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 One

After leaving an unhealthy church in 1996, which I later understood to be abusive, and then later understood to be a Christian cult, I came to a point where I wanted to throw my hat in the ring and start helping others who were in unhealthy/abusive/cultic churches and Christian groups. I started speaking more of spiritual abuse in my preaching, writing a few blog posts about it, and earned a doctorate writing about spiritual abuse in Christian churches. I also joined the International Cultic Studies Association for access to their extensive research library, cult recovery experts, and support of former members of such groups. Along the way, I noticed a couple of very important conversations that are occurring among church leaders, counselors, academics and survivors regarding the use of the words cult to describe an abusive group (like my old church), and the use of the word narcissist to describe abusive pastors.

The cult conversation is the most active. Formerly, a cult was simply a destructive, aberrant religious group that abused and damaged its members through its totalist control of their lives. Christian churches that held to an historical understand of the Christian faith (e.g., deity of Christ, presence of miracles, inspiration of Scripture, resurrection of Christ, substitutionary atonement, etc.) really felt that it was quite impossible to ever be rightly called a cult. They reasoned that since their doctrines were orthodox, historic, and held by the most renown, legitimate churches, denominations, and seminaries, and most importantly, were “biblical,” cult was simply a description that could never be applied to them. However, recent studies, writings, and dialogue within cult-recovery groups, ministries, and writers has challenge that thinking, even within Christianity.

The word cult itself derives from the Latin word, cultus, which describes the care and service of deities, temples, and shrines. It was simply a word related to the traditions, habits, and disciplines of any of the many religions found in the Roman Empire. So, it didn’t describe harmful, abusive behavior, but simply the particular behaviors and rituals of religious systems. However, with the growth of the Christian church, and its eventual totalist control over the Roman empire itself, these other religions, and their cultic traditions, beliefs, behaviors, etc., were declared illegal, and were stigmatized and (eventually) largely abandoned. The Christian church, experienced in being declared an illegitimate, illegal religion in its early years, proceeded to inflict the same experience on its former rivals. I’m certain there is much more to the story than how I have just described it—but we can at least say, it wasn’t our finest hour when Christians decided to use the power of the government (which they now controlled) to harm non-Christian religions!

In time, the word cult came to describe any sect, group, church, movement, etc., that did not hold to the orthodox, historic beliefs of the Christian faith, especially its beliefs about the nature, identity and significance of Jesus Christ, or, its Christology. And here’s the catch—under that understanding of the word, any church with the correct belief system, especially the correct beliefs regarding Jesus Christ—simply could not be called a cult! It could act terribly, ruining the lives of its members through its manipulation, theft, abuse, control and punishments. It could separate families, ruin marriages, steal money, abuse children, refuse to allow members to seek proper medical care, withdraw from neighbors, cover over crimes, and act as if it were a law unto itself. No matter, if the church had a correct Christology, it simply could not be a cult. That’s where all that I’ve written begins to intersect with my personal experience. I joined a church with all the “right” doctrines, and most of the right practices of a normal, healthy Christian church. But in time, although the church stood solidly on its doctrines, its behaviors, especially in its pastors, violated every behavioral expectation and instruction of Christianity. Under the domineering leadership of its pastors, the church started hurting its members, deceiving them, ruining them, and stealing their money, time, and in some cases, their bodies, through sexual abuse.

And never, at any time, would we have agreed that we were a cult. All because of our dearly held, rarely applied doctrines. I imagine our true, applied Christology made Jesus weep.

Today, I think we are wise to wean ourselves off the word, or at least the ways we have used it. I have often heard it used in a malicious, critical way, to cast aspersion on another person, or that person’s church, so that the listener won’t be fair-minded and generous, but will be well-warned of the moral-spiritual depravity of the church in question. That’s not right. That’s how abusive churches talk about other people and groups and religions and churches.

If you are going to use the word (and I often do—old habits, you know. . . ) it is best to use it to describe a harmful, controlling religious group (be it Christian or not) whose leaders employ any number of the well-known devices and methods of coercion and manipulation to control people, and to gain control of their wealth, energy, loyalty, families, marriages, and even their bodies. If you simply follow the money, sex, and power footprints in any such group, you’ll invariably find the leader of the group. (Perhaps leaders, plural—but in my experience, most of the time it is a leader, singular. Bad guys rarely share power, at least not equally.)

My point is writing this piece is this: Christians coming out of abusive churches—ones that were just about as controlling, horrible, and damaging as can be, they have a hard time describing these abusive churches as cults. Their beliefs were orthodox, they believed what all healthy churches believe, at least on paper. To throw the cult designation onto them is like forcing them to wear an old, heavy, wet coat in the summer. It doesn’t fit, isn’t comfortable, and isn’t the right time to wear it, anyway. Asking survivors to call their abusive churches cults is often premature, unnecessary, and can even lead to a sort of bullying-by-expert. It is difficult for survivors to even think of themselves as survivors or victims, let alone former cult-members. For years, I did not research cult-recovery resources, simply because I did not believe I’d left a cult.

So, when I slip, and use the word cult in relation to a church or Christian group, what I mean is an abusive, unhealthy, coercive group (in my line of work, that group is usually a Christian church), that, while it may very well possess orthodox, historic, accepted beliefs regarding the Christian faith, abuses, mistreats, and infiltrates its members’ lives, seeking absolute, total control over every last cent, minute, decision, and idea, and relationship.

The word cult has impeded people from seeking help as quickly as they should, so I’m doing my small part to more carefully qualify my use of the word, or at least to broaden its meaning a bit.

Next. . . Naming it: Narcissism