I was a part of the church for nearly five years. It was the only church that I knew since coming to my mature faith. I thought it would be the only group of churches I would ever be a part of unless Jesus did something in my heart and life to call me elsewhere. I experienced Jesus closely at that church and formed many deep relationships.
However, I also watched what I knew to be home fall apart in front of my very eyes. I watched as pastors whom I had entrusted greatly spoke sin over me. I sat by as I watched leaders behave in ways that were not in line with biblical guidelines for those in church leadership. And I ached, as I walked away from the church; in turn, losing years of what I assumed would be lifelong friendships. The church was hurting. And the sting continued to burn for months after leaving.
Fast-forward a few months. I was, skeptically, attending what would soon become my new church home. For weeks I would come into service late and sit in the very back of the sanctuary. I intentionally chose a big church to ensure that my presence did not bring attention to anyone. I would simply watch, and deeply assess everything that the pastor would say. I was terrified of church and was trembling at the idea of building relationships again. Wouldn’t they all just leave me? If I opened up to them, wouldn’t they also hurt me with the aches of my own past? What part of my experience was church hurt? And what part was spiritual abuse? Did I even have the right to be upset? After all, I am also sinful. I was paralyzed by the simple sight of the wall I had to climb and by the grace of God was given strength, courage, and wise counsel to help me through.
In the midst of my own walk with church hurt I was able to educate myself on the impacts of trauma, spiritual abuse, deconstruction, reconstruction, forgiveness, and much more. The following is by no means a full scope of the complexity of church hurt but rather is a small window into my personal experience, professional insight, and Biblical truths. If you would like more information on this topic, please see the resources listed at the end of this post and/or email firstname.lastname@example.org for information on a church hurt workshop.
Church Hurt vs. Spiritual Abuse
What is the difference between the two? How do I know if I experienced spiritual abuse? And if I did, how do I go about working through that? It is not a simple, straightforward answer, and if you are struggling with either topic, I would encourage you to reach out to a trusted Christian friend or one of our amazing counselors on staff.
It is easy, when looking at church hurt and spiritual abuse, for the lines to get blurred. However, experiencing church hurt does not always mean you experienced spiritual abuse. Church hurt, simply put is sinful people being sinful people (pastors being spiteful in their sermons, members being unkind, a small group using prayer requests as an avenue for gossip). Spiritual abuse, simply put, is the use of the bible or spiritual authority to threaten, manipulate, exploit, etc., members of the church. Experiencing church hurt does not automatically mean the church is unhealthy; however, it may mean that you feel called to leave. It is a wide range and must not be placed in a black-and-white category.
Regardless of what you experienced, the impacts are heavy, and the path to healing can be difficult and scary.
For myself, when I looked at what I was experiencing in the church I had to say, is this something that is sin that I can forgive my pastor for while still functioning in the church well? Or is this a behavioral pattern in which I must use my God-given mind to decern? Eventually, I saw the difference between the two. Eventually, after months of battling, God made it clear to me that this pastor had taken his authority over me to an unhealthy extreme. And while I could forgive him, it was simply not wise for me to remain a part of that congregation.
*Below will be links to articles on decerning spiritual abuse. Please use prayer, scripture, wise counsel, and grace on yourself and others as you navigate this terrain.
Deconstruction and Reconstruction
Ok, so you have been hurt by the church. You left that church, or maybe you are rekindling relationships within the church and are trying to figure out what is next for you on your faith journey. I would be willing to bet the term deconstruction has come up a time or two!
Deconstruction is the process of tearing down and weeding through what you previously believed to be true. Reconstruction is the process of building back a new foundation.
This process can be long and painful, especially if you have begun to believe the lies that were spoken over you by those who hurt you. You see, when we are told something over and over again it changes the neuropathways in our brain, and, over time, we actually believe those things as true. If a child grows up in a home where their mother is always telling them they are fat they will eventually believe that as true and may even develop an eating disorder because their brain now associates that statement with truth. So, what does that mean for deconstruction and reconstruction?
Allow me to give another personal example. I was molded by my church leaders for years to go through them when I felt like Christ was leading in something for me. If they did not also feel, in their personal prayer, that Jesus had that same thing for me, then I was encouraged to drop that conviction and, essentially, trust them over my personal relationship with Christ. So, when I left the church and started attending a healthy church, I was a deer in the headlights. My brain was so used to faith decisions essentially being made for me that my ability to function froze in the light of autonomy. I had to retrain my brain and rebuild what healthy leadership looked like based on what the Bible said, not based on what one person said.
*I have attached a link to a sermon that discusses causes for deconstruction; this is a great starting point!
Repentance and Forgiveness
You might be looking at this heading and thinking to yourself? What do I have to repent for? Wasn’t I the one that was sinned against? Don’t I deserve an apology? And the answer to that is likely yes, but we also know that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23-24). And it is critical that, as children of God, we look inside ourselves daily, take up our cross, and follow Him! That means acknowledgment of our sin in things. Now, repentance doesn’t mean you have to go talk to that person again; it might be if that is what God is asking of you. But repentance is an act between you and God.
The same is true for forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to get an apology from that person, and it also doesn’t mean you have to let them know you forgive them. It might mean that, but often with church hurt forgiveness is a personal decision between you and God to release the other individual from the power and hurt of their decisions.
This Is a long process; I have been out of my church for almost six months and still am working on forgiveness. Have grace on yourself.
As I conclude this post, please remember that church hurt is not one size fits all, and the process of healing is not linear. Here at So That We Biblical Counseling, we have a trusted team of counselors that would be honored to walk through this season with you. Again, If you or someone you know are interested in learning more about church hurt, spiritual abuse, and religious trauma, please email email@example.com for more information on a workshop hosted at our center.
Identifying Spiritual Abuse: https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/how-to-heal-from-spiritual-abuse.html
Healing after Spiritual Trauma: https://open.spotify.com/show/5rJtwcRM7WNYs0LNTrlP5N?si=b8f6f856be8f4e04
Causes for Deconstruction: https://youtu.be/rIz-cgXungY
Benefits of Asking Questions: https://youtu.be/DT5fqiJb3Lw
Forgiveness Resource: Forgiving What You Can’t Forget By Lysa Terkeurst