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Institutional Betrayal: One Thing Christians Must Learn from Grace Community Church
You’ve no doubt read or heard of the latest story regarding mishandling of abuse cases at John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church. The internet has been all abuzz with opinions and reactions. Why add another? Well, because that’s precisely what Thesis 96 is all about: apologetics for the abused. But I hope to raise awareness of an aspect of the story that doesn’t seem to be on everyone’s radar. Other aspects that have received able treatment are bias and prejudice by, authoritarianism and ideology by , and the culture war angle by .
My concern here centers on a statement from one of the female witnesses in Christianity Today’s report:
In the end, she said, the betrayal of her church—now her former church—hurt the most.
“I hit subzero spiritually. I was doubting if God is real. I thought, If God is real but we’re supposed to submit to church leaders when this is going on, I’d rather die,” the woman said to CT.
There is much to be discerned from this story in terms of the broader issues regarding abuse in Christian churches and organizations. However, we will miss the calling of our Savior in Matthew 25 to care for “the least of these” if we overlook the very real danger caused by institutional betrayal. While men fight over whether MacArthur and his fellow GCC elders did right or not, all the attention is on men still very much in power, overlooking this woman and others who were—and for all we know still are—in serious distress and despair. While her “I’d rather die” statement is not explicit suicidal ideation, I am all-too-familiar with these kinds of cases and it would not surprise me at all if she had true suicidal thoughts. Such is the power of betrayal by religious leaders.
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Trauma specialist Bonnie Badenoch has said that “the essence of trauma isn’t events, but aloneness within them.”1 What makes an experience traumatic isn’t just the experience itself but whether or not we have a supportive community to help our souls and minds and bodies digest what happened.
So imagine a woman in an abusive marriage who turns to her church for help, is told to submit to her abusive husband, and then is told that if she disobeys that counsel and fails to submit to church leaders she will be excommunicated. Such a scenario has all the ingredients for trauma. Not the domestic abuse (traumatic in itself), but the church’s threatened scapegoating and outcasting a suffering sheep. Why?
God has designed us with powerfully social identities, and when that identity is stripped away by men who claim to speak for God, trauma results. A wounded soul, caught between life-threatening submission and socially-ostracizing defiance, concludes: “I’d rather die.”
Judith Herman, another trauma specialist, witnesses to the power of community with respect to healing trauma:
Traumatic events destroy the sustaining bonds between individual and community. Those who have survived learn that their sense of self, of worth, of humanity, depends upon a feeling of connection to others. The solidarity of a group provides the strongest protection against terror and despair, and the strongest antidote to traumatic experience. Trauma isolates; the group re-creates a sense of belonging. Trauma shames and stigmatizes; the group bears witness and affirms. Trauma degrades the victim; the group exalts her. Trauma dehumanizes the victim; the group restores her humanity.2
The point of this quote is that community is essential to recovering from trauma. So what happens when the healing community a sufferer needs most is stripped away? It takes her right back to the dynamics of the original trauma: terror, despair, isolation, shame, stigma, degradation, dehumanization. Is it any wonder, then, that “[i]n the end, she said, the betrayal of her church—now her former church—hurt the most”?
Perhaps one has to be familiar with trauma to really understand that statement. David was certainly one familiar with this pain:
My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. (Psalm 55:4-5)
Why all of the anguish, terror, fear, trembling and horror?
For it is not an enemy who taunts me— then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me— then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. (Psalm 55:12-13)
When a trusted friend becomes an enemy, the human heart is naturally anguished, because it does not know where to turn for help. The terror and horror make even more sense in these GCC cases because they didn’t involve equals. These were shepherds and sheep, a relationship marked by greater trust and expectation of compassion and protection (cf John 10). Hence the betrayal:
“Attacks from a perceived enemy, no matter how harmful, do not have the same destructive force as attacks from within, which violate deep bonds of trust and belonging.”3
What is needed for healing from this kind of betrayal? This is not a post about professional therapy. I am a therapist and believe in that work, but my concern here is the role the church should play. What do we do for victims whose church trauma scars run deeper than the scars from domestic abuse? This is a big question, and I can only offer three small answers:
First and most importantly, take survivors’ scars seriously. Learn about the dynamics and effects of spiritual abuse. Disabuse yourself—and others if you are a church leader—of the idea that physical and sexual abuse are more damaging than emotional and psychological (ie relational/institutional) abuse. Listen to stories, talk to survivors, and read widely so that when you hear the words “I’d rather die”, you understand at a felt level why someone would say those horrifying words.
Second, this is not a problem out there. I can guarantee it is in your denomination and in your church. These stories are not only about Pastor Doe and the elders at Church ABC. That is why, as hard as they are to read, I am grateful for stories that expose how church leaders are hurting rather than helping victims of abuse. They expose the predictable patterns of authoritarian leadership for those who have eyes to see.
Third, in the words of Stephen Porges, safety is the treatment. I have written a little about this here, at a more abstract level. Learn how to be a safe person for trauma survivors. Ask your church how you can help at an institutional/congregational level. Many churches have support groups for people who are grieving a loss, have gone through a divorce, or struggle with addiction. Those groups provide safety to explore and heal that isn’t available in other contexts. When are churches going to start providing groups for survivors of spiritual abuse? (This is a general suggestion; just like not all addiction recovery programs are helpful and require proper training, churches should not rush to spiritual abuse support groups prematurely or without adequate preparation and consultation with professionals).
Quote from Judith Herman
Institutional betrayal has increasingly become the focus of awareness among survivors of many different forms of trauma. The common theme is the profound breach of trust that occurs when those in positions of authority, by their acts of omission and commission, effectively take the side of the perpetrators in their midst. In these instances, the more the integrity of the institution is compromised, the more it appears that officials will seek to cover up the problem in order to protect the institution's reputation rather than aid the victims of abuse.4
I always end these newsletters with a question, but this time I’m truly stumped and not going to force it. So, what questions do you have? What are you left wondering or wanting to consider further after reading this? Please comment below!
Badenoch, Bonnie. The Heart of Trauma: Healing the Embodied Brain in the Context of Relationships. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.
Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. Basic Books, 2022, p. 313, emphasis added.
Trauma and Recovery, p. 354.
Trauma and Recovery, p. 355.