Have You Been Brainwashed By The Church? These Are The Red Flags To Watch Out For
Lately, I've been researching the signs of toxic abuse and comparing them to how churches often treat their congregations- and the similarities are eerie. When I looked up the signs of abuse, I realized that my church hit every mark. That is when I realized that I was a victim of church abuse.
Brainwashing is the process of pressuring someone into adopting radically different beliefs by using systematic and often forcible means. The tactics used by abusers to wash the minds of their victims are often masked as love and compassion but rooted in manipulation and ulterior motives. It is difficult to see when you are the victim of brainwashing because it begins with love - or something that looks like love. Little by little, the abuser will use techniques that alter your perception, inevitably putting you in a position to be controlled because the one holding you has gained your trust. Once you've made it to this point, it is almost impossible to leave.
I've compiled a list of what I consider to be the biggest red flags of church abuse based on my research and my own experience. Of course, I know that not all churches are the same. But if you're starting to question if your church has brainwashed you, these are the things you should look out for.
You Joined The Church When You Were Weak Or Struggling.
Abusers like to prey on the weak and vulnerable. Those who crave power know how to find their victims. The easiest way to dig their claws into one's mind is to do it when they are too young to know any different. I was brought to church the first week of my life and spent every Sunday and Wednesday there for 18 years. The church didn't have to work hard to slip inside my head and make it their home. I was so young and weak-minded, I was incapable of choosing differently for myself. In my opinion, this is the most dangerous way churches indoctrinate their members because it takes a complete overhaul of your entire worldview and everything you've ever known to break away. You have to deconstruct every single thing you've ever learned.
The church also likes to prey on those who need community and compassion; victims of domestic violence, the homeless, alcoholics and addicts, prisoners and convicted felons, orphans, the list goes on. Although churches tend to parade these community outreach missions as acts of love, they are nearly always paired with preaching and indoctrination. It is rare you'll find a church willing to do good work in their community without forcing those they help to listen to their message. They offer instant friendships, potlucks, counseling, and sometimes financial support for those that have lost homes or the ability to work. Although these acts appear compassionate, the end goal is always the same: to recruit members. Once they've snagged the emotional strings of their victims, they can get them inside the church and begin the process of rewiring their brains.
They Target Your Self-Esteem.
The easiest method for creating a victim is to lower their self-esteem, so they become incapable of realizing they are better than the abuse. This makes them less likely to leave.
Most churches will preach the doctrine of "original sin," a belief that all humans have inherited their ancestors' sinful and evil nature- specifically Adam and Eve.
If your church constantly reminds you how broken and evil you are, this is their way of breaking down your self-esteem and self-worth to make it easier for you to stay. They remind you that yes, you are bad, but if you stick with them and their teachings, you can cover your spiritual illness with god's goodness. You become a sort of vessel for Jesus, allowing him to shine through you so that the world doesn't see how bad you are. And since you are so bad, you cannot trust yourself, making it so much easier for them to dissuade you from stepping outside.
They will feed you verses like Romans 3, which says "there is none good, no not one," and Isaiah 64, where it states we are all like "filthy" rags. In my church, this was translated to "dirty menstrual rags" - a phrase that stuck to my brain like glue. When they remind you every week that you are evil and in desperate need of a savior, it won't take long for you to believe it. And once you do, the chances of you finding the confidence to leave are slim. Self-love is sin- because why would you love someone so naturally evil? And if you cannot love yourself enough to go, you won't.
They Isolate You From The Outside World.
"The world is a dark and scary place," they used to tell me, "Satan lurks behind every corner."
According to the church, secular music, movies, friends who were non-believers, and even public school could lead us down a dangerous path. I was often warned about my non-christian friends until I eventually separated myself from them.
If your church isolates you from experiencing life outside its walls, they have succeeded in conditioning you to stay. And if you do leave, you will go afraid of all the demons waiting for you on the other side. It will be challenging to navigate through life. The world is a terrifying place to the church. When you leave, you go alone. This very fact could be why so many struggling Christians choose to stay.
You Are Discouraged From Asking Questions Or Pushing Back On Doctrine.
Proverbs 28:26 says that those who trust themselves are fools, which is the easiest way to keep a congregation from pushing back on doctrine. I remember having so many objections, but I wouldn't allow myself to entertain them because I was taught that my thoughts weren't from god but Satan. I was to trust the doctrine, or else I'd be considered self-indulgent; a fool. And that was a big no-no. If I did decide that something was worth pushing back on, I was met with hostility and condescension. It just wasn't worth it. Besides, I'm naturally broken. What would I know?
If god gave you a brain and the ability to use it, why would he punish you for doing so?
If you can't trust yourself, you can't ask questions. If you can't ask questions, you may as well not even consider them. If you're not considering your questions, you are blindly following the beliefs of another. A quick look through history can show you just how dangerous this can be.
They Teach You A Confusing Version Of Love
Although difficult to define, most of us know pure love when we see it. Even the Bible portrays an agreeable definition of love in 1 Corinthians, a famous verse typically quoted in weddings:
"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."
So then, why does the church so often redefine love using contradictory doctrine from the very same Bible?
To love god is to be obedient to him; to serve him; to worship him; to suffer for him. To put away your desires and devote yourself entirely to him. None of this comes from the Corinthians definition, but it is fed to the congregation every Sunday.
God's love for us looks a bit different. His love is jealous (Exodus 20:5), burning in anger (Isaiah 30:27), possessive (Exodus 20:3), regretful (Genesis 6:6), homicidal (Genesis 6:7), controlling (Romans 8:9), self-seeking (Matthew 22:37), and it even rejoices in evil (Deuteronomy 28:63). The polar opposite of what Corinthians teaches us.
Only the church can twist it to make it make sense. So you end up with a washed version of love. One that requires absolute devotion no matter the cost. One that keeps you obedient and discourages freedom of self. You are provided a strict guideline on how to love; meanwhile, the love given back to you is rooted in what the Bible so clearly states is sin - but it's acceptable because it is from god. This is the same tactic used by abusers. They convince you that their bad deeds come from a place of love; "I hit you because I love you."
If your church gives you a definition of love that is confusing or rooted in obedience, you need to run.
I left my church over ten years ago, and it's taken me every moment since then to deconstruct everything I've ever known because my entire worldview was fashioned by a tiny little southern baptist church in the middle of nowhere. I had to step out and see that the world was so much bigger, so much brighter, and more welcoming than they wanted me to believe. Doing so has been the single most painful and challenging thing I have ever done, but it has brought me immeasurable freedom and joy.
I encourage you to question everything, to trust yourself, and to follow your intuition. If you believe the church has victimized you, there are resources to help you sort it out. One of my favorite resources is RecoveringFromReligion.Org, which has a hotline and chat that will connect you to compassionate and knowledgeable volunteers waiting to help you sort through these confusing beliefs. I promise that a loving god would not be angry with you for asking questions. He would not condemn you for being true to yourself. He would not create you with intuition as a trick. No loving god would create you broken.
No matter what, remember that only you can know what is best for you. If God created you with a brain and a heart, it is not wrong to trust them. And by breaking away from those who wish to control you, you can and will find spiritual freedom, whatever that looks like for you.
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Other notable posts:
"The Surprising Truth About Same-Sex Relations In The Bible"