A Cry For Justice

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

Thursday Thought — When You Are Ready To Try Again: Going Back to Church

Jeff VanVonderen has a good article about red flags to identify an abusive church, and what to look for when looking for a safe church.  In the article, titled When You Are Ready To Try Again: Going Back to Church, he discusses seven characteristics of a hurtful church:

  1. Power-posturing
  2. Performance Preoccupation
  3. Unspoken Rules
  4. Lack of Balance
  5. Spiritual Paranoia
  6. Misplaced Loyalty
  7. Secretiveness

In contrast he discusses seven characteristics of grace-full, healthy churches that are the opposite of those described in the preceding list:

  1. Authority and power are used to serve, equip, and empower others
  2. Believers are fighting the ‘good fight of faith’
  3. Rules are spoken about out loud, and they are biblical
  4. There is deference to the true Head of the Church, his agenda, and his methods
  5. Our safety is in Christ, and so diversity is welcomed
  6. Loyalty to Christ and his kingdom takes precedence
  7. Honesty and openness are present


This article is by Jeff VanVonderen, co-author of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse [*Affiliate link]. We have this book on our Resources page.  We highly recommended it apart from the fact that this book does not explicitly say that divorce is permissible in cases of spousal abuse.

*Amazon affiliate link — ACFJ gets a small percentage if you purchase via this link



  1. Hayley

    Thank you so much for posting this! We are church hunting after having left an abusive church and feeling very wary, and spiritually tender and sore.

  2. MarkQ

    7) Secretiveness. Certain information is deemed suitable only for those within the church or only for certain people within the church.

    There might be a better way of saying this. My old church felt that theological controversy should be handled by the elders and only the elders. This came up in all sorts of places – there was a man leading a small group, who was teaching heresy. Because he was “elder material”, people were not properly discerning about his teaching, and were being led astray. He was confronted by the leadership when they discovered the error, but it was all done behind closed doors, so many in the church did not understand what was happening.

    There was a church conference leader that taught on a controversial topic. Apparently, some of the elders got upset that the leader was teaching this openly, when it should have been discussed by the elders behind closed doors.

    When I openly opposed some abusive teaching, I was (quasi-publicly) taken aside after the class. They tried to back up the abusive teaching, but were unable. When they gathered their thoughts and approached me later, my supposed sin in this matter was the fact that I opposed this in public instead of taking it behind closed doors to the church leaders.

    • I suspect that the verse Pharisaic leaders most hate is 1 Timothy 5:20:

      As for those [leaders] who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.

      Has anyone ever heard a sermon on that verse? I haven’t.

      And of course, the lord-it-over leaders quash charges against them by citing the previous verse: they can almost always claim that the whistleblower is out of order because he or she didn’t come with two or three witnesses.

      (19) Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. (20) As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. (21) In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality.

  3. Dale Ingraham @ Speaking Truth In Love Ministries
  4. Today SSB published a post that is quite pertinent to this topic —

    If Being Hurt by the Church Causes You to Lose Faith in God . . .[Internet Archive link]

  5. kind of anonymous

    Hi Barb; okay I popped over and read the post / meme AND the comments. It was not well rec’d by most people. My reply is a long one because it triggered many thoughts and feelings as well as memories of just how burned and fed up I am with church Christians. So publish if you would like or just bin it if it’s too much. At least I could say some things out loud.

    Funny thing is, I would have said the very same thing a long time ago. It kind of reminds me of another similar spiritual platitude that went something like “If God seems far away, guess who moved”. Probably based on the verse that says God’s arm isn’t too short to save but our iniquities have separated us from Him. I’d call it smart aleck Christian pieties because it has enough truth in it to sound very righteous but actually only adds insult to injury. Idolatrous people are said to often feel abandoned by God, even though its the idolator who has turned to other persons or things for value, worth, identity and security, instead of to God. So that would be where I might find some agreement with the idea. But even then, [if] such idolatry is connected to pain and trauma from being abused, that doesn’t tell the entire story. Jesus takes away sin, AND opens prison doors and heals shattered hearts. He doesn’t JUST deal with our sin. Which may actually be a poke in the eye to those from nouthetic thinking. If all our problems are because of our sin alone, why not just say He came to set sin captives free and leave off the bit about broken hearts?

    There are many reasons why one might feel or actually be far from God. Wrong teaching. Law instead of grace. Abandonment and abuse. Personal sin. Spiritual warfare. My personal struggle at the moment, relative to this sentiment expressed by this meme is that, yeah, okay, I’ve been hurt by people. I’ve in fact, had such experiences of judgemental blind Christian major jerkdom, that some have wondered why I would even go to church seeing how clueless and unhelpful some Christians are. For a long time, I never confused God with people whether they were saved or not. I didn’t blame God for what jerk Christians did and I could see when pastors and leaders were full of it and were stuffed shirts hopelessly inured in a dead institutionalized version of Christian religion that lacks truth and integrity. What got me was the cognitive dissonance between the invitation to believe what I was told and presented, over and against what I could see and sense. So my problem isn’t blaming God for what people do. My problem was then and is now, why doesn’t He come charging to the defense of the innocent when they are being harmed?

    My problem is wondering why, even if I have some sin in the situation, does God not intervene? It is HIS system of authority, His church and His name that is being made as corrupt as the temple was that day when Jesus flipped tables. It wasn’t okay then but its apparently not a big deal now? I say this with a great deal of discomfort because it feels like I am charging God with wrongdoing and at the moment I feel dangerously tipped back towards all the same old bitterness, rebellion and resentment I had against God for allowing me to be hurt by my dad and then not stepping in to bring me reassurance and comfort when I believed in Him and cried out to Him after a horrible shattering incident.

    I am aware that like Job, who had righteous complaints and who was innocent of wrongdoing, God could still say to me:

    Will you discredit my justice and condemn me just to prove you are right? [Job 40:8 NLT]

    Will you even put me in the wrong?….[Job 40:8 ESV]

    ….Would you declare Me guilty to justify yourself? [Job 40:8 HCSB]

    Wilt thou make void my judgment: and condemn me, that thou mayst be justified? [Job 40:8 Douay-Rheims Bible]

    I have felt intense pressure to think “it’s all baloney” and to just walk away from all attempts at following Christ because it doesn’t seem terribly real at the moment. But it is hard NOT to feel like giving up when all you see is serious dishonesty and the wrong things being upheld. It leaves you wondering “Am I wrong in what I am trying to uphold?” Why do I get away with nothing while blatant liars seem able to sin with impunity and even enjoy looking good? Where on earth is some backup?

    For instance, in one church with some real items of concern as far as spiritual health went, I had spoken to the pastor about his notion of starting a martial arts “ministry” for the purpose of getting people into the church. I was appalled and thought this a worldly gimmick and totally an example of functional atheism and lack of faith in the proper means of seeing souls saved, namely prayer, intercession, evangelism and the proper, anointed teaching of God’s Word applied to real life. I’m not opposed to having things like kids clubs, pioneer girls, family nights etc. but this seemed too much of a departure from what is solid.

    So I took him aside and pointed out to him what I knew about the martial arts, having studied it for a bit, including that some of the spiritual underpinnings are opposed to Christianity and not compatible with it. He thought there was no problem with just doing the exercises. Perhaps there is no real danger to a Christian who wants to study the martial arts. You could certainly get in good shape and it doesn’t hurt to be able to defend yourself from evil. So as a personal pursuit it may not be wrong and be instead a debatable matter similar to eating meat sacrificed to idols.

    However I still hold that his thinking was carnal and worldly, a gimmicky bait-and-switch that showed he was not trusting God and thought he needed to manipulate and maneuver people rather than actually have faith that God could and would do something if we began earnestly seeking Him for souls. In any real revival, have you ever heard of it being brought about by the opening of a dojo? No. Revivals have always come about by seeking, prevailing prayer and the ministry of the word and the power of the Holy Spirit.

    This same pastor had no problem with inviting a non-believer to join in helping lead worship. Needless to say, despite my being diplomatic and expressing my concern that this was a departure from solid practice, I became the enemy for even suggesting that one of his ideas was wrong and he informed me I was legalistic and took some pointed shots at me from the pulpit. He felt I had no right to correct or admonish him and he took any attempts at doing so as a personal wound or affront. Esp. since he was male and leadership is male, so I should be silent and submissive and not challenge him.

    Other things went on with this guy that were just bizarre and he covered it well behind saintly image and outward behaviour and today still enjoys being seen by many as a heroic pastor with a real servant heart. Perhaps he does have some genuinely sincere qualities. Yet when we attempted to leave his church, even though we did it without noising the matter about or causing gossip or contention, we got a phone call from him in which he yelled and screamed at my husband so loud I could hear it clear across the driveway. He pulled every coercive trick in the book and then tried to blame the whole situation on me and force us into a meeting with him and another person. I refused to come, feeling very guilty because I was so well-taught that you are supposed to submit to your spiritual authority. However, he had lied to us and lied to this other person; I think he wanted to use us to oust her without her knowing he didn’t want her in that role and so he approached us behind her back to lead the ministry she was leading. We said, after much resistance on our part, that we would do it only if he was up front with her about his plans to make a change and she was on board with it.

    Except every time I asked if he had spoken to her yet, he said “no, no but I am going to.” Finally he just refused to be confronted and obviously didn’t tell her what he told us. Instead he led her to believe that it was our idea to replace her with ourselves, not his, and acted sad and saintly at our “bad behaviour” and “cruelty” towards this other woman. He began acting like her biggest fan. She was very nice in public but behind the scenes was quite a piece of work to deal with, though perhaps some of it was at least partially because she thought we were the source of the rat she smelled and thought we were trying to just get rid of her for no reason. She didn’t know we had been told we were leading.

    I have to be honest and say that putting up with her deliberate power moves and tactics and her behind the scenes b*****iness and rude remarks made me dislike her intensely and only made me feel that it would be a good thing if she was not a part of the ministry we were in. She was a bully and a domineering person and clearly looked down on me. We would tell the pastor things she was doing and saying and he would tell her what we said; even though we had been bound by him to silence until he supposedly talked to her. But it wasn’t us who originally wanted her out. Suffice to say the next time a pastor ever tries taking us into his confidence behind the back of someone he doesn’t like, I am going to tell him to get some balls and do his job by speaking the truth in love without fear of what people will think, rather than using others in manipulative ways to do his dirty work.

    When all this went down, I actually got a hold of Jeff VanVonderen by phone; by some fluke I was able to find his number and got him on his cell phone! I had his book and knew that he could tell me if what I was experiencing was spiritual abuse or I was just a bad sheep. It must have been a God thing that I even found his number on the internet. I told him some of the things the pastor did and said and he agreed this pastor was spiritually abusive and trying to control things that were none of his business. Though I think he also had some concerns about my thinking that submission meant going along with my husband when he was tolerating sin from the pastor or choosing an unhealthy church to attend, and he wondered how on earth I got his phone number seeing as he was in the US and I was not; I told him I found it using Google, which was true!

    At any rate, it was a very reassuring phone call to know that I was right in my estimation of this pastor’s behaviour. The pastor in question actually has made remarks about being able to use his influence so that no one can come against him without severe results, namely being unable to get work in the town, and it would seem that he has told others of my abuse-related issues and made out that I have BPD or something like that. Perhaps I do; my background is such that I could indeed have some aspects of it. But manipulative liar who misrepresents the truth is not one of my habits of character. I have never EVER made false accusations against anyone, EVER regardless of what problems I have with authority. I am pretty sure that you can have BPD and still be being abused even if you have some dingbat stuff of your own going on or are contributing problems to the relationship.

    At any rate, there is no point in telling other pastors what happened in hopes of support; they just assume he is a credible guy because he is in the same ministerial association, has a saintly pillar of the community rep, and they all support one another because they are pastors, and push us to go for reconciliation.

    How do you reconcile with someone who is not going to admit to what he has said or done? Jeff [VanVonderen] told me not to be a part of any meeting that doesn’t begin with him [the pastor] telling this other lady what he told us and I agree. Sad to say I was being so brainwashed into being the goat that I forgot that the reason we weren’t confronting this woman directly about her behaviour wasn’t just intimidation, but that we had been bound to keep the pastor’s confidence and so felt we could not tell her what he had told us. Something we were wrong to continue to go along with. We were such dupes.

    God also gave me the scripture about King David not obeying Saul’s demand that David meet with him even though Saul was the anointed authority over David. But it still means that I will never look at the church without deep mistrust and suspicion. It’s like thinking dogs are friendly and enjoying patting them until one savagely rips half your face off and you have to have major surgery and now have lasting scars. you never approach a dog the same way again. I need evidence that God is there before I will feel the least bit committed. Used to be that a church, a cross, a pulpit, a pastor and the sign “First Baptist” or such-and-such missionary alliance was all you needed to know that this was a church that belonged to God. Now not so much.

    Some years ago, I heard a prophecy that I believed was likely one that was genuine. The gist of it was that revival would come and when it did, it would sweep across the land like a tidal wave. But before it could come, judgement began with the house of God, and that everything that could be shaken, would be shaken, and those hearing this word should pray to stand and also pray for the weak that they would be able to stand. My response was to ask God to let me be where the strongest crest of that wave came down because I didn’t want to miss even one drop of God’s moving. I have thought of that many times and wondered if that could be what is going on now. So maybe we struggle with trusting God when hurt by people because much of the chaff is being shook loose and it hurts and obscures vision temporarily. At any rate, I think that meme had some truth to it and by and large was not helpful to anyone. Once again I apologize for my many words, just cannot seem to say anything short-form.

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