Sunday, 10 July 2011

Leaving the (Abusive) Fold

There are more than a few readers here who know what it's like to be cast out of the Kingdom, excommunicated, disfellowshipped...  That's something I share with them.  My terrible sin was questioning the authority of the imperious church leader who, it turned out, had "feet of clay."

Whether the mullahs get to you first, or you precipitate things by confronting them (as I did), the result is pretty much the same.  I've never been divorced, but I imagine the trauma you go through is similar in both.  Church membership - especially in more sectarian settings - is about identity as well as community.  Reinventing yourself is no easy thing.

So I found myself empathising with Shelley Branine.  She and her husband were recently dumped from membership of their church.  The sin?
The foundation crumbled when we started asking questions about how money was being spent and the lifestyle of some of the leaders doing the spending. We weren’t the only members wondering, just the only ones brave enough to ask. I was shocked to discover that such simple questions would cause so much anger, fear and defense. Our intention and demeanors were not harsh or critical. We simply and politely asked for answers.

So they kicked us out.
This is a tale oft told.  The last line of Shelley's post is, though, the one that struck me.
But regardless of all of the hurt feelings and confusion, I’m thankful, because I am better for it.
Abusive churches are lethal, no matter how much we have invested in them - study, financial, even (tragically) family.  Abusive churches want - and need - compliant, unquestioning members.  Perhaps in the past these churches tended to cluster on the sectarian fringes, but today, like Shelley's, they operate close to the evangelical mainstream with largely unaccountable 'pastors'.  If they were plumbers you'd call them 'cowboys'. You only have to read Tanya Levin's account of life in Hillsong to recognise the same pattern, and Hillsong is "respectable" in the eyes of the evangelical mainstream.

It's clearly much easier not to get involved in a rogue, personality-driven church than to have to tear yourself free much later.  The message has to be, buyer beware!  But, as Shelley has discovered, better late than never.  You'll be the better for it.


  1. Truer words were never spoken... so far as I know.

    Some people claim that they don't know if they would have been better people without the cult experience. In my case, I know I really would have been a better person because of going back and projecting out the person I was 47 years ago and -- if all things had been equal -- where I would have probably ended up in the realm of character.

    It is very clear to me that the cult ruined by life by ruining my character. Beyond that, it "turned off" all the built-in early radar to detect the terrible narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths which entered my life.

    It is not possible to live the cult life perfectly according to theory without cheating and the compromise of cheating itself is deadly to character. The cult leader's ethic is that the end (his salary, retirements, power and perks) justifies the means (lying, cheating, deceiving, giving up your personal power, having your dignity and wealth stripped from you, being Stockholmed).

    People coming out of cults have issues and some of those issues include PTSD, dissociation and sleep disorders. Your life in the cult is not about taking care of yourself, it is all about taking care of The Leader and all his needs. Giving up the mode of giving up everything is difficult to break as a habit.

    The feelings of utter worthlessness after being told we are all sinners and deserve death, along with singing Psalm 51 endlessly when we haven't committed adultery, but the minister has, is a result of the contempt leaving the membership as little more as collateral damage in thoughtless abuse.

    Cult leaders don't even act like humans and often remind me of that experiment where students were told to shock volunteers or the more Draconian Experiment of Jailors and Prisoners: Everybody gets caught up in their role and the prisoners suffer.

    Oh, it's not so bad if you were wealthy or had powerful political connections or had really important skills which could further the interests of the hirelings of the Dead False Prophet. But if you didn't, you were screwed royally.

    It takes time to recover. A lot of time.

    Here's a clue: When you don't react any more when the news comes on with some tragedy and you have stopped relating it to prophecies of God's punishment, you are probably on your way to recovery. If you still have remnants in the back of your mind with the discomfort that God is punishing people through natural disasters, then you need to see a mental health professional familiar with counselling with former cult members. It helps a lot.

    Hopefully, the word can get out and more people can recover and start living their lives for the first time in decades.

    And special thanks to you, Gavin, for cluing me in about British Israelism around, say, 2004?

  2. My personal belief is that no one can ruin your character, except you.

  3. I love that cartoon. It's an in your face warning that should be stapled to every church door. Or in the spirit of Harold Camping, it should be on billboards.

  4. My personal belief is that no one can ruin your character, except you.

    Like you can't cheat an honest man?

    Difficult and complex is that, particularly with nonstop deception, conflicting "requirements", pressure to be "godly" with the most important Work ever; stupid doctrines, bad examples, oppressive governance, trivialization, stripping of self-esteem, constantly being told you are no good and that your Leader is the most important person who has ever lived.

    Yes, I suppose. A person with integrity would never succomb, particularly one who was naive and a true innocent to begin with, without any experience with scoundrels. Definitely. No external influences could possibly find a chink in the armor to cause any sort of failure or breakdown. In fact, quite impossible. Yes, I see the point.

  5. Excellent post Douglas. One has to be subject to all the pressure to understand how one's will is removed and compliance to others sets in.

    Even the Apostle Paul did this to genuinely good folks no doubt by telling couples not to marry etc and others to stop being or doing this or that because "Time was short." Many no doubt, complied and hurt their lives forever after. We don't have any NT follow up on the lives ruined by the Apostle Paul's perceptions of himself, his Gospel and his just knowing things others had to come to him to know.

  6. Speaking of wrecked character, what should we think of the hirelings of a dead false prophet (pick a cult, any cult) as ministers who became the guards over the prisoners, like that experiment in the 1970s (semi documented in the dramatized German movie)?

    Sweet, innocent, naive nice guys come to be educated in the ways of God. Somewhere along the way, they lost their way. They allowed their character to be corrupted. Or did they willingly allow their own character to be corrupted?

    What then of the prisoners with PTSD who identified with their cult leaders through the Stockhom Syndrome?

  7. The best defense I have found is for individuals to impose limitations on their spiritual guides. Maintain your distance. Allow others to assist in your personal relationship with God, but do not allow them to co-opt it. Don't let them equate their church or group with Jesus Christ, as if they are one and the same.

    Many churches today want, or even require a more than superficial relationship between their members and the church. They don't like "do it yourself" Christianity, but as I understand it, that's the way your personal relationship with God is supposed to be.


  8. Byker Bob, that was extremely well-stated.