Submission after Spiritual Abuse

Submission: the action or fact of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person. 

As a survivor of spiritual abuse, even the thought of submitting to another can be terrifying. Because many church teachings focus on submission, this is one of the reasons attending church is still extremely difficult for me.

It is common for survivors of any kind of abuse, especially from someone in an authority position, to struggle around submitting to other authorities.

Even reading these verses, I find within myself a deep sense of sadness and confusion.

Submit yourselves therefore to God…James 4:7

Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Ephesians 5:21

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account…Hebrews 13:17

Recently, during a podcast, I listened to a church member refer to his submission to a pastor as “sitting under him.” I had to turn the podcast off, because I found myself getting so angry.

Many years ago, I submitted to my pastor wholeheartedly. I believed he was acting on behalf of God to protect and care for my soul. Then I realized he wasn’t acting on behalf of God at all, but rather out of his own desires.

Three words in this podcast brought this memory to the forefront of my mind again.

What happens when we submit to spiritual authority and discover we have submitted to an abuser?

Disillusionment happens.

Confusion happens.

Depending on how much support we receive after we suffer this kind of trauma, sometimes losing faith in people and God happens.

Thankfully, I was able to receive counseling after I experienced spiritual abuse. My counselor walked alongside of me for almost five years. While I still struggle in many ways as a result of this trauma, I know that without her presence I most likely would not have survived. She was a true Godsend, who kept me from drowning in a tsunami of emotional pain.

However, even as much as she cared about me, I struggled at times to trust her enough to “submit” to her and take her advice. I’m sure I must have frustrated her many times, but she never stopped being there for me. Even today, I know if I reached out she would still be there without expecting anything in return.

Many churches have clearly missed the mark on teachings concerning submission. Sometimes submission is taught as a blind leap of faith under the authority of someone who has a higher position than us. Then when we follow those who we are told we should submit to and discover that they are not the people we thought they were, sometimes we are told that we made this leader an idol or expected too much of him. One must look to Jesus and not man, I have been told by well meaning Christians.

While the last statement is true, it is crucial that those who are in positions of spiritual leadership look at the problems of abuse and narcissism in the church. Too much of it is happening. When Narcissism Comes to the Church by Chuck Degroat is an excellent resource. Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church by Diane Langberg is another important resource.

These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. Jude 1:12,13

Survivors of spiritual abuse have been consumed by the person who was intended to feed their souls.

We waited for the rain to come from a dark cloud that hid the bright light of the Son and blew our souls around with every wind of destructive doctrine.

The saltwater that flooded our souls with their shame has left us washed up and dying of thirst on the shore.

It is never the will of Jesus for this to happen. He warned us, because He wanted to protect us from it happening, because that is what a good Shepherd does.

While I love so much about Jesus, I still struggle with my faith. I struggle to pray. I struggle to read my Bible. I struggle to trust God. I struggle especially to submit to even Him.

While this might not sound like much of a victorious Christian life, I can assure you that the fact that I am still here is a testimony that God is very much the Savior of our souls.

Sometimes submission means we trust God enough just to get through another day without giving up.

Sometimes victory means we honor our struggles, our doubts and fear and learn to have compassion for ourselves.

Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh. 

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. Jude 1:22-25

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