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Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: Alternative Facts

I ran across an article yesterday that there is archaeological evidence that in the early Christian Church there were female priests. Female priest administering communion. Female priests depicted with raised hands offering benediction, blessings, or perhaps even the word of God. I was shocked because I hadn’t heard this story. I was convinced that this was breaking news only to discover that the article was almost four years old.

Four years that there have been discussions about the role women played in the early church. Four years in which I have been ordained and called to pastor and I had no idea the conversation was going on. How could I, a woman in ministry, have missed something so relevant to my own life experience and calling?

Because we hear what we want to hear. Researches have discovered that the power of stating something that is false, is just as powerful as stating something that is true because:

“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”

Impression is just as powerful as Truth? Surely not! Doesn’t Truth win out?

Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted. In this case, the failure was “particularly impressive,” since two data points would never have been enough information to generalize from.

The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?

Evidently not. We believe what we want to believe. We don’t research to determine if what we are saying or what we are passing along is Truth and once we leak these impressions, they’re hard to shake in our own minds and in the minds of the people we’re sharing with.

If there is a place where this happens again and again, it’s in communities of faith where reason is often placed on hold and making a leap of faith is encouraged, but when faith begins to be tainted with manipulation and coercion, when false impressions are giving with the purpose of oppression and silencing people, it is not faith. It is spiritual abuse.

It’s hard to swallow the truth that there are ministers and communities of faith who are interested not in the work of God, but in increasing their own wealth and their own power and their own prestige. But there are. It’s hard to swallow the truth that there are victims of spiritual abuse who have been told they aren’t good enough and shouldn’t trust themselves on purpose to ensure adherence to dogmatic teachings. But there are.

These are not alternative facts, but real people’s stories.

Perhaps churches wouldn’t be in decline if we were able to accept this Truth rather than clinging to impressions of what we want to be true, but I know some of you won’t believe this because you don’t believe study after study that reveals the churches are in fact in decline. This is what happens when the need to cling to impressions is stronger than the desire to search for Truth.