the Spirit Watch
What Religious Abuse Is About
by Rafael Martinez, Director, Spiritwatch Ministries
In our day and age, it is becoming more and more evident that we as a people face some very trying times. The pressures of life, family, and the inner weaknesses that all of us grapple with certainly have become greater and greater, and our society has simultaneously become colder and more impersonal. Many among us turn to religious and spiritual avenues in an effort to address these concerns and in so doing, find fulfillment, understanding, and satisfaction in their lives.
However, many others in our region no less zealously and sincerely concerned with their well being and that of their children have found just the opposite in their own religious journeys. Instead of finding fulfillment, they have become bound by fear, frustration, indoctrination, and manipulative mind control that have made their pursuit of God an endless drudgery punctuated by a driven and legalistic lifestyle. This phenomenon has not been restricted to the Tennessee Valley, either. For example, in California, a young Christian woman sought spiritual fellowship with a group of young people at a Bible study and was informed that to please God she must confess in detail all of her sexual sins to a "discipler." In Indiana, another sickened child died from a curable illness because of their parents' refusal to seek medical help for "religious convictions" instilled by their church's teachings. In Massachusetts, a member of a communal charismatic group who brought back from the community garden small carrots that were accidentally pulled up with larger ones was verbally chastised as not "being in the Spirit." Here, in East Tennessee, a married couple were publicly criticized by their pastor from the pulpit during a Sunday morning worship service for having missed a midweek prayer service and were commanded to fast and pray to demonstrate repentance for this sinful failure. And in another local case, a pastor who has made himself a "papaw" to his flock, threatens via prophetic utterance all who waver at coming forward in a mass public baptism with death by auto accident at the hands of a "death angel" and subsequent eternal damnation if they do not follow through.
Among all of these bizarre and seemingly unrelated incidents is an all too common thread that we would like to briefly discuss here. It is an old time deception that has dogged the footsteps of old time religion, the deceptive snare of religious abuse inflicted by aberrant Christian churches. Several such groups currently are operating here in the Tennessee Valley, and many hundreds more exist across the nation. Each of them, however, have one thing in common: they regularly inflict religious abuse upon their members in the name of God and Christianity and have committed untold amounts of spiritual violence upon them. We would like to inform you of this dark secret of the Christian church that for too long has been ignored and overlooked in an effort to help shed long overdue light on the subject. Throughout this series of articles, we will be discussing religious abuse largely in the context of Christianity. However, we will see that religious abuse is not limited to Christian churches alone. Religion is a universal human phenomenon and involves many other different spiritualities other than Christianity, and the abuse religious belief can bring about occurs among the millions of people who embrace beliefs as varied as Asatru to Zoroastrianism, from Islamic fundamentalism to obscure Japanese doomsday sects. Therefore, the abusive practices and principles we will trace can be found easily in these communities of faith as well.
What Is Religious Abuse?
Although they have been visible scourges among mankind throughout human history, the evils of domestic violence have come under serious study and categorization only in the past 100 years. We now describe such regrettable things in terms of specific types of abuse, such as incidences of spousal abuse, marital rape, verbal battering, child abuse and mental cruelty, to name a few. The horrendous acts of abusive parents, individual spouses and even abusive children are all acts of abuse that our sickened society now is finally beginning to confront and respond to, and certainly it should. We are beginning to recognize that despite the roles their lot in life may have cast them into, for example, many of those called "father" and those called "husband" are in practical terms neither - as are those called "mother" and "wife" - and that the historic taboo against interference in the incidences of dysfunction in abusive families is finally starting to be questioned.
However, in the households of faith across our region and the world, no less damaging and destructive acts of spiritual violence continue to be perpetrated against those who have chosen to make these communities their spiritual families. These are acts no less deliberate and damaging, and yet they are never questioned, never challenged and much less even discussed in the media today unless some incredibly sensational case of it comes to light. We feel that this societal silence exists is because of the American conviction that individual religious liberties must not be infringed upon, and that to intervene in what is seen as "church matters" will constitute such infringement. Also, perhaps the unwritten perception remains in more minds than we care to acknowledge, that to challenge a minister's authority is to be found challenging God, not something very many religious people (particularly here in Southeastern Tennessee) will contemplate doing. While we argue over these issues, the religious abuse goes on virtually unchallenged and unchecked.
So what is religious abuse? Religious abuse is the crushing inner psychological, spiritual and emotional damage suffered by members of authoritarian communities of faith whenever its spiritual authority is twisted by spiritual leaders to achieve a desired goal through unethical, cruel and damaging means. Sometimes these may be physical or sexual in nature, but much more often it is more clearly seen in the many various forms of mental and spiritual trauma that are inflicted upon church members, often through the practice of abusive leaders using personal influence upon a community of faith to turn people on one another to exercise and magnify their power and position in the name of "church order." This sort of "discipline" often deeply crushes the mind and spirit of the church member who was unfortunate enough to become subject to it. Individual initiative, critical thinking and personal choices of action are strongly discouraged and condemned by aberrant church leaders as sinful pride. It is made quite clear to the group by the pastor or leaders that the only really important goals in life are those that they dictate to the group. These practices - harsh and bizarre as they often become - are viewed by the group leaders as genuine acts of devotion that all true believers will gladly submit to so as to obtain divine favor and spiritual growth.
And such an aberrant church can be and is any church group - either Catholic or Protestant - that inflicts upon its members various forms of abuse through deliberate acts of church-sanctioned deception, manipulation and intimidation - at both public and private levels. It does not stop there, however: while the aberrant church presents itself as the only true church to have exclusive possession of the way of salvation, which no other church can possibly have, it is essential to bear in mind that cultic groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unification movement and the LDS Church also hold to such positions. The only notable difference between aberrant Christian churches and these cultic counterparts is in their relative doctrinal and practical orthodoxy: their statements of faith and stated practical commitments may see quite mainstream, even Evangelical in nature.
This is an important point to remember. Aberrant religious groups always seem, at first glance, quite normal. They are usually led by a pastor or small core of leaders who seem to be dynamic defenders of energetic Christianity, men and women of faith and power who tirelessly watch their flocks. They often appear to be humble, dedicated figures whose positions of leadership often bring with it leading roles in the larger community outside the four walls of the church. Jim Jones, pastor of the abusive People's Temple church group in the 1970's enjoyed such a role to the subsequent chagrin of those politicians and community leaders who freely utilized his influence for their own temporal gain, at the expense of the lives of over 900 men, women and children. However, the watchful rule of such leaders are profoundly control-oriented, and they achieve and maintain a shocking degree of power over their members who willingly submit to it under the impression that they are pleasing God. This control is achieved through various manipulative forms of actual mind control, and aberrant churches that inflict religious abuse, without exception, utilize some form of it. The examples we started this article with are sobering testimonies of actual abuses of power by aberrant churches.
Aside from political duplicity, the greatest tragedy arises out of the clear evidence that thousands of sincere people seeking a closer walk with God accept the warped claims made by abusive spiritual leaders and eagerly commit themselves to following them. The submission by fervent ollowers to questionable leaders continues to this day: we know of churches where public condemnation and criticism of people in morning worship is the expected norm, and where members actually appear to expect and approve of it as vital to "staying in church.". What is even more tragic, however, is that many spiritually abusive leaders of aberrant churches sincerely believe that the degree of unbiblical submission they are demanding of their followers is necessary for their good. Not actually seeking to be abusive, the effect upon their flocks remains the same. For example, there is no qualitative difference, therefore, between a twisted therapist who unethically imposes his own warped worldview upon patients under his care through months of arduous "therapy", an aggressive cult recruiter indoctrinating prospective recruits with questionable dogma through months of "Bible study", and the errant pastor who abusively conditions his flock to adopt his unorthodox convictions through months of weekly "ministry."
How Religious Abuse Works
There are several common ingredients in religiously abusive environments. There are dynamic leaders who demand total commitment to their visionary authority, unquestioning followers who submit to their demand with a passive obedience, and a closed environment where no outside influence or alternative perspectives can intrude and no accountability of authority is possible. The degree of manipulation then possible is virtually the same at all levels, be among radical Christian Identity militia, followers of Sun Myung Moon, or the membership of an extreme fundamentalist church. This uncomfortable proximity between a "funny" First Church and the "wackos" of the local Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses is most unsettling to many, but these common traits of religious abuse through manipulation are shared because they are designed to exploit and play upon the weaknesses of people, who are pretty much the same no matter their creed. Abusive leaders are master observers of human behavior and use their observations to dominate and manipulate the faithful, who have been taught to fully accept their "leadership" as divinely mandated and to never question it, all done in the context of a community culture that effectively spurns and even shuts out all external influences that may contradict the group vision (as, of course, defined by the leaders).
How do they achieve this? Religiously abusive leaders achieve this manipulation through the usage of mind control. This is, by definition, an effective control of both thought and behavior of another through involuntary means that are deliberately set up for the unsuspecting to be lured into. The devices used to construct individual snares for prospective converts and church members are many and diabolically sophisticated. They usually revolve around the leaders' usage of every means at their disposal to influence group member behavior, which include - but are not limited to - family ties, Scripture twisted out of context, emotional and social bonds with the group, personal weaknesses, heavy handed authority figures claiming to be the voice of God, and individual heartfelt desires simply to "do the right thing." These techniques of control are used in conjunction with one another - either simultaneously or together - to achieve the desired degree of control, reinforcing each other in the abusive culture, which can and usually is found anywhere people gather to live.
Such social dynamics are not limited to some bizarre, extremist group hidden in some wilderness stronghold sacrificing chickens - they are common to the manipulative spirit of insecure and controlling people who find themselves in mentoring and leading roles in their social group. These control mechanisms quite effectively use fear, guilt, and intimidation to involuntarily compel group members to follow the leaders without hesitation or question. Critical and independent thinking which contradicts the "way things are" are seen as sinful manifestations of demonic and carnal natures that must be shunned at all costs. Once the faculties of free thought cease, mind control is inevitable, and the congregants are at mercies of their leaders, whose own philosophical, theological and authoritarian agendas define what the world really is like, who really is right, who really is wrong and above all, who really speaks for God, and who is worthy to live - or die.
We concede that this widespread, yet well-hidden, spiritual scourge seems too unbelievable to be true. However, Ron Enroth, a Christian sociologist who has interviewed many former members of abusive churches in his book Churches That Abuse (Zondervan), say about the seeming "peculiarity" of it all: "You may even feel that the abusive practices described .. appear to be far removed from the world of conventional churchgoers, and, it is hoped, they are. Yet, I am convinced that tendencies toward abusive styles of leadership are far more prevalent than most Christians realize. If we are honest with ourselves, we might admit that at least the potential for authoritarianism may exist in some of our own backyards" (p. 222).
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