“The biggest harm they did,” says Peter, regarding his exposure to spiritual abuse, “was they tried harder than most churches to have an extremely clear vision of what ‘good’ is.”
We can probably all agree that few people deliberately choose to get involved in a community characterized by spiritual abuse. As one author who has suffered at the hands of abusive churches says, “Often, you don’t realize you’re in a situation until your health is damaged, your soul is torn or your outside relationships suffer.”
We want to share the story of two people we’ll call Peter and Katie who attended a church from a well-known denomination in Virginia and the surrounding area. Although married at the time, they have since divorced, and Peter is now agnostic. While their former church is not solely to blame for what happened to their family, it had a significant, negative impact on them. Peter and Katie’s hope (and ours) in sharing their story is that others will learn from their experience with spiritual abuse and avoid a similar one.
The Steep, Slippery Slope into Spiritual Abuse
Peter and Katie began attending the church in 2004 and left in 2011 when they moved out of the state. Although he has since walked away from Christianity, Peter doesn’t feel it’s fair to blame their church (at least not any more or less than other churches) for the negativity and the spiritual abuse they experienced there. “All they had,” he says, “was a very clearly defined idea of how Christians should live.”
Yet a clearly defined idea can be enough to cause real harm to people. As J.D. Greear observes, “Heresy can be what you believe, but perhaps just as often, heresy is the weight you give an issue you believe…Some people give such enormous weight to minor issues that the gospel itself is obscured.”
Katie has a slightly different viewpoint from Peter’s. “I hated it,” she says.
The church Peter and Katie attended did not demand that people give up obvious freedoms to be part of its community. They were just very specific about what a “good, Christian life” was. One result of this mentality was that the church’s culture had a clear “in” group—those who subscribed to its version of a good, Christian life—and a clear “out” group—those who did not fit the church’s mold.
Those who did not fit in then either left the church or stayed and conformed as they could, perpetually feeling like outsiders. “It was a slippery slope and a very steep slope,” says Peter. “It was a painful dichotomy. It was like living a double life.”
This Is How You Belong
So what did this version of spiritual abuse look like? What did people have to do to belong? Peter and Katie agree that fitting in boiled down to being financially well-off, keeping up the appearance that your life was going well, and following a specific, conservative view of men’s and women’s roles.
The two say that their particular church had a problem with materialism, although it was the one issue they mentioned during the interview that they didn’t think was a systemic problem in the whole denomination. In the church’s culture, there was pressure to appear “cute and fit” and to have nice things. Needing to be well-off financially increased the burden on the husband to support his family since he was expected to be the sole breadwinner. One reason Peter and Katie did not feel like they fit in at the church was because they did not have as much money as other people did.
The pressure to keep up appearances meant that people were compelled to hide their flaws and their personal struggles. If your marriage or your family was in trouble, it was better to conceal that from people and pretend that everything was ok.
“One thing that I think, looking back, was absolutely destructive for our marriage,” says Peter, “was that there was so much emphasis on the sequence of operations: you get married, you have kids, you buy a house, you get a nice car, you get a second nice car, and there was so much emphasis on that sequence…there was no time to actually evaluate your relationship, to focus on connecting as human beings and ask tough questions of each other and grow together. There was absolutely no time for that. Zero.”
Women were expected to get married as soon as they were of an age to do so. Once married, it was assumed they would not work outside the home—that was the man’s responsibility. Says Katie, “If you were married without children and you still worked outside of the home, you were made to feel like an outsider.” This was her experience when they started attending the church.