In this Good Faith podcast, Curtis Chang examines the phenomena of spiritual abuse with the help of Dan Koch. Dan is a researcher, therapist, and host of the podcast You Have Permission. They discuss how their own lives have been affected by spiritual abuse, and then address questions such as
- Why can it be difficult to spot?
- What kind of impact does it leave?
- What makes spiritual abuse distinct from other kinds of abuse?
Their conversation connects important theological insights – including the nature of institutional sin and redemption – with practical advice for victims, their loved ones, and current leaders of Christian organizations.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
CURTIS CHANG: Sin is always a distortion of the good. It is a perversion of the good, as Augustine would say. So, “the good” is religion, God, institutions, and institutional leaders imaging something of God. When sin distorts that imaging process, it’s like a magnification. It taps into the power intended by God for the good but distorts it into the bad. It has outsize spiritual impact precisely because it is being done by a spiritual institution and institutional leaders versus somebody else without any spiritual cloaking. Is that an accurate summary of what you just said?
DAN KOCH: Imagine it this way. You walk past a street preacher with a big sign and a megaphone. Now, that person might basically be attempting to spiritually abuse you, but you don’t care. I mean, you might happen to agree with something on the sign, but the person doesn’t have any authority. They’re a rando on the street. If you’re me, they actually have less authority if they think that that is a good use of their time. But religion, practiced religion and spirituality… I’m glad you used the word “power,” because I describe it as like nuclear fission.
Nuclear fission, when used correctly, produces the cleanest, most abundant, most environmentally-friendly energy that human beings have ever invented. When it goes wrong, it produces nuclear fallout – the most destructive thing that human beings have ever come up with. Religion, by its very nature, deals in the ultimate questions, but also the ultimate values and aims of a person. It just has stronger levers than other things.
If you were emotionally abused by, I don’t know, your barber. Let’s say your barber is having a really bad day and tries to utilize their power over you. Whatever. Like, okay. I just go to you for a haircut and maybe some conversation. But I go to my pastor when my marriage is failing, you know? I go to my pastor when I don’t know what to do with my kids, who are the most important thing to me in the world.
The levers just get at stronger stuff. That’s why it’s so powerful.
CURTIS CHANG: I love that analogy of nuclear power. It captures some of my feelings on this topic. We see, time and time again, people who have been abused in the church setting leaving their faith, because it feels contaminated for them – all of their memories of the church, all of their current relationships with the church, and then God himself. It’s like the gospel has this sort of radioactive glow to it. They want to avoid it.
But have you seen folks reconstruct their faith? What does that look like? If the whole church experience gets tainted with this trauma and toxicity, what is the recovery process? How does one recover one’s faith life coming out of that experience?
DAN KOCH: So now I’m going to be drawing on a mix of client work and just kind of talking with people over the years doing “You Have Permission,” and a little bit of my own experience as well. Maybe the way we might sketch a standard trajectory would be something like this.
If you experience religious trauma or spiritual abuse and meet most of the PTSD criteria, you would deal with that until you do trauma work.
Time can heal traumatic wounds, but when we zoom out and look at the larger study of trauma, we find many stories of 75-year-old Vietnam War vets dealing with trauma that has lingered in their system for 50 or 60 years.That’s kind of the dominant understanding. It doesn’t go away. The bestselling book on the subject right now is called, The Body Keeps the Score. It’s aptly titled. So that’s kind of our best understanding of trauma.
Now, spiritual abuse does not always produce trauma. I want to be clear. That’s why I called my scale “Spiritual Harm and Abuse,” because it doesn’t always reach abuse or trauma. Sometimes it’s just like, “Wow, that was really lame, and that makes me not want to go back.”
But let’s say it is bad, so then someone works on their trauma. The most efficient way to do that is with a trauma-informed therapist, but I imagine there are other ways to get some of that benefit through people in your life. I wouldn’t recommend it. I’d recommend using a therapist.
So then, as you’re healing from trauma, with enough time (and maybe you have some other experiences) someone might go, “Oh man, you know, I miss that.”
I’ll tell you an example from my own life.
So, we left our church about five years ago. It was a PCA church at the time and has since become Anglican.
There was a lot of cognitive dissonance for me. I was starting the podcast, I disagreed with the church on a lot of things, and it just felt weird. I started going back with my son, because we’d gotten through COVID, and we hadn’t found another more progressive church that we really liked. So, we went back to our old church.
And I’m sitting in there one Sunday, not particularly expecting to enjoy it, but I’m there for my son. And it’s Palm Sunday, and we read this passage from Isaiah, and it’s about the wounded servant, the suffering servant.
And in the beginning of the passage, there’s this description of, like, what I call a Quasimodo kind of figure. He’s disfigured in the Isaiah passage. And I was like, “Uh-oh, here comes the anxiety.”
I could see anxiety coming from two places. First, I wondered, “Is this really talking about Jesus? Jesus didn’t seem to be ugly from the other accounts we have.” I felt internal pressure to line it all up. Second, I felt concerned that I would come to a more progressive understanding of this, at odds with the church, and feel that dissonance again.
I spotted those two sources of anxiety up ahead but didn’t feel either of them. Instead, I thought, “Huh, aren’t religions interesting?”
Which totally surprised me, but it was an indicator that I had processed something. That’s why I tell this little long-winded story. I had gotten through that need to align my beliefs with the text or the church or whatever, and I had gotten a bit of space there. Somebody who has healed, who has processed, will probably find a moment like that, where they go, “Oh, I don’t need to avoid that anymore. I can visit my parents’ church when we’re visiting them at the holidays, and it doesn’t trigger anxiety in me anymore.”
That would be one way of knowing. Another way would just be, you find another expression of the faith that doesn’t ping those points for you, and you’re able to kind of re-approach the language of the liturgy, gospel passages, the Lord’s Prayer, or what have you. And you just go, “Oh yeah, okay.”
Then you probably have had to reinterpret it to some degree to get past whatever you’ve been through.
Hopefully that’s helpful, though it was not as concise as I planned it to be.
CURTIS CHANG: No, no, that’s good. I like the idea of paying attention to our anxiety and our avoidance impulses. My book talks about how anxiety equals loss times avoidance. When we can lower our avoidance, it’s a good sign that our anxiety levels have gone down and we’ve healed a bit.
Editor’s note: In this episode, Curtis mentioned his work in institutions. Please see this related article:
And this related podcast:
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