Hallmarks of Spiritual Abuse and Sally’s Story (© 2018, Sally Richardson)

Phyllis Beveridge Nissila

Introduction: Today’s post is a contribution from a reader in the UK who shares her story of spiritual abuse in several churches. She also presents a list of the hallmarks of such churches, which aligns with the research on this topic that so many, now, thankfully, have gathered and put forth to warn others.

Reading her story of spiritual abuse, I am reminded of my own and my sister’s experiences  as we set out a number of years ago to find a classic, Christian, Bible-based church in our own area after we became painfully aware of the transition, back in the nineties,  of our long-term, Protestant Evangelical church to a combination of several of the type Sally references, below. We, along with other concerned church members, attempted to approach the leadership about our concerns but to no avail. And our odyssey began. I have chronicled our story and others related, here.

Sally’s story, and so many more I am hearing about these days, highlights, again, what has been a frightful proliferation of such churches and fellowships in modern times, particularly in the last forty or so years. I maintain an interest in this topic as a result of working for an ex-cult counseling ministry years ago where my eyes were first opened. Sadly, false teaching, gospels, and practices never go away, they only morph with the times. 

Thank you, Sally, for your courage in speaking out, for I know it is painful. But it is often in others’ stories where a person might have the first awareness that something in their own experience is “off,” or the focus has suddenly–or over time–been drawn further and further away from Jesus Christ as the “author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2) and more on behavior as the way to work one’s way to heaven monitored and/or mandated by self-proclaimed “leaders/shepherds” who attempt to insert themselves in contrived positions of authority, now, between the believer and Jesus, the only “way, truth, and life” (John 14:6).

Fortunately, “greater is He in us than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4), and the Holy Spirit is able to keep us on track.–or assist us back.  It begins with a prayer for help.

Sally’s story is another illustration of the power of God to override the power of false teachers who wait on every street corner, it seems, in this cult or cult-like fellowship, or that, to waylay whom they may. I’m sure Sally agrees: stay in the Word of God and don’t settle for add-ons, offshoots, and all the fool’s gold strewn in the path of sincere believers by those who would (if they could) usurp the role of Jesus Christ as our One and only Redeemer, One and only Lord.

Hallmarks of Spiritual Abuse and Sally’s Story (© 2018, Sally Richardson)

Dear friends,

Before I begin to share with you what I believe the Lord has laid on my heart, let me first tell you that this article, now just over three years in the making, has been very hard, and at times, extremely painful, to write. However, as I have done so, our precious Lord and Saviour is bringing healing, freedom and release. My journey is nearly complete. I approach, from inside, the mouth of a deep, dank, and dark cave, and I’m about to step out into the light.

I speak as a victim of spiritual abuse, both long ago and more recently. This abuse has taken various forms, some more obvious than others. However, one thing I will say, both from my own experiences of spiritual abuse and of others who’ve shared with me, that one is often in denial that it is happening. One desperately tries to justify it to oneself and to make excuses for the perpetrator(s). This is the case even when people try to point it out to you. You don’t want to believe it, so you don’t. Deep down, you know it’s happening, but you try to convince yourself that it isn’t, and very largely succeed.

Before I proceed with my own story, I’d like to share with you my own understanding of what constitutes spiritual abuse.

I list the hallmarks here:

  • Strong, control-oriented leadership (sometimes the leader is put on a pedestal by the members and does nothing to discourage this).
  • Guilt, fear, and intimidation are used by the leadership to manipulate members and keep them in line.
  • Followers are led to think that there is no church like theirs, and that God has singled them out for a special purpose (elitism). Other churches are portrayed, subtly and not so subtly, as being less “holy”, of not yet having come in to a full understanding, etc. etc.
  • Subjective experiences, especially individual and group testimonials which cast the church in a good light, are encouraged and emphasised, sometimes even coached, by the leadership.
  • Areas of members’ lives, including the sex lives of married couples, are closely observed and scrutinised.
  • Rules, rigidity, and legalism abound.
  • Mixing with other Christians outside the church or group is discouraged, subtly or not so subtly (exclusivism). Members are prevailed upon to separate themselves from family and friends.
  • Members not following rules established by the leadership (or threatening to expose the abuse and manipulation) are labelled “rebellious” and “agents of satan”, and are dealt with harshly, e.g. being disfellowshipped (publicly put out of the church). Members are instructed to ostracise and ignore them, and even treat them as dead.
  • A church has one leader, to whom all look for guidance and instruction. There is a lack of accountability and transparency.
  • It has been my experience that spiritually abusive churches are also often KJV only. They use the KJV to beat you round the head with (I once literally had this done to me; a so-called “pastor” hit me with one).

There are more, of course, but these are the ones I have personally observed and experienced. This list is by no means exhaustive.

I would also like to say, in common with other victims, that sadly, spiritual abuse is the elephant in the room where much of the Church is concerned. The Church is loath to acknowledge that it exists, much less discuss it or provide help and support to the victims, who, having extricated themselves from spiritually abusive churches and practices, then find there is nowhere to turn. They are left floundering and bewildered; some lose their faith, whilst others have mental breakdowns or become suicidal. Very regrettably, some have succeeded in ending their lives, such is their torment.

My Story of Spiritual Abuse

My own journey into spiritual abuse began when I was living in a large Northern city in the early eighties. I was attending an independent church of excellent reputation at the time which had good teaching and loving and supportive fellowship. I and my daughter (I was a single parent back then) were nurtured, loved and discipled there. I will refer to this church as SHC. At SHC we would all meet together as the larger church on Sunday in a former Methodist church, and locally in homes in the week for prayer and Bible study.

One of my failings, and one with which I still struggle, is having itchy feet, and at that time, when living in the large Northern city, an inability to settle. I was restless and always on the move, looking for new experiences and new things.

I then began to hear about another church in the city; it appeared very similar to the one I was attending, but better. Looking over the fence, the grass on that side appeared much greener. I decided to pay it a visit.

I was made very welcome and seemed even to be singled out for attention. The worship was vibrant and exciting. Afterwards someone in the congregation invited me to lunch.

I returned to the church the following Sunday and the one after that. Looking back, I now see that there was something magnetic about it, a force that I couldn’t fight and which was increasingly drawing me in. I can only describe it as a magnetic attraction with the emphasis on the latter. I was invited to join the church, and told the leaders I wanted to do so.

I was then told that in order to become a member of the church, I would have to do something they called the Commitment Course. I decided to do this course so I could go on to join the church. I will refer to this church as SCC.

Having told the leadership of SCC that I wanted to do the Commitment Course and join the church, I was told that I must leave SHC and sever all ties with it. Later that week, I went to see the leader of my branch of SHC and his wife in their home, and told them that I was leaving SHC because I wanted to join SCC.

The Leader of our Area Group of SHC and his wife, whom I shall call P and G, were extremely concerned at this news. They asked if I would object to their inviting the Assistant Leader and his wife, M and D to join us.

I said no, and P rang M and D, who lived just across the road. They came straightaway.

All four of them lovingly tried to persuade me to stay at SHC. They shared with me some of their concerns about SCC, including the fact that if you wanted to join a church, you shouldn’t be required to do a Commitment Course. Where is that in the Bible, they asked me? But my mind was made up; I was very stubborn at the time, and if I decided to do something, that was it. My course was set… and I don’t just mean the Commitment Course! Deaf to their pleas, I left.

During the Commitment Course, the importance of what we were told was “covering” was emphasised. It was explained that each of us would need to be submitted to the authority of another more mature church member who would act as our covering. For our spiritual lives to be valid in the sight of God, we had to be under direct submission to this person. We were not only accountable to God, we were told, but also to our leaders and elders. Verses such as Ephesians 5:2, I Thessalonians  5:12-13, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and I Peter 5:5 were given as backing for this. Covering was also referred to as “discipling”, and the two terms were interchangeable. 

After having finished the Commitment Course, I was assigned to a married woman in the fellowship, whom I was told was my “shepherd”. She herself had a shepherd, another married woman, and this woman had as her shepherd, the leader’s wife, CT. My shepherd, whom I shall refer to as F, became my intercessor and substitute for God. I was told I could not go directly to God; I could only go to F, my shepherd. She, in turn, could consult her shepherd for further counsel, and if her shepherd, having been consulted, felt that even more counsel was needed, would go to CT. CT’s husband, KT, was the leader and pastor of SCC.

I was required to meet with F, my shepherd, on a regular basis, at least once a week. She would come and visit me, or I would go and visit her. She always wanted to discuss (or I can now say with hindsight, probe) – every area of my life. I was encouraged to withold nothing from her. 

At first I saw this as genuine and loving concern, though later, it began to develop threatening overtones. However, being anxious not to be accused of not being submissive enough or even rebellious, I quickly quelled these thoughts and discussed them with no-one. This, in any case, would have been difficult, as relationships outside the church were discouraged, subtly and not so subtly, and I found myself being slowly but surely isolated from friends and contacts, especially those in the church I had left to join SCC. Strangely enough, SCC had much less of a problem with my non-Christian friends as they did with my Christian ones; I think perhaps they were seen as less of a threat. 

The hierarchical structure of this church was like a pyramid, with people ascending in order of rank until the top echelon was reachedOur church was part of the Harvestime/Restorationist group of churches in the North of England based at Church HouseBradford and overseen by Bryn Jones, who exercised an apostolic role. Under Bryn were a team of apostles and prophets, among them Bryn’s brother Keri. Below them were lesser elders (pastors  – such as our Pastor, KT – and housegroup leaders) and finally, below them, the members, including myself.

It was stated during the Commitment Course (to which we all had to agree and later sign as a condition of membership of SCCthat we were willing for the leadership to have entry to every part of our lives that may need adjustment. I signed this form, as did my fellow participants, on completion of the Commitment Course.

The Harvestime group of churches had a magazine called Restoration, which stated,“Restoration magazine exists as a prophetic voice to the people of God, calling us back to NT principles and on to God’s full purpose for His church. This involves casting aside what is merely institutional and traditional, and restoring much that has been lost or neglected over the centuries. It asserts that God is not complacent over a professing church that is divided and segmented. He is moving by his Spirit to break down all denominational and sectarian barriers … Restoration magazine believes in the triumph of the church in this age, as God’s instrument to bring in his kingdom. Already the Bride is awakening from her slumber …”

Looking back now, I wonder how I could have believed what Restorationism taught, but believe it I did, and what is more, vigorously defended its teachings to any who opposed them, some of whom were my friends. However, due to the elitist, exclusive, and isolationist nature of the Restorationist churches, I began to see less and less of my friends outside the church. Under the church’s influence – only later was I to see it as a hold – I was discouraged from seeing these friends in other churches and in two interdenominational prayer and praise groups I had previously been very much part of. After a while, the only person I saw was my unsaved best friend from school, T, and her family – mum, half brother, aunt and uncle, and cousins.

I said previously that SCC saw one’s unsaved friends as less of a threat to them than one’s Christian friends, and so they did not interfere in my friendship with T and her family. Ironically, even though T was not a Christian, she was very insightful, and tried to warn me, as did L, her half brother, that SCC was a cult. L, who was much older than T, treated me as a much-loved younger sister and repeatedly urged me to leave SCC. However, I blocked my ears and paid no heed to his oft-repeated concerns.

SCC, in common with the other Harvestime/Restorationist Churches taught that the “Israel” of the Bible was the Church, not the Jews, that the “Kingdom” prophesied in the OT came into being on Jesus’ death and that there was no future literal Kingdom for the Jews, that God’s Kingdom was represented by the Church on earth meaning that all dominion over creation and mankind was being exercised here and now by the Body of Christ, and lastly, that the Church was called to extend the Kingdom until all creation bowed the knee to the Lord, when Jesus could then return to Earth. 

I stated earlier that I wonder how I could have been so taken in by the teachings and practices of Restorationism, but taken in I was. It wasn’t until years later when I became a long-term member of a church in London, BLC, that I came to see these teachings and practices for what they were, namely ReplacementistDominionist and Post Millenniallist. 

Like many members of the group of Northern Harvestime churches under the umbrella of Bradford and Bryn Jones and his fellow band of apostles and prophets, I developed a sort of spiritual superiority, thinking that other churches and Christians who were not part of us or of Restorationism in general were somehow lacking and far behind ourselves in understanding God’s true purposes. The Restorationist churches also had a strong emphasis on tithing, and we were all required to tithe a tenth of our income each week, including those of us who received social security payments as they were known then; nowadays, they are called benefits. We were also required to give extra money for special needs and missions.

As time went by, my life was increasingly taken over by SCC and its various activities; attending Sunday service, going to a home group, visits from my shepherd F, my visiting F, and visits from F’s shepherd, and her shepherd, the pastor’s wife CT. I wasn’t working at the time, so helped members of the fellowship with chores such as cleaning and shopping. This was not a voluntary activity; it was one required of all the members, especially the single ones; the single men in the church would clean the leaders’ cars or do their gardening, while the single women babysat, cleaned and shopped for the leaders’ wives. 

Inbetween, I would fellowship with others in the church who had become friends; by this time, I had ceased to see friends outside the church altogether except for T and her family. Occasionally, I would bump into these friends, and they would always tell me how much they missed me at SHC or at the two interdenominational prayer and praise groups. Some of these friends also tried to share their concerns about SCC, mentioning its elitism and exclusivism, but always at this point I would terminate the conversation, put up barriers and hurry away with a muttered excuse.

As one of the group of Northern churches under the Harvestime Bradford umbrella, we visited other churches for combined fellowship and teaching on Saturdays. It was at one of these gatherings that I began to realise that things at Harvestime and with Restorationism in general were not as we had been led to believe they were.

Another objection people outside had to the leaders and churches of the Restorationist movement was that they were very authoritarian. My friends who were not part of SCC tried to tell me this, too, but I refused to listen. However, when I overheard, on more than one occasion, people at these joint meetings saying things like “the nearer you got to Bradford, the more controlling the churches were”, I did begin to wonder, and after that, to question. Certainly, the churches further away from SCC, but nearer to Bradford, did seem to me much stricter than SCC.

SCC dominated my life. I could not make a decision, large or small,without being required to discuss it with my shepherd, F, and receive her counsel and advice, or the counsel and advice of those above her, and there was constant interference in the way that I was bringing up my daughter. I was increasingly being told that this or that thing was wrong, and I was sometimes told off so harshly by various leaders that I was reduced to tears. Dissent and disagreement were not allowed, though, so I bit my lip and did as I was told. 

The feeling that something was far from right in SCC and confirming what I had been told and warned of, began to surface increasingly. At the Sunday services, I would be caught up in the seemingly heartfelt worship and praise that was part of a gathering that typically lasted three hours, and listening to the leaders on the platform such as KT and the various visiting apostles and prophets, amongst them Bryn and Keri Jones. Everyone in the Church, it seemed, put these men on pedestals and worshipped them, but they had feet of clay; they were not infallible. Was I the only one that thought thus, I asked myself? When such thoughts did come to mind – and they were doing so more and more – I would chastise myself and take authority over “my terrible carnal and negative thoughts”, commanding them to leave my mind. However, they kept coming back, and with increasing intensity. A small inner voice was telling me that there was something very wrong at SCC, and especially with the leadership – their teaching, their attitudes and methods, their motives and ambitions, and their personal life styles.

I had begun to lose my joy and my zeal for the Lord. I used to look forward to the services and fully participate in them; now I was beginning to dread them. Whilst in the services, I begun to have increasing feelings of unworthiness and guilt, and the feeling that nothing I could do would ever meet with the approval of the leaders. That led to my feeling that God disapproved of me, too, and so I felt utterly wretched and condemned. But I also then noticed that I wasn’t the only one who felt like this; others did, too, and they were beginning to put it into words, one here and one there, till I realised that I was far from the only one at SCC who was beginning to question the very ethos of Restorationism. 

It was around this time that I noticed that a friend, H, to whom I was close, wasn’t coming to the various SCC meetings. I enquired of the leaders about her, and was told she was in rebellion and had left the church. Several members, always glancing over their shoulders to make sure no-one else was listening, then told me, sotto voce, that H had merely questioned some of the teachings and practices of the church, and for that, she had been severely and harshly disciplined.

I wanted to see H, so I called at her home. She wasn’t there; imagine my shock when her next-door neighbour, who had seen me standing on H’s doorstep, called over the fence to tell me that H was in the local psychiatric clinic, and what was more, she’d been sectioned there. “She was acting very strangely; she was suffering from delusions of persecution,” H’s neighbour told me.

I went to the psychiatric clinic, where I found poor H in a dreadful state. However, she was lucid, and when she saw me, burst into tears. 

The staff, thinking I’d upset her, asked me to leave, but H told them she wanted me to stay. “I’m upset because of what’s happened to me,” she told them, “not because of Sally.” We went outside into the quiet wooded grounds to talk, and then the whole horrifying tale came pouring out.

H had become concerned about the interference of SCC in every area of her life. She raised this with her shepherd; H’s shepherd then went to her shepherd, and that shepherd went to CT, the Pastor’s wife. Subsequently, all three came and confronted H in her home. (H deliberately used the word “confronted“; she didn’t say they met with her).

They told H that they were merely concerned for her spiritual well-being and wanted to make sure she did not make any wrong decisions or choices. H told them that she was not allowed to make decisions and choices without consulting them. “You make my decisions and choices for me!” she told them, “I can’t make my own any more!”

“We know what’s best for you,” they told her.

When H questioned this, she was told she was in rebellion. However, she stood her ground. The leaders told her they were very unhappy with her attitude, and were going to pray she would be brought to repentance. They then left. 

Shortly after this, H was summoned – word deliberately used – to a meeting convened by K and CT. When she arrived, she found not only K and CT, but also her shepherd, her shepherd’s shepherd, and other leaders waiting for her. They were all sitting in a line of chairs with an empty chair facing them on which H, on entering the room, was told to sit.

KT took the lead, and told H they were very unhappy with her attitude. He went on to say that they were only concerned for her well-being, and that included making the right choices and decisions. H was then asked if she had anything she wanted to say. 

H told them that surely these choices were for her to make, and not for the leadership of SCC. CT told her that they advised her of her choices because they knew what was best for her. H questioned this. Big mistake!

“Are you not prepared to listen to us and to do as we suggest?” she was asked.

“I don’t think I can anymore,” she told them. “My life’s no longer my own.”

K and CT then told her she was in rebellion, and that unless she repented and agreed to be put under discipline, she would have to leave the church.

“But I’ve done nothing wrong!” she told them.

“You’re rebelling against God!” she was told. “You’re rebelling against His established orders, and His leaders!”

H told them she did not agree. She was told to leave the church; she had been disfellowshipped. 

In by now a thoroughly wretched state, H got up from her chair and stumbled out of the room, tears blinding her eyes. Not an ounce of compassion was shown her. As she shut the door behind her, the words “You’re in rebellion!” were ringing in her ears.

She was completely and utterly beside herself, cast adrift without an anchor. Where could she turn? She did not feel she could go back to the church she had left, nor could she return to her friends, because she. like me, had turned her back on them and cut them out of her life. In any case, she struggled to believe that her church was a true church anyway, as she believed what she had been told by SCC, that they had been brought into being to fulfill God’s true purposes; more traditional churches had not “caught the vision”, and so could play no part.

H began to question her very existence, and to believe she had lost her salvation and was destined for hell. She became more and more confused, bewildered, desperate and distressed, and was finding it more and more difficult to function.

Eventually, a family member, so concerned about the wretched state that H was in, took her to visit her GP. The GP examined H and asked her some questions. In response, H told the GP that she was being stalked, harassed and followed by members of SCC, and that they were spying on her wherever she went. 

The GP told H’s relative that H needed an urgent psychiatric referral, so he rang the residential clinic. They agreed to see H immediately, and a taxi was called to take her there, accompanied by her family member. After having a psychiatric examination and evaluation, H was sectioned for a month.

After having heard H’s horrifying tale, I told her that while I did not doubt what she said, I could not believe that SCC members would follow her, as when one was disfellowshipped one was treated as if one was dead, and completely cut off and ignored. I was putting into words what we all knew, but hardly dare admit. H nodded in agreement. We clung to one another and wept.

At the next meeting of SCC I attended, I couldn’t get H out of my mind. I decided I must speak to F, my shepherd, about her. Having done so, F told me it wasn’t my business, and why was I visiting H anyway? She had been disfellowshipped!

My answer to F to both of her questions was that H was a friend, and therefore it was my business. “She’s in a dreadful state!” I told F.

Shortly after that, I received my own summons.

I walked into the room, and the same scenario that had confronted H now confronted me. There was the same line of chairs, with one facing them for me to sit on. In the line of chairs sat F, my shepherd, her shepherd, C and KT, and other leaders.

They came straight to the point. I was told I was in rebellion, and that they had been observing my rebellious attitude and ways for some time. They demanded I repent, and be put under discipline.

I told them that I had not done anything wrong, and that I therefore did not need to repent. This made them very angry, and, they told me, proved their point. I was in rebellion.

Again, they demanded I repent. I refused.

“You are no longer a member of this church!” KT told me. “You’re disfellowshipped! Go!”

I did so, shutting the door behind me.

It was as though my life began to fall to pieces from that moment. Somehow, I managed to get home.

I withdrew into myself. I longed to see my old friends, but dared not contact them, fearing they would rebuff me. I had turned my back on them; how could they forgive me, and understand?

At the end of my street was an Anglican church, attended by some good friends, E and J; E, the husband, was a lay reader there, and he and J lived a few minutes walk away. They also belonged to the local interdenominational prayer and praise group I had belonged to.

I wished I could just walk round and visit E and J, as I frequently did before I joined SCC. However, I could not do so now. How was it possible when I had so betrayed their friendship? 

I had run out of milk, so I went to the shop just past the church to buy some. As I came out of the shop, carrying the milk, I quite literally bumped into E, who was just coming in.

“Sally!” he exclaimed. “How lovely to see you!” I could see he was sincere when he said this, and started to cry. He truly meant it – when I had treated him so badly! Taking the milk from my hand, E steered me out of the shop. “You’re coming back to ours,” he told me, and walked me up the road.

We went into their house, and as soon as J saw us, she stopped what she was doing and ran over to greet me. “Come and sit down,” she told me. “I’ll make tea.” And so, sitting there, I told she and E how SCC had disfellowshipped me. The whole sorry tale came pouring out. E and J sat and listened, nodding from time to time in sympathy as I spoke.

I apologised to E and J for having cut them out of my life and ignoring them. They assured me that this did not matter, and told me that they understood the hold SCC had on me. “They held you captive,” E told me, “but you’re safe now. We’re so glad to have you back.” And so, with their encouragement, I began, slowly, but surely, to rebuild my life, starting with returning to the local interdenominational prayer and praise group and going on from there.

One place I couldn’t return to, however, was SHC, though my friends there really hoped I would. SHC, like SCC, was a house church, and I feared that, beneath the surface, I would find the same abusive practices as those at SCC. Deep down, I knew this was irrational, as SHC was a loving and supportive church with sound teachingand that always was so. I did, though, begin to see my friends from SHC again; we visited each other and socialised together.

Instead, I went with E & J to St. S, the Anglican church at the bottom of our road. It was solid, staid and traditional, but I was warmly welcomed, finding there a love and acceptance I had never found at SCC.  No questions were asked or demands made of me. I felt safe, and being there helped with the healing of my wounds. E was a lay reader there, and preached quite often. I was glad of this as he always preached wellunlike the vicar there at the time who seemed to me as dull as his sermons! My abiding memory of this vicar was his coming out to join us for tea in the foyer after the morning service and lighting up a cigarette, of which he then proceeded to smoke several. He also used to like propping up the bar of the rather seedy local pub! I somehow doubt he was born again.

A short time after this, I went to the city centre with T, my unsaved friend from school. T and I were walking down the road opposite the cathedral when I saw A, a close friend from SCC, walking towards us. He hadn’t seen me. Breaking away from T, I ran towards him, calling his name. A looked up and saw me. The next thing I knew, he had ran across the road, bringing the traffic screeching to a halt as drivers slammed on their brakes to avoid him. They shouted and swore; taking advantage while the traffic was at a standstill, I flew across the road in pursuit of him. I soon caught him up, because, no disrespect intended, he was rather rotund and not very fast on his feet. Barring his way, I stood in front of him.

“A,” I said. “Why are you ignoring me? What have I done?”

“You’re dead to me!” A retorted. “Dead! I don’t want anything to do with you! Go away!” Turning on his heel, he walked off.

T, having witnessed this whole incident, came over to me. “We’re going home!” she told me, and leading me back across the road, we got on a bus.

Arriving at T’s home, she sat me down in her cosy living kitchen and made tea. Just as she was pouring it out, L, T’s much older half brother came in. After having poured him a mug of tea, T told L what had happened. L was incensed.

“And they call themselves Christians!” he declared angrily. “That’s not a church; it’s a cult!”

Having spent the afternoon with them, and being much reassured and comforted, I went home, picking up my daughter from school on the way.

The next day, though, I woke in a distressed and bewildered state. Somehow I managed to make breakfast, and take my daughter to school. Having seen her go through the school gates, I stood there in a quandary, an overwhelming despair sweeping over me. It was at that point I decided to go and visit my GP, a kindly and avuncular Indian gentleman who always had time to listen to his patients.

I set off down the road in the direction of his surgery, walking in a daze. I had only gone a few hundred yards when someone stood in front of me, grabbing my shoulders, and stopping me in my tracks. Looking up, I saw that it was none other than R, the unsaved brother of L, a friend who went to SHC.

R was a good friend too, a thoughtful and engaging Anglo-Indian. In the days before SCC, he would often come round to my flat and make a delicious curry for myself and my friends.

I realised he was looking at me in some alarm. He asked me where I was going, and I told him, to my GP.

“Sally,” he said to me, “I’m not telling you not to go to your GP, but before you do, will you come back with me to L’s? She’d love to see you. Please come!” I nodded my agreement. With that, R took me by the arm and we walked the short distance to L’s.

L was in the kitchen, stirring a pot of delicious smelling curry on the stove when R and I walked in. Seeing me, she let out a whoop of delight and ran over to greet me. Then, leading me to the lounge, she sat me down on a large and comfortable settee and made tea. She and R sat each side of me and bade me to tell them my story. I did so, tears flooding down my face. L held me as I wept.

“Sally,” she told me, ” You need help. And you need that help now.”

I thought by help, she meant H’s psychiatric clinic, but L was quick to correct me. “Not that sort of help,” she told me. “Christian help. You need prayer and counselling.” I nodded in agreement.

L then asked me if she could ring N and M, two Godly women who attended SHC and were much used of the Lord in ministering emotional healing; both were also Biblical counselors known for their love, wisdom, insight and compassion. L rang and spoke to N, who said I should come to her house immediately. She and M would be waiting for me, she told L.

L asked R to take me round to L’s, and later, to collect my daughter from school and bring her to L’s for tea with L and her three daughters. R said he’d be happy to do so. He took me to N’s, and, after having spoken to N, agreed to come back and pick me up some time later.

N made tea for the three of us and we went into her cosy sitting room overlooking the garden to sit down. “Sally,” she and M said gently, “tell us your story – in your own time, and in your own words.” I did so.

N and M sat and listened as it all came pouring out. Not once did they interrupt, but instead just sat, listening sympathetically.

Occasionally, one of them would lay a hand on my arm or hand me a tissue, but otherwise they continued to listen intently. When I had  finished, they both put their arms round me and prayed for me with amazing love and compassion. “This is the beginning of your journey back to healing,” they told me. “The Lord loves you, Sally; so very, very much. We love you, but He loves you more. He loves you, Sally; He loves you.”

My first session with them was over, but over the next few months, I saw them both regularly for prayer and counsel. I began to be freed from the heavy and restrictive shackles that Restorationism had put me in.

At the end of my first session, R returned to collect me, and took me back to L’s, where I found my daughter playing happily with L’s three daughters, with whom she had been great friends before SCC took us both away. She told me what a lovely surprise she’d had when R had come to collect her from school. “I didn’t know he was coming!” she told me. But I, looking back, did not realise that R was coming either. Surely the Lord had sent him to me! I am thoroughly convinced that, had R not intervened, that I would have joined H in the psychiatric clinic.

And what of H? I wish I could say that she, too, had found healing, but she had not. My dear and lovely H, formerly so outgoing, and always with a kind word and a helping hand to others, was but a shadow of her former self, a shell. She lost her faith. Her family closed ranks around her once she was discharged from the clinic, and discouraged her friends from visiting, including myself. They blamed Christians for the damage that had been done to her, rather than the true culprit, Restorationism.

About a year later, my daughter and I moved to London. We had lived in the large Northern city for four years, the middle two of those four years attending SCC. Before I left, I would still bump into members of SCC who would cut me dead or ignore me. But now my tears were not for myself, but for them, unable or perhaps unwilling, to see SCC for what it was; to use L’s words, a cult.

Arriving in London in 1986, I attended two Evangelical Anglican churches, one in SE London, where I’d first moved, and the other in West London, where I moved to later. Sadly, I had to leave the latter after seven and a half years because of the Toronto Experiencewhich they promoted, but the Lord, in his wisdom, grace and mercy, had a place prepared for me, and I started going there. I was to stay for nearly 15 years, first going there in late 1995. Known as BLC, it is a small independent Evangelical chapel. It proved a great help to me post-Toronto, and to this day, continues to have sound teaching and warm, loving and supportive fellowship. I am still in touch with them and thank God for them, especially one of the leaders, TP.

Fast forward nearly 30 years on to 2010.

I had been beginning to become unsettled at BLC, and so sought the Lord as to why. He seemed to indicate that my time there had been for a season, but that now that season was coming to an end. I decided to go and discuss this with TP and his wife.

They were both unsurprised. They themselves had noticed I was unsettled and not coming as often. They had wondered themselves, they told me, whether I might be moving on.

Having told them I would leave, both said they would be sad to see me go, and should they announce it to the rest of the church? I told them no; I preferred to leave quietly without fuss and fanfare. They were happy with this, and it was agreed that if anyone asked TP or his wife where I was, they would say that I had left, believing that the Lord had led me on.

I attended the two services morning and evening, no-one there knowing I was there for the last time, save for TP, his wife and the Assistant Leader and the Diaconate, whom TP, with my permission, had told. It was bittersweet; I always used to be on the door at BLC, welcoming. It was a job I had done for years, and really loved.

I was just preparing to leave that last evening when TP came over and spoke to me. He asked if I would come with him to the office.

I did so, and upon entering, found TP’s wife, the Assistant Leader and members of the Diaconate there. TP told me that they all wanted to pray for me and send me off with their blessing.

They all gathered round and prayed, and TP and his wife laid hands on me. TP blessed me. “Always come back and visit us,” he told me, “you’ll always have a home here!” And on that note, I left.

Now, you might be forgiven for thinking that, after my experiences at the hands of SCC, I would be very careful not to go down that particular road again. Sadly, though, as events were to prove, you’d be wrong.

I left BLC firmly of the belief that I should join another small church, one that I had visited several times over the years. I shall refer to this church as FP.

I started attending FP, and was made very welcome. However, there was something that concerned me. None of my friends outside FP said they believed that FP was where the Lord had led me. Rather, they questioned it, and asked if I was sure that my going there really was God’s choice for me. 

I pushed their concerns and doubts to one side, however, and very largely succeeded in convincing myself that they were wrong, and I was right; FP was where God had led me.

I still continued to attend meetings and conferences of various parachurch organisations I belonged to, though I noticed that the majority of members of FP did not. It was as though an invisible restriction was operating over them.

It was at these parachurch meetings and conferences that I met, on a number of different occasions, brothers and sisters whom, having heard I now went to FP, told me they wanted to warn me about it. I use the word “warn” deliberately, because that was the word they used.

One told me that they had heavy shepherding at FP. Another told me the leadership there were overbearing and bombastic. Another said the leadership, and one leader in particular, was arrogant and authoritarian. Several others told me the leadership of FP interfered in the matter of one’s partner in marriage, and told them whom they should and shouldn’t marry. 

Without exaggeration, it seemed, wherever I went outside of FP, someone would express their concerns to me about it. I rarely, if ever, heard it spoken well of; if anyone did have anything good to say about it, it would always be followed by a “but…”

But did I listen? I’m sorry to say I did not. I went into full denial mode for two and a half years, burying my head in the sand and trying to justify those things that, deep down, I knew were wrong.

I continued thus until a very distressing incident involving a very dear friend threw everything into very sharp and painful relief. I objected to the way this matter was being handled, as much of it was on the basis of misinformation, but when I did so, I was given very short shrift indeed. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, it was dealt with in a very high-handed and overbearing manner, and, having witnessed this, I was left greatly discomfited in my spirit. Later, I sat in the body of the church trying to make sense of it. I wondered, could I even stay at FP after that?

It was then that the Lord said to my spirit, “Your days here are numbered.” 

I bore witness to this immediately, but asked the Lord to confirm it if it truly was from Him.

A little while later, my mobile, which I had meant to switch off, but had forgotten to do so, started ringing.

I was about to turn it off when I realised that the number was that of a friend out of London who very rarely phoned. “For him to phone, it must be something important,” I told myself, and took the call.

K, my friend, without preamble, stated, “Sally, you’re in a place where you’re experiencing a lot of opposition.

“How do you know that?” I asked him in astonishment. 

K did not answer. 

“You’re right,” I told him. “I’m there now… but I can’t talk.”

K seemed to ponder over this for a few moments before he replied, “Sally, your days there are numbered.” I nearly fell off my chair in astonishment. “That’s confirmation,” I told him a few minutes later.

Later that day, leaving the evening service, the Lord told me I would not be returning there. I have never been back there since.

The aftermath of my leaving FP was very painful; I saw myself as Humpty Dumpty when he fell off the wall and broke into pieces. Praise God, though, He had people on hand to help me put the pieces back together again and to give me wise counsel. I repented of my denial and acknowledged the authoritarianism, exclusivism and legalism that were only too evident at FP.

There were several brothers who provided me with wise counsel and loving support at the time, but I want to mention one in particularnamely Christopher Lawson of the Spiritual Research Network.

See especially Christopher Lawson’s Spiritual Abuse Questionnaire: 


Sally Richardson 21/04/16

Update June 4 2017

Sadly, after having left that church, I joined another which had an even worse spiritually abusive environment. I left in Spring 2017. Happily, I’m now settled in a small independent evangelical church which loves Israel, understands the End Times, and which is gently, lovingly and wisely led by our gracious Sri Lankan-born Pastor.

A friend asked me, what attracts me to cultish churches? I actually turn that question round, and ask also, what attracts them to me, and by extension, my family. Several close family members attend churches which are recognised as being very cultish.

I will try and answer my friend’s question – perhaps in another article – but now, I take nothing for granted. I try to be mindful of our Lord’s command in Matthew 24:4 to take heed lest we be deceived.

It is a long journey out of spiritual abuse, and not an easy one, but the Lord is with me and has given me friends to help and support me and assist me on my journey; meanwhile, I try and use my experiences to help and comfort others.

Blessed [gratefully praised and adored] be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort,who comforts and encourages us in every trouble so that we will be able to comfort and encourage those who are in any kind of trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4.


TO MY READERS: If you have experienced spiritual abuse, I offer my blog as a forum to share your story. This is not a monitized blog nor is there any other remuneration involved. I give credit to writers for their work which I will edit only for clarity and writing mechanics issues. The writers whose work I might feature, or feature excerpts of, would need to agree with my “permission to share” information. Let’s get the word out.

This entry was posted in abuse, cult and occult, encouragement in hard times, most recent posts, Postmodern/Emergent Church and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Hallmarks of Spiritual Abuse and Sally’s Story (© 2018, Sally Richardson)

  1. Carl Gordon says:

    Appreciate Sally’s clarity and honesty with her experiences. I don’t hear this talked about much, but in light of this can think clearly of two local “churches” that resemble her descriptions. She mentions a fellowship she now attends “a small independent evangelical church which loves Israel, understands the End Times, and which is gently, lovingly and wisely led by our gracious Sri Lankan-born Pastor.” I would willingly fly halfway around Earth to visit. Address please? 🙂 Thank you for this post.


  2. Colin Markham says:

    A disturbing account of spiritual abuse. A story that needed to be told.


  3. Carl Gordon says:

    I look forward to re/reading this!


  4. Dale Rudiger says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Sally.

    May God protect our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ from spiritual abuse by false shepherds, and bring healing to those who have been abused. One book that I would recommend is “Fraudulent Authority” by Wade Burleson.


    • pmcb says:

      Thank you for the book recommendation, Dale, as well as for your work helping others come out of abuse and deception.

      Cheers and blessings,


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