spiritual abuse (why I left campus crusade for Christ)
I’d like to share my own story with you all.
I’m writing this not to pain anyone, not so you’ll feel sorry for me, but simply that through my openness here, others may begin to experience the same healing for themselves.
I want only to begin a conversation here and to bring to light all that hides in darkness.
Spiritual abuse is defined as:
- Any act by deeds or words that demeans, humiliates or shames the natural worth and dignity of a person as a human being;
- Submission to spiritual authority without any right to disagree; intimidation;
- False accusation and repeated criticism by negatively labeling a person as disobedient, rebellious, lacking faith, demonized, apostate, enemy of the church or a deity (a god)
A comment from a blog dedicated to survivors of such abuse deeply reminds me of my own experience:
“I am afraid, still,after ten yrs. away, to voice my thoughts.”
I know it hasn’t been ten years – it’s only been a few months since I had to leave Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru) – but I understand this feeling so well.
I’m still so consumed by my fears.
They plague me incessantly.
To this day, every time I bump into a former ministry partner, I begin to quietly hyperventilate, every time someone asks me how Cru is, I feel nauseous and croak out a withered excuse, every single time I get a little red 1 over my Facebook inbox, my stomach drops an inch and I wonder if another friend has decided that they’ve had enough, that they too need to tell me I am a heretic and that they must break ranks with me.
I don’t know that I’ll ever extinguish these fears completely, no matter how irrational they sound, but I’m learning to overcome them.
I’ve waited this long to share my story because I wanted to give myself enough time.
Time to process it, time to try to make sense of what happened, time to talk about it with friends and family and God and cry about it together. I needed to make sure I wouldn’t be telling my story out of spite, bitterly, with the intention of hurting anyone.
But after waiting four months, I think it now may be appropriate to share the story of the most painful event in my life.
One of the bloggers who helped create spiritual abuse awareness week prefaces her own story with the following:
“When someone is angry about bad things that happened to them in their church, their anger is not easily accepted by those who have only had positive experiences with Christianity. Before a survivor of spiritual abuse can tell his story, it has to be worked over, combed through, and made palatable for the intended audience. And even then, we don’t always get heard or believed. These stories of pain don’t seem like they’re what the Church should be like, so it’s simpler to ignore the stories when you can’t relate to them.”
I pray you take my story seriously, and certainly with a grain of salt, but please understand that I’m not making any of this up; I’m not exaggerating; I’m not doing this for attention or to hurt my friends who are still in Cru, but so that others may know what happened to me and perhaps receive healing or understanding through the sharing of my own experience.
I remember writing two blog posts this fall.
One was a story documenting my slow journey in softening my views towards the LGBT community. I advocated for what I considered the Christian position to be, a radically loving treatment of our gay brothers and sisters regardless of our theological beliefs.
The other told the story of how I began to understand the domestic prevalence of human trafficking (modern-day slavery), revealing and drawing attention to an instance of sex and labor trafficking in my local community.
One post got a bunch of people upset, the other got some mild attention.
It rallied the Christian community I was a part of around me, a campus ministry I had faithfully given 2 years of my life to, a close group of friends and leaders and Christ-seeking teachers; it fostered furious, spittle-filled conversations, (over 17 phone calls of “concern!”) prayer meetings, interventions, messages, and discussions.
Sharing this blog post irreversibly changed the course of my life more than I could ever possibly articulate, beginning a slew of gossip, slander, and verbal, emotional, and barely-cloaked threatened physical abuse that spilled out on a path of anger and bitterness throughout my entire faith community.
As you may have guessed by now, things didn’t work out anything like I expected.
I remember praying for weeks before posting the piece, in which wrote about how I have come to accept my mom for who she is (a mother, a Christian, a lesbian), and how I expressed doubt that we should actively persecute gay people.
But nothing prepared me for this. A few days after hitting that “publish” button, everything started to fall apart.
Folks got more upset about my blog post on homosexuality than about the fact that I had just discovered sex trafficking going on where I live. Defending the “biblically-sound” view of homosexuality superseded both trafficking and maintaining our friendship.
I felt like my world, all of my friendships and mentors, were crumbling around me.
Former close friends and ministry leaders actually went around to my roommates and other friends telling them (verbatim) “I hope you know that Ryan’s not a Christian, he just pretends that he is. You shouldn’t hang out with him anymore. Does he even go to church?”
I cried for many, many nights about that particular betrayal.
I began hearing things (again, verbatim) like “if Ryan doesn’t affirm homosexuality as always a sin, we treat him like any other unbeliever.”
“he’s a heretic.”
“there’s no hope for him, then.”
“he doesn’t get the gospel. all he has is a real talent for writing lies in a beautiful way.”
all in response to a blog post in which I stated the following blasphemy:
“homosexuality, if sinful, is a sin of love. I concern myself much more with sins of hate — including hating homosexuals.”
“you are disobedient to the cause of Christ.”
“Ryan, if some of my friends who ‘struggle with same-sex attraction’ read those lies you wrote, they’d want to PUNCH YOU IN THE FACE.”
That last one was screamed at me by a paid Campus Crusade staff member and former mentor through tears in the middle of a crowded restaurant.
Larry, my calm, kindhearted, compassionate roommate noticed how much I was suffering. He recently sent me a few words he penned in his private journal while everything was going down. Pained, I read this just a few weeks ago:
Lord, I know I say this often, but I actually mean it this time. PLEASE give me the strength and the knowledge to peacefully handle the recent attacks Ryan has been receiving. An attack on Ryan, my brother, is essentially an attack on me. Seeing him in pain because of this situation is fucking pissing me off. They need to keep their filthy, unholy mouths off of him. I don’t enjoy seeing him up at late hours at night contemplating this. I don’t enjoy seeing him worry in class about this. I don’t enjoy seeing him have to question his own faith because of those tyrannical, hypocritical Christians (whoa, that was mean).
He does NOT deserve this. The betrayal and treatment they’re subjecting him to is dishonorable of your name and unforgivable……but it’s not unforgivable. You’ll forgive them and with your help, I’ll forgive them as well. I’m not quite sure how much longer I can stifle my tongue. This is probably why I’ve stayed away from my community group meetings, so I can avoid saying something I shouldn’t and be labeled the devil himself by the Christian community here. You and I both know whatever I have to say at the moment isn’t anything nice. Help me, please.
It is perhaps most heartbreaking that my remaining friends felt this pain as well.
Having been totally dependent on Cru’s approval for 2 years, I felt humiliated, rejected, utterly cast out.
The pain kept coming, as did the nasty words and messages of disapproval. Looking to invite friends to hang out only to see they had defriended or blocked me on Facebook, per words from their “spiritual discipler.” Being told I could not be considered a fellow Christian if I did not agree on this one particular issue.
But still, I did not want to break ties with my community.
There are too many good people in Cru for me to just leave them, I remember thinking, and I still believe this to be true.
But I remember well the turning point: the four-and-a-half-hour conversation that finally convinced me I’d stumbled into some sort of cultic atmosphere.
I trusted this man.
Over the past 2 years I had trusted him and loved him and told him all of my secrets all in the name of him teaching me to become a better Christian.
He was speaking to me about a “dangerous” blog I’d shared a link to a couple of weeks ago.
“Hey, look at me,” he cut in. “Look me in the eyes, Ryan. I want you to know how seriously I mean this.” He drew breath. “I hate Red Letter Christians. I hate Red Letter Christians. I HATE Red Letter Christians!” he spat.
You shouldn’t hate others, I remember saying.
“God does not hate anyone,” I said, “so neither do we,” somehow feeling surreal that I was even having this conversation.
“You do not understand the gospel if you don’t think God hates us.”
“Ryan,” he shook his head and looked me in the eyes, “God absolutely hates you.”
I glanced down, uncomfortable.
“God does not hate anyone.”
“See, this is exactly what I’m talking about,” he said, smiling, pulling up Chapter 2 from the book of Revelation on his iPhone. “You really need to submit to the scriptures more. God loves you but he also hates you. And it is right for him to hate and kill and to tell us to hate or kill whoever he wants!”
I glanced at the words on the phone he handed me, a sentence from the final book of the Bible:
“Do you see? God hates you.”
“You mean love the sinner, hate the sin,” I tried, feeling like I now was beginning to understand his point.
“No. Not just your sin. You. God hates sinners with a righteous fire. What’s more, he commands us to hate people who believe the wrong things. Like the Nicolaitans.”
Like Red Letter Christians.
I sat still, for I had never heard such anger in my friend’s voice.
Images of my atheist, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Liberal Christian, and Muslim friends flashed before my eyes. Not only, was I being told, did God hate them, but also that he commanded me to hate them as well.
“God does not hate anyone, and we are not supposed to hate people either. Maybe their sins, but not them,” I said, surer now. “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. You can’t hate people and call yourself a Christian. That’s the point of Christianity.”
My friend told me I was being “unsubmissive to authority” and “selective in my scriptural interpretation.”
The conversation ended with him pleading with me to “re-submit to his authority in my life” and to commit to meeting with Cru staff and leaders 4 times a week, reading nothing but my Bible for the next 16 weeks, and not posting on my blog, Facebook, or Twitter until summertime.
It wasn’t until then, that I felt the tentacles of control and indoctrination wrap even tighter around my heart, that I knew I had to leave Cru for good.
You know what, as long as I have your attention, let me clear something up.
Just in case you actually may believe the garbage my friend was selling:
God does not hate you.
God does not hate anyone.
I believe in a God who forsook heaven, a God who so loved the world he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall never perish, but inherit eternal life; my God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
God does not hate you, Jesus will never ask you to hate anyone, and He will not actively torture you if you do not follow Him.
This was the last straw.
Looking back, it scares me how close I was to becoming an agent of such hate myself.
I realized something a few days ago (after once again witnessing the antics of Westboro Baptist Church) – the only difference between this man’s (and by extension, Cru’s) beliefs and hate groups like Westboro Baptist Church is…their delivery.
The message is pretty much the same:
God hates you with a deep, burning fire.
Not just your sin, you.
You are a wretched mistake of a human being.
You’d better believe in Jesus the right way and stay in the community or it’s hell, forever.
The worst part about worshipping this type of God (a God who hates everybody) is that Westboro is proven right: technically, He does hate fags.
Folks like Fred Phelps are right on the money in terms of their theological grasp of God’s nature; they just need to adjust their tone. One should always be told God hates them in gentleness, not in anger, by Facebook message, not picket signs.
All of this hate, it fills me up and swells and I just want to shout it out of me from a rooftop.
I hate so many things about what has happened to me.
I hate that I’ve been told I need to repent of believing “the lie that God and Jesus do not hate anyone, that they love everyone (not just the elect, not just Christians, but everyone) unconditionally.”
I hate that I know what it feels like to be afraid to go to a Bible study.
I hate that I’ve lost my desire to be in a formal, evangelistic ministry of any kind.
I hate that I have lost respect for an entire set of theological beliefs.
I hate that, as one victim of spiritual abuse wrote, “I’ve lost the belief that church friends will stick by me no matter where I am in my walk, and not judge me,” that “I’ve lost the feeling of being truly known by friends and feeling the freedom to just be me, whoever that is, today.”
I hate myself for publishing that blog post sometimes.
I hate that I have lost God.
All of this I hate, but I will hate no person.
The writer of 1 John put it best:
“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”
Can it get any simpler than that?
Accuse me of “picking and choosing the mushy scriptures about love” all you want – you cannot, my friends, actively hate others and call yourself a child of Yahweh, much less try to justify your venom with the Bible.
Resentment must lose to forgiveness.
Love trumps hate.
And with that, my eyes have been opened to the possibility that love wins.
For I love that I’ve finally gotten a taste of what my gay friends must go through on a daily basis (active, unjust persecution by spiteful Christians).
I love that I now no longer think women are naturally supposed to submit to patriarchy.
I love that I have now myself cried out and deeply understand Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the Cross: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I love that God has sifted through the garbage for me, that I now know who my true friends are.
I love that God has found me.
Hate and love. One leads to death, the other, life.
Sooner or later, you’re going to have to stand up and make a choice for yourself.
Take your pick.