They Told Me If I Left…

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They Told Me If I Left …
by Ron Henzel

One of the most insidious features of Spiritual Abuse is the state of terror in which it leaves so many of its victims.

People who flee Spiritual Abuse are in a double-bind: in the very process of fleeing from the oppression that comes from being part of the group, they are terrorized by the threats of the leadership and various members — threats of dire consequences, punishment from God, and even eternal damnation.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are told that members who leave the Watchtower Society will be destroyed in Armageddon. Members who leave the International Churches of Christ (also known as the Boston Movement) are told that they will be condemned to eternal torment in Hell. In the group I came out of, the leader kept telling us that no one “prospered spiritually” after leaving, and he not-so-subtly implied that many of them were never really Christians in the first place. (Translation: they’re going to Hell.)

In one form or another, to one extent or another, spiritually abusive groups elevate affiliation with their “body of believers” to a requirement for salvation — or at the very least they elevate membership in the group to a requirement for demonstrating that you are a Christian. In either case the result is the same: once you’re in, you can’t leave — at least not safely; at least not without jeopardizing your eternal destiny.

After spending a sufficient amount of time in these groups, escaping members are often totally defenseless when it comes to this kind of spiritual terrorism. They have come to the point where because they are no longer able to endure the very real fear and torment of being in the group, and they are willing to risk the potential fear and torment of being outside the group. But they frequently leave with the sincere conviction that their departure is a sign that they are going to Hell, and they have no idea how they are going to cope with that. For many going through the exit process, fears of eternal damnation become a constant preoccupation. Once they are fully out, the result is almost always severe depression, and they are sometimes suicidal.

As for me: I was too afraid to commit suicide, because all my assurance of salvation had been stripped away by my abusive group, and I didn’t want to arrive in Hell any sooner than I had to. I kept praying to God that He would give me whatever it was that I needed (repentance, more faith, etc.) to be assured of salvation long after I left.

Another woman who left our group before me remembers drawing a deep breath and saying to herself: “Well, this probably means I’m going to Hell … but I can’t stay!” Another former member moved hundreds of miles away to avoid the inevitable, searing condemnation of the members she left behind, some of whom had been old friends before she joined.

Occasionally, someone comes to us
who is terror-stricken in this way.

Such a person is being tormented by the idea that God has forsaken them because they have left — or are thinking about leaving — a particular church, a denomination, a small group, a religious organization, or a local fellowship, and this kind of fear has been instilled in them.

Such a person is terrified by the simple fact that they even found this web site. “Perhaps it’s a sign of just how far away from God I’ve fallen!” they might think to themselves. And they sense the tentacles of Satan wrapping around their souls, and the cold hands of death grasping after them.

Such a person feels as though he or she is somehow permanently contaminated, damaged goods, poison to all other true Christians. He or she might look for a big church, and then hide in the shadows — or avoid churches altogether. He or she may have begun to wander numbly through, spiritually aimless, occasionally experiencing deep attacks of dread and panic.

“Does God love me?”

“Does God even care about me?”

“Is it too late for me?”

“Please, God — tell me it’s not too late! Just show me what I have to do to know that you love me!”

“But it was so nice at first …”

Time and time again we hear the same story: “When I first joined they were so loving, so kind, so united. … They treated me special. … I never experienced the kind of things I experienced when I first joined them.”

And then?

“It was so gradual, and so subtle,” they tell us. “It was only after many months that I began to dread going to meetings, or getting together with other ‘brothers and sisters,’ or seeing our leader. But by then, it was too late! They had me convinced that this was a special work of God — a special movement of God’s Spirit — a prophetic voice for these times.

“To leave them was to leave God … and yet I knew that I just couldn’t take it anymore! I was always being rebuked for every move I made. I was always either being the object of harsh treatment, or having to stand by and watch as other people endured harsh treatment. If I ever questioned their judgment, they said it indicated that I was rebellious, carnal, unrepentant. It finally came to the point where I couldn’t bring myself to walk through that door anymore …

“But they told me …!” these people say, “They had told me over and over, even from the early days after I first started coming … They told me how spiritually dangerous it was to leave. They told me that people only left because their sinfulness was being confronted in the group, and they didn’t like it, so they left. I remember hoping that I would never be like them — and now I am!

“They told me that if I left …”

My experience was so much like yours. I know what it’s like to go personally through the things I am describing here.

So let’s look at some of the things spiritual abusers tell us will happen to us if we leave them:

“They told me that if I left,
I would backslide spiritually.”

No matter how many Bible verses they quote, no matter how many examples of what happened to other people spiritually after leaving, this is pure bunk, and you don’t have to believe it.

Many, many groups have a habit of pointing to examples of those who left and went into a spiritual tailspin. But is this a negative reflection on the people who leave, or the group that they left? Much more often than not, when any group can cite a long list of such spiritual casualties, it’s a negative reflection upon them rather than a negative reflection on those who left. And yet how cunningly they twist it around!

Any group that leaves a trail of broken people should be avoided. Unfortunately, we can’t see the broken people who lay strewn all around us as a result of these groups, because typically when people leave spiritually abusive groups, they go into hiding and do not want to be found. So all that we have left is the word of the leaders, who testify at length to how “backslidden” these ex-members are. Perhaps they can even come up with particular “sins” these people are guilty of.

Some abusive leaders do not go into details about the supposed “sins” these ex-members are guilty of. Instead, they are so confident of their hold over remaining members that they are content to let them draw their own conclusions. Why did they leave? a member asks. They fell away, comes the ready response. End of story. After hearing that explanation enough times, remaining members naturally come to equate leaving with “falling away” from God.

But when we examine these ideas under the light of Scripture, that light exposes them for the utter nonsense that they are.

We do not come to God by going to a church, to a group, to an organization, or to any other human being on this earth. We come to God by coming to a person. We come to God by coming to Jesus. Jesus Himself said it:

I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.
[John 14:6, New American Standard Bible.]

Since we don’t come to God by coming to one particular group, it follows that we don’t leave God by leaving that group. The only way we can leave God is by leaving Christ, which means renouncing Him, and turning away from the faith.

And when we come to Jesus, we don’t have to come walking on eggshells. We don’t have to wonder if He will accept us. For He also says:

… and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.
[John 6:37b, New American Standard Bible.]

Jesus does not cast people out who come to Him, or drive them away. That is a key difference between Jesus and spiritually abusive leaders.

A favorite verse that spiritual abusers like to quote in order to intimidate people is 1 John 2:16:

They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us,
they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.
[1 John 1:19, New International Version.]

Spiritual abusers will point to this verse and then point to those who have left their so-called “fellowships” or “churches” or whatever, and say, “See! The Bible says that these people were never really Christians in the first place, or they would have remained with us!”

But this is a twisting of Scripture. By saying, “they went out from us,” John is not referring to one particular church body or group of believers. Instead, he is referring to those who have left the faith itself, and have denied that Jesus is the Son of God (as John points out in verse 22).

In fact, the Apostle John is referring to a very specific group of cultists in the early church who were called “Gnostics” (pronounced “NAH-sticks”). These were people who believed that they had “special” spiritual knowledge that other professing Christians did not have — much the same way that spiritual abusers today claim to have “special” knowledge, “special” gifts, or insight, or callings, or integrity, or whatever.

The Gnostics were very self-assured people. They could talk a big talk. They knew how to sound so lofty and spiritual that most people who heard them frankly could not understand them half the time, and they made a practice of questioning the spirituality of Christians in regular churches. Gnostics would sneak into a Christian church, start spreading around a bunch of pseudo-spiritual teachings, and draw little followings around themselves. When people questioned them they would turn-the-tables on them and accuse them of not being “spiritual enough to understand.” This had a tendency to make other Christians feel inferior, and rob them of their assurance, which is why the Apostle John spends so much time in 1 John assuring his readers that they are the ones who are really Christians, and not the Gnostics.

Eventually these Gnostics would take their little bands and split off to form a new group. It was that situation that the Apostle John was addressing, not the situation of a believer fleeing an abusive group. In fact, were the Apostle John around today, I am convinced that he would find a lot more in common between the old Gnostics and today’s spiritual abusers than he would find between the Gnostics and people who leave abusive groups.

“They told me that if I left,
I would join up with the enemies of God.”

The leader of one group in Indianapolis, Indiana (USA) constantly warns his followers about “the web of darkness” that is lying-in-wait just outside their little semi-communal congregation.

He’s not talking about the World Wide Web (although, coincidentally, he discourages his flock from surfing the web because of supposed “spiritual pornography” that is on it, which is supposedly much worse than regular pornography). He’s talking about the informal network of ex-members who have either been kicked out or walked out on their own, and who have begun communicating in order to support each other through the terrible process of exit and re-adjustment to the real world outside their little cult.

People in the group become conditioned to warnings about “the web of darkness” waiting out there to consume them once they leave. One-by-one as members leave or are kicked out, their reputations are smeared and their characters are assassinated by leader. Most of the time, the leader doesn’t have to say hardly anything. The simple fact that he ordered someone to leave is enough to persuade the other members that the person is in some kind of sin. When someone leaves on their own, it is usually preceded by many solemn warnings about “the web of darkness.” Then, when it is discovered through the grapevine that an ex-member has been in contact with other ex-members, the remaining members say to each other and themselves, “See! It’s inevitable: once you leave the ‘spiritual protection’ of our group, you fall into ‘the web of darkness!'”

If it were not for the fact that members take this so seriously, and that it causes ex-members many sleepless nights and many bouts with hysteria, we could write it off as perhaps a very bad joke that is in very poor taste.

The goal is obvious: to scare people into staying, and to create a feeling of utter isolation for those who have left or are in the process of leaving. Many people who have leave the group think that while those other people left one day get a phone call from an ex-member, and panic is the inevitable result.

“Oh no!” they shudder to themselves, “It’s true! I’ve fallen into ‘the web of darkness!’ This means that I’m one of them!”

People who have recently left an abusive group have been known to refuse calls from ex-members who had been out for a while because of this very fear. This keeps them isolated and afraid, and more likely to return to the group in order to avoid “God’s wrath.”

In my ex-group, the leader spoke of the “network of sick people” who were outside of our group, ready and waiting for us to leave the group so we could “plug back into them.” Other leaders use various other metaphors and analogies. It is a very common theme. And a very unbiblical one.

There is nothing in the Bible that says you cannot leave one group to join another group of Bible-believing Christians, especially when you have been abused by the group you are leaving.

“They told me that if I left,
they would have nothing more to do with me.”

This can be a very painful experience. Sometimes it involves more than friendships, but also involves families. Some families have more than one generation in an abusive group, or sometimes siblings or other relatives join together.

In its most extreme form this is referred to as “shunning.” Several months before writing this, I was standing at the cash register line of a local Christian bookstore. Eventually I noticed that standing only five or six feet to my right was a woman who was still attending the abusive group I left.

A sudden wave of various emotions came over me. Should I try to get her attention? Should I greet her? Should I say anything to her?

For a moment I wasn’t sure it was her, but I stared at her long enough to assure myself that it was — and the sheer length of my stare would have been enough to make anyone on the receiving end of it feel uncomfortable.

And yet, there she stood, standing as straight as a post, her cold, stony face staring straight ahead, refusing to turn to acknowledge my presence.

She was shunning me.

She could hardly have avoided seeing me and my wife standing to her left as she approached the counter. She would have had to walk right by us just to get there.

I began to scan the rest of the store over my shoulder, and sure enough: I saw her husband not that far away, his back strategically turned toward us, looking at some of the merchandise.

Surely at least one of them must have seen us! I thought to myself.

They were shunning us. Just as our abusive ex-leader had warned us.

Of all the painful experiences of my life, this ranked somewhere near the top of my list. But by this time more than four years had past, and God’s healing in my life was working to soften this blow.

It is not simply the pain of being cut off from important relationships that is involved here. What makes it all the more traumatic is that those who shun us also blame us. They say things like, “It is you who are shunning us! We are simply acting toward you physically the way you are acting toward us spiritually.”

They often know how to say just the right thing to confuse us, to turn the tables on us, and to make us feel guilty. But don’t believe it. There’s not one shred of evidence in the Bible to justify them shunning you simply for leaving their group. They are simply misusing the Bible in a vain attempt to justify their own sinful attitude towards you.

“They told me that if I left,
I would bring evil into the lives of those around me.”

Abusive groups are very good at making their members feel like worms on the undersides of slimy rocks. They spend a lot of time and energy working on tearing down any positive or hopeful thoughts that members may have about themselves in order to foster dependence on the leader. It is their association with the group (and ultimately with the leader) that must provide them with feelings of self-worth and adequacy, or the leaders fear they will lose control.

Therefore, the leaders tell their members that leaving the group is proof that they never really “cleaned up their act,” never really “repented of their sins,” never really “saw the Kingdom,” never really “understood the Gospel,” and so on. This arouses all the conditioning and training to think of themselves as scum-buckets that they received in the group.

As a final ploy, if the confession of personal sins was emphasized in the group, the leaders are often known to bring up these past sins, throwing them in the faces of those attempting to leave.

As a result, people leave abusive groups with a pervasive feeling of being spiritually contaminated, of being some kind of “spiritual poison” to others, of being “damaged goods.” Ex-members who have received this kind of treatment are often known to become reclusive. They may visit other churches, but remain in the shadows to avoid all personal contact with others.

Sometimes the leader will even contact the church to which the ex-member has fled, and make all kinds of accusations against the ex-members character. This is what happened in my case. In a letter from my ex-leader to my new pastor in December 1992, my ex-leader made all kinds of false accusations against me, knowing that the group would back up anything he said. The letter even advised my new church to “return” me to the group for “correction!”

Fortunately I had a pastor who wasn’t born yesterday. He spoke with my ex-leader on the phone, questioned him very carefully, and finally said to him, “So far you have not mentioned anything that would justify Biblical church discipline.” My new pastor concluded (correctly) that the real issue was one of disagreement between me and my ex-leader, which my ex-leader was trying to trump up into over-inflated charges of spiritual and moral waywardness.

My new pastor told the truth. He accurately appraised the situation, and called it for what it was. This comforted me somewhat, but not entirely, because over the course of my 5-1/2-year involvement in the group, my ex-leader had portrayed almost every pastor outside of his influence as being either “corrupt,” or “spiritually immature.” What if he was right, and this was just one more pastor who didn’t know what he was talking about, and should have listened to my ex-leader? What if I really was some kind of backslidden Christian who needed to be disciplined?

Recovering from Spiritual Abuse is not simply recovering from a single issue, but recovering from a whole complex of issues that all connect to each other. It takes time to track down each one and disconnect it from your thinking, but over time you can do it. Meanwhile: when they tell you that by leaving their group you will hurt others, just remember how much they hurt you. Would Jesus treat you that way? I don’t think so.

“They told me that if I left, something terrible would happen to me.”

In one group, the leader spends a great deal of time recounting unfortunate incidents that overtook ex-members after they left his group. Some of them got into car accidents. One man broke his arm. All of these things were supposed to be “God’s wake-up calls,” warning these people to return.

In another group, an ex-member reported that she had been viciously assaulted. A short while later she received a letter from the group which said, in summary: “What did you expect? You left the spiritual protection of the group!”

This is yet another ungodly threat that spiritual abusers use to manipulate people and try to keep them under their control. Satan and his demons are out there waiting, lurking, seeking out people to devour — and if you leave this group, God is going to let he get you!

This is a gross and cruel distortion of Biblical truth. Yes, Satan is out there. And yes, he’s pretty hungry for Christians (and others) to spiritually devour — not necessarily physically. Satan’s primary goal is to turn us against God, not to make us sick, injured or dead. Anyone who says otherwise is ignorant of Scripture.

But let me ask you something: do you believe that Jesus is God in human flesh (John 1:1), and that he died for your sins and rose again (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)? If that’s the case, then you are a person who is indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit (John 14:17). God is in you — and as the Apostle John teaches us, this means that we do not need to live in fear of Satan:

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them,
because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.
[1 John 4:4, New International Version of the Bible.]

In order for Satan to do serious spiritual harm to a believer, it would take far more than that believer to leave some group. God would have to leave the believer — and that will never happen, for the Bible says:

… God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
[Hebrews 13:5b, New International Version of the Bible.]

If some professing Christian leader or anyone else tells you that if you leave their group Satan is going to get you — tell them to buzz off!

“They told me that if I left, I would go to Hell.”

This list of things that they tell us when we leave all began with the threat that we would backslide if we left our spiritually abusive group. The other threats on this list are those that frequently follow the first threat: that they would shun us, that God would “get” us, and now, finally, that we’ll probably end up in Hell.

But have you noticed how the first threat (of backsliding) is reinforced by the other threats? Ask yourself the question: if you were being shunned by your Christian friends who told you that God was about to whomp on you and send you to Hell — wouldn’t that increase your chances of backsliding?

Now, no Christian should ever desire for his or her brother or sister to backslide into sin, and yet that’s exactly the kind of system that spiritual abusers set up — one designed to encourage those who leave the group to backslide! They remove every spiritual support, and inform their victims that they will fail. It’s obvious that they are treating the person who leaves like an enemy (at least by any Biblical standard), and yet that’s not exactly how the Bible tells us we are supposed to treat our enemies.

Spiritual Abuse sets up a system in which members become totally dependent upon the leadership. Therefore it is impossible for the leadership to endorse any kind of independence on the part of the membership. So when one of his members starts displaying independence, the leader has to find some explanation — either the person is just going through a rebellious phase and will eventually come back (after a lot of scolding and threats, of course), or the person is really lost forever.

Often a leader will go through a whole list of “warnings,” similar to the ones listed above, and if those do not produce the desired response, the leader tells his flock, “Well, if we were really dealing with a Christian here, he would have listened to my warnings. Since he hasn’t listened, he must be a doomed reprobate.” (Translation: he’s going to Hell.)

Threat of eternal damnation is, of course, the ultimate weapon in the spiritual abuser’s arsenal. If that doesn’t work, what will? Probably nothing, and he knows it. But it is a weapon that is not so much designed to bring you back, as it is to keep others from leaving.

Remember: the spiritual abuser tries to frighten you because he is frightened. He lives in constant fear of exposure. He desperately wants to avoid being exposed to outside scrutiny, but he also wants to avoid being discovered as a fraud by his own flock. He dreads the day when they will discover that the emperor has no clothes. Consigning you to the flames is his way of trying to bar the doors against any further escapes from his control.

Not every abusive leader uses this weapon to the same extent. The more clever the abuser, the more he will save it for strategic occasions. For example: if someone was especially high up in the pecking order of the group, and that person leaves, the leader is more likely to pronounce the judgment of Hell.

But the simple fact is — Biblically speaking — you don’t have to put up with it.

“They didn’t tell me that if I left …”

There are some things that some abusive groups (not all of them) do that they do not warn you about. They do these things to cause further confusion in the minds of people who are leaving them.

Sometimes they assign a member to call you on the phone and ask you to come back. This is confusing because this kind of phone call often comes on the heals of repeated attacks on the character of the departing member. There have even been occasions when someone has been consigned to Hell by the leader, and afterwards they get one of these pleading phone calls.

Sometimes the ex-members will encounter their ex-leader, or other group members, and actually have a pleasant experience. The ex-leader may say something that sounds encouraging, and they may exchange hugs. The ex-leader may even admit to some wrongdoing — although it is usually a very non-specific admission.

I have received two letters of apology from my ex-leader since leaving my abusive group. After receiving the first letter, the wrote me again to tell me that when he apologized the first time, he didn’t have anything specific in mind. After receiving the second letter of apology, the leader renewed his personal attacks on me via the Internet.

This type of behavior is attributable to one basic fact: your ex-leader is afraid of you, and he fears that his techniques for making you afraid of him are not working. You are a former-insider in his group. You know what really goes on in there. You know how people are really treated. You are dangerous to him, because you can tell others.

Bottom line: that’s what all of this is really all about.

“They told me that if I left …”

In the final analysis, they tell you these things to make you afraid. They want to make you afraid of God, afraid of Satan, afraid of others (the “enemies of God;” the shunning of the group), and afraid of yourself. They want to leave you with nowhere to turn except back to them. Your ex-leader may have filled you with so many fears that for a while it seems as though everyhwere you look you find some confirmation of his warnings.

For most people, recovering from this kind of bondage is a long process. The bondage itself is a form of conditioning. You developed very strong, habitual thinking patterns in this group which in many cases cannot be cured overnight.

You need to work at relaxing (no matter what your ex-leader said). Depending on your physical condition, you should consider seeing a medical doctor. You need to give yourself time to heal.

One step in the healing process is to realize that you’re not alone, that this scam has been perpetrated on many others besides you — some of them much more intelligent than you or I. You’re not alone. The sheer fact that these tactics are so common among such a wide variety of clearly abusive groups might help you see that they can’t be of God.

Another step in the healing process is to ask yourself some simple questions: do loving Christians try to make people afraid of leaving them? Do loving Christians refuse to allow people to disagree with them over non-essential issues under the pain of eternal damnation? Do loving Christians hound people, even after they’ve left?

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