A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Abuse by Churches: Cultic Characteristics to Watch For

Dale Ratzlaff wrote a book in which he examines what he concludes is the unbiblical doctrine of the 7th Day Adventists called The Investigative Judgment.  It is a complicated matter, but it surely denies the gospel of Christ, and he explains why.  (The Cultic Doctrine of Seventh-day Adventists).  Ratzlaff writes out of a heart for the SDA’s, as he was one of them for decades.

For our purposes here, I would like to list for you some of the 15 cult characteristics that Ratzlaff identifies and discusses.  I think you will find them very relevant to the experiences of abuse victims at the hands of their churches:

1.  Persecution complex: “The world is against us because we have the truth.”  While this contains some truth in regard to Christians – the world does hate us, it hates Christ, and it hates the truth of His gospel – Christians must not develop a “complex” about it.  Their own small group is not the only company of God’s people on this planet (Elijah: “And I alone am left…”).  In terms of abuse, “we are the only hope for marriage and the family.  Our rules must be enforced.”

2.  Doctrinal ambiguity: “The truth doesn’t have to make sense.”  That God requires an abuse victim to remain in an abusive marriage and suffer its horrors makes no sense at all.  Yet, the no divorce for abuse camps insist that it is God’s will.

3.  Presumptuous leadership:  “I know what is best for you.”  This feature of the cult works to bind the consciences of people.  It sets itself above Christ’s people, and even above His Word and dictates to people how they are to live even the most personal areas of their lives.  It intrudes into home, marriage, sexual intimacy, recreation, diet, and so on.

4.  Segmented interpretation of the Bible: “These verses are more important.”  “God hates divorce!  There!  It is settled.  We don’t need to consider anything else.”  No matter that this phrase is not even in the Bible.

5.  Messianic complex: “We are God’s only hope to save the world.”  By standing firm and unbending against the evils of divorce, we are going to preserve the most vital social unit — the family, and thus save society.

The point is that when a church embraces these kinds of practices, people are abused.  Unlawful authority is lorded over people.  And we might even say, such a church becomes a cult.

32 Comments

  1. Katy

    Well since the fundamentalist Mormons are on my mind again (yesterday in the news another of those child brides finally escaped with her 6 kids!) – all of this rings true. Every group that is characterized by extreme control by one powerful leader/prophet/ “shepard” leads to abuse. There is no other method to keep all the sheeple in line.

  2. Now Free

    Don’t even get me started…I went to a few DivorceCare meetings last year, hoping to find support and information. It was conducted by a Seventh Day Adventist lady. I went to 2 or 3 meetings and found myself the only person there, besides this woman. She was nice enough, but tended to minimize abuse.

    What sealed my decision to discontinue attending these “meetings” was the preaching of a pastor in one of the videos that she showed being derisive towards the women in his congregation. He minimized difficulties that they might be having in their marriages. He mocked them and the congregation laughed… a lot. It was like a comedy special, but the pastor meant every word and he was really enjoying his “audiences”‘ responses. The look on some of the women’s faces was heartbreaking. I had enough. I decided never to return.

  3. Looking at this list, I can see doctrinal error and behavioral error. Doctrine and practice – the two faces of Christianity, if you like. What you believe (faith) and what you do (works). The faces are like two sides of the one coin.
    And as I think about the list from this point of view, it seems to me the primary error is doctrinal (belief) and all the practice errors stem from that.

    The two doctrinal errors in the list above are No. 2 Doctrinal Ambiguity and No. 4 Segmented interpretation of the Bible.

    I would guess that for leaders who have doctrinal error about abuse, such as those who believe in the no-divorce-for-abuse doctrine, all the other behavioral things don’t seem wrong.

    They don’t see themselves as exercising leadership in a presumptuous manner; they see themselves as faithfully obeying God and leading as He would wish them to lead.

    They don’t see themselves as having a messianic complex. They may believe “We are God’s only hope to save the family and thus save society, by standing firm and unbending against the evils of divorce.” But they truly don’t believe this is wrong, because they believe their stand against divorce IS the best way to stop society from unraveling. Little do they realize that their stand against divorce is causing countless souls and lives to unravel and be eaten up by the devil, as abusers wreck the lives of their victims.

    They don’t see themselves as having a persecution complex.They believe others – including other Christians, not just unbelievers – are against them because they have the truth. Working on their assumption their doctrines ARE correct, they interpret any criticism of them as negative and not worthy of serious examination. They see all criticism of them from ‘outside their camp’ as anywhere on a spectrum from misguided to blind to harsh to downright mischievous and rude. But they don’t think they see themselves as having a persecution complex because they are sure their doctrine is right. The old log in the eye phenomenon…

    (How similar this is to the domestic abuser’s mentality – the abuser thinks his distorted belief system is totally correct and fully justified.)

  4. Now Free

    I had researched SDA online and realized that many of the tenets of this religions were not Biblical. I had a very strong sense that this lady “knew” her religion was the one and only “true” religion out there. She was very, very adamant about what she thought was right, and she seemed to think that she was right in practically everything, including how we should live, eat and drink, etc.

    This lady was separated from her husband for a very, very long time due to his infidelity. They were not divorced. I doubt she believed in divorce. I very much sensed at the start that she was setting me up to attend her church, so she was careful not to appear too different to an outsider. A little while later she did in fact ask me to attend her church but I refused. She did continue to hound me with phone calls and messages for awhile.

  5. When I left my last church,where the pastor was abusive towards me, he accused me of “divorcing” the church (meaning his church). I wasn’t even a member- I told him that was ridiculous. OF course, this was after he turned everything around to be about me and how wrong I was to leave, when it was supposed to be about all the things he had done to me to cause me to leave. One statement he made, in front of witnessess was ” well, I just thought you needed a strong man to take care of you since your husband is gone so much” ?!?!??!? Also he said “he should have treated me more like a wife”. My jaw just dropped. What is really amazing to me, is that between my 2 “friends” and husband that were sitting there, no one said a word about the bizarre things coming out of his mouth. Those 2 “friends” eventually sided with him. Keep in mind that this pastor had no real elders- it was just him in charge.

    • Anonymous

      I think you can run into problems, even when you have a small group of leaders who are very like minded, in charge of things. Even if you have a small group of leaders and the majority rules, it becomes very difficult in stopping the downhill spiral into abuse of authority. We must become familiar with the tactics of abuse and the dynamics of it, so we do not allow ourselves to be brought into bondage by churches who are led by men who abuse their authority and thereby actually have none, but continue to believe and behave as if they do.

      Can’t recommend it enough: ” The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” by Van Vonderen

    • Jeff Crippen

      Cult leader in the making. Maybe already made.

      • jodi

        I have read it. Very good book!

  6. Anonymous

    “Little do they realize that their stand against divorce is causing countless souls and lives to unravel and be eaten up by the devil, as abusers wreck the lives of their victims.”

    Do you think what you say here Barb, is because they believe that if you are truly a Christian: 1) You will prevail through Christ; and/or 2) If you die doing so, it was meant to be; and/or 3) If you fail and your life unravels, you were never a Christian to begin with?

    • Jeff S

      In my case, 1 and 2 were explicitly stated, and 3 was denied. However, 3 does logically flow from 1 and 2. In fact, I understood 3 to be true under their theology, even if they did not, and it scared me to death.

      The most I was told was that divorce would make me miserable and that if I did, I would not take hold of the blessings The Lord had for me.

      • Memphis Rayne

        Jeff C. hahaha ya that would be great!
        Originally I wanted to open a mainstream coffee house.called “The Latte Dah”..
        .but NOOOWWW I am thinking a totally christian centered coffee house right in the middle of my FAVORITE church, and I am officially calling it ” The Latte DUH?” where I can literally build it on their “Shaky Grounds” and of course my quadruple extreme turbo latte will be titled the same in honour of….. well,…. . you know.

        .haha I could REALLY get into this!!!

      • I think I speak for many of our readers when I say “Three cheers for Memphis and her sense of humor!” You give me belly laughs, Memphis. Hooo Hooo!

      • Katy

        divorce would make me miserable and that if I did, I would not take hold of the blessings The Lord had for me.
        oh that brings back memories. I was told the same. That divorce wouldn’t make me happy. That it wouldn’t solve anything. That God couldn’t bless me if I divorced him. I think that last one is used as a pretty awful weapon. Nancy Leigh DeMoss wrote the same: that if you don’t continue to “reverence” your abuser, that God wouldn’t protect you. It was all evil lies, none of it was true, it was meant to keep the victim enslaved in torture – and it all came out of the women’s ministry leader’s mouth!!
        The more we testify the truth that God rescues us, that he DOES protect us and our children when we flee, that he continues to bless us, and that we will be incredibly happy and at peace if we leave – the more they can’t sell those lies anymore.

      • Exactly! I haven’t been this happy since I can’t remember when! I am blessed beyond belief, and certainly beyond what I deserve. All the “irrational” fears I used to have for years, are gone. It’s nothing short of miraculous. Of course being cared for by someone who truly sees me and appreciates me didn’t hurt either. The Lord truly does work in mysterious ways, His wonders to behold.

      • preach it, sister!

    • Jeff S

      Although to be clear, 2 wasn’t an issue for them because she wasn’t physical. However, I was dying on the inside.

      • Memphis Rayne

        …and what REALLY tears me up inside the most is how because of the MIW being supported for all his behavior, people took it out on my children? His abuse somehow became a defect in them? Their whole lifes will be affected by that feeling of not belonging because they lost all their friends, and when they made new ones, the same thing kept happening because the MIW didnt care about casualtys. Neither does the church.

      • Jeff Crippen

        These are reasons why this battle against abuse and coverup in the church and all the evil stuff that goes along with it is simply not going to be addressed in cold, emotionless terms. It really is not a matter for theologic academia in a sense. Sure, bad theology and misuse of Scripture is in it, but WHY is Scripture being misapplied? WHY did the Pharisees do what they did? Jesus said it was because their hearts were evil. So in this arena of the battle, it is UN-Christlike to remain emotionally blah. I think Lundy Bancroft, and he is not a Christian as far as I know, has said it repeatedly – we NEED to be angry over what is happening to victims.

      • I think Lundy’s word was ‘outraged’ not ‘angry’, Jeff, but same difference. :)

    • “Little do they realize that their stand against divorce is causing countless souls and lives to unravel and be eaten up by the devil, as abusers wreck the lives of their victims.”

      Do you think what you say here Barb, is because they believe that if you are truly a Christian: 1) You will prevail through Christ; and/or 2) If you die doing so, it was meant to be; and/or 3) If you fail and your life unravels, you were never a Christian to begin with?

      I think it’s possibly all three of those things in a muddy combination, but I think that they don’t think it fully though – they don’t consciously contemplate and weigh up any or all of those options and outcomes well. They just spout the knee-jerk theology without thinking through its implications.

      When I say “they” I’m referring to the ignorant and usually well-meaning Christians who are not abusers themselves. But I believe there are others teaching this stuff on divorce who are passing themselves off as Christians but are abusers and they are teaching this stuff on divorce knowing full well that it keeps victims trapped in abusive marriages … and they are glad about that, because they want to keep their own wife from seeking divorce.

      Sorry for the lateness of my reply.

  7. Now Free

    “Although to be clear, 2 wasn’t an issue for them because she wasn’t physical. However, I was dying on the inside.”

    Jeff S, Your statement just left me with a thought: What if instead of hiding myself, I attended church the following Sunday after being assaulted by my husband? Being abused emotionally and verbally abused is terrible, I know because I went through that too. But to actually see my face, horribly swollen and bruised almost beyond recognition, would that have opened a few eyes? Anyone care to comment on this… I haven’t ever asked this question before.

    • Jeff S

      I asked hypothetically about physical abuse, to which they replied “that’s not your situation”, which I interpreted as “dear Lord, please do not let us have to apply our theology in an obvious case where it won’t work- how would we be able to close our eye?”

    • Memphis Rayne

      My response to that Now Free is the same as JeffS.

      No it would not have opened any eyes but it would of caused them severe neck pain from quickly looking the other way.
      To admitt that your swollen face mattered, or was wrong, or meant ANYTHING to them, would mean they would have to admitt to error on every sacred level. It would mean the Theology that binds them together has like a hair line fracture in it and was about to crack wide open. They would have to own up to the detail of blatant willful ignorance, all the shiny happy people would have blood on their hands and you would of been the one ruffling them all up into a tizzy.

      Brutal huh? Most likely would of made them more determined to “FIX” your husband with all the wrong remedies in one of their own little book of horrors.

      I sifted through church with bruises, and hand prints on my neck and arms, no attempt to hide them anymore, it was beyond empty shell, I became a living breathing walking tombstone. Yet somehow, looking back God must have provided HIS light to shine through me (if that makes any sense?) because they avoided me like I had showed up naked? They started excluding my children from activities and friendships, they avoided eye contact as if they would be drawn into some strange sort of delusional alter universe, they were OVERTLY silent in asking me to take my messy life and go away.

      • Memphis Rayne

        Well no matter what the “A” word does NOT fall under any headings in the weekly church roster. The only place you will find it addressed is in the pastors waste basket along side his empty Mocha, Frappe, carmel, light foamed triple shot soy with cream latte cup.

        Apologies if that was too smart sounding.

      • Jeff Crippen

        Memphis – Oh man, you hit my coffee. Well, not actually. I stick to lattes. I feel they are more Calvinistic. That Mocha frappe carmel stuff is characteristic of a more lukewarm theology. Maybe one day you should start an espresso stand business and I just have a hunch you could come up with some pretty creative names for the drinks. “Shaky Grounds” serving the Laodicean skinny latte, decaf, lukewarm.

      • Barnabasintraining

        That Mocha frappe carmel stuff is characteristic of a more lukewarm theology.

        Hey!!! Them’s fightin’ words! Except I can’t be bothered.

      • Now Free

        “No it would not have opened any eyes but it would of caused them severe neck pain from quickly looking the other way.”

        Memphis, wow..so true! And you also gave me the best laugh of today! It’s sad to know of the pain you had to endure from other people in the church.

        SInce I was very careful to hide my physical evidence of his abuse, and also the emotional and verbal, I didn’t endure the opposing attitudes some of them (or most, or even all of them) might show to me if they knew, BUT…

        I had not even thought about this incident connected with previous abuse until after I had left him… over 40 years later!

        Not long after his physical abuse, about 2 years later, I was in a car accident (“husband” was driving). Kids and “husband” OK, I needed 12 stitches plus I had facial wounds, not severe. I went to church the following Sunday, this time “husband” didn’t attend. When I sat in the pew, everyone avoided me, no-one asked me what had happened to me because of the wounds on my face. I was alone in the pew! I felt very isolated and degraded, and wondered why until 4 decades 40 years later I KNEW.

        Yes, then I realized…after his assault, when I had stayed home for almost 2 weeks, never going anywhere, not even to church because I didn’t want anyone to know of his physical abuse, I probably was not as healed as I thought I was. Some people at church very likely had a suspicion that I was physically abused but chose not to mention it, to not even ask me if I was alright.

        Shiny happy people indeed.

    • Now Free, here’s a story that may partially answer your question about what would have happened if you had attended church with all your facial bruises still fresh.

      Many years ago now, when my (now 23 y o ) daughter was about 8, I took her for a short while to a Friday Night Kings Kids program at a local church. The program was well attended, they bussed kids in from non-Christian families in the area. After the main presentation each night where they were all together at the beginning, there were many different activity groups for different aged kids, and boys and girls groups were in separate groups. You can imagine that it took quite a few adults to keep this show on the road. The main leader was a married man… and yes, that night I saw his wife there in the glass-fronted reception office which was fully visible from the main foyer of this large church. She was covered with blue bruises on her face, neck, arms, her eyes were all puffy, she looked like she’d been bashed up bad, and the dead look of despair in her eyes…. you can imagine. And there she was, the wife of this dynamic Kids Club leader. And no-body said a word.

      I looked at her, and guessed who had made those bruised (the husband to me reeked *phoney*). But it was not my church, and at that stage I had not fully woken up to my own history of being a victim of abuse, so I didn’t feel an impulse, let alone have the courage, to go up and try to speak a caring word to her. I think if I imagined trying to speak to her, I would have been so afraid of her denial and shut down. I felt paralysed.

      But I tell you, I removed my daughter from that program quick smart; I think that was the last week I took her there. With a leader like that, I figured the whole place reeked to high heaven.

      Months later, when having a cuppa at the house of some acquaintances who attended that church, I brought up the subject of the woman’s bruises. They (the husband and wife who were my acquaintances) both confirmed for me that they believed that husband was abusing his wife. They said they had once had the couple to their place for a meal and played a game of card afterwards, and the husband constantly put down his wife during the card game.

      The battered woman eventually left that marriage. But I don’t know how she is now. :(
      I ran into her ex-husband once and had a few words with him, showing him I suspected he was an abuser. Entitlement exuded from his every pore. And of course, he blamed his ex-wife.

      • Now Free

        Barbara, I sincerely appreciate your very thoughtful message. Thank you.

  8. Barnabasintraining

    I like this comment from Jeff VanVonderen I found on Barb Orlowski’s Church Exiters site:

    “Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority, the purpose of which is to ‘come underneath’ and serve, build, equip and make God’s people more free, misuses that authority placing themselves over God’s people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly godly purposes which are really their own.”

    I think that sums it up really well.

    Jeff C plainly uses his authority correctly.

  9. Now Free

    “The Lord truly does work in mysterious ways, His wonders to behold.”

    So true, Jodi. The Lord has and is also working miracles in my life since leaving my abuser , after 42 years of marriage.

    Being closer to the Lord than ever, happiest ever, more blessings than I could have ever imagined…wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! That is not to say I don’t have difficult times but the Lord sees me through them all. I am 69 years, and feel 10 years younger at least. When I was with my abuser, photographs showed I looked 10 years older so that sort of balances out. :)

    Through-out all this, I have never been unfaithful to my “husband” since the day we met, and frankly I do get lonesome now and then. But the Lord is always there with me and HE truly knows my heart, so that is a huge comfort. I just wish that the legal machinery was in full force. It’s been 15 months since the separation and it’s as slow as molasses in January!

    • jodi

      Now free: You said ” throughout all this, I have never been unfaithful to my “husband”. My question: To what marriage and what husband are you being faithful to? Seems like your marriage was over after he repeatedly broke the covenants. There Is no husband nor marriage . That’s how it seems to me anyway.

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