Promoting PErsonal Change, Centered on the PErson of Christ through the PErsonal Ministry of the Word
Biblical Counseling Coalition: Grace & Truth

Mental Illness and the Church

Mental Illness and the Church

BCC Staff Note: Many of you have become accustomed to visiting our Biblical Counseling Coalition Grace & Truth blog site every Friday to read our Friday Five posts where we collate the best of the best in biblical counseling and Christian living posts from the preceding days. Today, as you can see, is different.

In light of the passing of Matthew Warren, who took his life, and in light of much discussion in the Christian community about suicide and mental illness, we asked one of our BCC Council Board members, Dr. Jeremy Pierre, to share his perspective. As a coalition, we pray for Rick and Kay Warren as they find Christ’s hope in the midst of their grief. And we pray that Dr. Pierre’s insights would be helpful to the Christian community.

You can also find two helpful posts related to suicide prevention and grieving a suicide at our BCC Book Review site:

Toward a Compassionate, Wise Conversation

The pain is unspeakable, I’m sure.

Many are grieving with Rick and Kay Warren over the loss of their son Matthew to suicide. And many are paying attention to something we typically find hard to think about. Mental illness in the church has taken the headlines.

But to have a productive conversation, we’ll need to avoid a couple of unhelpful ways of talking about it. The most obvious one, I think, is to discuss the private state of Matthew’s mind or surmise what condition he suffered from. I imagine those closest to Matthew are suffering enough under the why question, and they don’t need all of us to figure it out for them.

Another unhelpful way to go about this conversation is to lob generalities at the church regarding its failure to adequately care for those with mental illness. I’ve never seen generalities change anything except people’s blood pressure.

Maybe we’re not quite sure what the church addressing mental illness even means, though we’re hitting on some important aspects of it. Swirling around in the discussion so far are two separate, but closely related, issues. The first is the shame of those struggling with mental illness and the pressure to keep it secret. And the second is what we actually mean when we say mental illness—its nature as physiological disease. While we cannot separate these two issues, distinguishing them for the sake of discussion may help us move forward in a productive way.

Shame and Secrecy

Everyone knows the unpleasant impulse to hide something about himself that others wouldn’t approve of. For those who experience overwhelming emotions or find themselves caught in patterns of unusual behavior, this impulse is more than unpleasant—it’s terrifying. We are aware of the general standards of normalcy around us, and when we don’t measure up to those standards, we feel shame. The easiest way to stay included is to hide those things about us that don’t measure up. Lest we demonize the church, let’s admit that this is true in any sphere of relationships—the neighborhood, the workplace, the rec league.

Nevertheless, it’s right to recognize that the church should be different. And, at least in some churches, it’s not. Sometimes it’s worse because the standards of normalcy are mixed with standards of morality, and the stakes get even higher. The thought of a guy at work finding out you take meds might be unpleasant to you, but the thought of your pastor finding out might be downright distressing. In your mind, your coworker might think you’re a little screwy, but your pastor might think you’re screwy and sinning. And so you may be more tempted to hide stuff from your pastor than from your coworker.

And this is a tragedy. Christians should know two things better than anyone else in the world: the deep insanity of the human heart and the patient grace of the redeeming Lord. This insanity includes both spiritual and physical corruption—so the human heart responds to life in a convolution of virtue and sin, of ability and disability. And this grace is God’s undeserved favor resting on such convoluted heaps. The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches that grace, not shame, is the solution for both weakness and sin.

So, before we even figure out the equation of what we mean by mental illness, we know that the way we are compelled in Scripture to approach a struggler is with the grace of Jesus Christ. Shame leading to secrecy is toxic in the church, and the only way to undermine this is to work toward a culture of grace.

The Nature of Mental Illness

In many of the discussions I’ve read so far, there is a presumption that there is widespread agreement on what mental illness actually means. Even among mental health care professionals there is disagreement about the nature and causes of mental illness, some emphasizing underactivity of the various neurotransmitters, others focusing on developmental or social causation.

Some have challenged the legitimacy of symptom-based diagnoses, proposing more empirically-based means through advanced imaging and brain mapping. The DSM-4 has always been controversial, and the major changes in the soon-to-be-released DSM-5 show that definitions of mental illness change alongside research interests and cultural pressures. Add to this the wide variance in quality of care in assessment and diagnosis, and we are left with many uncertainties regarding what mental illness actually is.

If that all sounds skeptical, I don’t mean it to be purely so. Thoughtful Christians, who insist on understanding human beings according to Scripture, should have a healthy mix of skepticism and appreciation of the various types of diagnoses of mental illness.

We should be skeptical because the paradigm of mental illness is built without the basic building materials of a biblical view of people. Absent is any consideration of moral agency as Scripture defines it: an active heart responding dynamically to God and His creation with every thought, feeling, and choice. Such an absence of the spiritual aspect of the person results in a critical misunderstanding of the person as a whole. And the care offered is inadequate for the ultimate troubles of the soul.

But we should also appreciate that these diagnoses at times accurately describe physical symptom clusters and could lead to medical interventions that offer some level of helpful influence over them. In other words, because we recognize humans as corrupted in body as well as in soul, we can appreciate medical ingenuity that helpfully addresses the potential neurobiological aspects of people’s trouble.

A Culture of Grace in the Church

Various folks have been pointing out the need for the church to pull its head out of the sand on the issue of mental health care. By this, we can be saying something very good or something not-so-good.

Let’s start with the not-so-good. We should not mean that the church should just accept that extreme emotional, mental, or behavioral troubles are merely physical problems with physical solutions. Of all people, Christians must insist that we were created spiritual beings with the dignity of moral agency. Our thoughts and actions are not merely the product of our biology. We have freedom to act out of our nature as the image of God. And so, wisdom for living from the Word of God is always necessary in the ongoing care of a person, which includes addressing mental, emotional, and behavioral troubles.

Now let’s get to the good. What we should mean by the church pulling its head out of the sand is that Christians should acknowledge that the corruption of the fall warps not just our souls, but our bodies as well. The influence of bodily corruption on the soul is powerful, and the church needs to recognize those suffering under it in a way that points them to help—both body and soul.

Extreme mental, emotional, or behavioral problems are not either spiritual or physical. They are both, though we recognize a sliding scale of influence. Some troubles may be more neurologically engrained, thus requiring closer medical attention. Others may be less so. But, whether it’s more or less, a spiritual heart is always actively in need of the grace of the Lord Jesus.

Here are a few pairs of insight that may help establish a culture of grace toward those who suffer from some of the more extreme cases of physiological trouble:

Pair 1

  • On one hand, medical intervention, including psychotropic medication, does not heal the ultimate problem of a person’s disordered desires, beliefs, or choices. Medical intervention does not reverse the results of sin and corruption. Only the power of the gospel of Jesus does this. Visiting a doctor apart from considering how your spiritual responses are involved in your condition will not lead to an ultimate solution.
  • On the other hand, medical intervention often allays the effects of sin’s corruption of the body, including the brain. And so we should affirm the value of medical treatment and should encourage our people to seek medical attention when necessary. The need for medical intervention is not in itself anti-spiritual. Visiting a doctor does not necessarily mean you are failing to trust the Lord.

Pair 2

  • On one hand, people who are languishing under extreme mental and emotional problems do not always have the capacity for immediate control over them. We should not instruct them as if they do, but instead should acknowledge the overwhelming nature of what they’re experiencing.
  • On the other hand, a person’s lack of immediate control does not imply he has no control at all. The control is eventual rather than immediate. It is imperfect rather than complete. But it is nevertheless significant. People as spiritual beings can respond in faith within their physiological incapacities. So pointing them to the Word does not make us “faith healers.” The Word of God brings life.

Pair 3

  • On one hand, not all physiological trouble will be healed this side of heaven, no matter the amount of biblical counsel given. This is clearest in those conditions that are most demonstrably physical: You can’t counsel someone out of downs syndrome or autism, for instance.
  • On the other hand, by establishing patterns of response that submit to God’s ways within their incapacities, people often experience significant change. In fact, they often grow in subtle and surprising ways. A Christian diagnosed with bipolar can respond to their physiological troubles in the obedience of faith. These healthy responses may not eliminate the struggle, but they often alleviate it.

Ultimately, our suffering in this life is meant to make us groan for the life to come, when all creation will be set free from corruption. And we will, too. Body and soul.

I’ve noticed that people who suffer with the most extreme physiological effects of the fall often groan the best. They experience the insanity of the human heart doubly: their own sin works against them, and so do their own brains. And they long for redemption for both their souls and their bodies. And both are exactly what Jesus promises for all those who trust in Him (Romans 8:18-39).

Join the Conversation

If it’s true that Christians should have a healthy mix of skepticism toward and appreciation of the various types of diagnoses of mental illness, where do you fall on the continuum?

This entry was posted in Grace, Local Church Ministry, Pastoral Resources, People in Need of Care, People Who Offer Care, People Who Train Caregivers, Psychology and Christianity, Shame, Suicide and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
 
  • Pingback: Check out | HeadHeartHand Blog

  • http://twitter.com/BobKellemen Bob Kellemen

    Thank you, Jeremy, for a compassionate, nuanced perspective on biblical counseling, mental illness, and the church. Bob

  • Shari

    We have a lady in our church who is majorly Bi-polar. For years she has done the swing high/swing low thing doing very odd and illegal behaviors. As a body of believers we were moved by the Holy Spirit to stop moving away from her like she was scary and begin to move toward her in relationship. She has now had about 4 years with stability. She is still on medication and every day is hard for her. But there has been significant improvement. She expresses amazing faith just to breathe in and out, go to work, and interact with others on a daily basis. It’s not easy to be in relationship with her. There is a group of ladies that share this challenge. But it has been very good for our own walk with the Lord to press in to love her well.

    • http://www.facebook.com/cindy.lennon.71 Cindy Lennon

      God bless you Shari and your friends for embracing this lady! I have bi-polar II disorder. I have been ‘stable’ for nearly 10 years, yet I still struggle daily to take every thought captive for Christ. At first I didn’t seek help because I thought it meant I didn’t have enough faith, but with the urging of a few friends I did get medication and am so grateful to God that He allows me a somewhat-sane life. I’m different from other people, but I have been able to grow spiritually and help others who struggle also.

  • http://www.graceky.org Brad Bigney

    Fantastic. Thank you, Jeremy, for such a balanced, loving, grace-filled approach that doesn’t discount the power of the Gospel nor point accusing fingers at those who find help in medication. Excellent.

  • Garrett Higbee

    Jeremy, I love the balance in your post. Truth and grace. As a guy who works with some of the most entagled and hurting people in the church I can not afford an either/or approach but have adopted a both/and approach. People are “mentally ill” as a result of the fall. We are all chemically imbalanced at some level. Medication may take the edge off of extreme desperateness, paranoia, or impulsivity, but that is only good news if it gives us a reprieve to reason and counsel at the heart level. Sometime medication is actually a contributor to those extremes. We need to be wise consumers and seek wise medical counsel in this area. Every psychological symptom has a spiritual root. There are as you stated physical effects interacting with mental illness most of the time and less often physiological causes for extreme moods and behavior. Some as simple as diet and sleep. When is is truly organic there are usually sound medical or common sense remedies and quick results. When it is more than that the course is longer and either way the counsel of a wise brother or sister is invaluable. I think if we would just boldly and carefully take back soul care in the church needless elongated suffering and many tragedy could be avoided. Thanks for tackling a difficult topic.

  • Pingback: Mental Illness & the Church | Counseling One Another

  • John Henderson

    Jeremy, thank you for this post. Really clarifying; Really helpful. I find it so difficult to grasp and find words for what you just articulated. I also have a question I’d love to hear from you or others on. When you think about social influences and demonic factors in our understanding of mental illness, would you generally place these in a similar relationship to the soul as you did the physiology. Would you recommend similar “pairings” and a scale of influence with the soul, of course knowing they also interact with one another?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Heather-Roach/501486380 Heather Roach

    I was a student at Boyce College for 3 semesters, and you were one of my professors in my first semester there. I remember you being a kind, thoughtful, truly caring person. I had to leave Boyce due to a combination of financial troubles and severe depression and anxiety. It’s too long a story to tell in detail, but it took me about a year of extreme suffering before I decided to try medication. I was so afraid that God and others would judge me for taking medicine when I should be able to just get over it. Thankfully, my doctor here is a strong Christian, yet he told me that taking meds was in no way indicative of a lack of faith on my part. It another year before I found the right med for me and started to really improve. Any good psychologist will tell you that you need a combination of medicine and cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is just another word for “changing negative thought patterns.” For me, it’s been a process of learning to be real and vulnerable with others, even when I am weak and hurting. I saw a Christian counselor (not specifically “biblical” as in NANC) and she helped me develop strategies for dealing with my anxiety when it attacks (sometimes as simple as deep breathing). I can tell you that it is a very strong physical thing, as sometimes I will feel physiologically anxious but have NO “underlying reason” – although sometimes there is a deeper, spiritual fear that needs to be dealt with. I have grown so much over the last 3 years since I came home, yet even now if I skip my medication I struggle intensely. So, while I agree with you that there are often underlying spiritual/emotional problems (and most secular psychologists would also agree, although their solution might be somewhat different), I still think the Christian community does not do a good enough job of recognizing that being sick in your brain can be very similar to being sick in other parts of the body – and not being able to suck it up and get over it is not necessarily indicative of sin or lack of faith.

    • Karen Butler

      Heather,

      I lived almost my entire life with a wrenching tenseness in my gut and a
      clenched jaw. And an inability to trust anyone. Becoming a Christian compounded the problem because I learned my crippling disorder was now considered sinful. I also felt defensive because my experience didn’t match other’s victorious stories of complete deliverance and I did not enjoy the feelings of love, joy and peaceful security that they did. It was always just me, of little faith. So I would never say to you, suck it up, or that you don’t have enough faith.

      “But I learned to call anxiety “My Tether to my Lord” because every time the enemy of my soul tried to batter me about with it, the struggle against it only served to wrap me around my Savior with even greater
      intensity. It drove me to Him with great ferocity, because I learned if
      I could only run to Him quickly instead of seeking to escape the
      gnawing turmoil within, the scary feelings would ebb, and I would be
      safe. I learned that often I was anxious or depressed because I had
      believed a lie, or a relationship was broken, or I felt abandoned. I
      learned to wait on the Holy Spirit to enlarge my heart
      — to show me the way out of these terrible feelings, and enable me to
      make things right — to give me the courage to humble myself before
      another, or the will to acknowledge what was true, and line my thoughts
      up with how God viewed things.” I write more about my struggle, that even included a psychotic break, here: http://thenface2face.wordpress.com/2011/12/03/out-of-darkness-light/

      I hope you’ll read it, and let me know what you think.

  • Pingback: Even As I Have Been Fully Known: 1 Corinthians 13:12 | Standing Fast

  • Karen Butler

    “When you think about social influences and demonic factors in our understanding of mental illness,”

    Oh, good! Then someone besides me has been thinking of these things in seeking to understand “mental illness”. Because I think our biggest “problem with mental illness”, is that we refuse to acknowledge the very big elephant in the room — that of its etiology through evil spirits, that manifest as “illnesses.” As they manifested when Jesus addressed some illnesses directly as evil spirits in the scriptures:

    Like the real cause of the pain in the case of the patient with scoliosis in Luke
    13:11-16:

    “…and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for
    eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at
    all…ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for
    eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?”

    So fascinating to me that it was an organic disorder with a medical
    etiology, but the underlying cause was spiritual oppression. Jesus calls
    her a ‘daughter of Abraham’, too — an indication she was a believer!

    And in Matthew 17:15,the scripture calls the epileptic boy a
    ‘lunatic’– a medical belief that epileptic seizures were affected by the
    phases of the moon– and similarly frees him from a demonic spirit.

    Please do not not think I am suggesting that every parent of a epileptic kid is
    showing a lack of faith when giving their child Depakote. I do respite care for these parents! But I do think these remedies make it much easier for us to ignore the spiritual components that Jesus makes very clear here. That is the real “lack of faith” — our unbelief in the scriptural etiology of some diseases.

    I am also very uncomfortable with these connections the scripture makes, but I have begun to repent of the embarrassment I’ve felt towards them. I have been puzzled by the silence in the Reformed community about them, and have been “extinguished” very effectively on various websites when I bring up the questions I have.

    I worked for years in special ed with autistic children, some of whom
    presented exactly like this young man. That is when I began to ask these
    questions, and no one has ever satisfied my queries — except the
    Vineyard pastors in the false prophetic churches we attended. I hope someone can answer them in this counseling community.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.hess.589 Mike Hess

    Thank you Jeremy for this articulate, gracious and thoughtful address of a very complex issue. I plan on using this as a valuable resource for biblical counselors in our church and for those struggling to take a grace-filled and biblical approach to this issue.

  • Joe

    Fundamentalism is plagued by extra-biblical assumptions which are not rooted in the Bible but are imposed from outside it. These added assumptions of “biblical” counseling are deeply rooted in the fear that an authority-based approach will not suffice to defend the faith. They are are also rooted in the corrupting nature of power–that the ability to define what is considered “true” brings power to the definer (in this case the “biblical” counselor); and power of course corrupts and inevitably brings power mongers out of the woodwork.

    The notion that “every psychological problem has a spiritual root” I might point out is not a Scriptural notion per se, but just an extra-biblical assumption, a presupposition that is being brought to the table. Note the shift of power–the espouser of this idea accuses all psychologically disturbed individuals of having deeply rooted sin issues that have to be rooted out by of course, the speaker or someone like him or her.

    Likewise, the notion that the Bible, or the Good News, or trusting in God is going to heal any specific physical or neurological malady is equally an assumption that is being brought to the table, is just an extra-biblical assumption, I might add, that most of the Church does not accept or subscribe to. When we go from the Bible being our spiritual guide and the being our source of God’s revelation to trying to use it as a prescription for all human maladies and ills we spill over into the snake-oil business. Note again the shift of power in the notion, however.

    Further, the notion that secular sources of truth are invalid and only biblical truths are valid also is an extra-biblical notion. This one is particularly frightening in that it is the assumption that teachers have used most often to slide into cultish and power-based leadership styles in the history of the fundamentalist Church. Note the shift in power–secular counseling has nothing to offer because the possessor of the answers (spiritual leader) can guide you into all truth.

    Do the Scriptures offer truth to us? Of course, and it is freeing, beautiful, wonderful truth at that. Do we need to heed it’s truths? Yes, of course. Can it help the mentally ill? Here we have a more difficult matter. Sometimes it can, because some are competent to handle the issue of good and evil, guilt and innocence, forgiveness and being bound by sin without causing damage. But others are not competent to handle these issues, and you are merely sending them into another level of misery and perhaps even damaging them by taking them down those paths. Perhaps better is to seek to explain the goodness of the Lord, His lovingkindness, his generosity, His forgiving heart, His beautiful holiness, and to treat sin as a gentler factor than you might otherwise. Frankly, if you do _not_ view your relationship with God in the positive light of those preceding phrases, I do not think you have any ability to convey the Good News accurately to anybody, and instead are simply sowing damage and weeds wherever you go.

  • Pingback: Are Biblical Counselors “Sin-Maximizers”?

  • Barnabas

    Poverty of wisdom in this context is more than apparent. An individual’s journey should take priority over myopic spirituality. Many a person is left visiting the. The Well alone. Combinations of physical, emotional, rational, spiritual and volitional abuse can manifest and present in different ways. Only from a personal story can the real journey be evaluated and served in an Emmaus way.

  • Karen Butler

    So sad to me that no one will answer my query — “Where have all the demons gone?”, here at BCC. When even Legions’ clear case of demon possession is described in medical circles as a rare auto-immune disease, ‘anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis’, and the church won’t even talk about demonology, I think we are in a dangerous place. Much more dangerous than DeYoung’s identification after the Tuscon shootings of our refusal to speak in moral categories of good and evil, and therapize everything into a maladjustment of the brain, is this tendency to ignore the reality of demonic interference in the Reformed side of the church.

    I wrote about it, more at length here:http://thenface2face.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/legions-brain-was-on-fire-or-where-have-all-the-demons-gone/ and I wish someone would respond to it — I read an outline of Powlison’s book on “ekballistic” models for deliverance, but it wasn’t satisfying. Why can’t it be both/and — both classic deliverance models, and command and control? They don’t cancel each other out — unless you are a strict cessationist.

  • Pingback: Friday’s 5 to Live By—The Biblical Counseling and Mental Illness | Biblical Counseling Coalition Blogs

  • Karen Butler

    “For when Legion comes, crying piteously and running naked through our
    graveyards, cutting himself with stones as he demands, “What have you to
    do with me?”, will we ask him his name? Will we like it better when he
    answers, ‘Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis’ — so neat and tidily
    settled!–or when he says, ” Legion!” will we respond like Jesus, with a
    stern “come out of him!” or do we identify him as a paranoid
    schizophrenic, a danger to himself who is then forced into emergency
    treatment with neuroleptics? And a diagnosis of a lifetime disorder
    hopelessly intractable, and difficult to treat without a course of many
    different drugs, each responding to the other’s iatrogenic effect?”

    Or closer to home here, a fellow sufferer of anxiety, Heather, who says, “sometimes I will feel physiologically anxious but have NO “underlying reason” – although sometimes there is a deeper, spiritual fear that needs to be dealt with.” Should we tell her to just increase her Ativan when she feels that way? I could tell her where that fear comes from and how effectively it can be dealt with when one deals with it, as the spiritual warfare that it is. But because of of the ridiculous excesses of TBN, there is a stigma against those who suffer fromany kind of demonic oppression and are open in talking about it. But many of those in the “Hearing Voices” movement *know* their psychotic episodes are a spiritual crisis, and the church should be there for them, and tell them not every voice is from an angel of light, the way the culture is teaching them to think. The church has a responsibility to provide a counter-narrative, and we are not doing it.

    I simply don’t understand the vast silence here to my legitimate queries about how to reconcile these biblical narratives with the medical accounts. It hardly seems like “equipping the saints for the works of service” — I came here hoping to hear from experts in the field. I do not wish to be in error about these difficult questions– I spent too much time in the wilderness of Charismania, and I reject completely Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare. It is dangerous. But it is equally dangerous to ignore demonology. Look at this Theopedia homepage, where there is not a single mention of demons *or even Satan* among the vast array of topics. http://www.theopedia.com/

    Perhaps my gracious friend who teaches at Golden Gate Seminary, who attends my church, who helps us minister to the homeless refugees of the failed psychiatric system that wander lonely down the streets of our city, whose wife is a counselor, has thought deeply about these things. Perhaps he will be good enough to help me with the hard questions I ask the church. But it is incredible to me, that no one will even listen to me here — I had not even one click from here to the link I provided to my article. Hope springs: http://thenface2face.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/legions-brain-was-on-fire-or-where-have-all-the-demons-gone/

  • Pingback: Around the Web (4/28) | Men's Bible Cafe

  • Pingback: Christian Blogs | Scripture Zealot blog

  • Pingback: The Church’s Mission and Psychiatric Disorders | Biblical Counseling Coalition Blogs

  • Pingback: A Biblical Counseling Perspective on Mental Illness | Biblical Counseling Coalition Blogs

  • Pingback: Resurgence roundup, 5/3/13 | Ministry Feeds

  • Pingback: Jeremy Pierre. Mental illness and the church | Weblioteca

  • Pingback: RESOURCES: Mental Illness | Counseling One Another

  • Pingback: Mental Illness | Insomniac memos

  • Pingback: Counseling for the Soul in Distress: What Every Religious Counselor Should Know About Emotional and Mental Illness, Second Edition · WWW.INFOWEBHUB.NET

  • Jen

    Abstract

    The Purpose of
    this essay is to help people begin to see the reality of the abuse committed by
    certain churches under the misnomer of religion. Readers will learn about cult
    specialist who advocates as a professional in cult oriented churches that are
    meant to be Christ led, an actual cult leader and the life of a cult victim. It
    is important for readers to pay attention to the area on this paper that
    reveals common characteristics of cult leaders in a church setting and what it
    does to the members. Seeing these types
    of leaders for who they are and holding them accountable so victims quit
    suffering and begin recovering is the main focus of this paper.

    Stop Church
    Abuse and Stop Misusing God’s Name for Selfish Acts

    For centuries now organizations that have
    called themselves “churches” really have not resembled what a healthy church
    is. Rather, these types of organizations are considered cults. Law enforcement often
    ignores what these cults do to people under the umbrella of “freedom of
    religion.” While people have a right to
    freedom of religion, others do not have a right to abuse people emotionally,
    physically, spiritually, sexually or financially. For people identifying as a Christian, this
    happening in organizations where Christ is being represented can be especially
    devastating. It is time that corrupt churches are held more accountable and
    identified for abusive behavior.

    There is a difference between a healthy
    church verses an unhealthy church Christ-based church. It can be hard for some
    to identify, and it can be a touchy subject as well. It will not change for the
    better though until people start to take a step back and have the ability to
    see the reality in it and catch it before it occurs. There are common behaviors
    to watch out for. Cults are common in society. Some are familiar with the
    Unification Church (Moonies Cult) but it is not an everyday church. The very
    behavior that is used in these “real” cults is being used in a church system to
    cover up the real behavior. The focus here though is Christ based churches that
    use the name of Jesus as a form of manipulation.

    Even back in Jesus‘s time abusive
    leaders gave an account for their action. Some of the abusive leaders were
    known as the “Pharisees.” The Pharisees
    were legalist in their religion and abusive. In Mathew 23 of the New Living
    Translation Bible Jesus describes the Pharisees as abusive and how they loved
    to sit at the head of the table (Bible Gateway, 2013). Their life was about
    them and not the needs of people. They would put heavy burdens of religion on
    people that cannot be carried. Today, this same issue still occurs.

    Mary Alice Chrnalogar a Christian and
    expert in helping relieve victims of cult abuse is familiar with these areas.
    Chrnalogar wrote a book title “Twisted Scripture.” Her focus is about revealing
    the way scripture is used to manipulate and destroy a person. Chrnalogar helps
    a person understand what scripture really means verses how church abusers twist
    it. Jesus is about liberty and freedom, where church abusers take away the very
    freedom God intended people to have (Chrnalogar, 1997).

    Churches exist all around the world and
    many of them are right at heart. They are there to really serve people and
    bring them to Jesus Christ. Reality though says pay attention, for there are
    cult leaders right in a church setting. The NIV Bible even talks about how
    people come in sheep clothing, but are wolves. They might seem harmless as
    sheep, but they are waiting to devour people like wolves (Matthew 7:15). They are
    out to destroy people’s lives. There are common traits among these wolves.

    Born in 1952 Kerry Noble grew up in a
    healthy Christian family. As a child Noble enjoyed serving people. This
    followed him into his adult years. What Kerry experienced as a child and young
    adult was a great healthy church life, but this all changed for him in 1977
    (Hassen, 2011). In 1977 Noble and his wife joined a small church known as
    “Zarephath-Horeb Community Church.” His desire was to make a difference in
    life. By 1983 though, Noble and his church members (now was changed to “The
    Covenant, The Sword, and The Arm of the Lord”) were raided by the law for
    bringing a bomb into a church (Dittman, 2002). Noble’s dream turned out to be a
    living nightmare that he really did not dream of. It happened slowly.

    Noble was a cult leader and used God as
    a way to manipulate and bring wrath on people. Due to this Noble spent a couple
    years in jail (Hassen, 2011). This gave him time to think about his wrongs.
    Today Noble is a changed man and is committed to helping people become free in
    these types of situations. He has written a couple of books as well to help
    people.

    A common story that many are familiar
    with is “Jim Jones.” Jones was the pastor of Peoples Temple. Jones was able to
    easily influence people. People listened to him. His main sermons were on
    service and community. In the end though, due to demanding people to serve him,
    people lost their ability to think and do for themselves. He influenced people
    to the point of it leading to a massive death (PBS, 2013).

    Jones grew up in a difficult family
    with limited resources. He had a hard childhood, but was a great student. In
    spite of him graduating in medicine people began to see his ability to preach
    and get the attention of an audience.
    Jones began to serve as a student pastor in a Methodist Church in 1952.
    In 1956 Jones found his own church (PBS, 2013). It was known as “Peoples
    Temple.” In spite of being known for his ability to influence Jones had begun
    to rob the audience of their rights. He seemed to be a good man that walked in
    integrity, but wasn’t. It was a form of manipulation. Even desperate people began
    giving him their pay checks or only income.

    Jones became abusive to “his”
    followers. These people followed him not God in other words. Henry Cloud mentions
    at one point that there is only one God we are to follow (Cloud, 1992). In
    other words, people are not to worship other people to the point of giving them
    full rein in their life as though they are God. These people, due to the
    manipulation and controlling personality of Jones, gave up control of their
    lives. Some would say these people had a choice, but in reality it is a slow
    process of brainwash. The victims do not even know it is happening. Jones did
    just at. At one point due to people in public complaining of his abuse at
    church he and his followers moved to a whole different area (Ross, 2001).

    Jones victims became so victimized that
    they had no choice. Freedom of speech did not exist for them. The mind control
    became so bad from them being blinded by him. The very reasons in the
    paragraphs ahead resemble are the characteristics that Jones had. Sadly, many
    of us know Jones caused his followers to drink a poison without question; this
    led to 909 suicides.

    Society needs to begin to see a cult leader’s
    personality as abusive. These types of people ruin lives. Their number one need
    is to feel like they are God. It is about them and them only. These leaders are
    out to seek approval for themselves. They do not feel good about themselves and
    find heroism in a position of spiritual leadership (Assemblies of God USA,
    2012). It is not really about the followers, but how they can get followers to
    be an extension of who they are. This leaves the followers in a place of mental
    confusion and an inability to question the leader.

    During the process of getting the
    followers to follow him he ignores the needs of the individuals. Their lives
    are becoming his life. The victims lose focus of even knowing what they need.
    Scripture is used here in a twisted way. For example, it is selfish to do
    anything for yourself (Philippians 2:2-4). These scriptures are twisted to make
    people feel if they do anything for themselves it is wrong and they are
    considered selfish. Therefore the person is to focus on the pastor only. Most
    people know a person has a right to follow their dreams and get an education
    for example. Not according to this category of pastors though. It is about
    their needs and their needs only as a pastor.

    The cult leader focuses on creating
    dependent like children through use of scripture and control. Dr. Ronald Enroth,
    a professional in church abuse, talks about how a cult leader creates
    dependency from a place of submission. In other words, the members must obey
    him without question (Enroth, 1992). Enroth from research has come to
    conclusion as well that the follows have a lot of needs. Even though they are
    not getting them met, they become highly dependent like children and begin to
    get controlled. The members are becoming easier to brainwash. If these members
    don’t obey fear is established to force them to and discipline. Their lives
    become monitored.

    These types of leaders look for people
    who are vulnerable, young, needy or hardworking. Why? Because when a person is
    needy or vulnerable they are led easier than those who know what they want.
    People who know what they want are not led easy. They have the ability to set
    some boundaries. Henry Cloud, a professional in boundaries believes if you are
    in a setting where you do not have the ability to disagree or have a feeling of
    doing what you want to do in life you are in a cult setting (Cloud, 1992).

    Libby Phelps happened to be on the
    victim side of the scenario of cult abuse. Not long ago Phelps was interviewed
    on Todays Show. Phelps grew up inside a church that brought harm to her life.
    She was the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist
    Church. In 2009 Phelps decided to escape this church while her parents were
    away (Kuruvilla, 2013). Phelps now has lost contact with her family, for they
    want nothing to do with her now.

    Phelps had a hard 25 years. She was
    stalked and monitored closely at all times. Phelps was not allowed to do
    anything she desired to do like even where jewelry (Kuruvilla, 2013). She
    suffered since she was 8 and was forced as a child to picket signs of God’s
    wrath. Today Phelps has learned different and has a better life of independence
    away from this church. If you look at her today compared to 4 years ago a
    person can see how fear has left her eyes. She is in progress but a much
    happier woman.

    Something needs to be done about the
    issue of cults and their leaders. They are destroying people and do not have a
    law in place to hold them accountable. The only way they are held accountable
    is if it becomes physical or sexual, such as the situation mentioned above. The
    issue is, is it starts before this and people’s lives are being destroyed.
    There are several common effects of cult abuse.

    A 3 year research study of 70 past cult-victims
    performed by Professional Cult Counselors Edwin and Julia Morse resulted in
    devastating results. The Morses found that after being in a cult victims need
    validation (Morse & Morse, 1987). Validation helps bring back a person’s
    since of self after losing themselves in a cult. In addition, the victims are
    in a constant state of intimidation from the cult abuse. The Morses in research
    found it to be highly common for these victims to deal with Post-traumatic
    Stress Disorder (Morse & Morse, 1987). Day in and day out they deal with
    not knowing who they are, which is why validation helps them come back to a
    healthy place.

    Making decisions on their own is out of
    question. The dependency issues led them not to think for themselves. Constant
    approval is needed to make decisions, until he/she builds self-trust to do this
    on their own. The process is and can be challenging. A good therapist is needed
    to help the victim come to a place of independence.

    The number one issue is victims’ need
    to have more freedom from these situations. A person might be old enough to
    choose, but a person does not choose to be abused. The law system needs to
    understand that abuse starts slow and a person is manipulated. Church systems
    being separate from state puts no restrictions on what can be done to members. Not
    having certain laws in place does not give victims of church abuse the
    opportunity for justice. Now if it is sexual or physically they do, but not
    emotionally brainwashing abuse. Brainwashing is just the beginning of a trial
    of abuse.

    Even the Westboro Baptist Church that
    Libby Phelps was part of has people going to funerals and picketing signs that
    state we are glad you are dead. Due to freedom of speech they were not able to
    be held accountable by law for doing this to people. They were taken to court
    and nothing was done. Come on now. What is this that people can sit and say we
    are glad you are dead even though they were not welcomed. What about
    trespassing laws?

    These leaders need to begin to be
    questioned liked normal people. If a
    church leader cannot be questioned due to the fear they have put in their
    members they are in a cult. Having the ability to confront a church leader
    takes a lot of courage from a person. A
    person is to respect those in authority, but they are not God.

    Seeing church leaders that are not
    healthy from a standpoint of reality is key. For too long people have put them
    on a pedal stool and not looked at them as real people. According Henry Cloud, reality
    is your best friend (Cloud, 1992). God’s Word talks about how we will know the
    truth and the truth will set us free (See John 8:32). Knowing the truth is just
    not about reading the Bible, but seeing the truth of a situation. Seeing the
    truth about who leaders are and coming out of denial is the first step to
    freedom.

    People are being hurt in religious
    settings. Leaders need to give more of an account for their actions and laws
    need to be brought into place for these victims. It is similar to bullying. By
    people speaking out about being bullied it is changing. Laws are being brought
    into place about it. Without a doubt in time bullying and abuse will stop in
    churches and pastoral leadership will take account for their actions from the
    law enforcement, not just God.

    References

    Assemblies of God USA (2013). Narcissistic Spiritual Leaders.
    Retrieved January 21, 2013, from
    http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/200704/200704_044_NarcissiticSB.cfm

    Barker, K. L., & Burdick, D. W. (1985). The NIV study
    Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Bible
    Publishers.

    Bible Gateway (2013). Matthew 23 NLT – Jesus Criticizes
    the Religious Leaders – Bible Gateway. Retrieved June 21, 2013, from
    http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+23&version=NLT

    Chrnalogar, M. A. (1997). Twisted scriptures. New Kensington,
    PA: Whitaker House.

    Cloud, H. (1992). Changes that heal: How to understand
    your past to ensure a healthier future. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan.

    Dittman, M. (2002). Cults of hatred, 30(10),
    30. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov02/cults.aspx

    Enroth, R. (2013). How to Spot an Abusive Church.
    Retrieved June 21, 2013, from http://gcxweb.org/Articles/GroupMag-03-1992.aspx

    Hassen. S.. (2011, January 1). Freedom of Mind.
    Retrieved June 6, 2013, from
    http://www.freedomofmind.com/Info/articles/KerryNoble.php

    Morse, J. L. (1987). Toward a Theory of Therapy with
    Cultic Victims. American Journal Of Psychotherapy, 41(4), 563.

    PBS (1996, January). Jim Jones . Jonestown: The Life and
    Death of Peoples Temple . WGBH American Experience | PBS.
    Retrieved June 2013, from
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/jonestown-bio-jones/

    Ross, R. (2001, February). The Jonestown Massacre.
    Retrieved July 1, 2013, from
    http://www.culteducation.com/jonestown.html

About the BCC

The BCC exists to strengthen churches, para-church organizations, and educational institutions by promoting excellence and unity in biblical counseling as a means to accomplish compassionate outreach and effective discipleship.