“Keep your arms up, don’t let them down. If your Savior can do this for you, you can do it for him. Give your life to him—and don’t let your arms down!”

These were the shouted words of my Christian camp counselor, instructing me to stretch my arms straight out, emulating Jesus on the cross, for the duration of a blaring, crucifixion-themed rock song. I was 10. Exhausted, many of us campers endured the ritual to please our counselor. Intimidated, many committed or recommitted their lives to Christ that day.

Some church behavior long viewed as benign or even healthy is now understood to be malignant. When religion is forceful, it can terrorize us, impacting how we relate to others, to ourselves and to God. This makes aggressive religious rituals, such as the one from my childhood, particularly damaging. Few things are more intimate than our relationship with God.

Through new insights into psychological trauma—and the insidious ways in which some religious practices can set it off—we are now better able to recognize, protect against and heal religious abuse in our midst.

What is religious abuse?

Religious abuse involves acts of misguidance or mistreatment, administered under the guise of a higher power and resulting in psychological trauma. One need not have survived a cult experience to know religious abuse: Due to the uniqueness of each nervous system, a wide variety of situations may be overwhelming to one person or another. Such situations break down our usual coping skills, cementing our trauma.

Because trauma is so individual and religious experience can be so deep, identifying this abuse is a delicate process requiring great tact. A cluster of church behaviors, however, have been observed by mental health professionals to be harmful for members:

Intolerance for questioning church doctrine or leaders.

  • Coercion.
  • Domination.
  • Threats.
  • Exploitation.
  • Lack of transparency.
  • Suppression of emotion.
  • Suppression of critical thinking.
  • Pressurized rituals.
  • Oppression of those belonging to nondominant groups or having nondominant identities.

Just as each person receives and interprets their trauma distinctly, each processes and copes with it distinctly. Ranging from acute to chronic, common symptoms of religious abuse may include shame, depression, anxiety, addiction, physical ailments and a mistrust of others—specifically those in authority and those belonging to a religion.

We can work to neutralize abuse before it occurs.

How can we protect against abuse?

The principal way to neutralize abusive church behavior is to create an independent safeguarding process. This may be done with assistance from synods, law enforcement and outside experts. The option to report abuse and instructions for how to do so must be communicated to congregation members of all ages. This reporting process must have a spirit of transparency.

But we can work to neutralize abuse before it occurs. Vital to this endeavor is allowing and celebrating an atmosphere of freedom within our congregations. Members should be given agency: to be allowed to think for themselves, participate in rituals as they choose and maintain authority over their own bodies. Congregational and ministry leaders are there to guide, not push. Democratic leadership models provide fewer opportunities for coercive control and more opportunities for member empowerment, spiritual reflection and group cohesion.

Churches can hold firm to Christ-based values and beliefs while also avoiding fear-based, doctrinal rigidity. By massaging diversity of opinion, providing space to wrestle with complex theological questions and allowing individuals their own theological revelations, religious leaders can provide a safe route to more fully build one’s faith and to enter more directly into authentic relationships with God.

How can we help others to heal?

We can open our church doors to survivors of religious abuse and participate in their healing by: 

  • Listening to and validating survivors’ perspectives. 
  • Showing compassion for survivors’ uncomfortable emotions. 
  • Avoiding language that may trigger traumatic memories. 
  • Cultivating a warm environment with strong boundaries where survivors can have new and different experiences with God and God’s church.
  • Assisting survivors and their families in finding competent mental health services if they desire.

Church doors opened for me later in life, offering new and different experiences of what is real, what is mysterious and what is eternal. Inside these doors, I have experienced communities who understand that God is secure enough to handle our questions, our emotions and even our silliness. God is secure enough for all of it. 

My arms are still outstretched, in a way, but reformed a bit. My shoulders are more relaxed, my breathing more fluid. There is no shouting around me now. My palms are open, ready to receive and, perhaps, to embrace.

Adam Arnold
Adam Arnold, MA, LMFT, LADC, is a mental health professional in St. Paul, Minn. He is a member of Pilgrim Lutheran Church and a member of the International Cultic Studies Association.

Read more about: