As a therapist and advocate who specializes in recovery from abuse, I have been witness to many stories of how survivors of abuse were treated by their church elders and pastors. I can tell you that some church leadership understands the complexities of domestic abuse, but sadly, many more leaders are doing incredible harm to female and male survivors. I do not believe the damage is always intentional, but rather stems from commonly held ideals that are ultimately creating environments where abusers are given “grace-passes” and the victims are left carrying the full responsibility for saving their marriages.
There appears to be significant blind spots within the western evangelical church when it comes to abuse and how leaders are to effectively counsel within the context of toxic marriages and abusive people. I hope to highlight a few of the areas that seem to stumble most church leaders. I am doing this not to bring shame or condemnation to pastors and church staff, but I hope open discussions will continue to occur. Survivors of abuse deserve to receive safe and informed care from their religious leadership. Unfortunately, this is not currently happening in many of our houses of worship in the United States.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? Magical thinking.
The main issue I have observed is that far too many congregation leaders are teaching a lot about what God can do to change the abuser’s heart and far less instruction on what the abuser must do to be a reflection of Christ’s character to his or her family. The focus is placed on everyone but the abuser. The responsibility of changed behaviors is not where it needs to be, but rather deflected outward and away from the source of pain; the abuser.
Leaders are telling survivors that they must pray more if they want to see their abuser changed, that it is their duty as a wife or husband to remain steadfastly committed like Hosea did to Gomer in the Bible, and that God can change anyone if enough people are praying. Where are the teachings about the abuser repenting and permanently turning away from their harmful lifestyle? Where are the teachings about natural consequences when we mistreat other people? Where are teachings about personal accountability for a changed life? Instead the survivor, and even God, are held out as the only tools of how the abuser will be redeemed and made more Christ-like, even as the abuser does absolutely nothing concrete to be different. It leaves domestic abusers (both male and female) ultimately off the hook and everyone around them left to adjust to their poisonous behaviors.
The idea of wanting change for an abuser, when they themselves put no action towards healing, almost borders on magical thinking.
I recently was in a church lobby and a few people were standing around excitedly talking about a well-known public figure who exhibits abusive behaviors. One person said, “God is going to get a hold of him!” and another said, “He doesn’t know it yet, but God has a great plan for his life.” Of course I had to interject and ask what the abuser might think about God getting a hold of him. I asked what evidence can we see of a changed and repented heart from this particular toxic individual. I shared with them that it concerned me greatly that this small group of people in the lobby wanted salvation and healing for the abuser more than the abuser himself may even want it. At what point have Christians crossed over into dangerous wishful thinking that inhibits their ability to have eyes to see and ears to hear?
There is something very naive and unhealthy about projecting positive character traits on abusers that they do not possess and may have no interest in obtaining. If they did the hard work to become a new creation, then sure, we could join them in celebrating. But to hold out hope for an abuser who shows no lasting signs of change is like hoping we walk out our front door to a brand new sports car but we refuse to show up to work every day. It’s honestly embarrassing that the collective church will not see people for exactly who they are in their current state, hope and pray for more, but not be blinded to what is right in front of them. We will not change an abuser simply by wishing for it to be true. Sanctification is a process and one that the abuser absolutely must be a part of on a daily basis.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? Power.
Power is a strong driver for people to remain in denial about abuse going on around them. When toxic people have the ability to get us what we want, we are sadly more willing sometimes to look the other way of character traits that might be unsavory. Many times the worst abusers at home are the same individuals who are showing up to church every time the doors are open. They are seen as pillars in the community, or at least useful to the church in some form or fashion. These powerful abusers are given a quiet pass when concerns are raised about their treatment of their families. People say things such as, “I know him, he would never do the things his wife told the pastor.” You can change the gender and the message is still the same when the abuser is a female. Power or the acquisition of something church leadership wants will, and has, caused many to justify abusive behaviors. They often utilize the magical thinking I mentioned above and decide that the abuser will get better with God’s help, even as the abuser shows no signs of authentically seeking God at all.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? The covenant of marriage is being held in higher regard than the safety of a spouse and children within an abusive marriage.
I know churches where someone can repent of horrendous crimes against people and these individuals will be received within a congregation family but another church member discusses dissolving their marriage because of abuse, and that person will be literally shunned by church leadership and other members. The concept of marriage is held to such a high standard that in some places of worship, it does not matter that evil is being perpetrated within the walls of the family home. Why do some church leaders cling so tightly to the idea of all marriages remaining intact? I think there are two reasons and the first is that sometimes radical things do happen and terrible marriages are restored. Harmful behaviors are addressed and forever changed. Church leaders love those stories of how one of their ministries or their own counsel redeemed a family that looked hopeless. However, not all toxic marriages will go through a 180 shift. Just like not all prayers for a sick person will result in a miraculous and spontaneous healing. Sometimes the body dies and some marriages die as well. Just like the fact that we are not seeing resurrections of bodies at hospitals all over the country, we may not see resurrections of marriages that are abusive when the abuser does not do the hard work to bring lastly healing to his or her family.
The second reason that churches are holding tight to saving marriages, even when one spouse is literally dying within the poisonous environment, is because some church leaders believe that without strong marriages as a foundation, our country is on a collision course with doom. These leaders want to hold onto the concept of the traditional marriage so much that they are literally willing to pretend a marriage is reflecting God’s will even when they know good and well the marriage is a fragile house of cards. As long as it looks good from the outside, right? This sort of thinking perpetuates the fake billboard living that many complain about in regards to modern Christianity.
What can we do when we are worried about the church and its response, or lack of, to abuse in marriages? We first educate ourselves and then we set out to educate our local church leaders. We find books that have been helpful in our journey to understand what abuse looks like in all its forms and we share those books with church leaders. We walk along side a survivor of abuse and tell him or her that we will not spiritually abuse them as well. We will not use Scripture to justify the harm that is being done to them and we will not place the burden of change on the survivor either.
The church should be a sanctuary of hope and healing. Until abuse within Christian marriages is properly handled by all churches in America, we are failing in our calling to carry each other’s burdens and be the hands and feet of a God of justice.
Keep dreaming big!
Bestselling Author of Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through The Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse
My counseling business name is Southlake Christian Counseling. As you can imagine, I get all sorts of inquiries about what exactly does the Christian part of my business really mean. People wonder, and more often worry, that they are going to get yet another heavy dose of religious guilt by seeing a counselor with the word Christian in the business name. One of the best compliments I get is when clients say that they were nervous to see a Christian counselor but have had a great experience and never, not once, felt like I was finger waving at them in shame.
Why is it that a lot of people are cautious about things that have to do with Christianity, even Christian counseling? Well, I think it’s because there are far too many pastors and church/ministry leaders out there running amok in the name of God and doing a lot of harm in the process. Harm to people who are trying to find God in the blur of modern life and harm to the terms Christianity and Christian. Now let me pause here and make sure every reader knows that I am not saying all pastors or church leaders are awful. I am saying that some, if not many, are miserable examples of the wonderful character qualities of Jesus. How do I know this to be true? I have been in the culture of Christiandom for twenty-one years and I have seen a lot. A lot.
I have been on church staff, I have been on ministry staff, I have been a member of churches and I have been a member of ministries. I have witnessed the best of Christianity and the worst. For the last eight years, I have been counseling under the umbrella of Christian counseling. I truly think this season has taught me the most about what works beautifully within churches and ministries and what qualifies as spiritual abuse.
Yes, men and women are being abused in some churches and ministries. More light needs to shed on this area not so that embarrassment can come to the collective Church but so that healing can come and no one again experiences abuse in the name of God.
What qualifies as spiritual abuse? Good question! I recently did a five day series on social media highlighting some of the major forms of abuse that are happening:
1) Spiritual Abuse: When scripture on forgiveness is distorted to keep someone from setting healthy boundaries with a toxic person.
Boy, isn’t this a doozy of a one. I see more clients, men and women, who have sought solace and help from a pastor or ministry leader regarding an abusive/toxic relationship and instead, the survivor was given a long lecture about forgiveness and extending grace to the abuser. Ultimately, will any survivor have to walk through the process of healing and in doing so, qualities like forgiveness and grace will surface? Absolutely. But I assure you, that when a survivor initially seeks guidance from a christian leader, they need help setting healthy boundaries with an active abuser. They do NOT need a leader reinforcing the concept that the abuse is the survivor’s fault. That is precisely what happens when instead of teaching boundaries, the leader lectures the survivor to take more abuse but under the guise of misapplied forgiveness and grace.
2) Spiritual Abuse: Using religious guilt to keep a person in a toxic relationship when the offending person shows no true attempt in changing their behavior.
Here’s how this form of abuse works in a practical sense: Let’s say a couple shows up at a pastor’s office for marital “counseling.” By the way, I have a hard time calling it counseling when the work is done by leaders that are not trained mental health professionals. We wouldn’t expect a pastor not trained in dentistry to perform a root canal right? I wrote on this topic if you should wish to peruse it: I Got A Root Canal At Church.
Anyway, back to the couple and the pastor/leader offering marital help. When one spouse isn’t really interested in changing his or her ways, they often do a wonderful job of deflecting responsibility and they might also be highly skilled manipulators. If this is the case, then not much authentic change will come from that person. Pastors and leaders will then need to focus their attention somewhere else in the room and that usually ends up on the spouse who is willing and able to be self-reflective and capable of personal growth. You can probably guess what happens next. The victim of abuse becomes the identified asset of change and religious guilt is used to keep that person trying harder to make an abusive relationship not abusive. At that point, a truly vicious cycle has begun.
3) Spiritual Abuse: When wives are religiously shamed for not praying enough for their toxic husbands, but the men are held to a lower standard.
Let’s continue with the same couple as above and now make the wife the survivor and the husband the abuser. Pastors and leaders who spiritually abuse in this way do so by placing the responsibility on the wives for praying their husband into the godly man he was created to be. She is expected to have the patience of a saint, constantly be turning the other cheek and endure abuse in one or more of its forms (psychological, sexual, emotional, physical, financial). What is the husband expected to do? Not much. Oh sure, there may be discussions about actions the husband needs to take but things don’t really change. While in the pastor/leader’s office, the husband may even wholeheartedly agree that he has areas to improve. But no actually repentance and lasting behavioral changes occur in the husband. Yet the wife is religiously shamed when she brings the double standard up or heaven forbid, she starts to speak about not wanting to take the abuse any longer.
4) Spiritual Abuse: When good men are held to an unreasonable religious standard of personal responsibility for being in and fixing a toxic relationship.
When a good man is in a toxic relationship, he is often told that as the head of the household and the spiritual leader it is his duty to continue to serve his abusive/toxic wife. Is it possible for women to be abusive? Absolutely. Some are physical by punching, pinching, slapping, pushing and other aggressive physical contact. Good men don’t want to be that guy who fights back and rather, many will attempt to defuse a volatile wife through humor or distraction. Good men want to shield their children from physical combativeness. Our culture seems to downplay the impact that verbal abuse can have on people and especially when the perpetrator is a woman. The hurtful, stinging words of toxic women harm those around them just as much as if they were spoken by a man. A good man also wants to shield himself and his children from a psychologically and emotionally abusive wife and mother. Unreasonable religious standards are often placed on men to keep the family together at all cost and love their abusive wives as Christ loved the church. Wow. What a religious burden to place on a man who truly wants what’s best for himself and his children. Sometimes getting away from an abuser is the only way to be safe physically and emotionally.
5) Spiritual Abuse: When church leaders refuse to recognize relational abuse in all its forms and further the abuse by falsely blaming and shaming the victim.
Now here is where the true issue comes to light. There are many trained mental health professionals who struggle to initially recognize insidious relational abuse. As a therapist, it’s hard sometimes to truly sort through the issues that a couple or family present. We have the education and spiritual discernment to help us and it’s still a challenge at times. As mental health professionals, we are trained to know the full depth of relational issues and yet, we can miss the early signs of some forms of abuse. Hopefully, as counseling continues, we hone in on the true core issues. If a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath is a party to the counseling, the entire dynamic shifts and we have to fight to sort through the layers of chaos and confusion intentionally spun by the toxic person.
Many pastors and ministry leaders do not have adequate training to spot relational abuse and therefore, in their ignorance, re-victimize the victim. Other times, a pastor or ministry leader may simply not believe that abuse comes in forms other than physical. If this is the case, that pastor or leader is going to do extensive amounts of harm to a victim who is suffering behind closed doors. Imagine the intense isolation a victim must feel when they are abused at home or from an extended relative and are told by their religious leaders that the abuse does not exist. It will leave a victim feeling “crazy” and desperately alone. Where was God and His leaders when the victim needed both?
Whew. That’s a whole lot to take in, isn’t it? Those are the five main areas of spiritual abuse that as a counselor I see from my specific perspective. Are there more? Most definitely. But I wanted to share at least the ones that seem to be happening the most within churches and ministries at this time in our culture.
What should you do if you or someone you love is being spiritually abused? Keep seeking a safe place to talk about what is happening both in the church or ministry and the original issue of being in a toxic relationship. I often say that people go into a pastor/leader’s office with one problem (an abusive relationship) and end up coming out with two problems (abusive relationship and now spiritually abused). That simply must stop.
Again, I want to say that there are amazing pastors and ministries doing really excellent pastoral care. There are people being incredibly strengthened and encouraged by the spiritual leaders in their lives. That should always be the norm. Until it is, folks like myself and others will continue to shed a spotlight on an area of life as a Christian that needs to change. The change will better reflect the character of Jesus and better reflect living with true love, hope, joy and peace.
– Shannon Thomas, LCSW-S
Five Things I’ve Learned This Week or Was Reminded Of:
1) Right after I was done hagging on multi-level marketing enterprises in my post Jesus Isn’t Amway, my friend starts selling anti-cellulite wraps; through a multi-level marketing opportunity. So I will now eat crow on this topic, but hopefully with less cellulite while I eat. But still, my point was not turning Christianity into a product
2) I should have bought Dunkin Donuts stock before a news article hit the media about their potential American-based growth. I better get that stock order in before it goes up. Procrastination and investing don’t mix; but if you’ve hung around here for any length of time, you will know I am a huge Dunkins fan so why not buy stock?
3) God is a God of second chances. Anyone who tells you otherwise, either in words or actions, is a liar. Get away from them quickly. There’s a snake in the grass
4) My identity isn’t tied to my church. It’s a place to grow, learn and serve but doesn’t give me purpose or define my destiny. That is God’s job only
5) A true friend will challenge you, your actions and the way you think. Let it happen; it’s a good thing
What’s on your list?