There is a “Christian fiction” (I always feel odd using that phrase) series about the Amish, and one of the best sellers, called “The Shunning,” is about an old traditional practice of ostracizing a member of the faith for some grievous sin. While this may seem an odd practice to most American Christians it is certainly most alive and well in many controlling church communities.
If you’re with me this far, you might assume I am referring to some backwater church made up of all relatives or perhaps a cult that manipulates its members. You’d be wrong on the first, and getting warmer on the second. I call these churches “borderline cult” (my friend calls them “cultish”) and I was a member of two: One in Hawaii and one in the Bay Area of California, neither were backwater, and neither made up of all relatives. And I was “shunned” from both.
They don’t call it that. These grace-less churches misuse scriptures like Ephesians 5:6-7 in their anti-love behavior. (WAIT!: Isn’t “anti-love” the same is “hate”? Hmm…) People who are in these types of churches are either the victimizer or the victim. Or they are completely ignorant. Sometimes they are all three as they morph their way through the muck and mire of these communities. The manipulation and deception is so powerful, it is (as a lovely, young friend of mine said) like being in a smoke-filled room – you don’t realize how you are being poisoned.
Here is the kicker: I was in leadership in both of these churches I mention. So by default I was a victimizer. (“Isn’t this how all churches operate?”) And I was also the victim, manipulated from the beginning to believe twisted scripture and ultimately allowed to be controlled to the point of questioning truth, logic and good common sense. I was ignorant to the fact that this was so NOT what Christ intended the church to be. In many ways the community was refreshing and vibrant, non-traditional and different and offered things that had been missing in my life. It’s easier to rest in ignorance when there are some things to value in spite of things to reject.
BUT, OH! When you don’t conform, when the smoke clears a little and you start to SEE, when you start to ask questions and point to God’s word as the standard-bearer; OR when you mess up and fall into some sin or other (and here again, “sin” could be simply non-conformance to non-scriptural behaviors, or not being or acting the way leadership thinks you should) or if you leave for another church (any of these will do), then you are SHUNNED!
I remember in Hawaii, when after I left the church for a year having had all the controlling I could take, people walking down the same side of the street as me would cross to the other side to avoid any interaction! No one called, no one asked how I was or what I was doing. Same in California (the issue was far less about control and more about manipulation) – not only did no one seek me out, the truth was so twisted that I still can’t believe it. And this was after I had been on staff and on the worship team and a leader in women’s ministries. Victimizer. Victim. Ignorant.
THANK GOD many (probably most) of the folks formerly in these churches have left. We have grown and are healing and are currently in healthy churches who understand Christ came to heal the sick. We understand that people will know we are His followers by our LOVE for one another. Many relationships have been restored. But some, sadly, have yet to bring themselves to find a healthy community of believers. And others, even more sadly, continue to cloister themselves within these abusive churches. They separate themselves not only from the world but shun any fellow believers who do not think as they do. It is sad. It is unscriptural. It is hurtful. And it is wicked. Pray for them. Pray for us all.
Here is how to tell if you are or were part of a “cultish” church:
- The teaching does not come from the Bible, or when scriptures are used they are lifted way out of context.
- You are told how to think; when you think for yourself and speak of it you are rebuked.
- Church leaders shame others publicly and gossip about others in casual conversation.
- When someone leaves the church the remaining members are publicly or personally counseled to avoid the departing brother/sister at all costs.
- The mistakes of leaders are covered up; the same mistakes of “regular members” are exposed.
- There is no accountability or safety net in place for the leadership.
- If there is an “accountability safety net,” it does not hold abusive leadership accountable, only the “regular members.” The lack of love, care and gentle restoration is generally absent.
There are more, but I’ll stop here. These do not come from formal training or spiritual abuse resources, just my own experience and my conversations with friends who experienced the same. This is my story, but (OH! JESUS!) hopefully it is rare. CORRECTION: This is part of my story. And thank God, such a small part! The REAL story, the story of Christ’s grace, mercy and redeeming love (regardless of my abuse, regardless of my sin), Christ’s victory over everything — THAT is THE STORY!
The bottom line for those with a similar story? God is not manipulative and will not be manipulated. God loves His children and treats them as the most perfect and patient parent would – He does not abuse, belittle, patronize, or shame them publicly. Has your church screwed up? God hasn’t. Have you screwed up? God forgives and forgets when we humbly seek Him. Church is made up of humans. God is not human. I believe He is truly grieved over the abuses His children and would-be children have suffered at the hands of the church or other believers. I do NOT believe that negates His perfect plan for the purpose of the church in this world. I do not believe that excuses us from finding and becoming involved in a local, healthy, God-loving Christian community (e.g. Church) and working out our “stuff” together.
I believe we will find there is a treasure awaiting those who dare to trust again. MAYBE just dare a little. MAYBE try to trust again. If anything here resonates with you, here is a very good Web site to check out. You will find many good resources that to consider for your healing: