Why Do People Stay in an Abusive Church?

Part 16 in the Series:

Questioning Church Authority

By Don Enevoldsen

“The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone.’” (Genesis 2:18)

Who would have thought that the first thing God identified as not good would become the strongest tool of control and abuse in history? Human beings recognize how undesirable isolation is, and they prove it by their willingness to do anything to avoid being alone. That fact explains a wide range of dysfunctional behavior, from the tendency to stay in unhealthy relationships to a fanatical devotion to abusive churches and church leaders.

I was recently asked why people stay in abusive churches, not only refusing to leave, but actively defending the system, even when there is overwhelming evidence of hypocrisy, deception and unethical behaviors. A variety of factors combine to produce this state, and while motives can be complex, they generally revolve around the fear of losing connection with the community. Instinctively, most people prefer the familiarity of an unhealthy community to abandonment by the community. Better to belong to something, even if it’s bad, than to be alone.

The threat of being ostracized hangs over every part of abusive church systems. It has always been this way. Recall the parents of the blind man Jesus healed. They avoided defending their own son out of this fear of being cast out.

“His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.” (John 9:22)

All their son did was tell the truth. Their fear prompted them to distance themselves from his defense, even though they were his parents and they saw for themselves that he’d been healed.

Why is this drive so strong? Why is being alone so terrifying? There might be many reasons, but the one that dominates my experience can be seen by examining what causes members of an abusive church their greatest anxiety. Having spent many years in a church where the pastors understood how to push all the right buttons to keep people in line, I’ve had considerable opportunity to observe abuse at its most subtle and its most effective.

For many years I worked very hard at this church. I was head of the drama department, writing and directing plays, Easter pageants, Christmas musicals, and helping to create illustrated sermons. I taught Sunday School classes, did the midweek service for many years, acted as church liaison for many community and political events, and did hospital visitation.

Significantly I had most of those responsibilities before I was on the church staff. Like most volunteers, I sat on the edge of my seat every time the pastor talked about something I was involved in, hoping to hear my name mentioned, even if it was only in passing.

People work incredibly hard for the smallest pat on the back, in the form of some sort of public mention or a title or a small, inexpensive thank you gift. Anything to feel that our efforts were noticed. We see it as an acknowledgement that we have earned a position in the organization. We belong to something bigger than ourselves.

Conversely, we are terrified of what might happen if we do not perform well enough or if we make a mistake. Someone else might replace us and we will suddenly be on the outside looking in. We can’t conceive of not being part of the group. Our sense of who we are becomes so enmeshed in the organization that being kicked out would confirm our worst fears that we might not have much value. No identity and no connection. Alone and forgotten.

It’s not hard to manipulate such people. My pastor often said that they were the best employees because they worked so hard. They are often thought of as people pleasers, but it needs to be understood that the reason for people pleasing is the fear of being sent away. A pat on the back, balanced with the hint that failure to be good enough will result in removal of all approval, and such people will do almost anything. I can assure you that in those days, I would. And I saw it in many others.

Add to that a steady diet of sermons about obeying leaders and submitting to authority if you don’t want God to be displeased with you, and the result will be a loyal, devoted fanatic, for whom no amount of rational argument will be adequate to break the hold of the abusive system. They will defend the pastor and the church against all comers. Note the reaction of Creflo Dollar’s congregation as detailed in Part 13 of this series. The facts of the case don’t matter.

It is in our nature to seek community. A healthy community thrives on the diverse contributions of healthy individuals. Members of the group are encouraged to grow, to express themselves, to find their individual, unique identity and to discover their purpose in life—for the good of themselves and for the benefit of other members.

An unhealthy community thrives on hierarchical control that forces its members into subservient roles—for the good of the organization, not the good of the members within the organization.

It is in our nature to seek community, but it is also in our nature to seek individuality within the community. We must express our unique identity to ever find genuine contentment. Express yourself in an abusive community, however, and they won’t allow you to hang around. You are a threat to the power structure. Until you start questioning the authority, you might never see the overt hostility. Question leaders, however, and you are guaranteed to see it firsthand. Abusive leaders never react nicely.

Where you fit into this dynamic says a lot about you. People stay in abusive systems because the desire for community has overwhelmed all other needs. Fear of abandonment has obscured the necessity for individual expression. Fear of not being good enough has twisted commitment to the community into a self-destructive duty, devoid of personal fulfillment or satisfaction.

Why do people stay in abusive churches? Because they have been taught that disapproval by the church or by the leadership equals rejection by God. And if you’re rejected by God, where can you go? That kind of fear is not easily overcome.

Though difficult to understand or accept when you have been indoctrinated in an abusive church, churches that foster genuine community do exist. Healthy people are never alone for long. They find other healthy people and they form healthy communities. The irony is that until you risk being alone, you will likely never notice those people.

Next, Part 17: Silence is Fool’s Gold

Go to the beginning of the series, Questioning Church Authority: Part 1: False Prophets

Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.

19 thoughts on “Why Do People Stay in an Abusive Church?

  1. Well said Don. It is a sad testimony to me that so many follow like lost sheep and have not found the love of God who says he will never leave us.
    Put not our faith in man is a clear warning to me. Sure we can benefit from following a program, gathering with our brothers and sisters but like from the beginning, too many want someone else to do the work for them, Christians back in the day questioned everything and studied everything they could get their hands on to make sure they were not misled. If more devoted themselves to studying scripture I gurantee they would soon discover their leader was not looking out for them.Like cults too many put their trust in a leader rather than the God. As I have stated before some have stated that the original sin was more about laziness than anything else. Adam and Eve never took the iniative to question why God had a few guidlines for them, even though they had daily access to Him. Entrophy allows for all kinds of abuse.Coming from a cult background I can tell you that there is no fear of rejection once we have a solid relationship with Christ, at least for me. I, have been rejected by many, even family in a cult that shuns you if you disagree with them.The bible speaks of such aloneness bit I know it is balanced out when we do our part to know God and his word.He fills that empty place in us and it empowers us to live joyfully regardless of what the world throws at us. Blessings

    • Thanks, Earl. The difference between an abusive church and a cult church is often just a matter of degree. The church I was in is definitely not a cult at all, but they use a lot of cult like control techniques. The fact that there are many good things there just adds to the confusion of those who feel the control. It’s hard to separate the two. I was fortunate to have been in some very good churches early in my life, so I could see the contrast, but even then, when you’re in the middle of it, it is still hard to recognize the abusive practices. I especially like your comment: “the original sin was more about laziness than anything else.” It is so easy to get comfortable. And then we just don’t pay much attention. It is so easy to get too comfortable.

  2. I had, at one point in my life, a Flooring Company. I went to an appointment one day for an estimate and there was a husband and wife (older indiviuals) with a younger male person, perhaps in his middle 20′s. Come to find out, this younger man was the their son.

    As I was giving my sales ‘spiel’ this young man went into a rant for no unknown reason. This rant included profanity, coupled
    with physical threats and laced with spit. The parents shrank back in fear as if though they had seen the devil himself. I’m thinking, this idiot is blowing my sale. If I don’t do something, my entire day is unproductive.

    Decision time; this guy is pretty big. I’m thinking,’ what do I believe’. First thing that comes to mind is, 1st John 4:4. I get in this guy’s face and I start saying in “Jesus Name”, several times. He folded up like a cheap card table. He was begging me to stop. The parents asked me what church I belonged to, as this happened to them often. I said it’s not the church, it’s the Spirit within. I made the Sale.

    Bottom line is the fear that comes from the evil one will keep you in bondage, regardless of it’s origin. Only the Truth will Set you Free and give you the ability to move around Freely.

    • Dennis, the point I think you are making is that our loyalty should be to God, not to any particular organization. Which, of course, doesn’t mean that organizations are inherently bad. There has to be some sort of structure, but that structure should be pointing people toward God, not trying to keep them in line. The label on the building is not really very important. Fulfilling our calling is.

  3. It was the book, “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” that put into print what we had been discovering. After you have dropped down below the point of even hoping for a pat on the back you still hate to give up the only social contact in your life. I managed to move us to the outer ring of the local church by asking a question that was not ‘showing a good attitude.’ It takes great courage to leave…incidentally the safest way to leave an abusive church is to move to another city and somehow not hook up with the ‘sister fellowship’ there. It is much harder if you stay in the same town and run into those folks in the grocery, etc.

    • That’s exactly how we did it, Tom. We moved to another city, 400 miles away. Even then it took a while to completely break it off. Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll check it out.

  4. Don,
    As a once victim and now thriving survivor of pastoral and church abuse from First Baptist Church of Hammond and Jack Schaap, I want to say a very hearty, ” Thank you” . Your posts are insightful and full of great information and practical encouragement. I posted this article on a survivor board, I believe it will be a great help to those who are still within the system and too afraid to leave. Thank you. https://www.facebook.com/groups/210248275769396/

    • Thanks for sharing the post. Good to hear you are now thriving. I pray that many more will have the same testimony of hope and triumph.

  5. My husband and I have just high-tailed it out of an abusive pastorate. We made the bold and painful decision to opt for isolation rather than dysfunctional community. This meant that we had to pack up our family and relocate cross-country (without a final offering). It\’s been a lonely road and we\’ve been seeking appropriate Christian counseling. We are on the mend! Praise God. It is hard to imagine how we sat in silence and watched the abuse go on for so long. When we finally spoke up, that’s when “all hell broke loose.” Things were so bad that I could not blog for a while, a pass time enjoy. There was so much fear of my words being read into, twisted, and used against me (which happened anyway).

    I thank God for not allowing us to fail in our efforts to get out, find jobs and cover our 2 little ones from sidelined attacks. I pray that God would use us once again as a countercultural, biblical voice in these bleak times when so many are choosing never to darken the doors of a Christian church.

    Thank you so much for this article. It has been analgesic to us.

    • Thank you for sharing your story and for having the courage to do what you needed to do. I can attest to the fact that leaving an abusive church is very difficult and I commend you. Speaking up is difficult, but so important. In all areas of abuse, the highest priority by the abuser or the abusive leadership is silence. They will do anything to keep everyone from talking, beginning with subtle pressure or bribes and progressing to various forms of intimidation and threats, including legal actions in some cases. I recently ran across two different quotes that have become inspirational themes for my own life. One is from Anne Lamott:

      “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”

      The other is from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: to not speak is to speak, to not act is to act.”

      Speaking out is difficult but the reward in terms of bringing health and wholeness to others, most importantly to our own children, is more than worth whatever it costs. I am excited to hear that you have taken action.

      Please send me a private message if there is anything I can do to help or if you need prayer for specific things: Enevoldsen8@gmail.com

  6. My husband and I just left a similar situation. We have been noticing things being off for some time and when I stepped down from the worship team at this church, it really became evident. We are learning after years of overcommittment and constant guilt to rest in the Lords grace again.
    However we are very established in the community we are in (have a business with several employees) so being in the same town is a little unnerving. How do you trust a new pastor when they know our old pastor? We need ministry but don’t want to put another pastor in an ackward position. We will be meeting with a counselor next week in a different town but…

    • Katie, you have asked one of the most difficult questions for anyone who has been in an abusive church. How do I trust a new pastor? There’s no easy answer. I’ve been a pastor most of my life and I’m not sure I have the answers. Your question makes me think that it would be a good subject for a series of posts, and I think I’ll start praying about that and studying in that direction.

      The one thing I have learned, though, is that dysfunction attracts dysfunction. I don’t know your particular situation, but for me, the unhealthy areas in my own personality were the biggest blind spots to recognizing unhealthiness in church leadership. And the most effective thing I can do now is to become as healthy as I can myself. That alone makes me so much more discerning. Health attracts health. The healthier I get, the faster I see the problems, and the more confident I am to confront them.

      That’s an incredibly short answer, and nowhere near everything that needs to be said on the subject, but I see it as a good direction to go. I’ll keep you in my prayers.

  7. Don, Your article gives people insights into some of the human emotions that keep them beguiled and trapped in toxic church situations. By peeling back the layers, people can gain insights that they need in order to make healthy decisions about their church fellowship and if they need to leave.

    Your readers may find some of the articles on my website helpful in their journey to discover and understand spiritual abuse and recovery. I invite y’all to check out: http://www.ChurchExiters.com
    My book, ‘Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Dynamic Research on Finding a Place of Wholeness’, may be a useful resource for many.

    I appreciate your site and trust that many people find their way here in order to affirm that what they have experienced is spiritual abuse and that they can get answers and healing as they interact with others who have experienced this personal pain. Let me know if I can be of further assistance.

    Barb

    • Thanks Barb. Sad to say, most of my insights were gained the hard way, that is by being on the staff of an abusive church, where I got to see things that most people never would. Even then, my wife and I had to move 400 miles away to really get enough distance to see everything clearly. In Christina’s case it evolved into working with victims of sexual abuse (overcomingsexualabuse.com). For me, it became a focus on spiritual abuse. What we’ve discovered is that all abuse works on the same basic principles. Abuse is abuse. So our efforts overlap quite a bit. In fact, when a church is spiritually abusive, there’s a pretty good chance there is quite a bit of sexual abuse buried in the system somewhere to. We’ve certainly found that to be the case. Again, thank you for your kind words. I hope we can stay in touch in the future. I look forward to getting and reading your book.

  8. Yes, Don, I hear ya. My husband and I were involved in our church where we had our .’muddy tunnel’ church experience. My husband was an elder serving during the time of 3 pastors. The last pastor had an agenda. We also learned many things in the school of hard knocks which propelled me forward when I needed a dissertation topic. This topic continues to amaze me and creates an opportunity on the internet for connecting and networking with so many others.

    If you are interested in a copy of my book, I have copies available here. If you email me at: info@churchexiters.com, you can request a copy and if you’d like the author to sign your copy. :) I hope that you will email sometime as I have other comments/questions for you.

    I have been aware of Christina’s site for some time now. I may have contacted her sometime in the past. I did try to connect yesterday but there seemed to be some problem. Was going to ask if the site contact info still goes through.

    Yes, there is linkage between spiritual abuse and other abuses. I have one article on this topic on my website. I have just written another one for a pal. This one may be posted sometime in the future. Yes, it would be good to keep in touch.

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