Thursday, December 4, 2008

Psychological and Spiritual Counseling of Ex-Members of Abusive Churches

There is some terminological confusion, so I will start this post with terminology explanation. Psychologists usually use the word "cult" referring to any group that uses mind control methods. This group might be religious, political, commercial, psychotherapeutic, philosophical, and so on. Psychologists do not care for the group doctrines and beliefs, they care only on the mind control methods there. However, they still have some classification of cults. According to their classification, all the mind controlling groups that use the Bible are called "Bible-based cults".

I think this term is somewhat confusing because of two reason. The first reason is that Bible-based cults are both the groups like Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons that are obviously heretical and the groups like International Church of Christ and various branches of the Brethren that hold the most fundamental doctrines of Christianity and thus are not heretical. The second reason is that according to the Christian definition the word "cult" denotes a heretical religious group which does not hold the Biblical teachings. Thus, "a cult based on the Bible" sounds very strange to most Christians.

In Christianity, there is the term "abusive churches". This term denotes Christian churches (not obviously heretical) that have spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse denotes behavior of some Christian leaders (pastors and so on) who abuse their spiritual authority. This term implies authoritarianism and also the damage caused to the members of these churches. This damage is both spiritual and psychological. Actually, from the point of view of psychology, spiritual abuse and mind control is the same thing. So, abusive churches can be defined as Christian churches that use mind control methods. I prefer to use the term "abusive churches" instead of "Bible-based cults" because the term "abusive churches" is not so confusing.

Non-Christian psychologists who counsel former members of cults and abusive churches usually say that the former members should be counseled by psychologists who have knowledge of mind control. In principle, I agree with that. However, there is something else. Ronald M. Enroth in Recovering from Churches that Abuse, chapter 2, writes that many ex-members of abusive churches need counseling. In page 21, he writes,

Dr. Paul Martin, a Christian psychologist, believes that, although there may be obstacles such as a lack of finances standing in the way, a formal, systematic program of professional counseling is essential. A structured program enables victims of spiritual abuse to have a framework for dealing with their post-departure problems, thereby facilitating the recovery process. However, Martin points out, it is important that the counselor not be a secular mental health professional having a bias against religious beliefs, who would discourage the victim from giving any regard to religion whatsoever.

A Christian counselor is needed, whether a pastor or professional therapist. It must be someone who understands the dynamics of abusive systems and who, in a relationship of trust, can provide the warmth and caring necessary to support the victim. The survivor must be assured of God's unfailing grace and be able, in effect, to rediscover the gospel.
Then, in chapter 3, Enroth describes the rehabilitation program in the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center. The director of Wellspring is Paul Martin who is a former member of an abusive church. The Wellspring program includes both psychological and spiritual help. Describing the Wellspring program, Enroth writes about their spiritual help (pp. 32-33),

The first stage also must address the doctrines of the abusive church. It is important to examine and carefully refute any unorthodox teachings. Most of the churches mentioned in this book are theologically orthodox, although nearly all would be guilty of distorting the Bible's message in some way. Peter Sommer observes, "These groups are rarely heretical in theory. They don't deny Christian basics; they tend to brush by them. Instead they focus on what makes them different from other churches or groups. They have lots of teaching, but it tends to be on such themes as commitment, submission, and prophecy."

Stephen Martin, a staff member at Wellspring, considers instruction in sound study methods and the interpretation of the Bible important. In abusive groups, twisted hermeneutics are often used to instill fear and guilt and thus become a form of spiritual intimidation. "Since leaders of abusive churches typically twist the Scriptures, education in hermeneutics would help the ex-member gain the right perspective on Scripture passages. In talking with former members at Wellspring, I have found a number of them who have difficulty with or even an aversion to reading the Bible because it has been misused by the group to abuse them. Learning the proper application and interpretation of Scripture goes a long way toward healing the wounds of abuse."

Sommer advises, "It may be wise not to read Scriptures that the group has emphasized; their interpretation may be deeply grooved into your thinking. Read instead the many texts that they did not teach you." I suggest that these people attempt to rediscover God's Word through the Psalms because those writings validate a person's individual spiritual life. Paul Martin feels it is wise for victims to use a different translation of the Bible from that commonly used in the group...

The abusive church experience is often a crisis of faith, as Paul Martin and others have pointed out. Victims must be able not only to rebuild self-esteem and purpose in life, but also renew a personal relationship with God. That can be difficult for those who have yet to resolve the tough question, "Why did God allow this to happen to me when I was sincerely seeking him?" As Rachel, one former church member, puts it, "I had been taught that nothing was ever God's fault. The problem was that I was a true, believing Christian, but when I asked God for spiritual bread and water, look what I got. Was I praying to the wrong God? Was I dishonest? Secretly evil? Was I demonic, like the church kept telling me I was? How could an honest, sincere believer get tricked like this? How could God let this happen?"

People like Colleen and Rachel need the assurance that it is possible to have a rich relationship with God. In Sommer's words, the victim must be turned "to faith in the living God from faith in a distorted image of him. Your break with the group is a step of obedience to the first commandment: No graven images!"

In conclusion, Enroth writes,

Not many programs are especially equipped, as Wellspring is, to treat victims of spiritual abuse. Moreover, the costs can be out of reach for people upon leaving a control-oriented group because they have few financial resources. It is also the case that beyond the sphere of Christian counseling, some psychologists and psychiatrists are biased against all religious beliefs and may encourage clients to rid themselves of all religious entanglements, proverbially throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I think Enroth and Martin are right about the need in both psychological and spiritual counseling of ex-members of abusive churches. I also fully agree with them that it is much better to get a counseling from a Christian psychologist, and not from an atheist psychologist. I have never got any counseling, however, I was a member of freedomofmind group. This group is led by unbelieving psychologists who oppose Christianity. Actually, they caused me to turn from the spiritual quest to psychology. They caused me to believe that only psychology can help to get rid of the all problems caused by cults and abusive churches. Eventually, I came to conclusion that it was not really so. However, I am still more focused on psychology than on Christianity. This is the problem. So, I do believe that the counselor who can really help ex-members of abusive churches should be a Christian who can render both psychological and spiritual help like Dr. Paul Martin.


Edward Albright said...

Jehovah's Witnesses are not a cult and are not abusive.

Borz Löma Nal (Lema Nal) said...

First of all, since there are many definitions of a cult (as I have written several times in this blog), I would like to ask what is your understanding of a cult? Saying that Jehovah's Witnesses are not a cult, what exactly do you mean? Then, what do you mean by abuse - spiritual abuse, psychological abuse, physical abuse, or something else?

Edward Albright said...

Your first paragraph says "any group that uses mind control methods"

I consider cults to be groups that are isolated, like the Branch Davidians or Jonestown or the polygamists in Texas.

Jehovah's Witnesses are not isolated, JWs are througout the world.

JWs are not abusive as the teachings are to love one another. Any abuse would come from individuals not following the teachings.

Christians don't care about psychology and what that says.

JWs are not heretical, but are just misunderstood.

Borz Löma Nal (Lema Nal) said...

Actually, the Branch Davidians and Jonestown are extreme examples in many ways. Not all the cults commit group suicides or kill people. Not all the cults are isolated either.

Mind control (thought reform, coercive persuasion) is not isolation. It is an extreme form of social influence with the purpose of changing not only people's behavior, but also their attitudes. Mind control implies use of a set of methods of social influence for a long period of time, in many cases, without any physical violence.

Well, maybe JWs have a teaching about love to one another. What about practice? Do they love those who have doubts about some JW teachings? Those who are disobedient to elders? Those who have been excommunicated? What is JWs' attitude to these people?

There are many psychologists among Christians. Just two examples among people who I mentioned in my blog. Dr. Paul Martin and Dr. Flavil Yeakley both have Ph. D. in psychology and both are Christians. Yeakley has been a Christian minister for many years. Dr. Ronald Enroth is a sociologist, but he also knows psychology well.

Christian ministers use psychology in their ministry. For example, pastoral counseling requires a good knowledge of psychology.

Psychology and Christianity do not contradict one another. Christians used psychological knowledge long time before modern secular psychology was formed. The Bible also contains some psychology.

What do you mean by misunderstanding of JWs?