Religious Trauma Syndrome, Spiritual Abuse

Trauma Bonding- The Church and the People

When one unpacks RTS, abuse is central to the conversation.  Spiritual trauma is insipid because the abuse involves so many facets of the person.  Let’s start a conversation about the aspects of abuse that the church is a part of.

  1. Psychological Abuse– Church leaders depend on dependence.  By letting people know how little they matter (we are born in sin and need a man to save us over and over all day long) we become reliant on hearing how we can somehow be saved.  Spoiler alert: churches depend on us being broken and being aware of it.

    Coming from the framework of a youth, we also became dependant on our youth leaders to tell us how to behave and think.  Our pastor was the mouth of god, and though he was the age I am now, he was considered the end all and be all of what was acceptable for us.

    Most leaders of the Evangelical church are male (and white, let’s be honest).  They tend to also be narcissistic, and power hungry.  They lead droves of “broken” people, being the voice of god.  As the leaders of the church, they also often go unchecked.

    I would be remiss if I did not bring up mental illness in this section.  Mental illness is so poorly dealt with within the church, it is shocking.  Depression is considered the work of the devil.  I recall people saying that those who were depressed had “a spirit of xyz” that was affecting them.  Taking anti-depressants or other mental health supports were frowned upon at best, mocked and shunned at worst.  I was suicidal throughout much of my church-going days, and I was told that I had a “spirit of death.”  I was surrounded by church leaders who would scream at me in tongues and lay hands on me to deliver me from this evil.

    “Counseling” often came in the form of deliverance meetings where the leadership would pray over the affected person to the point where they might have a panic attack (seen as the devil coming out of them) and an emotional break.  This was seen as positive progress and the person was sent on their way.  That person was then expected to be healed, which frequently meant that the person would just hide their struggles from others.

  2. Emotional Abuse- I categorize this in another section from psychological abuse for several reasons.

    First, services are constructed to create an emotional experience (and in some cases, an emotional frenzy) for the participant.  As the church-goer becomes more reliant on the cortisol of the high-stress build up, and dopamine release,  they become addicted to the framework of church.

    Second, parishioners are often given trite explanations for their ailments.  To solve the largest or smallest of problems the formula almost always involved:
    – Reading your Bible more
    – Praying more
    – Attend church more
    – Speaking about unconfessed sin
    Having these simple answer to the world’s complex problems causes feelings of hopelessness and feelings of inadequacy. We become dependant on the church to “fix” us, but we are going through the washing machine of brokenness over and over.

    In addition, putting the onus on the church-goer to put in enough “god-credit” to cause ‘him’ to change your life situation places undue stress and responsibility on that person.

  3. Spiritual Abuse- Church leaders pick and choose what information is dispensed to the church.  Often, the only information about god that is heard is from the mouths of the clergy.

    Putting aside the idea that people should do their own research, often the vulnerable populations attend church.  The young, the old, the marginalized, these amazing people are hearing what is being shared and taking it as truth.  For example, one youth in my church was sent to reparative therapy for being gay.  This “therapy” is incredibly dangerous and outrageous, to say the least.  To tell a vulnerable youth that they are not good enough because of who they love is appalling.  To do so using god as an excuse is abhorrent.

    Church leaders often told us that if we were to be able to do something (lead a group, step up in ministry, etc) god would tell them. (As if god would only speak to them.) This sets a precedent that god only speaks to certain people, and only some are worthy.

    Hinn leads a “healing ministry” where people come to mega-arenas with the hopes of being healed from a multitude of illnesses.  People come up on stage, and “fall under the power of god” as Benny shoots god-bolts through the air at them.  Do I believe that some of these people actually feel this happening?  Yes.  I really do.  The power of suggestion and reinforcement coupled with hope creates a huge experience in the mind of the participant.  What happens when they go home and their ailment is still there?

  4. Social Abuse- By social status and capital, people in the church gain, lose or maintain power.  These power structures are well defined and it’s quite difficult to break the glass ceiling.  Men are (biblically) over women, setting up a framework that will carry through to marriage relationships.  Women are to be submissive to their husbands, which carries through major decisions all the way to sexual activity in the home. Women are (more often than not) disallowed from most positions in leadership outside of music and children’s ministry.  Their voices, thus, are worthless.

    Finally, in this category are “prayer requests.”  Within the church, “would you pray for so-and-so, they are struggling with xyz” is a way to spread gossip in a holy way.  In this way, people can share what they know, under the guise of spirituality.  By manipulating disclosure, people don’t know who to trust within the system, and the leadership are often the biggest offenders.  Prayer cards were a living document where families would air their dirty laundry… not knowing how widespread the viewing of their cards were.

  5. Financial Abuse- This is a topic not brought up enough.  The church runs because of the biblical stance of tithes.  The premise is that the first 10% of your earnings go to the church.  This alone isn’t something I have qualms with*.  However, I do have issues with the way that the church asks for money.
    * Assuming you are fiscally sound, solvent, and are ABLE to do so.  Many who give this amount are already living in poverty and should be RECEIVING support, rather than giving more up.

    I’m sure we’ve all be exposed in some way to manipulative ministries.  Some ministries that could fall into this category would be the TV Evangelists (such as Pat Robertson from the 700 Club or Benny Hinn). These people THRIVE on the emotions of others.  These shows also inherently prey on the people who are vulnerable (the isolated, disabled, and the elderly) since they are on during the middle of the night and early morning.

    Robertson is known for being a particularly conservative person (and proponent of abusing your wife if they aren’t behaving. But that’s for another day.)  Not only does this hit every offensive button in my body, but he uses his show to raise money for crusades.  He will come up with random things that god has led him to pray about, preying on the people to send him money to be on his prayer list.

    I recall our summer revival services, where we would have traveling pastors come and lead tent meetings.  These were large events, where we were packed into hot churches, and whipped into a frenzy by these powerful messages of healing, revival and renewal.  The bucket would get passed, and the expectation was that everyone would contribute to pay for these pastors to come speak.

    Need after need was brought to the church, and often well-meaning people would give and give, as they were told “god would provide and bless you ten-fold” the more they gave.  Fiscal responsibility was not a topic brought to the table.  So, is it surprising when pastors embezzle money, steal it from the church, ride around in proportionally fancier cars than their parishioners?

Why do people stay in abusive churches? It’s often because of something called “trauma bonding,” where you become addicted to the hormonal rollercoaster an abuser sends you on.

Abusive churches use gaslighting, and “lovebombs” to get you hooked on the message, the people, and the building.  It FEELS great to be a part of something big, something godly, and seemingly loving.   Over time, as the attendee gets more involved, they become more exposed to the darker sides and abuse, but the dopamine release during emotional releases (like passionate worship sessions, fervant prayer times, and touching messages) helps sweep those moments under the rug (and in some cases they may not even see the abuse for what it is.)  Victim blaming keeps the church-goer dependant on the cure (the church), with the hopes that if they give/do/serve enough, they too can obtain spiritual enlightenment.

The denial within the evangelical community about the widespread abuses of power must be addressed.  Abuse is happening.  Power and Control is central the church community, and it must change.