I first "met" Shari on a message board for spiritual abuse victims. Searching for understanding and truth about my own toxic church experiences, I was blessed by Shari's postings concerning her own experience.
When I heard she was sharing her testimony with a published book I was elated. Her kind yet truth-filled account will be a blessing to those on the journey out of spiritual abuse.
Without further ado, here is The Cult Next Door blogspot interview with Shari:
You picked an awesome title! Last time we chatted back and forth, you were still searching for the right one- "Breaking the Chains" is so apt!
You describe the imprisonment of legalism and false religion your church forced on you in the preface:
"My husband has told me he cannot imagine anyone, let alone a Christian, believing the things I was taught. Although it is a foreign concept to him and others I have talked to, it was my life for forty-three years...Despite my desire to live for God all those years, I was a prisoner of my chains. I needed deliverance as much as any sinner in the gutter. I knew nothing of the freedom Christ had died to provide for me. ."
What enlightened you that you were living in a spiritual prison?
Finding the Gospel and the cross, my freedom in Christ, grace -- these aspects of Christianity served as my enlightenment. It was a long process, not one event. Over the course of my life in the church, I saw many inconsistencies. We had all the same problems and all the same sin as any other group. The only difference seemed to be in behavior you could fake. What I mean is that the things that set us "apart" from other Christians were outward. You can appear holy in a setting like that and have no real change happening in your heart. Many people led double lives. Yet we professed a different standard of holiness and a "higher calling." It just didn't add up for me. It seemed like we only talked about perfection; I didn't see anybody actually being perfected. I always had questions in my heart and mind. I remember wondering how we could possibly be who we thought we were. At the same time, I was reluctant to go too far in my questioning.
I had been told all my life that I couldn't find God or be in God's will outside "the Body." I was also told I could never go anywhere and find truer friends or people who loved me like those people. I bought into all of that. However, prior to leaving, I would have told you I wasn't a prisoner and I wasn't trapped there. I could leave any time I wanted to. I finally did decide to leave because I wasn't growing spiritually in that environment. Yet I was experiencing God and the potential to grow spiritually much more in other settings, which was not something I would have ever expected. That gave me the courage to search for God outside those walls and I felt like He was nudging me to leave. I couldn’t be sure I was doing the right thing and I had a lot of conditioning to overcome. I feared displeasing God, but I prayed and asked Him many times to simply show me if I had been wrong to leave and I would go back.
Only after I did leave did I become aware of the level to which I had been controlled and conditioned by fear. I would occasionally have anxiety about whether or not God was mad at me for leaving "the Body," even though He so abundantly blessed my life in every way after I left. I would wonder "what if they're right?" and "what if they are the true church?" and "what if I've left the true church and now I'm deceived?" The perfection teaching haunted me most, and I had trouble believing that I would really go to heaven because of what Jesus did rather than by earning eternal life (through my own good works/perfection/righteousness). I wanted to believe the Gospel, but it seemed too good to be true. I had been told that Christians who believed their salvation was accomplished through the cross were just looking for an "easy way." I wondered if I was just taking the "easy way." I didn’t consciously want to do that. There was a lot of struggle involved. Through that struggle, I became more and more aware of my chains. I recognized the spiritual prison I had been in as a result of experiencing freedom. The more I embraced the truth, the more I realized the bondage from which I had been set free. My spiritual theme song is "Remember Your Chains" by Steven Curtis Chapman; "Remember the prison that once held you before the love of God broke through."
"I did not know what it meant to be in Christ. I only knew what it meant to be in church."
Victims of spiritual abuse readily understand this statement. Consumed with pleasing church leaders, living by an ever-increasing list of their rules, having little or no control over your own life decisions- this is life lived under the dictatorship of a human, not under the grace of God.
Looking back over your experiences in this church, how did the leadership keep you "in line" so that you followed their rules and expectations?
I wanted to be loved and accepted. I wanted to please. I wanted to be approved of. I did not want to be viewed as someone who was rebellious, unwilling to submit to authority, in a bad spirit. I didn't want to be viewed as worldly or backslidden. It had so much to do with peer acceptance and fitting in. You were viewed differently (judged) if you were openly non-compliant - even in small things. At the same time, plenty of people did not follow the "rules" if they were out of town or knew they would not be running into other church people. I recognized this lack of spiritual integrity long before leaving.
Before I left, I began to realize how self-focused my motivation was even for doing right. It wasn't about God. I didn't really believe that some of our rules were important to God. I complied in order to have the love, acceptance and approval of my social group, which made it about me and the response I wanted (or wanted to avoid) from other people. God showed me the self-absorption of people pleasing. Seeing the wrong priorities that were cultivated in me helped me to leave. It wasn't so much that I was afraid of my pastor (what he could do to me). However, I feared his disapproval and the disapproval of others. I did not want to disappoint him or other people in my church. Many cast people who went against the pastor in a negative light.
However, I cannot honestly say I ever followed every rule.
You came from a church that shares many similarities to my former church.
In my church, the pastor always guaranteed death and destruction to anyone who dared speak against her or leave the congregation. She preached often that the Judgment Day of God was nigh and anyone not listening to her, The Voice of God From The Pulpit, as she titled herself, would be dammed to destruction.
Did your church leaders utilize scare tactics such as these to keep members frightened and unwilling to leave or attend other churches?
What I remember is the fear of joining myself to the beast and being deceived. I don't remember statements about being damned (other than the Scripture about believing a lie and being damned). I do remember many warnings about being outside the Body, outside the covering, rejecting the truth I had been so privileged to receive. I remember one prominent minister saying publicly that it would be better for someone to be lost in the world than lost in the Baptist Church. So I got the very strong message that the only thing MORE displeasing to God than turning my back on HIM would be turning my back on THE CHURCH and that particular group of people.
When our pastor told us that he believed God had told him to relocate to the Nashville area, he said that we were all supposed to remain with him (move across the country). That was what GOD wanted. Someone asked him what he would think if we prayed and didn't feel like God was telling US to move. His response was that he would fear for our soul (if we thought God told us that). I remember rejecting that idea. I did not believe that my very soul depended upon being in one specific man's congregation. However, my whole life revolved around the church and the people in the church. The thought of remaining in California without my family and friends was just unfathomable to me. This gives a man, or leader, a lot of control over your life and your choices.
I think these leaders have a lot of control based on two things: 1) the teaching that they alone have the truth – truth that the rest of Christianity is lacking – holds people who are afraid that might be true. I was afraid it was true. "If I left, where would I go? Nobody else has the truth. Perhaps in leaving I would be displeasing God and not treasuring 'these precious truths' He has privileged me to know." The other component is the way we built our whole lives into the church. Everyone, for the most part, married within the group. So everyone, over time, winds up related in some way to others in the church. Most of their family is in the group. Many do business primarily within the group. Social relationships are formed and cultivated primarily within the group. If people do think about leaving, they have to uproot their entire life, as they know it, and start over. To say a person has to be willing to leave their comfort zone is about the most monumental understatement that could be made. Not to mention, if one considers the possibility of this group not having the truth as they had believed, they must then confront the possibility that they have based their whole lives on a lie. Many people simply cannot do that - or are unwilling even to consider it.
I remember telling God that I didn't care if everything I had ever believed was a lie and I had to start over from scratch. I just wanted the truth. If I lost all my friends and had to start over, I knew He would give me new friends. It wasn't easy. I can't begin to tell you how many times I cried, missing certain close friends from my earlier life. To this day, it hurts to know how some now view me. They cannot see my heart. To them, I have become a bitter, angry, venomous person. They don't understand why I could not remain silent and go my way, leaving them alone. Some have called me a betrayer of lifelong friends. That will never be an easy thing for me to accept and come to terms with. I still wrestle with it. I still have a desire for those friends to know my heart. Nevertheless, part of breaking my chains is finding an acceptance of what God has ordained for my life. I believe He has asked me to give up those friendships. As much as it hurts to let go, I have had to let go.
Author Ken Blue in his book, Healing Spiritual Abuse, recounts the tragic story of a woman named Natasha. Her pastor and church leaders told the congregation that salvation could only be obtained by fulfilling extreme rules and standards. Believing herself rejected by God for failing to keep these rules, Natasha laid down on a track to be crushed by the passing train.
Jeff Vonvendern, author of the Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse defines this type of pressure as abuse. He says that spiritual abuse happens
“…when spirituality is used to make others live up to a ‘spiritual standard’…without regard to an individual’s actual well being…the person…is sent the message that [their] spirituality [is] defective.
Did you observe members of your former church feeling despair because they could not live up to the standard of perfection?
This is an interesting point and I’m glad you asked this question. It brings back something very specific. Charlie Daniels wrote my foreword and he stated that I had been persecuted. I felt a bit of discomfort with that word because so many people use it lightly. I asked my editor his opinion. I explained that although I have endured criticism, harsh judgments and even some rejection, I didn’t feel “persecuted.” Anything I have suffered is so miniscule in comparison to what Jesus suffered for my redemption. It doesn’t seem to reach the level of what I would define as persecution. My editor disagreed. He responded that, most importantly, those are Charlie’s words, not mine. I do not have to be completely comfortable with his word choice because it is his opinion he’s giving in the foreword. However, my editor also pointed out that persecution takes many forms. I can’t find the email in order to quote him, but I thought what he said was profound. He took the time to explain to me that I was under persecution before I ever left CGT because of the doctrine of perfection. He said that many forms of persecution would at least drive you to the cross and to the Savior. However, the doctrine of perfection did not. It caused me to persecute myself because I knew I could not be perfect. It robbed me of my hope in Christ.
I did know others would felt despair that they could never be good enough. Several who have also left have shared with me the hopelessness they felt under that teaching. But many others have shared with me that they simply did not think about perfection at all. I find that hard to understand or relate to because I remember thinking about it and feeling the weight of my inadequacy at a very young age. My son has told me recently, as an adult, that he remembers thinking about killing himself (while in elementary school) because he didn’t think he could ever be perfect. I had no idea he was thinking so deeply about perfection at that young age. However, I understood the heaviness he felt because I remember feeling it and asking God why I had to be born in “the true church” and know “the truth” that I wasn’t going to heaven. I was only in fifth or sixth grade when I was feeling the weightiness of this “truth.”
The second half of Shari's interview is continued in the next post.