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Hurt by the church? It’s time to talk about it

Photo by Karl Frederickson courtesy of Unsplash (

In 2010, Barna Group released a poll indicating that 4 out of 10 non-church Americans claim they do not attend due to negative experiences with churches or congregants. Seven years later, I doubt the numbers have improved. Countless Americans have been hurt by a church’s negative teachings, oppressive policies, immoral leaders, rigid expectations and misbehaving members.

But speaking of such matters has become taboo, creating a liability for religion writers like me. Some seem to believe that critiquing Christ’s church is the same as critiquing Christ. When I’ve engaged in the former, I’ve been called “hater,” “pessimist” and “whiner,” among other labels not suitable in print.

Maybe you’re like me. You love the church and have never left it. But you persist in belief that honesty is the only path to truth and confession opens the door to growth. If so, you need Carol Howard Merritt’s wonderful new book, “Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting With a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church.” She deals with how to share your suffering while healing from hurt.

Here we discuss the types of churches that inflict the most pain, how to heal, and of course, exactly how we are (not) related.

RNS: Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. Explain to my readers exactly how we are related. I know it has to do with my Uncle Earnest’s second wife, but I can’t remember the details. 

CHM: Over the years, people have asked me if I was your wife, sister or cousin. Alas, there is no immediate relation to my knowledge. Although, I think we should work out an honorary cousin agreement.

RNS: What are the most common spiritual wounds inflicted by churches today?

CHM: During my lifetime, it seems the most powerful damage the church inflicts has to do with gender and sexuality — when religion upholds complementarian gender roles, obsesses over purity culture or condemns LGBTQ relationships.

The judgment goes far beyond dirty looks when people try to attend a worship service. Christians work tirelessly to reduce access to birth control and dismantle vital health services for women. They launch powerful political campaigns to stop same-sex couples from entering into loving covenants. And churches encourage parents to reject their own sons and daughters, severing families in the most painful ways when they do not adhere to certain religious sexual norms. All of these diminish our faith until it shrinks into a regimen of behavior control at the expense of our most cherished relationships.

Image courtesy of HarperOne

Image courtesy of HarperOne

RNS: Why are spiritual wounds so damaging and impactful?

CHM: Augustine said that our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God. Most of us are spiritual people. We live with an innate understanding that we must connect with something larger than ourselves, that our lives will make more sense when we understand a greater purpose. Liberal thinkers identify this existential longing as a “feeling of absolute dependence.” Conservative Christians identify it as a “God-shaped vacuum.”

When a person has been spiritually wounded, that trauma carries the weight of God with it. The pain becomes entangled with our intimate knowledge of who God is, so we lose that link with something larger. When we try maintain this vital connection with God, we begin to think that God is the one who hurt us — so God must be cruel or perhaps we deserved punishment.

RNS: Are there particular kinds of churches that seem to inflict harm disproportionately?

CHM: Yes, there are certain churches that can be more complicit in abuse. Religion has the capacity to inspire us to be peaceful, loving and fully human in the best sense, or it can make us controlling, violent and cruel. We can learn a lot about how a church inflicts harm by listening for the ways that they describe God. People reflect the God they worship. So if people focus on an angry God, then they become angry people. On the other hand, if people worship a loving God, then they can be inspired to move about in the world as a beloved community.

RNS: I know you aren’t a fan of the prosperity gospel. How do these kinds of churches often wound people? 

CHM: In the early 1900s, two important religious forces formed: the prosperity gospel and the social gospel. The prosperity gospel focused on how God would bless the individual with wealth and health, while the social gospel encouraged us to dream of the world as it ought to be. The prosperity gospel became a much stronger force in our country and has been a major influence on the Religious Right.

This kind of churches cause spiritual damage when it upholds the wealthy as blessed by God and shames the poor. It allows Christians to feel completely justified as they construct a society that no longer wages war on poverty, but on poor people. While Jesus commanded us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger, the prosperity gospel has proclaimed terrible news. Like a bad politician, it promises lollipops and rainbows while encouraging us to turn our backs on the most vulnerable in our society.

Image courtesy of Carol Howard Merritt

Image courtesy of Carol Howard Merritt

RNS: What about “new Calvinism”? I know people who feel these types of churches inflict a disproportionate amount of pain. What do you think?

CHM: I’m a Calvinist and a pastor in the largest Presbyterian denomination, with the deepest historic roots. I study and teach alongside feminist theologians and biblical scholars. We read Calvin with a generous lens, as people who are reformed and still reforming.

I don’t have a lot of experience with new Calvinism. I was confused when people disparaged Calvinists as ultraconservative, or writers who talk about Calvinists as something completely different from the largest and most historic streams of thought. The main exposure I have to new Calvinism are the avatars who attack me and other women writers regularly online. I physically wince when I think about them, like a dog who has been hit by her owner. So if we’re judging social media interactions, it seems new Calvinism stands in the forefront of Christians who inflict pain.

READ ALSO: The troubling trends in America’s ‘Calvinist revival’

RNS: What’s the first step in spiritual healing?

CHM: We have to understand God in a different way and untangle God from the person or church that wounded us. This can be difficult, since most of us naturally connect with God through certain people or communities.

If we grew up imagining God as angry and vengeful, we might think we deserve to suffer and pay divine retribution. Yet, if we embrace that God is love and reject every notion that goes against that understanding, then we can realize God’s true role in our pain. God does not wound us, God weeps alongside us.

RNS: Is it important to speak out about failures of the church and religious leaders in your opinion or is that bullying the bride of Christ?

CHM: As a pastor and religious leader, I receive a lot of complaints and it can feel exhausting. Hearing about a church’s failure can hurl us into hopelessness. Christians have incited religious warfare, homophobia, racism and the subjugation of women. We’ve been responsible for policies that have contributed to gross economic disparity. We have a lot to confess.

That’s why it’s extremely important for us to take inventory of the things that we’ve done wrong, seek forgiveness and change our ways. I shudder to imagine someone who would be afraid to tell me about my failures, particularly if I’ve hurt that person. And if a person tells me about the failures of the church, I hope I would be able to have compassion and reconcile with the person.

RNS: What role does sharing our suffering play in healing from church-inflicted wounds?

CHM: As Christians, this concept is particularly vital because we have a suffering God, and so we know that we are not alone in our pain. Jesus was wounded; he still has the scars. He hears us.

There is something powerful about going through sickness, grief or pain in community. We can have a deep awareness that people know, in their gut, what we’re going through. We can have compassion for others who ache. Sharing our suffering gives us inspiration to get through pain, because we know someone who has gone before us and endured. And it can allow us to remove the stigmas or shame surrounding our suffering.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • . If a person is violating the tenets’ of the faith, then that person is rejecting the faith. Signifying a lack of belief. Those who have contempt for the faith, God’s rules, their seeking to attend a worship service is not to worship God, but the actions of disrespect, like a spoiled teenager seeking to insult and disrupt. There is no right to force ones self on a religion, the constitution denies government any authority to legislate beliefs. As a Catholic, I only saw people leave the faith after Vatican II. The false priests involved in the sexual assault crisis have been found to be men and women who infiltrated the clergy to get close to children and teens by exploiting the trust given to clergy. What I’ve seen through friends in liberal leaning sects like episcopalians, methodists, lutherans, etc…. is that the further away from Christ’s teachings the sects moved, the further to the left they lurched, the more people left those churches.

  • What does “spiritual wellness” look like? Can people of different faiths or no organized religious beliefs share “spiritual wellness”?

  • Good question, and I am sure it is different for each person. I would venture to guess that spiritual wellness is living ones faith as best one can at any time, and being a witness to that faith in what ever circumstances, groups one comes into contact with.

  • I too am Catholic, and I agree with your assessment that there are faith tenets that cannot be changed. We, human kind, are the worshipers of God’s Word, given by Him and we in order to follow Him completely, follow His ways.

    That however, does not mean that anyone who wishes to come to God, worship God, even though, as all of us are, they are sinful should ever be excluded or denied. Conversely, if people who come in order to get validation for something that is contrary to these tenets, are they not setting themselves up for rejection?

    I firmly believe that all are welcome, regardless of disposition of their soul, to hear the message of the Gospel, learn about God, how to live a Christian life. No sin, large or small, is beyond the forgiving grace of God, and should never be an impediment to coming to God. It is after all between God and each of us as to how we can live out lives that gives glory to God and unlike the conversion of St Paul, conversions are a journey that no one should impede.

  • You have not seen Catholics leave the faith since 1962?! Membership in the Catholic church has been dwindling for decades. Those who leave are often not the ones who have contempt for the faith or God’s rules. Rather, they realize that it is hard to remain in the RCC and follow God’s rules.

  • Tangential to be sure, but couldn’t help but wonder if there should be a “no relation” in the third paragraph; unless that’s not the case. Truly don’t know which it is.

  • Spelling alert: The correct spelling is ‘complementarian’ with an ‘E.’ Complementarian gender roles — recall that in math, complementary angles are not necessarily equal but sum to 90 degrees. If you check Webster you find that complementary means “mutually supplying each other’s lack.” Lack? The definition of complementary seems to be drifting as this term becomes accepted in certain religious circles. I am very much opposed to this concept of complementarianism because it makes us less than complete human beings, makes us into people who are ‘lacking,’ people who are merely supplemental to another gender. The toxic thinking continues with “feminine genius,” that is, women are supposedly afflicted with a particular kind of thinking that no man has.

    FYI, ‘complimentary’ with an ‘I,’ has to do with giving compliments, or it can be used in the sense of a free gift; for example, a complimentary (free) toothbrush from the dentist office, or complimentary (free) valet parking.

    Editor, there is another spelling error: ‘stonds’ should be ‘stands.’

  • There are core tenets, then there are certain traditions which now oppress and cause injury by creating minority stress.

  • If you need a less mystified term than Coplementarian, you can use what they really mean: penis-vagina. That’s all it means. Tab a– butch, Masterful, heterosexual tab A– fits into slot B– soft, yielding, slot B, “doesn’t matter if she’s heterosexual because she’s a woman and besides lesbians are HAWT!” Tab B.

    Complementartarian is just pure propaganda. What is bizarre about it is that it is entirely truthful propaganda, in that it doesn’t even require heterosexuality. Just a weenie and a vajayjay.

    In short, they don’t actually care if you are heterosexual, only that you are doing with your genitalia what god intends by giving them to you, according to those freedom loving people who want to control what you do with YOUR genitalia

  • A lotta healing and compassion is needed these days. A lotta people are hurting. A lotta repentance and forgiveness is needed (and it’s usually on all sides. Not just one side or the other).

    Things get complicated, history gets complicated, emotions get complicated. A lotta healing is needed.

    But God is able to figure it all out, and work it all out, and do the supernatural healing that is needed. Don’t give up.

    P..S………If the churches and clergy try to do the healing (or even the compassion) on their own by attempting to re-write and water down God’s Word (the Scriptures), that’s NOT going to work. That will only rob people of their faith (Rom. 10:17), and drive their infirmities and wounds deeper & yet more festering. Stick with the Bible like Jesus did; don’t water it down.

  • Well, that was outspoken. Complementary gender roles only exist at the level of plumbing and gametes. Those religious fanatics looking to discriminate based on so-called Natural Law might instead notice that Nature favors diversity, a huge multitude of differences. I see no indication that we are meant to be limited by XX, XY, etc. in all we do. Personally, I don’t have any talent for baking cookies. I don’t wear a veil either.

  • Once again Jonathan Merritt calls for the church to become more liberal – while conveniently ignoring the fact that most liberal churches are in a death spiral. If people are being driven away from the church by narrow-minded conservatives, why are conservative churches growing while liberal ones are dying?

  • Umm, no Violet. “Complementary gender roles” run far, far deeper than that. You see this is true in the biblical Song Of Solomon, you see it’s true in secular literature (both past and present), you see it’s true on Lifetime Movie Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel for example.

    Shoot, you can even see this happening with any happily married friends or acquaintances or family members. You can see the complementary strengths & inner-virtues that EACH gender brings, functioning in a unique “two-become-one” union, even if they’re both atheists. That’s why gender complementarity exclusively defines marriage and family even if the married couple never has any children.

    Christ’s relationship with His people, by the way, is always pictured as a gender complementary marriage (Eph. 5). NEVER same-sex-marriage. So there is no such thing as a same-sex-marriage, period.

    31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”
    32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

  • No doubt there are culturally defined roles for men and women. The point is, there is no known biological basis for such roles. Mutuality in a marriage is important so that two become a couple. But I don’t think there is any complementarity (except for M-F sex organs) — wouldn’t it be silly to say only women may pay the bills and only men may do the dishes? To say women are limited by DNA is wrong. To say that God invented M-F key-in-lock genitals and then God did nothing further to invent homosexuality puts limits on God, doesn’t it.

    What you see in Ephesians 5:32 and in Revelation 21 (where the Bride is a city), is the result of eliminating the Bride (the Goddess) from myth. In the Book of John, the bride is for at least an instant, Mary Magdalene at the Easter tomb, fulfilling the Goddess role of being the weeper. However, by the time I get to the additional ending of John, I have to guess the ‘beloved disciple’ is Lazarus. Whether the author is completely serious or just writing parody I don’t know.

    I just put ‘Lazarus, the beloved disciple’ into Google and I did not find my own post, but there are plenty of others with the same conclusion.

  • Because being blessed by God with success and prosperity speaks to one of humanity’s basic instincts – greed, or enough never being enough. “Conservatives” eat this up since “God” is “telling” them that if they just believe and pray hard enough, they’ll be as wealthy as Joel Osteen and all of his other counterparts. What is sad is that the only people who are getting rich are Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Franklin Graham, and others like them. The irony that they have multi-million dollar houses (usually more than one), cars that cost more than most of their followers make in a year, private airplanes and yachts and other privileges enjoyed by the one percent is totally lost on those who “tithe” so the church can do what Jesus commanded them to do, which was to help the least, the lost and the disenfranchised and most of it ends up in their pastor’s pockets.

    Jesus didn’t feed the five thousand because they were deserving or because they were morally superior. He fed them because they were hungry. Liberal churches are not in a death spiral. They just don’t have multi-million dollar arenas, fifteen member “praise bands,” 200 foot video screens and the message that prosperity makes you better than everyone else because God obviously loves you more. I’d be interested in where you’re getting your information on the death spiral of “liberal” churches; if you mean mainline denominational churches, yes, their numbers are decreasing, but that’s not because they’re “liberal” (the Catholic Church is hardly “liberal”). It means that more Americans in general are not going to ANY church, regardless of political leanings, the way they were 50 years ago. I think that says a lot about our country as a society. We have forgotten the new covenant, which is to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. We have put conditions on loving our neighbor. Christ put no conditions on loving our neighbors. All you need to do is reread the parable of the good Samaritan to figure that one out. The Samaritan didn’t ask the wounded man on the side of the road if he had a job, if he took alms from others to supplement his income, if he was a criminal, if he believed in God or was a Jew or a Roman, nor tell him if he didn’t like the answers he’d ease on down the road. He merely bound the beaten man’s wounds, gave him sustenance, put him on his donkey and took him to an inn where he gave the innkeeper money to take care of him until he returned and promised to pay for any additional expenses. When Jesus asked the man of the law which of the three men who passed by on the road that day had loved his neighbor, the man responded “the one who showed mercy.” The one who showed mercy. Blessed are the merciful. Jesus replied “go, then and do likewise.” If that’s liberal, then color me one.

  • Churches have been wounding some of their members and potential members for decades, and I’m not just talking about the issues of gender identity and gay/lesbian marriage. I’m referencing the narrow set of rules that everyone must either comply with or pay lip service to, in order to be acceptable members of their church. This institution which is called to be open, accepting and forgiving has too often been the source of pain and rejection via un-Christian attitudes and legalistic standards–the very opposite of Christ’s Love and Grace. No wonder there are so many “nones” in our midst! Seems that word-of-mouth marketing really works in reverse! People are very sure of what they DON’T want!

  • And where, exactly, did he call for believers to “become more liberal”? Can you be more specific?

  • You can see the complementary strengths & inner-virtues that EACH gender brings…

    Correction: “You can see the complementary strengths & virtues that each partner brings…”

    Fixed it for you. You’re welcome.

    Christ’s relationship with His people, by the way, is always pictured as a gender complementary marriage…

    No. Inasmuch as Jesus’ relationship with us is pictured as a marriage, it’s one of unity and love. Not gender-based hierarchy, which is all that lies behind the word “complementarianism” (still not a real word, btw).

  • You probably need to count people hurt and psychologically abused in evangelical Christian higher education as well. These injuries and psychological assaults are leveled against faculty who are thought to be “too liberal”–sometimes because they advocate critical thinking.

  • Depends if they’re filled or not. The filled ones think numbers are a sign they’re doing something right. The emptier ones think numbers are a sign that you’re pandering to the world.

  • Because they are becoming more educated across the board and realizing there is no god.