"Grace to People Who Know They Need
It is customary for authors to include dedicatory statements at the beginning of their books. One such statement caught my attention because it relates to the subject of this book.
To everyone to whom the words of a pastor have become wounds to the soul
This is the dedication statement chosen by Ron and Vicki Burks for their book Damaged Disciples.1
The wounding words of a pastor are all too real for a Christian couple whom we shall call Miriam and John Bower. Their story is somewhat different from others told in this book, because the Bowers were an affluent couple who moved easily in society when they began attending the Marin Christian Life Church in Northern California.
Miriam had been one of the "flower children" in the drug and hippie subculture of the sixties. Years later, she met John while they were both in a Twelve-Step program to recover from substance abuse, and they married three months after they met. While in the program they also became attracted to Eastern religions and the New Age movement.
IN SEARCH OF A SPIRITUAL FOUNDATION
"We were very disciplined in our New Age search for truth," Miriam relates. "We had an altar in our home where we meditated each morning and a guru whom we followed and whose picture was next to Jesus' on the altar. The New Age movement is a spiritual smorgasbord, and we were involved in many aspects of it. We attended an Episcopal church, but had no idea what Christianity was all about. We had a fish symbol on our car and idols in our home. We subscribed to the basic beliefs of the New Age: We are gods, and we create our own reality. We began a very successful business. I had two children from a previous marriage, and together we had three more children.
"We had difficulty making our marriage work because I thought I was God and my husband thought he was God. We were converted at a Christian marriage conference associated with Campus Crusade after we were presented with the Four Spiritual Laws. We asked Jesus into our hearts and came home from the conference different people. We didn't really know what had happened to us, but with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, our lives began to change. We had never been around Christian people or exposed to biblical Christianity. We
started reading the Bible and realized that we had been born again. We threw out our extensive New Age library and destroyed our meditation table and idols.
"We found a very biblical church, which we attended for two years. There were many solid Christians there who came from Christian backgrounds and had grown up with family devotions. It was wonderful for us. With five children, we wanted to learn to be Christian parents. We were learning Bible stories along with our children.
"After a while we became rather critical of the church. We didn't understand why they didn't take stronger positions on some issues or why they allowed some people in the congregation to smoke or drink rather than telling them what they should and shouldn't do.
"At that point, we visited an Assemblies of God church called Marin Christian Life Church. We were swept off our feet on our first Sunday there. The pastor yelled, ranted, and raved. We loved the whole emotional experience. After the service, people came up to us and said, 'The pastor doesn't usually come across so strong.' We told them that it was wonderful. In retrospect, I can see that what appealed to us was the haughtiness and arrogance we sensed. There was a spirit permeating the church that said, 'We are better Christians than anybody else. We are the only true Christians in Marin County.' John and I really liked that.
"Because of our affluence, we were immediately given special status when we joined and had access to the pastor and his inner circle. In that church, wealthy members were courted while needy ones were ignored. Our susceptibility to flattery and position unfortunately caused us to overlook the warning signals of trouble ahead.
"We had been strongly family-oriented, but were told that this was wrong. We were advised that we should not have any more children, that we should attend every church service we were expected to waken and pack our five children into our car to sleep in the parking lot while we attended the daily 5:30 A.M. prayer meetings that we should not home-school our children but put them into the church school because we were too isolated."
The Bowers began to see other signs of a controlling environment. "Symptoms of dysfunctional families abound in this church. There is denial and cover-up. Members desiring to discuss or work through problems are publicly labeled as the source of all problems in the church. Many members come from abusive backgrounds and are already accustomed to victim status. Feelings of shame, humiliation, inadequacy, and dread are systematically drilled into the members from the pulpit because no one measures up."
Conflicts arose between John and Miriam after a few months, in part over how much they should be involved in the church work. "I was never completely submitted to the church, but my husband was," Miriam says. "I had always been an independent person and was not the type to submit to anything.
"Our marriage had been shaky from the start, but we felt that Jesus had healed it. In this new church our relationship became dysfunctional again. Eventually they put us into counseling. At the first session we had to sign a release allowing the counselor to discuss our sessions with the pastor and his wife. We knew from
experience that this meant we would become subject matter for the pastor's sermons and his wife's gossip.
"We left the church after two years. We had many issues to deal with. We lived a half-mile from the church on a dead-end street, so every time we went anywhere we had to pass by the church. We had to take our children out of the church school because they were told that their parents were 'listening to Satan.' The pastor called on us repeatedly, because he did not want us to leave; we had made a commitment to the building program."
After leaving the Marin church, the Bowers found a small church of fifty members that helped them to rebuild their faith and come to grips with the shortcomings of their former congregation. "The pastor was very loving, kind, and caring," Miriam said. "I felt that God led us there because that was where we needed to be to begin a healing process. I heard the Scriptures with new ears. It was almost like a second conversion experience. I began to see that in that unhealthy church, my relationship with God, which was extremely close after I had been born again, had been interrupted. I didn't have that direct connection with God anymore. Someone had come between God and me and interfered with God's direction for my life.
"The pastor preached plainly on the Scriptures and talked about Jesus' words concerning love, hypocrisy, and judgment. Many Scriptures came alive for me again. The one thing that was really missing in Marin Christian Life Church was love. Instead there was judgment. In this new church it was like coming out of a terrible accident or illness because we had to break through webs
of misinformation that had been getting in the way of our relationship with God."
"Another issue we had to confront was our being left with nothing. The church had stripped away all our relationships with our family and friends and anyone who wasn't in the church. We knew many people who had left the church before we did. One of the first things I did was to call them and apologize because, like everyone else, I had stopped speaking to them.
"We became close with some of these former members. At first we all talked about how we felt the church should and would be brought to judgment. However, eventually I realized that I had to stop pointing the finger and thinking about what people had done to me and start asking myself some very real questions about what I was doing in this new church. To me, that was the real turning point in my recovery. Our recovery the understanding, forgiveness, and healing that were necessary took about a year. It took some of our friends two years to be healed and to forgive, and others still longer.
"I thought about starting a formal support group. I felt that the Twelve-Step program I had gone through earlier had helped my recovery from the abusive church. I had instinctively gone through the twelve steps without realizing it: I admitted that I was powerless over this abusive group; I asked God to help me; I did a thorough inventory of my faults; I made amends and apologized to people I had hurt and reestablished relationships I had cut off; I sought to strengthen my relationship with God.2
"The main thing was that I had gone beyond being a victim and pointing the finger and blaming the people who had abused me. I started looking at myself and asking what God could teach me from this situation.
"When I analyzed why I was at the Marin Christian Life Church, I realized that my character was much like the pastor's. We are more the oppressor than the victim. I was there because of a tremendous need to feel superior to anyone else. That appealed to me about that church: the 'us versus them' mentality. We were supposed to be on the cutting edge of Christianity. Then I started to see the judgmentalism and the pride in my heart. Many of the Scriptures that I had not been able to comprehend or make real in my own life such as 'the beam in your own eye' became very clear.
"I realized then that God had actually done a wonderful thing to take us through that experience. I don't want to have those non-Christlike attitudes. God was able to cleanse me of that. I have become a more loving, less judgmental person. I am a very different person from what I was before I went through that experience. Looking back, I can honestly say I am really glad I went through it because it revolutionized my Christian life. I like me better the way I am now."
John also found that he had to take a hard look at himself. "I became aware of what a fool I had been. My spiritual pride was revealed to me. The Marin church supplied some of the negative needs in my own character and helped to bring them to the surface. I think God used that to expose my real flaws so that my character could become more like his.
"I was a real Nazi type of person while a member of this church. Consequently, I had to face some ugly truths
about myself when we left. The main thing was that I had to start using the mind God gave me rather than be governed by my emotions. My initial response when I left was anger. My initial response was that I wanted to expose them to the media. God quickly squelched that idea. We would have done damage to the Body of Christ if we had followed through. We realized that we had to let God deal with them.
"Then we realized that we were talking as victims and finally had to look at the part that we played in it. Nobody forced us to go there. We had walked in with our wits about us and had participated fully and voluntarily. So we had to look at what it was in ourselves that made us want to participate. For myself, I had to see my spiritual pride, that part of me that wanted to be a super Christian, to be on the cutting edge of Christianity.
"I was and still am a person with a mental outlook that sees everything as black or white no ambiguity. The absolutes we found in that church fit very well with who I am. We could put people into boxes, situations into boxes, and that enabled me not to think. It is a very lazy way to go through life. But I have found out that things aren't always black or white. Discerning what God's will is in each given situation isn't always easy.
"I came to realize that I had to take responsibility for this kind of thinking and its consequences. Take responsibility, confess, and don't blame the church or the leadership. Of course, it was quite a blow to realize that I was responsible for all that I had done to my family. I had brought them into the unhealthy spiritual environment. I had to repent and tell my wife and family that I was sorry."
MAKING A COMPLETE BREAK
On the basis of their experience, John Bower advises people who are contemplating leaving an abusive situation to make a complete break and flee. They themselves did not. They kept their children in the church school for a while, but John says, "That had a devastating effect on them." A daughter remained in the youth group, but she soon left by her own choice.
John's advice is noteworthy, because many of the people I have interviewed have been undecided whether to leave or to stay in the hope that their presence might make a difference. They feel that by abandoning the situation, they will also be deserting friends who need their support and who might also be persuaded to leave. I believe it is naive to think that they can effect change in an abusive situation. David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen observe,
If . . . there is a bottleneck of power-posturing leaders at the top, who are performance-oriented, the chances of things changing are very slim . . . Sheep follow shepherds. And those who do not leave will tend to become entrenched in domination and legalism, whatever form those take.3
Furthermore, by remaining in an unhealthy environment for whatever reason, people help to perpetuate a system they have experienced as destructive.
By staying and contributing your time, money and energy, are you helping something continue when, honestly in your heart, you disagree with it? We believe that if everyone who was doing this would stop, many very unhealthy and abusive organizations would be unable to continue functioning.4
Making a clean break externally, however, still leaves a process for becoming free internally that is, spiritually and emotionally. Johnson and VanVonderen have identified four things that need to happen in order for people to become truly free.
First, victims have to reach the point where they realize they are being spiritually abused, and ask for help. They must be given the information and permission necessary to call what they've experienced "abuse."
Second, they need a renewal of the mind. In a very real sense they've been spiritually brainwashed. They must be immersed in the truth about who God really is and what He has lovingly done to settle the issue of their value and acceptance. They need to hear the good news about their new gift-based identity.
Third, they must experience safe relationships in which to heal from their emotional, psychological and spiritual wounds. Admitting neediness is hard. Looking at yourself honestly and fearlessly is hard. Much support is needed.
Fourth again, in the context of safe relationships they must be given permission and opportunities to practice getting their sense of identity as a gift from Jesus.5
The Bowers' experience of escape and recovery generally parallels these four stages.
In time the Bowers returned to the first church they had attended as Christians. "The people there welcomed our return, saying that they had missed us," Miriam relates. "They had no concept of what we had been through and couldn't seem to understand it. Most members of healthy churches, fortunately, are never exposed to something like that.
"A wonderful aspect of going back there, too, was that whereas I had been judging them before and thinking that they were not strong enough Christians, I realized now that they had a unique ministry. They were Christlike in their approach. They do a lot of outreach ministry with people who are divorced. Rather than being judgmental and asking for a conversion on the spot, they allow God to work on people individually. That makes sense to me because of how God worked in me. He helped me dispose of those things from my past that needed to be thrown out. God is powerful enough to speak to each of us individually without someone bossing us around."
John reports, "After we had been gone from the Marin church for about a year, we sent a short letter to the pastor and his wife saying that we forgave them for the hurt that we had suffered there. It was a way to cut them loose in our minds. It helped my recovery to go through this symbolic act. I felt a real release afterward. That forgiveness isn't something you can pretend to have. You have to go through the process and really mean it. Really feeling it."
John's final comment serves as a summary of the basic message of this book: "The healing process cannot be rushed. It takes time, and each person's experience will be different. But through it all, God's grace is more than sufficient. He loves to give grace to people who know they need it."
"THE PAST DOES NOT HAVE TO RULE THE FUTURE"
Another couple who struggled in their marriage during their recovery are Bryan and Cyndi Hupperts.
They are former members of an organization variously known as the Potter's House, the Door, and Christian Fellowship Ministries, founded by Wayman Mitchell.
Bryan, who now has a career as a musician, tells his story first:
"The first thing you have to do when you come out of any abusive situation is to take responsibility for what you did. I knowingly walked into the situation. Yes, there was some deception. I didn't know there was a hidden agenda. Yes, they preached Jesus and the gospel. But they preached that if you left their fellowship, you 'might stay saved, but you forever lose your destiny in Christ.' That amounts to spiritual intimidation.
"We didn't know how to function outside the group. It was like coming out of prison after thirty years. Basically, we had to start over. Day by day we had to put one foot in front of the other and say, 'Jesus, I have been a disciple of my denomination. I have been a disciple of my church. I have been a disciple of my pastor. I want to be your disciple and follow you.'
"In the organization we were associated with, they would twist the words of St. Paul: "If you want to follow Jesus, follow me.' Anyone should understand that passage to mean, 'This is what a Christian life is. Look at what I am doing; this is how you follow Jesus.' But this is not how they meant it. That unhealthy church became the central focus of my life. My relationship with Jesus was relegated to a place of unimportance.
"But anyone who comes between you and your relationship with the Father is wrong. There is one mediator between us and God, and that is Christ. I had to learn how to walk with God, to hear his voice for myself,
and to read his Word for myself, not just accept what the pastor said. The Scripture says, 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,' and when I took responsibility for my walk with God, it was a scary thing. Now I am enjoying it.
"One morning I felt the presence of the Lord in my home very strongly. A verse of Scripture came to me: 'Restore to me the joy of my salvation.' He did that. Now I really enjoy the Lord and the fellowship of his saints. The church we came out of called other Christians 'religious devils,' but I discovered that there are other real Christians out there.
"I had problems relating to pastors for a time after we left. We hopped from church to church because most of the people didn't have a clue as to what we were going through. Sometimes I didn't want to tell what had happened to us because people didn't understand. One pastor said that I reminded him of someone who had gotten divorced.
"The key to any healing process is forgiveness. It starts with that. The word 'salvation' means to be made whole, and that is what God does. The Scripture says God gives beauty for ashes. Is there anything more worthless than an ash? But God will give us beauty for that, and it all starts with forgiveness. Forgive yourself and the people who hurt you. You may even want to forgive God. I was angry with God, even furious with him. I said, 'I love you. I serve you. How could you let this happen to me?'
"Then I remembered the biblical story of Joseph and the notion of how God was working out an eternal purpose in his life. Joseph told his brothers at one point that what they intended for evil, God turned into good.
Perhaps there was simply no other road for Joseph to take but the one that took him through the prisons and false accusations. In the same way, I believe that when Paul says, 'This light affliction, which is but for a moment, works within us an exceedingly great eternal reward,' it means that God allows us to go through these times with the ultimate purpose of conforming us to the image of Jesus. If something horrible happens, either you can respond in bitterness or you can say, 'Yes, Lord, use this to make me like your Son. Bring out more of his character in me. Let me decrease and let him increase in me.' That is true healing.
"I had my heart broken ten thousand ways. But there comes a time when you have to accept the past as the past. The past does not have to rule the future. Leave it behind. Set your eyes on Jesus and walk with God. Now I can say, 'Thank you, Lord.'
LEARNING TO TRUST AGAIN
"Another healing element has been my baby son. Seeing how trusting he is, I have been able to see God as a loving Father and have begun to trust other people again. I had to make a deliberate decision to trust. I am not going to look at everything with a jaded eye, but I am not going to be foolish, either. I was taken advantage of once, but I made up my mind that, yes, I am going to attend another church and, yes, I am going to trust its pastor as a man of God and hold him accountable to the Word of God.
"I know many people who have left Potter's House whose lives have not been healed. They have become bitter and cynical. But I choose to trust and to walk in
love and the Spirit. I have chosen to experience the peace that Jesus' death and resurrection purchased for me.
"One more thing restored to me is compassion. I am not witnessing to someone just to bring another soul into the kingdom. That is a real person there. I am convinced that the reason most evangelism doesn't take hold in the hearts of the hearers is that we have based it on receiving instead of giving. We go out expecting to get a convert instead of sharing and ministering out of concern and compassion and letting Jesus minister his love through us. In the fellowship, everything was work and evangelism. The message was, 'Get out there and bring them in.' In reality, it meant, 'Get out there and bring the tithers in.'
"When we left the fellowship, my wife and I were terribly afraid. We had virtually cut ourselves off from family and friends. We had no place to turn. I came close to having a nervous breakdown. We were afraid, day and night, that 'they' might come after us. With some other organizations we knew about, there had been some physical violence against former members. That's not typical of this organization, yet we were afraid because we were so alone.
"I wanted to reestablish relationships with people I had treated rudely when I was in the group. I had to go to them in humility and repentance and say, "I'm sorry.' Jesus said, 'By this will they know you are my disciples, that you have love for one another.' People have told me that I have changed. They say, 'You're alive, not a blank-eyed zombie walking around spouting Scripture.' "
Cyndi recounts having feelings and experiences that paralleled Bryan's in many respects.
"When we first left the group, God was very good to me. My frustration and hurt was vented all in one night when a couple of very good sisters from another church who knew me well took an evening to pray with me. After a long session of tears, God gave me the strength to forgive the abusers and to chalk everything up to experience. As simplistic as it sounds, this was no easy matter. It took obedience and a trust in my God like I never had before. It may feel good at first to take vengeance for yourself instead of leaving it up to God, but since we are not capable of judging righteously, our vengeance will not bring about God's will.
"It helped when I came to understand that nothing is in vain, that God has a purpose in everything. Through it all, God always gave me the strength I needed, so I knew he was going to use my past. We were able to minister to a lot of people who left authoritarian churches. If not for our own experiences of anger and betrayal, I don't think we would have been effective in that role. And the experiences of my traumatic childhood enabled me to help some troubled teens."
"WE LEARNED HOW TO LAUGH TOGETHER"
Bryan and Cyndi struggled to keep their marriage together after they left the Potter's House. Again Bryan cited the crucial need to regain trust.
"When my ability to trust was restored, it helped our marriage more than anything. Our marriage was strained after we left the group, and we didn't know
how to communicate with one another or how to act like a real married couple. We were supposed to be one flesh, but we didn't know each other outside of the context of the group. I have a great wife, and I have come to appreciate and love her. We have forgiven one another, and God has healed our relationship.
"A practical thing in our recovery was that we began to go out and do things together. We started dating again. We did things like going to a park or a movie. We learned how to laugh together. That helped us. But I am by nature a rather insular person."
Bryan's private nature was a big obstacle for Cyndi to overcome.
"Coping with my husband when he was going through immense turmoil was a battle I was not equipped to handle. I could not understand why it was so easy for me to put the past behind me while it was not easy for him. Also, while still undergoing 'detox,' as I call it, my husband was still trying to flex his 'I am headship, wife-submit' muscles. It was frustrating. We had many battles, and it was all because we had forgotten how to respect each other while we were in that church.
"The hidden battles in Bryan's head gradually became evident to me. His self-image had been destroyed, and he began to withdraw from me. I could see his face awash with anger, and he would clench his fist in frustration, and I knew he was thinking about his past again. In those moments, the smallest issue would be blown out of proportion. He would misunderstand my intentions, and I, lacking patience and understanding, would react in anger and fuel the fire. Even the smallest effort by anyone to bring direction to our lives, if it wasn't presented to Bryan in gentleness, was misunderstood as
a personal attack against him. He was distrustful of advice and very wary of anyone in authority.
"The idea had been ingrained in him was that he would never amount to anything if he ever left the Potter's House. My husband was paralyzed with fear many times because of this lie. When we moved to St. Louis in an attempt to leave the past behind, he had a little trouble finding good employment at first. This only reinforced what he had been told. Daily I had to keep building him up and encouraging him that he was a skilled person, that God would help him find a good job, that God would make him a good provider for his family.
("Let me say a word about God's provision. We never once did without during those tough times. One hot summer day I was recovering from the flu and wanted some orange juice. I was disappointed that we couldn't afford any. We were walking down Grand Avenue in St. Louis in the middle of the afternoon, and there was no one else in sight. A can of frozen orange juice came rolling down the sidewalk. It still had frost on the sides! We looked to see who it could belong to, but we couldn't find anyone. My husband turned at me and said, 'Honey, I think it's for you.')
"Because most of Bryan's battles were in his head, I felt frustrated, knowing he was in turmoil and not being able to help him. Then the book This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti came out. Reading it gave me a better understanding of what we were faced with. My prayer for my husband during those times was that he would put on all the weapons of our warfare, particularly the helmet of salvation and the shield of faith, so as to stand firm against the lies that were permeating his mind.
"I have learned that everyone heals differently, and it is wrong for me to expect my husband to heal the way I did. In the same way that everyone responds differently to God's invitation, our healing personalities. We had won one war by leaving the church, but there were times when we came close to losing our marriage because of the effects of all the indoctrination on our lives."
"We had to learn that our marriage was sacred and that we really did love each other. It took us a year of intense struggle, but I finally realized that our marriage is important to me and I would do whatever it took to save it. That is a decision I will never regret."
Cyndi reflects on the recovery process in these terms:
"From this experience, I have noticed a common factor in everyone who recovered and continues to serve God. They had a relationship with Jesus prior to joining such an organization, or they cultivated one while in the organization despite the propaganda fed to them. Sadly, I know quite a few people who left the church who are not serving God today, and I think it's because they really don't know who God is. They only know what they were taught and have a distorted image of God.
"Bryan and I have come a long way since we left the Potter's House. We have been greatly blessed. Our marriage is strong, and we have really grown to love and respect one another. God has blessed us with a beautiful son. Our finances are better than they have ever been. We own our own home and we are happy.
"For anyone who has left an abusive church and feels like they're sinking, I would encourage them to find Jesus. Look to him and cling to him the way the
people of Israel looked to the brass serpent when they were plagued with snakes. Jesus is the only person who can help you battle all those hidden enemies in your head. Remember that it is Jesus who is the author and finisher of your faith, not the church. You get your sense of worth from Jesus, not the church. It is possible to leave an authoritarian church and still serve God."
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1. Ron and Vicki Burks, Damaged Disciples (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 5.
2. Like Miriam, John also testifies that his pre-Christian experience with the Twelve-Step program developed by Alcoholics Anonymous was beneficial for his recovery. Some evangelicals question the value of the Twelve-Step approach for Christians, but others accept it as a complement to biblical counseling. The Minirth-Meier New Life Clinics use it in the conviction that "the Twelve Steps are a pattern for spiritual commitment, growth, and discipleship that every Christian can practice every day of the year" (Sam Shoemaker et al., Steps to a New Beginning [Nashville: Nelson, 1993], 15).
3. David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1991), 215.
5. Ibid., 191.
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