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Abuse of the Soul

The emotional abuse within Dwell Community Church results in a cycle of shame and isolation for victims, just as physical and sexual abuse, but it is excused and defended within the church as the greatest form of love. This perversion of abuse as love is the theme of Lolita, the 1955 novel written by Vladimir Nabokov, and - just as Nabokov opens his novel - I say to the community and to the church: Look at this tangle of thorns.

Emotional abuse is characterized by feelings of shame and isolation.

I reached out to a current member of the church this week and was told that his understanding was that I had parted "amicably" with the group so many years ago. This disparate recollection of events is nothing less than staggering and indicates a very deep problem within the church - a complete blindness to the suffering and abuse inflicted upon others. I did not part amicably with the church. The rupture of my departure began in my youthful heart and has echoed in the empty chamber of my soul for the past sixteen years. My soul was rent like the temple veil, but those in the church turned their eyes, ears, and hearts away - or worse - repeated to themselves that it was nothing more than the consequence for my own sin.

Human beings have a remarkable talent for persuading themselves of the authenticity and nobility of aspects of themselves which are in fact expedient, spurious, base.

Salman Rushdie

I was indoctrinated from middle school onwards in a culture of vast authoritarian scope, in a system of limits without bound, which penetrated the vulnerable seed growing in my young heart - my holy of holies - tendrils tightening their grip year after year. Submission to authority was intermingled with love and reward, dissent with shame and punishment. I learned that even complex motivations could be a source of deep shame: one cannot submit to authority merely on the surface by following the rules; one must desire to submit; submission is love of God itself. So when my involvement within the church during my college years escalated to a level of frantic activity of servanthood which left me physically, emotionally, and spiritually broken - it was not a mere failure of compliance; it was a failure of the heart.

The panic I felt is difficult to describe even now, but I have been told that it is the same feeling experienced by those who have been physically or sexually abused. It was as if the world was frozen, with no ability to move forward or backward, and with an acute shame that I was completely alone and that it was entirely my fault. There was no real opportunity to question my spiritual leaders, and I didn't even need to - the belief system was clear on what I should do and how I should feel. I knew very well that this was exactly what I was called to do in my faith - I can do all things through him who strengthens me. And yet, I couldn't - I reached a wall, an impasse - or rather, I finally caught a glimpse of the ladder of submission above me, one without end, a nauseating view of the endless abyss. My long cultural education within the church had already named the problem: my heart. The problem was in me and only me - not in the system, not in the ideology, not in my leaders - only in my heart. My church did no more than offer up a rope and a gun and ask me to choose. Stay and lose yourself, or leave and lose yourself. I chose to leave, sensing I had already lost myself.

In leaving, I faced the ultimate failure of my own heart and soul. I lost my meaning and purpose. I lost my friends. I lost my community. I lost my system of values. I lost my faith. I lost my God. It is impossible to overstate the existential catastrophe represented by this decision. Removing the binds of an emotionally abusive system did not have any immediate effects. My heart had grown into the shape of my bondage, and my mind was traced with the language of submission, failure, and shame. Though I gained my freedom from the exhaustive activities of the church, I stood in deep shame before my God. There was no need for my spiritual leaders to ask me to leave the group, because I excommunicated myself. I understood and believed in the consequences of the system, as circular as they may be. Like a terrified animal, I was backed into a corner by the very system that had created me as I was; I was the executed and the executioner, the persecuted and the persecutor, the abused and the abuser. An infinite standard was set, and I was punished for failing to meet it. In the words of Sir Thomas More, "what else can be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them?" But the church cannot accept such a verdict.

Servants of the Lord know what other people do or don't do is not the reason for their spiritual state. Those who attribute their own quitting, defection or personal sin to the actions of others are revealing wrong motives for ministry. We cannot accept such a verdict.

Dennis McCallum, Xenos-Dwell co-founder on mature servanthood

Consider also my best friend who remained in the church after I left: following the traumatic car accident which claimed the life of my friend and left me physically injured, she was told that it was the will of God that she not provide any support to me since I had decided to leave the church. She was counseled by a senior female leader in our home church - and my former mentor - that the best way to love me was to allow me to suffer alone in order to hasten my repentance. She was told that her very longing to support me and to take care of me was selfish and wrong - that her own heart was in sinful revolt from God's will. Her desire to love was subverted to the spiritual authority of my former mentor and corrupted to be the opposite of love, engendering a deep and confused shame. Here is love again perverted at the greatest scale to horrifying effect. It is a circle that can never be unbound and points nowhere but back to the center of each heart with an unyielding anthem - submit, submit, submit.

This is sexual abuse of the soul, when others penetrate a sacred place that they have no right to be. This is precisely the model upheld and lauded within Xenos-Dwell; it is intrinsic to the system itself. Every story of deep emotional trauma within the church involves a violation of the heart and soul in this very manner. The emotional scale is breathtaking and should leave no room for explanation or defense on behalf of the church; it is simply wrong. Look no further than girls who are publicly shamed for their sexual history or women who are ostracized for seeking a divorce from their abusive husbands. These are the obvious examples, but the scope of emotional perversion within Xenos-Dwell literally knows no bounds. That is why there are hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals with stories that hinge upon the same axis. The spiritual authority of the church wraps its hands around the most sacred object of the individual soul, hidden in the center of the holy of holies of the human heart. Look at this tangle of thorns.

But the church is completely blind to this abuse. They have consciously chosen to look away from the suffering that they have caused. And worse, they have chosen to deny and trivialize the abuse, to further shame the victims by insisting that it is their own fault, their own rebellion from God, their own misunderstanding of the intentions of the church. Victims hold on to e-mails and letters, search through church documents, rely on others for confirmation - all to remind themselves that the deep pain that they have experienced is real and valid, since it has for so long been dismissed categorically by those in the church. The victims need some scrap of physical evidence to cling to a reality that is continuously invalidated. This is precisely why church leadership would like to distill these complex experiences down to a single event or a comment which they can provide an explanation for, to defend the system and the church. But this is impossible. There will never be a sufficient explanation for the scars that can be observed all over the lives of those the church has abused. There is only accountability.

You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.

Ezekiel 34:4


A selection of quotes from A Vision for Christian Servanthood written by Xenos co-founder, Dennis McCallum:

On Leadership

Our leadership needs to be strong—confident that they are obeying God's will for our church, and unapologetic for their direction. Confusion and lack of certainty or agreement are not signs of humility. Jesus was never confused or uncertain, but he was humble. We should put away any notion that decisive, strong leadership is arrogant leadership, because the church will be crippled by such postmodern notions.

On Dissent
On Loyalty
On Responsibility


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