A Candle in the Window

It was revealed to [the Old Testament prophets] that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven– things into which angels long to look.

1 Peter 1:12

The great task of the American people is to continuously and faithfully explore and apply the first sentence in our Declaration of Independence, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Written by wealthy, white American men, many who themselves were slave-owners, the irony and challenges of such a claim have never been lost or forgotten. Its actual application in American life remains a persistent challenge. But the sentence remains our creed, and it remains unfulfilled, in that while we think of everyone being equal, we have failed miserably to treat everyone as equal.

In the same way, the church of Jesus Christ has always striven and struggled to embrace its own definition and application of the words, For God so loved the world. . . We have striven to divide that “world” between those whom we say God “knew,” and therefore loved, and those who God did not know/elect, and therefore did not love, or at least did not love in the same way as those He had chosen. Many Americans have tried the use of laws, rules, red-lining, segregated school and water fountains (to name a few of the devices) to maintain some distinctions and barriers between those who we see as “us,” and those who we wish to keep “not us.” So too, God’s people have struggled to keep their front doors open to the “others,” the not-one-of-us people out there who wish to come in. The writings of the Old Testament prophets—accepted by Jew and Christian alike as inspired, authoritative, and perfectly reflective of the will and nature of God the Father—are used by God to keep that door open, and they were used by Him to keep the door open to the countless streams of those wildly diverse, geographically scattered people, the Gentiles, who desired to come into the saving warmth and peace of God’s family—the Church. In those writings, by those Jewish men so long ago, God has left a candle in the window for all to see and escape the darkness. But God’s method was of a more memorable and poignant nature. It was the brutal, violent, public placarding of His own Son, Jesus, on a roughhewn, blood soaked Roman cross of execution, lifted on a hill, for all the world to see. And all the world sees it today, each time the gospel is read and told, and each time a Christian dares to love the world in the same way her Master Jesus loved it, by giving her life for it.

When someone you care about is in an abusive church. . .

By Ken Garrett

          Through the years, since I left an abusive church, I have been contacted by many family members whose loved ones have become embedded in abusive churches. They often contact me after months or years of a deteriorating relationship with their family member or friend, and sadly, when they are sure the relationship is irredeemably lost. If your loved one, family member, or friend is in an abusive church, here are some basic truths to remember, and some positive actions you can take so that (as far as you are concerned) the door is open for the building of a genuine (though not perfect!) relationship.

          First,remember that most people leave abusive groups and cults, though they may remain members for many years. Inevitably, the false, disingenuous personality (or, self) developed by the member to become a functioning, accepted member of the abusive church is finally overcome by the person’s true, authentic self. As I reflect on my time in an abusive church and the process of leaving it, I see that the inmost parts of my psyche, the private thoughts and beliefs, were never really destroyed or even replaced by the outer, church-pleasing personality that I developed in my time there. No, the real me, the Ken that I was born as, and is my core personality,was simply shut down, repressed by my attempt to fit in and avoid displeasing my leaders and fellow church members. My authentic, true self battled for me,and eventually won. Your friend or loved one has not really been lost; he has simply been masked by the false, cultic, abusive church self that is being formed by the policies and social environment of the group. While the control and influence of the leaders of cultic groups seems overwhelming and total, as Michael Langone notes, “not absolute, because ultimately most people leave cultic groups.”[1]Never give up on your loved one! Never give up hope!

          Second, a tremendous impact for good is made in the life of the member of an abusive church when an outsider treats them with kindness, affection, and acceptance. Many of the friends, parents, and family of abusive church members attempt to argue their loved one out of the church through theological debate, attacks on the leader of the church, or the application of a good-sized serving of guilt for the person’s abandonment of his relationships. While it is certainly understandable that a concerned parent, sibling, spouse, or friend would resort to these tactics, the fact is, they simply do not work. By the time a member of an abusive church has made the decision to join and live as a fully committed member, he has long since rejected the theological rationale of outsiders, and may even believe his own grasp of theology exceeds that of outside voices. He has come to see the abusive leader as a great man or woman of God, misunderstood by the outside, uninitiated world, as many great religious leaders of history have been. Moreover, members are well prepared by the abusive church leaders for the onslaught of concern, criticism, and guilt that they will encounter from family and friends. However, for the member to be treated with kindness, affection, and respect by his family and friends, without argument, (perceived) slander of their church leaders, or shaming indictments of their failure to maintain relationships with family and friends, is tremendously powerful, and makes a deep, if unacknowledged, impact on the member.

          Make long-standing, open invitations for coffee or breakfast or lunch, anytime. Remind your loved one that he can call you, anytime, and you will always be available to him, no questions asked. Express affection, acceptance, and commendation for the good things that he is accomplishing in his church. Perhaps he is excelling in study or devoting time to service of the poor and needy. Perhaps he is becoming a person of a better character and more mature integrity and is gaining social skills that did not exist before membership in the abusive church. (All of those are distinct possibilities!) Do not be shy about praising what is good. Do not withhold affection because of his membership in the abusive church. Be as present in his life as he will allow. Remind him of the love you have for him, and of the cherished memories you will always have of your relationship with him. (Deep down, he has not forgotten those memories, either!) Learn the names of his friends in the church, and invite them over for dinner or a barbeque. Do not stop inviting him to every family event, holiday, and special occasions, even though he often does not show up. Do your best to rise above the tension, awkwardness, and distancing that often marks the relationships between abusive church members and their (non-member) family and friends. Visit his church regularly and avoid the temptation to be consumed with a criticism of the church, or to engage in arguing or defending your beliefs. Just visit, because someone you care about belongs to that church, and you do care, after all. Leave your anti-cult books at home; walk through the doors of your loved one’s church with nothing but your love, and your prayers for their good and blessing. Ask God that he would fill you with his Spirit of power, love, sound thinking, and he will.[2] Genuine love is simply more powerful than all the dogma, coercion, and religious zeal in the world, and will win out in the end, overcoming all fear.[3]

          Third, family members and friends of those who are in abusive groups usually find great benefit in learning about the general processes of thought-reforming groups (such as cults and abusive churches) from an academic standpoint. It can be discomfiting to read of the horrific abuses that take place in such groups, particularly when you are imagining your loved one as a member of the same. However, it is also liberating to see that you have not been thrown into an undiscovered wilderness but are simply entering a world that is new to you, and that world is well researched and understood by professionals and survivors alike. There are numerous excellent books and articles available that address the phenomena of spiritual abuse from a secular and Christian perspective. (Feel free to check with me for some suggestions that I’ve found to be useful.)

          Fourth, find others who can identify with your experience as a friend or family member who are deeply concerned about a loved one who is a member of an abusive, cult-like church or high-demand group. It is likely that there are survivors in the area of the abusive church to which your loved one belongs. Just having a cup of coffee with someone who gets it regarding abusive churches can be both powerful and empowering. Once you start asking around, somebodywill know somebodywho knows a person who has some knowledge of spiritual abuse, and perhaps, even of the specific group of your loved one. Do not be afraid to reach out; when you do, you’ll find that you are not alone.

Best, Ken

[1] Michael Langone, Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), 9.

[2] 2 Timothy 1:7.

[3] 1 John 4:18.

Naming it: Of Cults and Narcissists, Part Two

Another word that demands attention is the word narcissist. I just did a Google search on the word, which resulted in 58,900,000 results. That’s fifty-eight million. That’s a lot of narcissist.

Narcissism is a malignant personality type/disorder, long recognized by mental health professionals (it is found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), that is generally understood as the subject manifesting a chronic, controlling pattern of grandiosity, expressed in demands for admiration, respect, etc., and in a general lack of empathy. Outside of the formal, therapeutic world, there are many understandings and definitions of narcissism (I imagine that’s where most of the 58 million web hits regarding narcissism come from . . .). I have heard of pastors described by their (former) congregants as narcissists who I suspect were merely rude, arrogant, self-centered, and probably in the wrong line of work. But I have also heard, and hear with increasing frequency, of more and more pastors who genuinely present in ways that I believe any mental health professional would certainly diagnose as a classic narcissist. So there is the gamut—Narcissistic Personality Disorder in its official presentation, as diagnosed by mental health and medical professionals, and opinion of narcissistic pastors (and other leaders, certainly) who have savaged the very people they were supposed to care about, and lead as gentle shepherds would lead a flock of beloved sheep. But they didn’t.

Now, here’s the point of what I am writing: I have noted that when I drop the word narcissist, or, narcissistic to describe a pastor or leader that has hurt the person I am speaking to, my naming of their abuser often falls flat. They don’t know if their pastor was a narcissist—and, hearing me describe the narcissistic pastor of my old church–they often don’t view their abusive pastor as being anywhere near as corrupt and depraved as my old pastor (who now sits in prison for his crimes committed against the children of his church).

When people leave abusive churches, they are often in various stages of the development of clarity and conviction in their own assessment of the abuse they suffered. In the same way they are not ready to sign-off on calling their old church (as mean and nasty as it was) a cult they are also not prepared to call their pastor a narcissist, especially when the word if thrown out by non-medically trained people (like myself). After all, there is a well-known policy (though much debated) that it is unethical and unprofessional for psychiatrists to give opinions and make diagnoses regarding public figures whom they have not personally interviewed and examined. (It’s called the Goldwater Rule, and it’s a very interesting read, if you’re interested in looking it up!) Not all psychiatrists appreciate the Goldwater Law, because (they feel) you really can simply read and hear what a person has to say and have a clear idea of what makes her tick. I am the same way, and I suppose that idea is what makes it very tempting for me to tell survivors of abusive churches that their former pastors are narcissists.

I often feel I lose traction when I throw the word narcissism (along with cult) around—and find myself trying to make my case, defending my opinion, instead of simply hearing the survivor’s story, again and again, and walking with the survivor into a healthier future. I lose traction because I am trying to massage and squeeze their story into my own ideas about spiritual abuse, cults, and narcissists.

What does this mean for me, a survivor of spiritual abuse who took ten long years before truly believing he was in a cult, and his pastor a narcissist? I believe it means I should continue to engage and care for my fellow spiritual abuse survivors, but patiently give them the same freedom that I was given to sort through their experiences, and to choose how they themselves will describe what happened to them. There can be a lot of time between “This church is wrong, unhealthy, and the pastor is a bully—we’re leaving, now!” and “I was in a cult and my pastor was a narcissist.” Cult and narcissist will probably slip out of my mouth, often.

For all survivors of narcissistic abuse, know this: It’s your story, in your words, and we’re not in any big hurry to get to the final chapter.