into randomly. Just because I’m not part of a huge cog that spins big programs and organized efforts,  it doesn’t make my Christianity non-existent.

. . .

I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing I have control over, is myself. Not an earth shattering truth, I know.  Life hurts.  I am going to get hurt again– maybe at the hands of well-meaning Christians outside the four walls of a church. Then what?  I don’t feel that denouncing Christianity is the answer.  I deeply believe in God, his Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit–beyond a shadow of a doubt.   If I’m looking for more ammo to substantiate my wound, I don’t have to look very far to find it. That’s not how I want to live.

My goal is to stay soft to God’s voice, to use the hurt I’ve experienced and remember to listen when someone shares their deepest pain with me, even if I can’t understand it . . .

Link:  http://matthewpaulturner.net/jesus-needs-new-pr/why-the-church-needs-to-shut-up-and-listen-a-guest-post/


Count Your Blessings

Though difficult at first, it is very therapeutic to find many things to thank God for when your heart and mind are in default depressed mode.

From what can be learned from others who have recovered is the fact that eventually there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  There is a chance to reflect on all that has happened and to begin to realize that the new place that you find yourself in has many unexpected benefits.  This is where thanksgiving can begin.

Here are some recent thoughts I put in an email to someone  who I have been having some good email chats with after their muddy tunnel church experience:

“Another thought while you process things—probably you have figured this out many times, but it doesn’t hurt for someone to remind you occasionally:  Start counting your blessings as to why you are GLAD that you are no longer there, at that church.

Think of the freedom that you have now as well as the insights that you have gained in no other way.

You can also imagine that you are five or even ten years away from some of these losses and see how you would perceive them from that vantage point of time.

Though there are losses, ultimately, in so many experiences, there are just some plain gains as well.”

To the question:  “Do you feel that God has used this negative experience to mature you in your faith?” the Participants in my study said it this way:

“Oh yes. I have grown leaps and bounds.  My family has had little or no income in the last 2-4 years since being kicked out of the church.  I have had to truly rely on God and have faith. The miracles and testimonies are too numerous to mention.”

“So in some way I am pleased with the scars, of the battles fought, and the experienced gained.  Do I wish there was a simpler and less painful way, absolutely!”

“Yes.   I have gained a confidence that I never used to have.   I used to look for affirmation from others to feel secure in God’s love.  I have since learned that God’s love for me is total and unwavering, even though I am certainly not special in any way.  In my case, it was necessary to leave other (false) forms of security to learn this for myself.”

“Absolutely.  I have a broad range of experience I might not have known.  I am able to “comfort” those who have been similarly afflicted.  I have a greater respect for the pastoral office when I see it done right.”

“It took this experience to help me trust God that I can approach Him through His Word and that He can speak to me. It also taught me that though man can and will fail that He is unchangeable and that in himI am to trust.  Not a pastor or a denomination.  Finally, He allowed me to understand that I have the right to challenge those who abuse their power in love.”


Peeking Around the Corner

Remember when you were a little kid and you were curious about something, but you just weren’t all that sure that you wanted to go around the next corner without peeking first in case there was something that might scare you?  That feeling of uncertainty is there, but being curious about what is around the next corner, like a little kid, is often what gets adults going again.

No one likes uncertainly and there is definitely enough of that to go around some days.  The drive to jump into things with reckless abandon has somehow vanished after an experience like this and the long dreary road ahead seems to be all that is in view.

Instead of rushing into anything, the habit of peeking around the corner might be just what needs to be done first.  Taking some first steps in a new direction can be therapeutic.  Taking a different path can cause one to see many different flowers and trees along the way that wouldn’t have been discovered any other way.

Working it through in a small town:

“Getting out of town really helped to clear my mind of the overburdening worthlessness I felt while in town.

I read books on toxic churches, coping with toxic people, and dealing with spiritual dryness, etc.

I tried to learn about and attend other non-church related activity groups in town in order to meet new people and try   to make new friends (this was hardest, as this is a small town without a lot of resources and not many people here are involved in hobbies which I enjoy).”

“I joined a spiritual abuse group on the internet.”

“It wasn’t until we got plugged into another church and had the pastoral team counsel us through everything and show us that what was done to us was completely unscriptural and that everything that this church did, resembled a cult.”

“I wrote a lot.  I blogged about it.  I talked with friends and family till they grew tired of me.  I searched the Scriptures to make sure that what I was believing was in line with how I read Scripture.  I studied almost non-stop for 3 months.”

“I believe that God also showed me very clearly that it was not my job to change the system or the mindset of those in it.  I was also able to see that even the leaders were victims who were trapped worse than we were.  By the grace of God alone, I was able to start having compassion for them.”

I started my own home-church centric blog.  There I began to plot out new plans and chart new courses to possible redemption for the church.  That was a very healing and very corrective thing for me to do.  It gave me reason, purpose, and hope again.”

“Yes, I think I have a greater confidence that God is way bigger than I ever imagined.  I also am learning it’s okay to say I don’t know.  God is bigger than my doubts and my doubting doesn’t threaten him.”



This article looked at how people coped after their negative church experience.  There were insights into how others dealt with   a flood of negative feelings.  There were insights into some of the positive feelings that helped people to be thankful for the situation that they now found themselves in.  Finding someone to listen to one’s painful story is supremely important for people in order to move forward in processing their emotional setback.

Getting a grip on what has happened, finding ways to cope, dealing with painful emotions, and trusting God to help bring them to a point of new ground, are ways that people who have experienced spiritual abuse have found has worked for them.

People arrive at a point that they feel confident enough to take small faith steps by peeking around the corner.  With new insights, there seems to be opportunities that present themselves.  Though difficult at first, taking faith steps and continuing to reflect on all that has happened helps to pave the way for healing and recovery.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


For Further Reflection

The parallel article in this series is:  “Spiritual Abuse and The Road to Recovery.”  This is one of the topics on this website.

Moravian Prayer:

So often fear and doubt lead us away from you, yet still you seek us, calling our name.

O steadfast One, rather than shamefully hide, may we come forth and meet you, who loves us just as we are!  Amen.


* * * * *


[i]  Cornell Research Program,  http://www.crpsib.com/userfiles/File/Coping%20Lit%20Review.pdf.


© 2012   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.