On May 21st, 2013, my life changed forever. My house church in Redlands, CA, became a cult, put me on trial, and tried to coerce me to sign a contract that forbade questioning the leadership. They called such questions “slander.”
The antinomian teachings of Hyper Grace had taken hold of this fifty-member community, and they ultimately shunned me, along with their families, friends, and other house churches in the area.
I was devastated, because I knew that this sort of thing—authoritarian dictators running rampant with impunity—happens often in churches. I had been studying it and learning about it. I knew it even had a name: spiritual abuse. I determined to warn others and speak out, even when my vocabulary and composure couldn’t keep up.
As my friends went from drunkenness to drug use, from marijuana to heroin, from twisting the Scriptures to ignoring them entirely, the apathy of so many parents and pastors and onlookers in Redlands matched what I came to understand was the larger Christian world.
Like every victim, my entry into the survivor community was unexpected and involuntary, and every plea for help became a silent scream into a vacuum where no answers come.
Those were my “all caps days,” when I wrote status after status on Facebook—never in a dignified way—seeking to share my experiences of abuse. I thought that if you heard from a person you knew, speaking about how abuse is thriving in churches, you would understand what has been happening for far too long.
I thought you would understand what I was saying about Bill Gothard, Doug Philips, Mark Driscoll, Perry Noble, Tony Jones, Bill Hybels, Andy Savage, Tullian Tchividjian, C.J. Mahaney, James MacDonald, and too many others to mention. I thought you would understand how these leaders and the culture that enables them are not unique or isolated incidents but part of a hellish pattern.
I thought you would see this pattern and understand my burden to stop it.
I was wrong.
Maybe I was naïve, thinking Christians were different from the average person. Your preaching about love and family and commitment gave me the impression you knew what you were talking about. But when push comes to shove, it has actually been the non-Christians in my life who treated me better than the Christians.
The biggest lesson being your friend taught me is how I should not try to persuade people to love me who are committed to misunderstanding me. I will no longer negotiate my worth. Even if you disagree, I deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion because I am created in the image of the invisible God.
Yet you’d rather make me “unhinged,” nothing more than garbage, a Peter who cries “wolf,” rather than consider I may actually know what I’m talking about.
I wish you understood.
I wish you knew what I did about how unsafe Sunday really is.
I wish you knew the many people I do, whose lives stand in sharp contrast to your own.
The subtle biases many of us face is a web of indifference. It is that attitude, that mindset hiding in plain sight, that the Church is somehow immune from evil and that abuse does not happen there.
Instead, the soul-crushing truth is that abuse would not thrive in the Church if it weren’t for the indifference of those whose privilege has isolated them from reality.
I wish instead of invalidating our experiences you could just listen. When we tell you that women experience the Church differently than men, how vulnerable children and the disabled are, how harsh the punishment is for disagreeing with a pastor, or what it’s like when you tell the truth in a community that professes to love truth, you cannot just disagree.
Not only is this insulting, it is dehumanizing. Your denial robs us from the very thing we need the most—a community where we can heal.
Instead, the survivors of the Church have become so numerous that we now have formed a community of our own. I believe it is another revival, but instead of God bringing people to the institutional church, He is rescuing people from it. The industry, the celebrities, the publishing houses and radio stations—the big money that comes from playing along—none of it glorifies Jesus, because there is nothing sacred about an institution that hides evil.
You see these survivors in such places like conferences on abuse—the Courage Conference, the Conquer Conference, the Valued Conference, or smaller get-togethers that are not so public.
You’ll find them in #Exvangelicals, #ChurchToo, and #EmptyThePews. Some of the voices are strident or openly heretical, but I understand that is what happens when faith hurts.
Far from hating the Church or you, I do love you. I wish you were still my friend. But your lack of presence demonstrates the fact you had no empathy to begin with. I was an enigma that you tried to solve, a curiosity you tried to manage, a problem—but never a person to be loved.
You’ve never applied yourself to deeply love the broken or wounded on the roadside. Deep down, you’re so afraid that you could be vulnerable to abuse or assault that you assign blame to the victimized. The randomness of life is so terrible a thing to contend with that somehow we “deserved” what we experienced.
Maybe that’s why you never reached out and said, “Help me understand.” Maybe that’s why you never called to ask “Are you okay?” Your mind was already made up about us, even as we trusted you to love us.
Instead you asked, “Why are you so bitter?” “Why aren’t you going to church?” “Why aren’t you reading your Bible?”
You claimed “no church is perfect,” asked if we were “working toward reconciliation,” and accused us of gossip and slander.
You act as though there is no reason to be angry or hurt by this. You are surprised Bible verses dispassionately recited can harm people. You are offended when we say we aren’t troublemakers because there is already trouble inside your community. The people you are called to love, you refer to as slanderers, divisive, and renegades.
And you say we can go to you for anything.
We see the contradiction. We see no urgency to care. We see you’re just looking for reasons to shove us away and then wonder why we never come to church.
I learned the hard way that when abuse happens in religious communities, a steadfast commitment to truth can be a relational death sentence. Often it is the people in power who abuse, and often it is those very people you cannot question.
The clearest indicator that a community is in dangerous territory is when we cannot question our leaders. Our demeanor does not matter, nor how we frame our words, because this isn’t about how we say it—it is about what we are saying that makes us, somehow, unworthy of your time.
As the years have passed, I not only gained the vocabulary for knowing what has happened to me and others, but I feel what Emily Dickenson wrote when she said, “There is a languor of life, more imminent than pain. ‘Tis pain’s successor, when the soul has suffered all it can.” I understand what Brené Brown wrote when she said, “You can choose courage or comfort but you cannot choose both.” I understand what Fred Rogers meant when he said, “Listening is one of the most important things we can do for one another.”
Far from being angry with you, I read our last emails and messages and sometimes look you up. I often dare to wish you a Merry Christmas or Happy Birthday. I have many such messages in my draft folders. But I know you have not reexamined your position, because you have not reached out to me.
You are enshrined in your certainty that you are right and the many survivors who are speaking out are wrong.
There are so many of us in the Church who remain outside of the sanctuary on Sunday, yet our absence means nothing to you. The show must go on, because pretense matters more than our presence.
In so doing, you scoff at people’s pain. Your silence in the face of our pain makes you complicit for so much of it.
Now, tell us truly: who is the hateful one? Who is the divisive one? Who is the slanderer? Who is unsafe?
I didn’t destroy our friendship. It broke my heart to learn you were not incapable—just unwilling—to truly love me and those like me. When you walked away, I had to learn to do the same. But I never wanted to do that.
If you ever returned to me, having looked into these matters and with a sincere apology were ready to fight for a world without abuse, I would love to have you back.
Sadly, I believe the next time I will see many of you is during the end of all things, when we all stand before Him before whose face the earth and heavens will fade away. There He will tell us that when we gave a drink to the thirsty, when we welcomed the stranger, when we clothed the poor, and when we visited the prisoner, we were doing it to Him.
He will pierce us with His fiery gaze and see when we failed to love others. You will ask when you failed.
And then I imagine He will gesture to us. Those of us who hungered for righteousness and thirsted for justice but were not fed. Those of us who were exiled from our church families and never welcomed back. Those of us who stood naked and ashamed when shame was not ours to bear and yet were not clothed and protected.
Those of us who languished under the weight of chains from oppressive abusers and were not visited or freed, but were looked upon with indifference, if we were ever seen at all.
I’m not sure what will happen next for you at that moment—if punishment comes for those who say they are Christ’s yet lived as though they were not. But I do hope you will then realize what I’ve been trying to tell you all along.
Ryan Ashton is a survivor, advocate, and graphic designer with a BFA in Graphic Design. He is the Director of Technology and Social Media for GRACE and the Creative Director for The Courage Conference. Ryan currently volunteers with Greenville (SC)’s Julie Valentine Center as a sexual assault victim advocate.