"Do pastors go to hell?"
I stared at the question that appeared in my instant message box and breathed a prayer for the right answer. The friend who'd asked it had experienced horrendous spiritual, mental and verbal abuse from a pastor and I was trying to encourage her to embrace forgiveness in spite of it.
"Some do," was my answer.
But isn't it always jarring to discover men (or women) occupying the role of pastor or priest whose actions are evil? It is completely reversed from what we should be finding in the house of God. And, depending upon what you've been told, you may be made to believe that the evils perpetrated by these people are God's will. This is twisted and perverse and yet, it happens. The church is taught to revere their pastor. The pastor is supposed to be the one person, above all others, whom you can trust.
So what do you tell someone who has experienced abuse from the very one he or she should be able to trust with matters of the spirit?
Let me insert a personal experience that my husband and I walked through with one church that had some pastors who operated in spiritual abuse.
When I first found the church, I was so happy to have found it that I left a glowing review on Yelp. I felt confident of recommending my church to others and I knew I couldn't be the only one to turn to the internet when in need of finding a place to belong. Then, fast forward about five years. (A lot can happen in five years.)
Now in the Yelp review I'd posted about this church, I was radiant in declaring that this church was NOT controlling. For several years now, I had seen a different side, but I really hesitated before stating this publicly. After all, it's a church. And I still knew people there. And they knew me. I could be seen as an apostate or worse. 2nd Sign of an Abusive Church: The environment discourages the questioning of church leaders in any way as a form of rebellion.
But I did not wish to be responsible for leading people to a controlling and abusive environment through my first review which said so clearly "This is a healthy place to attend."
By this time, I knew quite the opposite was true. One of the pastors lied to and about us so much that we finally began to fact-check everything he told us. Another pastor was dealing with sexually deviant issues while working with young people, and when the issue came to the surface through his bad decisions, he was removed without anyone knowing why, and his real issues were never exposed to the parents of the children he'd worked with. 3rd Sign of an Abusive Church: They refuse to be transparent about sin or failings of the pastors.
Additionally, story after story had come to our attention regarding this church that my review so heartily recommended. One pastor told a Godly young couple that they would not receive the blessing of God in their new marriage unless they met this pastor's list of prerequisites. 4th Sign of an Abusive Church: Manipulating people by taking God's place in directing their lives.
One young woman felt so hemmed in and controlled by her pastor that she was terrified to even leave the church. Another young woman was put out of the church and accused by a pastor of being a seductress: as it turned out, the source of the accusation was mentally unstable and threatened to rape her, which eventually led to his admittance into a mental institution. The church had backed him every step of the way and the pastor involved never apologized for destroying this woman's image. Yes, all those events and more had come to rest at our door. We had not sought them out. We simply loved and knew the people these things happened to.
Reviews on Yelp don't have to be permanent. I once left a chastising review with a business based on my interactions with it and had the owner of the business contact me. She expressed that she was desirous of learning how she could fix the problem. I shared what led me to write the review. She agreed that based on my experience, my concerns were valid and wished to return the money I'd paid for the poor service received. I told her I appreciated it and then offered, without her asking, to just remove my review. She thankfully acquiesced. The review no longer exists on the internet for the business and I have no bad feelings about my experience. Everyone involved wins!!!
But, unfortunately, that was not how it went down with this church. No one contacted us. Nobody reached out to say, "Man, the things you have shared in this review concern me, too. They are truly concerning things. Control is a real problem."
5th Sign of an Abusive Church: The "Brand" must be protected at all costs.
No. No, but in a truly controlling fashion, this church did not contact us personally although we were currently in the area, but went about finagling information from our friends and family about us.
And we received a card in the mail from one of the pastors with $100.00 in it.
I know. First thought makes you go, "Wow, what a truly loving and Christian thing to do: that pastor totally nailed the "turn the other cheek thing, didn't he?"
6th Sign of an Abusive Church: Attempts to Manipulate through Guilt and Condemnation.
And then I thought, "Wait a second. I'm not a jerk. I am not acting out of vengeance by writing this review. I wasn't being vindictive in anything I wrote. I was thoughtful, sad, even concerned in my review." And if what I had shared was untrue in any way, this pastor could easily have connected with me and cleared up the situation. That's what business owners do.
I wanted to send the check back, but Daniel halted me.
"Why send it back?"
"Because you know that he is sending this to make us feel guilty for writing a review about the church. I don't want his stupid money!"
"Does he say anything about the review in the card?" Daniel asked.
So we kept the money and I sent a nice, friendly thank you card back letting the pastor know we appreciated his generosity and his words. And everyone posed very nicely and pretended to smile prettily and nothing else happened, except that we decided we would never attend that church again.
Not every church is an abusive church and not every pastor is an abusive pastor. Thank God, I can say I know some truly amazing human beings who pastor churches and I am blessed to call them my friends. They really are my friends. They know me, care for me, and if I needed spiritual help, I could call on any of them in an instant and they would be there for me, if they possibly could.
7th Sign of an Abusive Church: The pastors are not interested in healthy personal relationships with you, but consider themselves part of an elite group over you.
I'm using the term "Pharisee" because the wicked priests of the Bible who rejected even Christ, are a perfect example of the kind of pastors we're talking about here. You are not crazy: wicked pastors who know plenty of God's word and continue to act wickedly, DO EXIST.
What you need to know is that God profoundly loves you. And the abuse you suffered at their hands, in the name of Christ, infuriates God. And He will repay. Galatians 6:7 says, "Don't be misled--you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant." Justice matters to God.
In our own experience, both at this church and others, forgiveness is key. It's the hardest thing you will likely ever do, because everything in you is screaming for justice. But God says that Justice is His. So, we forgive: actively, daily even, every time the pain hits anew. Unforgiveness and bitterness will utterly destroy us as people. It will ultimately hurt us more than the evil we've experienced ever could. We must release the villainy of pastors who have abused and rejected us so that God can judge them.
Forgiveness is supernatural. It is impossible for you to feel like forgiving anybody. We simply obey God and He works the miracle. We say, "God I forgive X." And God is the one who begins the miracle of forgiveness in us.
God can handle the darkness. Perhaps your brokenness has already chased you into dark places in your heart. Perhaps the continuing evil of these perpetrators is too much for you to handle. It is too much for us. You are not the savior of the world, Christ is. But don't worry: He's already promised us that "the wicked will not inherit the earth". Martin Luther King Jr. paraphrased it this way: "The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice." God is very patient but He is just and He will handle the darkness.
Love your neighbor as yourself. You are not powerless. You can be a part of the solution for the next person. Whatever you'd like others to do for you, do for them: If you can warn others of an abusive church, do so. Just keep in mind, you can't make people choose wisely or well. You cannot make evil pastors change. You do not control the hearts of people. God does. But He cares for people even more than you. Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly before your God. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Live free!
For more insight into this subject, this is an excellent article on Abusive Churches: http://www.cbn.com/spirituallife/churchandministry/Spiritual_Abuse1.aspx