Scapegoating & Spiritual Abuse in Churches (Part 3)

Continued from here.   Go to Table of Contents

Pastoral care in spiritual abuse

Most of the authors, again, describe two distinct groups – those that abuse and those that are abused. While the majority discuss pastoral or secular care for the victims, little is said about the perpetrators of spiritual abuse. Arterburn and Felton, however, seemed to acknowledge the brokenness and victimization of all the participants by providing a short section, after each description, labeled “Hope for the …”. While differences can be distinguished with regard to aggression, intentionality and, to some extent morality, each of the players who stay in an errant or sick religious environment, without trying to change it, can be viewed as victims in need of recovery and redemption. Care should be taken, however, to avoid excusing aberrant behavior, since that can lead to freeing the victimizers from the obligation or duty to recognize and change their abusive patterns.

The physical, emotional or spiritual health of the victim generally receives little consideration from those perpetrating the abuse. Physical and emotional symptoms of spiritual abuse, as described by Benyei, can be likened to the effects of date rape as depicted by Lois Pineau in Date Rape: A Feminist Analysis (Arthur p.463). The similarities are likely due to the traumatic nature of the attacks perpetrated by someone the victim is close to and fond of, which would explain their parallel to the general symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome. These symptoms can include stress-induced depression of the immune system, serious gastrointestinal or eating disorders, significant depression, panic attacks and/or anxiety, and insomnia (Benyei p.97). Several victims with whom I have talked described themselves as rape or molestation victims who were blamed for their own abuse.

Hope for the victim comes with recognizing the unconditional love of God, in a direct relationship that doesn’t rely on the presence of an intermediary or spiritual leader. This hope is attained, however, only after passing through the darkness of rejection, resentment and anger. The realization of this hope may be as simple as finding another, healthier church to which to belong, or as complicated as a life-long effort to reconcile the former experiences with a damaged vision of God and faith. The journey towards this healthy vision of God’s presence encompasses the healing of the negative emotional responses to experience with, or witness of, abuse. Essentially, it appears there are three possible paths the victim can take – (i) remain, for a protracted time, a damaged, angry victim intent on retributive justice; (ii) work through the anger, regain faith and find a healthy, fulfilling religious environment within which to worship God; or (iii) move past the anger and take on the role of outcast, intent on changing the errant environment.

Despite being the only non-addictive participants in an abusive church according to Arterburn and Felton, I disagree with the omission of pastoral care issues for outcasts. Outcasts need to retain a strong hold on their faith if they are to participate in the roles of wounded healers or promoters of change. Many I know in this category find other sources of ‘nutrition’ for their faith lives – counseling, spiritual direction, other church services or small groups to name but a few. Discrimination between anger over the mistreatment of God’s people and anger resulting from their own mistreatment is not easy to maintain, especially while remaining in the abusive environment. Hope, however, for the outcast is found in maintaining a healthy concept of his or her relationship with God that is not dependant on the place of worship or the role of a specific religious leader.

Differentiating between victims and outcasts can, sometimes, be difficult. The following observations are from my own perspective. If an individual has been within the “inner circle” of the church, the journey to outcast is, most likely, through the victim phase. If the spiritual and emotional issues are resolved healthily, an outcast can emerge from the cocoon containing the victim. Occasionally the attitudes and actions of an apparent outcast, however, betray a remaining deep-seated anger and need for retribution. This person may be stuck in the position of victim and need the help of a professional to reconcile the residual effects of the abuse with a healthy faith.

Conversely, a member of a congregation that takes on the role of the outcast in reaction to the events he or she has witnessed, but not experienced, may cross into the realm of victim, or even persecutor. If this individual identifies too much with the victim(s), they may begin to suffer the same symptoms and spiritual damage. This person may also become so emotionally involved in the situation that they begin to use tactics of persecution against the original offender, justifying the abusive leader’s removal by any means in order to protect the other participants in the system. Again, desire for punishment or retribution becomes the indicator of this aberration. The danger for this individual is in becoming a self-righteous avenger, and in the process suffering the distress of the unforgiving.

Enablers see the world as cruel, and the abusive leader as a victim. Rather than face the world alone, they will rationalize that they are operating in the church’s best interests when they protect the leader. They sacrifice their own needs in order to serve the needs and maintain the position of the abuser. Enablers know the system is errant and want it to change, but are too afraid or unsure to help. Instead, they delude themselves into thinking the leader’s actions are isolated instances and that he or she will return to serving God soon (Arterburn, p.225). Hope for enablers, according to Arterburn and Felton, is in finding reality. “Enablers must come to grips with the reality that they are playing out an unhealthy role that has trapped them in a system that will eventually fail” (Arterburn, p.227). Hope comes from ending the play before more people are victimized. Through the loss of enabling identities that are hard to sacrifice, they can enter new types of relationships where their needs are met rather than ignored. More often than not, the intervention of another is required to begin the healing process of an enabler.

“The coconspirators believe their actions are genuine…each sees the evil plot out to get the persecutor and takes it as a personal mission to protect [him or her]” (Arterburn, p.216).

In order to keep their feelings of self-worth, the empire must be protected from crashing. Coconspirators are truly addicted to religion and the system that gives them importance. By their own actions, the co-conspirators are complicit in the abuses of the system. “The co-conspirator can have a clean slate by confessing the need to feel secure and the willingness to deny, distort, and lie to protect that place of security” (Arterburn, p.219). While this statement is true, every effort will be made to refuse acknowledging the reality of the abuses perpetrated within the church. What is at stake is the co-conspirator’s very identity. Professional help will usually be necessary to bring the co-conspirator into an awareness of the past experiences that preconditioned him or her to act as they do, and to find the forgiveness of self required to start over. Not unlike a 12-step program, this process will likely require the confessing of wrongs again those that have been victimized.

Prior episodes of victimization that have not been healthily dealt with seem to prepare the abusive leader for his or her role as persecutor. Rather than moving past these issues, the individual needs to defend against his or her sense of brokenness and worthlessness. The outrageous behaviour with which this individual becomes identified overshadows a very sad and lonely existence based on fear and unrequited ambitions. Hope is found in identifying the source of the leader’s damage, and redemption is found in being willing to feel the pain of being treated unjustly in the past. The antisocial or abusive leader has to do the hard work of bearing his or her grief and pain just as Christ did on the cross, and likewise finding the place within him or herself that enables forgiveness. It is highly unlikely that this will occur without being forced, nor without professional help. “The evil behind many persecutors is that though the way out is through all the pain and confusion, the way is safely hidden by toxic convictions poisoning faith” (Arterburn, p.213). Unfortunately, many other participants, most notably the co-conspirators and enablers, will collude to continue the abusive leader’s self-deception based purely on their own needs. Since the past activities of the leader have also victimized him or herself – ruining own reputation, drastically increasing own stress levels and heightening own sense of loneliness and abandonment, among other personal damages – the presbyter may now become trapped within his or her own web of deceit. Recovery will likely be impossible without complete separation from the people who have enabled, and even benefited from, the abusive activities.


Since most of the roles within a toxic system formed from misplaced religious beliefs or loyalties, it is appropriate that the road to recovery and redemption leads through, and to, a strengthened personal relationship with God. All the participants have been or will be spiritually damaged by their addiction to an aberrant structure, and the cure will be equally spiritual. It is clear, however, that the source of the abuse or victimization has to be corrected to prevent future persecution and the continuation of an errant form of religious exercise. While the most common recommendation of the authors is for the victims to leave to find a healthy environment, it is equally clear that unless some stay no changes will occur. This is the function of the outcast – not to punish, not to win, but out of concern for God’s church and people to caste a vision of change and health. If emotionally and spiritually capable, the outcast can serve as wounded healers to other participants as well as resolve to answer God’s call to stand in the gap.

 “And I [the Lord God] searched for someone among them to build up the wall and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found no one” (Ezekial 22:30).


Arterburn, Stephen & Felton, Jack. 1991. Toxic Faith – Understanding and Overcoming Religious Addiction. Nashville: Oliver-Nelson Books.

 Arthur, John. Editor. 1999. Morality and Moral Controversies – Fifth Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

 Benyei, Candace R. 1998. Understanding Clergy Misconduct in Religious Systems. NY: Haworth Pastoral Press.

Hunter, Rodney J, General Editor. 1990. Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

 Johnson, David and Van Vonderen, Jeff. 1991. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse – Recognising and escaping spiritual manipulation and false spiritual authority within the church. Bethany House Publishers.

 Neville, Graham. 1996. Saint John Chrysostom – Six Books on the Priesthood. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Oates, Wayne E. 1970. When Religion Gets Sick. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

 Quinn, Robert E. 1996. Deep Change – Discovering the Leader Within. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

 Additional Resources

 Enroth,Ronald. 1992. Churches that Abuse. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.

 Enroth,Ronald. 1994. Recovering from Churches that Abuse. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.


1 Response to “Scapegoating & Spiritual Abuse in Churches (Part 3)”

  1. 1 Ian
    August 11, 2010 at 4:22 PM

    Wow! This is an excellent analysis of non-sexual spiritual abuse. I especially appreciate the discussion of pastoral care issues for “outcasts”. It resonates with my own experience in dealing with a particularly unhealthy church environment and highlights some important warnings, such as that of becoming a “self-righteous avenger”.

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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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