This was a column I wrote for our local paper; it was published last week, but I'm just getting around to posting it now.
Spiritual Abuse and the Church
One of the most sacred things about the ministry is that people share amazing stories with you – about their lives, their troubles, and the ways God has (or has not) been present in their lives. This is an enormous privilege, one that I do not take lightly. Thank you for sharing your life with me.
But one of the saddest things I have encountered is the number of people who have related to me their stories of spiritual abuse and survival. Here are just a few of the stories I have heard: people who have been browbeaten into submission to some so-called “essential doctrine” of faith; people whose faithful intelligence and probing questions were met with hostility rather than openness; people who have had their humanity denigrated and denied because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their addictions, or their economic status; people who have been told that if they just had more faith, all their problems would disappear; people who have heard for years, even decades, that they are just plain worthless; people whose pasts were constantly held against them, even as they tried to live in a new way. This betrayal at the hands of the church is a grievous wound in the Body of Christ.
How brave are those who dare to share their stories and speak out against spiritual abuse! In rejecting such abuse, a person must separate oneself from the abusive community; but their faith in God’s goodness often endures. When those who have been battered by the church are able to hold onto the core belief in a good and loving God, and even seek out another congregation to grow in discipleship and faith, it is nothing short of miraculous. What courage it takes for those who have been badly wounded by the church to risk entering another community of faith. It would be far easier to reject faith and God altogether, after having been treated so abominably by God’s people.
To you who have been spiritually abused by the church, I apologize. You deserve better. I apologize for my fellow clergy, who are often so zealous in doctrine that they ignore human need standing in front of them. And I apologize for my fellow Christians, who are so blinded by their self-righteousness or struggling with their own feelings of inadequacy that they cannot see another child of God in their midst. I am sorry for what you have suffered by those who have misrepresented Christ. God has made you in God’s own image, and you are a holy reflection of God’s light in this world.
To those of you who believe you are doing God’s work by revealing all the sin of the world and holding it up to account, I say, enough. The world already knows all about the reality of sin and the sharp pain of sin’s wounds. We do not need any more reminders of how broken we are or how damaged this world is. What people need to know about is not sin, but forgiveness; not bleak despair, but enduring hope; not judgment, but grace; not death, but new life. We do need the healing, forgiving love made known to Christians in Jesus Christ. Remember these words of Isaiah, spoken by Jesus at the outset of his ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Matthew 4: 18-19).
This world needs to be wooed by Christ, captivated by the stories of his power and love, and renewed by the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. That cannot happen by crushing a spirit. Doctrine has a place, but if it cannot withstand honest questioning and deep, faithful examination, it is not worth its privileged place in the church.
Those who encounter God will be radically changed – but it is up to God to do the changing and to dictate the terms of that change. Who knows how, when, and in what ways we will be transformed by God? We cannot and should not force that change, especially in others. We can only invite God to be present, to fill our lives with grace, to shape us more fully into Christ’s image – and to trust God to do the same in the lives of others, however God will.