Scientology & Spiritually Abusive Christian Churches
The Church of Scientology is back in the news as ex-member Leah Remini shares about her experience with the controversial organization in her new documentary, “Scientology and the Aftermath.”
Multiple friends of mine, advocates and survivors, have commented on the similarities seen in the stories of those leaving spiritually abusive Christian environments and those leaving Scientology.
I have listened to several hours worth of survivors’ stories of escaping The Church of Scientology, and I too picked up on strong similarities between the aftermath of leaving Scientology and leaving spiritually abusive Christian environments. Here are just a few of the connections I put together.
1. The Billion Year Contract and Coercion Conversions
In Scientology, members are expected to sign a contract declaring their allegiance to the church for 1 billion years. They believe in reincarnation, and are therefore signing away this life and the all of the expected following ones to the service for and submission to the church. As reported in the documentary, even children are convinced to sign this agreement, whether or not they are capable of understanding the full implications of it.
On the surface, a billion year contract seems foreign and unusual, but I have witnessed something similar in fundamentalist circles. I call it “coercion conversions”. A charismatic preacher will guilt, scare, and manipulate people (including very young children) into committing to Christianity for the rest of their life and the afterlife as well. This may be done through manipulative alter calls, hell houses, or old fashioned guilt trips. An adult or child often is not just expected to embrace a faith in Jesus but also to subscribe to particular way of living and list of rules made by their church that they may not fully understand. It is coercive and controlling because they are either pressured into it or not given a full knowledge of what will be expected of them once they “make a decision”. Additionally, some Christian churches also have members sign “covenants” with the church, promising that as members they will submit to the authority of the church leaders. Church covenants have been documented as means for abusing and controlling parishioners.
2. Emphasizing The Spiritual and Forsaking The Physical
“Scientology addresses the spirit—not the body or mind…”. The body is not as important as the spirit, and therefore self care such as proper sleep, human living environments, and rest are undervalued to a point of harm to the individual's physical well being, with the most extreme example being documented in the film’s conversation about “The Hole,” something akin to a concentration camp. They also eschew psychiatry and professional psychological therapy, believing that it is evil, and that their religious practices are sufficient mental health care. You can see their views on this in “The Secrets of Scientology” documentary, starting around the 19:00 minutes mark.
In some Christian circles, there is also a low priority placed on self care and rest, seeing it as being selfish. And some, such as John Piper, even argue that spiritually feeding yourself is to be placed above physically feeding yourself. John MacArthur, is known for his belief that scientific psychological therapy is also sinful, and that the Bible is all you need for your mental health care.
Unfortunately, both of these groups fail to see the importance of balancing care for the body, mind, and spirit in healthy, scientifically proven ways.
Many stories are recorded in the documentaries mentioned above, where members who leave Scientology are ritually shunned from their families. The family and friends who stay behind are only allowed to reach out in order to encourage the individual to come back or to verbally (and sometimes aggressively) express their displeasure towards the person for leaving. The Church of Scientology claims that they do not keep ex-members from their families, and this is partly true. If the ex-member were to come back to Scientology and submit to the punishments awaiting them for leaving, they may be allowed to see their family again, but the statement is not true in the sense that they cannot freely live a new life outside of Scientology and also associate with family still in the church. This is called “Bounded Choice”. The church and family members feel justified in saying it was the survivor’s choice to leave or disconnect, but as Leah Remini indicates, it is not a true free choice because if the survivor wished to see their family they would have to submit to the church’s control again, and those in the church are manipulated to believe it is their spiritual duty to separate from “dangerous” defectors.
I cannot tell you how many survivors I have spoken to that are now disconnected from their families or church. In some cases, the family or church pushes them away, or in other cases the survivor decides it is more healthy to leave. Either way, having a relationship with their family or church would mean they would have to submit to the family or church’s control once more. They cannot choose to live or believe differently without strong consequences and violations of their individuality or choices. The book “Quivering Daughters” bring this to light very clearly.
4. Audits and Accountability
The Church of Scientology has a list of rules and expectations for members as mentioned in “Scientology and The Aftermath”. If one member sees another member violating a rule, they are required to write about the offense and present it to church officials. The violations may be as small as a joke against the guidelines or as big as a sexual behaviors against the code of ethics. The person who violated the rule is then turned over to the church to be “Audited” and made to confess their wrongdoing. The church may require some type of service to amend for the perceived wrong, and if a member leaves the church, there is a record of all of their past actions to be used against them as a shaming technique. If family members and friends are always looking for wrongdoing in others, and if minor personal quarrels cannot be addressed between individuals, there is an unhealthy lack of boundaries within relationships and members are denied the opportunity to speak freely about their thoughts or questionings with other members. While it is important to report crimes or dangerous activity to proper authorities and acts of immoral behavior by leaders are certainly something to be addressed, the idea of confessing or reporting each small instance of “sin” or breaking of rules is a violation of privacy and another means of control.
Some spiritually abusive Christian churches put an emphasis on “accountability partners” or “real fellowship groups”. While accountability can be good, there are stories from environments such as those connected with Sovereign Grace Ministries where this is used to push boundaries and control members. I have seen this play out in Christian families, where children (including older teens and adults) are expected to report any and all failures of their siblings and reveal all conversations had in confidence to their parents. This strips away the ability to have close, personal relationships between siblings for fear of tattling, and solidifies a culture of control.
5. Legalistic Morality Codes
The Church of Scientology has multiple extensive lists of rules on their website that it’s members are required to follow. It is my understanding from the documentaries that additional rules are made for those who advance into the higher spiritual ranks. Many of the rules on their website are very open-ended and broad, and seem to focus on controlling the member’s feelings, emotions, and actions to a large degree. As mentioned above, they are enforced by other members, and individuals who are found to be in violation are rigorously “audited” or interrogated by the church leaders. While it is reasonable for a group to have a set of beliefs, enforcing such extensive rules is a form of control.
Spiritually abusive Christian churches and families may also have an extensive list of rules which are spoken or unspoken but rigorously enforced through guilting, shaming, intrusive questions, or pointed sermons. Such rules may include what individuals wear (modesty), who their allegiance should be to (a particular church or family) or how they should conduct relationships (courtship). Many of these rules are subjective and controlling, as even adult individuals are expected to follow them in order to be in good graces with the church or family.
6. Patriarchal Authority
I am not clear as to whether The Church of Scientology has any literature specifically subjecting women to men, but it’s top leaders are all males and always have been. Additionally, this article describes the gender-based abuse and misogyny, including sexual abuse cover-ups, that go on in Scientology.
Similarly, many fundamentalist Christian groups are heavily and openly Patriarchal. Examples include: The Gospel Coalition, The Council For Biblical Manhood and Womanhood or the ministries of Bill Gothard and Doug Phillips. Multiple sexual abuse cover ups have been documented for The Gospel Coalition, Sovereign Grace Ministries, Bill Gothard, and Doug Phillips.
7. Demonizing Defectors
It is well documented in the films mentioned above that The Church of Scientology regularly attempts to demonize people who leave the organization, particularly those who may choose to speak out against the church. There are instances where member who are considering leaving will be forced to go through a reprogramming period with layers of manipulation and guilting. If the member does leave, the Church has been known to use records from their auditing sessions to attempt character assassination on the survivors. They may also go to great lengths to attempt to convince people inside and outside of the church that the survivor is lying or is an unreliable source.
Unfortunately, this is also common in fundamentalist or spiritually abusive Christian churches or families. If a member chooses to leave or speak out against abusive behavior, they will often face a strong period of guilt or accusations in an attempt to make them stay. A church or family may say that the survivor is being rebellious, childish, vindictive, or delusional. They may use threats or coercive language. If the survivor actually leaves, they are often demonized, made fun of, or presented as a sad case of spiritual backsliding. Examples of this are all over the internet, as survivors of spiritual abuse come forward. I, myself, have experienced some of this. Natalie Greenfield's blog details much of the demonizing she experienced for coming out with her story. The book "Quivering Daughters" gives an accurate rundown of what it is like to leave spiritually abusive environments.
Scientology is largely regarded as a cult, and it saddens me to see similar coercive tactics being employed by some in the Christian church. I do not intent to insinuate that all Christian churches employ these controlling and coercive behaviors, but it is important to identify behaviors when we see them for the safety of ourselves and others.
It is easy to assume you or a loved one would never be tricked into joining a cult like group but this underestimates the power of coercion and circumstances, such as being born into a coersive group. Intelligent, well-respected people have found themselves in these coercive environments.
If you are in a religious environment, Scientology, Christian or otherwise, that uses controlling, coercive, spiritually abusive tactics, please know that you are not alone and there is help available. I recommend reaching out to The International Cultic Studies Association, Recovering Grace, or Spiritual Sounding Board, G.R.A.C.E. or SNAP for support.