Spiritual Abuse: When Church Becomes a Damaging, Dangerous Place

Four years ago, the co-lead pastors of my church at the time were asked to resign because of spiritual abuse. That church had become my family, my community, my home. The news was shocking, but I was also deeply grateful the dysfunction was finally being named. While I am still unpacking the realities and consequences of spiritual abuse in my life, I feel ready to share some of what I have experienced and learned. In fact, I feel compelled to share, because unhealthy dynamics in religious spaces are unfortunately all too common.

Abuse in all forms is devastating––when a parent misuses their power, when a leader or boss misuses their position, when any person or group in a dominant position uses their power to hurt or manipulate others––but there is a particular kind of grief I feel when contemplating spiritual abuse. The abuser misuses the name of God (and all the moral, eternal, all-encompassing implications the concept of God might carry for someone) to manipulate, intimidate, and dominate people into submitting to their own will. Often abusers are blind to the reality of what they are doing. It stems from their own dysfunction, brokenness, and limitations. That makes their actions no less damaging.

This blog series is dedicated to all the people out there who have had the God of Love misrepresented to you, whether in big or subtle ways. To all who have been made to feel unsafe in religious spaces, who have had heavy burdens places on your back that you were never meant to carry, to all who are still processing confusing or damaging religious experiences: May you know you are not alone.

***

“What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.”
Ecclesiastes 1:15

***

My Experience of Life-Altering Church Community

When I was 24, I moved to South Korea and became part of a church that changed my life. I would go on to spend more than seven years at that church––the rest of my twenties and bit beyond. It is challenging to succinctly describe a very complex seven-year experience, but I often summarize it as both the best and worst experience of my life.

Sometimes I weep when I remember how passionately we loved God, with what abandon we would worship. God moved amongst us powerfully during times of singing, corporate prayer, altar calls, and on the mission field. Never before had I been able to come to God so vulnerably and emotionally in the presence of others. I would hear from God so clearly, whether directly or through others’ prayers, life-giving words and images that healed deep wounds from my childhood, that brought insight, peace, and clarity to my true identity, value, and purpose. I could feel the love of God viscerally, and from that source I was empowered to live more selflessly, joyfully, and freely than ever before. This was what life in God was supposed to be like! Empowered to live the way God created us to! Choosing vulnerability with a truly safe community! I witnessed miracles and came to believe that God could truly do anything. I grew bolder in my faith, in my prayers, and in my leadership.

What I didn’t realize was that some of the most powerful experiences of my life were causing me to overlook important aspects of the church culture that were unhealthy. What I didn’t realize was that this church, too, had some blindspots in its theology and its way of operating as a community. Dangerous blindspots.

God was powerfully at work. What was there to fear?

Disillusionment and Distress

Over the years, things became less rosy and bright. I grew increasingly tired. Concerning things happened more and more frequently. But I was also increasingly invested––my time, my energy, my social life, my identity, and my purpose were all increasingly intertwined with this community. My ties to the US, to my family, to the life I had led previous to this church became more and more distant. Powerful spiritual moments had been internalized as signs that I was supposed to be here. That I was called here by God. My vision for my future was intertwined with the vision of the church, and that was what I had been taught was right. We were made to live in community, right?

By the time I realized that I might disagree with major tenets of the church, I was a key leader in the community, part of a church plant I had invested five years of my life in. People were looking to me for answers. I was serving on stage in some capacity almost every week, not to mention leading small groups, giving spiritual counsel to people one-on-one, and attending prayer meetings and leadership trainings (not to mention earning a living as an English teacher). There was little space to question, to pause, or to breathe.

My true feelings, however, leaked out in my dreams. Dreams in which I secretly rebelled or covertly encouraging others to resist orders. Dreams where I said out loud that I no longer passionately loved the church or bought into the church’s vision––things I never dared say, or even think, in my waking moments.

One week, I had a panic attack during a church leadership meeting, which I hid. Another day, I had a panic attack while riding the bus home from work. I began sobbing through entire prayer meetings––not because I was profoundly touched by God’s love as I had in the old days, but because of an overwhelming grief. Some nights I would weep bitterly into my pillow, telling God that I wished I could leave this earth and be face to face with Jesus in heaven––not once asking myself whether this desperate feeling was at all connected with unhealthy patterns in my church life, with faulty theology that had been ingrained in me by my church leaders. It never even occurred to me to ask that. This is what abuse can feel like: Being trapped and blinded. Being caught in a cage you have been convinced you are powerless to escape.

For years I kept fighting. It was spiritual warfare. The enemy was trying to steal my joy. Evil powers were trying to discourage me from shining my light in my city. My faith was being tested. My leaders were struggling, but it was my job to show them grace and overlook their (increasingly blatant and egregious) mistakes. Things were hard, but it was my responsibility to keep contending, fighting, interceding, and laboring for the Lord. The thing to do was press in. To stick together. To support my leaders. To choose gratefulness and hope. To not give up like some around me were doing. To not give into negativity. I WAS STRONG ENOUGH IN CHRIST TO BEAR THIS CROSS.

Untangling a Toxic System

In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus tells a parable about wheat and weeds. A farmer plants a field of wheat, but during the night, an enemy plants weeds among that wheat. The wheat and weeds are going to be all tangled together as they grow, so the farmer decides to let the weeds grow with the wheat until the harvest when he finally separates them. I find this analogy helpful in processing what happened in my former church. There were important truths we embraced as a community. God did do powerful, good things in us and through us. There was healthy wheat that grew. But there were also a bunch of weeds, dangerous weeds that grew massive over time. Those weeds were difficult to detect when I was entangled in the system. And until the pastors were formally removed and the spiritual abuse formally acknowledged, it felt almost impossible to talk about.

The weeds were subtle at first. A strange rule here. A harsh or mocking tone from the pulpit there. Things I was willing to overlook, because no person or community is perfect, right? Even by the end, there had been no sexual misconduct, no embezzling of funds, none of the common moral failures associated with scandals in churches. Instead, the entire culture of our church had become . . . what exactly?

I could feel what was wrong before I could verbalize it. The feeling of being trapped, of being suffocated, of being crushed. But slowly, more concrete words came. Control. Manipulation. A culture built on shame and fear. An obsession with position and authority. No space to disagree. No time for rest. Talk about love and grace while the reality was you were constantly evaluated and expected to perform flawlessly. Legalism. Many ridiculous rules I was embarrassed to describe.

And yet that was not the whole story. There had been so much good, so much real connection, transformation, and growth. Had I not blossomed as a leader here? Had I not grown in my spiritual discernment, biblical knowledge, and intimacy with God? The fruit had been good––weren’t we supposed to judge a tree by its fruit? What better fruit could we hope for than healed hearts, empowered people, a community passionately serving and worshiping God, a church laying themselves down to be a part of God’s mission?

But somehow the good things had been used as weapons against me. To manipulate me into agreeing when I wasn’t sure I did. To pressure me into shutting down my own conscience and common sense when I witnessed leaders doing things that seemed very out of line with the heart of Jesus. To this day teachings about honoring leadership, obeying spiritual authority, spiritual “sonship,” and the “anointing” of God trigger me, because those terms and Bible passages were used to intimidate me into obedience. To this day being part of a church community is scary for me, because that feeling of belonging is exactly what was used as blackmail to keep me in line. Questioning church leadership meant risking losing my friends, my spiritual family, my purpose, my ministry, and the spaces where I connected most powerfully with God. It meant risking being labeled as “rebellious,” “unrepentant,” or “immature.” It could mean being removed from my leadership positions, quietly shunned, or publicly disowned by the church.

When the lead pastors were removed, I was deeply grateful. Overnight, many oppressive church policies were removed. Overnight, we were freed. But the more I processed, the more I recognized the horror of what I been a part of––and complicit in––for so many years. I had defended the pastors, justified the ridiculous rules, been a face of this dysfunctional church for so many. I had continued to lead praise and prayer from stage even when I knew questionable things were going on behind the scenes. I had watched as friends made objections and were cast off, and I had done nothing. Because I hadn’t known who I would be on my own.

Losing Myself

Slowly, I stepped down from my leadership roles at church, one by one. I had to. I still felt like I couldn’t breathe. Each time I stepped down, I felt more and more like a failure. Though I told myself my worth didn’t come from serving at church, though God kept telling me that, I felt irrelevant, useless, and lost. Eventually, I decided I needed to leave Korea to heal. It was scary to leave behind what had become my home, my community, and my vision for the future. It was humbling, heartbreaking, and oh so exhausting. But it felt right. Sometimes. Other times, I wasn’t sure I could be trusted to discern what “right” was anymore.

I knew that God was still with me. I could feel God’s presence at many of my lowest moments. No matter how many tears I cried, how many curse words I screamed at the mirror (something I had never used to do), God was faithfully present. And yet, I sometimes felt so aimless, weak, and lost, like I was drifting directionless down a river, alone. It felt like I would always be alone. I was that flickering wick that was about to go out.

There were so many layers of anger and pain to process. So much confusion to untangle. It was often too much to handle, and I would numb myself out with movies and sleep. But deep down, I was also determined not to let this destroy me. I knew God was real. I knew God was love. Jesus was my Savior and if ever I had needed saving it was now. So even though part of me recoiled when God spoke, incessantly questioning and re-questioning everything I felt God say or read in the Bible, even though I was heartbroken, not being able to understand why God would allow me––and not just me, but SO MANY people out in the world––to be mistreated this way, I cried out to God for help.

Never had the evil in the world felt more real or overwhelming. But God was still near. I felt Him. He had been with me this whole time. This, too, was challenging to process.

Still Untangling

Experiencing abuse profoundly messes with your body, mind, heart, and sense of self. It strips you of your agency and power. It creates deep mistrust in you of others. Experiencing spiritual abuse distorts your view of God and alters how you relate to God. The truth has been twisted. God’s presence and God’s Word have been misinterpreted. The foundational way you relate to the world has been corrupted. After I returned to the States, I found that my experience of church, the Bible, and the fellowship of other Christians had all been infected. Even when everything was probably safe, it didn’t feel safe anymore.

The weeds were still tangled up with the wheat. Would I ever be able to untangle them?

I’m still untangling. It takes time. And I think it’s healthy and good to view the life of faith in general as a constant journey and process. It’s not just about knowing the “right answers.” (We can be so obsessed with being “right”!) It’s about being willing to let God continually guide us into all truth.

In my next post I will discuss in more detail the theological untangling I have done over the past four years. But for now I will simply say: God is greater than all the ways God is misrepresented in this world and in the church. And you are more than your worst mistakes. The pain is real. The wrongdoing is real. And it’s often too much for us to bear on our own. But we don’t have to. Jesus offers to bear the brunt of the heaviness for us. God burns with righteous anger on behalf of all who are downtrodden. And the Holy Spirit is present to be a faithful guide and friend through the long, arduous, complicated, sometimes seemingly interminable journey into wholeness.

Even when the worst happens, all is not lost. God has the power to make all things new.

***

“Do not rejoice over me, O my enemy. When I fall, I shall rise.
When I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me.”
Micah 7:8

.

.

**If you have experienced spiritual abuse or want to learn more about it, I highly recommend the book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen as well as Christianity Today’s popular podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. Both have been invaluable to me in my journey and processing.

Posted by

Teacher, preacher, musician, and writer. Follower of Jesus. Half-Korean, half-white American. A perpetual learner. A deep feeler. In awe of God's persistent love.

5 thoughts on “Spiritual Abuse: When Church Becomes a Damaging, Dangerous Place

  1. Brilliant, Elizabeth! So proud of you for all you’ve overcome in that time and deeply encouraged that you are using your voice to speak life and healing unto others, such as myself. 고생 많이 했어요, 언니~

Add your thoughts

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.