Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Lessons Learned

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  Matthew 18:6 (NIV)







Today is our final installment in our review of Spiritual Abuse Recovery by Dr. Barbara Orlowski. We have provided snippets of the vast wealth of knowledge within this book and urge our readers to purchase it without reservation.

Yesterday found me in a bit of a funk due to a downer of a communication with a well-known megachurch pastor. We were accused of being uncharitable, neglecting 1 Corinthian 13 (I guess we are clanging a bit too much for his tastes), and even “assaulting” the character of a rather dubious Christian personage. We will be posting on our response on Friday. I spent some time in prayer.

However, today, I received a fascinating, yet unsettling, phone call from a man who has just left his church due to well-documented spiritual abuse. So well documented, in fact, that we are postponing our John Piper “domestic abuse” post until next week and, on Thursday, we  will post a rather disturbing example of membership “rules.” His phone call to me was encouraging as we dialoged about his experience. Once again, my mood brightened as I realized that this is a spiritual battle with good days far outweighing the occasional bad ones. We express our appreciation for his thoughtfulness and our sadness for the pain he has had to endure at the hands of a callous church

Eventually, after processing the pain of spiritual abuse and the loss of what was perceived to be one’s Christian community, most people seek and discover a good Christian fellowship. Here are some things to consider in such discovery. Remember: it is important not to repeat one’s mistake.We will be providing some examples of what to avoid in the coming week.



Find a pastor who loves being a pastor, not being a celebrity

Recently I was asked to provide advice for finding a church in a large Texas community. The individual gave me the names of several churches with which I was familiar. All of those churches were Biblically sound but one had a well-known pastor who is on the speaking and book selling circuit. I advised this man to first seek out a church with a real pastor, not a celebrity preacher. Such pastors fly in for the sermon and fly right back out to give talks to other pastors. While home, this type of pastor may spend much time, while home, writing books and speeches, and spending precious little time with his people.

I recently spoke with a man who had been an active member in a large Dallas church with a “star” preacher. He taught Sunday school, led small group Bible studies, and helped with church services. His “pastor” didn’t know his name nor had he even spoken to him in a 10 year time period! This is not a church-it is a business with a figurehead.


Find a pastor who teaches sound doctrine that emphasizes grace, not sin.

TWW has been harping on a number of Calvinistas who seem to think that focusing on the Cross means focusing on one’s sin. However, the reason that Protestants do not depict a cross with Jesus hanging on it, like the Orthodox and Catholic churches do, is that Protestants emphasize that Jesus is now risen and He has forgiven our sins.  Don’t let some two bit, Old Testament, power grabbing Pharisee try to convince you that you are a dirty rotten sinner, barely bound for heaven. You are dearly loved by the King of the Universe.

None of us is righteous, not even those pastors who tell you how bad you are. All of us have Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. Orlowski says, “A leader’s task is to show how grace seeks out our lost soul, reawakens the spiritually demoralized, and brings forth spiritual growth." (p.210) She continues “To reiterate, many recurring distortions of the faith might have been averted if more effort had been expended to ground the people of God in the biblical teaching of grace.” Also, “They need to follow the Apostle Paul’s example for not giving Christians rules to live by but giving them the Spirit.” (P.211)

On Sovereign Grace Survivor’s blog, there have been reports of pastors discounting concerns raised by people in the congregation. They appear to falsely accuse the person who is bring the complaint, as being marred by sin and therefore unable to adequately asses the problem. The pastor, who must have some technique for avoiding this mar of sin, then tells that person that he is not only wrong but, in fact, he is the real problem. Said person then is berated for not understanding how sinful they are and the abuse starts.  I have one thing to say if you find yourself in that situation, as I once did -Head for the hills and get outta Dodge, baby! He is gunning for you.


Find a pastor who alerts people to false beliefs and stupid hermeneutics

In a former church, I was aware of a number of people who religiously followed some of the worst proclaimers of the prosperity gospel. I saw them become discouraged, blaming themselves that they were not rich or healed. They believed that they must not be “good” Christians. The lead pastor refused to teach on this subject in any relevant form, stating that his teaching on other subjects should be good enough to help his congregation avoid error. It wasn’t.

Sometimes I wonder why these pastors will not teach on these subjects. Could it be that they don’t want to be scrutinized as well?

There are so many resources in the form of books and internet sites that can help the believer to learn good techniques in reading the Bible. There are also many cult watch groups that can also help in assessing faulty beliefs. You might be surprised to find some of today's "it" churches that are being watched by these groups.



Be very cautious of any church or church groups that have spawned survivors’ blogs.

Read those blogs. Then read an opposing point of view. Ask questions. Many of these sites are a wealth of information. Churches that abuse often have rules about gossiping. They claim that any negative information is sinful. Members are told to be silent and the leadership often hides information about the fellowship until you have been sucked in. That is why it is helpful to seek out others who may have been harmed by a church.

Here is a personal example. As many of you know, I am an Old Earth creationist. I have no problem with other points of view. However, I would not want to be a member of a church which only promotes the Young Earth perspective. Guess what? I landed in a church, which did precisely that, and it brought me much unanticipated heartache. When I asked the lead pastor why this information was not made available to those considering membership, he told me that they purposely don’t tell people prior to membership because they don’t want to run away new members. So, instead, I was in a church that threw adults and teens out of Sunday school classes if they presented a different point of view. So much could have been avoided had I know about this “rule.” Ask lots of questions about various issues before becoming a member.


If the church has elders, make sure they are independent elders


In many churches, the elders function as the pastor’s boys, kowtowing to his every desire. They are often a select group of individuals who rotate on and off the elder board, rarely importing fresh members. On the rare occasion a new elder is needed, due to death or affair, new elders are often selected by the old elders. Ask how many elders have been selected as a direct result of consulting the congregation. Ask how many have been nominated first by the congregation. You want an independent elder board and, if possible, a democratic congregation.



Make sure the church has a place for women to have input


This is not meant to be a tirade on gender. There are differing views on this subject. However, women should play a significant role in the church, including having input into important decisions. Many churches deny women any chance for participation beyond childcare and singing. In one church, a male pastor was the head of women's ministries which gave the not so subtle clue that women were to have little say in that church.


Here is a not so funny, true story. In my former church, I noticed that only men collected the offering. I asked the pastor if this was some “rule” of the SBC and he assured me there was no such rule. So, I asked if they could have a woman collect the offering. He said there would be no problem. Well, time passed and no dice. This technique is known as the" SBC Blowoff. "

I asked again and was told that, get this, they were afraid that, if women were seen collecting the offering, people would get the idea women could be deacons. Oh my-leading the dumb sheep to sin, I guess! Such protective shepherds…. What was even sadder was that young boys often collected the offering which, I guess, means that they have no problem with people thinking that 12 year old boys could be deacons.


Look for a joyful and warm fellowship

My fellow blogger and I visited a local congregation that is affiliated with a “family of churches.” People were nice but seemed lacking in joy. There were few spontaneous smiles. The children stood quietly.  No running and laughing by little ones appeared to be allowed in this church. The bulletin listed the dos and don’t s for those who were “under discipline. Huh? How many were being punished in this small church. There bookstore had books by only a couple of authors and these books focused a lot on “The Cross” not the Resurrection. Only the cross…



You will be changed theologically

In Orlowski’s book, there were many changes that individuals reported.

  • “I now read other Bible translations besides KJV.” “I have changed my views of spiritual authority.” (PP 192-193)
  • People claimed to be less rules oriented, more grace focused.
  • Many began studying the Bible on their own.
  • Some started evaluating the pastor’s sermons.
  • Others fell closer to God and pursue Him ourt of freedom, not fear.



You will feel compelled to help others.

“Their more wholesome view of godly leadership and caring community has enriched them as individuals and has made them able ministers of the grace of God in the community of Christ and the world”. (P.203)

In closing, Barbara Orlowski has done a yeoman’s job in exploring the issue of spiritual abuse. In my experience, we find that many churches avoid talking about this problem, which appears to be very widespread. Some people claim that talking about this is airing our dirty laundry to the world. Such a claim shows a basic lack of understanding f the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel demonstrates man’s inability to save himself. In fact, the church community, including pastors and elders, is made up of broken sinners who are experiencing the freedom of grace. The world is well aware of our failings and we fool ourselves if we think they don’t. Instead we should boldly express our sinfulness and our need for grace. And then community can focus on the work of God, bringing grace and healing to one another and a broken world, majoring on love and the priesthood of the believer.


We have placed a permanent link on our site to Barbara Orlowski's blog, Church Exiters. We heartily endorse this helpful site for those who have been hurt by the church.


And as a nod to our faithful readers, Unassimilated and Garland, we dedicate this video which highlights TWW's slight difficulty with SPAM.



Lydia's Corner: Numbers 26:1-51 Luke 2:36-52 Psalm 60:1-12 Proverbs 11:15




Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Lessons Learned — 1 Comment

  1. Dee wrote:

    “So much could have been avoided had I know about this ‘rule.’ ”

    What an understatement! Perhaps we wouldn’t be blogging today if it hadn’t been for that and some other unfortunate issues that captured our attention.