Religious abuse makes me angrier than almost anything else in this world.
In the past few years, I have read several books on this subject, and it always leaves me feeling sad for the victims and furious at the offenders. Children are raised in toxic environments, made to constantly feel afraid of the adults in their lives who should be providing safety and love. Adults are controlled and manipulated through fear of punishment, either from a transcendent deity or from the other adults who have all of the power.
I read these stories, and they remind me that pastors and religious leaders need to understand the power they have. People trust them with their emotional well-being, their sense of hope and security, their beliefs about how reality works. The violation of spiritual abuse is so offensive because it preys on people who are vulnerable and who want to believe in something bigger than themselves.
One of the best books I have read this year is Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future by Elizabeth Esther. Elizabeth grew up in a fundamentalist Christian group called The Assembly, which she describes as a cult. As the title suggests, her journey led her out of that group and into a more life-giving faith.
I don’t want to say too much about the content of the book itself because, a) you should read it, and b) other people have already explored the content of this book in a much more profound and beautiful way than I ever could (most notably, blogger Zach Hoag has written a terrific review of the book).
Here’s what I do want to say about this book: It matters.
These stories about people who have suffered and survived at the hands of toxic religion matter a great deal. We need them. We need people to speak out and remind us that intimidation and manipulation are not okay. It is not okay to make children feel that they must be “broken” by their parents because it is God’s will.
These stories matter because we need churches that are actively trying to create a safe and healthy environment for whomever darkens their doors. As a pastor, I need to be aware that people come to my church because they are reaching for some kind of hope. They are vulnerable, and they are open. The worst thing I could do would be to take that openness and vulnerability and use it to control them.
I have heard too many stories about people who have limped away from religious institutions, broken and bruised from placing their faith in the hands of someone who wanted power.
This happens in fringe groups, and it happens in megachurches. It happens in groups that carry the label “Christian,” and it happens under nearly every other religious canopy in the world. Wherever there are vulnerable people, there will always be someone who is willing to exploit them.
Our job—those of us who lead churches—is to make sure we are seeking something better, something healthy and life-giving.
I am so grateful for Elizabeth Esther. I am grateful that she was brave enough to tell her story, and I am grateful that she found a way out of the madness. I am grateful for recovery and healing, and I hope more people continue to find that path.
If you have found yourself in a system of religious abuse, I hope you will find a path toward healing.
If you are a person who has been given a position of leadership or authority in a religious context, I hope you know the weight of your responsibility, and I hope your people feel safe and free.
May we all seek to be better, and may we all seek healing for our wounds.
Note: I am thrilled to announce that Elizabeth Esther will be speaking at Collective Church on Sunday, September 14!
Another note: Here are a few other good books on the topic of spiritual abuse-