This week I want to talk about Religious Abuse. What it is, what it looks like. I know many of you have experienced this first hand and have been deeply wounded so I hope to proceed very gently. Please forgive me where I fail.
I also understand that many of you, because of experiencing this have discarded church and any understanding of a loving God. I don’t blame you for that. You have a right to be angry. I will not tell you that it is your responsibility to reconcile with your abuser.
If you were attacked by a dog, would I tell you to go back and risk getting bitten again? Christians who insist on reconciliation in the face of spiritual abuse are forgetting one important thing: Abusive people can’t always be reasoned with.
There are many different definitions for Religious Abuse but I have settled on a simple one. I believe the following covers it well:
When Christians and/or churches use the Bible to abuse,
manipulate or control others or their followers.
How can you tell if you are in a Religiously Abusive Situation?
Adding to the Salvation Message
Religious abusers add to what is needed to be reconciled with Father. This keeps the bar moving higher so that followers must stay dependent on the wisdom and power of the leader/person. Of course, the list is endless. You must believe in Jesus AND not smoke, drink, believe exactly as I do, dress the way I do, and on and on and on…
Incredibly, I was once told by a member of a church I was pastoring that I was not a real Christian because I don’t vote Conservative and, wait for it, didn’t watch FOX News! Come on People!
The biblical message is clear that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus. PLUS NOTHING! God’s plan of salvation never changes. We can be reconciled to our Father, made right with Him, thanks to Jesus. Not by what we do to try and earn it. But by believing in Jesus and what He did for us.
Religiously abusive ministries regularly call for sacrificial giving of time, talents, and treasure. This is not biblical. Instead, the New Testament calls for generous and cheerful giving (2 Corinthians 9, verse 7).
You should each give what you have decided in your heart to give. You shouldn't give if you don't want to. You shouldn't give because you are forced to. God loves a cheerful giver.
While God does sometimes call us to give sacrificially, this is between us and Him. No person can demand such sacrifice, and certainly not on an ongoing basis.
Healthy churches teach biblical giving which is based on generosity and freewill, not coercion nor guilt.
Giving to Get
Religiously abusive ministries will tell you the giving of your time and money will always result in financial or physical blessing. The more you give the more blessed you will be.
I remember well trying to put someone back together spiritually after she was told that the only reasons she had cancer was because her faith was not strong enough and because she did not give 10% of her income to the church. This was told to her by her pastor.
This is a works-based system of salvation and being right with God. It is also abusive. It could not be less biblical.
Healthy ministries focus on giving which is a by-product of thankfulness and faith. I give out of appreciation for what I have been given through Jesus, not to be blessed financially.
This is ‘part b’ of our first point on Adding to the salvation message.
Religiously abusive ministries and individuals demand perfection from members to prove that they are saved. This may come across as wanting us to become mature in the faith. In reality, they want to control the people underneath them, and the easiest way to do this is to point out their sins and show how worthless and hopeless they are. This keeps people dependent on them and their teaching.
Healthy leaders and Christians recognize the role of grace in salvation and understand that all of us need mercy, patience, and understanding. None of us are perfect.
Leaders in abusive groups misuse confidential information and share it widely to humiliate people. Or they bad-mouth people who have left the group. This maintains an atmosphere of fear.
Healthy leaders, however, maintain confidences, encourage the weak, and empower people under their care toward maturity and JOY in Christ.
Spiritually abusive groups use church discipline passages from the Bible as an excuse to punish current members or to shun ex-members. I grew up in a church where the joke was that every Bible verse ended with the words, 'or else'.
Such people use church discipline to keep people in line, to halt disagreement and as a threat against critical thinking.Leaders of these groups misunderstand the purpose of church discipline, which is restorative, not punitive.
In contrast, healthy leaders use church discipline only in serious matters of major unrepentant sin. And they understand that the goal of such corrective measures is restoration, not punishment.
The one thing that all religiously abuse people have in common is that they have little or no concept of God as Father. They do not understand that they do not have to work for God’s approval because they already have it. They do not have to work for God’s acceptance because they already have it. They have little understanding of God as the father in the story of the boy who took off then returned home.
Therefore, they are left with only God as a judge. They live in fear of not being good enough so add to what is needed in the hope that it will be enough. That’s bad enough but when they then place that on others, it becomes abusive.
How many of these have you experienced? What would you add to my list? Let me know.
If this in any way describes the organization you are part of, get out. God has better for you!
We will stay on this topic for the next few blogs. Next time we will look at whether you are at risk of being religiously abused. Then, we will look at how people are further hurt when they try to respond to this abuse.