Question #4: How could they have not known what they were doing? How could my pastor have said and done such awful things to me and my family?
One does not have to be part of a spiritually abusive denomination or religious movement to encounter spiritually abusive behavior. Many reading this post will have had nothing to do with a church that follows set practices that advocate a formal, abusive “authority-submission structure.” However, I suspect that many people identify with the problem. Many people have thought much better of their religious leaders, only to be disappointed by them. Sometimes that is a failing in the system that a group follows, and sometimes, it is just a failing in individuals. Whatever the source, the unanticipated process of disappointment can be deeply painful if not psychologically traumatic. Most people expect their religious leaders to be safe for them emotionally, one of the few people in the world who will be fair with them and will act in their best interests. The rude awakening of a church member as their minister throws them under the bus for the benefit of the group or for the convenience of the clergy destroys trust and creates confusion.
This discussion will be limited to the religious leader who does act on behalf of a high demand, spiritually abusive system, even though the same kind of disappointment can easily apply to an individual minister or leader who resorts to less than admirable behavior when feeling personally threatened by a church member.
Just How Deep Goes the Rabbit Hole?
As explored in the previous post, many ministers learn that the virtue of the end that the group seeks or that which benefits the group outweighs any other consideration, including the best interests of any individual member of the group. And as mentioned many times before in this discussion, that virtuous end and group objective justifies any means necessary and any personal cost. When ministers act unethically, disregard the legitimate, basic needs of church members, or harm members, they believe that their actions are necessary and beneficial for the group. They believe that their actions exemplify sacrifice, virtue, if not martyrdom for the cause, and they believe that they are accomplishing God's will for them, even though it is uncomfortable – something they see as part of the burden of leadership. Everything must be sacrificed to preserve the lofty cause, including a few of their lambs.
I struggled terribly with this question. My pastor and a few of the elders were very good, kind, and compassionate with me while I met the demands of the group. When I started advocating for abused women within the church, and when other conflicts arose about which I spoke frankly and honestly with leadership, everything seemed to change, including the ethics of the ministers. It became obvious that they were willing to lie to protect one another, and they were willing to ignore injustice and injury. In some cases, they facilitated and promoted injury to those whom the group identified as rebellious or unsubmissive, stopping at nothing to secure what they identified as a mandatory “submission.”
My presumptions about the ethical code that I believed we shared proved quite wrong. These men were willing to lie and exact cruel punishment to secure compliance with members and resisted accountability. They were not who and what they professed to be, a perception that they promoted publicly. On the surface, they were all compassionate, humble and self-sacrificing servants, but behind closed doors, they could be ravenous, proud, and self-serving. I could not reckon how they could behave with such great virtue in one circumstance and with such prideful malice in another, believing that their actions were virtue. I also trusted them implicitly which made the process much more difficult. And I loved them and believed that they loved me. I thought so much better of them.
That conflict and my disappointment posed another dilemma for me as a Christian. I knew that I would ultimately have to move through this experience. I would have to confront these men in some way, knowing well by that point that they were deeply uncomfortable with confrontation. By then, I also knew that unless I fell into line with the expectations of the pastor in particular, my concerns were seemingly meaningless to them, caring little about whether or not I was offended or even wounded. What mattered more than anything was how my concerns weighed against the god they'd made of the group itself.
It also became obvious that they believed this so strongly that, with great personal ease, they cursed me with destruction for leaving the church against their wishes. A few weeks later, the pastor and his wife stood on the steps of the church, weeping over the demise that they believed would befall my friends and their children because they also chose to leave. Not only were they willing to lie and ignore harm, they were willing to threaten us with death and demise for leaving? It seemed highly unlikely that they would repent if they were capable of pronouncing curses, even on children whom they said would die – for leaving a church to find a new one to attend??? I would have to release them to God, even though I felt that they owed me a debt of repentance that I would clearly never get from them. I would have to look to God for comfort and would have to release them to Him. That was not an easy process at all.
The Phenomenon of Doubling
To understand the behavior of people within a spiritually abusive system, one must consider the nature of the system and the dynamics that govern it. We are creatures who are idealistic, and thought reform is a system of ideological totalism. The system by way of its leader(s) uses lofty beliefs to motivate willing followers to remain confined within a closed, authoritarian structure – a system of hegemony that dominates. All participants, including the leaders, must live to validate and prove the belief system at any cost because the system is believed to define ultimate truth. The leaders in the group become God's spokesmen, and in the process of defending ultimate truth, they see themselves as those who live above the regular rules because of their lofty purpose. They must be willing to do anything necessary to preserve truth and the system that promises to redeem mankind and society. Sometimes they are called to do some unpleasant things in order to preserve the greater good. Within such a system, even the leaders feel conflict, because the system doesn't work perfectly and it does require a heavy hand of control. What can leaders do with the stress created by conflict?
The system only appears to hold all of the answers for humanity, but in reality, it falls short of its promises. To avoid the pain of doubt, a person must make a choice to seek the truth or their own comfort through confirmation bias or wishful thinking, taking in only information that reinforces what they want to believe is true about the system. One cannot remain comfortably and functionally within the system and entertain doubt at the same time, so the individual must develop a coping strategy for dealing with doubt. In order to do that, the person must suppress their own doubts and personality traits (along with their sense of ethics) in order to merge with the group. At some point, and ever so subtly, they turn off their own better judgment and hand their critical thinking over to the group (which is self-preserving).
Early in the process, they may notice the ethical discomfort, but after hundreds of individual little choices to trust the group instead of themselves, they lull their ethics and sense of personal responsibility into a coma. They set themselves aside in order to serve the lofty purpose and the system that preserves the purpose. They “double” themselves in order to do it, and it becomes a matter of their own psychological survival. They become a different version of themselves – a double – one that fits in with the group. They don't sell their soul to the devil for personal gain, but they sell their soul to the group in the name of virtue, believing that it's the best and wisest thing that they could possibly do.
Though I don't introduce it here for pejorative punch, perhaps one of the best examples of this process can be understood by considering the doctors in Nazi Germany. Robert Lifton who wrote about ideological totalism sought to understand this process of doubling and wrote a book about the phenomenon called The Nazi Doctors. War required survival, and in order to heal the nation, killing became a necessary means to that end, rationalizing the need to kill. Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary actions. Necessity demands it.
Lifton states in The Nazi Doctors:
A Nazi doctor could thus avoid a war in which his life would really be threatened (that on the Russian front) but participate in a claimed moral equivalent of war in which he faced no such danger... He could experience a psychological equivalent of war, at moments feel himself "on the battlefield of the race war." On this and many other issues, partial conviction could combine with rationalization (pg. 431).
As a warrior in God's effort to defend the truth, through the doubled self, religious leaders eventually find it easy to justify most any action. Threat to the greater good and the survival of either the group or its truth becomes more important than following an ethical code, and one truth or virtue becomes pitted against another. In a competition, the greater good of the group must win over commitment to honor, truth, trust, and care. In order to survive themselves, the leader stops considering problematic things like honor and truth, because they will not be able to survive the guilt that they feel if they allow themselves to entertain such ideas.
They become resigned to the group's moral judgement, and the greatest sin is the sin of failing to submit to the system. It happens spontaneously, though in the beginning, the leader has to have moments of personal choice when the pangs of conscience catch them. The sale of their integrity comes in a million little moments, long before they started rolling on their own church members. By the time my pastors and elders started telling parents that their children would die if they left the church without their blessing, their internal systems had been remachined by the group and was well oiled through frequent use. By that time, you're dealing with their double, and they reinterpret any friction or discomfort they encounter as suffering for the sake of righteousness or persecution from those who hate the truth by hating the system.
At some point in the process of your own healing from spiritual abuse, you will have to deal with the issue of releasing those who hurt you. In your mind they brutally betrayed your trust. In their mind, you committed the gravest of sins by sinning against the system, and they believe that they behaved admirably in the best interests of the system. When you've gained some healing and distance from the painful process, consider that the people in leadership in such groups are far more trapped than you ever were. They remain slaves to a system that they likely don't even recognize as a slave master, requiring them to do things that they once may have never dreamed of doing. As leaders who professed and propagated the belief system, leaving the group means admitting what they did and that the system they promoted was flawed. Few will be able to do it, and they have little incentive to do so.
Another element of this pondering how they could have done what they did involves some frustration and anger that I had with God. I became angry that he allowed such systems to continue to exist. What I soon realized was that I wanted God to eliminate all of the Pharisees in Christianity. Eventually, I had to accept that God left the Pharisees right where they were, just as He did on the earth nearly 2000 years ago. Jesus walked the earth and confronted the Pharisee, those wolves who wore sheep's clothing, deceiving the innocent. He left them remain. He left their system of religious abuse intact if not thriving. He focused on the good and upon those who were willing to walk away from the Pharisee in order to hear and follow Him. The Petry Family sought out others to help them realize justice within the system and Mars Hill Church, but injustice continues to prevail for them. Though everyone who walks away from a high demand group realizes a personal victory by getting out, many will never see true justice in terms of what happens within their group. It is a good thing to desire, but it is not probable.
The group and its leaders have little incentive to pursue justice, and they may not have the ability to do it. And for them, it may not be a personal issue anymore. They're to be pitied.
What if you work for your church?