Day 3 : Why should those who haven’t been hurt care about this issue? What do you wish you could tell those who want to help but weren’t close enough to know or see your situation? What do you wish every pastor knew before starting ministry? What would make the church a safe space for you?

Image by Dani Kelley, http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/

Image by Dani Kelley, http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/

I write here is because it’s my way of processing, owning my story. I write so that other people’s narratives don’t drown out my own. One of my coping mechanisms with stress is to block out emotions after something’s happened, so accessing the memory becomes just actions and no feelings. So writing my story and writing how it’s affected me emotionally and spiritually has been a huge part of reclaiming it for myself as my experience, not just something I was there for but allowed others to narrate for me.

This has become a place of healing for me. It may always be necessary, but it shouldn’t.

Pastors, you bear a heavy burden of responsibility. You have good intentions.

Parents, you bear a more intimately heavy burden of responsibility. You have the best of intentions.

But we’re still writing. Spiritual abuse is still something that we need to raise awareness about. We still have to forge for ourselves emotional permission to speak up about how we hurt.

This past week has been all about that. Giving ourselves permission to tell our stories. In a way, we’ve been writing with ourselves as the audience.

But we’re writing for you, too. We started Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week to try to open the discussion about what we’ve lived through in a way that doesn’t frighten those who haven’t been hurt. Reading about spiritual abuse is scary for those who haven’t lived it or seen it. It scares you into second-guessing your church and your parenting: could this be us? no, it couldn’t–could it?

The unfortunate truth — and one thing that I really hope you will remember — is that it could. It could be you. It could be your church. It could be anyone. The best intentions and good doctrine don’t necessarily protect us against our own human impulses to control and dominate others.

Here’s some basic things I’d encourage parents and pastors to try to be aware of in hope of ending this cycle:

  1. Study the Shepherding Movement and how they used religious guilt and shame to control people. American Evangelicals have pretty much all been influenced by this movement in one way or another.
  2. Watch your legalism. Being right and being “good” never, ever, ever trumps Jesus’s love for his own, exactly as they are. No one is your personal project. If you ever feel that way, back off now.
  3. Watch your Gnosticism. Separating feelings/body from the mind/spiritual is dangerous and heretical. Don’t push people to act one way in hopes their feelings will follow.
  4. Create and respect safe places. Boundaries are good. Intimate community is good, but it’s protected by healthy boundaries and respecting each other’s limits.

***

Thanks to everyone who participated! If you wrote for this week and didn’t get to link up, please connect me to your post(s) in the comments! 

Elora and I have been discussing making a free ebook available with a collection of all the posts — this would serve as a resource and a reference tool for those writing about this or interested in learning how spiritual abuse works and how to prevent it. It would also help educate the Church about the needs of survivors. If you have a strong preference either way, please let us know. We’ll be in touch with those who have posted to solicit permission to use the materials. If you have something you’d like to submit to this in the spirit of this past week’s synchroblog, feel free to get in touch with either of us to discuss that option further. Thank you!

***

Resources:

Day 1 link-up
Day 2 link-up
Day 3 link-up

The Rebel Diaries

Rachel Held Evans’ “Into the light” series

A post I wrote before in a similar vein is here: When you haven’t been hurt (how to relate to those hurt by spiritual abuse).


Hi. I’m tardy. But that’s okay, right? We’re all messy here.

You wouldn’t believe this week. But I’m going to rest this weekend. It’s so needed. 

Tonight I offer you my post for SAAW day 2! I’m going to write this SAAW response now, and then write the day 3 response tomorrow, if I can. There might be naps or Buffy in between.

***

Day 2 (March 20) is hosted by Joy Bennett of Joy In This Journey

Day 2: Your journey and consequences of spiritual abuse

How has your experience affected you? What has it done to you emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.? What has your journey been like? How have you gotten where you are today? Do you feel you’ve healed? What do you still struggle with?

Image by Dani Kelley, http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/

Image by Dani Kelley, http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/

On Wednesday, I was returning to the office after running downstairs to Illy for coffee (it has been such a sleep-deprived week. You have no idea.) and I got into one of the six elevators and pressed the button for the 5th floor like I always do. The elevator creaked and sighed its way up and then hovered and rested softly at the landing. The doors shuddered, then stayed shut. I was trapped. I pushed the “door open” button several times, then the button for the floor, and then I realized it wasn’t going to open.

I paused, sipped my coffee, and eyed the emergency call button. I took another sip. Then I began hitting buttons again, but nothing happened. I wondered about what it would be like if the elevator dropped, and tried one more time before making the emergency call.

The doors slid open, and I stepped out with a deep breath and headed back to my desk. I didn’t feel panicked and I should have called maintenance about it, but I didn’t. It should have been scary, but it wasn’t.

Spiritual abuse combined with my intense childhood years in a big family leaves me a bit odd. I am numb or too okay in situations where I should be experiencing an emotional reaction, yet other things which should be fine and easy are instead crippling and laced with fear.

I won’t freak out in a scary situation where I’m alone or feel like I’m responsible for someone. That has been drummed out of me–I’m the oldest, I’m the responsible one, I fix things, don’t make it worse. But if I’m with a male I subconsciously see as an authority figure? FREAK OUT. I let myself be “weak” out of habit, almost as if I’m trying to manipulate him into taking charge. I may be a functional egalitarian, but my subconscious sometimes won’t let me shake off the hierarchy of complementarian gender roles.

Because I had a particularly bad instance of translation in the NASB used against me in a damaging way, I find myself really struggling to not snark or react strongly to the use of that translation.

When the ESV is used, I hear the voice of the senior pastor at my old church, reading Ephesians, Galatians, Nehemiah, Jeremiah. And I can’t hear the beauty of those books without the layers of legalism and sin-obsessed guilt he laid upon those passages as he preached his way through them, while I took scrupulous notes.

The phrase “do unto others” makes me feel suffocated. It’s a good truth, but we heard it so often in our family that it became a tool to guilt each other into compliance.

“She’s such a/you’re such a blessing,” “by the grace of God,” “thank God,” “I just feel a check in my spirit,” “I felt the Spirit leading me to,” “thank you for serving” — all these phrases make me cringe. I deliberately avoid these phrases (although sometimes, like on Sunday night, I really am led by the Spirit to do something and then my language gets flustered), because these are the things said in SGM to frame discussions, decisions, and limit the scope of reasoning to a simplistic universe. These phrases are stifling, and lack descriptive inspiration, and I refuse their loaded SGM meanings any place in my world.

When I meet a gregarious, smart, thoughtful man in authority, I have to check myself against either completely distrusting him or completely accepting him, because of the pastors I was under and the loyalty they demanded.

When someone is 100% happy with choices and ideologies that would have perpetuated the spiritually abusive patterns I lived under, I have to hold myself back to keep from judging them or feeling like they’re fake. What may have been damaging for me might not be damaging for them, and if it is in fact damaging, they may not be able to recognize that yet, and I can’t fix them or rush them to change. It’s not my place. It’s not my decision.

I get impatient and uncomfortable with “contemporary worship music”–it feels like a performance of “worship” and it drags me back to when how you behaved during the Sunday morning song set in church was a performance for those you hoped would notice and think you humble and godly. And similarly, long sermons with any theologically questionable roots (or a too self-assured pastoral tone) make me really twitchy.

The worst though, are sermons about things like the prodigal son, about God’s unconditional fatherly love for us, his constant love and acceptance and grace. These are the best sermons, but the worst days. If I can’t sit through it, I usually end up crying in the hallway somewhere until I can see straight and go back in time for communion.

These are my scars, the ones most obvious to me. I am healing. I am strong. But these have become part of me, too.

This is part of a series on spiritual abuse. The post from day 1 is here, and the link up for day 2 is here.


When Brian contacted me on Monday offering to guest post, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I was in for a treat and so are you. Brian’s a good storyteller and doesn’t have his own blog, so I’m delighted to be able to share his testimony of surviving spiritual abuse. We need more men willing to speak up, and it’s encouraging to find some who are giving voice to their experiences. 

Also, my apologies for not posting yesterday — I’ll lump the two posts together on Friday, but sometimes shit happens and there’s not much you can do about it. Tomorrow’s link-up will be hosted by Shaney!

What is your story?  Share your experience – showing the details without going into specifics about places or people involved. What made the environment spiritually abusive?  Was it language, unspoken social codes, beliefs, assumptions, expectations? How did these factors enable the abuse? How did you eventually leave, and why?

When I was in college, God saved me in my freshman year on Halloween in 2004 – no joke!  The first church I went to was a great Bible-believing church; but when I attended another church before the end of freshman year, there was something irresistible about it.  I concluded that God was calling me to be a part of that local church to grow, thrive, and disciple.  During college breaks, I would attend another church that took an hour to get to – yes, that was the closest church.  Members admired my sacrifice to attend their church and hear God’s word preached.

Upon arriving back during my sophomore year in college, one of my friends on campus continued to disciple me, and I greatly benefitted from his investment and example.  I continued attending the church I started going to at the end of my freshman year and there was a specific unspoken expectation of having to attend every church service and small group meeting regardless of any legitimate excuse; otherwise you would be in sin.  Because of giving my life to the church, of course other members at the church appreciated that!  I was so drunk on the Kool Aid.  Then I noticed that some of my friends there haven’t been keeping in contact with me; consequently, I would call them out in the name of fellowship and use Hebrews 3:12-13 as a rod and beat them over the head with it.  Since I had to confess my sin, they must do likewise.  It was also a time of when I was personally walking through some times of doubt, but couldn’t mention doubt because it was sinful to doubt.  Regardless, I was holding prominent positions at my pharmacy school’s campus ministry and felt hypocritical because of these doubts.  Eventually, the doubts subsided and God re-established my grounding in Christ.  After graduating from college, I moved up to Altoona, PA for my first post-grad position and I noticed the bad and ugly of churches.

I attended one church there and noticed that the demographics were very polarized – either parents or kids; no college-aged students or young adults.  As a single man desiring to get married, that was a problem!  Additionally, the environment was so inclusive; outsiders were forbidden to enter their circle unless if they would drink the Kool Aid.   In order to compensate, I went to Penn State Altoona’s campus ministry and there met my eventual wife.  Shortly after we met, we started dating without jumping through any of their “courtship hoops” and abiding by their regulations.  The pastor there had a problem with that and specifically hated my girlfriend because she was an independent, rational, educated thinker.  The small group meetings were so awkward; it was the same pastor and we learned nothing from there.

Fast forward a few months into our relationship.  We hit some relational problems, and the pastor wanted me to see him to “discuss some matters”.  I wanted to voice our interest in membership, but he rebuked me for not leading and going through the hoops of how to conduct a courtship.  He also wanted me to pass on some information to her and I was thinking, “Why can’t you tell her directly?”  Oh well…

So the whole “courtship” paradigm presented was (and is!) utterly stupid, controlling; in a word – unhealthy.

My girlfriend and I continued discussing other issues within the church. Besides the environment full of everyone forced into the same mold, the preaching was nearly the exact same every week; something to the effect of a 5 minute presentation of the gospel, and “God’s grace is amazing” peppered throughout the message.  Boring… Also, with their talk about evangelism – there really wasn’t a whole lot of that going on.  I personally had a significant struggle with that, considering that the pastor’s main focus was to concentrate efforts on children’s and youth ministries (considering college ministry wasn’t there besides my girlfriend and me!).  I remember him berating me about a Facebook status I genuinely posted about how to continue investing in a church with skewed demographics but also being able to fellowship with other college-aged/young adult Christians.  It was disturbing and we finally had a last chance to either hop on board with them or leave.  He even said, “You’re free to go!  But be careful out there…”.  Bullshit.  Next morning, we found another Bible-believing church in the area that all age groups were well represented, Christ was exalted, and (gasp again!), they held outreach events and maintained solid partnerships with other solid churches throughout the region!

Shortly after my girlfriend and I got engaged, I landed a position 3 hours east of Altoona, thus requiring me to move to the Hershey region while she finished up her semester at Altoona (while planning a wedding!).  With the recent damage inflicted upon us at Altoona, we were very cautious about joining a specific church in the Hershey area.  Same problem: inclusive environment, little evangelism taking place, everyone was the same (e.g. true statistic from the pastor: 95% of the families homeschool their kids).  Since we were different and not following the prescribed “gender role” marriage (i.e. husbands must lead and wives must submit unconditionally), on the fringes we were.  Months later, the pastor there mentioned that a 40-page document about their organization’s former leader was “long” and twisted the report to “guard” us from uncorrupt speech and relationships.  Again – awkward…

With one of the pastors being forced to step down and other bad experiences we had, we left and joined another church just outside of Harrisburg.  Christ is exalted from this church with members from 22 different countries – a very unique treat and gift from God indeed!

How has your experience affected you? What has it done to you emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.? What has your journey been like? How have you gotten where you are today? Do you feel you’ve healed? What do you still struggle with?

I’ve been more raw and brash in my communication.  Spiritually, I sometimes feel burned out.  Disinterested in Christ, no desire to read the Bible, still feel disconnected.  Relationally, I lost some meaningful friendships in the process and struggle with loneliness, even as a married man.  As far as close friends go, I can count with my fingers the numbers of friends I have left.  Simultaneously, our marriage has never been better.  I still struggle with bitterness, anger, and fear, and have been seeking professional biblical counseling for that.  I am still taking medication for depression and anxiety to enable me to better handle my emotions biblically.  Somehow, I know God is using this for good, but am not sure how just yet; heck, I probably won’t find out until after death or Christ’s return.

Why should those who haven’t been hurt care about this issue? What do you wish you could tell those who want to help but weren’t close enough to know or see your situation? What do you wish every pastor knew before starting ministry? What would make the church a safe space for you?

For those who haven’t been hurt, you’re fortunate and I wish I could be in your shoes. Alas, God works in wondrous ways.  Let me address the men and women as individual groups.

Men, don’t be ashamed to share your hurts and struggles.  Sure, it may make you feel more masculine, but there’s a way to take your thoughts and feelings captive to the obedience of Christ.  Example: Psalm 42.  “Why are you downcast?… Hope in God.”  Nothing sinful about acknowledging feeling downcast, but it’s how the psalmist responds to feeling crestfallen.  Hope in God.  If you’re married, you better allow your wife to fully express her perspective on issues.  She’s called a helpmate for obvious reasons; sometimes it’s to deflate your ego as “the leader” and let God control the marriage instead of you.

Women, you’re much more than glorified incubators.  Being a stay-at-home-mom and homeschooling your kids is not all God has for you.  He’s given you a mind to use, analyze, think, and apply.  As a husband, there’s no greater disservice you can do to your husband (if you are married) than to unconditionally support him. Sure, that may boost his ego, but your input is so vital in making sure he guides you both as a team.

For those who want to help, I’m very appreciative.  It’s okay that you haven’t experienced the same hurts we have.  If someone is sharing their story and is still walking through their pain, you don’t even need to say anything initially.  While reading Job, I’ve often wondered how the book of Job would have been written if his friends just sat there with Job and sympathized with him instead of attempting to rationalize the cause of his suffering.  Like in Pilgrim’s Progress, every Christian needs a Faithful and Hopeful.  Point them to who they truly are in the Lord Jesus.  That’s what has been helping me when joining a men’s group.  Nothing else is more efficacious than to realize the worth a human being has in Christ.

 ***

Born in New Jersey, adopted into Virginia, transplanted to Pennsylvania, and am en route to move back to the greater DC region. Majored in Pharmacy, active member of the Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association, and patient advocate. God saved me when I was 18 and has been molding me into the image of Christ for the past 8 and a half years. Happily married for the past 15 months and am expecting to adopt a foster dog by the end of this April.

In short, the message I would like to communicate to every believer is from a modern day holy homey, Trip Lee: Trip Lee – Robot – typography (@triplee116 @rapzilla). “The good life is living by faith in a good God.”


Just a reminder that tomorrow we’ll be continuing the Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week over at Joy Bennett’s blog. Here’s the prompt:

Your journey and consequences of spiritual abuse

How has your experience affected you? What has it done to you emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.? What has your journey been like? How have you gotten where you are today? Do you feel you’ve healed? What do you still struggle with?

Image by Dani Kelley, http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/

Image by Dani Kelley, http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/

And until midnight tonight I’ll still be taking your stories from the Day 1 prompt.

So moved by and thankful for all those who’ve linked up and shared their stories already. Check out Elora’s blog for more, anonymous survivor stories.


Church Survivors

Image by Dani Kelley, http://danileekelley.wordpress.com/

SPIRITUAL ABUSE AWARENESS WEEK, DAY 1: My story

I can’t find a way to make this a short post.

I’ve been a little loath to answer this specific question since I started blogging. I prefer to tell vignettes and talk about the big picture of spiritual abuse in the church and use my story in bits and pieces to show examples of how certain authoritarian or legalistic ideas trickle down to affect people in real life.

The reason I’ve been hesitant to tell my story is because it’s not just “I was in this one church for 10 years and it was really messed up” – my whole life has been touched by spiritual abuse and I’m only now in a place where I can begin to feel safe.

I started blogging under a pseudonym because my dad felt like I was slandering him online. My “disclaimer” post happened because my mom got a call from an old friend saying: “how do you feel about being smeared on your daughter’s blog?” and that was both inappropriate and upsetting.

Here’s the thing: my parents are just as much survivors of spiritual abuse as I am. Their active engagement with certain parenting theories, their church choices, and their reasons for homeschooling altogether made us as a family incredibly vulnerable to spiritual abuse. They are still dealing with the aftermath just as much as I am.

The point is: it’s not their fault. As their child, I am stuck in the tension between talking about what spiritual abuse looked for me and being honest about that and being mature and compassionate toward my parents as well-intentioned, kind people who didn’t know what they were getting into, even though their choices directly caused me to grow up the way I did.

And of course it wasn’t all bad. I’m not trying to paint a bleak picture of life with my family — there is a lot of sweetness and light there.

But, it’s still true that trying to become an adult with independent ideas in my family (and in any Quiverfull family, I will add) is a harrowing journey that can require the young person to either hide their new adult self, suppress their new adult self, or confront the emotional control impulses in QF parents with honesty and risk fracturing the relationship.

And that is a decision that no child should have to face.

So, if you’re a friend of my parents and you’re reading here, please, please understand me: I am not slandering my parents. Slander is telling falsehoods to attempt to smear a person’s reputation. I have no vendetta against them, I crave for them healing and freedom, not condemnation and guilt. I’m not trying to shame them or rebuke them. I’m just telling my story and please don’t tell me how I should tell it. You didn’t live it.

***

My parents chose to create their family culture around the idea that they could try to get things right where they thought their parents had failed. They saw their children as their Christian legacy, and while they never really engaged the “have more Christian kids to have more arrows in our quiver for God’s army so Christianity can reform and redeem American culture” philosophy which defines a lot of “Quiverfull” families, we were still very much a Quiverfull family.

From an early age I knew that dating was wrong because it was “practicing for divorce” and that I would court to find my husband, that grace was like if mom took my spanking for me when I deserved it instead of her, that I was responsible to behave rightly so that I wouldn’t cause my younger siblings to follow my example and sin/make bad choices, that I was homeschooled because that was the way God wanted parents to raise their kids, according to Deuteronomy. I was taught that I had to be sure I was saved, that rebelling against my parents would be as bad as practicing the sin of witchcraft (and the story of Saul was a byword for that happened if you were okay with witchcraft). I believed that people with mental health issues probably had demons, and that Jesus was coming back soon and I would be held responsible for the lives of sinners I was close with and hadn’t preached the gospel to.

I went up for altar calls three times after I initially prayed the sinner’s prayer with my parents at age 5 or so, because I knew I was often angry with my sister for being annoying, and God’s word said that if I hated my brother I couldn’t love Jesus. I was terrified that I would disqualify myself from a relationship with him because I didn’t know how to love my siblings.

Initially, my family was the only one of its sort in the churches we attended. We’d be the only homeschoolers, the only big family (that was when there were only 5 of us kids), the only ones who didn’t “believe in youth group” and didn’t watch a lot of popular movies and weren’t allowed to listen to “secular” music. But we did find likeminded people in the homeschooling community, some who were as “fundamental” as we were, some who were less strict but still passionate about raising their kids to honor God.

That’s how benign it started. These parents all just wanted to raise their children in a way that would please God and help their kids avoid making “the same mistakes we made” in their teenage and early adult years. But the difficulty with this is that it turned “pleasing God with my life” and “raising my children to honor God” into a formula. Insert One Child, separate from The World, remove Temptation and Rebellion, bake at Christian Community 24/7 for 18 years, and presto! happy Christian heritage passed on successfully to offspring.

If you read the literature my parents and their peers read—Mary Pride, the Pearls, Gregg Harris, Jonathan Lindvall, Bill Gothard, etc.—you’ll see that these people meant well. You’ll see them reacting to abstract cultural issues that disturbed them, and reacting against their own childhoods to try to do better than their parents’ generation. But you’ll also see a heck of a lot of bad handling of Scripture, straw man fallacies, fear-mongering manipulation of idealist motives, and youthful arrogance. Their teachings directly influenced my parents’ decisions and those of many others like them.

I went from a loud, imaginative, inquisitive child to an insecure, fearful teenager who forgot how to make friends or empathize with people because of the legalism embraced by my parents, church, and myself. I became a queen at legalistic self-censure and unintentionally pushed friends away with my self-righteousness in this black and white formula Christianity where I had it all figured out.

I spent a lot of lonely nights in late middle school and high school crying on the couch to my mom about how I felt so unwanted by the girls I counted as my friends, and she’d rub my back and hug me and tell me that it was their loss, and I’d be a wonderful friend.

But what I didn’t realize was that it wasn’t all just “different seasons of life” where they couldn’t relate to my busy life full of housework obligations for my family, my parents’ restrictions on curfew, getting a job out of the house, internet, movies, music, etc. It wasn’t just my academic aspirations in a peer group of wannabe stay-at-home-moms/future pastors wives. My “dry spell” with friendships was, perhaps in part, due to my stuck-up legalism that pushed people away.

If a friend told me about the boy she was crushing on I’d frown, thinking of the boy I was currently trying not to crush on (because it was wrong, duh), and offer a “correction” about how we were just 16, so we shouldn’t be thinking about boys, really.

If a church acquaintance was hanging around with guys after church and wearing a tight top, I would pull her aside and offer the “observation” that it seemed like she was flirting and to watch out for form-revealing tops that might be too “inviting” for “our brothers in Christ” and might “make them stumble.”

If my friend told me she was frustrated with her younger siblings, I would murmur empathy, and then launch into a sermon about how we’re called to serve our families, how it’s practice for our life-long roles at home as women, how we can’t love God if we’re not loving our brother, and Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do To You. I’d tell her that mom made us memorize that verse so we could remember to love each other and suggest that she memorize it, also.

Basically, I was a goody-two-shoes who didn’t observe or have compassion for how my friends felt, because I had been raised (by my parents and my churches) to believe that the kindest thing one Christian could do for another was to call each other out on their sin. That was having grace for each other—correcting each other by “speaking the truth in love.”

In reality, there was no grace, there was no concept of love, and the truth I spoke was condemnation rather than healing and hope. And I was just parroting what I saw around me, living out “the right way to do relationships” with other Christians.

If I did that to you and haven’t been able to apologize to you for treating you like that: I’m so, so sorry. Please forgive me.

You can’t love someone if you think that showing love means looking for their weaknesses and exploiting them to make them feel guilty (“pursue holiness”).

I discovered this for myself the hard way. When I started branching out intellectually and becoming an adult thinker, my dad started withdrawing his affirmation of me as his favored child and challenging my ideas. It wasn’t the sort of casual dinner table discussions of various “grey area” issues you sometimes see between thoughtful teenagers and their parents. It was more of a white-knuckled intellectual hazing—I had to defend my position to him on his terms in order to keep my place in his mind as a fellow Christian.

It started with little things. We’d agree in our discussions of how our SGM church’s polity was hurting people and setting itself up for the pastors to have too much power. But then it’d shift into other things: I’d argue for why ballroom dancing wasn’t too much temptation for me, why I thought I should be allowed to wear shorts instead of cutoffs, why I thought that I should be allowed to go to my friends’ houses on Saturdays when he thought I should stay home and help the family instead.

But then it shifted into larger issues as my world expanded through college, and we found ourselves in arguments where I defended the worth of studying Derrida and he’d accuse me of moral relativism. I’d argue that my boyfriend’s student loans weren’t a moral failing, and he’d tell me that the Bible says that those who borrow are fools.

The watershed moment when I realized our relationship had fundamentally shifted when he and my mom confronted me for kissing my boyfriend without asking their permission, almost a year after we’d started dating. It was moving too fast, they said. It was asking for us to fall into temptation, they said. I was rejecting dad’s authority over me and choosing the path of rebellion.

That morning, when they put me in the car and drove for a couple hours, locking the doors and not letting me leave until I had “confessed” to them my potentially sexually immoral relationship with my boyfriend, was when I realized that my boyfriend had been right when he said that my dad was inappropriately controlling and didn’t respect me as an adult person.

I had thought I had done everything right, that I’d figured out what was right and wrong, that my dad and I were practically best friends, that I’d never have a bad relationship with my family.

But that morning I realized that I wasn’t free, he didn’t treat me like a spiritual or moral equal, that my relationship with my parents was inappropriately codependent, that the world was muchmuchmore saturated with gradients of grey than I had ever dreamed, and that I didn’t have anything figured out.

I was morally and emotionally infantile, asymmetrically maturing in my fluency in Pharisee, successful passive-aggressive social manipulation, intellectual irrationality through simplistic logic, and unable to name for myself my own feelings, experiences, loves, fears, passions. If something about me wasn’t acceptable to the world of SGM and my parents’ approval, it didn’t exist as a valid reality.

They didn’t mean to shape me into that person. But when you create a world that is morally immature and only black and white, you stunt yourself and those under your authority and prevent the brilliant beauty of diverse humanity and the full impact of grace on human relationships from being visible.  And that short-sightedness combined with power over people is the perfect storm for spiritual abuse.

 ***

Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week, Day 1

YOUR STORY & LANGUAGE/CULTURE OF SPIRITUAL ABUSE

Prompt: What is your story? Share your experience — showing the details without going into specifics about places or people involved. What made the environment spiritually abusive? Was it language, unspoken social codes, beliefs, assumptions, expectations? How did these factors enable the abuse? How did you eventually leave, and why?

Join up and share your story! Post on your blog, then come back and link up below. Feel free to use Dani’s image on your post, and tweet your thoughts at us with the hashtag: #ChurchSurvivors



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When someone is angry about bad things that happened to them in their church, their anger is not easily accepted by those who have only had positive experiences with Christianity. Before a survivor of spiritual abuse can tell his story, it has to be worked over, combed through, and made palatable for the intended audience. And even then, we don’t always get heard or believed. These stories of pain don’t seem like they’re what the Church should be like, so it’s simpler to ignore the stories when you can’t relate to them.

Even here on my blog, I find myself prefacing my story here for you, because I see the disconnect and I see hurt and misunderstanding on both sides. And all I want to do is to speak on the behalf of those like me who have been hurt, to those in the Church who haven’t been hurt. I want to offer you an invitation to my story, my experience in a church with good intentions where abuse flourished. Walk with me? It’s not going to be easy and yes, you may realize things about your church that you don’t want to know.

But when we’re dealing with stories of children who were molested in churches, stories where their abusers were allowed to remain free because good Christian people didn’t want to believe that something like that could ever happen at our church? I think it’s now a moral obligation for us as a Church to take a long look at what we’re dealing with and where it came from, even if it is uncomfortable and heart-rending, in order to protect those coming after us.

We are the grandchildren of the suburban moderns and their scientific, reasonable placelessness. We are the children of the Jesus Movement, descended from those who craved life and connection and healing from the confines of the just-so church and the hypocrisy therein. We are the Quiverfull daughters, the homeschool graduates, the creation science crusaders, the apologetics champions, the Jesus Freaks, the summer missionaries, the WWJD generation.

And a lot of us have crippling pain that makes us skittish around traditional church, nervous about trusting religious authorities or even just a mom leading a Bible study. We love Jesus so much, or we want to if only we knew how. We see lots of irrational arguments and a lot of fear-based ideas that stunted us, but we’ve grown around the boulders our parents and pastors laid in our way and we’re seeing the sky and the sun and the vast expanse of love offered by the Jesus of the gospels, and we have so, so many questions. And we want straight answers, because love is worth living out with intellectual integrity.

So please, listen to our stories. Lay aside your concerns about our bitterness or the status of our faith, and just hear us out. There’s more to our stories than you know, and we want to invite you into our safe spaces to talk about what we’ve been through and seen.

This coming week, survivors of spiritual abuse are going to link up and talk about what spiritual abuse looks like and why it happens despite good intentions.

Day 1 (March 18th) will be hosted by me, here at Wine & Marble.

Day 1: Your story & language/culture of spiritual abuse

What is your story? Share your experience — showing the details without going into specifics about places or people involved. What made the environment spiritually abusive? Was it language, unspoken social codes, beliefs, assumptions, expectations? How did these factors enable the abuse? How did you eventually leave, and why?

Day 2 (March 20) will be hosted by Joy Bennet of Joy In This Journey

Day 2: Your journey and consequences of spiritual abuse

How has your experience affected you? What has it done to you emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.? What has your journey been like? How have you gotten where you are today? Do you feel you’ve healed? What do you still struggle with?

Day 3 (March 22) will be hosted by Shaney Irene

Day 3: What others should know & moving forward

Why should those who haven’t been hurt care about this issue? What do you wish you could tell those who want to help but weren’t close enough to know or see your situation? What do you wish every pastor knew before starting ministry? What would make the church a safe space for you?

Optional, for those who didn’t do the first two days: What did you learn? What changes will you encourage in your churches, etc. in order to prevent spiritual abuse and provide healing?

and.

Every day next week, Elora Nicole will be hosting anonymous survivor stories on her blog as part of her Rebel Diaries project (submit these by March 16 to participate) for those who aren’t free to speak up publicly yet.

In addition, Rachel Held Evans is going to be highlighting spiritual abuse on her blog and there’s bound to be some fantastic discussion going down in her comments sections.

So, come, sit at the table. Lay down your assumptions and lay down your fears. This is the house of the King and we’re calling a truce. Tell your stories.

Hashtag for Twitter discussion is  #ChurchSurvivors


I have this theory, influenced by my senior seminar spent immersed in Derrida and my personal observations of trends in the conservative Christian bubble, that I think I’d like to pursue for graduate work.

The problem is that I haven’t the first clue about what field this would fall into or where I could go to find a department supportive of me pursuing this idea academically. Care to help?

Earlier this week I mentioned that I think having the vocabulary to name your problem is the first step to being able to confront it. The reason I think this is closely connected to what I’ve observed…

In “cult”-like churches (here loosely defined as churches with isolated/insulated and somewhat controlling internal social culture, using fear and shame to manipulate members into continued acquiescence and support of the leader, group, or “movement.there’s usually a distinct vocabulary that is used within the “cult” (I’m going to use that from here on out, but don’t get upset. That’s just me using the term broadly because it’s handy.) which the members understand instinctually, but the loaded connotations of these terms don’t make sense to outsiders OR don’t register with outsiders as loaded terms.

Let me give an example. In Sovereign Grace Ministries, longtime members are humorously self-aware that their lingo doesn’t make a ton of sense to outsiders (CLC’s 25th anniversary celebration pageant included a sketch where two members were talking with a non-member and hilarious confusion ensued due to the terminology). The unchurched have a certain confused reaction to phrases like “I just want to purpose to” and “don’t want to cause anyone to stumble” and “I just want to be a blessing here,” etc.

But, within the evangelical world, these terms tend to translate all right. Where it gets weird is that the “reformed big dogs” (a term used to loosely refer to the celebrity pastors/leaders of the new reformed movement in America, such as John Piper, Mark Dever, Al Mohler, etc., and those at the Gospel Coalition and Together For The Gospel.) hear someone like CJ Mahaney saying something like “I’m going to purpose to humble myself and make myself transparent and accountable to xyz men in my church/church leaders elsewhere” and they think “Oh! He’s going to listen and ask for advice and is willing to change and receive feedback and fix the problems in SGM. We should assume the best.” But what CJ [functionally, maybe not deliberately] means by saying that is more like: “I’m going to meet with likeminded people who will tell me I’m okay and we’ll talk these issues through and when we come out on the same page we can continue business as usual because I’ve been open to talking about it [humble] and gotten outside input [accountable].”

The language is loaded and the mistranslation perpetuates unconscionable defenses of bad behavior on the part of leaders like CJ because it’s easy to assume the best when he’s saying things that in your interpretation mean he’s genuinely repenting and willing to change.

That’s how this works on the leader-on-the-inside talking to leaders-on-the-outside level. But where it’s most troubling is how it works internally, how this affects the cult members who are fish unaware of the linguistic water in which they swim.

On the internal level, once you’ve been in one of these churches for a while, you start to adapt to the vocabulary, and the loaded meanings of the cult’s use of certain common churchy words start replacing the original meanings. The words slip and slide from loaded Christianese to be weighted with new meanings, usually marked by elements of shame and guilt as the impetus for the new meanings.

Example: “unteachability” in the normal world means: “someone who is obnoxiously full of themselves and can’t take criticism or follow rules.” In the mainstream evangelical church, it means that plus “someone who will hurt others with this attitude and probably should work on humility and learn how to listen better because that’s Christ-like.” In Sovereign Grace Ministries, it means “someone who has concerns about how things operate and asked uncomfortable questions/has uncomfortable observations about leadership and their habits and won’t accept the standard answers to their questions at face value and is looking for more honesty than we’re comfortable with.” Whether or not this person has an edge to their attitude or has a vendetta motivating their questions, once you’re labelled as “unteachable,” you’re perpetually on a short leash in SGM and asking why they won’t answer or why they don’t trust you anymore will prove your unteachability further and perpetuate your status as out of favor with the leadership.

The thing is, this is not just SGM that does this. It happens in little Presbyterian churches turning into cults by not reporting honestly to their session. It happens to home churches, to Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches. It happens in Bill Gothard’s program members, it happens in home school groups, it happens in Vision Forum, it happens in Calvary Chapels, it happens in essentially any church or church-like group that isn’t mixing with those different from themselves or are deliberately engaging in self-protective isolation.

This is why the Westboro Baptist Church is so impenetrable with their positions — they don’t need to protect themselves from people trying to persuade them they’re wrong. Their internal cult dialect does that for them. Without a translation, they’re safe from being convinced that they’re wrong.

I call the psychological effect of this loaded language on members a “stop-think trigger” (I need a better term — is there a real term in academic use for this?), where a cult member’s normal reasoning function shortcuts itself when one of these loaded terms is used, and they don’t follow through the process of thinking an idea through from A to Z, and end up in an irrational and emotionally harmful place because they accepted a phrase on the terms set for it by the cult’s use of it, and the phrase surrenders its original meaning or vitality to the new meaning.

And that, this ability of church leaders to use psychological manipulation by defining the dialectic of a church or group to control the social and emotional habits and atmosphere of a church, is what I want to study for grad school. [I think.] Why does it work? How does it work? How is it connected to “brainwashing” or “Stockholm Syndrome”? What does it mean for someone to get out of a cult and how does the language affect that process and what is the psychological fallout and why is it so similar to PTSD?

So, questions.

1) Talk to me about my theory. What do you think?

2) What discipline would best support pursuing this academically? Sociology? Linguistics? Psychology? Philosophy? 

3) Has this been done before? What schools have programs/professors that would support this best? Should I look for a Christian institution or a “secular” one?


I’m glad this happened on my lunch break so I can say something right now while I’m angry.

Yes, angry. 

I was going to do day 3 of FemFest and do a link-up, but I think you’ll forgive me for skipping it because “someone is wrong on the internet!” Seriously, though. This is important. 

Dear Tim Challies, 

You’re using your blog platform today to

1) defend and protect abusers

2) twist the meaning of “loving one another” in a “biblical” way to silence those who have been abused by the church

3) use the SGM lawsuit to boost your traffic.

All of these things are in poor form and you should be ashamed of yourself. You can do better than this, and you know it. 

First off. You say this:

The Bible is clear that a distinguishing characteristic of Christians is to be our love for one another. John 13:35 says it plainly: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love for other Christians is the great test of our commitment to Christ and our likeness to him. This love is put to the test in a unique way in the midst of trouble and disagreement.

This situation is unfolding before a watching world that loves nothing more than to see Christians in disunity, accusing one another, fighting one another, making a mockery of the gospel that brings peace. You and I are responsible to do well here, to be above reproach in our thoughts, words and actions. We are responsible to be marked by love whether evaluating a difficult situation or taking appropriate action. We can make the gospel look great or we can make it look insignificant.

If we’re to know Christian by our love, wouldn’t that mean rushing to protect the helpless, the abused, the hurting, the crippled sheep lagging behind? You’re bringing in a watching world, so I will too: This is why the world dislikes the American church. We’re either playing the Great White Saviors for international social justice issues, or we’re playing the Upright Snob Who Needs Proof of Hurt before you’ll get off your plushy office chair and get your hands and heart engaged in helping the messy people in your church, in your neighborhood, in your homes. You are a foolish man if you think that Jesus is going to applaud you for giving CJ the benefit of the doubt instead of jumping to ask questions and help those who have been damaged. Of course you refuse to learn more about this situation–you don’t want to be involved because it’s messy. You and Piper and Mohler and all the other big name reformed Christian leaders. Whitewashed tombs! I can’t see your love and neither can the watching world. How is this “above reproach”? Even the Gentiles love as you do.

Why that matters: because this is the exact same thinking that questions a rape victim and asks her if she “imagined it” (read that article. the similarities in how abuse is handled are appalling). This is the  same sort of thinking that tells a girl if she was wearing a miniskirt, she was asking for rape. The man who raped her is a model, leading citizen! We should assume the best, right? By participating in this logic you are helping the church be a refuge for abusers.

Secondly. By saying this:

Because I am not a part of SGM I am not forced to take a side and, therefore, will not.

You are picking sides when you say you won’t pick sides and then suggest we assume the best about CJ and SGM. By saying this, you are putting moral pressure on the victims to second-guess their pain and experiences, which is spiritually abusive behavior on your part. By saying you don’t have to get involved because CJ isn’t your pastor and you’re not in SGM, you are saying that when you’re spiritually abused by your pastor, we don’t have to care about you because you’re not in my church.

This contradicts your earlier statements about loving each other and giving a unified front to a watching world. You have to pick sides because abuse happened and SGM looked the other way and now this is on major news outlets and the watching world is talking about this and looking to Christians and thinking, “well, they protect abusers and make uneducated court appeals to get off the hook easily. I don’t want a part in that.” How is that love? How is that intellectually honest? I know you’re smarter than this.

And then, closing with this?

If it is true that I am called to love other Christians, that I am called to believe and hope all things, that I am far outside this situation, then I think I do well to learn less rather than more.

Then why the hell are you blogging about it? If you’re deliberately choosing to be ignorant about it and don’t want to take sides, then sit down and shut up. If this isn’t your story or your fight, stay out of it. Posting about this if you really believe those things is a shallow grab for traffic on your site and that’s just reprehensible.

You are showing yourself for who you are here, and I’m going to take you at your word.

—-

For those interested to learn more about this, check out these sites for good coverage:

The Tolling Bell
SGM Survivors
The Wartburg Watch


When I posted about Dannah Gresh’s concerning (and poorly composed) chapel sermon at Grove City College on Tuesday, I figured I wouldn’t get much response.

I guess I assumed that most Christian leaders are like those I grew up with — ensconced in their own success and emotionally unmovable when criticized rightly. Pastors and teachers I encountered along my path were usually those who would listen gravely to what you had to say, and then effectively smile and pat you on the head with some platitude or smooth response, and never really hear your hurt or perspective. There was no empathy or genuine concern about how they affected people. Usually, what got their attention was the threat of bad PR, not a hurting individual.

Since then, I’ve learned that there are good pastors. The pastor who cared for me during my last two years of college, the pastor who’s been praying for me as I work through hard personal things right now, the professors at Grove City who have a ministerial relationship with the students under their watch. These individuals (with their relatively small spheres of influence) have given me a lot of hope, personally.

But when it came to those with big public ministries, I retained my cynicism. From where I sit, I have observed that fame does things to people. It looks like it’s easy to be wrapped up in the numbers and the tour and the new topic or book and forget that there are real people receiving and engaging with your message. That people are sometimes basing their whole spiritual life on your ideas and what you say deeply impacts the decisions they make and the way they live. I think it’s for this reason that James reminded his audience that teachers will be judged more strictly.

So. When I posted yesterday, I didn’t know what to expect, but I certaintly didn’t expect Dannah Gresh to personally respond. And I never expected her to respond with gentleness and apology, with an attitude of “please let me make this right.” But I thought I’d at least make sure she was aware we were talking about her message, and I posed this on her Facebook fan page:

FB dannah gresh

I didn’t think she’d respond. I sort of half-assumed she’d even delete the post. But she didn’t delete it and she did respond to me.

And, oh my. This gives me hope for the Church in new ways. Here’s her comment (she posted the same comment on Shaney’s piece, though not on Dianna’s):

dannah gresh comment

Not long after the comment went up, I received an email from her with an invitation to talk over the phone and continue the conversation. We’ve corresponded briefly, and she’s for real. This isn’t a stop-the-bad-blogs-from-talking-about-me move. This is a real, heartfelt desire to avoid the rape culture elements of the Christian purity movement and a sincere attempt at engaging us here.

I’m excited to see where this goes. She still hasn’t addressed Dianna’s concerns about her use of the word Hebrew word “ahava” (which, to be fair, I’m not educated enough to seriously address the nuances of the translation) and the rape of Dinah, but I’m hopeful that she will.

The purity movement is so well-intended, but it’s strayed into legalism and modesty checklists and straw man caricatures of feminism and blaming the victim. This is not okay. But perhaps there’s some hope for addressing these issues, after all?

***

A further clarification for those who felt like her story was certainly hyperbole (which it did turn out to be) and that those criticizing her sermon were “nitpicking” — words mean things. You can’t excuse someone’s careless words on assuming the best about their intent when they have such a big public presence. If she said it in a public forum, it’s up for public discussion, and it’s her job to communicate clearly to avoid sending the wrong message about abuse.

I know we’re all Christians and it’s a good impulse to try to be nice about things, but that’s not appropriate in situations like these, where she was speaking to (guessimating based on my years attending GCC chapels) an audience of 500-700 students and is regularly publishing mainstream Christian books and leads a multi-level ministry to young people of various ages and helps run a blog about  these topics. Statistically speaking, there are those who were in her audience on Tuesday morning who are currently in abusive relationships or have experienced abuse, and without her clarification, the message they heard was “don’t be needy,” “don’t fall in love,” and “being thrown against a wall is okay if your partner really loves you.”

This is why her clarification and engagement with our concerns is so, so important and encouraging.

Thank you, Dannah. Let’s keep talking.


Harbison Chapel, Grove City College

<< Please see the update on this situation here. >>

 While I may have some mixed feelings about elements of the institution that is my alma mater, I admit, I am quite fond of Grove City College. It’s a good place with good people. I am grateful for everyone there who invested in me and for the time I had in that community.

But as an alumna, I have to say something when this Tuesday’s chapel speaker told a story about intimate partner violence and called it an example of agape love with no qualifications.

That is wrong.

Here’s the quote, transcribed from the audio file (click to listen!) by Dianna Anderson. The sermon (message? talk?) was only about 20 minutes long, but Dannah Gresh packed a lot into that time. This is the part that concerns me the most:

In the New Testament, there’s a more familiar word that you’re probably [pause] aware of…the word ‘agape.’ The Love of God or Christ for humankind, unselfish love of one person for another, without sexual implication. Brotherly love. A love feast.

There’s a lot of sisters in the room right now looking for some brotherly love. They just don’t know that’s what they need.

….

[Quotes Ephesians 5:25, claims agape is the type of love a husband extends to his wife, says that if men are not willing to “step up,” they are not ready for love]

“And here’s the thing, as I was looking over my dating years with my husband, as we were college students. I remember one very distinct time. I was thinking ‘when were the times that he expressed agape love to me?’ I could think of a lot of really neat ones, but I thought of one that was probably harder for him than all the rest.

You see, we had recently gotten engaged and I was living in an apartment and going to summer school so I could finish up a little early – not that I was in a hurry to get married or anything. And he came to see me. And we hadn’t seen each other for months and we missed each other very much. And it probably took one fifth of a second when he was inside of that apartment for us to realize we were really in love. And we found ourselves horizontal on the sofa. And it really wasn’t okay. You get the picture.

But it lasted about a second and before I knew it, my fiancé picked me up off the sofa, threw me against the wall, and ran outside of my apartment.

[awkward laughter]

Yes, I felt horribly rejected.

[more laughter]

But I brushed myself off and I walked outside and I said “What was that?”

And he said, opening the car door, “Get in, we need a chaperone. I can’t be alone with you. We’re going to Professor Haffy’s house.”

[more laughter]

And we spent the weekend in one of our professor’s homes.

That’s agape.

So, I know what she meant. She meant that if you’re crossing moral lines with your significant other, it’s self-sacrificially loving (agape) to help uphold standards or take the high road and stop whatever questionable activity (which may cause sin or be sin…it’s not clear) for the sake of everyone involved. This is generally common sense, though her assumptions about what is and isn’t right here are questionable and, worse, vague.

But what she essentially said is this: premarital sex or lust is worse than intimate partner violence. Or in other words: it’s okay to abuse your girlfriend if it’s going to keep you from having sex with her before getting married.

She could have chosen to qualify this story, to comment, “now, throwing me against a wall was WRONG and he would never do that now,” or something similarly clarifying. But she did not do that. 

And by having Dannah up there in the College-endorsed Harbison Chapel pulpit on a Tuesday morning when students are given chapel credit for listening to this talk, Grove City College is complicit in this endorsement until they state otherwise.

I tweeted at the College’s Twitter account yesterday and was retweeted by others about this, and the feed manager has yet to respond. I assume that they’re busy or someone’s on vacation, because this should not be a difficult question. The College should be able to quickly and easily respond to this, as should anyone else who heard the talk.

Throwing your fiancée up against a wall is abusive and wrong and never okay for anyone, Christian or non-Christian.

I have a host of other problems with this talk — how Gresh is illiterate about what “feminism” and “chauvinism” mean, how her bad use of Hebrew, Greek, and her proof-texting make her a living straw man argument against having women teaching in the church. How her invalidation of emotions for women (and her silence on men with emotions of their own) was appalling and insensitive (and next door to gaslighting). How she mistakenly argued that Dinah’s rape was an example of love. How silly the ending illustration was.

But these are just symptoms of ignorance.

Stating that intimate partner violence is “agape” love is inexcusable.  It’s dangerous and wrong. This is the stuff that has the potential to damage lives forever. 

Grove City College, I’m calling you out. You’re better than this. Make this right.

——–
Check out this post by Shaney in response to Dannah’s talk. A post by Dianna on this is also forthcoming here.