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Reporting the Truth.
Restoring the Church.

Understanding & Overcoming Spiritual Abuse

The Roys Report
The Roys Report
Understanding & Overcoming Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse has become an increasingly hot topic, as more and more stories of bully pastors and hyper-controlling churches have grabbed headlines. But how does spiritual abuse differ from mere emotional and psychological abuse? And what are its key features and stages?

In this podcast, Justin Humphreys, CEO of Thirtyone:Eight and author of Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse, joins Julie to discuss this important issue.

Thirtyone:Eight is the leading independent Christian safeguarding charity in the UK. And over the past few years, Thirtyone:Eight has conducted numerous high-profile investigations of churches and leaders accused of spiritual abuse.

This includes what some British publications have called the “mother of all abuse stories”—abuse by Jonathan Fletcher and John Smyth. Smyth ran a system of evangelical camps for boys from elite schools throughout England. And Fletcher was vicar of the prominent Emmanuel Church Wimbledon and one of the most influential evangelicals in all of England.

During this in-depth conversation, Justin describes those cases, and how both Smyth and Fletcher twisted Scripture to suit their selfish ends. He then explains how the term spiritual abuse came into being—and how our understanding of it has evolved over the past few decades.

Julie and Justin then explore the stages of spiritual abuse, how to leave spiritually abusive systems, and then how to heal and create safe church cultures with authentic spiritual leadership.

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Justin Humphreys

Justin Humphreys is CEO of Thirtyone:Eight, an independent Christian safeguarding charity operating across the United Kingdom and internationally. Established in 1977, the charity now supports in excess of 10,000 member organisations to create safer places for all.
He is co-author of two recent books Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating Healthy Christian Cultures (SPCK, 2019) and Just Leadership (SPCK, 2021). He is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Kent (Department of Religious Studies) and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Chester (School of Psychology).
Justin holds an MSc in Child Protection and Strategic Management, a BSc. (Hons) in Social Work Studies and a Diploma in Counselling Psychology & Psychotherapy. He has been a Christian since the age of 11 and is married with three adult children.
Show Transcript



Spiritual abuse has become an increasingly hot topic as more and more stories of bully pastors and hyper controlling churches have grabbed headlines. But how does spiritual abuse differ from your emotional and psychological abuse? And what are its key features and stages? Welcome to The Roys Report, a podcast dedicated to reporting the truth and restoring the church. I’m Julie Roys. And joining me today is Justin Humphreys, CEO of Thirtyone:eight, the leading independent Christian safeguarding charity in the UK. Over the past few years Thirtyone:eight has conducted numerous high-profile investigations of churches and leaders accused of spiritual abuse. These include an investigation of the Crowded House, the Church founded by Steve Timmis. Timmis is the former CEO of Acts 29, who was fired in 2020 for alleged bullying and spiritual abuse. Thirtyone:eight has also investigated what some British publications have called the mother of all abuse stories, abuse by Jonathan Fletcher and John Smyth. Smyth ran a system of evangelical camps for boys from elite schools throughout England. And Fletcher was vicar of the prominent Emanuel Church Wimbledon, and one of the most influential evangelicalisms in all of England.


So, Justin Humphreys is well acquainted with abuse in a church context. And in his book, Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse, Justin explains how the term came into being and how our understanding of spiritual abuse has evolved. He also explores the key features of spiritual abuse and its impact. And he explains how to create safe church cultures with authentic spiritual leadership. I’m so looking forward to my discussion with Justin.


But first, I’d like to thank two sponsors of this podcast, Judson University and Marquardt of Barrington. Judson University is a top ranked Christian University providing a caring community and an excellent college experience. Plus the school offers more than 60 majors great leadership opportunities and strong financial aid. Judson University is shaping lives that shaped the world. For more information, just go to JUDSONU.EDU. Also, if you’re looking for a quality new or used car, I highly recommend my friends at Marquardt  of Barrington. Marquardt is a Buick GMC dealership where you can expect honesty, integrity and transparency. That’s because the owners there Dan and Kurt Marquardt are men of integrity. To check them out just go to BUYACAR123.COM.


Well again, joining me is Justin Humphreys, CEO of the Christian safeguarding group Thirtyone:eight. He’s also an Honorary Fellow at the University of Kent and a visiting lecturer at the University of Chester. And Justin is coauthor of the book, Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse. So Justin, welcome, and thanks so much for joining me.



Thank you for having me on Julie. It’s great to be here.



And I am so excited to speak with you because I’ve been following your work and the work of Thirtyone:eight. And you’ve you know, as I referenced in the open, you have been at the center of some of these major investigations involving scandals with Jonathan Fletcher, and John Smyth. And Thirtyone:eight has just done phenomenal work. I know you’re very well respected. But sadly, because we’re in the US most of my listeners, though, certainly not all. But we’re often not aware of what’s going on there in England. So a lot of people probably aren’t familiar with your work aren’t familiar with John Smyth or Jonathan Fletcher, and yet I think what is happening there in the UK mirrors so much of what’s happening here in the US with a lot of abuse, both sexual, physical and spiritual abuse happening and then being covered up. So I would really appreciate it if you could summarize for us, and I know it’s hard to summarize these huge stories, right? But if you would give us just kind of a brief synopsis of what happened with them, and then the impact that it’s had there on the church in England.



Yeah, thank you, Julie. Firstly, John Smyth was a very high profile, highly influential leader within the Church of England and the wider conservative evangelical tradition of the church, if you like. Now deceased, but John was also a queen’s counsel. So, for those who may not be familiar with that top lawyer, Barrister in this country, prominent, well connected. I mean, connected to the highest levels in society. And he was found to have abused countless men throughout an extensive period of time. He would go through a long period of grooming, and then would befriend, and then emotionally, physically, psychologically, and spiritually abuse those men in the name of Scripture in the name of God. And when he was a risk of being exposed for all of those abusive, horrendously abusive practices, where he would take these young men into the shed at the end of his garden in a country home, he would literally beat them to within an inch of their lives. When he was at risk of being exposed of that he was aided to flee the country. He went to South Africa, and then continued to abuse and the evidence would seem to suggest even kill others whilst out there.


There’s a lessons learned review, as we call it in the UK here that’s underway, that was commissioned by the Church of England. It’s called the Machen Review being undertaken by an individual called Keith Machen. It is now long, long overdue in its reporting. It just goes to show the scale and complexity of what’s being looked at.



And John Smyth. Also, these camps that he ran with really elite, those educated in the best schools of England. And a lot of names that we know here, even in the US like Nicky Gumbel, who has the Alpha course, went through those camps, and they were just extraordinarily prominent, weren’t they?



Yes,  hugely, hugely influential. I don’t think we can underestimate the connections that an individual like John Smyth had. It was described to me as a spider’s web. It’s really quite unlike anything I’ve seen before and possibly since.



Kind of the mother of all abuse stories, because of how long it went on, the fact that they had done an investigation found he was guilty, and then shipped him to South Africa, just absolutely horrific. But one of the men who was somewhat complicit in these, in this abuse was Jonathan Fletcher, who has his own story. So, if you could tell us a little bit about Jonathan Fletcher, who he is and what he did.



Yes, Jonathan Fletcher in many ways, a similar character, certainly within the same conservative evangelical tradition of the church. Again, very well connected. Up until recent times, largely a very well respected, a hugely influential figure, one of many would have argued the greatest teachers and leaders in the Christian world that this country has seen, certainly in recent times. But again, found to have committed awful offenses against individuals. Our own review into that particular case, 146 pages of report into that matter, found that he had also harmed and abused men in his care emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and as suggested by some sexually as well. Some similar behaviors, some different behaviors, but again, with this sense that it was not open for challenge, it was the way and it was the way that God would have it. And so on a spiritual level, incredibly deep, leaving emotional, spiritual as well as physical harm upon individuals.



And evangelicalism is not as big in England as say it is here in the United States. So I mean, I can kind of guess, but I’d like to hear from you like, how devastating is it to the evangelical community, to have two of its most prominent figures there in England, be found to be such horrific abusers.



To find that there is a, let’s say, a very rotten apple in that cart, hugely damaging. And I guess whilst we have to acknowledge that that is undoubtedly the case for many people, that it would bring people to a point of questioning their own belief systems, their own faith, their own relationship with God, which is absolutely the worst part of all of this. There is a sense in which all of those things are often the things that are used to perpetuate, defend, and justify the abusive behaviors. Look what damage you will do to God’s name, look at the damage you will do to this wonderful person’s ministry, if you were ever to speak out about what you have experienced. So whilst the reality is it does do huge damage, those are the very things that are often used as some of the threat at the time.



It’s interesting you say that because I mean, obviously, I hear that all the time that if we report this, it’s going to just do such damage to the kingdom of God. I heard from one guy who said, I’ve totally lost my faith because of not the abuse, though this is the thing. It’s often not the abuse, it’s the cover up, and he even said, if more people had spoken out like you are, I think I’d have my faith today, I might believe. To speak out, and to take a stand and to do the sorts of things, revealing this rot at the core, to me is what Christ calls us to do. It’s what the prophets did. And you see in Scripture, they just did not shrink from talking about what was awful, even in our own house. In fact, I would say it usually began with our own house, right? God spoke to the Israelites about their sin, He cared more about their sins than the Philistine sins, right? He cared more about the Jewish people sins and what they were doing. Even in the New Testament, where we see him clearing the temple, who was he harshest on? It wasn’t the sinners; it was the Pharisees.


So again, just to bring this back to where it, I think it’s so important that we be truth tellers, and we be truth tellers within our own tribe when it hurts. And so that’s why again, I feel like you’re a kindred spirit, and so good to talk with you. But let’s talk about spiritual abuse. Because I think Jonathan Fletcher and John Smyth’s very clearly their physical abuse, the sexual abuse, that’s easy to pin down, right? I mean, you can look at that and say, well, that’s horrific. The spiritual abuse, as you mentioned, is more insidious in its nature, and it’s more cloaked. And it’s very, very confusing. And at the beginning of your book, I thought the foreword was so well done by Mark Stebie, who is a survivor of John Smyth’s abuse. Would you recount some of the abuse that Stebie experienced at John Smyth’s hand and kind of how that typifies the spiritual abuse and how these predators cloak what they do in the work of God and the words of God?



Yeah, I mean, firstly, I have to say, Mark has become a dear friend. And the degree to which I hold him in high esteem is something else. I think, you know, his courage, his bravery, his suffering, all immense. So, for him to agree to just put some part of his experience into words for Felisa Oakley, my coauthor and myself, was a huge privilege and a real eye opener. And in many ways Mark shares a story which is fairly typical of a larger group of fellow survivors at the hands of John Smyth. And if I can just read a couple of excerpts from the book from Escaping the Maze, that Mark gave to us because I think they make this point and they help us to try and think about what it is that sets spiritual abuse aside from any other form of abuse. And maybe we’ll come back to talking about the coexistence of different types of abuse later on.


But here so in the foreword, Mark writes under a short section called Divine Position, he says, “When Smyth had undermined the core tenets of the Reformation by setting himself up as a mediator between the victims and God, he thereby reduced the effectiveness of the Atonement. That is true. But it was worse than this, Smyth told us that God is our Father in heaven, therefore, he cannot be your father on Earth. So, I’ll be your spiritual father.” And then he goes on to say about how particular passages of Scripture were used, they were distorted, twisted and misapplied.


So one of his favorite verses one of John Smyth’s favorite verses, was ‘you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood’. He took that from Hebrews 12:4. And he took it literally as a justification for the physical and sexual abuse that he meted out upon extremely vulnerable, yet intelligent young men and the horror really that that conjures up, a passage of scripture can be so twisted and so distorted, so embedded within the psyche of an individual that it can result in those sorts of abusive behaviors. It is beyond belief almost. But we know that it’s true. These things happen. This was the reality for Mark and his fellow survivors. That is, in many ways, one of the factors that sets spiritual abuse apart from any other. That there is a justification that’s given that is based upon scripture, more often than not completely taken out of context, but used to serve and justify the means of the abuser.



As you’re speaking about that I’m reminded of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. I mean, who is it that takes scripture, and twists it? Its Satan. This is just I would say, and I don’t use these words that often, but really satanic to take the words of God, manipulate, twist, pervert them and use them to try and control which is exactly what Satan tried to do, tried to control Jesus in the desert using his own words, you know, the words of God. So, so evil.


So again, this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, I would say it goes back even to, you know, Eli’s sons in the Old Testament, Hophni and Phinehas, who, here they were priests of God, and they stood at the gates and would really manipulate people to cheat them and get the best part of the sacrifice for themselves, who would sexually abuse women who came to the temple. I mean, just so so wicked, and they were punished by God for that. And so, we see it throughout the pages of Scripture, but I think this term spiritual abuse is rather new, as I’m understanding kind of coming out of the 50s and the heavy shepherding movement. Is that right?



Yeah, yeah. I mean, that’s where we were charted back. Some of the responses that we still receive today, that seek to push back on the existence of spiritual abuse, would say, well this is a new untested form of abuse. And the terminology is unhelpful. Well, some people may find it unhelpful. But the reality is, this has been around for a long time.


Going back to the account in the Gospel of Matthew, you know, the famous passage that refers to the millstone and the mills, it would be better for a millstone to be tied around your neck and to be cast to the depths of the sea than for you to harm one of these little ones. Well, the whole context that Jesus is talking about there is the damage that is done by individuals who would seek to come between them and God. Distort, divert, damage, and destroy that relationship. So, Jesus was talking about it, and warned against the dangers of it. And I can’t imagine many more, I can’t recall many more harsh words ever spoken by Jesus, whilst he walked this earth than those. He reserved special judgment, special punishment for those who would behave in this way. So those that would say, oh, you know, this is a new thing and really isn’t tested and it’s not, you know, it’s not really legit. Well, I would argue strongly against that. And I would say, Well, what, what’s this speaking to then?



Hmm? Well, and so often, it seems like the pushback comes from those who have the most to lose about us talking about it. So, I’m so grateful for it. And I’m glad that we call it spiritual and abuse because that’s exactly both those words are important. And we’re gonna get to a definition of spiritual abuse exactly what it is. But you do, I think, a really great job of talking about what it isn’t or maybe some of the myths surrounding this term spiritual abuse, and one is that it just happens to really vulnerable people, which it’s almost victim shaming, right? Like you’re so stupid that you got manipulated. Speak to that, does this just happen to you know, weak willed people who put themselves in the way of these powerful manipulators?



Far from it. Spiritual abuse can happen in an environment with the most intelligent and seemingly the least vulnerable. What we see is that spiritually abusive cultures and behaviors can exist amongst the most unlikely and my coauthor Dr. Lisa Oakley, talks about it well in some detail about how it is only often once you in a sense, have escaped the maze, and have looked back upon what it was you were in and a part of, that you come to a point of realizing just how damaging toxic it had been.



You know the one characteristic I would say in all of the abuse victims that I’ve talked to, when it comes to spiritual abuse, the most prominent characteristic I found is that people that are incredibly earnest, incredibly good, and it’s their goodness, and their just really their purity. That is exactly what again, because they are so sincere in their faith, that then the wolf, the manipulator, the predator, sees that sincerity and uses this very beautiful, childlike thing that Jesus said, we can’t enter the kingdom without and uses that very thing against someone. Just, again, so wicked.


Let’s talk about too and I’ve wondered this myself. And I remember once even kind of crowdsourcing it on Twitter saying, Does this happen in some denominations more than others? Are charismatic churches more, more likely? Are Reformed churches more likely?



The short answer is no. There is no boundary to this. And I remember casting my mind back to the launch of Escaping the Maze, going back to 2019 had all sorts of people come, we were in the House of Lords in London. And I spoke to an individual who had come into the room and sat at the back. I didn’t know who he was, didn’t recognize him at all, an Asian gentleman. And he sat there, and I thought he was basically playing with watching some content on his phone the whole way through. But I spoke to him afterwards. And he confirmed in what he was doing. He was making notes. He said, I’m from within the Muslim community and I’ve just been sat here making notes as you talk, because everything that you are talking about is something which I see happening within the Muslim community. So, the fact that yes, it reaches across the Christian community should be no surprise, therefore, we actually see it operating in communities of completely other differing faiths. Where there is opportunity to use faith, scripture, sacred texts to justify harmful behavior, it will happen.



And the same thing seems to apply too about theological, doctrinal convictions. I do know there have been a good deal of cases, at least here in the US involving abuse of women and children, and those being dismissed by the leadership. And it does seem to happen in a lot of complementarian churches where women wouldn’t be allowed to be pastors, for example. And a lot of people suggesting that that is to blame. At the same time, here we have Willow Creek Community Church, where Bill Hybels was very much an egalitarian, very pro women in leadership, and yet we know he was abusing. Do you see any patterns along kind of doctrinal lines, or any types of abuse that seem to attach themselves to certain doctrines?



Well we at Thirtyone:eight have been really quite careful to try and navigate a solid path through all of the theological, doctrinal confusion that exists around these particular issues. After all, we have been accused of gunning for the conservative evangelical tradition in the United Kingdom. That’s not the case; we have only gotten involved in dealing with issues where we have been invited in to do so. And it just so happened that there were a number that that were from that particular tradition.


So, we try very much to steer away from the theology because we’re not theologians, after all, for the most part. But what we do find is that there are some potentially problematic doctrines out there. So where we find the role of male headship being the model that is used to the exclusion of all others, what does that actually say about how women are valued, how they’re treated? What their contribution is towards the wider community? And if you’re starting off with any sense that anybody is a lesser person, less able to contribute, does not have equal standing, then well of course, you’re going to encounter difficulties. And we just have to be so careful, don’t we that we are not setting up constructs which just facilitate harm and abuse. And that is so often what we see. I mean, I don’t mind saying to you, Julie, you know, I, on occasions have said to myself, that said to God, God, what are we doing to your church? You know, what have we made this thing? Do I even want to be a part of it anymore? And that being the reality, because much of what is happening, are constructs that are put in place to be self-serving, to maintain the institution, or the process, or the belief mechanism or the doctrine. At the end of it all, are we loving people? Are we really doing our utmost to reflect who Jesus is who God is, as a just God? It’s not just about what we do what he did, or does it about who he is, he is a just God. So why do we need to dress it up in all these ways that make it so difficult and so confusing for everybody to navigate? Because where the confusion exists, the harm often follows.



And that is the hallmark that we’re told in Scripture that they will know you are Christians by your doctrinal purity? No, by your love. And I know that’s become more and more important to me, it’s like I could care less about your doctrinal purity. I mean, do I think doctrine is important? Absolutely. It is important, but at the same time, I want to know more about how you treat people. Because I think at the end of the day, it’s loving Jesus loving other people. That’s what it comes down to. And I don’t think entrance into heaven is going to be a doctrinal quiz. It’s going to be did you live it? Did you live it? Did you follow me? And did you really have saving faith that impacted these areas of your life? Because it hasn’t impacted these areas of your life, whether you’re a Calvinist or an Arminian, or whatever your doctrine is, Scripture seems to indicate that you’re in trouble, if it hasn’t. I’m so with you on that.


So, let’s talk about spiritual abuse. As you’ve said, some people say, this shouldn’t have its separate category. This is really psychological and emotional abuse. Make the case why do you think spiritual abuse needs its own category?



Well, I think what I’d say in this case, and it may be different in the US to how it is in the UK. But we are still struggling with a universal or broadly accepted understanding of the issues of spiritual abuse. I’m struggling with how we articulate that to the authorities that may need to be called in to intervene and be a part of the response, where it has taken place. So actually, what we have found at this point in time is that it is more helpful to frame it as a form of emotional and psychological abuse that has spiritual elements which are relevant to the believer. And if we can’t use the language of emotional and psychological abuse, as understood by the authorities in whatever jurisdiction we’re in, then we’re going to struggle with addressing the issue. So we have found that actually talking their language as a first base and then saying, but you need to understand there are these extra elements, there are extra overlays to this situation, which, frankly, you may struggle to understand but you need to understand this much that they are a fundamental importance to the victims and survivors. That is how we have approached it. What we need to work so hard towards is gaining a better understanding of those within secular society as much as within the Christian community, so that we can actually just open the door on it. You know, I mentioned before, that spiritual abuse will inevitably coexist with other forms of abuse, whether that be emotional, psychological, physical, sexual. And often we just find that it’s the other labels or the other categories that get our foot in the door, that then enable us to say, but you know what, there’s this other thing going on as well.



Well, and I would say as a category of emotional and psychological abuse., it is, and of course, I’m speaking as a believer, but I think it is the most damaging form of abuse. I think, one that goes to the very core of who you are as a human being and understanding yourself as a child of God, and to have someone who is a spiritual symbol of God, God is our Father. These are fathers, they are spiritual fathers who are doing these evil things. I don’t think you can have a more damaging type of abuse. And I’ve talked to people who’ve said, you know, the physical I could take even the sexual I could take, it’s the way that this was spiritual, that got at the very core of who I am, who I understand myself to be, who I understand God to be. And what an awful, awful, awful thing to do to a human being.



110% agree with you, Julie. And I often find myself speaking to people to say, why is it that we find it relatively so easy to talk about physical or emotional harm or abuse, and so difficult to talk about the reality of spiritual abuse? After all, we often talk about mind, body spirit, or you know, Paul talks in in his letters, doesn’t he about the things that he does that he would rather not do. The clash of the flesh and the spirit. Well, if we’re acknowledging that the spiritual element of our existence is so important, why can we not acknowledge that that element of who we are can also be abused and damaged? And I just, I don’t get it.



Well, here’s the million-dollar question that I’m sure a lot of people are waiting an answer for, and that is, what is spiritual abuse?



We would identify a number of key defining factors in relation to spiritual abuse. Coercion and control, manipulation, and exploitation, enforced accountability, requirement for secrecy and silence, and the pressure to conform. They are among the key factors and identifiers of spiritual abuse. But what we see they are done with this overlay of spiritual or scriptural justification. So these aren’t, they’re not exclusive, they’re not exhaustive, but they are some of the more common factors that we see that would alert us to the possibility that we’re looking at a spiritually abusive situation. And it would be important to say that whilst these are often behaviors displayed by a leader towards others, it can happen in reverse. And it’s important that we acknowledge that fact. But what we often see is that there is a difference between coercive control or bullying and harassment, as abhorrent as those things are, they would not necessarily in our view, meet the definition for spiritual abuse, unless there is that spiritual justification. You know, it’s almost you know, I am the appointed and anointed, you shall not challenge what I say, I hear from God for you, and you will not question. Therefore, all these things that I’m telling you are what you have to put into practice in your life. So, no ability to consider, to challenge to reject, to make choices about what you might choose to accept and what you might want to reject. It is no, this is how it is and you will do or you will believe.



So you devote an entire chapter to kind of these key characteristics, key features of spiritual abuse, some you’ve already alluded to, kind of a an elitism of saying, like John Smyth did, I’m your father and I will take care of you. And kind of I’ve got a corner on the truth, right? I mean, you seem to see this. I know it’s been in a lot of the churches I’ve reported on where yeah, there’s other Christians out there, but we’re kind of the best expression of what God’s doing on this earth. Talk about some of these other key features that people might see might be a red flag to say, you’re in a spiritually abusive environment.



What we would often see is that all of those sorts of things are playing out. And they are happening with an absence of accountability.



Accountability for the leader, yet usually one of the features is there’s hyper accountability. Yeah. If you’re the follower, you’ve got to say everything, be accountable to the nth degree right to the leaders?



Absolutely, absolutely. So that that refusal to acknowledge the need for accountability in themselves, having set up power structures that shall not be challenged. All roads lead back to the one individual. A different rule book at play, you know. So, all of you will do it like this. But I’m different. I’m God’s anointed and appointed. I’m the one leader, I can do things slightly differently, I’m allowed to do that. Even God has given me permission not to do or to do, you know? So again, the justification, the divine justification that is given in those scenarios.


So I think one of the things that we would always say is that there may be some indicators that would suggest that spiritual abuse is taking place, those are all valid. We need to take quite a comprehensive and holistic view of the environment of the culture in which the behaviors are existing, and really give ourselves time and space to examine what is that? What does the culture say? And how does that either facilitate potentially harmful behaviors, or how does it actually prevent those behaviors from taking root and allow challenge?



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I must give credit to the analogy of the honeymoon, to my coauthor, Lisa Oakley, who is an amazing individual, by the way, and so dedicated to this work extraordinary. But she talks about this honeymoon phase, which is that at the outset, everything’s rosy in the garden, there is no reason to question what it is you are a part of, or what somebody is saying to you and whether that’s okay. You are experiencing in effect, everything that you should be experiencing of the Church of the Body of Christ. It’s good, it’s wholesome, it cares for you, it loves you, it goes out of its way for you, it’s generous. All of those things, but it is after our honeymoon period, or can be in many cases where spiritual abuse then occurs. There is a point after which once that getting to know that familiarity has been built almost that being lulled into a false sense of security has happened, that we might then fall into the next stage, which looks quite different.



Right, you talk about the next stage, a catalyst moment. This is where the honeymoon picture begins to crack a little bit. And you know what’s so sad, though? I mean, even as I’m hearing you discuss it, the honeymoon period, when you’re experiencing that, I mean, I’m sure there’s people thinking this right now. Wow. I love my church. I think my church is great. It has ministered to me so much I feel belonging, and all those things. And it’s not to say that if that’s what you’re experiencing, that it’s not real. That could very much be real and beautiful. But this is what you need to at least be aware of. Because I think when you’re aware of it before it happens when it happens, you recognize it. So, let’s talk about the catalyst moment. What is this stage and kind of how it plays out?



Yeah. So the catalyst moment is the moment that you might identify because let’s give an example. You have brought some constructive challenge to something that you’ve been told, or maybe something that was included within a sermon on a Sunday morning. And the response that you get is explosive. Way way out of proportion. And you’re left feeling Whoa, what is that? Totally disproportionate total extreme reaction. But what you have seen is the first indication of a different side to an individual who is capable of being spiritually abusive.


So actually, in my later book, Just Leadership, talking about the dark side, we all have that part of us going back to the writings of Paul, where you know, the things about ourselves which aren’t so good, which are capable of taking us down a wrong path, and the blind spots that we have to those things. And what we start to see is the manifestation of that dark side, the inability of that individual to exercise sufficient self-care that this stuff is overflowing and impacting everybody else. So that explosive reaction to constructive challenge, which is seen as destructive criticism.



Or gossip. Gossip is so overused. But yeah, and I’ve often said in a dysfunctional system, there are no problems. But if you raise a problem, you become the problem. And that is just a hallmark of these systems. After the catalyst moment, for me, I’m reading this and I’m going through story after story after story, because I report so many of these, but there’s often a very positive experience. In fact, so positive, because these are master manipulators often, but so positive that it makes the victim go Wait, did I miss read that? Am I making too big of a deal out of this? Wait, what? And so there is this questioning and you use the term gaslighting, which again, is making the person who had the experience who really is saying feel like they’re a little crazy. In fact, I don’t know how many times I’ve received emails saying thank you so much for reporting this story. This happened to me, thank you for confirming I’m not crazy, because you often feel like you are crazy in the system. So, you have this positive experience. And then you have something called renewing the vows. Describe that.



An analogy for this stage or period where that extreme positivity starts to come almost as if out of nowhere. The result of that is confusion. So, was I wrong about all of that that’s been taking place for however long it is? Maybe I need to rethink maybe I need to question because actually this person is would appear to be okay. And you might even be pulled in more closely than you ever were before, before you started to be pushed to the periphery of the inner circle. You’re now being pulled in even closer. And the confusion that takes place is significant. And it is a power play. You know, it is about seeking to rock the foundation of what you believe, or think has been happening to date, deliberately. Let’s be buddies, let’s be best friends. We’ve not had a good period. So, let’s just put it all behind us. Let’s get back on a good footing. We’ll be great, everything will be fantastic. You’ll be back to the honeymoon phase. But actually, it’s just a ploy.



Well, and the more you’re drawn into the inner circle, and I remember Dave Jones who was at Harvest Bible Chapel, James McDonald for years, he’s the one that first pointed this out to me, but he said the degree of damage that people experience in these abusive churches is directly correlated to how close they are to the inner circle. So if you’re out on the periphery, you may not notice this stuff, but the closer you get drawn in and then when you get drawn in there’s a certain amount of you know oh I’m special which you know, who doesn’t want to be special who doesn’t want to be you know, important who doesn’t want to be often in these mega churches at the center of what’s happening? It’s very often these folks have their own ministries that are somewhat contingent on the bigger ministry and this leader’s approval of it and it’s got a lot of pull that you know, hooks into things in us that are able to be hooked, you know. But then there does come a point which you call the final catalyst and a point at which it’s a bridge too far. But I tell you what, leaving is way, way easier said than done. Brutal process. Talk about that final catalyst and what happens when you actually leave.



I guess it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s that final event that triggers a realization that actually, if I stay here any longer, what makes it so difficult to make that decision to leave amongst many other things? Well, if you imagine the ploys and the games and the power plays that have been going on, in the period running up to that, I mean, in Just Leadership, the other book, I talked about the loyalty card.



Oh, that’s yes.



That is played by the leader that demands your unwavering support and loyalty. They hold you in close, they lavished reward they have heaped on praise. We all want to be loved, right?



And we want to be thought of as loyal. But here’s the twist. It’s not loyalty to God. It’s loyalty to the leader.



Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So, the final catalyst, I guess, in a sense, is the point of, I don’t know, enlightenment? Where you come to a point of thinking, however this has been dressed up, this is not good. But leaving means so many things on so many levels, doesn’t it? Because, after all, we attempt to fashion church after our concept of family. So we’re tearing ourselves apart from our families, from people that we love. Ultimately, we will be told that by leaving, you are turning your back on God, you are being disloyal to Him, you will remove yourself from under the cover of his grace and mercy. With the conversations, Julie that I’ve had with people who have made the decision to leave an abusive church or setting and the lengths that have been gone to by the leader to make them persona non grata in their communities and networks. They’ve been told that if they leave, that will happen. They leave and every effort is made to make that happen.


So, leaving is or can be the hardest part. So in escaping the maze we draw the analogy throughout the book,  you know, it is a maze, you know, we’ve got so many different opportunities to turn this way to turn that way we come up against dead ends, we have to turn back again. And ultimately, sometimes it takes us to reach a point of high ground to see the exit to see what we’re in for what it is. And then we’ve got the difficult journey to find our way out.



Well, again, that’s Justin Humphry’s, author of Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse. And this is the end of part one of my discussion with Justin. In part two, we’ll talk about that important journey of recovering from spiritual abuse. We’ll discuss managing the painful emotions survivors feel. We’ll talk about building healthy church cultures. And we’ll discuss the importance of telling your story and not being silenced by those who call whistleblowing gossip.



Don’t be persuaded that what you’re doing is destroying God’s church because actually God is big enough, powerful enough to protect himself and do his own business. He just chooses to use us.



But again, part two will be releasing soon. So please be watching for that. And just a reminder that we’re able to do this podcast and all our investigative work at The Roys Report because of support from people like you. And right now, we’re offering Justin’s book Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse to anyone who gives a gift to The Roys Report. To give just TEXT 22525 on your phones and the word REPORT. Or go to JULIEROYS.COM/DONATE. Also, just a quick reminder to subscribe to The Roys Report on Apple podcast, Google podcast or Spotify. That way you’ll never miss an episode. And while you’re at it, I’d really appreciate it if you’d help us spread the word about the podcast by leaving a review. And then please share the podcast on social media so more people can hear about this great content. Thanks so much for joining me today. I hope you were blessed and encouraged.

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6 Responses

  1. Praise God for you Julie and Justin! Bravo on your transparency, integrity, faithfulness, courage and harsh judgement on ALL forms of spiritual abuse. Yes Julie, Jesus did judge the church the most harshly and so should we. Jesus is our example.

    As an overcomer of many forms of abuse, including spiritual, I agree that spiritual abuse cuts to our very soul the most deeply. Manipulating the Word of God to shame and abuse people will NOT be overlooked by the Almighty. Those in leadership that do not rightly divide His Word will receive their just reward of severe punishment. He is holy and His Word is holy and anyone that maligns His holy Word or makes a counterfeit will be judged by the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. ????

    Please keep holding church leaders accountable for their abuse, Julie! Silence in the face of injustice is NOT a Godly virtue and is cowardly. WAKE UP CHURCH AND STAND FIRM! ????

  2. Thank you so much for this. It is hugely helpful for me as an abuse advocate. While our understanding of the trauma and harm of other forms of abuse is becoming more and more robust in the church and in the courts, the “interpersonal terrorism” of spiritual abuse is something we are just now beginning to understand and provide help for. Untangling the web truly an effective and effective metaphor.

    Soooooo thankful for you Julie and Justin and Lisa (and wade Mullen and scot McKnight and Diane Langberg and many others) for helping us have this important conversation and education for the sake of Christ’s beloved bride.

  3. What a wonderful insight from Justin. The church here in Australia is not immune either and sadly my own family have been through abuse within the church. Unfortunately, the church leaders have failed to address abuse adequately and I fear more may suffer. The challenge is to have those tough conversations with leaders (in love and humility) in order for them to act Biblically.

  4. Julie,
    I really appreciate your blog and podcasts. What you are doing I believe is not only good but critical. As a Moody Bible Institute grad and a parent of a Moody student during the gambling/high price condo issues and other controversies, I have really appreciated your mission and calling. My daughter was able to walk through these things because I had experienced the spiritual abuse years before at another Bible college and with an uncle who was considered a spiritual giant yet left behind him a path of verbal destruction like Godzilla through Tokyo. I have learned through these experiences however, to be a voice. A voice opposed to the face of the abusers and a voice to comfort those experiencing spiritual abuse. The enlightenment of truth for me was the incredible soothing yet powerful words of Scripture. They are our shield and our sword. As you stated, satan twisted Scripture yet Jesus used it to confront him.
    Those incredible (and inspired) words of God are what we take with us to the elder’s boards, Christian leadership boards and individuals. God’s Word is for me the key. We bring it, stand on it, quote it, and let the Holy Spirit wield it to confront those who will twist it for evil. Please don’t underestimate or leave behind “theology”. The study of God (through His Word) is what reveals bad behavior and what ultimately has the power to confront it. Evil cannot stand against God’s truth and God’s Word will give you the power and endurance to keep doing what you are doing.
    To you, I say thank you.

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