Scapegoating & Spiritual Abuse in Churches (Part 2)

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The others players in the ‘game’ of spiritual abuse

Most of the authors researched consider the remaining players to be persons addicted to a toxic or sick religious system, generally assuming that healthy members would be aware of the problems and leave to find a more nurturing environment. While not all are directly involved in the abusive behavior, all people remaining within the system and choosing not to seek change are, to varying extents, complicit in the illness of the church. Various terms were used to name these people – victims, religious addicts and scapegoats being the most common.

Arterburn and Felton, however, describe the remaining participants as falling into four distinct groups within the unhealthy church – victims, outcasts, enablers and co-conspirators. It is undeniably limiting to pigeon-hole people into such narrow definitions, but this latter method of categorizing participants seems more effective than using just two – persecutors and victims. The remainder of this paper explores participants using Arterburn and Felton’s model, with additional insights taken from the other authors and my own observations.

Victims are compliant people who openly support the abusive leader that they perceive as having integrity. In order to be valued by the system, the unassuming victims sacrifice their need to be significant and place total trust in the presbyter. Those in power assume their blind allegiance because the victims lose themselves in the family or organization. These are the readily expendable participants within the abusive church – remember, the antisocial leader becomes known for the number of people who leave and the majority come from this group.

Victims need to belong to something larger than themselves, and their fears of rejection and abandonment compel them to be exploited members of something rather than loners and part of nothing. When and if the toxic faith system is exposed, however, victims must bear the feelings of being used to satisfy the sinful desires of those in authority. Just as in the adage, “The witness of violence is a victim of violence”, victims may reach a point where they can no longer reconcile the unhealthy practices of the church leadership with their own injured faith. Spiritually, victims may suffer abandonment, loss, loneliness and isolation from the church. Since they have been “driven out of the garden where God is experienced” (Benyei, p.97) victims may become spiritually homeless, or even devoid of faith, due to the violation of their system of belief.

“Spiritual molestation rapes the victims’ minds of reason and strips them of their direct access to God. It takes away their self-respect and leaves them feeling broken. Once victims have been spiritually molested, the persecutors and co-conspirators attempt to manipulate them into keeping the secret” (Arterburn, p.230).

 “Of the five roles in the toxic faith system, only one is not a religious addict or a possessor of toxic faith. In the toxic system there is usually someone who can see the problem and confront it. Unwilling to play the games of the persecutors and coconspirators, the person becomes an outcast” (Arterburn, p.235).

Some employees or members, usually with significant functions in the church, become aware of the brokenness of the system, but when they voice disapproval they are castigated as troublemakers and treated as pariahs. Within this system, loyalty is inseparable from blind faith and absolute agreement with the abusive leader. Either someone is one hundred percent with the presbyter, or one hundred percent against him or her. These people then become targets of scapegoating, slurs and even slander in an attempt to defend the system. Many leave the church (just as most of the authors recommend), but some are able to process their pain and anger resulting from the attacks, envision a better future for the church and themselves, and remain – albeit in the role of outcasts. Outcasts see the system for what it is and, as “lone voices in the wilderness”, pray for and/or promote change. They love God and want to protect His people and His church from willful abuse.  The price paid, however, is being ostracized from the church, friends and, sometimes, jobs.

The enabler participates in victimization, although by taking a relatively passive role in deception. The enablers lose themselves in the life of the abusive leader, but the more they invest the more they resent their role. As the enablers continue to lose self worth, they hang on to their roles rather than break free. “As long as the enabler remains convinced there is no hope to change, the toxic system will continue in denial and hypocrisy” (Arterburn, p.220). Enablers rationalize their role in supporting wrongdoing out of a need to be submissive, and delude themselves that they are being simply obedient and loyal.

Even when confronted with the symptoms of the unhealthy system, the fearful enabler continues to allow the problem to grow until someone else takes care of it. Despite resenting their role, enablers are the most likely to begin the process of scapegoating, due to their need to maintain the peace found in the status quo. “The system, especially the [church leadership], blackmails the enablers to stay in the supportive role – whatever the price” (Arterburn, p.226). In the preceding quote the word ‘blackmail’ seems to be used to mean ‘coerce’. Other participants of wrongdoing generally convince the enablers that the abusive leader is being persecuted, thereby calling on the enablers’ tendency to assist the helpless or underdog. Most often they are manipulated into allegiance, rather than threatened into compliance.

According to Arterburn & Felton, virtually every persecutor has at least one co-conspirator who manipulates, plots and plans to keep the abusive leader in power and position. In an errant church the leader and co-conspirators form a cohesive unit, with the latter feeding the leader’s ego and further blinding him or her from reality, thus allowing the continuation of delusional behavior. The co-conspirators take an active role in the victimization of others. Their motivation is in receiving adulation from the abusive leader when they have defended him or her, and their sense of importance comes from seeing themselves as the caretakers of the entire system. “If it means that lies and distortions must be propagated to retain the [leader] in that ministry, lies and distortions will be devised” (Arterburn, p.216). Two quotes speak volumes about the co-conspirators:

“The ultimate act of loyalty to the persecutor is the willingness to lie” (Arterburn, p.216).

  “The desire for right and wrong is replaced with the desire to feel good because they are part of something big. Having wanted security and significance all their lives, they finally have found someone or an entire organization that gives them value” (Arterburn, p.217).

The following is an abbreviated list of characteristics of the co-conspirator (Arterburn, p.220):

  • Ultimate team player; shows total dedication to, and support of, persecutor
  • Feeds persecutor’s ego
  • Addicted to power granted by persecutor
  • Willingly deceives to maintain persecutor’s power, rewarded for willingness to distort the truth
  • Ties personal feelings of value to another instead of God
  • Protects sense of self-worth by protecting the persecutor
  • Appears unassuming and grateful to be #2 in the structure
  • Is sincerely deluded
  • Lacks the strong charisma and leadership abilities of persecutor
  • Feels extremely inadequate
  • Is viewed by outsiders as trustworthy, conscientious, competent, mature, and reliable

Benyei states, possibly from the position of being a former victim, that the co-conspirator is the person or persons who commit “murder in the guise of caretaking” (Benyei, p.116). She further states that this person is the personification of Luke 11:11-12, “What father [sic] among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead give him a serpent, or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion”. The most common manner in which this wrongdoing occurs surrounds the function of pastoral care. Under the guise of nurturing, any information obtained or charge heard may be twisted around to indict or discredit the victim or outcast.

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3 Responses to “Scapegoating & Spiritual Abuse in Churches (Part 2)”

  1. July 20, 2011 at 12:44 AM

    I am facing a situation with the Pastors wife:-(a Pastor as well) who abuses my wife and is very crafty by the way she does it…alot has happened….buT the main part my wife has a hard time serving God because of this..I am a Pastor myself and obviously leaves things- your word against mine.. I pray someday for peace in our lives, and I hope God can heal this area because I need my wife to respect authority and not fear… God bless you for your efforts…

  2. 2 celeste wilson
    March 18, 2013 at 9:24 AM

    Thank you for helping Me understand what has happend to me. I was a victim of sexual clergy abuse. It’s been a tough journey to find my way towards restoration. Once I helped expose this guy nobody came to aid my family or I. Your insight is powerful. Many blessings to you and your work!!!

  3. 3 Victim
    February 13, 2015 at 1:47 AM

    Not sure this site is still active, but thanks. I have been the victim in at least 3– maybe 4– emotional abuse scenarios in churches, throughout my lifetime. Never knew what hit me! Part of me thinks it’s “all my fault”, but the other part of me can now see definite patterns of abuse; that the churches themselves are sick and secretive. I am at the point at which I would rather not go to church– very painful for me. I have no idea how to work thru these situations, and how to find healing. Nothing has helped. I am tormented by these memories, day and night; one, was a very recent situation. It is indeed like PTSD. I also live close to the most recent church… cannot move. It’s like having an entire world against me, next door! The worst of it, is that I am shunned and ignored– but I don’t think I did wrong; I think they did. Or perhaps that we both did… (in that we’re all sinners), but that the ones in power aren’t about to own up? Anyone reading this; please pray for me and for the church(es) that abused me. Thank you.

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... or, preaching from both ends


That's too bad - I'm so sorry. Oh, well, just try to make the best of it. What you'll find here is a variety of essays and ramblings to do with things theological, social, whimsical and, sometimes, all three. I don't write to get famous - trust me, I've been told how futile that would be - but to express myself. I love to communicate and browbeat - ummm, I mean dialogue - about the things I find intriguing. Since you're here, and the door's locked, why don't you stay a while. There's a page bar under the header with links to information about us - I mean me. Don't forget to tell me what you think - in a nice way, I mean.

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