Behind The Bars: Life In A Toxic Community Of Faith

by Rev. Rafael Martinez, Spiritwatch Ministries

"To see deep into the structure of one tyranny is to understand something basic about all forms of oppression. It is totalitarian. Like other authoritarian systems, it requires a suspension and suppression of critical questioning; it demands unquestioning submission to a rigid hierarchical structure; it centers on a cult of personality, and it engenders personal intrusion and abuse."      

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, My Father's Guru

As we have seen,  religious abuse is a traumatic process of unethical manipulation and domination intentionally inflicted by profoundly controlling leaders of a religious group upon its followers, to their personal detriment. It is certainly nothing like an authentic Christian community's lifestyle based upon the Biblical principles of divinely bestowed love, grace, and liberty: and yet it has many troubling and undeniably well-crafted similarities. It is an "old-time"problem that has dogged the footsteps of "old-time" religion, but by no means has ever been limited there. Where human authority has claimed to speak for the divine, and where true believers have uncritically flocked, it has occurred. We wish to now examine the personal dimensions of the human encounter with spiritual tyranny embodied by religious abuse through the testimonies of those who have been there.

We have also seen in other articles on this site that this abuse can and does occur in settings that often are not typically viewed as religious in nature, and that organizations which utilize this coercive compulsion in their corporate existence can actually be called cultic. 

Why is this? This is because the social dynamics that foster this damaging environment exist everywhere in human circles of interaction where a group's particular endeavors rely upon the direction of leadership that is virtually unquestioned and absolutely trusted. Since religion is defined - in its most generic sense - as a submission and obedience to the absolutes of a given and transcendant deity, the universal human practice of attaching profound significance to the directives of authority can be said to be, in this highly qualified sense, "religious" in nature. Children can be said to "worship" their fathers, while women can be said to "adore" their husbands and men in turn "worship" sports heroes.

While human authority certainly is not essentially transcendant (one look at American politics proves that immediately), the fact remains that there exists a universal tendency of its followers to easily perceive its legitimacy in those terms. Even secular humanism's twentieth century anti-religious campaign has been powerless to eradicate this: it seems fundamental to human nature.

And when the authority lays an intentional claim that its leadership role has been divinely-bestowed, and even exclusive of all others, the potential for abusive control sharply rises. Legitimate Christian authority is rooted in the nature of God's self-revelation through Jesus Christ as clearly defined by the Christian Scriptures, but illegitimate "Christian" authority is based upon this purely human tendency to obey authority that only appears to be divinely bestowed only to an elite group who have regained the "real meaning" of the Scriptures. When this happens, as lamented over by the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:4, their message and their mission always, sooner or later, becomes unbiblical, toxic and dangerously deceptive as they preach out of a counterfeit authority a counterfeit revelation of Christ and the Gospel. Like a cancerous affliction, such abusive authority is a wild growth in the Body of Christ that can survive only through the aggressive subjugation of living cells and tissues. And there have been hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people throughout the history of Christianity  who have fallen prey to this horrendous abuse of power and enslavery of soul.

So what is life like behind the bars of such prisons of the spirit? As we have encountered victims of religious abuse here in our years of ministry, we listen to their stories. We share in what they have endured, and as we endeavor to provide healing, we recognize quickly that they suffered as the result of their encounters with one or more of the seven following things that their prisons and wardens tormented them with:    


  • Absolute obedience to the elite - submission to all dictates of leaders at any price
  • Extreme group conformity - undue compulsion to adopting a community code of conduct
  • Suspension of critical thinking - group rejection of independent thought as sinful, demonic
  • Twisting of Scripture - misinterpretation of Biblical passages/teachings to magnify authority
  • Phobic manipulation - using fear of punishment to intentionally control and dominate another
  • Coerced confession of faults - forced pressure on the self and others to confess to "sins"  
  • Abusive excommunication - brutal expulsion of members and harsh treatment afterwards

These seven imprisoning features of abusive groups can be found in the following testimonies of people who left religiously abusive groups after having sought earnestly yet in vain to find happiness, fulfillment and meaning following the vision of the group they chose to associate with. Instead of the true joys of wholesome holiness and peaceful purpose, they instead ecountered the most fearful of interpersonal horrors: the terrors of oppression by the trusted. Here are some testimonies of former members of religiously abusive groups that illustrate the cold and hard steel of these bars ..


"I internalized the certain 'elitist' mentality that largely characterizes many Oneness communities, for we all believed we had a 'truth' possessed by very few others. In our view, we alone were the people who knew the one true God; we alone knew who Jesus truly was; we alone baptized correctly; we alone walked 'worthy' of the Lord; we alone, in a word, were 'saved." - former member of the United Pentecostal Church International

"The whole issue of loyalty revolves around this concept: serving God is serving 'the Ministry' .. People are made to believe that true service to God is through 'the ministry' (in other words, their ministry) When you serve the "Man of God" YOU ARE serving God. The "Man of God" has a vision. You must get behind him so that he can fulfill this vision. So, you must be totally submitted without question to their leadership or you are not in right relationship with God. It is frowned upon and generally put to a stop if possible (directly or indirectly) when someone tries to get involved with people from other churches for any type of outside ministry. Or, if you try to do any form of ministry yourself outside the church. .. (they) believe they have this special anointing which makes them elite over the body and nobody has the right to come against or question that anointing. They have built themselves up to the point where most of the people, during one service, came forward and placed their gifts, talents, spiritual armor, family, time, and finances at (their) feet .. They welcomed this 'worship'."       - former members of an abusive East Tennessee church


"Group meetings provided a key venue for forcefully teaching militants (members) to conform. For example, leaders would start a meeting by denouncing a comrade for some error. Once leadership finished, each militant would be expected to say how much he or she agreed. Ideally, each person was to say something different from what had already been said; questions, should there be any, had to be couched in within an overall agreement. After years of this process, party members became incapable of any kind of critical thinking. They could only parrot one another and had shrunken vocabularies riddled with arcane internal phraseology. .. this process was often carried into future meetings - the next day, the next week, or the next several weeks .. Over time, living with this unsettling internal anxiety and feeling of impending doom was the way militants faced every waking hour." - former member of a radical political organization

"Everyone is told exactly how to prospect, how to dress, how to present the plan, how to follow-up, to use the support system, etc. What really made my stomach turn, though, was the behavior of people at all the meetings. They could have all been clones. Regardless of the line of sponsorship, everyone recited the verbatim the same rhetoric, talked about the latest promotion, and dressed alike. ..  People rarely exchanged business ideas or sales tips, as might be expected at a "business meeting." Rarely did distributors discuss their hobbies, current events, or outside interests. Sex role stereotypes prevailed as well. .." - former member of a major multi-level marketing corporation- former member of a major multi-level marketing corporation


"I went with my spiritual difficulties to my colleague overseers, but they laughed my questions away saying I was studying more than they did, I had to trust The Organization and if things were wrong I had to wait for Jehovah, who would change things in time. They also warned me for reading all those books from 'Satan's World'. .. So I resigned as an overseer. Now I did get some problems. Almost never an overseer abdicated voluntarily. Overseers could be removed for immoral conduct, stealing and such things, but to give up such a position voluntarily? Some members of the congregation thought there had to be something wrong with me. But what? Could it be this or that? So the gossip started. " - former member of the Jehovah's Witnesses

".. (Our) tendency was to trust first and then hope that we could find the time to search the Word in prayer and verify or refute whatever particular issue was being discussed. .. We stifled the voice of God within, mistaking common-sense reactions for the 'rising up of the flesh.' It was probably this very doctrine that disabled most of us from ever obeying the 'gut feelings' of apprehension within. Many times we stifled our own conscience in the desire to walk spiritually. Since we  believed so strongly that the group was 'The One,' contemplating leaving wasn't even in your thoughts. Rather, we had a fear of doing something wrong and being told to leave!" - former members of the "No Name" Fellowship


"I think for me and a lot of other people who were perhaps recently converted Christians, they have taken biblical truths, and the twist isn't very great, but they are twisted, all twisted. .. there's somthing in the application of it - and it's so subtle it's hard to put into words - something in the way they apply it that turns it the wrong way." - former member of the Community Of Jesus

"The church organization uses doctrines and Bible teachings to keep people from reading or listening to different things. The leaders's Bible thumping and tone of voice are frightening. I believe in the wrath of God, but the Bible teaches gentleness and forgiveness. Bible beaters say they have all the answers. .."  - former member and missionary of an abusive church


"We were afraid of everything - afraid of sickness, afraid of deviating from God's word, afraid of mortal mind, afraid of the body, afraid of sex, afraid of people, of difference, of strangers, even of love. In truth, no one could blame all of these fears on (ours) or any religion. .. I see now, however, how much influence our religion had on these fears. Christian Science taught the complete power of divine Love, insisting on the power of Love to heal every mental and physical illness. When no healings came, the language of the religion broke down." - former member of Christian Science

.. I quickly discovered that 'the holiness standard' (the community lifestyle rules), which initially seemed freeing to me, became very burdensome .. I thus spent a lot of my time feeling like God didn't like me very much and believing that I was in fact going to end up in hell. This is not an uncommon feeling among Oneness Pentecostals (though they rarely admit it until they are out of the movement)."  - former member of a Oneness church


"Everyone's Christian life was under scrutiny by someone, assigned by some level of authority; each member was confronted with observed faults, issued counsel, and followed up; each was encouraged to know the true state of his own soul, its sins and weaknesses, and to confess these openly and honestly to others who have ministry and authority over him.        - former member of the International Churches of Christ (AKA the Boston Movement)

"Groups like this are effective at getting members because they hook you with truth. People recognize truth .. Basically, you had one man who knew the truth .. and the rest of us were trying to learn the truth, so he called all the shots .. If you asked questions, then you were sinful. Once you were assumed guilty, you were asked, 'what have you done? What sins have you committed?' Finally, you confessed to something, at which point they punished you. .. If you said you were leaving or spoke against the church, you were locked in a room and browbeaten  until you confessed that you were wrong. .. I watched this fundamental discipline and control grow gradually. The organization I entered was very different from the organization I left." - former member of the Church of Scientology


"We officially left the church in March of 1994 through a letter requesting our names be removed from the church records. Since that time, in all too typical mind control like fashion, members of the church have avoided us. The Regional Representative even came up from Alabama and spoke out against us in a Sacrament meeting three weeks after we left and told the members that if they ever talk to us or if we give them materials, they are to contact their Bishop."  - former members of the Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints

"There's a lot of people listening to every word that the higher belts say and they would do anything - even kill somebody - if they were told to kill somebody. ..   That's what they said to me when I left - you are 'walking dead.'" - former members of a martial arts association


The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil

is for God's people to do nothing.

Paul Carden

And we have done just that so well for too long.

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