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Safe Haven Ministries recently published a film entitled “Nina’s New Beginning,” which captures the story of a young woman forced into an arranged marriage with an older man. The film describes being raised by a father who was also emotionally and spiritually abusive—believing it was his right to control his daughters’ futures. Nina and her sisters were warned they would be married “young” and eventually Nina was pressured to marry an older man she had never met. Emotional abuse was connected with spiritual abuse, as her father used the Bible to tell her that not marrying this man would be rebelling against his authority as a parent and her calling to submit. Once she caved into her father’s pressure and entered the marriage, she began to endure an increasingly severe pattern of emotional abuse and control.

The story is horrifying, but one of the things that stood out in the film was that Nina’s abusive marriage clearly did not emerge from a vacuum. Nina’s family's involvement in a spiritually abusive worldview, which assumed an inferior status for women, led what happened to her to be so normalized that it seems no one within that faith context resisted her being forced into an arranged marriage or helped her realize she was being abused. Only after extensive counseling did Nina realize both the reality that she was being seriously abused and that she was in danger. With the support of Safe Haven resources, she made the courageous decision to leave her husband.

When recounting her story, Nina is eloquent about describing the way in which the church culture she was a part of led directly to her abuse. Abuse was “such a part of that lifestyle,” she explained, that although abuse was discussed, “If it wasn’t broken bones and bloody lips, then it wasn’t abuse.”

It can be tempting to see severely patriarchal cults such as the one Nina survived as fringe elements in our culture, but in reality they exist as severe extensions of what is fairly normal patterns of thinking in many churches. In any church, there is the danger of emotionally and / or spiritually abusive patterns leading to silencing abuse victims.

Recently I wrote about spiritual abuse and how easy it is in any church for spiritual authority to blur into cultures of conformity that silence dissenting voices. It can be uncomfortable to talk openly and candidly about the problem of abuses of spiritual authority, because spiritual authority blurring into controlling behavior is not at all unusual and often is unintentional.

But spiritually abusive environments are serious, and dangerous. Not only can spiritual abuse itself have devastating impacts, but it creates an environment where abuse of authority is normal, and where resisting controlling behavior is seen as rebellious or unforgiving, instead of an essential for a healthy community.  A spiritually abusive environment creates a community that is also inclined to victim-blame and excuse any behavior by authority figures. When dynamics of spiritual abuse and control are combined with misconceptions about forgiveness, it can create a toxic culture that makes it incredibly difficult for someone who is being abused to both recognize the danger they’re in and seek help.  

Survivors of abuse have repeatedly described the ways in which their (fairly mainstream) church cultures actively contributed to ongoing abuse, not only for failing to talk candidly about abuse but often through explicitly normalizing abusive behavior. Ruth Tucker’s recent book Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife, is eye-opening in revealing connections between fairly typical complementarian beliefs about gender roles and overt tolerance of the abuse of women. Survivors of emotional abuse in particular have described how difficult it is to get the church to take emotional abuse seriously, when often physical abuse is the only category of domestic violence the church is beginning to take seriously. Recently “The Courage to Leave” described how incredibly difficult it can be for survivors of emotionally abusive marriage to leave the marriage with the support of a faith community, because of the church’s failure to believe that emotional abuse is as serious as physical abuse.

The stories of survivors of abuse such as these make it clear that the intersections between spiritually abusive environments and other forms of abuse are not unusual or limited to fringe cults. As we work towards creating safer church environments, it isn’t enough for churches to have a safe church policy. A truly safe church environment, rather, is one where the community as a whole is aware of the many ways in which abuse is normalized in both secular and Christian cultures and is prepared to help survivors—who statistically, are present in any given congregation—recognize their own abuse and come forward for support and healing and the true freedom found in Christ.  If we utilize the many resources available in our communities to truly prioritize supporting victims of the epidemic rates of abuse in our culture, churches too can be a part of creating new beginnings and a new family for abuse survivors.

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