The Identifying Spiritual Abuse Podcast

by | Dec 15, 2022 | Podcasts | 19 comments

Spiritual Trauma podcast
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Is your church a spiritually safe place?

Because I’ve done so much research on toxic teachings within evangelicalism that have hurt people’s marriage and sex lives (specifically in The Great Sex Rescue), I often get asked about toxic churches. If the church taught this toxic stuff, then what if the church itself is toxic?

And so a lot of questions that come into the blog, and a lot of discussion in our patreon community, revolves around how to find healthy churches, and how to recognize if you’re in an unhealthy one.

I’ve heard some difficult church situations lately that, when people told me the story, really alarmed me. Yet they didn’t seem to think it was strange or rare.

And so I thought I’d combine two interviews on spiritual abuse in this podcast, with Dr. Foluso, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in spiritual and cultural abuse, and Johnna Harris, the co-host of the Bodies Behind the Bus podcast.

Listen in!

Or, as always, you can watch on YouTube:

Timeline of the Podcast

1:35 Johnna joins to talk tricky church relationships
6:00 ‘Membership covenants’ are dangerous
1:35 Example of abusive leadership
15:00 Red flags & toxic church discipline
39:00 What you should know about biblical couseling
46:00 What’s coming moving forward
50:50 Dr Foluso joins to talk spiritual abuse and trauma
1:00:00 Spotting abusive leaders
1:03:00 ‘What if my husband doesn’t want to leave our church?’
1:08:10 ‘My pastor blew me off!’
1:11:45 If the church blames an abused woman

Johnna talks about toxic churches

Johnna and I focused our conversations around two things: The problem with church membership covenants, and why they can be inherently dangerous, and the problem with small groups and accountability groups that demand access to your financial information or deepest secrets without providing any safety. 

Many churches insist that people violate their own boundaries, and once those boundaries are broken down, it becomes easier to control congregants. It is not a safe situation.

While confession should be the norm among believers, it should flow out of a natural relationship of mutual accountability. It should not be demanded or insisted upon by those with more power. 

If you are wondering more about membership covenants, you may also benefit from:

I also suggest listening to episodes of The Bodies Behind the Bus, or reading through some of the stories on the No Eden Elsewhere blog, to recognize unhealthy church dynamics.

Most churches are not like this. Most do not function as hierarchical, power hungry entities. But when you are in the midst of it, you may think that this is what all churches are like.


I hope that we can all find healthy churches, and not feel beaten down by unhealthy ones! This year Rebecca, Joanna and I all ended up in healthy churches, and we’ll tell you about that on next week’s podcast!

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What is Spiritual Abuse with Dr. Foluso

Next, Dr. Foluso joins us to answer questions about how to recognize spiritually abusive dynamics in counseling or in churches, and talk about what she sees with her clients.

Dr. Foluso a licensed psychologist who specializes in evidence-based and culturally informed treatments of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and anxiety disorders, especially around issues of cultural and spiritual trauma. She’s got some great videos explaining some of these issues that I’d encourage you to watch, especially this one on surprising secrets of spiritual abuse survivors:

Subscribe to her YouTube channel, because she’s got lots of quick videos that explain key concepts, like spiritual bypassing, gaslighting, and more.

Things Mentioned in the Podcast

The Podcast on Spiritual Trauma

What do you think? Have you ever lived through an unhealthy church that tried to control you? Let’s talk in the comments!


Sheila: Welcome to The Bare Marriage podcast.  I’m Sheila Wray Gregoire from where we like to talk about healthy, evidence-based, biblical advice for your sex life and your marriage.  And before we launch into the podcast today, I just wanted to do a special thank you to our patrons.  Your support for as little as $5 a month helps us continue our research.  It funds our surveys.  It funds getting the word out there, and we’re just so grateful to our patrons.  We have such a fun time in our Facebook group and on our unfiltered podcasts.  So you can join us at  The link is in the podcast notes.  One of the things that I find in the work that we are doing calling out some toxic teachings in evangelicalism relating to sex and marriage is that there is a lot of overlap with some of the toxic things that are happening in evangelicalism as a whole.  And so I find that the more that I talk about the problematic teachings that we experience the more people show up on the blog and on the podcast talking about some of the problematic things they’re going through in their churches.  And so I wanted to dedicate today’s podcast on how to recognize if things that are happening in your church are not okay.  Because sometimes when we’re in the middle of it, we can’t see it.  And so I have two amazing women that I want to introduce you to so that we can talk about different aspects of spiritual abuse that can happen in churches.  Well, I am thrilled to bring onto the Bare Marriage podcast a friend of mine, Johnna Harris, who is the cohost of The Bodies Behind the Bus podcast.  Hello, Johnna.

Johnna: Hi.  How are you?  Thank you for having me.  

Sheila: Yeah.  This is a long time coming because I’ve been on your podcast like what?  Three times now.  And we’ve done Instagram Lives together.  And yes.  

Johnna: Yeah.  I feel so honored to be welcomed into your little side of the community as well.  So thank you.  

Sheila: Yeah.  So here’s what happened, Johnna.  I will tell you the story.  I wanted to talk in the month of December about community and healthy community.  The whole idea that Christmas—I love—the phrase that always hits me at Christmas is Emmanuel, God with us.  That God is this relational God and that He sent Jesus.  And Jesus came in order to show us what real relationship was going to be like.  Relationship that led to wholeness and health and how we are supposed to live in relationship.  And I want that.  I mean I know—you and I both.  We spend our lives talking about the difficulties and the bad stuff in churches, right?  

Johnna: Right.

Sheila: But we desperately want there to be healthy community because that’s what people need.  But at the same time, I am inundated by stories of situations and churches which really aren’t healthy.  And I know that’s what you’re really dedicated to doing too in your podcast.  Why don’t you just tell us a little bit about your podcast before I get into what I want to talk about?

Johnna: Yeah.  Sure.  I can even speak a little bit to what you’re even saying right now in just the fact that I think oftentimes—I was just listening to another podcast.  I wish I could remember.  It’s about the—is it NXIVM cult?

Sheila: Oh yes.  Yes.  That lovely—yeah.  The sex cult.

Johnna: Yes.  One of the whistleblowers has a podcast.  It’s great.  I cannot remember what it’s called right now.  But he’s talking about how people are so angry at them for speaking up about what’s going on and the consequences of exposing that.  And he’s like, “You’re actually mad at the things that were bad that happened, and your anger is misplaced.”  Or there’s this idea that the people are speaking up are the ones that are making this situation hard for people.  But really it’s the behavior that we’re speaking up about, right?  So we have to say these things out loud.  We have to shine light on them.  And we have to educate ourselves and the church so that we don’t continue in these patterns and have these harmful things happen.  So it’s out of love for the church, right?  And that’s actually—I guess that could be a little segue into what I do.  So Bodies Behind the Bus is a podcast that centers survivor stories originally coming out of the Acts 29 network.  And now we’ve kind of branched into—I mean as it has gained a little bit of listenership all of American evangelicalism.  We’ve even gotten some people overseas that have reached out.  And it’s just this very similar experience from everyone with this idea of this coercive, high control religion.  And that’s just not what the Gospel is supposed to be.  And that’s not what the church is supposed to be.  It should be freedom and community and goodness and truth and beauty.  So the mission of Bodies Behind the Bus is to give voice to those stories.  So, again, we can shine light on that stuff, educate ourselves, and then not keep doing it as the church.  How do we move forward out of this and not have more stories like this happening?  So that’s the high level.

Sheila: Yes.  Exactly.  Yeah.  And I feel like every December for the last few years we’ve had these podcasts where we’ve talked about our spiritual journey for the last year.  And two years ago we felt very spiritually homeless.  And then last year I was talking about some of the disappointments I had had with how the powers that be reacted to our book.  And this year Rebecca and I are coming at it from a different standpoint where we’re both in new churches, and we really are experiencing community.  And it’s wonderful.  And so we want to tell people there is goodness out there.  But so often when people are searching for that goodness, they get sucked into something that isn’t good.  And these are the stories that I hear again and again.  And I wanted to address one particular aspect of it which is when people in a church are told that in order to belong they have to go to some kind of a small group or a recovery group or membership group or something where they are required, as part of that membership, to share very, very private things.  And it can become really abusive.  I was trying to figure out who to talk to about this.  And I know you’ve got some great stories on your podcast—well, tragic stories—of people that have been in really coercive and uncomfortable situations in some of these churches.  And, of course, you are looking specifically at Acts 29.  For those who don’t know, Acts 29 is a church network.  It’s nondenominational.  It tends to be on the conservative side.  It was started by Mark Driscoll until he was forced to resign.  And Matt Chandler now runs it.  And he recently had to step down from his church although I think he’s about to come back.

Johnna: Yep.  Story of Acts 29.  There’s a lot of in and out of the top level leaders.  And they’re a really highly, a lot of times, dual-affiliated with the SBC or 9 Marks.  So it’s kind of that same—I just call it the young, restless, reformed umbrella if you’ve read Jesus and John Wayne.  On Twitter, we usually call it the oh, bro.   

Sheila: And at Acts 29 and at 9 Marks—so—which is another church network, so they’re kind of the same different ones.  But they’re very similar.  One of those 9 marks is the idea of this membership covenant which very much comes forward into Acts 29 churches too.  And membership covenants—it’s not just that you become a member of a church.  Okay.  I’ve been a member of a church at—to different churches.  Whenever we move, whatever.  I believe in being a member of a church.  No problem.  But a membership covenant is something different.  It goes above and beyond.  Do you want to explain what that is?  

Johnna: What’s so wild looking back on membership covenants in general is I just thought that was part of being at a church was you just signed a membership covenant until I’ve gotten out a little bit and zoomed out and seen the wholeness of what the actual historical church is.  But many of these spaces, a membership covenant is this document that you’re signing sometimes—people will say some of them hold some legal weight, which is ridiculous to me, where you’re committing, “I will tithe this amount.  I will never sue the church.”  All these things that sound—“I will never gossip.  I will never slander anyone,” which, on the surface, you’re like, “Of course.  Are you kidding?  I’ll sign anything.  I don’t care.  Obviously, not.”  But then when we get into these high control spaces, you realize zoomed out, would you ever do that for signing up for a YMCA or something?  No.  You’re like, “Why are you making me do this?  What is it that I need to sign away this right for?”  So that’s kind of where we see these membership covenants existing.  Does that make sense?  Does that answer your question?

Sheila: Yeah.  Because what they’re essentially saying is, “You’re not allowed to bad mouth us.  So you can’t gossip about us.  You can’t say anything negative.  And you agree that if you have any problems with the church, you will come to the elders, and we will find a mutual agreement, or we will get a mediator of the church’s choice.”  So—

Johnna: And they don’t even want to let people go.  So it’s like we’ve seen even church leaders—if you signed a membership covenant here, if you’re like, “I just want to fade quietly into the night.  Things are feeling weird here, and I’m going to go to another church,” we’ve had pastors or elders call the other church and be like, “They’re under our authority.  This was not good.”  Very messy.  So we do see that often too.

Sheila: Yeah.  And often too, when you do sign a membership covenant, you’re also signing—you need to look for wording.  So please, if you’ve signed a membership covenant or if you think you may have, go to your church’s website because usually church’s will have their membership covenants online.  And go look at what you signed because you may not remember.  But often there’s a discipline.  A church discipline language in it which says that you agree to be under the church’s discipline, but it doesn’t say for what.  And so the church—the pastor and the elders can put you under discipline at their own decision whereas you are not given any power to hold a church accountable for anything.  And the classic example of this of Karen Hinkley.  This hit national news in 2015 out of The Village church.  I had never even heard of Matt Chandler until—or The Village Church until 2015 when I saw this story hit the news.  And I couldn’t believe it.  But Karen Hinkley had been on the mission field with her husband for, I believe, 6 years.  And while they were overseas, she found out that he had been using child porn.  I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t say that.  Child sexual abuse materials.  I think it’s actually very important that we not say child porn but say child sexual abuse materials.  I sometimes forget.  But when we say child porn, we make it sound like it’s porn for children.  And no.  This is children being sexually abused, and we are watching it.  And the Brits have called it that for ages.  And we North Americans need to catch up.  So, anyway, so he had been consuming child sexual abuse materials for many years, and she found out that it predated their marriage.  And so she felt like she had gotten married under false pretenses because he had not told her this.  They returned to the U.S.  They left the mission, and she wanted an annulment.  And she filed for an annulment.  But they had been members at The Village Church.  And the church allowed her husband to come to the church.  So he was attending the church.  I believe someone was walking around with him or whatever.  I’m not sure how much supervision he had, but he was at the church.  And they told Karen that she needed to go to marriage counseling with the elders so that they could reconcile.  And Karen is like, “No.  I’m good.  I’m fine.  I’m good.  Forget it.  I’m gone.”  And they didn’t leave it at that.  They continued to email her, harass her.  When she wouldn’t respond, when she wouldn’t do what they wanted, they actually sent an email to their members, I believe, and talked about this from the stage.  They put her name through the mud, and that’s when it hit national news that they were insisting that this woman, who had been married to a man using child sexual abuse materials—that they were insisting that she reconcile with her husband.  And she said, “No.  I don’t even want to be a part of your church anymore.  I am gone.  Why are you still harassing me?”  And this is the problem is that when you sign a membership covenant you say, “I will not leave the church.”  And some people have actually said this could be a legal document as you said.  Now if you are in a dispute with your church and you’re worried that it may be a legal document, please see a lawyer because they cannot stop you from speaking out about things which could be illegal.  

Johnna: Yeah.  And even with that, we recently talked to—do you follow Robert Callahan on—

Sheila: Yes.  I saw that Instagram Live you did with him.  Yes. 

Johnna: Love him.  And he had some really interesting things to say about this church silencing language and how a lot of that doesn’t actually hold weight in the legal realm.  So it’s used as a fear tactic to keep you quiet.  Or they’ll say, “Hey, this holds legal weight.”  But he’s like, “You can’t marry this over spiritualized language with actual legal cases because it doesn’t work.  It’s too vague—it doesn’t actually end up working that way.”  So if you have a church that’s trying to scare you into that or make you feel that way, seeking a lawyer that can be like, “This doesn’t hold any weight,” could actually free you from a lot of stress and anxiety surrounding that.

Sheila: Yes.  Very good idea.  So I just want to say again to listeners.  Some of you may have signed membership covenants.  And this may have been presented as just normal at your church.  But I want you to know that most denominations do not require anyone to sign a membership covenant.  You can just declare, “Hey, I want to be a member of the church.”  Maybe you go through a membership class.  Maybe they have a little ceremony on a Sunday morning where they welcome all the new members and you shake people’s hands.  And that’s really all there is.  You don’t have to sign a document saying that you agree to put yourself under church discipline, that you agree that if you ever have a problem with the church you will not go to any authority or counselor or anything else, that you will just—that is just not normal in most churches although it is normal in many of these conservative SBC mega churches. 

Johnna: Yes.  It is.

Sheila: Which is scary.  Okay.  So that’s about the membership covenant.  So that’s one half of it.  But then there’s this other aspect, which often goes hand in hand.  And that’s that when you join one of these—and they’re often large churches.  Not always.  But they’re often large churches that are part of these church networks where they have a certain way of doing small group or discipleship where you are put under the leadership of your small group leaders.  And for instance, I remember hearing a close friend—well, she used to be a friend—ran a small group like this at one of the more high control, nondenominational church networks similar to Mars Hill.  It wasn’t Mars Hill but similar.  She and her husband led a small group in their home.  And at the beginning of every small group, they would divide into men and women.  And you were supposed to confess your sins for the week.  And the leaders would keep track of the sins so that they could see how you were doing.  And this sounds bizarre, but these were—it was a professional couple in a normal, Canadian, large city in 2020.  It’s not something out of the boonies in some strange place.  This is what is going on is that people are being told they need to confess their sins or even that they need to seek their small group approval for major decisions or financial decisions.  Do you want to talk to that?

Johnna: Yeah.  I mean—and I’ll be honest.  As a part—so I came out of an Acts 29 church.  And my childhood was in a very fundamentalist church space.  Similar to Grace, John MacArthur, Masters College, if you’re aware with that.  That’s what I grew up in.  So I’m used to high control.  So I’ve been a leader.  I’ve been a small group leader in these spaces where you think you need to have vulnerability.  We are going to be accountability for each other, so we got to tell each other everything.  I’ve been on the side where you think that’s the right way to do life together.  I’m using air quotes.  It’s like we’re all in.  And we know each other’s dirty secrets, and we’re fighting for goodness with each other.  Again, sounds so good on the outside.  And there are some good aspects of it.  But when it’s forced and when there’s requirements surrounding it or even peer pressure surrounding it, it’s not good and healthy.  And I mean we’ve had some stories where—there’s people that are actually reporting back to the lead pastor or the elder team what’s going on.  And I will say after being in a staff context in one of these very unhealthy spaces that type of dialogue is very normal.  So someone that is maybe listening to this that’s in a staff context like that would be, “That’s just a normal part of staff meeting.  What’s going on in your ministry?  How is everybody doing?  Is there anything we should be aware of,” is the way this is—

Sheila: Or, “Is there anything we should pray for?”  

Johnna: Yeah.  “Do we have any prayer requests?  What’s going on here?”  And so you’re sharing these very intimate, vulnerable details as if it’s a normal exchange at that level of ministry.  And it’s such a betrayal of trust for the people that you, as a leader, were entrusted with.  But also it’s been normalized.  This is just a part of these spaces, and it’s so unhealthy.  And a full other dynamic with that is if we’re asking these—and a lot of times in these spaces it’s young men and women.  They’re 20 years old leading a small group.  “Tell me about your porn addiction.”    

Sheila: “When was the last time you masturbated?  What kind of porn do you watch?”  Yeah.  Mm-hmm.  

Johnna: Right.  They’re not qualified to be the people walking that.  And I think this comes to a larger conversation surrounding these types of groups is this is not where the church thrives.  That’s not where the church is good.  That’s us stepping out of our lane.  This is where we need to actually be just loving people, growing in trust and relationship with people, not requiring to meet certain standards to be within community especially not forced vulnerability or confession of sins.  Or we’ve seen people have to do line by line for their budgets to get financial help.  And, again, it’s a 22-year-old dude going through this married couple with 5 kids budget line by line.  “Well, you bought that bag of chips,” and then—that’s a whole other conversation too.  Who gets to decide if the bag of chips is a thing that keeps them from getting financial help, right?  But it’s this whole build up of this idea that we need to be outsourcing therapy.  We need to be outsourcing professional services for a lot of these things.  But we, as the church—and I’m saying this as a broad brush stroke—are saying we’re the end all.  We’re the last stop.  We can do everything.  And so our way to do that is to have small groups or these weird recovery programs.  Stuff like that.  Where we hear all of the hard things you’re dealing with, some of them are clinical things that need to be dealt with in a clinical environment.  And we’re going to put spiritual language on it.  We’re going to put a bunch of controls around you and boundaries on you.  And we’re going to fix you, so that you fit here.  And it’s very, very dangerous.  And it’s widespread.  It’s just normal.  It’s so normalized in these spaces.

Sheila: Yeah.  And it’s not even in those high control spaces.  There’s a church denomination that really isn’t part of Acts 29.  But they’re really into certain biblical counseling materials.  And there’s one particular book study that if you go through it, I think it’s the third meeting.  Everyone who is going through this book study is supposed to come and, again, confess all their sins and talk about the major strongholds in their life.  Now, there is nothing wrong with confessing your sins to one another, right?  James 5:16, I believe it is.  “Confess your sins one to another and pray one for another that you will be healed.  The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous person availeth much.”  I still know it in King James.  But anyway.  So there’s nothing wrong with confession.  But confession should flow out of a relationship that is two way where there is genuine intimacy and accountability.  Michael John Cusick, who wrote a really good book [distorted audio] that I often recommend, regarding recovery from sexual sin.  He said he doesn’t actually like the word accountability because it’s like sin management.  So you tell on yourself to me, and then I will make sure that I question you about all of your stuff.  But it’s very surface.  What he likes is accessibility instead which is when you’re actually becoming vulnerable about what’s really going on in your heart.  So it’s not just I clicked on a bad porn site three times this week.  It’s really I feel insecure.  I feel alone.  I’m really struggling.  But also the other person is able to say that to you as well.  And together you have this relationship where that is normal.  And that is much more normal one on one or maybe two on two than it is you say something to this entire group which is very controlling.

Johnna: Yeah.  And I mean that is, I think, an indicator for anybody that is in a space like this.  Whatever denomination, whatever church you are in, if you’re feeling anxiety or a pressure to have to share something, I think that’s a space where we need to listen to our God-given instinct and emotion and discernment there.  “Hey, this maybe isn’t the right space for this.  Or this isn’t safe or good.”  What is the purpose for it too?  Why?  And what is the end goal here.  Why are we making people stand up on a stage and confess all their sin?  Again, confession is good.  Confession is freeing.  But that has to happen in a relationship where that—where the other person or the people receiving the confession have earned trust.  They’re safe.  You’re not going to feel that this isn’t safe.  This isn’t good feeling.  You might feel—I mean sin—yeah.  There’s all sorts of feelings to parse through.  But yeah.  You’ll know if you’re safe.  

Sheila: Yeah.  There’s a psychological phenomenon where when cults want to get you more in—so make you more emotionally connected to that cult, feel more invested in that cult, they make you do something which doesn’t feel normal and which feels very uncomfortable.  So confessing all your sins, for instance.  Because once you have done that, once you have crossed your own boundaries, it’s like you have emotionally committed to this.  And so you feel much more a part of it because now you have to justify to yourself why you did that.  And so you say, “Well, because this is good for me.  Because this is my group.”  And so often when churches, especially high control churches, are trying to get people in—so this even happens at the beginning often of joining a life group, joining a small group.  I’ve seen many stories of people who have to bring their tax returns from the previous year or bring their latest pay stub and bring—and do a detailed budget to share with the entire group so that everybody knows how much money everyone is making.  So that if you need to make a decision about taking another job or about making a major purchase, everybody else will tell you whether that’s good or not.

Johnna: I’m kind of speechless at the idea of that.  And you are correct.  It is happening.  And I think people might hear that and be like, “How does someone do that?  How do you get there where you’re okay with that?”  And I think that’s what’s so sinister.  And, again, it all clicks into this bigger picture, right?  And that’s spiritual abuse.  This is coercion.  This is this idea of, “If you want to be a part of the kingdom of God, if you want to be a member of a church where we are on mission for God together, then you’re going to do this little uncomfortable thing.”  And like you said, I think that was a great way to phrase it.  You’re crossing that boundary.  And then what’s the next boundary that crosses?  And it chips away at your boundaries to the point where you get to this space where someone on the outside is like, “How in the world did you ever give your tax return to this group of people?”  But it’s little by little, you start doing that.  And then you’re also so invested because there’s so much shame.  And it’s like all these people know all of this stuff about me.  So a lot of times in these spaces we aren’t seeing healthy, good, flourishing coming from that.  They’re not using the tax return for actual healthy dialogue surrounding the next job, right?  It’s ways to shame them or shame someone or put them in line.  “You’re not falling into this box of what we, as a church, believe, so you are now going under church discipline.  We’re going to now have to walk through every purchase you make in order to make sure that you are following Jesus correctly the way we think is correct.”  It’s just—it’s so dangerous.  

Sheila: Yeah.  And again, I don’t think people understand that this is happening in large numbers at so many of our largest churches.  I know on your podcast you’ve had a lot of stories of people who have been put under church discipline.  Could you walk us through—I don’t want—you can’t obviously mention any particular person’s story.  But what does that look like?  If you could tell a combination of people’s stories or a typical one.  

Johnna: You know what’s so sad is it’s almost every story has almost everything identical.  It’s like you could just put different names in, and it’s so similar every time.  And that’s so sad because it’s wild every time.  Oftentimes, what we’ll see is this idea of Matthew 18 where maybe there’s a sin they heard of or a sin that a leader is witnessing.  Sometimes it’s just that you are somebody that they don’t like.  Sometimes it’s that you asked the wrong question.  Somehow you stepped outside of the box that they want you to be in.  And so usually, it will start with something like Matthew 18 where they’ll come to you one on one.  Now we’ve come to you with 2 people, and now we’re bringing you before the church.  And that can look like—  

Sheila: Wait.  Wait.  What has this person done?  Hypothetically.  I know Anna from Anna from No Eden Elsewhere—she writes about this quite a lot too.  She talks about someone who wouldn’t share their tax return and then went and bought a house without the home group’s permission.  And this was deemed bad.  

Johnna: I mean I’ve heard of people that have had this happen to them because they said your book was great.  

Sheila: Actually, yes.  I do.  I get emails about that as well.  Or people who have posted on Facebook about my book have been put under church discipline.  Yeah.

Johnna: Yeah.  And it’s like, “Hey, if you’re not willing to take down this Facebook post,”—I mean not even just your book.  But we see this about politics.  Like, “Hey, oh, you know what?  You said something against Trump.  And that is not something,”—or, “You were pro immigrant.”  If you have some of these more—it’s depressing to say it.  Like progressive ideals politically, we’ll see people get put under church discipline.  That’s also what’s upsetting about these situations.  Kind of going back to that analogy I gave of the line by line.  “Oh, you gave that bag—you bought a bag of chips.  And that doesn’t seem like the most nutritional thing in my opinion.  So we’re not going to give you this financial help, but we’re going to give this person financial help because they bought an apple.”  Just very—whatever the person thinks on that day of the week could affect.  There’s no clear boundaries.  And if there are clear boundaries, they’re completely inappropriate in my opinion.  In most of these cases.  Oversteps.  So if someone ends up in this—it could be as simple as a phone call.  “Hey, I saw you posted this on Facebook.  I think that it could be causing dissension within our community.  So I’m going to ask you to take that down.  And I really need you to think about why you would ever want to cause dissension in this community?  What, in you, is making you want to do that?  What’s your heart behind this?”  And then if the person is like, “Hey, I hear you.  I don’t think this is—that’s not my heart behind it.  This is my personal social media.  I’m going to go ahead and leave it up because it’s my personal social media.  And why are you asking this of me?” Then it’s like, “Oh, we’re going to come now with either your small group leader and the pastor or even sometimes the elders.  The elders are going to come bring you in.”  “Hey, we know So-and-so had this conversation with you and asked you to take that down.  And you’ve chosen not to.  So there’s now a pattern of sin here because you’re not submitting to the spiritual authority over you.  So now we’re coming to you as a group and appealing to you out of love.  It’s because we love you.  We want to see you submit to our authority.”  Side note, it’s not biblical authority.  It’s their made up version of authority that you need to fit into, right?  And then finally, if you—if you’re like me, you’re still saying, “No.  This doesn’t make sense.  This doesn’t—this isn’t reflected in the Bible.  Can you help me get there?”  Then you get to kind of where Karen Hinkley got which is, “Now we’re going to inform the entire membership.”  And oftentimes the rhetoric—an example that I was given as a child that I’ve heard a lot of people have been given this example is this idea of when you get to this point of church discipline, you’re kicking them out.  And the Bible says treat them as an unbeliever, right?  But what we’re doing in these churches is this idea of a rubber band.  So we’re not going to talk to them anymore.  We are not going to be in community with them in any way.  And they’re going to be like a rubber band that’s being—you’re holding the one end.  And they’re the other end.  And they’re walking away, and they’re feeling that tension between losing you and them walking away.  And because you’re rooted in God, they’re going to snap back to God one day because they’re going to realize what they’re missing out on which is so sad because we shouldn’t be treating unbelievers that way.  We shouldn’t be treating anyone that way.  It doesn’t make sense.  But this is how church discipline is happening in these spaces.  It’s public humiliation.  It’s complete shunning.  And it actually fits a lot of the checkboxes for cults.

Sheila: Yeah.  I had Natalie Hoffman on the podcast a couple of weeks ago.  She was talking about being excommunicated from Bethlehem Baptist Church where John Piper used to be pastor.  She was excommunicated when she left her abusive husband.  And she had tried to work with the elders to get them—she desperately wanted the elders to help her with her abusive marriage.  And they told her she was the problem.  And when she didn’t listen and she left, they actually publically—they had a church meeting where they publically excommunicated her.  She was not there.  Other people just reported on this afterwards because she wasn’t allowed in.  But I don’t believe anyway.  But they did talk about all of her sins.  And I know that this sounds really bizarre to most people.  And I hope it sounds really bizarre, if you’re listening.  This shouldn’t be what church is like.    

Johnna: No.

Sheila: But we are getting more and more like this.  I didn’t see this 20 years ago in church especially not in Canada.  But I am seeing it now in many of the—especially nondenominational movements and the more conservative churches where there is a real emphasis—yes.  On membership covenants, on church discipline, and on needing to get rid of all boundaries.

Johnna: Yeah.  And how is this what we’re okay within the church?  How did we get here?  And why are we going to continue to allow this to go this direction, right?  Because the reality is you’re right.  It is growing.  There’s a growing movement of it.  But I do also think there are a growing number of voices, like yours, that are speaking up and saying, “No.  This is not good.  This is not God.  This is not biblical.”  And so the hope is as people hear things like your podcast and this episode that they’re able to say, “Whoa.  This is going on in my church, and these are the consequences of it.  It could be you.”  I’m just going to be quite frank with you.  It could be you.  If you’re in this church, you rub someone the wrong way, you ask someone the wrong question, and you don’t think it could be you.  But it could be you.

Sheila: Yep.  Yeah.  Exactly.  And I wanted to emphasize too, again, we are not saying there is anything wrong with accountability.  We are not saying there is anything wrong with confessing your sins to each other.  We are not saying there is anything wrong even with telling a close friend how much money you make and asking for someone to walk you through financial decisions.  Those are all very good things.  But you need to look at the context of that because true accountability cannot be forced.  It grows naturally out of relationship.  And I think what we’ve done is we have said accountability is a hallmark of the Christian life.  Therefore, we’re going to force accountability.  As opposed to saying, accountability naturally grows out of healthy, intimate, Christian relationships.  

Johnna: Yes.

Sheila: And those things are necessary first.  It’s not that accountability creates healthy, intimate relationships.  It’s that healthy, intimate relationships create safe accountability.  

Johnna: Mm-hmm.  And I think with that we have created this dynamic that people feel they owe these things to their church leaders or they owe this level of vulnerability to their small group or their church community.  And if you feel like you owe it and it’s not out of a space of love and overflow, like you’re talking about, of relationship that is healthy and good and trustworthy, that’s not godly.  That’s not good.  That’s yucky.  That’s really yucky and really dangerous.  

Sheila: Yeah.  It really is.

Johnna: That’s why we get people drinking Kool-Aid at the end of the day.  This is where it sounds wild.  If you keep giving away boundaries, these people get more and more say.  And it’s this person say.  It’s not God say.  And a trustworthy shepherd, a trustworthy leader, is not forcing you to fit in their box.  They’re on a journey with you and shepherding you into the ways of God.  It’s good.  Sheila, if you wrong me and we get to the point where we’re publically, “Well, here’s the deal.  Here’s all the facts.  Sheila wronged Johnna,” is it best to just be like, “So cut her off, everybody.  Nobody talk to Sheila.  She is a wolf,” all this stuff.  No.  The idea is if we’re in church community, we’re like, “Oh my gosh.  I love you so much.  And I’m so broken that this is where we’re at.  How can I care for you?  And how can I walk through this with you?  How can I earn your trust so that we can have a relationship where I can say, ‘You wronged Johnna, or Johnna wronged you.’  Let’s come together out of trust and reconcile and rebuild and see beautiful things happen,” instead of the tearing down.  It’s just—

Sheila: Exactly.  And I think too—here’s another test for those who are listening.  Ask yourself if you’re in a situation where you are being encouraged, forced, pressured, whatever the word is to reveal very personal details to people in your church, is that two way?  Are you revealing things to leaders who then can reveal it to pastors and others where you are not hearing from them?  Because what often happens is a very unbalanced relationship.  I don’t know if people understand this either.  But if you seek biblical counseling from your church—so if your church offers biblical counseling—and biblical counseling—let me reiterate—is a specific field and type of counseling.  It doesn’t mean Christian counseling based on biblical principles.  Biblical counseling—I wish it was called something else because it’s like they’ve stolen a name and made themselves sound like something they’re not.  Biblical counseling is a specific field and type of counseling where they believe that the Bible is all you need and we don’t look at psychological research.  We don’t look at medical research.  And we see everything through the lens of sin and faith.  So “anxiety is a belief issue” is a quote from Nancy Leigh DeMoss, and that would perfectly summarize biblical counseling.  So anxiety is a belief issue.  It’s not something which you may just struggle with or depression, et cetera.  Anyway, if your church has a biblical counseling program and you seek out biblical counseling through your church—now your church may have licensed counselors, which would be different.  But most churches have biblical counselors if they offer counseling.  If you look at the consent form that you sign for that biblical counselor, I can almost guarantee you that they have—that they say that are permitted to speak about what you say to the pastor or to previous counselors or to those that they think they need to speak to about it.

Johnna: Yep.

Sheila: So what you share in counseling isn’t private.  You are signing away your privacy.  Licensed counselors are not allowed to speak about what you disclose unless you disclose something which is criminal or you disclose something where you may be a harm to yourself or others.  But biblical counselors do not have any privacy requirement.  And not just that they specifically say that they can share this stuff with your pastors, your small groups’ leaders, et cetera.  

Johnna: Yeah.  And they’re convinced that it’s good to do that.  

Sheila: Yeah.

Johnna: I really think that.  And it’s just such a lack of discipleship and education for all of us, to be honest with you.  I mean even people—maybe your church has a formal biblical counseling program like you’re talking about.  But oftentimes, we even see leaders as just—the pastor says, “I’ll do counseling for you.”  And it’s just—or, “Hey, do you want to meet with Jane?  She could do some counseling for you.  She’s had—she’s walked through a couple—she’s had two kids.  She could, for sure, handle this.”  I mean we have seen people put on staff specifically to get the pulse of—to be the ear on the ground for pastors.  Literally, they are paid position to intake the hardships of the people in the body and then to give it back to the pastor.  And it’s framed in a way like, “So I am aware of how I can shepherd this church.”  But really what that’s doing is building up this list of things where if that person questions that authority at any post, step out of that box at any point, they have this whole list of stuff where they can say, “Well, really, if you’re going to say that—how can we trust your judgment when we know X, Y, Z, A, B, C, D, E, F, G?”  You know what I mean?  It’s not being used for goodness.  It’s actually being used to coerce people, and it’s really damaging.

Sheila: Yeah.  I remember when James MacDonald had to resign from Harvest Bible Chapel when he was—or kicked out from Harvest Bible Chapel.  It came out that the soul care biblical counseling ministry at Harvest Bible—that he was weaponizing the counseling sessions.  He was getting the counselors to tell him about specific people’s problems and sins, so that he could use it against them.  So this is very dangerous stuff.  Now this is not every church in North America.  This is not even most churches in North America.  But it is often the biggest ones.  It is often the ones—the big mega churches, the huge, nondenominational networks.  It is often the most conservative ones.  And we just want you to know because what so often happens is people grow up in these networks—maybe they move to another town.  They go to a similar church, and this is really all they’ve ever known.  And I just want you to know, everyone listening, this is bizarre.  

Johnna: Yes.  It is bizarre.

Sheila: As someone who grew up in church my entire life, I have never been in a church where anybody said, “You need to show your tax return in order to come to this small group.”  I have never been in a small group where anyone said, “You need to come next week prepared to confess your sins.”

Johnna: Yeah.  I didn’t know that.  If you’re that person that Sheila is talking right now, please hear me say.  I was you.  I had a worship leader call me the day I was fired, very spiritually abusive situation.  You can actually hear it on episode 2 of Bodies Behind the Bus, if you would like to hear that story.  And she looked at me in the eye, and she said, “Johnna, there,”—and it’s a woman, which I loved.  This was the first time I ever had a female spiritual leader in my life.  I was completely taught that that was just not a thing.  She said, “Johnna, there is a gigantic, beautiful world out there for you in ministry in the church.  And you’ve been taught to believe that everything is in this tiny, little space.  And that’s not the church.  There’s a gigantic church out there that is just excited to welcome you in.”  And, hey.  It’s been a journey.  I’m still on that journey.  But the freedom that I have felt realizing that the space that I grew up in, the space where I experienced this coercive, shame-filled, guilt-ridden faith journey that I had been on was not the only version of church.  There is a beautiful, free, grace-filled, God-honoring church out there.  So if that’s you hearing Sheila right now and you’re like, “Well, we’re theologically superior,”—but if the fruit is rotten, if you’re in a space where you are living in constant fear, if you’re in fear of doing the wrong thing or falling out of God’s grace, if you’re in fear that God is angry at you then you’re not in a good place.  That is not God.  He looks at you.  You’re the apple of His eye.  He loves you.  And these spaces are not growing that in you.  They’re not encouraging you and helping you flourish in that.  They’re shrinking you down and not celebrating your Imago Dei.

Sheila: Exactly.  And this is the Christmas season.  We celebrate Emmanuel, God with us.  And I just pray that other people, who are really struggling with what authentic Christian worship and community should look like—that more and more people will find it.  And that likely means that a lot of us are going to have to leave the unhealthy places that we are.  We are living through a time whatever can be shaken will be shaken.  And Jesus is shaking His church in a way that we haven’t seen since 1500.  I really believe we’re going through another reformation.    

Johnna: I hope so.  I love it.  

Sheila: When He is separating the sheep and the goats and He is separating those who are concentrating on power and hierarchy and He is trying to preserve and save the remnant, who is focused on love and service and just viewing our mission in the same way that Jesus did.  And so maybe God is making you restless right now.  I just want to tell you as someone who has gone through this too and Johnna did as well.  Don’t fear the restlessness because there is real beauty on the other side.  And sometimes we have to go through that restlessness to find it.  So Johnna, I’m sure we have piqued so many people’s interests because they’re like, “I never knew this was a thing.”  So why don’t you tell us where we can find you and where people—and what people can expect on your podcast?

Johnna: Yeah.  So again, I cohost Bodies Behind the Bus podcast.  You can find us everywhere you stream a podcast, and you’re going to expect to be extremely uncomfortable.  You might expect to hear a story that you are finding words for something that you didn’t even have words yourself for yet in somebody else’s story.  And I think you’re going to expect to wrestle a lot while you listen to them.  Like, “Wait a second.  I’m uncomfortable with the fact that they’re naming that this was wrong because I’ve been conditioned to believe this is how I have to exist.”  And, again, just Jay said something so profound the other day, and that’s who my cohost is.  He said something like, “Jesus wants to sit with you in your story.  He’s not trying to change you.  He’s not trying to make you fit into whatever box that was.  He wants to sit with you in it.  He’s not afraid of it.  And He’s for your goodness.”  So as you grow with Him, out of that safety of Him sitting in your story, that’s the kind of thing that Bodies Behind the Bus is about.  We’re about sitting in the story and caring for somebody in the midst of it.  He loves you right where you’re at right now in the midst of this story and how exciting is it to see what comes next, right?

Sheila: Amen.   

Johnna: Here’s the story for right now, but God is not done with you.  God is not done with you.  So yeah.  Prepare to be uncomfortable, but there is a lot of beautiful redemption that is happening in our little corner of the podcast world as well.

Sheila: Yes.  And in the corner of the evangelical world, because I think more and more people are waking up.  So we will put links to The Bodies Behind the Bus podcast, their Instagram.  Johnna has done some great Instagram Lives.  You can go back and watch them.  And then also I will put links to the Karen Hinkley story in case I got some details wrong.  You can go check that out.  And the blog No Eden Elsewhere, as well, covers a lot of these stories of membership covenants as does The Wartburg Watch.  So we will put links to all of that fun stuff.  You can go on lots of rabbit trails.  And please, people, please let’s not let our hungry people steal the church.  We are the body of Christ.  

Johnna: They can’t steal the church. 

Sheila: Exactly.  

Johnna: Jesus might be shaking a lot of stuff, but Jesus is not shaking.  And so that’s Who we’re seeking and that’s Who we’re clinging to right now.  And I hope that for all of you.  Thank you so much for having me.  We could do this for another 4 hours I’m sure.  We could just go on and on.

Sheila: Yes.

Johnna: I appreciate you so much.  And thank you for having me.

Sheila: Yeah.  Really appreciate it.  I do love Johnna.  And I hope that you will check out her podcast, Bodies Behind the Bus.  It’s wonderful.  And now I would like to bring on a licensed psychologist, who specializes in spiritual abuse and cultural abuse.  Here is Dr. Foluso Solarin.  I am so glad to bring on the Bare Marriage podcast Dr. Foluso, who is a licensed clinical psychologist and who is—specialized in spiritual abuse and trauma.  So Dr. Foluso, thank you so much for being here.

Foluso: Thank you so much for having me, Sheila.  I really appreciate it.

Sheila: Now you reached out to me because you saw what I was talking about, and you’re like, “Oh my goodness.  I completely track with you.”  So tell us—before we get into the conversation of how this relates to marriage and everything, how do you define spiritual abuse?

Foluso: Okay.  So spiritual abuse is—in its broadest definition is somebody misusing their spiritual authority, right?  So it’s a misuse of spiritual authority.  And that authority is used to harm the individuals who are being abused.  And the way that spiritual abuse works is that it oftentimes is manifested when the spiritual abuser is trying to control the person who is being abused and trying to, basically, override their will, right?  And so that’s usually—that’s one form of abuse.  A lot of times people think of spiritual abuse happening in major obvious ways such as in cults.  Very drastic ways where people are very isolated from their family.  You see these big changes.  But oftentimes, spiritual abuse can be quite subtle.  And so people who have experienced spiritual abuse have—sometimes are in situations where they are being abused by others.  And they’re looking to their church, congregation to step in and help.  And so when they don’t.  When they just said, “Well, this is your problem because you’re in sin,” or whatnot, and they don’t use their authority to help but they take it passive, hands off approach, that is also spiritual abuse.  And so oftentimes, people are, when they are in these situations, experience another level of abuse because they’re being shamed, told the abuse is their fault, and then encouraged or even mandated to go back to that abusive situation.

Sheila: Right.  Now what about spiritual trauma?  Is that different from abuse?  Obviously, it’s like—it’s a byproduct of abuse.  But can people have spiritual trauma even if they haven’t overtly been abused.

Foluso: Oh, much—yes.  Definitely so.  By being in a spiritually abusive environment can, and oftentimes, creates trauma for those involved.  People watching other people being harmed—that can be traumatic for somebody to see.  So for instance, if they’re hearing threats from the pulpit, if they are seeing people who they know need help and being turned away or shamed, that can be abusive because they—someone who may not be experiencing it directly wonders about their own value and wonders what can happen to them.  How this isn’t a safe place.  They know it, and they feel it physically as well.

Sheila: Mm-hmm.  I know.  Let me give you an example.  I know I was in a church situation where I was leading a praise team.  This was probably 15, 20 years ago.  It was a long time ago.  But I was leading a praise team.  And the church deacons’ board didn’t feel that it was okay for me to pray between songs or say something.  Like one Sunday—I think the first Sunday I led between the songs, I said, “Before you sing this next song, picture the things that you came into church stressed with.  And picture yourself leaving them at the foot of the cross and look to Jesus as you sing this next song.”  That’s all I said.  It wasn’t a sermon.  It wasn’t a huge thing.  It was just like leave your burdens at the foot of the cross and sing this song.  And they debated for a year whether I was allowed to do that because I was a woman.

Foluso: Oh wow.  

Sheila: And there were three other praise team leaders because we have four praise teams.  And they were all led by men.  And it was—yeah.  It was a really difficult time, and I don’t think it was until probably 2 years ago that I recognized how much trauma I went through with that because I had to get up every month and lead a team and act like I was happy.  But I knew everyone there was going to be watching every single world I said.  

Foluso: Wow.  

Sheila: And sometimes I think we go through things like that, and we don’t even realize it at the time how much it’s taking out of us.

Foluso: Yes.  I’m sorry you went through that, and I can imagine how—not only how difficult that must be but the sense of sort of—what you say has—resonates with a lot of other people who have been in similar situations where they feel devalued through no fault of their own.  And because we are—we are—we automatically—we tend to assume the best of our spiritual leaders.  We look to them as speaking on behalf of God.  And we feel—and it can be very—it can be challenging, and it can be anxiety provoking to say, “Well, I don’t agree with this.  Or I’m going to against this.”  In spiritual abuse, we hear language often being weaponized.  So somebody who says, “Well, I don’t agree.  Or can you explain,” can be labeled as divisive, sowing discord, rebellious, things like that.  So in that situation, I don’t want to just speak for what you went through.  But you likely felt, “Hey, this is an authority that to do this I’m just going to go along,” and going through the motions but inside probably not feeling that great.  And then not realizing later something wasn’t right about this.

Sheila: Yeah.  Exactly.  Yeah.  And I think one of the issues with church situations too is that many women have told me, “It’s in church where I have felt the most devalued.  It’s in church where I have felt the most judged.”  And it shouldn’t be like that.  But have you seen that happen with your clientele?

Foluso: Yes.  Definitely.  That has been the case.  And the part that makes it the most—I won’t say the most.  But a part that can make that very painful is because of our expectations.  We expect to be welcomed in church, to be valued for who—to be valued as God’s creation.  I’m not saying that because you go to church you should just be allowed to do anything and get away with anything.  But the place where church—we don’t associate church and feeling shamed and devalued.  We have higher expectations as we should.  I mean if we look in the Bible, the Bible talks about what are some of the expectations of us as members and as well as leaders.  And so for someone to feel constantly shamed and constantly devalued is not a good thing at all.  

Sheila: Mm-hmm.  And I want to stress too.  We’re not saying that all churches are like this.  

Foluso: No.  Not at all.  Not at all.  Yeah.  I mean I love the church.  I think church is wonderful.  And there are lots of very good experiences that I know a lot of people have had.  But it’s very important also to bring awareness because you don’t—because when we think about spiritual abuse, people who have been in situations like that often say that they feel that the needs of the leader protecting the reputation of the leader and their feelings come above those of the congregants.  And that’s not the model the Bible shows.  And so it’s really important that we are looking out for the sheep, for people who are attending church, and using—and being able to value their wellbeing as well.  And so that’s really important.  This is not a, like you said, a church bashing session.  But there are some very harmful things.  It’s kind of like what you said before in one of your podcasts about the thalidomide effect, right?   And so maybe there were plenty of babies that were fine when they—when their mothers took thalidomide.  Thalidomide is a drug that can have teratogenic effects, basically meaning that children can come from the womb with missing limbs and all these horrible birth defects.  And so some maybe fine, right?  But then others when they do go through it, it’s very devastating.  And there are people that are walking away from their faith, from the Lord, from Christianity because of spiritual abuse and trauma.

Sheila: Right.  Now I want to help our listeners to understand this because I think there has been so much talk about spiritual abuse in the news especially when it relates to sexual abuse.  So when a pastor is using—pastor, a leader, whatever—is using their position to sexually abuse, to coerce women into whatever situation.  We’ve had many, many, many high profile things about that.  Ravi Zacharias, Carl Lentz, et cetera, et cetera.  But that isn’t the only kind of abuse.  You think about Mark Driscoll, for instance, who was let go—or James MacDonald.  Both of whom were let go from their—the mega church system that they founded because they had an abusive style of leadership.  And that abusive style of leadership is not limited to mega churches.  You can have an abusive leader in a very small church.    

Foluso: Yes.  That’s true.

Sheila: But can you—you were saying sometimes it can be what they say in the pulpit.  Can you give us an example or several of what that would like if someone is being abusive from the pulpit?

Foluso: One example I can think of that I’ve heard of personally with some people is perhaps when they go for counseling with—they’re going to counseling.  And there’s that expectation of confidentiality.  And so maybe they go to a pastor or they go to a leader, and they explain a situation that’s close to home.  A deep personal situation there.  There’s the expectation of confidentiality, right?  And then maybe they hear their story being retold from the pulpit in a shaming way.  So for instance, maybe I know a woman is having some postpartum issues, and she’s having real difficulty connecting with her children and her husband.  She goes to get counseling for that.  And then from the pulpit, they’ll hear some—they might hear something like, “Oh, women nowadays really need to snap back after having their kids.  You have other responsibilities.  You have a husband that needs you.  You have other kids that need you.”  And so using—and so really—but basically, the woman in that congregation would understand that that was her story being told.  And she is being indirectly shamed.  Maybe the pastor did not use her name.  But she is like, “Oh, I was just there seeing them a few days ago about this, and now I’m being labeled as a bad mother and a bad wife.”  Something along the lines of that.  Maybe a couple talking about some sexual issues after postpartum—the postpartum period.  And then the pastor saying something along the lines of, “Well, women should always be sexually available to their husbands no matter what.  And don’t use childbirth as an excuse.”  Something along those lines.  And so that is a way of—even if nobody else knows that they had that conversation, she understands that that was an attack against her.  Sometimes people do use names.  That can—or they may not use names.  But they don’t conceal the information, so everybody knows who the pastor or the leader is talking about.  Threats are another way as well too.  So saying, “If you don’t do this or you don’t do this,”—things that maybe may not be related to salvation.  External factors that the leader has put above the Word of God.  Maybe serving a certain number of hours a week or giving a certain amount of money to the church.  If you don’t do X, Y, and Z, you’re going to have some very bad things happen to you in life.

Sheila: Right.  Yeah.  That is very manipulative.  And again trying to control.    

Foluso: Yes.  Manipulation is the word I’m looking for.  Yeah.  And trying to control you because we should give and serve joyfully because that is something God has called us to do.  Not under threat of punishment or retaliation.

Sheila: I talk to a lot of women who have been reading my book, listening to the podcast, and they’re starting to realizing there’s some major issues in their church.  Often, it’s the way that the church views women or the way that the church handles abuse or divorce, anything like that.  And they just feel, “I can’t trust my pastor anymore.  I feel empty when I go to church.”  But their husband doesn’t feel that way.    

Foluso: That’s tough.

Sheila: And that’s a really difficult thing to say.  I get that question all the time.  What do I do when I really don’t like our church anymore, but my husband thinks it’s great?  Do you have any words of wisdom for them?

Foluso: Definitely.  I mean, first of all, continue to—the—pray and ask God for wisdom.  And while you’re praying and asking for God for wisdom also take action.  Some of the action steps I recommend are document everything.  Sometimes we can see situations differently.  But if we have cold, hard facts to back up what we’re saying, it’s important.  So something along the lines of writing—if it’s—when someone said that their situation doesn’t feel safe, what about it doesn’t make you feel safe?  Is it the way other members are treating you?  Sometimes we see in spiritually abusive situations that it’s somebody who is in the—recipient of abuse feels very isolated.  And so being given the silent treatment by others because they spoke up.  It can be very subtle. And so that’s why it’s very important to document.  So for instance, we could say something like, “I was in a conversation with 3 different women, and I spoke to them.  And none of them really acknowledged me.  I felt like I was being ignored.”  Just facts.  Or maybe, “So-and-so walked by.  I said hi to them.  They looked at me.  And they did not respond, and I know they saw me.  This happens week after week.”  That’s important because abuse can also happen in silent treatment type situations or ignoring the person and shunning them, right?  So they’re not—we’re not going to kick you out.  But we’re going to make sure that you feel unwelcome here.  Something along the lines of, “There was a meeting the other day.  I was given an hour notice before I had to attend.  When I attended, this was what was said to me.”  Take notes.  I think that’s really important, so that you have an objective factual record of what you’re experiencing.  And then also talk about how it’s affecting you.  “I’m having difficulty sleeping.  I feel anxiety when I step in the church building.  My hands are shaking.  I don’t feel safe.”  And it’s really important because if one person doesn’t feel valued as part of a family in a church system then I wonder how worth it it is for everyone to keep going because whatever the woman or whoever it is—it could be men as well being abused—it’s going to affect the whole family system.

Sheila: Mm-hmm.  Yeah.  You matter.  You matter.  And it’s okay.  It’s okay.  If you’re not comfortable, that should matter.  I know a lot of parents too—they may start—even sometimes the husband and wife are on the same team.  And they don’t think the church is teaching what is healthy from the pulpit.  They’re not sure that they even believe some of the doctrines of the church anymore.  They still love Jesus.  I get these notes all the time.  We still love Jesus, but we just can’t buy into this view of sexism or how they handle race or whatever it might be.  But our kids are really, really happy in the youth group.  And our kids are really, really happy in Sunday School.

Foluso: Yes.  I hear that sometimes too.

Sheila: What would you suggest to parents like that?

Foluso: Well, I wonder—it’s—that’s tough.  And I don’t want to say, “Do X, or do Y.”  What I would ask them to do is to see—if they are concerned—I mean kids can be really happy in a particular situation.  But the types of doctrine that are being espoused from the pulpit, I would ask is this only in the adult situations or is it leaking over to children’s church and youth group.  Because chances are there may be some sprinklings of that in there as well.  So really taking an investigative approach and see—and first of all, see what the kids are being exposed to.  Sometimes it is the case, and sometimes it’s not.  But perhaps try and work out something where maybe if the kids are meeting on a separate day—sometimes if a youth group is meeting on a weekend or something like that, parents can go to a different church.  And their kids can still be part of the youth group.  Sometimes I’ve seen situations like that work.  But it’s really important to take a very measured, objective response to see how this is affecting everybody.  And as a—I understand that our children’s wellbeing is important.  We want to make sure that they feel valued.  But, again, if the system isn’t in agreement, the family system is in agreement and there is some challenges from one end then we may have to evaluate, “Well, what if we were to try something else out for awhile?”  Maybe they could be happy somewhere else.  It’s important to just not put any option off the table.

Sheila: Right.  Exactly.  Okay.  Another scenario that I get a lot is couples or women or whoever it might be—somebody in the family will say, “Okay.  So I’ve realized that certain books are harmful.  Or I’ve realized certain teachings are harmful, and I went to my pastor.  And they completely blew me off.  I went to my pastor with a really good argument.  I had documentation of what was wrong with this book.  I was really well prepared, and they blew me off.”  Now obviously, it’s okay for pastors to not agree with everybody.  You’re not always going to agree with everything with your pastor.  But if this is something that’s important to you, what should we expect from our pastors if they’re healthy?

Foluso: Yes.  Great question.  What we would expect from them is what would we expect from ourselves.  So if we put ourselves in that situation—maybe you’re a teacher—having some sort of leadership position and someone comes to you with concerns, it’s very important to make sure that those concerns are validated.  You’re looking at it.  You are able to empathize and see the concerns from their point of view.  So for instance, it may—if you’re going to the pastor and saying, “I’m having these concerns,” the goal of the meeting isn’t for one person to say, “Well, you have to do things my way, or you have to do things my way,” but understand what are the concerns that are the root of the issue.  So for some of those marriage books that you’ve talked about, how they do not—they don’t value women really or men because of the harmful teachings and talk about it from the perspective of, “What can we—what is the common ground that we can establish from here?”  So maybe the pastor may decide that they still want to keep the book as part of their curriculum, but they also understand why that teaching is harmful.  So it’s really important—I don’t want to say that you shouldn’t focus on a goal because the books—so for instance, if your goal is to say, “Look.  I really don’t feel comfortable with these books being in the church,” that shouldn’t be the only goal.  We don’t want to be just laser focused on that.  It’s really important to understand the mechanism behind the books and the overall harmful teaching that may do harm to members and leaders.  And so if you look at it from the perspective of, “How does this affect the wellbeing of us all as a church,” and go into that from that perspective, I think it would be very helpful and also assume good intentions.  Say you could talk to the pastor about how you know that they are invested in the spiritual growth of their members.  They want to see them do well.  They want to make sure that they’re all valued.  And this doesn’t seem to accomplish that goal.  They might say, “Well, what do you have that’s better?  What do you recommend instead?”  So I think it’s also good to have other viable solutions as well and coming at it from that perspective of collaboration instead of competition or being antagonistic.

Sheila: Mm-hmm.  I like that.  Yeah.  Because people are on journeys.  And maybe your pastor is just learning as well.  This might be the first time they’ve ever heard about this.  So I know people have gone to pastors and, “Look.  I’m really concerned about this,” and the pastor is like, “Well, I don’t see it.”  But if you keep at it and you say, “I’m really on the same page.”  Now sometimes the church—you just can’t do it anymore.  And you’ve given the pastor lots of chances.  But a lot of people are on journeys, and I think it’s important that we honor them.  Okay.  I know one of the things that you’re very passionate about though—we’ve talked about things I’m passionate about.  Now let’s do what you’re passionate about which is what happens, in a much more significant or dangerous situation, where, let’s say, a woman is being abused at home.  And she goes to the church for help, and the church basically blames her for it or tells her that she needs to go back to her husband.  Or she needs to submit.  Or she’s being rebellious or something like that.  

Foluso: Yes.  It’s really important.  My heart goes out to anybody who has ever been in that situation.  And it’s very important that you’re not looking to the church as you’re only sort of defense or protection.  It’s really important that—it’s very important that if anyone who is listening to this is in that sort of situation that you get the proper authorities involved calling your domestic abuse hotline, national domestic abuse hotline, or one for your county or wherever you are.  Make sure that you call that number and get outside authorities involved.  Because when you’re in a situation like that, you’re oftentimes—you’ve been isolated by the abuser.  And then also it’s—if the church system is telling you to go back to them, it’s clear that they don’t have your best interest at heart.  So it’s very important to get an outside party involved.  Somebody who is removed the system who can say and look at this and say, “This is not normal.  This is not healthy.  You need to get help, and you need to get help right away.”  And understanding that in a lot of—in many of these situations, Scriptures are twisted.  They’re taking a particular verse out of isolation and using it to demean you.  Leslie Vernick has talked about this too in her books that all the—there aren’t certain verses that, in the Bible, that only apply to marriage or other verses just don’t stop being relevant because you’re in a marriage situation.  So verses that talk about how we’re important to God, how we should cry out to justice for Him, how our safety, we should guard ourselves, seeing danger and running.  There’s a verse on that in Proverbs.  Those verses don’t just stop because you’re in a marriage situation.  And so it’s very important that we are understanding the Bible for itself and not believing verses are just taken out of—in isolation and out of context to weaponize to use against you.

Sheila: Now I know you have a big counseling practice.  And I would imagine that a lot of the people that you talk to and help are people where they loved their church.  They were involved in their church their whole life.  That was so much a part of their identity.  And when they realized they couldn’t do it anymore and they had such trauma, it feels like you’ve lost your whole life.  

Foluso: Oh, and for many people, that is their whole life.  I mean they’ve grown up there.  They’ve raised their—if they’re mothers, they’ve raised their children there.  Fathers, they’ve raised their children.  If they’re—it oftentimes works where it appears that, to them, that this is my whole life, where all my friends are, all my social connections, major life events have been connected to that church and congregation.  So when—if they do decide to step away, there is a major grieving.  There is loss.  There is shame because often the stories that I keep hearing over and over again is that nobody reached out to me.  Nobody checked on me to see how I was doing when I stopped coming or when they saw this happened.  And so that can be very isolating and compound the already existing feelings of sadness and guilt and shame from the abuse that they experienced.  

Sheila: Mm-hmm.  And how do you help people get over that or process that?  I guess that’s maybe a better way to put it.

Foluso: Right.  Well, first of all, creating a safe, non judgmental space for them to process that.  Understanding that this is not normal what happened to you.  This was not normal, and this was not right.  This is not how a healthy church system is supposed to function because many times people don’t realize this until later.  And so there is this doubting of, “Well,”—I see a lot of shame saying, “Oh my goodness.  How did I end up in a situation like this?  I should have known better.”  But what people don’t understand is that people who abuse other people they are very systematic.  They can be systematic about it.  They target.  There’s also grooming just like child abusers groom the people they abuse.  That can happen in spiritual situations as well.  And so helping them recover from that shame and understand this is not because you are stupid or because you lacked insight or because of a moral failure on your part, right?  So helping them understand these are—and also helping them reframe their experience, right?  So when you’re in a spiritually abusive situation, there are—kind of like a toxic family.  There are certain rules that are espoused.  So anybody who criticizes a bad—if you bring up a criticism or a concern, you’re a bad person.  You’re divisive.  Things like charisma over character is another big one.  So as long as you’re charismatic and charming, your character doesn’t matter.  Or another message that someone may get is that my needs are less important than that of a leader.  God doesn’t value me.  So we rework—we identify those rules and identify those system lies.  And then step out in courage and defiance of them and say, “Well, no.  I can—God values me.  I have worth.  I can speak up courageously, and that does not mean I’m a bad person.  God sees what happened to me.  God is concerned about the justice.  Justice being done in this situation.”  Also helping them understand that going through a really challenging situation like—that it’s normal to be mistrustful and say, “Oh, I don’t know if want to just jump into this situation,” and not feel shame for that.  That’s actually good because now you’re antenna are up about potentially spiritually abusive situations.  So we learn how to navigate that in a healthy way.  Skills that you have now—they’re going to be new skills that you learn from—emerging from that difficult and traumatic situation.  So how to speak up.

Sheila: Well, thank you so much.  Outside of marriage, this is probably the biggest question that I get over and over again is how do I navigate my church situation when I just feel so betrayed.  So I’m so glad to know there’s counselors out there who specialize in this and who are equipped for this and trained in this.  So where can people get a hold of you?

Foluso: Okay.  So they can go to my website.  It’s  And so I have that website that you can go to.  Anyone can book a free 10-minute consultation with me so we can talk about what are your concerns are to see if we are an appropriate fit.  And so I’m licensed in Georgia and Michigan, but I can also see people via telehealth for several states—via several states.  So if you look on the website, you’ll be able to see where—depending on what state you’re in, whether I can see you or not.  And then also I do have some videos addressing some of these topics on my YouTube channel.  And so individuals can also go there and ask questions in the comment section, things like that.  So I have that availability as well.  It’s important, too, to understand that this is not a substitute for professional advice.  This is educational.  It’s really important to understand that everyone’s situation is going to be different.  So that’s why it’s really important—I can’t stress—to get that help if you feel isolated, or you’re going through an abusive situation.  Don’t be afraid to reach out.  Call an abuse hotline, so that you’re getting the intervention help that you need.  But yes.  You can go to the website.  And there’s also a way to email me too through the website as well.

Sheila: Perfect.  And I will put the links to all that.  And I wanted to stress too just for education for our listeners.  When someone is licensed, it does mean they have to be licensed by certain boards and different states have different rules.  And that’s why people who are licensed can’t always practice in every state.  If you find someone who says they can practice everywhere, that’s actually a red flag.  

Foluso: Yes.

Sheila: People who are licensed often have more restrictions because they’re—they belong to a governing body.  That’s a good thing.  

Foluso: It is a good thing.  That’s very—

Sheila: So I just want to encourage people to really look—yes.  Really look for people who are licensed.  Licensed clinical psychologists have a lot of training and have really looked into this.  So thank you very much for being here.  Again, I will put links to everything in the podcast notes that go along with this.  So thank you.

Foluso: Oh thank you very much, Sheila.  I mean your book is just a wonderful resource.  And I think even though your book does—The Great Sex Rescue book—even though that—I mean it deals—it’s an eye opener.  And I think that that’s a great resource as well for people who are going through—who think, “Oh, I don’t know about what—I don’t feel comfortable.  I don’t know what’s going on with my situation.”  The book is a wonderful resource.  I recommended it to other individuals.  And I just think it really helps people read that book, and they think, “Wow.  My eyes are open.  It’s almost like seeing the world and seeing the church world and the spiritual world from a very different but eye opening and empowering perspective.”  I could just tell from your work, you and your team, really genuinely value and care about women and the church in general.  And you want to see everybody flourish.  You want to see healthy marriage and healthy marriages.  So thank you for doing the work you do.  It’s amazing.

Sheila: Well, thank you for that encouragement.  I appreciate that too.  I should take you on the road with me.  

Foluso: I would love that.

Sheila: Thank you so much.  All right.  Well, when we get in our RV next year and we go south, I will hit you up in Atlanta.  I will come say hi.

Foluso: That would be awesome.  Thank you.

Sheila: Okay.  Thanks for joining us.

Foluso: Okay.  You’re welcome.  And you have a blessed day.

Sheila: I hope you found these interviews helpful.   I know that it can be really rough when you realize that the place where you worship, where all of your friends are, where so much of your identity is is also something which is eating at you, which is toxic, which doesn’t look anything like the Jesus that you love.  And if that’s you, please understand that I get it.  I’ve been there too.  Next week on our last podcast before Christmas, we’ll be talking about where Rebecca and Joanna and I all landed this year and how we don’t feel spiritually homeless anymore.  We found good places to worship.  So if you’re in that toxic place, just know that not all churches are like this.  They really aren’t.  And I pray that you will have peace and clarity and that the fog will lift this holiday season.  So thank you for joining us on the Bare Marriage podcast.  Please remember to subscribe and download.  We’re so close to a million downloads in 2022, and I am just thrilled with how many of you listen in every week.  I’m very honored.  And stay tuned for a shorter podcast next week.  But it’s a lot more personal and that will give the other side of this story about churches.  See you then and take care.

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Angharad

    Such an important subject. Just one note regarding context – I don’t know about other countries, but in the UK, ‘covenant membership/membership covenant’ is a very common term used within many nonconformist churches, but it’s nothing like the ‘covenant’ you describe. So don’t panic if a non US/Canadian starts defending it, because it’s not necessarily what you think it is! (It’s basically when you want to become a member of a specific church, you agree to a statement of faith and say you believe you are called to fellowship and work with that particular church during this season. So kind of ‘I believe that Jesus is the only way we can be right with God, I believe the Bible is God’s word and I believe this particular church is where God wants me to be for the current season.” Just thought I’d mention it, as I wondered where on earth you were going when I read the podcast was talking about how membership covenants were ‘dangerous’ (-:

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yeah, that’s sort of what it was like to become a member of the last church I was in. We didn’t sign a document or anything. We just went to a few classes, met with the pastor and a few elders, and then they had a lovely church service where a bunch of people shook our hands and we were invited up to the front of the church. It wasn’t anything about signing a big document.

    • K

      Agree with Angharad about the way the term is used in the UK. In our church, we don’t talk about a ‘covenant’ specifically, but I’d know lots of churches which would. ‘Becoming a member’ here means we sign something to say we agree with the church’s statement of faith and that we’re willing to be under the authority of the elders (ie we recognise that if necessary, after a due process of discipline, they can remove us from membership. In our case, that’s a whole-church decision, not done by the elders alone). We also agree to do our best to pray for other members of the church. When you are a member, you have voting rights in the church meeting (we are a congregational church) and only those who have signed up to membership get to vote. That’s pretty much it. What you are describing sounds awful!

  2. Jo R

    As I mentioned in a comment yesterday, I’ve been following several other people’s FB pages, and somewhere or other (I didn’t bookmark it, unfortunately), I came across an article titled something like “7 traits that make you more likely to be abused.” The article IN NO WAY implied fault, but instead it was listing things like trusting people being one’s default attitude.

    Anyway, my history is three of four churches I’ve attended basically perpetrated spiritual abuse to a greater or lesser degree. So it makes me wonder if both the abusers and their victims fall broadly into certain categories, whether of personilty traits or learned behaviors.

    Another issue is that it’s a whole lot easier to measure “growth” by following rules rather than allowing freedom. Freedom can be scary, because different people are called by God in different ways, or some people have certain things in their background that makes them draw a hard boundary in a place that someone else doesn’t need to. So if Jo had an alcoholic father, she might draw a line against any and all alcohol consumption for herself, which is fine, but she doesn’t then get to feel holier than her friends who don’t have that background and who can enjoy a glass of wine (or even two! 😱) with dinner. (She may also, after about ten years, finally realize she is not her father and can enjoy the occasional tipple without becoming an alcoholic herself. 🙄🙄🙄)

    This whole issue of freedom also, conveniently, plays right into the patriarchy and complementarian theologies, because half the population is controlled right off the bat, then the vast majority of the other half is controlled by, typically, one man at the top of pile. And since he IS at the top, he can, subtly, steer things as he sees fit, then just throw down the submission card when he likes, even against other men. VERY convenient to be the referee of how other people live for God.

  3. Andrea

    The podcast by former NXIVM (pronounced “nexium”) members that Johnna mentioned is called A Little Bit Culty and it’s great. They interview former FLDS members, mainstream Mormons and Jehova’s Wittnesses who left… and I think former members of A29/SBC churches will recognize a lot of similarities.

    One typical feature of a cult, such as NXIVM, is that the leader sleeps with all the women. Pastors can’t do that, at least not in the same way, so we know stories of individual assaults, such as Johnny Hunt and Tullian Tchividjian who have been in the news lately, but I think that the amount of sexual control they try to exert over their entire congregation is their main way of doing that. This includes telling prepubescent girls to cover up, asking couples how often and what kind of sex they have as part of the membership interview process, hosting men’s groups where they almost compete with each other in confessing porn viewing habits as some sort of collective exercise in masculinity, telling women from the pulpit that they must “be available” to their husbands, etc. etc. The amount of such sexual intrusiveness I’ve read about since the #ChurchToo movement started is astounding.

    • Jo R

      Ah, droit de seigneur–in church, of all places. Lovely. 🤢 🤮

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      very, very true, Andrea! Great thoughts. I would agree completely. Mark Driscoll used to require details of couples’ sexual lives, if I recall correctly.

      • Andrea

        Yeah, at least the Catholic priest do it “right,” they have a barrier between themselves and the confessor so they can masturbate while they listen to the details of their parishioners’ sex lives. Sorry if this is crass, but why in the world do you suppose they want to hear all the details? It’s pervy pastors collecting masturbatory fantasy fodder, seriously!

  4. Phil

    Sheila – I havent made it through the entire podcast yet but I have to say I’m struggling with calling these organizations Christian churches so by definition I found that a church is a place of worship, but we’re talking about Christianity here and the real label on these organizations is CULT and you were bouncing back-and-forth between the labels and I am here pounding my fist on the center console in my truck THEY ARE CULTS posing as Christian organizations! I think its important to differentiate that.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I would agree with you, Phil! But so many people are in the midst of them, and I don’t know if they’d hear me if I called them cults.

      • Phil

        Yeah I get it Sheila…I guess it just really upsets me…hence the fist pounding. Grace’s line as of late is you dont know what you dont know until you know it. As Johnna grew up in It how would she know any different? If we called her church a cult before she was aware she would have said nope not me. So I get it. Possibly the label switching in the discussion could be helpful for those who are not sure…

  5. Boone

    A few years back I represented a woman who had belonged to a fundamental Baptist church. All of the elders, deacons, Sunday school teachers, janitors, etc. were required to sign one of those covenant agreements stating that they wouldn’t dance, drink, go to movies, wear pants if they were a woman, listen to rock music, submit their tax returns and not be alone with a member of the opposite sex’s did be at church every night of the week.
    Well, this young married mother agreed to teach kid’s Sunday school. She signed the covenant. Not long after her husband fell I’ll and was bed ridden for a couple of weeks. Something broke that was a relatively easy fix if you had the part. It was very cold. Upon going to get in the family car to head to the hardware store she discovered that one of the tires was flat. She went back in a returned wearing her husband’s Carhart insulated coverall’s and proceeded to walk the two miles to town.
    About half way there her male neighbor saw her walking and offered her a ride which she accepted. Upon arriving at the Ace she was seen exiting the car with the neighbor by one of the elders.
    The next Sunday she was hauled in front of the congregation, dressed down for wearing pants and her morals called into question. After church se began to get calls and e-mails from other church members telling her to repent. The woman was devastated.
    Her husband hired me and I sued for defamation and mental anguish. We got a CD of the service for evidence. The church tried to use the signed covenant against her. I countered with lack of consideration and the fact that most of it was invalid. The judge agreed and threw the whole covenant out. A jury awarded her $50k in damages and me $30k in reasonable attorney fees. I got death threats throughout the process and for mo this afterward. I’d just quote Doc Holiday from the movie Toombstone, “Say when.”

    • Phil

      Im your huckleberry lol.

      You cant make this s*** up can you Boone?

      My gosh and they call that Christian?

      • Boone

        I did a lot of research on fundamentalism for that case. They’re like crime families. Their about a dozen leaders at the top of their various groups. They all have or had huge churches and unaccredited Bible colleges. The schools turn out the pastors who more or less swear allegiance to the big guy who they try to imitate by starting churches with schools whose graduates start churches with schools and so on.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I know! Isn’t it just unconscionable?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That is AMAZING. Gosh, Boone, I’d love to meet you in real life sometime and hear your stories!

      • Phil

        I was actually thinking the same thing this morning Sheila. Boone – I do believe you shared you are in western NC yes? I am in Central NC but travel all over…mostly the south east.

        • Boone

          I’m in East TN. Most of my experiences are extremely mundane. You may be familiar with my most famous client. We’ll actually he was a client of the older gentleman that I first started in practice with. My colleague got the flu and I had to drive over to Newport and represent Popcorn Sutton on an animals running at large charge. I got it thrown out and expunged. After court Popcorn gave me two fruit jars of “hand sanitizer “. One for my colleague to help with his flu symptoms and one for me for doing a good job.
          Sorry Shelia. I got a bit off track.

  6. Phil

    Ok Boone well I run out that way every now and then. You got moonshine stories. Hehe. I would have to look to see if he has any ancestors related to the drivers who became race / future nascar dudes. Those are the stories I hear from locals in NC just an hour west of me…ok man fun little side chat sorry for taking your bandwidth Sheila – I’ll shut up now. Would be fun to have lunch with you some time Boone….see ya around on the blog.


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