"Don't Talk About It": Reflections on Spiritual Abuse by Kristen Rosser


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
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This is the seventh  post of our weeklong series, Into the Light: A Series on Abuse and the Church, which features the stories of abuse survivors, along with insights from professional counselors, legal experts, and church leaders about how to better prepare Christians to prevent and respond to abuse.  Through the course of the series, we will be discussing child abuse, spiritual abuse, sexual violence and abuse, and domestic violence. 

This morning’s post comes to us from Kristen Rosser.  Kristen is one of those people who strikes me as being both smart and wise...a combination that shouldn't be taken for granted.  I always learn something new from her posts, which are consistently well-researched, thoughtful, and challenging. (Remember her guest post, “Is marriage really an illustration of Christ and the Church?”) Born and raised high in the Colorado Rockies, Kristen Rosser now lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she is raising two children, now teenagers, with her husband and best friend of nearly 25 years.  After becoming a Christian at the age of 15 , she experienced some of the excesses of the word-of-faith, shepherding and dominionist movements, which led her to reassess her beliefs and seek a simpler and more Christ-centered faith.   Kristen blogs at Wordgazer's Words.

Since today’s focus is on spiritual abuse, which many are less familiar with than, say, sexual abuse, I encourage you to check out this week’s synchroblog on the topic, hosted by Hannah, Joy, Shaney, and Elora. Also, it should be noted that the sort of highly-authoritarian churches that leverage spiritual abuse as a method of control often create  environments in which physical/sexual abuse can thrive.  So it’s important to pay attention to the signs.

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"Don't Talk About It"
by Kristen Rosser

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I was in college, living in an ex-fraternity house made over into a Christian boarding house for members of Maranatha Campus Ministries.  It was 1983 or 84. 

The leaders of Maranatha, Bob Weiner and Joe Smith, had come up with another new revelation that they said was from God.  They took their text from John 15:8:

"By this is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples."

Bob Weiner and Joe Smith said that by "bearing fruit," Jesus meant "making converts."  This meant, they said, that the more converts to Christ you made, the more you had "proved to be His disciple."  Therefore, those of us who had never made a convert were not really disciples of Christ.  Oh, we were saved all right, and we would go to heaven when we died, but were were all a sort of lesser follower of Jesus.  Not bearing fruit.  Not proving ourselves.  Not quite measuring up.

I and some of my friends were very upset when we heard this new teaching.  We were accustomed to taking every word uttered by Bob or Joe as the very truth of God.  They had taught us "total commitment" to Jesus, to our leaders, and to our brothers and sisters in the church.  To follow Jesus as He wanted, we must follow Him with our whole hearts, not being "lukewarm" like so many who claimed to be Christians were. 

I had embraced total commitment and believed I was following with my whole heart.  But suddenly now, even that wasn't quite good enough.

I began to search the Scriptures.  Could the passage really mean what they said it did?  On the other hand, should I be questioning my leaders?  Feeling a little guilty, but also remembering that they had also taught us to read the Bible for ourselves, I looked at every passage where "fruit" was mentioned in the New Testament.  It didn't seem to bear out what they were saying.  Somewhat relieved (maybe I was a real disciple after all!), I determined to wait for Joe Smith's upcoming visit to our fellowship.  Surely if I put my questions before him, he would see where I was coming from and maybe even get back together with Bob Weiner to discuss it again.

A few weeks later, Joe Smith arrived.  We  had spent the time before his arrival scrubbing the ex-frat house from top to bottom, preparing and handing out flyers for the meetings, and praying, praying, praying for lots of new people to come, be converted, and become members of Maranatha.  Since I was also carrying a full course load of college credits and trying to keep up with my regular household chores, I hadn't had much time to think about what I would say to Joe Smith after the meeting.

I don't remember what he preached about.   But afterwards, when other church members were clustering around the great man praising him for the sermon and receiving his blessings, I approached him, shaking inside, and asked if we could speak in private for a moment.  With a kind, fatherly look, he agreed and we stepped apart a little from the meeting room, out into the foyer.

Nervously I asked him about the new revelation, about what "bearing fruit" meant.  I told him that when I had looked it up in the New Testament, in all other passages where "fruit" was mentioned in terms of "bearing" it, it seemed to be talking character traits-- about the fruits of the Holy Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23, like love, joy, peace, patience, etc.  I told him that in every other passage where "fruit" was mentioned in terms of converts to Christ, it was spoken of in terms of "gathering," not "bearing."  I also asked if he thought "proving" to be a disciple really meant "proving to Jesus' satisfaction that you were a disciple" and not "proving to the world to be Jesus' disciple."

Joe Smith let me babble on for a few minutes.  The look of kind, fatherly attention never left his face. Then, in just a few words, he let me know that I was wrong.  "I discern that you are not letting Jesus' words into your heart," he said.  "You are not responding to His words-- you are only reacting.   You need to stop, listen to the truth of what we're teaching, and let it go deep inside you.  Do you understand?"

Speechlessly I nodded.  Joe Smith was telling me that not only was I wrong about what I thought the Bible said, but that I needed to stop fighting the truth that I was not a full, true disciple of Jesus.  I needed to let this truth sink deep inside me.  I felt myself letting it do so.  And as I did, I began to weep uncontrollably.

Joe Smith smiled.  "That's it.  Let the Spirit of God touch you." 

How could I tell him that I was weeping not because I felt the Spirit of God touching me, not because the truth was sinking in and changing me, but because I now believed I was a second-class follower of Jesus, a person Christ was not really satisfied with?  That all my efforts to follow Him with my whole heart were in vain unless I could make a convert?  That since I could never seem to speak the right words to make someone else want to follow Jesus, I probably never would be a real disciple?

My tears were tears of despair.

I couldn't tell him.  Blindly I turned and stumbled up the two flights of stairs to my own room in the Maranatha house.  I sank down onto the floor, and cried and cried.

After about 20 minutes of hard crying, I felt a stirring in my heart.  Then four short words out of nowhere flooded into my mind, along with a deep warmth that filled my heart to the brim:

 "Daughter.  He is wrong." 

A wordless conviction filled me with assurance that I knew was not from myself.  Jesus did absolutely consider me His disciple.  He was fully satisfied with me.  Joe Smith and Bob Weiner could be wrong.  They were wrong. 

My tears vanished, and joy welled up inside me as I wiped my face and blew my nose.  I got up from the floor and went downstairs to help serve food.  As I ran down the steps, the deep assurance filled me again.  Joe Smith was wrong, and God had spoken to me.  I was Christ's disciple no matter what any human being said.  Even if they called themselves prophets.

But I told no one. 

Not even my friends, who I knew were also upset by the new teaching.  Not my pastor, or pastor's wife.  Certainly not Joe Smith!  A leader was never to be spoken against, in public or in private.  To speak out would be to rebel against his God-given authority and to shame myself by showing a rebellious heart. 

So I held my joy inside me, drinking of the certainty that my leaders could be wrong, in the privacy of my own heart.  I never felt the same way about them again.  I continued to read the Bible for myself, and if something they said didn't make sense to me, I no longer felt obligated to believe it.

I guess for me, it was the beginning of the end of Maranatha Campus Ministries.  Years later, the group would dissolve under protests from some of the pastors of individual churches that the upper leadership was too authoritarian.  But my own freedom began that night, and as I rested in the vine (as the actual context of Jesus' words about "bearing fruit" in John 15:8 said to do), I did indeed bear fruit.  Fruit of strength in my own heart instead of dependence on others.  Fruit of confidence in my relationship with Christ.  Fruit of compassion for others who were being made miserable by destructive teachings. 

And fruit of understanding-- first-hand understanding-- of what "spiritual abuse" meant.

Joe Smith was right and I was wrong, because Joe Smith was big and I was small.  Because Joe Smith was a leader and I was an underling.  Because Joe Smith was an authority, and I was a nobody.   

No words against Joe Smith were ever to be spoken.  If I spoke them, it was I-- not Joe-- who was in the wrong.  Joe Smith could never be in the wrong, because he was in authority.

Spiritual abuse.

Last year, a prominent Christian leader was forced to resign amid allegations that he was having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl, a prior victim of sexual abuse, who had come to him for pastoral care.  Some blog sites devoted to exposing and helping victims of spiritual abuse have posted stories about it.  And some of the comments on these sites have taken a page right out of Maranatha Campus Ministries' old book.

How dare you post something like this about a man of God?  Who do you think you are?  

This girl consented, didn't she?  And anyway, no sin is worse than any other sin in God's eyes.  We need to show mercy to this pastor.  After all, "love covers a multitude of sins."  
[The fact that Jesus placed greater emphasis upon offending "one of these little ones" than on any other sin, is not taken into account. Matt. 18:6]

This pastor is a godly man!  Don't contribute to the rumors! We shouldn't be judging him, we should be praying for him and his family! 
[No mention is made of possibly praying for the 17-year-old girl and her family.]

You don't know what you're talking about.  God will be angry with you for bearing false witness. 


This is an internal matter for the church involved.  Stay out of it.  You are casting stones at a man of God.  You should just be quiet. 

Counselors for adult children of alcoholics will say that one of the features of a dysfunctional, codependent family is the "don't talk about it" message. 

Be quiet.  This is family business and no one else's.  How dare you talk like that about your father? 

Keep the secret.  Sweep it under the carpet.  No one must see.  No one must know.

But it isn't only families that can be dysfunctional.  Churches can be, too.  And when they are, they will tell their members this same thing.  The result is what's called"enabling:"

An enabler is a person who by their actions make it easier for an addict to continue their self-destructive behavior.

It is possible to become addicted to authority.

 A person who is so addicted will uphold his or her authority at all costs, even at the expense of those whom their position of authority was created to serve.   And the person who is addicted will encourage his or her followers in enabling behaviors, to make it easier to hold onto his or her authority.  

When religion, God or the Bible are used to encourage enabling, in ways that bring shame, harm or misery to the enablers, this is spiritual abuse.

I agree that this pastor needs help-- but not at the expense of his victim.  And "don't talk about it" will help neither of them.  It will only perpetuate the girl's shame and misery, and enable the pastor to continue in his abusive, dysfunctional behaviors.   In Ephesians 5:1-13 Paul talks about relating to other professing Christians who commit heinous sins.  He says in verse 11-13:

"And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them.  For it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret.  But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that is visible is light."

Paul is not saying, "The person who did the deed is a Christian, and therefore we need to keep this quiet."  He is not saying, "The deed is disgraceful, therefore youwill be disgraced if you speak of it."  He is saying, "The disgraceful deed must be exposed in all its disgrace, precisely because it is so disgraceful even to speak about!" 

Yes, it is disgraceful to speak of a pastor entering a sexual relationship with a vulnerable member of his flock whom he was supposed to be helping.  But it is not disgraceful to the person speaking.  It is disgraceful to the person doing the deed spoken of.   However it also brings the deed out into the light, which is the only place where healing can happen.  

I'm not saying it's ok to have a free-for-all of name-calling and abusive words about this pastor.  Two wrongs don't make a right.  But in the light is where the enabling stops.  In the light is where the perpetrator must face himself and his deeds.  In the light is where the victim can see that the shame is not hers to bear.

So to those who are saying, "Don't talk about it," I say this:

Do talk about it.  Stop sweeping it under the carpet.  The stories must be told.  Stop shaming those who tell them.  The person who is in the wrong is not above the rest of us.  He needs the light just as much as anyone.

"For the fruit of the light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth."  Eph. 5:9.

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Be sure to find Kristen’s blog—one of my favorites--where this piece was originally posted. And don’t’ forget to check out the #churchsurvivors synchroblog.

Previous posts in the series:

The Scar of Sexual Abuse by Mary DeMuth

No More Silence: An Interview with Boz Tchividjian of G.R.A.C.E.

"Today’s Journey”: Thoughts on Healing from Grace Biskie

Proper Treatment for Sexual Abuse by Dr. Philip Monroe;

"God is Love” by Sarah Moon

Dianna Anderson on Rape Culture and Victim Blaming

Additional Resources on Spiritual Abuse:

"10 Ways to Spot Spiritual Abuse" and "What to Do if You Are in a Spiritual Abusive Situation” by Mary DeMuth

Top 10 Signs of a Spiritually Abusive Church – Part 1 Part 2 by Elizabeth Esther  

“Tips for Recovering from a Spiritually Abusive Church” and “Tips for “Moving On” from an abusive church experience” by Elizabeth Esther

Wellspring Retreat & Resource Center

Boundaries: When to Say YES, When to Say NO, To Take Control of Your Life by Cloud and Townsend

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen

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