Unless You Experience Spiritual Abuse Then You Won’t Understand How Painful it is

Spiritual abuse is not something you will understand unless you have endured it. My hope is that you can dismiss this post. But those of you who have been through hell will understand what I am writing here today. This is about how spiritual abuse touched my life. From several churches that dealt with issues from child sex abuse to mishandling a sex offender; to an Air Force Officer who tried to get me involved in the last church plant of Sovereign Grace Ministries in the Washington, D.C. area called Redeemer Arlington. Its the story of a false accusation that threatened my life and hurt my family and even popped up in a hospital room in a medical crisis. In my view spiritual abuse is the equivalent of rape. 

“Abuse a man unjustly, and you will make friends for him.”

Edgar Watson Howe    

“To those who abuse: the sin is yours, the crime is yours, and the shame is yours. To those who protect the perpetrators: blaming the victims only masks the evil within, making you as guilty as those who abuse. Stand up for the innocent or go down with the rest.”

Flora Jessop

This is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another.

1 John 3:11 NLT 

One of the many notes a member from Sovereign Grace left on my desk at work when I was being evangelized. 

On posts like this its my hope that many people will claim that I am being sensationalist. That some people say “its not that bad, get over it.” Or that others will claim that spiritual abuse is not much of a problem in evangelicalism.  If this post doesn’t speak with you then I am relieved and grateful. If you never have been through a difficult church experience or seen these problems up close then I am happy for you. My hope is that you never will. That this problem will never be encountered in your life as you go forward. 

 

Child Sex Abuse or Toxic Churches in my History

I have been a part of a number of interesting churches. Between Wisconsin and the Washington, D.C. area I have been involved in three churches and recruited to one movement that was struggling with sexual abuse or sex offenders. 

  1. I got involved in Elmbrook Church in Milwaukee in 2000/2001. It was after the entire Daniel Varga scandal happened. Daniel Varga was the youth minister who sexually abused a number of people in the youth group. When it came forward in 1999 he fled to Wisconsin Dells where he committed suicide. I saw the church live with the scars after I got involved. At the time the pedophilia scandal in the Roman Catholic church was breaking because of the reporting of the Boston Globe. It was hard to wrap my mind around the claims by evangelicals that only Catholics dealt with child sex abuse and more. And that it had to do with how the Catholic priesthood is structured. Today we know that evangelicalism has massive problems with child sex abuse and more. And in my view it is likely worse than Catholicism due to the autonomous independent nature of many churches. If I was going to be a sexual predator I would chose an evangelical church over the Roman Catholic church. I wrote about this topic in, “How I Learned Evangelical Christianity is Struggling with Child Sex Abuse: An Incident at Milwaukee’s Elmbrook Church in 1999.” 
  2. Then there was Wooded Hills Bible Church outside Milwaukee. This church was led by Joe Jenkins at the time. The more distance I get from it the more toxic I realize it was. Wooded Hills was a third wave charismatic church. How charismatic? It sent the youth group to fight a demon in a convenience store in the Milwaukee area. This church also had a man who was on the Wisconsin sex offender registry who wanted to work with children. The pastor said no. But I recall him telling me about how  he had to pass a polygraph as part of his requirements by the criminal system in Wisconsin. I stood there just baffled by what I heard. This church struggled with how to handle a sex offender. I wrote more about Wooded Hills in, “How Healthy was Wooded Hills Church? A Personal Reflection on the Issues which Existed; Plus Concerns about the Influence of Mike Bickle’s Kansas City International House of Prayer.”
  3. Then I was invited to Redeemer Arlington of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) at the time. This was in the Washington, D.C. area. SGM ran by C.J. Mahaney was deeply corrupt and had massive problems in covering up child sex abuse and other criminal allegations. I was in the middle in a faith crisis at the time and being invited to Sovereign Grace against the child sex abuse, criminal allegations, and Mahaney’s blackmail deeply validated what Christopher Hitchens said about Christianity being corrupt. I will focus more on Redeemer down below. 
  4. Then there was the dark and disturbing situation at Rod Stafford’s Fairfax Community Church (FCC) in Fairfax, Virginia. FCC is a part of the Church of God in Anderson, Indiana denomination. It is a mega church in the Washington. D.C. area that has about 2,500 to 3,000 involved. When I was there I was trying to rebuild my life after a false accusation which I will get into below. I stumbled across information on social media one evening and learned that this church had put a violent sex offender on the Virginia sex offender registry as the director of the Care Group Program. FCC also concealed this information from the church and was not transparent. This was a hard situation and after struggling with what to do in time l became a whistle blower because I feared a child sex abuse scandal like what occurred at Elmbrook Church in Milwaukee. I didn’t want to live with the fact that a child could have been sexually abused and reading about it in the Washington Post one day. I didn’t need that on my conscious. It was uncomfortable, difficult and disturbing. This blog writes about FCC and from time to time I get emails from people saying that they left because Eric Nickle is still there employed and the church is not honest about the situation. You can read more in, “Why Does Fairfax Community Church have a Care Director on the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Sex Offender Registry?

I had another difficult experience at another church and currently I don’t attend one. Its my opinion that evangelical Christianity is just deeply corrupt and contains major systemic issues. The fact that these problems duplicate themself in either Wisconsin, Virginia and later as I would realize California shows me that evangelical Christianity is not sustainable. 

 

Dark Spiritual Abuse that I Endured

The darkest period of my life started on May 8, 2013. Before I proceed let me give you some background. I befriended a co-worker who I call Andrew White at this blog. Andrew is a pseudonym and he is from Colorado Springs. He graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2005. I was in a faith crisis and he started to invite me to Redeemer Arlington. Andrew was a covenant member, small group leader and deeply into Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and Matt Chandler. We clashed and fought over Sovereign Grace, and he persisted in trying to get me involved. I did not because I saw how corrupt Sovereign Grace is. When I pointed out the issues with either Redeemer or Mark Driscoll he dismissed it. He proclaimed Redeemer “the healthiest church I ever knew.” He evangelized me from late 2011 until March of 2013. Andrew wanted to end the relationship as I was not going to attend. I also must state for the point of being honest that in the heat of the moment I said a lot of things I wish I had not. But when I was not going to attend what he did was trigger a false accusation that threatened my name, ability to earn income and more. 

On May 8, 2013 I was hauled into an office at work and warned about stalking and threatened to be reported to the police for a crime I didn’t commit. Andrew had pulled off the false accusation in a military culture. When I saw how a military officer could abuse their authority in time I learned why rape and sexual abuse is a problem in the United States military. It had to deal with how an Air Force Captain acted in the culture that he was in. I managed the false accusation from May 8, 2013 until June 20, 2014. Andrew after triggering a false accusation focused on recruiting another person to Redeemer Arlington. He did so in my presence and he sounded like a robot using the same catch phrases with Patricia that he used with me. The false accusation was the darkest season of my life. I still don’t understand it, how does a person go from inviting you to church, wanting to have lunch with you, asking you to change the password on their home computer so they can’t access porn – and then do a 180 and trigger a false accusation that states you are a threat to their family?  I cried more during those 13 months then I think in years. I couldn’t sleep, it affected diet and more. The false accusation triggered almost like a PTSD effect where I would be at the grocery store or gym and hear the word “stalk” and break down and cry. I would think to myself “what is happening to me?” On May 8, 2013 a part of my physically died. And all this from a person who boasted of how healthy his faith is and how he listened to podcasts of John Piper and Matt Chandler.  If you want to read more you can do so in, “How I Managed a False Accusation Given Birth to by a USAF Captain and Care Group Leader from Redeemer Arlington for 408 Days” and “An Open Letter to Andrew White.”

 

My Efforts to Bounce Back and a Mother’s Concern for her Son 

From the time the Air Force rotated Andrew White to Colorado Springs, I tried to bounce back. I went through weight loss surgery in my efforts to rebound. In addition I also raised the issue while speaking to a grief counselor about Mom’s death in 2017. An attorney advised me that it had to be resolved due to how it threatened my name and career. It was also explained to me that I had a defamation of character lawsuit against Andrew. With the attorney’s  encouragement  I approached Redeemer Arlington and tried to get this issue resolved. What the attorney told me is that Andrew had to retract the false accusation either with the person he triggered it with, or produce a letter with his signature that I could produce down the road. Jordan Kauflin, Andrew White and myself finally had a conference call in 2015. Andrew said he was “sorry” under pressure but he didn’t do what needed to be done. He didn’t officially retract it. He fled and asked me not to contact him, while Jordan Kauflin said, “well he said he’s sorry..” Redeemer Arlington let him off the hook and the false accusation was still in effect. 

Those of you who are mothers will probably understand what I am about to say next. I didn’t tell my Mom about the false accusation when it occurred. At the time my Mom lived in California. When the false accusation occurred she felt it. She felt that I was threatened. Sometime later in a phone conversation I needed to tell my Mom what happened. Before I told her anything Mom cut me off and said, “Something happened to you didn’t it?” I was baffled as to how she knew, my Mom said, “I’m your mother I gave birth to you, I know when things  happen.” When my Mom heard the details of the false accusation on the phone she cried. She told me while crying that I was to avoid Andrew at all costs. That he is a person I  should stay away from. 

 

My late Dad standing over my Mom in a medical crisis in California. 

Spiritual Abuse Enters a Hospital Room in a Terminal Illness

When the false accusation was not resolved I realized that I would have to change jobs. It had so poisoned the well that I couldn’t stay where I was at for my mental health. It took a long time to find another job. My Mom knew about what happened. In late 2016 my Mom had a medical crisis and I was still looking for another job. In February of 2017 if I recall correctly my Mom in the midst of a medical crisis expressed her worry about what happened. She was concerned about my efforts to get a new job. This happened in a hospital room in California. I was livid and full of rage that this even occurred and walked out disgusted. Why should my Mom have to worry about this in a medical crisis with a terminal disease? Is that what it means to be “Gospel Centered?” Is that what the Christian faith is about? Mom died in the ICU on April 1, 2017. Afterward I asked a couple of people about this issue popping up in the hospital room and they said it was troubling. I wrote about it in, “Was Redeemer Arlington Removed From McLean Bible’s New City Network? The Wondering Eagle Asks Why? Plus how Spiritual Abuse from Redeemer Affected My Mother and Popped up in Her Hospital Room When She was Ill.

 

Spiritual Abuse Hangs Over Your Life

Here is what I have learned about spiritual abuse. It hangs over your life and drags on. It touches and affects all aspects of your life. From simple things like grocery store shopping, to your job and relationships. In your life its always there. It doesn’t go away but always remains. I view spiritual abuse as the equivalent of rape. It scars and hangs with you. The cruelest aspect is that many people won’t get their mess resolved. People need closure to live their life. Instead those that abuse others will never own their mistakes either because they are narcissists or sociopaths or more. When spiritual abuse happens its a before and after moment. Evangelical Christianity is not honest about abuse issues and as such I recommend professional secular counseling. But I also think the secular community is slow to catch on to this problem as well. 

 

Spiritual Abuse Happens in Many Forms

The final section I want to be clear that spiritual abuse can happen in many forms. It can happen when a pastor sexually abuses a child in church. It can occur when a youth volunteer grooms a 14 year old for abuse. Abuse can be mental, psychological, or physical. It can also occur when churches are theologically hijacked over doctrine and people face church discipline for minor issues. Abuse can also happen when people are dealing with mental illness and the church says it a sin to seek professional psychiatric treatment for depression or being bipolar. One aspect that needs to be introduced into the discussion is that pastors can also be abused by people or congregations.  It can happen as I have heard stories. But this is a major issue that exists in evangelicalism that needs to be addressed. 

 

15 thoughts on “Unless You Experience Spiritual Abuse Then You Won’t Understand How Painful it is

  1. The unwillingness to be transparent and the verbal abuse I endured after calling the pastor and church leadership to task over some things they had unilaterally done prompted me and my family to quickly and quietly run, not walk, away from a church. Having lived through that experience and moved on, the best advice I can give anyone who finds themselves in a toxic church is to get out of there ASAP! What you are experiencing is not of God but is of men who claim to speak for Him who, in fact, do nothing of the sort. There are still good churches in existence and it’s sad that it takes so much research to find them. We will be moving soon and I’m thankful that I now have a list of red flags to look for when looking for a new church. It’s because of this blog and others like The Wartburg Watch and Spiritual Sounding Board that I am better prepared to spot toxic churches without having to endure more abuse to find that out. Thanks Dave and others for all you do to steer people away from the wolves in sheep’s clothing who run churches instead of getting a job better suited to their narcissistic ways.

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  2. Your experiences you describe here are indeed disappointing, frustrating, saddening, and maddening.

    I want to strongly endorse and reinforce the thought behind the title of this post. Unless you experience spiritual abuse then you won’t understand how painful it is. This is so, so key. This is a lesson I learned firsthand, the hard way.

    My family encountered difficulties and conflict and what I would describe as a measure of spiritual abuse in our previous church. In comparison to the experiences you describe here, and those that others have described in this forum and in many others, our case was relatively mild. And yet it was one of the most painful experiences of my life, perhaps the single most painful experience.

    We went from being “model citizens” in our longtime church (served and fellowshiped there for over a quarter of a century, and raised our family there) to being semi-pariahs in the eyes of many simply by virtue of the fact that we experienced something we believed to be wrong and falsely judgmental, which seemingly came out of the blue, and we spoke up about it. Not to blast the one(s) who did it, but because we wanted there to be an acknowledgement of the problem that could ultimately lead to understanding and reconciliation. Instead, we were identified as a problem, because we had dared to say that there was a problem, and that went against the pastor’s and leaders’ way of approaching church dynamics.

    This led to an enormous amount of pain and disorientation on our part. Ultimately, after a period of difficult years without resolution, it led to our leaving the church. But it also led to something else: a recognition that we weren’t the only ones who were hurting.

    Before our experience, I have described our condition in the church as fat, dumb and happy. We had some awareness that from time to time some people seemed to have some concerns, and we knew that from time to time some people simply left and disappeared from church altogether. But we never really understood why this might have occurred, and never sought to understand. But when we experienced it firsthand, it was like the scales fell from our eyes. It was truly a watershed moment, and we quickly became aware of the hurt others had experienced and were carrying. Having experienced hurt ourselves, we had awareness and empathy where we had none before.

    And I would describe that as one of the few “good” things that came out of our experience. A softening of the heart, an awareness and tenderness for those who were also hurting. If we had not experienced that pain ourselves, I don’t think anyone could have really told us or explained it to us in a way that would have made us understand.

    And that is why we feel a responsibility to continue to speak and to try to offer support to others who have had these experiences. Not to have a critical mindset, not to gang up and attack churches or institutions, but rather to be a source of support for people who have been harmed. It is important to let these people know that others know and understand what they have experienced, they are not alone, the pain they carry isn’t imaginary or their fault. I believe it can better enable us to truly be ministers of the gospel because we can relate to those who are hurting and help them in a way we couldn’t before.

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    • Dave, unfortunately we are a family that has been put in the same position as you have. But, one of the good things is, is that because we didn’t run as quietly, people have reached out to us and understand. Our family didn’t want division in relationships (what we told many friends and people we consider as family as we left) as we are the Body of Christ, but we quickly felt the sting of division and being cut off from some. We have felt the sting of being lied to, covering sin for the sake of the brand, instead of putting Jesus foremost. My children could’ve been seriously in danger and I mourn with those who have been victimized. It’s a sad, sick, disgusting thing when the Church ex-communicates because you’ve confronted and asked questions. So messed up.

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      • I am sorry to hear of your painful experience. As I said, our own experience was milder than what many have faced, but was still painful. We did also receive understanding from others who had experienced hurt, and as you observe, that makes a great deal of difference in a difficult situation. In our case, we learned just how many others were experiencing some of the same types of problems and having some of the same types of concerns. Als an indication of that, over 2/3 of the church’s regular attenders left the church over a 2-3 year period. We were actually some of the last to leave in that exodus.

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  3. I want to strongly endorse and reinforce the thought behind the title of this post. Unless you experience spiritual abuse then you won’t understand how painful it is.

    Especially if you are one of the “fat, dumb, and happy happy joy joy” tithing units.
    (i.e. “Ignorance is Bliss and I WANT EUPHORIA!”)
    Open up to one of them and all you get is the pre-recorded Christianese reflex reponse of wagging finger, pious platitudes, and SCRIPTURE! SCRIPTURE! SCRIPTURE! (And/or private-revelation “discernment” of “YOUR Secret Sin”.) The REAL miracle is that victims of spiritual abuse DON’T always flip 180 into rabid anti-theism.

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    • HUG, interestingly, I believe I came out of our situation with a strengthened faith. This is because a lot of things got quickly stripped away, and I was forced to deal with the question of what I believed and why. It was really no longer a temptation to put my trust in people, and putting my trust more properly in God was the result. The situation also drew for me a stark contrast between the example of love displayed by people (often times with selfish motives, conditional and not dependable) versus how God loves, namely, in truth and grace, based on His character and not on circumstances, and dependably so.

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