The sad truth is this: When leaving a controlling church, it is impossible to leave correctly in the eyes of the abusive pastor.*
The decision to leave a church that is run by controlling leadership is a very difficult one to make. The degree of difficulty may be directly related to the length of time spent in that environment and thus the depth of brainwashing that was accomplished.
Once it is recognized that much of what is promoted in an abusive church is at very least unhealthy, but wrong and ultimately heretical, that is when a decision must be made. One of the factors that immediately comes into play is simply facing the fact that you chose poorly. Coming to terms with the fact that you made a bad decision in choosing a place like this is hard at best, so let’s be clear here. There are thousands of people in the same boat that were deceived just like you were. This is a HUGE problem in the body of Christ, the deception is very slick, and seduction is easily pulled off even on seasoned Christians. Yes, it was a bad decision, but there actually is much good that will come from it in the form of experience and education. Don't beat yourself over the head.
The next factor that must be faced is the volume of resources invested in the place- time, money, relationships, etc., a factor that is directly related to the amount of time spent there. Often these churches are so consuming, that people have few other relationships in their lives and leaving becomes a frightening thing. People don’t want to think that they’ve wasted themselves, so the tendency is to stay hoping for better things in the future. Frankly, better things aren’t apt to come; things will probably just get worse. In my opinion, it is much better to cut your losses and get out as soon as you recognize the place as abusive. This is particularly true if you have children going with you to all these brainwashing sessions.
*Exposing Spiritual Abuse by Mike Fehlauer, p. 142.
Country church is free photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Is There a Correct Way to Leave?
Now, assuming the decision has been made to leave, the only question remaining is how to leave. Mike Fehlauer, in his book Exposing Spiritual Abuse, says:
. . . a common belief in controlling churches is that there is no biblical reason for anyone to ever leave a church- unless, that is, they receive the pastor's blessing to do so. However, the problem is that a controlling pastor will be too insecure to render his blessing to anyone who leaves his "flock." If anyone does leave, they immediately become "the problem” . . . The sad truth is this: When leaving a controlling church, it is impossible to leave correctly in the eyes of the abusive pastor. p. 142Fehlauer recommends going to the leaders to take your misgivings to them before leaving. This is the only thing in his book that I would tend to disagree with. I base my recommendations on my own experiences here- after spending 12 years in that kind of place, I was spiritually drained and in no shape to confront in a godly manner. Abusive churches don’t build you up, they drain you of everything you’ve got, and after 12 years of this, there was just no way I could confront those people. I chose to just leave and not come back. Over those years, I had heard plenty of references to leaving a church "correctly". If you've heard this too, don't allow that to stop you from doing what you know is right- abusive leaders have psychological issues that won't allow anyone to leave gracefully.
Is there a correct way to leave an abusive church? Don't split hairs over this. If it's abusive, you need to get yourself and your family out, regardless of how you do it. Anything you were taught in an atmosphere of control is tainted at best; you need to listen to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit, and not to the years of brainwashing you sat under. I'd think the important thing would be to not get into a shouting match, to not accuse leadership, and to hold your peace. That is why I feel it is best to just quietly disappear. Some may not feel this is "correct," but the spiritual life of you and your family are at stake. We are exhorted in the Word to seek peace, and quietly disappearing is much more peaceful than a hairy confrontation.
One of the reasons I recommend this course of action is that when confronting abusive leadership, there is no way it won’t degrade into an emotion-laden mess. Their insecurities will guarantee it. Indeed, Fehlauer calls it the “painful exit”. They will feel that their authority is being challenged and undermined, and they just don’t want to lose someone over whom they had control. This is not to say that it is never a good idea to confront. If you feel the leading of the Spirit to do so, then by all means, go for it, especially if you haven’t been just completely drained of all spiritual sense like I was. Fehlauer offers guidelines on how to proceed if you choose this route.
Here is where the threats of the curse play in- if you leave their “spiritual covering” they will claim that you make yourself a target for the devil. This is intimidation and a clear play to plant fear in you. If you are in Christ Jesus, you are blessed, not cursed. Your blessing is in Him, not in that leader. For more on the spiritual covering doctrine, see Spiritual Covering Doctrine, another post in this blog. There you will find links to other articles on this subject as well.
Which brings us to the next step. I am sure you have listened to the berating others have taken after leaving the church, and you know you will receive the same treatment. Indeed, some leaders will even try to destroy your reputation among other churches, trying to get you “black balled” so to speak. Of course this is just more intimidation plain and simple. The question is, will you fold to the pressure? People can control you only if you allow it. The devil is a bully. Will you stand up to his pressure and stand for your liberty in Christ Jesus?
Fehlauer makes a good point when he says that folding to the pressure actually does the leadership a disservice, allowing them to continue in their deceptions that much longer. You will plant one more seed of truth in their minds when you pull out, and I feel that in pulling out, you absolve yourself of any guilt in perpetuating the mess.
The Draw to Go Back
You need to be aware of the possibility of a phenomenon many experience after leaving- the draw back into the place. Because of the bewitching influence exerted in these places, you may feel like you need to go back, that you were wrong, that if you just give them another chance, things will surely change. It is imperative that you know where all this comes from- it is surely not from God. Manipulation and intimidation loose spirits that can wreak havoc in your thinking, but if you resolve to stand firm in your decision, you will be free from this influence in time.
All this may depend upon the extent of your involvement with the controlling leaders and/or the amount of time spent under their influence. Personally, I did not experience a lot of this like some others I know. They had been more involved with leadership and had given themselves over to their influence more than I had and I assume this is what made the difference.
What About Those You Leave Behind?
One final point- I have struggled with whether or not to try to “rescue” those you leave behind. I had the mindset that if there’s a rattlesnake in your house, you’d certainly want someone to tell you! I don’t want anyone coming to me saying, “Why didn’t you tell me?” However, after reading Fehlauer’s book, I think he may have changed my mind on that one. Here’s what he says:
If you influence others to leave, then they will lack the conviction necessary to follow through. Because it was your influence, and not the result of their own convictions, they may find it difficult to guard their hearts from bitterness or to search out a healthy church to attend. p. 154So perhaps it is best to let go completely, make a clean break, and go on with God. There is much to be learned from the experience, and there are plenty of other deceived Christians caught in this seduction that you may be able to help in the future.
Praise God that you have seen the truth of the situation and that you are making changes. You've recognized the deception which is so much more than countless hundreds of others can say. Praise God for His grace.
Red Flag Churches where you will find a list of links to sites offering help to those who have experienced spiritual abuse, as well as a summary of my book. The entire book is available at smashwords.com. as a free download.
Exposing Spiritual Abuse by Mike Fehlauer
*All quotes are from the book Exposing Spiritual Abuse.
Red Flag ChurchesRed Flag Churches
Be Not Deceived- Learn to Test the Spirits
What Does a Wolf Look Like?
The Spiritual Covering Doctrine
Spiritual Abuse Is Not Obvious
Hold Fast to the Head
To Tithe or Not to Tithe
The Dechurched and the Next Move of GodThe Dechurched, the Wilderness Experience and the Next Move of God
Church and Spiritual Abuse
Clergy- Invitation to Idolatry?
Faith, Grace and the Promises of God
Quill pen is free clip art from Wikimedia Commons.