When a member of a spiritually abusive church finally gathers the courage to leave, life can get messy for that person and their family. How could it be otherwise, when one has been duped & repressed by a cultish faith group?
From those who have escaped spiritually abusive churches, I repeatedly hear that the “leadership” figures of said organizations use scare tactics equivalent to emotional blackmail. The threats go something like this:
The great majority of those that leave [insert cult name] don’t “turn out” for the Lord. You don’t want to lose your kids, do you? If you follow what we teach, your kids will go on for God.
Of course, such promises are no guarantee [I know several who stayed in and were either admitted to a psych ward or tried to commit suicide] …and the threats of such leaders are not purely true.
It is true that the majority of abuse survivors do not cope well in society after escaping, but NOT because they left the cult; rather because they had been in the cult. What is more, the “pastors” have created their own definitions of “turning out.” If a cult leader defines spiritual success by his own cultish terms and delusions, would you want to become his definition of successful? Thankfully, God’s version of “doing well” is far different than a cult leader’s vision.
Whenever survivors of a spiritually abusive or toxic church do struggle with holding life together, it is not because they fail the goals and teachings of the cult they left. Instead, they are on a messy but necessary road to recovery.
Here are 5 main reasons spiritual abuse survivors don’t “do well.”
1. The Legalism Effect: The Stunting of Growth in Grace
These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Colossians 2:23, ESV).
It is true that people (especially children and teens) who leave cults do not “do well.” However, their doing poorly is due to nothing other than the legalism of standards and traditions (a.k.a. “will worship”).
Legalism has warped the conscience. The guilt detector has been misinformed to go off according to failing man-made measures that (from misinterpretation) are holier than what God Himself biblically prescribes (by principle and clear command). In the case of a new believer, legalism does not allow one to grow in grace, due to being stunted by the “I’m accepted/approved by God, if I do this and not this” mentality of meritorious “Law-living.” In the case of a child, whose emotional and relational and mental paradigm are forming within the abusive context …[i.e. a legalistic culture, based on merited approval and an obsessive focus on what is wrong (with me or with everyone)], …an insatiable narcissism and “insecurity” (codependency) develop in place of empathy and a strong basis for relational joy.*
Instead of growing in knowledge of Jesus personally, the young or the young convert learns a cult leader’s aberrant ideals of piety. Instead of truth and grace (room enough to fail and grow without being condemned and outcast), they have a steady relational diet of exacting expectations and (if unmet) unmerciful castigation & inescapable stigma.
So, “good kids” (those that sought approval) and adults that were codependent on leadership, while in the cult, have no real confidence in their relationship with God and no real maturity in the Spirit. They have not grown in grace. They have not been rooted and grounded in love. And so, they can not authentically walk the genuine (mercy and joy rich) Christian faith. They have no foundation by which to war against the flesh and the world and the enemy as it appears outside the legalistic bubble of spiritually abusive “churches.”
Legalism has ironically left them with the inability to stop the indulgence of the flesh. God plainly forewarns about that in Colossians. The problem is legalists don’t think they are legalsists, just like the Pharisees said, “We see” (John 9:41).
*[As an aside, I marvel at how cultish pastors can so ardently preach against pride and fear of man, when they themselves figuratively breed them into the hearts of their followers. Cultish and toxic churches are full of it.]
2. Perfect Parents
Legalistic parents are most probably “former wild teens and 20 something adults,” who now want to spare their children the trouble, pain and tears they brought on themselves. That is noble. Unfortunately, that good desire turns to pride and control inside a legalistic church.
When “pastor legalist” says something like, ‘follow A B and C of what I teach, and your children will be godly and will not be like other teens,’ the appeal is extremely powerful. The parents begin the process, reluctantly at first. Then the parents want to be seen by other parents as faithful, successful and proper. They want to be well thought of.
For these reasons and for instilled fear of the “world” devouring their child, parents of students do not train & prepare their kids to be resilient Christians “in the world but not of it.” Spanking becomes their “go-to” method of rearing children, sometimes beginning at infancy and literally curbing the brain formation of the child and eroding the anatomy necessary for decision-making ability later in life.
Instead of guiding & training children, teens and young adults through exposure to age-appropriate life scenarios, perfect parents just keep sheltering and isolating their children at home, at toxic church, in the church’s academy/school, at an associated cultish college and seminary. They rely on the system created by leaders to raise their children, and all that sheltering and unreasoning restriction either creates angry rebels or greenhouse young adults, unable to interact socially and stand in the winds and weather of “outside” life. Also, the academic degrees that cost students and parents years in time and thousands in dollars are typically unaccredited… and their networking circles are often so isolated that chances of a career outside of the hierarchy’s direction are slim at best.
All I can say is: if parents think that ever-tightening controls and restrictions will gain the loyalty and maturity they desire from their teen, think again. Instead, gradually increasing responsibility, guiding wisdom, allowance to fail and assurance of love in failure, proportionate reward for succeeding, trust and accountability are the way to raise teens. Trying to control another’s heart in thought, feeling and behavioral minutia will only provoke them to anger… a thing forbidden by the Bible. It only will lead to teens being secretive and isolated or friend-needy in select areas of life. If parents want transparency from their teen, they have to create a culture of openness and transparency in their home.
Instead of trying to be a perfectly successful parent with 100% success rate with children “turning out,” parents need to teach age appropriate lessons from talking about their own life failures, corrective truths you found, perspectives gained and lessons learned; instruction and commands alone will not do it, because parents who rely on commands and “correction” alone are inadvertently putting up a front of perfection on themselves (which teens know is fake) and setting an impossible mark to attain. If we love our teens, we have to embrace any embarrassment they may bring us for the sake of their knowing gracious, loving, merciful and mature parents. They already know they’re not perfect. They just need to know how to succeed at being more like Jesus as the person God made them. You have made grave mistakes and did not give up on yourself. In that way, teens need you to love them as much or more than you love yourself.
Teens who leave cults don’t “do well,” because they had “perfect” parents who taught them nothing about life and relationships from genuine heart transparency. To the teens, it is fake and self-righteous religion.
3. A Distorted Sense of Identity
In cults, harmless interactions and even courteous acts are seen as highly suspect, as if sinfully motivated. Cultish people are good at making you feel dirty and unworthy, when you are nothing of the sort. But when natural interactions of everyday life, necessity and societal politeness are made taboo, the survivor’s inner tendency is false guilt; and this crops up in random, every day life to haunt the survivor trying to reforge a fully adapted professional and social life.
Additionally, the survivor may voluntarily leave the abusive institution in “good standing.” Yet, the above-mentioned “warnings” of ruination are touted. If the survivor indeed leaves, leadership may label him or her a “runner” (a “jailing effect” tactic; see below). Their failure is callously and resentfully expected by those they left; and if they should stumble, their story is used like a statistic after it passes through the gossip vine.
However, if the survivor who leaves does so as a result of being “disciplined” out of the church for what spiritually abusive leaders may call sin (ex. holding to valid ethical questions or biblical criticisms of a pastor), then add to the false guilt an intensified struggle with (despite knowing contrarily) the image of one’s self as “ruined” or a “hopeless case.” Now, the individual may not have sinned according to the Scriptures; but as cult leadership often practices nepotism, no accountability or faux accountability, manipulations, coverups, power projections, authoritarian controls, and breaking of professional confidence… it is hard to tell what has truly gone on behind the scenes.
When a toxic person can no longer control you, they will try to control how others see you. The misinformation will feel unfair, but stay above it, trusting that others will eventually see the truth, just like you did. —Jill Blakeway
Whatever the case, non-biblical shunning and public humiliation/shaming often fuel the inner struggle of cult survivors. Historically, this has proven only to further alienate individuals and whole communities. Such needless and hopeless alienation happens because churches perform nothing short of excommunication by shaming & shunning & “handing over to Satan” …not to mention giving license for the rest of the church to stigmatize and gossip about the victim. The practical aim is clearly not the compassion and restoration Jesus prescribed, and it makes one’s sense of identity stick on the unredeemable. Such a false, inner stigma begs one (along with the accusations of the Devil) to give in to the false identity.
4. Jailing/Institutionalization Effect:
Not only do the effects of legalism and distorted identity experienced in cults play hugely against a survivor but so does the jailing effect of a cult.
The “Pyramid of Success”
Cultish leaders (knowingly or unknowingly) set themselves up as celebrities who can do no wrong and from whom all truth & blessing is dispensed. Celebrity worship works in the “church” just as well (or more) as it does in the movie, TV and music industries. Sooner or later, one’s entire existence—spiritually, educationally, professionally, relationally is wrapped up—not in sincere faith lived in the world for God, but—in the institution.
In order to build their own kingdom and forward their “cause,” cult leaders will suck in as many workers and constituents as possible, working them long hours and compensating them meagerly. Those who are codependent strive and struggle just for a little of the approval and promotion granted by the cult leader(s).
The pyramid of control, fear and awe often built by toxic leaders has enough gravity to attract and hold people, bizarre as it sounds; because people want to be seen as good, and people want to be accepted and successful. Members who want advancement in the eyes of the hierarchy often leave jobs and isolate from family and friends for the chance to be seen as “right” and seen as good (in the eyes of other toxic cult members and leaders). I know of leaders, who promise positions and prominence to these sort only to string them along.
Now, imagine gathering the courage to step away from all that and try to rebuild your life. Can you also imagine trying to see your way forward, having “wasted” so much time and having so much want of connection and genuine opportunity, not to mention a professional reference that you trust? The overwhelm is crippling.
Getting crushed by the pyramid is a large reason cult survivors don’t “do well.” It is a jailing effect cults use.
Fear-mongering and Lording
When a cult leader “warns” a would-be survivor of the ruination of those who leave, he subtly says, “you cannot successfully follow God without me, and God cannot use you to ________ without my instruction. In fact, you can’t just trust God to lead you on how to _______. You need me between you and God.”
I know of cult leaders, who have criticized their staff to the point of telling them they really had no talent in certain areas, just to keep them working at their institution. Likewise, the leader has used literal blackmail (threat of professional ruination) should a staff member leave.
If fear is the thing that keeps people, then it is certainly not of God. These are all humanly contrived ploys to keep people serving and to keep people dependent.
Fear and Lording are reasons cult survivors don’t “do well.” It is a jailing effect cults use.
Spiritually abusive / cultish churches isolate and insulate themselves. Their reply to a world filled with temptation is to remove one’s self from all potential sources of temptation, as much as possible. Exposure to sinners is to be kept at a minimum—certainly do not befriend them—and only interact by absolute necessity and/or to give a relation-less gospel presentation. This is contrary to Jesus, who prayed that the Father would not take believers out of the world but keep (guard; implied by grace) them from evil.
By poor theological definitions of the “world” and by focusing on external actions instead of dealing honesty with the heart from which actions arise, legalists justify their social isolationism as “holiness” and “separation from the world.” The result is a group of better dressed and only slightly more technologically advanced Amish.
When one has been figuratively held in such an isolation chamber [or, sensory depravation tank], emerging from it can be an overload. To those in the isolationist group, the occasional overload is not a warning signal of paranoid isolationism but a badge of sensitivity against all things “worldly.” Whereas anyone can see the ills and detriments of a society that has lost its conscience, there is a great deal of difference between being desensitization and deprivation.
Cult survivors find it difficult to “do well,” because the “outside” is an overload… and (for children/teens) no one actually trained them how to successfully navigate the delights and dangers of love and life. They were only taught how to survive on the “inside.” Life chews up and spits out the naive. They are jail broken, having endured the jailing effect that cults often use.
5. Disorders Stemming from Abuse
Coping mechanisms of the mind in the face of trauma and/or abusive situations, mixed with well-founded distrust of “Spiritual Authority,” leaves the abused with a lot of crippling effects and an aversion for the caricature of God that has been etched into their minds and hearts.
Sometimes the abuse is so long, so repetitious or so heinous that the abused carries noticeable traits characteristic of mind and/or nervous disorders. I encourage everyone to realize 1/3 people suffer from some form of mental or psychiatric disorder.
Cult survivors don’t do well, because sometimes they literally could not take the abuse that “leaders” dished out… and their mind and body gave way. They literally can’t “just get over it,” and your suggesting they do so fails to see that repeated inner wounds can create rather permanent inner damage.
- Depersonalization Disorder
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Clinical & Manic Depression/Bipolar Disorder
- Clinical Anxiety
- Eating Disorders
- Cutting or other Self Harm
- Chronic Anger — https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201602/anger-when-adults-act-children-and-why
- Dissociative (Identity) Disorder
- Physiological Addiction (stemming from self-medication to cope)
- Hostile Attribution Bias
- Learned Narcissism
- Learned or Reactive Sociopathy
- Passivity, Extreme Submissiveness and Inferiority Complex
- Stockholm Syndrome
As a spiritual abuse survivor, I share HERE how I am finding healing from the many effects of the above “5 reasons,” and I include links to many good resources.