thatmom

real encouragement for real homeschooling moms

healing from spiritual abuse

It was late December. Armed with buckets, brooms, a shop-vac, and assorted supplies, Clay and I began to tackle the job of cleaning a now-empty house. Our older three children took turns carrying trash cans to the curb while one of them walked our toddler around the house, his baby laughter echoing through the rooms.

We had not lived in this house, this parsonage that had once been a home. During the past several years, however, we had spent many hours enjoying fellowship with our pastor and his family, especially during the few months prior to his move. It was a sad time for us and one that caused us to have many questions and doubts, not necessarily about our faith in God but certainly about our faith in men and in church leadership in particular.

During the summer of that year, it became increasingly obvious that this pastor ought to look for another church. His goals for ministry, while they were ones we personally shared, were not what the elders wanted. Steeped in a strong tradition that had its roots in the sawdust trail antics of Billy Sunday, this pastor with a heart for expository preaching was probably not a good choice from the beginning. We had come into the church because of that emphasis and were sorely disappointed at the direction his ministry was being forced to take. In retrospect, we believe there were faults on both sides of the pulpit, but nothing warranted what we saw done to this family.

In what we believe were attempts to force him to resign, this pastor’s pay was frozen, putting him in a position where he was unable to even pay for prescriptions for his children. Our pastor had never told us anything about this need but one of the church members saw that he was unable to pay at the pharmacy and approached my husband about it. When Clay went to one of the elders, the response he got was unbelievable “It’s not our responsibility. He should pray and ask the Lord to provide for him.” Unfortunately, that story was only the tip of the iceberg.

This was probably our first experience of witnessing spiritual abuse up close and personal, though we had no label for it at the time, and it left a profound effect on our whole family. It took many years for us to really understand what had happened and to grasp the impact that experience had on both of our families. For this pastor, it began a 20 year downward spiral that had a very tragic ending.

After leaving this town, his wife developed breast cancer and struggled with it for 2 years until she died, leaving a 2 year old and 4 older children. The pastor remarried a woman who didn’t want to mother his children and it ended in a bitter divorce. The children grew up and faced a multitude of problems with several of them rejecting Christianity. And then, on the 20th anniversary of his experience in our town, this pastor was about to begin a ministry with a new congregation. He couldn’t bear the thought of it and the night before, checked himself into a motel where he took an overdose of medication and died.

Spiritual abuse is a very real problem, though there are many people who deny its existence. Looking back at what our dear friend experienced and what we have since gone through in our own lives, I believe that the Lord has preserved us and protected us from the worst that could have happened. During our own darkest hours, I cannot remember a time that I questioned my faith in God or in His Providence, thought there were times of tremendous grief.

My own experience of spiritual abuse came at the hands of elders who were pressing our conscience to believe things we didn’t agree with and that couldn’t be supported in Scripture. In fact, they never even attempted to do so! We were told that we were never to question any authority, that they were our “parents.” But that wasn’t the worst.

A young woman the elders had asked me to counsel a few months earlier had come to me with this incredible story. She had gone to the elders and asked for some clarification regarding things that were being taught from the pulpit. She was a fairly new believer but knew something wasn’t right when she was told by the pastor “You don’t need to read your Bible. Just trust us and listen to your elders. We will read it for you.” I was stunned and told her adamantly that this was not correct, that through her relationship with Jesus Christ, she now has the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who would lead her into all truth. I pointed out to her that we are all priests and kings (1Peter 2:9) and that we all have an anointing from the Holy Spirit (1John 2:20). I explained how she has access to the throne of grace without going through an earthly priest, that the veil was rent.

So I found myself on the telephone with one of the elders who was insisting that I repent for telling this woman these things. All I can really remember of the conversation was hearing this man tell me that if I didn’t go back to this woman and correct what I had told her, he would have to believe that I wasn’t even a Christian.

A while later one of my friends, who had also experienced similar treatment from these same men, shared with me what had been the true balm to his soul during that time. He encouraged me to read through the Gospels, the book of Acts, and then to read through the Epistles as though I had never read them before. He promised that if I compared what Jesus actually did and said, I would see a sharp contrast to the behavior of the men who were supposed to be shepherding us. It turned out to be a profound experience and one that opened my eyes to many things that are often taught as Gospel truth but, in reality, cannot even be found in Scripture. It brought me to a true understanding of what spiritual leadership ought to look like.

If you have struggled with spiritual abuse at the hands of church leaders or even from well-meaning friends or family members, I would encourage you to go back to the beginning of the New Testament and begin reading with news eyes and new ears for hearing truth. I promise you will begin to heal from your times of sorrow and grief and will fall in love with the Lord and his Truth all over again!

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10 Comments»

  Susan T wrote @

Karen,
Wow! You’ve really got a story to share.

I started to get sucked into patriarchy several times… but hubby- steady always- never did. When I was in the midst of elementary aged homeschooling without much support about 10 yrs ago AND in a very weak non-Bible “church”, I could have gone in hook, line and sinker. But God- beautiful words- “but God” drew me gently and patiently to Himself alone and to the Bible alone and He filled me up right here at home. I still lamented that we went to a “social church” when I really wanted to go to a Bible church, but God taught me respectful submission and I kept my mouth shut. It struck me just a few minutes ago, reading your testimony that *IF* I had persuaded my husband to change churches back then, we may well have headed right smack into full blown patriarchy and what would have happened to us then? I am so thankful I rested in Him. It was hard back then… I remember one particular homeschool father at convention who would confront me and ask “where is your husband?” He made me feel so small. My husband supports me but doesn’t care to go and would rather watch the kids so I could go… but that answer didn’t seem to appease Mr. Patriarch. Then there was the small town Bible Church pastor who told me that I should just switch churches on my own. Huh? Back to the Bible I went and thankfully Jesus soothed me and I remained loyal to my own husband and family. So true Karen, about reading the New Testament with new eyes.

Eventually, when I wasn’t even expecting it, God used a situation that I had absolutely nothing to do with, to lead my husband out of that old “church” and into our church where one of the principles is “Be sure that no one misses the Grace of God.”

P.S. Our church upheaval also happened one December.

  Lin wrote @

He encouraged me to read through the Gospels, the book of Acts, and then to read through the Epistles as though I had never read them before. He promised that if I compared what Jesus actually did and said, I would see a sharp contrast to the behavior of the men who were supposed to be shepherding us. It turned out to be a profound experience and one that opened my eyes to many things that are often taught as Gospel truth but, in reality, cannot even be found in Scripture. It brought me to a true understanding of what spiritual leadership ought to look like.”

How strange. That is EXACTLY what I did and it changed my life forever! I just came home one day from some spriritual abuse from elders and started reading and have not stopped since. Now, I check everything taught. I turned off Christian Radio (most of it is false teaching or shallow teaching) and threw out most of my Christian books.

Why on earth did I bypass the ONLY real TEACHER? The Holy Spirit Who was promised to us? Our ‘Counselor”.

We cannot learn from proof texing or shallow topical sermons. We have to know the real thing so we don’t fall for the counterfeit!

Now I tell people who ask me what an elder/pastor should look like, I send them to Matthew 5. The Beatitudes are the salt elements. And remind them that 1 Tim 3 are outward requirements.

  Barb wrote @

I did the same coming out of our charasmatic “Apostle” led group. They were telling us that Apostles were to be obeyed and that God would protect us even if they were wrong. Submission was constantly being preached. You were not allowed to question “God’s Anointed.”

Finally I just went to my Bible and began reading. I read through the New Testament twice in a few weeks. I studied every word for authoity, ruling, government and order in the Greek. Their abusive tactics just were not in scripture. It wasn’t there.

I agree that it is the best thing you can do. It saved my life and brought me together with my husband who had been saying this for years. (I actually went to scripture first to prove him wrong)

Thanks for putting your story out there. Those in the Patriarchy movement need to hear this as well as other movements who abuse their authority just as much.

  Julie wrote @

Your story is about my worst nightmare. I can only imagine what this must have done to your pastor’s wife. I don’t think church members realize how scary it can be to have your entire life tied up in the church: your home, your friends, your job. If you start to teach something difficult, that is Biblical, and people don’t like it, they feel like they can punish you for it, either with something like pay freezes or subtle insulting remarks (we’ve had lots of those).

There is such a balance between leading and going too far. We’re in the middle of Mormon country out here (talk about spiritual abuse!) and you don’t question ANYTHING the church says. I try to contrast that with our church, where my husband holds everything to scripture and encourages our people to search the scriptures daily to see if what he’s saying is true. There are times, though, too, when he must just make decisions that he feels are right, even if they might be unpopular. He cannot completely cater to the congregation all the time.

But there are grave consequences for the shepherd who leads his flock astray. I shudder for these elders who abused your pastor like this.

Our family personally doesn’t subscribe to this patriarchy movement, but we are complementarians of the Wayne Grudem/John Piper type. So we fall somewhere in the middle of all this stuff.

Anyway, good, thought provoking post , as always, Karen.

  thatmom wrote @

Isn’t it amazing that so many of us have found our comfort by going straight to the Gospels?

In spite of all the pain, I can honestly say that I am thankful for all that we experienced because of what it taught me about myself and my own treatment of other people.

It also taught me a lot about systems of church government and the fact that those systems are only as good as the character of those who are in leadership.

  thatmom wrote @

Julie, that experience we had with our dear pastor friend taught me many, many things about the ministry and certainly gave me a heart for pastors and their wives. I know it can be a very lonely road and can only be traveled by those who absolutely have a calling to be there. Anyone who attempts to walk that path in his own strength will certainly fall and I think often those older saints who have walked with the Lord for years and years are able to sense when someone attempts to do that. (Of course being old doesn’t necessarily give someone wisdom, but I know you know what I mean.) My dad was a very good judge of character and knew many pastors during his years as a Baptist deacon who were godly, wonderful men. He also saw others who were out to make a name for themselves and he really struggled with that.

Have you read the book They Cry Too? When my husband was teaching an adult Sunday school class, he taught through that book and many people said it had really opened their eyes to what what life is like in the ministry and I think it gave several people we knew a real heart of love and compassion for pastors and their families.

One of my biggest griefs about that story I shared is that the children became so embittered through the whole thing that only one of them is no walking with the Lord. The rest haven’t just rebelled, some have really gone off on weird paths. They were one of those families I never would have guessed in a million years would have taken this turn.

You mentioned the elders who were so unkind to this man….it reminds me of Psalm 73. These men seemed to continue in their worldly success, some accumulating great wealth. And nothing seems to phase them. That is the scariest part. I know that after the pastor died, I ran into one of these elders in the store and he began to tell me all the reasons he could have seen this man’s depression coming on. I was utterly speechless. I left the store that day praying that the Lord would convict this man of his own treatment of that pastor.

You know, it is a funny thing. When those men decided that they needed to fire him, not one of them had the courage to go to him themselves. Instead, the chairman of the elders came to my husband, who was not an elder but who was chairman of Christian education at the time, and asked him to tell the pastor they were firing him. Unbelievable! So Clay and I went together to their home so I could be there with his wife. It was one of the worst things we ever had to do. But we believed we had to do it because we knew at least someone who actually cared about them were there.

I also wanted to comment on the use of the word “complimentarian.”

Until a couple years ago I would have defined myself using that word. But now it seems that there are so many people who use that word who are actually clear down on the patriocentric end of the spectrum that I don’t want to be associated with them. Also, what do you or your husband know about several of the complementarians now claiming that Jesus is eternally subordinate to God?

I have found myself somewhere in the (cozy) middle of it all as well. I believe in my husband’s headship but also believe that we are to submit to each other. I also believe that, while the office of elder or pastor ought to be held by a man, women ought to be allowed to speak to a congregation while under the authority of the elders of that church and that women ought to be allowed to serve as deacons, since it is not a ruling office. So I am not sure what all that makes me! I have shied away from too many labels during the past couple years, especially those placed on me by those who don’t bother to ask me what I actually believe! A good policy, I think! 🙂

And Julie, {{{{}}}}}} to you today just for being the woman in the parsonage! your husband has a gem!

  Julie wrote @

You’re kind. I hope when I make it make to midwest sometime to find you for coffee! 🙂

I think I would square with you on most issues, except possibly the deacon issue because I think that so often the deacons FUNCTION as elders. So the whole of church government is messed up on many different levels. I almost think you have to just say, “Women as deacons just won’t work right now, but maybe someday when we get more of polity straightened out.” Our deacons function as elders, and most of them aren’t qualified to be elders. My husband would like to see women reading scripture and praying in church, but he also needs to be sensitive to where we are as a church and choose his battles, so to speak.

Anyway, I’m thinking there must be a huge range of what it means to complementarian. I suppose it would best fit me, because I’m certainly not egalatarian (did i even spell that correctly?). Perhaps you’re right about labels!

I pray, pray, pray my children (or me!) won’t become embittered or rebel against the Lord. We try hard not to discuss difficult church matters when they are in earshot.

I’m suppose to be creating a language review worksheet…I guess I should start!

Thanks, Karen.

  Lin wrote @

I would definitly have described myself as a complimentarian until I started studying the whole NT church structure very closely. It is just not as formal and institutionalized as we make it. Does anyone really think that Lydia or Phoebe did not teach in their home churches? There is no one structure given for each church. Each are functions within the church and one person can have several functions. There is no clergy/laity distinction in the NT.

Here are some articles from ‘searchingtogether’ that I would recommend on this:

http://www.searchingtogether.org/articles/clergylaity.htm

http://www.searchingtogether.org/articles/ray/authority.htm

http://www.searchingtogether.org/articles/zens/bodybldg.htm

This last one is excellent and give a historical record of this teaching

  Beatrice wrote @

Karen, those stories are utterly heartbreaking.

  Beatrice wrote @

And Karen, thanks for presenting your views on gender and roles. They seem quite balanced and honoring to Scripture. Among all the many alternatives and views, I will probably settle down to believing something similar. But I don’t know of course.

Julie, that’s so tough. I have known some pastor’s children who have been through wringers with their parents. 😦 I will pray.


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