The Legacy of Spiritual Abuse in Fundamentalism and the “Numb Symbiosis”

symbiosis” as I’m using it: the living together of two dissimilar organisms in which both are mutually interdependent even though detrimental – an illustration of many Christians in their churches, whether healthy or unhealthy.

I am sure that as soon as I say the words “spiritual abuse” our default reaction is to close our minds to the proposed subject because we have rightly become suspicious of the culture of blame that permeates every aspect of our society. The victimization of Americans though pop psychology has effectively ruled out personal responsibility, the sufficiency of Scripture, and Gospel power as the sufficient answer to men’s problems. Consequently, many who have embraced the ethic of personal responsibility and the principles of nouthetic counseling are often too quick to disregard any critique (especially of us!) that employs the profligately used words “abuse” and “victim.”

Nevertheless, while we dogmatically affirm personal responsibility, the sufficiency of Scripture, and Gospel power as the exclusively sufficient response to men’s problems, we do not want to make the mistake of over-reacting to the excesses of society. While it is true that pop psychology has practically eliminated all personal responsibility for sin by turning everyone into victims, it is not true that there are no victims. While it is true that society has abused the abuse excuse, it is not true that there is no such thing as abuse. Abuse and its victims abound. The victims of spiritual abuse live and move and have their being within the Church of Jesus Christ. And, if I may tighten the noose a little bit more, they are abundant within that part of the Body of Jesus Christ that defines itself as fundamentalist.

A caveat: I speak with passion because I consider myself to be one who has been – IS BEING — graciously delivered from the abusive culture of fundamentalism. And I also speak as one who has been abusive. With tears, I confess it. Therefore, perhaps, I speak with too much vigor. I understand what C.S. Lewis said in Surprised by Joy in attempting to explain the passion of his writings: “then the key to my books is Donne’s maxim, “The heresies that men leave are hated most.” The things I assert most vigorously are those that I resisted long and accepted late. ~ C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy

I can empathize with John Rippon’s assessment of the great Baptist pastor, John Ryland’s passion for what he believed even though I may or may not necessarily agree with what he believed. “He now was convinced and rejoiced that salvation was of grace indeed, and abhorred the Arminian sentiments, which had so long held him dreadful bondage.  He remarked long after to a friend, ‘Perhaps, I should have never detested that system as I do, had I not once drunk into it and felt its effects.’ (Rippon, cited in Oliver’s History of the English Calvinistic Baptists).

I have been spiritually abused and, following the pattern of abuse, have myself been spiritually abusive to others. I detest it not only as a crime against my person but as a sin within my nature that has been repented of and needs to be vigilantly monitored because I grew up in a culture that cultivated spiritual abuse.

The culture of spiritual abuse and the faith have become so intertwined in the minds of so many fundamentalists that to attack spiritual abuse is to be perceived as whining, complaining, rebellious, and closet neo-wannabe. This is because whether or not we like it the culture of Pharisees does parallel the culture of fundamentalism today. In their exposé of Bill Gothard’s erroneous teachings and abusive control over his staff and followers,A Matter of Basic Principles, the Veinots and Ron Henzel rightly explain the phenomenon of Gothardism by giving a history lesson. In the prologue to the book they speak of the birth of the movement and understand that movements are the products of sociological pressures, therefore they begin the analysis of Gothardism way back at the beginning of the Age of Reason, Darwinianism, the ascension of dispensationalism, the announcement of neo-evangelicalism in 1940 to the fundamentalist reaction to Ockenga’s proclamation. Then…

“By 1950, fundamentalist Christians had become more defined by a particular set of do’s and don’ts than by answering the “whats” and “whys” of their beliefs.  Their world had become neatly divided into “the black hats” and “the white hats,” the good folks and the bad” (Veinot, p. 35).

Gray became an evil color. Ambiguity, nuance, differentiation, and tolerance were anathematized. With the sexual revolution of the 1960s and its accompanying profligate anti-establishment, Bill Gothard’s authority principles seemed refreshing and courageous. Many conservative Christians did not jump on the Gothard bandwagon, but their answers to the questions of the day were similar. Christians Schools cropped up. Anti-establishment rebellion was countered by the establishment of establismentarianism.

Forty years later we are ministering to the generation that grew up in the establishments. Those establishments may have been institutions, ideologies, churches under the sway of a charismatic leader, or a movement. Paranoia was foisted on simple minds and they were taught to believe that it was discernment. Happily, with the advent of the internet there has begun a steady unraveling of some of these more sinister strongholds, but the legacy remains. Countless people have suffered from spiritual abuse and are seeking places to recover far from anything that has the faintest whiff of what they have rejected. Tragically, sometimes what they think is a whiff of the former abusive culture is, in fact, something good and biblical. But they cannot tell. They are, in many cases, very damaged.

Many have rejected the mores of their parents and have swung the pendulum all the way to the “new liberalism” as it is manifested in the likes of the emerging church. D.A. Carson points out in his short introduction to the emerging church that a significant percentage of leaders in that movement come from fundamentalistic backgrounds. They grew up where they were not allowed to question and now the sacred right of questioning is one of their fundamentals. They grew up in absolutism. Everything was an absolute…. Now they reject the notion that anything is absolute!

They have heard so much dogmatism on issues that were peripheral that they cringe when they hear dogmatism on issues that are central. And yet those issues require dogmatism! The fact of the matter is that the only legitimate escape from absolutism is absolutes themselves. But Biblicalabsolutes. And they are relatively few in number compared to the vast amounts of absolutes they were forced to accept in absolutism. Indeed, those who have been spiritually abused are often the ones who are the least likely to understand that there is anything that can be both absolute and good. Thus, many, while not going to the extremes of doctrinaire postmodernism, choose to live in ignorance. They construct their own incoherent theologies and choose a church, likely very much what they left, and  persuade themselves that the safe and charitable thing to do is to stay relatively plugged into a church without fully embracing anything that church may teach. They begin living a symbiosis of one body of truth (their own theology) with the body of truth taught in their church.

In the church scene two extremes emerge. On the one hand, the Emerging Church has canonized ambiguity. On the other hand, the Fundamentalism has demonized ambiguity. In response to Paul’s words in Romans 14:1 to not dispute over doubtful things, they would say, “Hello! Everything is doubtful. Why not just say, “Do not dispute?” On the other hand, many fundamentalists might say, “Well, nothing is doubtful. Just ask Doc!”

Both extremes are abusive. While one beats the flock, the other starves the flock. One hobbles the flock. The other lets the flock wander over a precipice. Unfortunately, however, the legacy of fundamentalism is that some sheep are so weary of being beaten to death that starving to death appears to them to be a ministry of grace. Grace becomes their favorite word, but they do not understand it. They have no theological grounding. Because so many issues were made into fundamentals, they soon do not know how to talk about anything in theological terms without dreading the possibility that they are being mean-spirited. They are so stunningly ignorant that if one were to assert that two plus two equals four with the slightest tinge of conviction the former fundamentalists would recoil in shock and wring their hands over the “lack of grace.”

Atheological conversations about issues happen all the time because these poor souls were raised on preaching about issues that was, in fact, atheological. Clark M. Williamson & Ronald J. Allen in their little book The Teaching Minister complained about the situation in their denomination in which discussions about the authority of Scripture were nontheological! About one such conversation, they said:

Neither group discussed the issue of authority theologically nor made any of the simplest distinctions that might have helped move the conversation along.  Rather, we had a nontheological discussion on both sides of the issue as to whether the church recognizes scripture as authoritative. The discussion disclosed, however, that the two opposing groups manage to live together in an unhealthy symbiosis, each frightening and reinforcing the other.  The narrow and restrictive group, with its closed-off style of authority and identity, strikes the “liberals” as authoritarian and oppressive.  The wide-open group strikes the “conservative” as boundaryless and normless, as representing an “anything goes” mentality in the church.  Neither group presented theological arguments about a matter of central importance in the church (emphasis mine).

There are two extremes. On the one hand there is outright flight from fundamentalism, perhaps even all the way to biblical apostasy. The Emerging have fled the temples of closed-mindedness to embrace the sacralization of open-mindedness. On the other hand, closed-mindedness entrenches and their prophets start beating their chests more vigorously, employing outright lies about the reasons why so many people are leaving their folds.

But the reason why many have left is because they were hurt. And while not all have left geographically or physically, they are still relationally close to the very source of the abuse and, thus, we have what I call the “Numb Symbiosis” category of spiritually abused people that can’t figure out what to do. This categorization was inspired by Williamson’s and Allen’s “unhealthy symbiosis” of two opposing groups living together. Often they retain their membership in the abusive culture because that is all they know, but they are also emotionally bonded to ideas, convictions, and even theology that is incompatible with their environment. Between the two polar extremes is a vast congregation of vulnerable sheep, the “Numb Symbiosis” where the tension between two dangerous effects of spiritual abuse is constantly felt.

It is, first, ignorance, and, second, an identity crisis. They have decided to be fundamentalist, but they don’t know how to be Christian. Because now they know more about being fundamentalist than they do about being Christian. This kind of confusion is symptomatic of spiritual abuse. Ignorance and Identity Crisis are twin symptoms of spiritual abuse.

The Identity Crisis.

Spiritually and biblically the Christian intuitively knows that he is a sheep. This implies a meekness, a willingness to be vulnerable and responsive to the Chief Shepherd as He ministers through His Church and his under-shepherds. Choosing a church or a denomination is like choosing a fold in which to be a sheep. Over time, however, in the context of spiritual abuse, being a sheep hurts because our choice to be vulnerable and meek and receptive is turned into a tool to empower our “shepherd.” As Johnson said in his book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse,

“Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment” (Johnson).

By becoming vulnerable and sheep-like the end result is a weakening of the person’s spiritual strength. He is told to just trust his pastor and expected to believe all kinds of pontifications despite the fact that not one whit of evidence can be brought forth from the Bible to substantiate the teacher’s views.

I define spiritual abuse as when the assumed right to authority is used (consciously or unconsciously) to hamper the healthy development of Gospel grace in the lives of those under our ministry. (And, by the way, we are probably all guilty of this to one degree or another. All parents are at risk of this at times.) Thus, when a pastor forbids his staff to read blogs of certain other Christian men who are criticizing his ministry. Or, when he labels another preacher with terminology that he knows his followers have been indoctrinated to fear even though he knows he is speaking untruthfully. Or when he makes them feel evil for not coming to visitation. When he implies that leaving the church is an abandonment of God. When cultural preferences are imposed on his sheep even though he cannot defend them in Scripture. And on it goes. When a pastor uses his authority to hamper the development of Gospel grace in the lives of those under his ministry, he is abusive. Sadly, he may be doing it in sincerity because he thinks that is what his role is as a pastor. That’s because the abuse is systemic.

Another definition, or an expansion on the above definition: Spiritual abuse is, like all other abuses (domestic, sexual, etc.) when ones who should be trusted (i.e. husband, father, pastor, brother, etc.) mis-use their position to hurt those who are relationally obligated to them, therefore causing long-term and sometimes permanent complications to the relational capacity of the abused.

Let’s analyze that phrase “permanent complications in the relational capacity of the abused.”

I have cried with women and their husbands who are struggling in their intimacy because sometimes the inadvertent touch of the husband in a particular way during intimacy brings floods of memories of a grandfather or older brother or father who sexually abused her and she suddenly locks up and that which is good and lovely between her and her husband is suddenly aborted. Cold. There is a permanent complication in the relational capacity of that victim with all other relationships that she encounters after the abuse. This is one reason why sexual abuse is so horrifyingly evil.

In spiritual abuse it is similar. When a person has been abused by a pastor they will probably suddenly react with surprising irrationality when a gentle, loving pastor somehow inadvertently uses a phrase, a tone, or, worse, a biblical truth, that the abuser once used. An abused person cannot hear a godly and loving pastor say, “You have no biblical basis to leave this church.” Unless they have been able to grow in grace and heal they might find themselves in knee-jerk defensive mode. They become afraid of pastoral care. And pastoral rebuke is almost impossible. Rebuke, though it is a pastoral duty, seems so much like the touch of the abuser.

Rebuke is rare, however. With the abused, even encouragement can seem like a rod of legalism. While we may charge the “victim” for not growing up and being more mature we have to acknowledge the fact that he is a product of a system that has left him both ignorant and in an identity crisis. I think sometimes it is wise for a pastor to see himself as just one of many steppingstones in the way of the victim’s pilgrimage until they find a resting place.

Spiritual abuse and its effect  doesn’t always look the same.

Spiritual abuse is so much harder to analyze because the human heart is rebellious and stubborn and it could quickly identify honest, biblical, straightforward speech as abusive. But the fact is that spiritual abuse is a reality. Especially in fundamentalism. For many, perhaps, that hurt was not personal in that one could put a name and face and time to the experience. But the hurt has been systemic. It is cultural. It is the feeling of being sold a bill of goods, the disappointment of having anticipated refreshment from clouds only to find they had no rain. It often becomes a realization during the identity crisis when being a sheep is painful and one starts to be miserable in the feeling that as a sheep he is there to boost the shepherd instead of the shepherd being their to care for the sheep.

Spiritual abuse will occur where there is an enculturation of elitism. When a church becomes dominated by one particular group (i.e. the supporters of a Christian college, homeschoolers, race, social status, family, etc.) then it is very likely that “vibe” any newcomer will sense as he becomes more familiar with the inner workings of the church is that he will not become a part of the powerful core until he fits in with the elite. This is spiritually abusive because it says, “Your identity as sheep is not enough. You need to be a sheep that is [insert brand] of fundamentalism. Or else.”

This exacerbates the identity crisis because now the discussions are all about being “fundamentlists” vs. being “neo-evangelical.” And, little by little, people begin to lose all sense of who they really are in Christ Jesus. Ironically, fundamentalists are among the most confused about the fundamentals. The main issue facing them today is not fundamentalist identity; it is Christian identity.

As one church historian puts it, “the fundamental issues facing the mainstream denominations is not denominational identity; it is Christian identity” (Bass, 10). A recovery of denominational identity would be important as and only as it aided in the recovery of Christian identity. Meanwhile, the chief failure of the mainline churches “is an educational failure: a failure to transmit the meaning and excitement of Christianity from one generation to another” (Bass 21) (The Teaching Pastor, 24-25).

As pastors we need to realize that church hoppers are church hoppers because they are ignorant. They don’t know what they are looking for. Even the most caring under-shepherds will sometimes inadvertently mimic a gesture, a word, and the poor Christian, like an abused animal, will suddenly bolt without explanation. Naturally, we should look to ourselves and analyze what it is that we are doing wrong. We should also recognize the potential of pride in the person who is choosing to be ignorant or rebellious. But I think we are fools if we don’t realize that wounded sheep are part of the legacy. If we want to minister to the people coming from fundamentalist backgrounds we ought to accept that reality and begin the long and patient interacting with precious souls in the “Numb Symbiosis.”

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11 Responses

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Bob. I can completely relate to your article and it spoke to my heart. Thank you!

  2. Bob,

    It’s hard for me to wrap my brain around this when there is no Scripture. And that might be ironic, because I’m convinced that everywhere we go wrong there’s been some violation of God’s Word. People are abused when we don’t follow the Bible. I believe a lot of people would like to think that they’ve been abused spiritually because we quoted a verse in context. Jeroboam wanted the whole Northern Kingdom to think they were abused, and they bought into it with few exceptions.

  3. Bob, this analogy was VERY helpful.

    “I have cried with women and their husbands who are struggling in their intimacy because sometimes the inadvertent touch of the husband in a particular way during intimacy brings floods of memories of a grandfather or older brother or father who sexually abused her and she suddenly locks up and that which is good and lovely between her and her husband is suddenly aborted. Cold. There is a permanent complication in the relational capacity of that victim with all other relationships that she encounters after the abuse. This is one reason why sexual abuse is so horrifyingly evil.

    In spiritual abuse it is similar. When a person has been abused by a pastor they will probably suddenly react with surprising irrationality when a gentle, loving pastor somehow inadvertently uses a phrase, a tone, or, worse, a biblical truth, that the abuser once used….”

    Really, really helpful.

  4. Thank you for this timely post. You would not even believe how many people in Greenville, SC are going through this right now…and are starting to recognize it. Wish other would and could.

  5. Brother Bixby,

    Thank you for your thoughts…and attempt at thorough balance. Abuse is real, and a warned about danger in leadership (Matthew 20:25-28) and especially in leadership to the church (1 Peter 5:3). However, there are false accusations of abuse that are abusive to the leadership. You appear to try to explain the situation well. I would only add that there are a number of churches who have abused their pastors as well (and I am NOT referring to church to which the Holy Spirit has called me to oversee! :-)).

    Brother Brandenburg,

    I am not sure Bob would agree, but the above passages are my contribution to answer your request for scriptural support.

    I find your illustration from Jeroboam to be ironic. What would you characterize Rehoboam’s response to the request from Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:1-5)? Do you think there was no reason to ask for a lighter rulership? Do you think Rehoboam’s response was completely justified (1 Kings 12:6-15)? Do you think this is a hard story learn from due to the prophetic intent of God to split the kingdom (1 Kings 11:26-40; 12:15)?

    For His glory,
    Christian Markle

    • Hi Christian,

      I think this spiritual abuse subject to be an interesting discussion. I think pastors do violate scripture in the way they handle their office. 1 Pet 5:3 talks about that. I was thinking about Jesus calling for people to take up their cross and follow Him. A cross might seem abusive. Sending your members out as lambs before wolves might seem abusive. Jesus did that in Luke 10. This is where I think qualifying what we’re talking about from Scripture would be helpful.

      I think the reaction to Rehoboam missed the problem. The problem was the disobedience to God, the idolatry, the worship in the high places, not higher taxation or ignoring older men. It’s possible that Solomon had been too hard on the people—I don’t know of a passage that concludes that. Jeroboam insisted on an initial meeting away from Jerusalem, the place where God’s name was. God promised to bless Jeroboam if he had followed the ways of David. I don’t think it is a hard story. The split was God’s will but not the faithless leadership of Jeroboam, which was justified by convincing the people that they didn’t deserve the treatment they got.

      I think fundamentalism is full of false teaching about sanctification which causes problems for people. All false teaching abuses people, including cheap grace.

      Thanks Christian.

  6. This is a good post. I have become increasingly convinced that there is an epidemic of what I call “performance spirituality” in our day because of the teaching you are talking about. Rather than boiling the gospel down to the grace and love of God, our teachers have made it into a list of rules and behavior management systems. Men like BIll Gothard are more symptoms than causes, as much victims as those they manipulate and abuse.

    I appreciate your sentence, “Because now they know more about being fundamentalist than they do about being Christian.” So widely true. I have made a similar statement: “Some in the church are better Republicans than Christians.” When the performance standards or political ideas are preached and the message of grace is neglected, we will have this strange and compromised yoke.

    I also appreciate your notes about the damage caused in subsequent relationships by the abuse in earlier spiritual life. Occasionally I find someone who rejects the message of grace from me simply because I mention a book or an author that was a favorite of the teacher who abused. Once that happens, I become identified with the abuser and the progress is halted.

    My article, “When the Formula Fails,” has been a blessing to many who have come out or are coming out of the performance mindset. You can find it at:

    Thanks for your post!


  7. I went to a Calvary Chapel church for a couple of years recently. I will never forget how one evening, at the end of the service, the pastor said, “I feel like God is telling me to remind you that He loves you. Do you know how much God loves you?” I broke out in tears and wept. Of course I “knew” that in my head, but not in my heart. I viewed God as somebody who tolerated me, not loved me. I still feel that way sometimes. But, oh, how He loves us! He is jealous for me!

    Dave, I am already being blessed by your website.

  8. This post gave me so much insight. As part of a Master’s Commission group that was spiritually abusive as well as a group of churches that fostered the same abuse, I still find myself cringing at certain scriptures and have a hard time receiving correction or even encouragement. After living in fear of rebuke for over 10 years…it is ingrained in me to think that I am always doing something wrong.

    I am recovering from that time in my life and it’s been a long road. But, I can certainly see first hand that what you have written is true and it needs to be heard.

  9. Having been out of fundy land for two years it’s so helpful to read these types of articles.

    ” they know more about being fundamentalist than they do about being Christian” – So sad, but true! God has been convicting me lately about my perspective and the *possibility* that my social filter is off kilter in the way that if affects my whole life. :( So thankful that the great Healer is bringing healing to the brokenness. Thanks for being a part of the process with this article!

  10. Thank you so much for writing this. You have thoughtfully and articulately explained why I feel so hurt and damaged spiritually. People keep telling me “You wore culottes, so get over it.” The truth is I was deeply wounded by the spiritual hierarchy, false teaching, and lack of Gospel grace within fundamentalism. From my heart, thank you for your in-depth explanation.

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