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Spiritual Abuse: When The Church Lets Us Down

Author: Radonda Rowton, MAC, PLPC


A recent Christian Post article just came out releasing a new Gallup report saying that the percentage of Americans who say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque has hit a historic low. The new report analyzing religious membership of Americans have found that an average of 50 percent of Americans in 2018 said that they belong or are members of a church or other religious institution. This actually represents a 20-percentage point decline in church membership in the last 20 years. It’s the lowest it has been since Gallup began polling the question in 1937. I understand that there may be many reasons for this decline, but the one that I want to focus on is spiritual abuse.


I didn’t ask to lead therapy groups on spiritual abuse. Let’s be honest, it’s not a pleasant topic for discussion. Does anyone really want to attend a group that processes abuse in the church? I don’t think so. However, the truth is that it exists and is becoming more and more prevalent as time goes on. Abusive churches do not advertise their abuse, matter of fact, they may not realize that they are abusive or how abusive they have become. And if they are aware of it, they are certainly not going to admit it. But they do exist, and as I sit and listen to the gut wrenching, heart breaking stories of people who tried going to church and even serving in that church, only to find that they were dealing with leadership and other members who were elitist, judgmental, hateful, bullying and any other word that you can think of that is opposite of who God is. I often want to cry as I read the definition of what spiritual abuse is and watch as people identify with some of those symptoms and finally end the session with “Thank God…I thought I was a horrible person”. They usually feel that way because that is what they are told. I know this because my husband and I have experienced it.


I don’t know about you, but the big question in my mind is “Why does church have to be like this?” It’s so not supposed to be this way. Church should be a safe place of love and acceptance. We should be glad when struggling people come in the doors and are looking for help. We should rejoice when people use their gifts in church and are supported and encouraged. We shouldn’t fight over musical styles or what color the walls are painted. And when someone is caught in sin, we should grieve and speak truth in love instead of gossiping and joyfully pointing fingers. Instead, many wonder if they will ever be able to reconcile finding peace with their faith and the truth of the gospel and the disdain they feel for the institutional church. Someone said once in conversation that it was almost a weird schizophrenic feeling. I understand that.


And then I am reminded that Jesus did not often find Himself at home with the religious establishments of His day either. Why? Because the religious leaders of His day did not even recognize Him because of their own preoccupation with the institution. Did Jesus believe in rules? Yes, He instructed us to obey the commands that He gave, and the Word of God talks about putting ourselves in the middle of those who worship Him in spirit and in truth. Why? Because iron sharpens iron and when we learn together and love together, everyone wins. But what Jesus was about that is often forgotten is love and relationship. And I’m talking about healthy relationship and there is not a healthy relationship without love. The 1st Corinthians chapter 13 kind of love. This is the conundrum. How do we love and feel loved in a place where love is not given or received? We can’t.


Thankfully, the kingdom of God is bigger than one church. I assure you that there are churches and communities out there that do love and are more concerned about the person than the institution. Do I believe that we can tackle these feelings of abuse and find a community where we can feel love and give love and know that it’s authentic? I absolutely do, because I’ve seen it. People are not perfect, and we certainly find that to be the case in the church, but if we love God then one another first, we will find a way to serve each other. Sometimes when we have been abused, we want to see justice prevail, and it’s hard when we don’t see anything happening. Since this is a spiritual issue, can we agree that it’s God’s business to rectify those things in His time because He sees the whole scenario? Trusting God is an included part of our love for Him and if we love Him, we can again find it within us to love and serve each other.


Can we talk more about this? Please don’t hesitate to send me an email…I would love to hear from you.

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