I know many of you don't want to hear this. Readership of the recent posts on abuse is way down. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and ignore this problem. It is one of the leading causes why people turn their back on God. It must stop. The consequences are huge.
Religious abuse is bad enough. Indeed, there should be no place for it in the church. But we know it is rampant. You are probably reading this post because you, or someone you love, is the victim of religious abuse.
But often it doesn’t stop with the initial abuse. When the abused have the courage to come forward to expose the abuse, they are often abused again.
Here are a few things not to say to someone who has been hurt by their church:
1. “No Church Is Perfect.”
Instead of empathizing with those who have been hurt by a church, some Christians go right into defense mode.
They might argue that the victim just had a “bad experience.” Or, they’ll say the Church is full of imperfect people who are “only human” and make mistakes just like the rest of us.
But can we agree that these excuses only distract from the problem? No one wants to be told to “focus on all the good things the Church does” when they’ve been hurt by one.
2. “Are You Working Toward Reconciliation?”
The last thing a victim of spiritual abuse needs to do is go right back into the environment that hurt them in the first place.
If someone has been attacked by a dog, would you tell them 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.
Not only is it dangerous to ask a victim to make amends with their abusers, it also puts an undue burden of responsibility on the victim to come up with a solution. It’s like saying, “They’re the ones who hurt you, but now it’s your job to make it right.”
3. “What are Non-Believers Going to Think?”
If you’re more concerned about the church’s reputation than you are about the abuse itself, you might have your priorities mixed up.
Have you ever read a headline about a Christian going public against a church or ministry and thought to yourself, “Is this providing a good witness?” If you’re more concerned about the church’s reputation than you are about the abuse itself, you might have your priorities mixed up.
As Christians, we can get so preoccupied with how outsiders view the Church that we put appearances before the truth. When we do this, we substitute the reality of the Church for our own ideal of the Church. All we’re showing the world is that we prefer a false witness over a bad one.
4. “Stop Being so Bitter.”
People who have been hurt by a church have a right to be angry. Not only is anger an appropriate response to injustice, it’s a healthy response if it's channeled the right ways.
So why do Christians have such a hard time letting each other express negative emotions? Not only is anger an appropriate response to injustice, it’s a healthy response if it's channeled the right ways.
The other day I heard someone put it this way: “Religion will molest you, then accuse you of being bitter about it.” Do you see the double standard? When victims react to being hurt by someone in a church, we treat them as though there’s something’s wrong with them. This is why abusers are so often exonerated. It’s easier to justify letting the abuser off the hook if both parties are “in the wrong.”
5. “Is This Worth Dividing the Church Over?”
How it might affect the congregation should never be the deciding factor in whether to expose abuse.
Too often, churches and their leaders want to sweep the whole ordeal under the rug. Our silence, we are told, is for the greater good of the church. It isn't a suggestion—it is an ultimatum. If we don’t keep quiet, it would bring division to the entire congregation.
One of the most effective ways to silence a victim is to fill them with a false sense of guilt. The victim is led to believe that talking is only going to make things worse, and whatever happens then is their fault.
Certainly, exposing spiritual abuse can divide a congregation. But that’s not a consequence of the victim talking. It’s a consequence of the abuse happening in the first place.
There’s one thing that’s even more important than knowing what not to say to someone who has been hurt by church. And that is, to simply listen.