It’s Ok To Take A Break From Church, Survivor
It was difficult walking into church for the first time after ending an abusive courtship. Our relationship had been very public so the break-up was as well. Not only did it feel like everyone was looking at me, but he was looking at me too.
I was taught not to neglect church, except for physical health reasons or traveling, even with my abuser present. So, when I could no longer stand seeing him every week I decided to attend a different church. This was meet with shock and disdain. I left anyway, and it was one of the best choices I have ever made (for many reasons), although the experience was not without shame.
In speaking with other victims and survivors, I have found that I am not alone. Here are three excuses people use to keep victims in institutionalized church, whether they feel safe or not, and why these arguments fall flat under scrutiny.
3 Excuses People Use to Keep Victims in the Church:
1. The Bible Says So
I have heard Christians cite Hebrews 10 as justification for guilting people to attend church services 3 times a week. The verse says, “not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” This verse was written before steeples were built, church services were “supposed” to happen three times a week, and religious gatherings were given non-profit status. The Church looked very different and less institutionally structured at that time. The “Church” was (and is) every Jesus follower, and gatherings happened mainly in homes, not in grand religious buildings.
Someone can still have fellowship and gain encouragement with other (safe) believers without attending institutionalized church. This verse is in no way meant to be used to force someone to attend a place that is not physically, spiritually, or emotionally safe for them. The “Unchurching Movement” is gaining a lot of popularity. This model may be closer to the early church gatherings and is drawing in many people who have been hurt by institutionalized religion.
Some abuse survivors find healing and comfort in institutionalized church, which is great for some, but for other survivors the church setting is unhealthy, and that is ok too. These survivors can still benefit from the assembling and encouragement of other safe and empathetic Jesus followers in homes, coffee shops, and other venues.
2. If You Have an Issue with the Church, You Need to Resolve It Before You Can Leave
When I mentioned leaving the church and going to a new one, a lay leader immediately told me that I shouldn’t leave if I had “bitterness” or an unresolved problem. In addition to making assumptions about my heart, he failed to recognize that safety is a priority, and I didn’t feel safe. I think in some cases it is a good idea to confront an issue by reconciling a relationship, but this does not apply to abuse situations. A victim should not be expected to reconcile with their abuser or stay anywhere near them. A victim need not stick around in an abusive church either to try and change the church or to confront the church leadership before moving on. That is not the victim’s responsibility. The victim’s responsibility is to get to safety. Even if a person doesn’t necessarily feel unsafe, not all issues are worth trying to solve, and a victim is not obligated to solve church issues resulting from the abuse.
People who pressure victims into attempting reconciliation before leaving often use Matthew 18 to coerce victims into dangerous (and sometimes deadly) interactions with abusers. This is not the way of Jesus. This article describes why Matthew 18 should not be used in situations of abuse.
3. You Cannot Leave Without the Church’s Permission
In some churches, members are required to sign a “covenant” with rules to abide by and punishments to expect for “misbehavior” when joining. This document is signed when everything seems good at the beginning. The member never suspects it could be used against them in a traumatic circumstance if they end up disagreeing with the church’s leadership. Deplorably, some churches use this document to control and shame members who do not submit to the leadership's will. The “covenant” may give the church leaders the power to decide if and when a membership may be revoked. Those who leave without permission may be susceptible to public shaming through perversions of church discipline.
I did not sign a covenant and could stop attending my former church without the church leadership’s permission (though I was expected to tell them I was leaving). However, when I wanted to discontinue my formal membership they had to vote on whether they would allow this instead of simply releasing it based on my request. Thankfully they voted “yes” to dropping my membership because I was still in “good standing” at the time. There are stories of other churches where a member was determined not to be in “good standing” due to actions they made to protect themselves from abuse. The victim was not released from membership and was put under church discipline unlike the abuser. Church covenants or controlled memberships like this are found nowhere in the Bible, and this is simply a method of power and control. Don’t let this stop you from leaving a church if you don’t feel safe or comfortable staying.
As I have spoken with other survivors, especially those who experienced abuse in church environments, they have felt guilt and shame for leaving a church. I want to tell you that this is not what God intended for you. Your safety and healing matter more to Jesus than your membership in a church. I think the Body of Christ can be a healing place. I have found comfort in the arms of other believers including pastors, but sometimes those healing hands need to reach outside of institutionalized church and become the Church where the victims are, where they feel safe.
I still attend structured church gatherings on nearly a weekly basis, but I don’t pretend to believe that God and God’s people can only be found in the four walls of a building. Now I give myself permission to stay home on days when I’m struggling and just cannot do the “church thing.’ And guess what? God meets me on those days too!
If I could go back and say something to my scared and anxious self who was considering leaving that previous congregation, I would say, “It’s healthy to leave a situation where you are expected to see your abuser every week. It’s always ok to leave a church where you don’t feel safe or comfortable and to find a new place. It’s even ok to take a break from institutionalized church while you heal. God will still be with you. God understands.”