What Not to Say to Someone Who’s Been Hurt by the Church

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Whenever you meet someone who’s been hurt by the church, tread carefully. Here’s what not to say.

A few years ago, I had my first experience with spiritual abuse.

Compelled to serve God in a radical way, I dropped out of college, gave away all my possessions and moved to Africa, only to be manipulated, controlled and taken advantage of by the leaders in the mission organization.

When I got home, my pastor gave me two options: I could either lie and make up a nicer-sounding story, or I could just keep my mouth shut. Either way, I was forbidden from telling the real story, inside or outside the church.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It’s one thing to be abused by people you barely know, but it’s another thing to be betrayed by someone you trusted and looked up to. I was angry and depressed, and I fell away from church for the first time in my life.

Thankfully, some of my friends understood what I was going through. Others, not so much. But what I’ve come to realize is that Christians can be pretty bad at handling spiritual abuse.

Many of the responses below I’ve witnessed firsthand. In the past, I’ve even been guilty of saying a few of these myself.

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. It doesn’t matter how many thousands of people have been positively affected by a church or ministry. The good experiences don’t cancel out the bad ones.

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.”

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JonathanHollingsworth@churchleaders.com'
Jonathan is an author, a speaker, and a recovering radical Christian. Compelled to serve God in a radical way, Jonathan gave away all his possessions and moved to Africa only to find out what happens when doing good goes wrong. His first book, Runaway Radical, is available from Thomas Nelson. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or send him a direct message in the space below.