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Sometimes church is a toxic place. 

Not always. Not even usually!  Study after study has found that religiosity actually helps people, and people who go to church tend to have better mental health, better relationships, and better lives overall.

HOWEVER–and that’s a big however–not all churches are equal. And when church goes wrong, it can go wrong BIG TIME.

That’s the theme of our book for moms of daughters, She Deserves Better.

We’ve been writing it for quite a few months now, and we finished it up and sent it into Baker Books on Friday!  Based on our survey of 7500 women about their experiences as teens, we identified key beliefs that are common in youth group and Christian settings that lead to far worse outcomes for women later.

But again–not everybody was taught this stuff. Not all churches are like this.

That’s why it’s so important to have discernment about what church to go to!

And one big thing we found is that if a church makes you feel less-than, makes you feel shame, then that’s a red flag that it’s not a safe place. 

I’m taking a bit of a quieter week this week to get over our huge deadline, but I want to share with you a story that a woman sent into the blog that explains what such a church experience may look like.

She writes:

I remember the moment vividly. I was sitting in a little church classroom for an evening of Pioneer Club or Word of Life, I can’t remember which. My daughters’ father (he divorced me years ago) worked nights, so I took them with me as I was also a volunteer. My youngest was under 2, and the oldest was 3.

The program was for preschool and up. The little one was crying, didn’t want to sit like a little robot in a chair, and was generally disruptive. After several minutes of removing her from the room to have a “chat”, I finally took her to the bathroom for a solid spank, at the encouragement of our Pastor and his wife. After all, I would be disobeying God if I didn’t promptly spank her for her “disobedience”.

I whacked her little bottom, told her she had to sit and be quiet, and she cried. All I remember is that sweet, crumpled little face, and those giant tears.

I remember the pain and crushing agony of going against all my maternal instincts by spanking her.

She wasn’t even 2 and was in a class for older children, for pity’s sake! Of course she didn’t want to sit still. She wanted to play!

I had formerly majored in Children’s Ministry before switching majors, so I knew enough about Early Childhood Development to know this class was not age appropriate for her, and expectations were unrealistic. So, I held her, hugged her close to me, apologized repeatedly and comforted her. I cried as well. I walked out of the bathroom and into the little kitchen where a couple older ladies were preparing snacks for the other children. They saw our tears, I told them what was going on, and they offered to let my sweet girl hang out with them. I felt a rush of relief, and my little one loved them, so it was a win.

Later that night after I got home and my girls tucked into bed, I received an email from the Pastor. He saw my little one and I emerge from the bathroom. I was rebuked because I disobeyed God.

You see, if I had properly obeyed, my little one would STILL be beside herself and crying, and had I spanked her properly, would have heard it outside the bathroom door. I “rewarded” her by giving into her and allowing her to sit with the snack ladies. I disobeyed God because I didn’t properly “apply” the rod.

I was furious.

A file was made regarding my disobedience and insubordination, and that file would continue to grow. I sit here now, many years later, and that evening still brings me to tears and makes my heart ache. There were so many things expected of me from that one particular church, and I did what I was told (until I didn’t) because I only desired to obey God. In fact, I went against everything I truly believed and ignored the prompting of the Holy Spirit that would have stayed my hand.

I have made many apologies to my children over the years because, you see, I do not, nor have I ever, believed in spanking. I think it is an affront to Jesus, the Gentle Shepherd.

To spank or not to spank isn’t the subject here, however.

The subject is that an opinion of man, and an interpretation by a man, was to take precedence over the Holy Spirit’s nudging in my own spirit in order for me to be viewed as a “godly” woman in this particular church.

I am not sure I have ever forgiven that Pastor, his wife, or myself for listening to them rather than God. I can’t think of that denomination without great anger as those teachings are still perpetuated to this day.

I share all this to say, we must be trained to listen to the Holy Spirit ABOVE all else – even the man in the Pulpit. We must know God’s Word, examine it closely, and be willing to stand firm regardless of the conflict. I’ve had many discussions with my children about why I believe spanking is wrong. We have also had many discussions about Jesus, his Church, Scripture, and the Holy Spirit. Follow Jesus. Follow him alone. He will never lead you to harm.

Note some of the red flags here:

  • There was no understanding of child development
  • The pastor felt he had a right to tell her how to parent
  • The pastor “disciplined” her and called her at home to rebuke her
  • There was a file opened on her

You can likely spot others!

This woman wrote back to me with more of her story:

Thinking back, these are all of the things I got in trouble for at that church:

1. Asking too many questions during the creation/evolution study

2. Getting a tubal after my last child (I have many). They removed me from my volunteer positions and put an abusive parent in those positions instead because I was disqualified since I had a tubal ligation.

3. Not obeying my husband (Jesus thankfully freed me from that abusive marriage)

4. Not “applying the rod” properly with my children

5. Getting an education because I wanted to be able to support my children

6. Using the NIV when I taught Sunday School

7. Not wanting to homeschool after my husband left for a time and I had to work to support my children.

8. Not being willing to share with our ladies’ Bible study group what time I scheduled sex with my husband.

Between this church, that leadership and many years in a spiritually/emotionally/verbally abusive marriage, it’s a miracle I still cling to Jesus and found a church I love.

My current church isn’t perfect, but it’s a beautiful community that majors in the majors and minors in the minors. My children and I will probably always need to be in therapy, but I’m living out the dreams God has planted within me without that fear any longer.

I know this all looks terrible, and you may think, “how could she have put up with that?” But the thing is that when you’re in the middle of that, the church uses abusive tactics to make you feel like you are the problem.

This church was trying to control her. It looks nothing like Jesus.

Let’s be honest: what it looks like is a cult. When someone else is trying to micromanage your life, keep a strict hierarchy, and has a hyper-focus on sex and heavy discipline, that’s a huge red flag for cult-like behaviour.

I’ve gone to churches that aren’t quite this bad, but they do have many similarities. What kept me there at the time was the thought, “well, I don’t agree with everything, but at least they put the gospel front and centre.”

But just because a church tells you to read your Bible and preaches that you need to believe in Jesus to be saved does not mean that the church knows Jesus at all.

Jesus said that we will know His followers by their love (John 13:35) and by their fruit (Matthew 7:20). 

If you are in a church like this, please know that you are not alone. So many are just like you. But so many have also gotten out! You can get out without having to give up on Jesus. You can actually FIND Jesus in a healthy church.

I wanted to share this woman’s story today because there are others like her who read this blog.

Please know: it’s okay to walk out and never look back. 

It's okay to leave an abusive church

I hear stories like hers everyday in emails. There are so many like this woman out there. Were you ever in a church like this? Did you get out? Share your story to help others!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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