Browsing Tag

spiritual abuse


on taking a break and being angry


I wanted to write my last post today, finally discussing Christian fundamentalism in modern times, and how the orthodox belief of inerrancy has been largely abused by fundamentalism, or at the very least harmfully misunderstood.

That’s going to have to wait, because of where I’m at today. I already wasn’t feeling well (rapid changes in weather always give me migraines, and we have lots of nasty weather moving in for the next week), and I encountered an issue that I think needs my attention today, but I wanted to let you know what was going on, because I feel that this is an important issue that needs a lot of light.

No Longer Quivering, which hosts the Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network, occasionally runs some of my posts there, when the content fits into the material they cover. I very much appreciate the work that NLQ and the SASBN does, and that my story might be able to help others.

Last week, she ran my story on how the purity culture taught me that my rape was my own fault, that my rape was something that I needed to repent of. The discussion that followed was productive, I think, for the participants. We commiserated and shared our stories of the “object lessons” we heard growing up.

And then David Cuff entered the discussion. David Cuff is a Calvary Chapel pastor– the same circle of churches that Alex Grenier and others blog about at Calvary Chapel Abuse. Another Calvary Chapel church pastor recent sued Mr. Grenier for “defamation” for talking about the rampant abuse present at Calvary Chapel Visalia.  These churches were recently brought to national attention with the #whowouldJesussue awareness campaign.

That’s probably enough context. Here’s his original comment:

Thank you for the candid thoughts and illustrations regarding sexual purity and self-worth. I have been married for almost 29 years and have learned overtime the importance of love, oneness, and mutual respect. I believe we live in a fallen world that often is contrary to the three qualities I have mentioned. The Bible gives us many core principles for marriage and also leaves much to exploration and personal experience.

I am sorry for those whose personal experience has led them to doubt and challenge the Biblical principles for marriage. I am also sorry for those who have used vivid illustrations to warn of loosing your self-worth if those principles are violated. But…Jesus is our redeemer and the Bible is a message of redemption. While many of us have fallen from the Biblical standard for sexuality, if we repent and turn back to His guidance we can walk in the Light of His love for ourselves and our spouse.
Let me also say that if we look to Christ for our redemption and self-worth then who we are does not fade or fizzle through relationship or feelings…and will keep us looking for those who respect the dignity and Christ-worth that are ours because of what Jesus did for us at the Cross.

Thanks for allowing my two cents….
David Cuff

*emphasis added

A lot of people reacted to the statements I bolded, and I feel for good reason. I believed that Mr. Cuff was being careless and inattentive, which is the case I made in my response:

I think you are intending to be supportive, but I’m actually really confused as to what you’re trying to say.

If you’re truly speaking about what I’ve written here, I’m really puzzled as to what you mean by “doubting and challenging the biblical principles for marriage.” I don’t think any of what I wrote has anything to do with marriage– and I don’t think I’ve presented a “challenge” to biblical marriage whatsoever. Your phrasing causes me to wonder why you’re automatically connecting “rape” and “marriage.” Assuming these two are connected is, frankly, incredibly disturbing to me.

You also talk about the abuse of the object lessons I was taught as a young woman as being representative of the “biblical principles,” and I also find that troubling. The object lessons have nothing to do with “biblical principles.” They are about threats. They are about telling a woman that she is property. And unless you’re reverting back to OT Law when the only thing that mattered about a rape was how much she was financially worth to her father, this is… wrong.

Granted, you may be approaching this from the concept that “virginity” is a biblical principle, which is… debatable, at best. The only time the Bible actually refers to consensual pre-marital sex (Ex. 22:16-17) the only thing that happens is either a) they get married, or b) the dude pays the virgin bride-price. End of story. No stoning. No moral judgment. And one of the few times in the NT that anyone talks about sex the terms “fornication” is used… which is pretty much a catch-all, and in some contexts could mean nothing more than prostitution.

Basically, please don’t assume that the Bible is “super clear” about this issue, when it’s… just not.

And, considering the context of my article, where I was talking about sexual abuse, violence, and rape, the line where you talk about “falling” from biblical standards, and a “need to repent,” uhm…. wow. This is incredibly damaging language. I didn’t “fall.” I don’t need to “repent.” I was RAPED. Repeatedly. I was sexually abused nearly every day. This is not “falling.” And maybe you’re not speaking about my article, in which case, I wonder why you bothered commenting on this article at all.

Granted, I was a little bit peeved and “hetted up,” but I still feel that my response was reasonable, especially considering the content of the article, where I was speaking about how language and words like his were used to hurt me and almost drove me to suicide.

After he didn’t respond or return to clarify, I checked out his blog, where his most recent article (as of April 14) was a “rant against cyber-bullying.” So, I read it, and felt that this must be a man who respects those who have been hurt– even hurt be people who have been hurt like words like his, or even written by him. I left a comment, which he has chosen not to approve, where I asked him for an apology, that his comment had not been respectful to my writing, and that his carelessness in his words were hurtful. I asked him to come back and clarify his original point in order to clear up what he meant– at the time, I assumed that the connection between “rape” and “needing to repent” had merely been accidental on his part.


Here’s what he wrote:

Wow….I have never offended so many people with what I thought was a short comment on Biblical Redemption. So, while not trying to justify myself or defend my new “bully” status I will try to address what I see as a misunderstanding.

First I never intended to offend any of you…especially Samantha the author. I simply wanted to point out a persons self-worth is not dependent upon prior abuse by others or their own failure (I did not suggest Samantha was a failure or had failed). I simply was emphasizing (I thought by way of encouragement) that The Bible Is A Book about redemption. And our lives can be redeemed from any abuse (ours upon others or others upon us).

I also wanted to reiterate what I believe is the standard of Biblical Sexuality (sexual purity with one man and one woman) doesn’t change from opinion and experience or even abuse. We live in a fallen world and there is much pain and abuse going on but Mutual respect, oneness and love are God’s design and I believe the N.T. gives plenty of guidance for Marriage relationships. I have personally abused and have been abused (yes even happens to men sometimes) prior to being redeemed by Jesus through my own repentance and trust in His finished work on the Cross for my sins.

If after ready my response you desire to send more negative comments my way…chill please! Sometimes you can disagree agreeably…

And here’s where I get angry.

Horribly, furiously, violently angry. Righteously angry.

Because he employed a tactic I’ve seen so many countless times from every single abusive pastor I’ve ever encountered.

The first paragraph of his response is complete and utter dismissal. He’s so shocked that we pointed out a potential wording of his that could hurt people. He just does not understand how his “short comment,” which was just so supportive, could have been perceived as hurtful.

This is called spiritual abuse.

Because he’s a pastor, talking about “biblical” concept, and he has the truth, which “doesn’t change from opinion and experience or even abuse.” My hurt, how his words hurt me, doesn’t matter at all. Because he’s right, and he has the Bible, and all he’s doing is telling me that I can be “redeemed.”

And then he pulls what he probably sees as a trump card: he’s been there, right there with me. He’s been abused– but guess what helped him overcome his abuse?


The connection I very naively assumed was an “accident’? Not an accident at all.

He really does think I need to repent and trust Jesus to forgive me for my rape.


in which I've poured my soul out

pouring water

This past week has been exhausting. I’ve been following the #churchsurvivors and #churchabuse hashtags on twitter, I’ve been reading all of the posts linked up as part of Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week  . . . and . . . it’s taken a lot out of me. A lot. I’m exhausted. We’ve all been reminding each other of the importance of self-care right now, and that is oh so very true.

I have another post ready to go up tomorrow for the last day of Spiritual Abuse Awareness week, and I’m proud of it, and I think it ends this week on a good, hopeful note.

But I am drained. Going back to that place inside of my head, trying to understand myself as I was ten years ago– it’s frightening. And soul-crushing. I get angry– not an anyone in specific, just more of the world at large. I understand why it happened– and I don’t, all at the same time. So I get confused, and then I don’t want to think about it anymore. But, I take a deep breath and plunge back in anyway– because it’s important that the world sees this– that the world understands what can happen when good men stay silent and do nothing.

What we’ve all done this week is important. We needed to tell our stories– if simply just to get them off of our communal chests.

But the real first step is to take the blinders off, and to start honestly looking at our own lives. Where have I been that’s been a spiritually abusive environment?  What have I done that’s fostered spiritual abuse in my church, or in my family? What things have I said and done that has done damage to someone’s soul? How have I willingly participated in a culture that encourages abuse? When have I spoken up in defense of it?

Because I have done all of these things. I continue to do these things, completely unconsciously. I belittle, I dismiss. I ignore. So very often, I don’t want to make myself uncomfortable in order to help someone else. I could stand up and offer a healing balm to someone who I know needs it… and I don’t. Because I’m hurting, because I’m tired… there’s always a reason.

We also need to take a good, long, hard look at our churches, at the leadership we’ve put in power. We might be able to look at our pastors and say, “oh, he’s such a godly man,” and that might be very true. Or it might be a terrible lie, and our reticence to see the truth might blind us from the untold damage he’s doing. It might be our elder boards, or our deacons, or our Sunday school teachers. It might be someone who has no “actual” leadership position, but for some reason always bullies everyone else– and we let it go, we let it slide, because… why? Because being a bully isn’t a “real” problem?

It’s easy to look at our churches and think “my church is fine, none of that happens here,” and the thing is, statistically speaking, that’s probably a lie. Walk into a typical Sunday school class of 20 children, and at least two, maybe three, of them have been sexually abused. At least one of those has been sexually abused by their parent. Look around at the married couples in your church. Statistically speaking, roughly a third of those marriages is going to end– and a few of those women are being verbally or physically abused by their husbands, and your pastor might have told one of those women that they need to “love their husband through it.” Or, they might not even realize they are being abused, because they bought the lie that a “strong man” is just naturally expected to dominate his wife.

Maybe none of that does happen at your church, or in your community, or in your family. And maybe it does. We shouldn’t be going around leaping at shadows and inventing evils where there aren’t any, but we should be conscientiously developing awareness. We should be encouraging an atmosphere of accountability in our homes and churches– for everyone. We can’t afford to be blind.



learning to live with not knowing

no handles

The summer after my freshman year at a conservative Christian college was tumultuous, for a variety of reasons. My year away from the fundamentalist church-cult, while still not spent in a healthy spiritual environment, had given me a spark of identity. My life was still dominated by the teachings I had grown up with, but I started trying to spread my fledgling wings.

My relationship with my parents became strained as I began openly rebelling– I started back-talking my mother, something that had never been tolerated at any level. My innate know-it-all tendencies were even more pronounced; I started making ridiculous pronouncements and unsupportable sweeping statements just to voice a disagreement. We all had difficulty adjusting to my insistence that I was becoming an adult– looking back, the difficulty of this transition was exacerbated by the teachings about parent-child relationships that exist in fundamentalist churches. Children, in these churches, are not really considered independent people– they are very much described as the property of their parents: “an inheritance of the lord,” as “arrows in the hand.” We exist to be trained “in the way we should go,” to become the “Joshua generation.”

During this particular summer, my mother took my sister and I to visit her best friend in Texas. After almost eleven years at our church-cult, my family had been the target of a variety of attacks– my mother and me especially. The leader needed my father, and knew that my father had a strong desire to follow Christ. He took advantage of that, and he used my father’s generosity and loyalty to his own ends. This led to him focusing on silencing and disenfranchising me and my mother. Anytime my father had to work through church, the leader would bombard my mother with vicious attacks. Every time this happened, my father would confront him, and he would deny it– or promise not to let it happen again, and it would get better… for a little while.

So we went to Texas, in order for my mother to spend some time away while my father gave the leader yet another ultimatum. The week we spent in Texas was freeing for my mom– she spent a lot of time talking through things with her friend; after eleven years, this was really the first time that I understood what had been happening in our church– how deep the abuse went outside of what I had experienced. The silence of other victims was that profound. My father spoke with the leader while we were gone, extracted yet another promise, and we came back in time for church.

Nothing had changed. The second my father was gone, the leader preached his most vicious sermon, screaming it from the top of his lungs at times. When my father got home, my mother pulled him into their bedroom. I remember sitting on the sofa with my younger sister, listening to my mother plead with my father to leave the cult.

We left– and when we did, the leader excommunicated us. He forbade me from speaking to his daughter ever again, and he blamed my mother for “turning my father away from God.” When we had begun attending the church-cult, there was no sign that the leader was a narcissistic sociopath. He seduced my parents with the siren call of a life dedicated to holiness and righteousness- of dedicating themselves to being good parents– servants of the Lord. He convinced my mother she was insane. He persuaded my father that God needed him to be a part of the church-cult. The fact that we stayed as long as we did was not my parents’ fault. They were victims just as much as I was– even more so, in some ways. I don’t blame my parents for “keeping me” in the cult. I didn’t have a choice– and neither did they, not really.

I’ve forgiven them, completely. But I have to live with the consequences of what happened to all of us.

We began attending another church, and my mother began stretching boundaries and enjoying freedom and liberty. For my parents, who had entered the cult as adults, recovery was not easy– but it was straightforward. Once we were out, it was possible for them to return to the core of their faith. They had other churches, a lifetime of experiences for comparison.

I didn’t.

So, when my mom cut her hair and started wearing pants, my sister started watching Harry Potter, and my father ordered cable television, superficial as these things are… my world fell apart.

I had grown up believing in the principles espoused by fundamentalists. My parents, in their earnest desire to raise godly children, had unwittingly encouraged a lot of the internalization of various doctrines– like the inferiority of women, or that men are not responsible for their sin toward women. That, as a woman, I had no choice about the course of my life. That God did not love me, and was not interested in my desires or feelings.

For a year after this, I wanted absolutely nothing at all to do with God. I instinctively felt that if you took away the fundamentalist cult, all you would be left with is an empty structure without any truth left in it. I didn’t want to know a god who was only waiting up in heaven to strike me down. Reading the Bible became nearly impossible– because, to a fundamentalist, there is only one correct interpretation of a verse or passage– and after eleven years, nearly every passage in the Bible had a fundamentalist interpretation attached to it. I didn’t want to go to church anymore– any church I tried, I spent every single second of the service on guard, waiting for some massive boot to drop on my head and crush me.

There were two ideas that brought me back, slowly, inexorably. The first was a compelling argument– at least, for me. I didn’t know who God was, but I was compelled to believe that he existed. Intellectually, I had to be honest– just because I believed he existed didn’t at all define his nature. Maybe the deist system was right, maybe he existed as Allah, or maybe he could simply be the Uncaused Cause.

The second idea was the historically substantiated existence of Christ and his Resurrection. From the perspective of a historical scholar, we have more raw material– and not just the Bible– about the life of Jesus than we do about Alexander the Great. For me, this was an anchor. I don’t know about a lot of things. There are a of lot things I still struggle with, sometimes violently. But for me, I can accept that God exists, and Jesus exists. I can live my life with the motto “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, in all things, charity.” I don’t have to have every single last question hammered out in order to believe.

Today, I’m happy. I married a man who finds the fundamentalist religion I’m familiar with completely foreign. He grew up free to question– encouraged to doubt. I grew up with a false sense of certainty, and once it was removed everything else in my life was shaken.

Doubt, I’m learning, is the only healthy place for me to exist. I can have confidence, but certainty, as a fundamentalist would define it, is a dangerous place. I go to a church that is open to an exchange of ideas, and comfortable with tension. They focus, not on being “right,” but on helping the physical needs of our community. There’s no authoritarian leadership, no member roll– everyone pitches in, everyone helps. I’m comfortable here, where there’s no Church Constitution, where there’s no contracts or covenants. We try to live our life based on the Greatest Commandment– to love God, and to love our neighbor as our self.

And I’m learning to not just be “ok” with not knowing all of the answers– I can embrace not knowing. I want to live in a perpetual state of uncertainty, because as long as I’m searching for an answer, I think I’m closer to the truth.



spiritual abuse and how it shaped my identity

broken piano

My fundamentalist church-cult was incredibly small. I remember at one point counting around seventy people and thinking that it was a huge number. But, on average, we usually had around thirty or forty people regularly. At one point after my family finally got out, I sat down and made a list of all of the families the church-cult had hemorrhaged over the years we attended. I estimated over two hundred and fifty people– the church-cult had gained and lost seven church bodies in ten years.

I know many of their stories, now—have told a few of them, here. For one man, it was because the leader of the cult called his unbelieving wife a whore the single time she visited—in her nursing scrubs. She had come straight from work, and the “pastor” had called her a whore, to her face, because she was wearing pants. She died in a car accident a few weeks later.

When one family joined the church-cult, the leader invited himself for dinner, and when he arrived, sat at the head of the table—and told the husband and father that he’d sat in that chair for a reason—it was to show that he was the authority now.

One Sunday evening, the leader walked up to a woman who was grieving the loss of her mother to cancer, and screamed in her face during his sermon that she was giving Satan a way into his church by allowing demons to oppress her through her depression.

After a new couple joined the church, he told the newlywed husband that he had made a grave mistake by marrying a Chinese woman, but how it was now the husband’s responsibility to make sure his wife knew who was the head of the home.

I tell you these snatches to communicate the breadth of the spiritual abuse that happened. It was small, it was not well-connected. It was one church, one man, one insignificantly tiny congregation. Most of the people who came didn’t stay very long—but some of us did. My family was one of those who stayed, for reasons far to complicated to explain now, and because of that, I grew up in this environment—where a spiritually abusive pastor was the only kind I knew.

The spiritual abuse that was focused on me was integrally connected to my identity. The only significant part of my identity in this patriarchal and Quiverful-laden environment was that I was a woman.

However, I had something special: I was a talented pianist. I’d loved music since I was a baby, had started learning to play the piano when I was a toddler and by the time my family reached the influence of this abusive leader when I was ten, I was fairly accomplished. About a year after we joined, I was capable of becoming the church’s pianist. I also began accompanying the Ladies Chorus, who sang every other week. I absolutely loved it. I loved practicing for offertories. I loved coming up with arrangements of hymns for the Chorus. I loved improvising during the “invitation,” coming up with a new way to play every verse of “Just As I Am”—no matter how many verses we sang.

Slowly, so slowly no one in my family noticed what was happening, the church-cult and its leader took over our lives. My mother has an angelic voice, so she was frequently called upon to sing “specials.” I would play for her, and I appreciated all the attention we got and the praise the leader heaped on us. At one point when I was about twelve or thirteen, though, the leader started calling our house late Saturday night and telling my mother that he “wanted” her to sing in the morning. Sometimes these calls came so late at night that mom had to drag me out of bed so we could practice. These late-night practice sessions, at first, started off fairly well. I was excited—I felt honored that the leader had felt “moved by the Spirit” for us to perform in the morning. Over time, though, resentment grew. I didn’t want to stay up until two or three in the morning to perfect a brand-new arrangement. Me and my mother started fighting, and at one point I told her to tell the leader of the cult no—I was not putting on a “special” in the morning with no notice. If he wanted us to sing, he should have called earlier.

She agreed—but the next morning, the leader came to me and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was never to refuse him again—because I wasn’t really refusing him, I was refusing God. It terrified me, and made it absolutely clear that telling the leader “no” was a sin. The only thing I could offer God, as a woman, was my talent as a pianist– to deliberately withhold that ability, regardless of my feelings, was the rankest sin.

Every year our church hosted a “revival.” Over the years it became incredibly obvious to me that the leader of our church-cult told the guest evangelist of “problem members” and their “sin”—and the evangelist would target them. Supposedly, being an “outsider,” we were supposed to receive his rants as “divine revelation.” One evangelist came more than any other, and his son, Jason*, a talented musician, usually came with him.

When I was fifteen, the Ladies Chorus sang during one of these revivals, and after the service was over a few of the teenagers were talking around the piano. Jason sat down at the piano, and began sarcastically mimicking my arrangement for the song; he openly mocked its simplicity, which he dismissed as “easy” and “child’s play.” My fifteen-year-old ego was devastated, so the very next night when Jason walked me to an unlit area behind the church, I went with him willingly, happy he was being nice to me. He assaulted me, ignoring my weak attempts to stop him. When I tried to tell the pastor’s wife and daughter about what had happened, they dismissed me, telling me to “quit being so jealous because he was a better pianist than me.” I needed to surrender my pride and accept that men are just naturally more gifted, and I shouldn’t object to that.

As I got older, playing for the congregational singing became excruciatingly painful. Part of it was the church’s spinet piano—it wasn’t capable of producing enough sound, so I had to practically beat on it for it to make enough noise. My grandfather knew how much I loved playing, so he donated enough money for the church-cult to buy a new piano. The leader took me along to the music store for my opinion—which he proceeded to completely ignore. He decided to purchase a “student” piano—a piano that I was incapable of playing with my wrists and arms in the condition they were. After a few weeks of trying to play but then having to wrap my arms in ice packs to dull the pain, my mother took me to the doctor. I had tendonitis, and if I continued playing the piano I might need to have surgery.

My father told the leader that I wouldn’t be able to play for church anymore. It was a phone conversation, and I remember sitting at the kitchen table, listening to my father argue with the leader, with me listening and sobbing. Losing the ability to play for church was devastating, and for years after this I often attributed my feelings to pride. I believed that I was just upset about losing the spotlight, about not being able to show off anymore. Now, after healing some from these wounds, I can see what was really happening. My existence had been reduced down to whether or not I could play the piano. Everything about who I was in that environment was tied to my talent. The only thing I could possibly bring to God was my music. The only way I could serve him in church was through the piano. The only way I had any value as a human being was tied to this ability– because, as a woman, I had nothing else. A woman is not allowed to speak, for it is a shame unto her. A woman is not allowed to question. A woman is not capable of leadership. A woman cannot hold responsibilities, because she is innately untrustworthy. The only thing I had access to in this system was music. When I lost that, I lost everything.

After I stopped playing for church, I went into physical therapy for almost a year. It was a painful road back to health– although no one ever fully recovers from tendonitis. It plagues me every day– wrist braces, ice packs, and plenty of Advil are always within easy reach. My mother also found a new piano teacher that could work within my limits and focus on healing my body so I could keep playing. Both of these allowed me to practice, but I literally had to start from scratch. I was playing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” for months in order to re-learn my technique.

About six months into this process, the leader’s wife approached me in the parking lot. She took both of my hands in hers and looked me directly in the eyes. “Samantha, I’m frightened for you,” she began. “Christina* says that you’re still talking piano lessons.” I nodded my head solemnly. “Why aren’t you playing for church, then?” I tried to explain, haltingly, trying to tell her how much pain it caused, but she interrupted me. “No, no– you don’t understand. If you keep on playing the piano, but you don’t use your talent to glorify God, he will take it away from you. If you think that God will let your rebellion go unpunished . . . God will not be mocked, and you can’t serve God and mammon. You know that. You need to repent and come back to God– you need to be willing to play for Him, even if it causes you pain.” Again, I tried to explain that I was trying to preserve my talent, to make sure I could physically be able to play in the future. She just put her hand on my head and told me to remember what she had said when one day I woke up and God had taken it all away.

The terror crept in. I was sinning. I was being selfish. How dare I to presume to know more than God. I wasn’t trusting him to heal my wrists– I was depending on my own might, my own power. The arrogance. But my parents wisely forbade me from trying to play the piano in church again.

A few months later, my uncle died. My parents and grandfather left to take care of the funeral and the estate, leaving me and my sister behind in the care of one of the leader’s daughters. The Sunday morning while they were gone, the leader gave a message on the Parable of the Talents. Halfway into the sermon, he launched into one of his “illustrations.” I will never forget his words.

“There is a young lady, right here, sitting in this church service. She has a prodigious talent for music, and has used that talent here, in this church, to bring glory to God, as is her duty. But now– oh, now, she is being stubborn. She faced one solitary, tiny, easy little trial, and at the first sign of hardship, she gave up. She turned her back on God– and now she is open rebellion before Him. She has decided to put herself first. She’s decided that she is so much more important than any of us. Oh, she’s better than us. She wants to make sure she can become some famous musician and leave anything truly important behind her. She has forsaken the worship of a Holy and Righteous God, and she better look out, because he’s going to come for her. One day, she’s going to wake up and God will have reduced her to nothing. She thinks this talent is hers, to do whatever she wants with it? She’s wrong, and she will face the consequences.”

To this day, thinking about those words immobilizes me. I want to disappear, to melt away, to run and hide. While he was ferociously screaming down at us from the pulpit, I remember desperately trying not to look at anyone or anything– it felt like I had gotten the wind knocked out of me. I remember looking to my right and seeing one of the married woman scoot further away from me, and looking across the aisle to see faces turning around, craning their necks to get a look at me.

I got home, picked up the phone, hid in my mother’s closet, and called my parents. They were horrified– but not surprised. He had done this before. He had done this so many times before. When they came home, me and my father went to the leader to confront him. Oh, no, he said– I had misunderstood him. I had mistaken him. He hadn’t been talking about me at all– it was very clearly intended for someone else.

He looked me straight in the eyes and lied to me. Lied to my father. He said I was too young and immature to really understand his true meaning. After all, and he laughed a little bit, how can you expect a girl to really understand anything?

That was the moment that I left that cult. My family didn’t leave it for another four years, but I stopped being present. I began ignoring everything the leader said. I took up journaling and writing during the church service– under the pretext of “taking notes.”

But, in many ways . . . it was too late. The spiritual abuse I had endured for years had their result. I became afraid of stepping inside a church building. I cringed at common passages and phrases. And I was trapped inside a system that told me I was worthless. That I was less than any other human being. I had no power, I had no voice. Any ability to make choices for myself was gone, scrubbed away by a fundamentalist indoctrination.


Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week and Blog Link-up

into the light

This is just an announcement– most of my lovely readers probably already know about this, but just in case there’s someone who doesn’t:

Hänna, from Wine & Marble, is kicking off the Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week tomorrow, March 18. She will be hosting the first day of the three-day link up, focusing on the question:

What is your story? Share your experience — showing the details without going into specifics about places or people involved. What made the environment spiritually abusive? Was it language, unspoken social codes, beliefs, assumptions, expectations? How did these factors enable the abuse? How did you eventually leave, and why?

I hope that tomorrow is a really important day. One of the biggest problems facing the modern church, I believe, is that it’s incredibly difficult for people to spread their stories about their experiences with spiritual abuse. Part of overcoming that will be by showing that the spiritually abused have a voice, no matter how well-connected or powerful their abuser is.

The second day will be hosted by Joy from Joy in this Journey, focusing on:

How has your experience affected you? What has it done to you emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.? What has your journey been like? How have you gotten where you are today? Do you feel you’ve healed? What do you still struggle with?

This was one of the hardest things I had to realize about getting away from my spiritually abusive environment– it followed me, because it was inside my head. Spiritual abuse, just like every other type of abuse, has long-term consequences.

The third and last day will be hosted by Shaney Irene, talking about:

Why should those who haven’t been hurt care about this issue? What do you wish you could tell those who want to help but weren’t close enough to know or see your situation? What do you wish every pastor knew before starting ministry? What would make the church a safe space for you?

Optional, for those who didn’t do the first two days: What did you learn? What changes will you encourage in your churches, etc. in order to prevent spiritual abuse and provide healing?

Also, Rachel Held Evans will be participating in Spiritual Abuse Awareness week with her series “Into the Light.” I’m excited about that, because, well, it’s Rachel Held Evans. What’s not to like? And Elora Nicole will be hosting anonymous stories of spiritual abuse all week.

Please get involved, either by writing your own story or reading other stories– or both.


silence will let evil win, so I'm screaming

empty swingset

Fair warning: this is going to be long. But worth it, I hope.

Our recruitment period at the fundamentalist church-cult was over about three years after we had become members. I don’t remember anything before this point being bad– in fact, all I do remember was preferring our church to the other churches we had visited. I’d made friends, a few in particular.

So I was confused when Anna’s* family didn’t show up for church one Sunday morning when I was thirteen, maybe fourteen. They didn’t come to church Sunday night, either. Or Wednesday. They didn’t show up for “Visitation” on Thursday, either. I asked my best friend, the pastor’s daughter Christina*, what had happened. Were they ok? Did they go somewhere? I figured she would know– being the pastor’s daughter gave her an “in” with church gossip. I was worried about Anna– especially since the last time I’d seen her we’d gotten into a tiff and I hadn’t said some very nice things.

Christina told me that her family had been “sowing division in the church.”

“Sowing division? What does that mean?” I’d had a vague inclination about “sowing division” in the context of how people accused us KJV-only types that insisting on our translation was “sowing division,” and basically our response was to blow that accusation off. That didn’t really make sense, here.

“Her father has been holding private services outside of church, without Pastor’s approval, and trying to teach people heresies.”

That was pretty much the the extent of our talk, as words like “heresy” tend to be conversation-ending. I  didn’t know what to do with this information, but it just… it just didn’t feel right. Luckily, Anna’s family lived in my neighborhood, as was within easy biking distance. I biked over to her house, all by my lonesome. Anna’s mother answered the door.

“Samantha– what are you doing here?” Her voice sounded surprised, shocked even.

That’s strange– I come here all the time. I knew why I had come– if Anna was never going to come back to church, I couldn’t let the last things I ever said to her be awful. “I have to talk to Anna.”

“I don’t know if that’s a very good idea right now.”

“Oh.” I didn’t know what to do– should I just turn around and leave? But Anna appeared behind her mother, and it was obvious that she had been crying. When I looked at her mom again, I realized that she had been crying, too. What was happening?

“It’s ok, mom, I want to talk to her,” Anna said, and we went to sit in the backyard on her swing set. We trailed our feet in the sand for a while without saying much of anything.

I finally had the courage to say something. “Anna, I just… wanted to say I’m sorry. For the things I said.”

Anna nodded. “It’s ok. It’s not a big deal, not anymore.”

I didn’t now if I could ask what was happening– how did someone ask “Hey, is your dad teaching heresy?”

“What did Christina say?” She asked suddenly.

I was floored. “Uhm . . . just . . . well, it didn’t really make sense.”

She waited.

“She, well, she said that your dad was sowing division,” I whispered.

Her laugh was so hard and bitter. “Figures.” Our feet made a scraping-swoosh sound as our flip-flops skidded over the sand. “Dad was just having a Bible study. We were having a few families over for dinner, and then we’d just all sit around and talk.”

That made sense. I could see Anna’s dad doing something like that– he always had interesting things to say whenever he taught Sunday school, and I knew he was smart. And a Bible study didn’t sound so bad. Sounded like a good idea, to me.

“But Pastor found out about it, and he got all mad, and… he said we’re not allowed to come back to church anymore.” And she started crying. I didn’t know what to do except cry with her. I stayed for a little bit longer, and we talked about other things. I even saw her dad before I left, and I remember him putting his hand on my shoulder and thanking me for coming to visit. There were tears in his eyes, too. I wanted to hug him and tell him everything was going to be ok, that it would all work out.

When I told Christina about my conversation with Anna, her reaction was almost violent. She was furious with me– how dare I go behind her back like that. How dare I go to the people who had “hurt her family” and “disgraced the church.”  She made it very clear that associating with “those people” was choosing the wrong side. They were filled with nothing but lies. Anna was only going to try to make the church, and our Pastor, look bad. They were out to ruin our reputation.

I never went to see Anna again.


Five years later, during my freshman year at a fundamentalist college, my phone rang. That didn’t happen very often, so I was confused when I picked up the handset. It was Christina. She had been upset with me for choosing to attend college, and we hadn’t been on very good speaking terms since then, so I was relieved to hear her voice. I had been horribly afraid of losing her friendship, as she had been my only constant friend through all of the ups and downs at church.

She was not calling just to connect, though. She was sobbing. “The Stricklands* left the church, Sam.”

What?” That was shocking. They had been there so long, had gone through so much with us. “What happened?”

“I don’t know!” She wailed. “All daddy would say is that Mr. Strickland said that we were all demon-possessed!”

Demon-possessed? What in heaven’s name? “Are you sure he said that? That sounds . . . so crazy.” Mr. Strickland was probably one of the most down-to-earth, solid people I could think of.

“What do you mean if I’m sure? Of course I’m sure! Are you accusing my father of lying?”

I instantly back-pedaled. “Of course not. That just doesn’t sound like Mr. Strickland, is all I meant.” I thought of his wife, and his children, who I adored. They seemed like a normal, healthy family. They were an integral part of our tight-knit church. For them to suddenly leave . . .

“You are. You think daddy’s lying.” Her rant went on for the next few minutes, and I fell into my habit of listening without really listening. It was the only way to survive some of these conversations with her. “Well, all they’re doing is trying to drag our good name through the mud, but it won’t work. We may be persecuted, but God will make sure that we prevail. The truth always finds us out.”

After she hung up, I sat on my bed and tried to cry. I’d cried for so many families over the years. Families that just hadn’t understood all the good we were trying to do. Couldn’t they see all the people our church had brought to Christ? Didn’t they understand that other churches didn’t really have good intentions when they didn’t preach on sin? We were the only beacon of light in that town. The only people willing to preach the Gospel.


Looking back, now, I can so clearly see what was happening.

The abused were being silenced.

If the dozens of families who “abandoned” my church had been able to tell their story, to speak truth, then the evil would have been exposed for what it was. If we had been allowed to communicate with those who had realized that the church-cult and its leader were horribly abusive, then it would have ended.

But, for all of these families, the only option was silence. Be quiet, don’t rock the boat, keep your head down, and just get out of Dodge as quick as you can. Talking about the abuse they suffered would have been received as “sowing division.” Everyone still in the grips of the cult would have shunned them– just like we did with Anna’s family, when her father tried to tell people what was happening. He didn’t even go about it directly– he just started trying to counterbalance some of the horrible ideas the leader was spouting from the pulpit.

But no. These people were creating discord. These people were liars. Once a family had left our church, the leader would get up and give an explanation for why they had gone– and it was always their sin. Their disobedience. Their refusal to honor God’s word and the Shepherd he had put over them to guide them. We were not to associate with them, lest we be tainted, and bring their evil spirit into our church.

It’s been about seven years since my family left. When we left, we were immediately followed by a vitriolic rampage. My father was weak– he was being manipulated by his “woman.” My mother was a whore. She was bent on destroying her family– see, they even let their daughter go to college, and he lifted up a letter I’d written to Christina trying to explain, directly to her, why we had left– so she’d have something beside her father’s lies. See, he said– see how college only corrupts and perverts a woman’s weak mind.

It’s been seven years, and I am still hearing this. Not necessarily about that church in particular. No– speaking about abuse in fundamentalism, why, can’t you see that all you’re doing is giving us a bad name? All you’re doing is talking about how much you hate the church– and don’t you see how damaging that is? Don’t you understand that you’re just driving people away from other good IFB churches? You’re putting out a spark of hope, Samantha. You need to forgive. You shouldn’t be angry. We need to love. Pointing out all these wrongs is just hurting churches that are trying to do the right thing. You’re not being very edifying, Samantha. You’re a bully.

First off– I am  trying to do my damn level best to give  IFB churches a bad name.” It is my sincerest hope that no one will ever attend an IFB church ever again and that the movement will die. Yes, there are IFB churches that aren’t horribly abusive like the church I grew up in– but fundamentalism is abusiveThe doctrines that make up the core of fundamentalist theology will lead to abuse in some form, whether mild or severe. Legalism, inequality, dualism, sexism, rape threats, and docetism are inherent qualities of fundamentalism that cannot be escaped, no matter how much “good” these churches claim to be doing. All the soup kitchens in the world cannot overcome the rampant abusiveness in fundamentalist doctrine.

I do not hate the church. My beliefs concerning theology don’t really stray that far from your typical Protestant orthodox. I’m leaning progressive, have some ideas that some might call “universalist” and I just think of as “consistent,” though, just to be honest. My point being: I love the church. It is because I love the church that I am compelled to speak truth. The ideas I talk about, while I can only speak to how they appear in fundamentalism, are not limited to right-wring crazies. Many of these ideas are considered central and moderate, by some. They are everywhere, and they saturate conservative evangelical culture. Left unchecked, these ideas will continue to cause untold damage. I am heartbroken by the countless stories of abuse, and because of love I must speak out. I believe that the church can overcome this. I believe that Christ’s message of reaching out to the oppressed, the abused, the marginalized, can be the message we cling to. I believe that the current culture of shame, silencing, violence, abuse, victim-blaming and slut-shaming can change. That’s why I write.

Being told to just “forgive” and how “forgiveness” is somehow supposed to equal my silence— if I were really forgiving, I wouldn’t be talking about it– deserves its own post. Thankfully, there are many others who have written that post for me, for now– although I might get to it.

So yes. I’m angry, and I’m here, and I will be here, trying to use my story to make the world a better place.

Social Issues

I didn’t stand up for my gay friend. I still regret it.

I met Michael* when I was fifteen, at a summer music camp. We didn’t become best buds, but we did become friends, and that friendship stayed in place when we went to the same college three years later. We were in the same degree program, and had nearly every core class together. We never became “tight,” but we did help each other out. We’d take over for each other when a particular soloist we accompanied had become just too much, and we always made sure to give each other a boost in the sea of criticism that could be the music program at times. We had eachother’s back.

I knew Michael was gay from the day I met him, but it didn’t matter. He was my friend. He didn’t come out to me until a few years ago, but I’ve always treasured his friendship, and the day he came out to me, I treasured his honesty for the gift it was.


Four years ago today, I remember the whispers.

My college campus was small– around 4,500 students, total, so it wasn’t that difficult to at least recognize everyone even if you didn’t know him or her. I knew the names of everyone in my major– and I knew the names of most of those who were studying speech, art, or music. It was a small, tight-nit community. We were hard on each other, as the competition could get intense. When two sopranos go for the same lead in a musical… that’s not something you want to witness. But, we were close. Friendly, even, when there weren’t any auditions.

Our tight-nit community, however, was a strangely public one. We were the performers on campus. The college had a bazillion required activities, and most of them were Arts related. There were vespers, where the speech and music major would put on an hour-long religious spectacle. There was the once-a-semester Gilbert and Sullivan extravaganza.

Then, there was church.

Attending the college’s church was mandatory. You could “check in sick” and skip church, but you’d be required to attend a video recording of it the next Saturday, so most people rarely “checked in” on Sunday. They put up with the monotonous, televised, rote-like-clockwork service and then took a nap. However, music majors were required to perform at least once, sometimes twice, in church– for a grade. A few of us got “famous” that way. There was the impressively deep bass singer who became famous for singing “Mary, Did you Know?” There was the spectacularly talented young man that everyone knew, and simply being a peripheral friend made you popular by association.

It was eleven weeks before we were all supposed to graduate. We were working on our shows and our recitals like deranged maniacs whose life depended on this single, solitary event (it rather did). We were all losing our minds in one way or another, and trying to get each other through this grueling process.

So when two of my friends in the music program were “kicked out,” many of the music majors were left feeling bereft. These two young men had been two of the most supportive people in the program. In an environment where backbiting and maliciousness can sometimes run amok, losing the positive influence of these two. . . it wasn’t devastating, but they were missed.

Over my years at this college, I’d known a lot of people who got “kicked out.” Some reasons “made sense,” after a fashion. Sometimes that person “obviously deserved it” because they’d committed some heinous violation that was quite obviously against the rules you just don’t go around breaking– like my roommates who persisted in having some strange version of threesome phonesex on speaker while I was in the room (getting them kicked out hadn’t been my goal– I’d just wanted a new room, ‘cuz that was uncomfortable. However, I’d had to explain why I wanted a new room, so...) Sometimes the reason was absolutely ridiculous– like the young man who got kicked out for “disturbing a public gathering”– he threw a paper airplane before a church service started. Sometimes the reason was absolutely insane– like one girl who got kicked out for kissing her boyfriend over the summer when she was not on campus, leaving a love letter in her boyfriend’s mailbox, and the boyfriend’s ex going through his mail and then turning the new girlfriend in. The ex-girlfriend was rewarded for her faithfulness to the school, even though she’d committed a felony to do it.

However serious or ridiculous the reason was, long story short, the people on campus usually knew what it was. It’s difficult to keep secrets, and the kicking-out process in a brutalizing, time-consuming thing. By the time that person is kicked out, the Scarlet A is fixed in place.

But for my friends… no one really knew why.

So, the rumors started.

And, because they were music majors, most of the rumors had to do with their sexual orientation. The Arts already made a man “effeminate” by default, and in fundamentalism, “effeminate” is a hair’s breadth short of being “rainbow gay.”

I was in my first-hour class the first time I heard one of the rumors. Supposedly, the two men had gotten caught making out in a maintenance closet.


I was five the first time I ever stood up to a bully. There was a black boy a few doors down from me, and he was constantly getting picked on by a group of three older white boys. Looking back, I’m pretty sure one of the boy’s father was a white supremacist– but when I was five, I had no idea what racism was. All I knew was that they were picking on him, and that was mean. I stood up for him one day– and ended up with gum in my hair, spit in my eye, and sand in my underwear. I spent every day for the rest of that summer hiding underneath the playground equipment– with the boy I’d stood up for.

My tendency to bite off more than I could chew in defense of someone I cared about, or who I felt didn’t deserve it, only got stronger as I got older. I punched three separate boys at 8, 11, and 14 for daring to make fun of by baby sister. I told off Richard* who was making fun of George* because of his last name. I befriended a little girl in kindergarten who had a port wine stain and no one else would talk to her. I slapped the boy I had a crush on in first grade because he’d knocked over my block tower for being “taller than his.”

But four years at a fundamentalist Christian college had silenced me.

When that belligerent, bigoted young man started hootin’ and hollerin’ about my friends, I said nothing. I sat in my chair, kept my eyes fixed squarely on the front of the room, and remained silent.

That silence felt like it was burning me from the inside out. I desperately wanted to march to the back of that room and give him a big, loud, angry piece of my mind. I wanted to slap him for airing his bigotry. I wanted to tell every person who was laughing exactly who they were laughing at, and that no one deserved that. I wanted to tell them all that what they were doing was wrong.

I didn’t. I didn’t say anything over the next few weeks as the rumors became more flagrant.

I was afraid. Afraid of the administration coming after me for defending him. I was afraid that they would suspect that I knew Michael was gay, and that they would kick me out, too, for not turning him in years ago, like I should have– like the rules required me to. I was afraid that if I defended him, that some of the people who knew me would judge me for not “taking a stance against sin.”

I was afraid of myself.

I lived in doubt for those weeks– wasn’t I supposed to be shocked and horrified by his sin? Wasn’t I supposed to agree that the administration had done the right thing by kicking him out? Wasn’t I supposed to be happy that “the truth had found him out”?

Conflicted doesn’t begin to explain what I was feeling. I missed my friend– one of the only people who had a kind word for me after I’d survived another terrifying performance. I missed the person who agreed to usher my recital, and was there for me when I finally came offstage and instantly collapsed.

And I was ashamed for not being brave enough– to not being who I knew I’ve always been. For not defending him. For not speaking up against all the wrong.

So, today, four years later, I’m apologizing, Michael– and I promise it won’t happen again.

Photo by Hamed Parham

prince charming, part one

I was helping a girlfriend get ready for a formal event one day when she asked me about my boyfriend, and the, ah, tempestuousness or our relationship. Did I really think fighting that much was healthy?

I shrugged, dismissing her question. Of course our relationship was healthy– we were courting, weren’t we? And, anyway, I’d be bored out of my mind if our relationship wasn’t this passionate. If we never had a fight– good gravy, that would be so uninteresting, so dull. I liked the roller-coaster, and I would never want to get off and exchange it for something placid and listless.

When I was being at all honest with my friends,  I would tell them that John* and I had a “disagreement,” or that we’d “fought.” What I didn’t tell them was that these “fights” involved a whole lot of John screaming at me and a whole lot of silence from me. My version of the events, to my friends, had me sticking up for myself– like the time he told me that I would be getting breast implants after we got married, and I supposedly told him “no way.”

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Nearly a year and a half into this relationship, one of my friends gave me a book called Boundaries in Dating, a book I probably should have paid a little more attention to. I read it, obligingly, until the authors made an offhand comment about how most people probably wouldn’t want to marry the first person they ever dated.

I immediately returned the book to my friend, telling her I couldn’t accept the authors’ beliefs as valid. Their presentation conflicted with what I knew to be the truth about boy/girl relationships.


I remember reading that sentence pretty vividly– it was halfway down a right-hand page, nearly a third into the book, right below a page break. The authors were about to launch into a new point about how dating can give people perspective on the opposite gender, but I stopped, right there, and just stared at what they had said. My reaction was visceral and violent.

What do the mean people wouldn’t want to marry the first person they ever dated? Of course they would! That’s the whole point!

My reaction was informed by about a dozen years of some hard-hitting indoctrination. It came from a whole host of sources– I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which I think most of us have at least heard of, down to Stay in the Castle (which, ironically, a friend of John’s gave to me after he broke our engagement as an encouragement that I should get back with him), to lots of object lessons.

The best “object lesson” I can remember is one about Pop Beads– a Sunday school teacher brought a whole strand of these up to the platform, and she fiddled with them as she spoke. She told a story about a little girl who loved her daddy, and her daddy loved her. Her daddy wanted to give her everything her little heart desired, including a string of pop beads. He did buy her some, and initially she was oh so grateful, but her gratitude eventually gave way to surliness and isolation. She was so happy with her Pop Beads that she started ignoring the daddy she loved so much. One day, her daddy came to her and asked her to throw her Pop Beads into the fire. If she really loved him, she would do this for him, because he missed her, and getting rid of the Pop Beads was the only way. After an interminable amount of time, she relents. The next day, he brings her a strand of pearls.

Moral of the story: what God wants for you is so much better than what you want for yourself. You should wait for his perfect timing, and he’ll bring someone into your life that is so absolutely perfect for you. Anything that you have before God brings this perfect person is a ridiculously cheap imitation, a knock-off, a nobody.


When I was about fourteen, my best friend and I made a promise together — we would “guard our heart.” We would protect our hearts from all the wolves in the world who wanted only “one thing” from us, and we would wait for The One who was the person God intended for us.

This, of course, implies that there can be only one option for us, romantically. Joshua Harris included a rather gruesome story in I Kissed Dating Goodbye about the dangers of the “dating game,” how it results in you giving your heart away in pieces, how you should try to give your whole, intact heart to just one person.

In my head, emotional purity rose to the same level as physical purity. Having a crush on a boy– even just noticing that a boy was handsome was enough for me experience near-disabling guilt and shame. I continuously judged my best friend because she was constantly having crushes– especially on people I thought of as obviously being a wolf. I was “better” at it, better at steeling myself, at not looking. When I got to college and experienced my first heartbreak, it only confirmed everything I knew. Women are designed to fall in love once. That had to be the goal.

What I couldn’t see was that all of this teaching was forcing me to stay in a relationship that was becoming more and more abusive. Because I’d fallen in love. I’d given my heart away. I’d done everything I could to make sure that this person was The One. We’d done everything right — he also came from the IFB culture, and he’d understood courtship. I’d waited to really “let my heart go” until he’d gotten my father’s permission. We were following all the rules about accountability and no physical contact (an easy thing to do, since that was also forbidden by the college) . . . I was very much assured that John was my own personal prince charming.

Photo by Alexandra Rust