In my early twenties, I was part of a Christian music ministry and for nine months we sang at a different church every night. We were told to respect the authority of our leaders because they were set in place by God. One day at training camp, I was slapped in the face for leaving a three hour meeting to run to the bathroom. Some might wonder why I allowed someone to treat me this way, but I was conditioned to accept this spiritual and physical abuse because I was belted until the day I left home at nineteen.
As we traveled slowly across America singing cheerfully, the interpersonal relationships were fun and not so fun at times. Our leader turned out to be a control freak who got mad because we went to McDonald’s for breakfast, so he forced us sit in circle on the floor and demanded that every one of us say we respected him.
Knowing he was abusive and knowing we had done nothing wrong, I refused to say I respected him. This made him more angry so we sat for hours until it was time to leave for the next church. Since he couldn’t force me to say I respected him, he told me to sit in the audience that night instead of singing in the concert. As I sat among strangers trying to hold back the tears, I felt very alone, but God had already provided a gift to encourage me.
After the concert, my host family for the night was a middle aged couple who immediately noticed my red eyes and tear streaked face and threw their arms around me. They were a married couple who were both counselors. When we got to their home, they pulled out a delicious chocolate cake and said, “Let’s talk.”
There is a unique intimacy between strangers which allowed me to be free to tell my story because I knew I would never see them again. I stayed up half the night telling them about my childhood and what was going on in the group. The tools given to me that night have stayed with me through many encounters with abusive people.
1. Never Trust Any One Who Claims to be the Voice of God
The myth of a church leader speaking for God, has done untold damage to millions. Cult leaders often ask people to forgo their conscience to obey their rules as if God has spoken through them. No person is capable of looking inside human hearts and no one will ever be as gracious as God.
If God wanted a person to be his spokesman, Jesus would have told us, but like Brian Zahnd says, “Jesus is what God has to say.” Jesus and his life and teachings is our only safeguard. If someone claims to speak for God and they don’t match up to what Jesus taught, there is no light in them.
Spiritual abuse is the violation of our trust in God
by someone who claims to speak for Him.
2. Recognize the Limits of Their Power Over You
When an abusive leader discovers he/she can no longer control through manipulation and coercion, they will frame dissenters as the scapegoat so others will attack them too. This eventually breaks down relationships and causes schisms within the group.
You might gain some progress by breaking through barriers and befriending those who are trying to shut you out, but if this doesn’t work, look for new family and friends who are open to healthier ways of thinking and living.
Tears are a river that takes you somewhere…
Tears lift your boat off the rocks, off dry ground,
carrying it downriver to someplace better.
–Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Humans can fire you or exclude you, but they have no real power over your life in the long run. Trust God, stay loyal to him and he will eventually come through for you. No matter what someone does to you, God will ultimately have the last say. It’s easy to feel alone, but greater is He who is within you, than he who is in the world.
3. Realize It’s Okay to be Angry
Beware the Pharisees and flying monkeys who will try to shame you for being angry. Anger in response to poor treatment simply means you have had to confront evil. Whether it’s because of rude behavior or lies or someone trying tarnish your good name, there will be times you feel angry when confronted with injustice and that is really okay as long as you don’t harm anyone with your anger.
God never condones the violation of a person’s freedom–whether it’s physical or emotional or spiritual abuse. Jesus got angry when he overturned the tables in the temple to drive out those who stood between the people and God. But his anger was not vengeful or destructive. The Bible reminds us to not to sin in our anger and to not to go to bed angry. It’s important to vent and find a plan to deal with our anger in a constructive manner.
You should be angry. You must not be bitter.
Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host.
It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure.
So use that anger. You write it. You paint it.
You dance it. You march it. You vote it.
You do everything about it. You talk it.
Never stop talking it.
4. Give Yourself Time and Space Away From Toxic People to Heal
Sometimes you need space and distance from toxic people to restore your soul. If you find toxic people at church, take a break from your local church or go to a different class. If you feel sick when you walk through the door, find a safer church. This goes for social media too. If arguing with strangers makes you sick, stay away from those groups. Block toxic people from your page. Let your life be filled with opportunities to serve others, but don’t allow others to shame and control you.
The Twenty Third Psalm is a great comfort to many people. One of my favorite verses came to life during one of my darkest times. Some people in my family were angry because I didn’t join them in excluding someone. To this day we barely talk. During this time, God provided a smorgasbord of better understanding about His character. One day I was reading the twenty-third Psalm and I realized this reality in my spiritual life:
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
My soul was fed and my mind opened up to many good things and I experienced great peace despite a huge family split. I longed to share my new insights to all of them, but they were more interested in punishing me for not doing what they wanted, than learning anything new. During this time, I literally was given a spiritual banquet—one which any of them could also have experienced, but they refused to partake of it.
5. Stay Connected to God
I have heard from a lot of people who have put up with lots of crap in the name of God. When spiritually abusive leaders lead, it’s important to not let them rob our joy. A few years ago, my husband and I once again had to deal with an abusive leader. We were targeted by a pastor who didn’t like my skits for the youth or my husband’s music. To keep us from doing anything he didn’t agree with, he lied about us. When we found out and tried to speak the truth, he got even more angry and tried to disfellowship us without giving the members any reason. Before it was over, we became very discouraged.
One day we were walking on the beach and I began to cry, I wondered what would happen if we were disfellowshipped. My husband took my hand and said, “They might take our names out of human books, but no one can take our names out of God’s book of life.”
Something shifted for me that day. Our membership was never taken because there were no grounds for it, but the weird thing was we no longer cared about positions in church or membership to the point it would control what we believe and how we serve.
When it comes to abusive leaders, church structure is irrelevant because they will twist the rules to meet their agendas, but let them play their games. We know where to place our faith and it’s not a denomination, but in Jesus himself.
This world is full of beautiful scenes, loving people and animals, intoxicating flowers and delicious fruit. God graces our views with warm sunshine and inspiring mountains and warm fires—all mere sentiments of his great love for each of us. Look at the reminders in nature all around you. Soak in God’s promises of unconditional love. Abusive leaders will come and go, but God’s government is not based on policies or control, but on freedom. His love is steadfast and will remain so forever.