Anatomy of a Christian Meltdown
People love pointing fingers at the toxic behaviors of high-profile church leaders, but no one wants to look at the smallest and most destructive ones that everyone engages in.
Recently, I lost close to 400 Twitter followers for accusing the author of this Tweet of spiritual abuse. Almost all of them either currently or recently considered themselves to be Christians and predominantly Evangelicals. Although a good number of them are currently deconstructing and may no longer be a part of a church, what they don’t want to look at is how they have absorbed the most toxic behaviors found in the churches they attended. It’s super easy to point to the behaviors of the big public figures and most of them would probably consider themselves to have been abused in those spaces, but they don’t want to look at how they were also abusers or at least continue to engage in highly abusive behavior.
While the pastors and leaders of their former churches certainly bear their fair share of the blame, there can also be no doubt that these few people have passed on their toxic behaviors to almost every one of the thousands of people in their congregations. Millions of people are walking away from “toxic churches” right now because they are finally recognizing just how toxic they are. The problem is that a “church” is actually a group of people. Therefore, when a “church” is toxic or abusive, it is actually people that are toxic and abusive and not just the leadership.
“A little leaven leavens the whole loaf.” Gal 5:9
The other thing we like to believe is that churches are neatly divided between abusers and victims of abuse. While a child might be solely the victim of abuse, adults are almost always both victims of abuse and abusers. Abuse is about power and power will always seek equilibrium. Whenever someone is forced into a submissive role - or the position of having to accept abuse - they will inherently seek to restore equilibrium by being the abuser - or dominant - in another. Even sexual abuse is not about sex but about power.
Abuse is about being able to take something that you want from someone and eliminating their power to stop you.
What’s possibly even more diabolical about sexual abuse and power is when you can create a situation in which the abuser can convince themselves they are not actually taking something they are not entitled to but rather the other person is giving it freely. Although consent is certainly important, if one party doesn’t actually feel like they have the ability to say no, it’s not true consent.
This is why bosses or employers are discouraged from even trying to “date” subordinates. If a subordinate is in any way concerned their job - and therefore their livelihood - might be in jeopardy by saying no, then they may not feel they have a choice. This is also why modern scholars consider what David did to Bathsheba to be rape rather than an “affair.” An affair requires consent of both parties. Bathsheba literally had no power to say no and therefore she also had no ability to give consent.
The ultimate goal of power is to take away someone else’s ability to say no. That is the most fundamental aspect of abuse and it is rampant in churches. Church people have developed a multitude of subtle ploys and tactics designed to give themselves power over others, but also to remain blind to the ways in which they do it - as well as their ultimate motivation. Until we actually recognize all of these small, subtle ways people have devised to gain power and control over others, churches will continue to be toxic.
Abuse happens when one person is made to be the involuntary subordinate to another.
There are many ways abuse can happen and they aren’t always easily discernible. Men will often “bulk up” specifically because bulging muscles create a constant visual representation of superior strength. They don’t actually have to get in a physical altercation with anyone to be able to coerce submission in others. In many cases, just standing over them and flexing their muscles is all that is required. It is the threat of violence that is intimidating.
People that own small arsenals will often post pictures of them because then they don’t actually have to use them to threaten and intimidate. Just knowing they have them is enough. This is similar to how even though America hasn’t actually used nuclear weapons since WWII, everyone knows we have them, which is enough.
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Power always seeks equilibrium, so whenever a person is abused - or forced to be the subordinate in one relationship - they will inherently seek to dominate in another. This is why women who are abused by men will often be abusive to children. If they feel powerless to leave a situation in which they are being abused, they may even condone the abuse of their children as a means of protecting themselves. Men who feel belittled and disrespected at work are more likely to be abusive to their wife and/or children. Women who feel dominated by a controlling mother may seek to dominate and control their husbands.
Recently, I deconstructed the book Love & Respect on my podcast, which is perhaps one of the most widely recommended relationship books in white Evangelicalism. It came as no surprise to me that one of Sheila Gregoire’s readers sent her a link to a YouTube video where a famous BDSM practitioner recommended the book as a good way to introduce women to the world of D/s or Dominant/ Submissive. Although D/s is most often identified as being a sexual fetish, the truth is it is simply an identification of the balance of power. It doesn't just happen in intimate relationships, it happens in life.
So let’s talk about the toxic behaviors represented in the above Tweet. Although it is just a snippet, it is absolutely chock full of manipulation and control tactics. Just to give some context, I had gotten into a somewhat heated discussion with another person on Twitter, someone I had butt heads with before. Although this was on Twitter, which is a public forum, and people are free to jump into other’s conversations, it doesn’t necessarily mean they should, nor does it necessarily speak highly of them when they do.
So, I was having a disagreement with someone else, and that’s when the person above felt it necessary to jump in and pile on.
And this brings us to the first toxic behavior in Evangelicalism. The pile-on.
On a recent episode of the Untangled Faith podcast, guest Ryan Ramsey talked about how when most Christians are looking for a new church, they will go to a church website to see if their doctrinal beliefs align. A practice he was also taught in Seminary. The truth is, that is exactly the opposite of what should happen when we are looking for a church community, but it is 100% what most people do. It also goes a long way to explaining what is wrong with white American Evangelicalism. This is why we have Black churches and white churches and Korean churches and churches that are affirming and those that are not; why we have Catholic and Baptist and Methodist and Presbyterian and Lutheran churches.
Every one of these groups exists due to the idea that there is one, true, right or correct doctrine - or even worse, that God cares more about your doctrine than your heart. A situation that has only been exacerbated by the rise of the megachurch. Megachurches have to keep thousands of people all moving forward together. Any major disagreement could potentially rip the church apart, which is why they simply cannot have it.
The way American megachurches work is that a small group of people simply decide what “correct” doctrine is and then it becomes everyone else’s responsibility to simply agree. If you do not agree, you get kicked out, so if you don’t agree, you just have to keep your mouth shut. The problem, of course, is that people do not all agree, so what you end up with is a “top dog” in every group that gets to be the “decider” for that group of what is true, right and correct.
Every small group then has the potential to become a cage match over who is most dominant, and therefore who gets to be the “decider” and that’s where the “pile-on” comes in. Churches operate on a “might makes right” paradigm, where whoever gets the most people to agree with them wins. It’s not about walking together to discover truth together, it’s about whoever is the strongest or has the most followers wins.
So here I am on Twitter having a disagreement with someone and instead of letting two people simply work out their disagreement together, everyone has to jump in and pile on. Everyone has to weight the scales in favor of who they think should be the victor. While this is fine on Twitter, the big problem is, this doesn’t just happen on Twitter, it’s how things are done in churches. Churches are literally where they learned these behaviors and that is what makes them toxic.
“- it didn’t come across that way to me. I’m sorry it did to you.”
What this is implying is that although we see things differently, the Tweeter is clearly implying that their perspective is correct and mine is wrong. They are declaring themselves the sole arbiter of right and wrong. If we see things differently what they are saying is that their perspective is clearly correct and mine is wrong and best of all they apologize for me being wrong. That is called an unapologetic apology. They aren't actually apologizing for anything, it is another tactic of manipulation.
I’m sorry you feel that way
I’m sorry you were hurt by that
I’m sorry this happened
In Matt Chandler’s “confession” he never actually apologized for anything, he just said he was “embarrassed.” This is very similar to saying “I’m sorry I got caught,” which is really saying “I’m sorry but I did nothing wrong.” In this case, the above Tweeter is saying “I’m sorry but you are wrong.” Something they literally do not get to decide.
This person is trying to take upon themselves an authority they have no right to have. This is not a courtroom, no one is on trial, but they are making themselves judge and jury and deciding who is right and who is wrong - something no one ever asked them to do nor gave them any authority to do. Remember, this is Twitter. No one has “authority” on Twitter except people designated by Twitter to ensure community standards are not violated. But again, this is how things work in churches, which is why they are toxic. Everyone believes they have the right to be the “decider” and pass judgment on everyone else.
“You're absolutely allowed to have your perspective, but it's not fair to assign motives or make presumptions about others because of them.”
Remember, I was having a disagreement with someone else. This person jumped in and made themselves judge and jury and decided that their interpretation of what was said is correct and mine is wrong, but is now telling me that I’m not allowed to do the same thing.
And this is where things go really off the rails. It’s not enough that they tell me that they have sat in uninvited judgment on me and declared me to be wrong, but now they’re going to add even more weight by telling me that Jesus agrees with them.
That’s not of Jesus.
Many people believe that the third commandment to “not take the name of the Lord in vain” is referring to not using God’s name as a swear word, but I think the NIV sums it up best when it says to not “misuse” the name of the Lord. I think this is exactly what it is referring to. It is using the name of God or Jesus to give yourself more power or authority than you are entitled to have. It is an attempt to tip the scales in your favor and say “and Jesus agrees with me.” It’s not quoting Jesus directly, but it is using him as cosigner.
It’s like a child invoking the name of a parent to give themselves more authority. Between two siblings, no one has more authority than the other, so invoking the name of a parent is an attempt to give themselves more authority to force the other to bow to their will. This situation is exactly the same. When two people have equal authority, invoking the name of Jesus is an attempt the weight the scales in their favor and give themselves more authority so the other person has to obey them.
It is perhaps one of the worst and most toxic manipulation tactics in churches and religious culture and the root essence of spiritual abuse. Just because you don’t know or acknowledge you are doing something, doesn’t mean you aren’t doing it. Although I’m sure this person would deny that’s what they are doing here, doesn’t mean they aren’t. Rather, this is an incredibly common tactic specifically because it right slides under almost everyone’s radar, including the person using it. Yet just like a virus, it causes an enormous amount of damage.
I spent 10 years working 70+ hours a week in a Christian theater ministry making $20-$60 a week. Then I spent another 15 years after that trying to figure out how I had been manipulated in the 20 years prior to believe that somehow that was okay. What I figured out was it is exactly this; the subtle, almost undetectable constant cosigning of Jesus’ name to everything.
For 10 years, I literally had zero control over my own life. Someone told me what time I needed to be up in the morning, what I did with almost every minute of my day and even what time I was allowed to go to bed at night. And why did I agree to this? Because I spent 20 years prior being told I had to bow to the will of anyone who had God-given authority. And how did I know they had God-given authority? Because they told me they did.
Pretty clever huh?
Anyone can tell me what to do and I have to obey them if they tell me it’s because God gave them the authority to tell me what to do.
It’s not me telling you to do this, it’s God.
That’s not Godly.
That’s not loving.
Who the hell does anyone think they are to tell me what is “Godly” or “loving” or “not of God”?
This is exactly why some people feel they have the right to tell others that God doesn’t approve of gay people - because they don’t approve of gay people.
It’s literally giving yourself the power of God.
You get to be the “decider”.
YOU get to decide what God does and does not want others to do.
YOU get to decide what is and is not “Godly.”
YOU get to decide what is and is not “loving.”
YOU get to decide.
Only you don’t.
This is nothing new, this is literally the original sin, what the serpent tempted Adam and Eve with in the garden.
“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Gen 3:4 (NIV)
In the Hebrew, that word “knowing” can also mean deciding. It means that the power of God is the ability to decide what is good and what is evil.
You are not God.
That is the essence of spiritual abuse. The giving of yourself the authority to decide for others what is and is not of God, what God does and does not want from us, what God does and does not approve of. No one gets that authority but God. In my life that is between me and God. In your life, that is between you and God. Not even pastors have the authority to tell me what God does and does not want from me - yet that is exactly the authority pastors give themselves in Evangelical churches.
The term gaslighting comes from a movie, but it is a term used to describe a situation in which an abuser spends a great deal of time conditioning a victim in such as way as to allow the abuser to commit a very small, almost unnoticeable act that will elicit an over-the-top reaction from the victim. Picture lighting a match in a gas-filled room. Gas is odorless and colorless. No one else can see it, but if you simply light a match, it will cause a massive explosion. This is gaslighting.
Generally, this has the effect of making the victim look unbalanced, unstable or insane. I spent years having the name of Jesus used to manipulate me into giving every minute of my day for 10 years to a Christian ministry. So when someone uses the name of Jesus to cosign their opinion, even in a small way such as this, it is, in fact, abusive. It is also a perfect example of gaslighting. Although this person did not spend years conditioning me for this reaction, she absolutely used a very common abuse tactic. One so common, I believe it is actually addressed in the 10 commandments.
In a recent episode of the Bodies Behind the Bus podcast, a guest named Sarah recounted how a pastor harassed her for months after she left the church because she disagreed with his stance on same sex attraction. It wasn’t why she left the church, but simply something she mentioned when he asked her reasons for leaving. Not only did he continue to harass her, but he also roped in other people and try to get Sarah to admit she was wrong and change her stance. Almost a year after she left the church the pastor had her excommunicated!
That is a pathological need to be right and it is rampant in churches.
After I posted the above Tweet on Twitter, I proceeded to get slammed with people asserting I was wrong, demanding I apologize and take down the Tweet. They had all made themselves judge and jury and demanded I comply with their judgement. I did not. This was not a church, not a courtroom, it’s Twitter. They literally have no authority on Twitter and it was absolutely intolerable to them. When I refused, they unfollowed or blocked me. Because this is how things work in churches. People who literally have no right to authority over you make demands and then kick you out if you fail to comply. If this had been a church, there is not a doubt in my mind that they would have all gotten together to have me kicked out, but Twitter is not a church.
And what would my sin have been?
Refusal to bow to the mob?
Sadly, it would have been good enough for a church. Because in most churches, refusal to bow to the mob is considered a sin.
The sad part is, not a single person showed even the slightest traces of any type of conflict resolution skills because churches simply do not allow conflict. The leadership or most powerful person in any group simply decides what is “correct doctrine” and everyone else simply has to go along with it and accept it. There is no conflict because no disagreement is allowed. It’s how megachurches remain megachurches. But the need to be right is so strong that a pastor literally had someone excommunicated for simply being unwilling to accept the pastor’s doctrine as correct, a full year after the person had already left the church.
There is literally no room in Evangelicalism for a simple difference of opinion, a disagreement or to simply let people work things out for themselves. It is mob rule and the mob must be obeyed.
How exactly is The Church or Christians supposed to be a “Light Unto The World” when they can’t even handle a simple conflict on Twitter because they simply cannot tolerate the very existence of conflict?
Probably my favorite part of the Tweet is the last line.
I’m just asking you to reconsider your approach.
Nowhere in this Tweet was there any asking of any kind. There was a lot of judging and demanding but no asking. Apparently a lot of people are unfamiliar with the difference between a request and a demand because numerous people demanded I apologize or demanded I take the Tweet down and then claimed I was refusing to do what people were asking me to do. Only no one asked. I’m not saying I would have even if they had asked, but there does seem to be a massive inability to understand the difference between a command, a demand and a request.
If it were a request, then I should have the right to say no without penalty or consequence. Which is the essence of power, manipulation and control. If you don’t have the right to say no without penalty or consequence, then it’s not a request.
And that is the essence of abuse.
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