“God loves damaged people” is great news since we’re all damaged. There are deep wounds within us, some self-inflicted, many other-inflicted. We’ve all sinned (Romans 3:23) and made mistakes, and the sins and mistakes of others have harmed us.
The life of his Son, Jesus Christ, is the embodiment of this truth about God’s love (Romans 5:8). As Jesus attracted the sinners, tax-collectors, demon-possessed, prostitutes, poor, sick, crippled, leprous, mentally ill and abused of his day, so does the church today. In a mysterious, incomprehensible manner it is now the body of Christ in the world.
All these wounded and damaged souls gathered together can foster an environment where the damage turns toxic; meaning it becomes poisonous, dangerous and harmful. While harmful, toxicity is not inevitable nor is it necessarily intentional. Often it’s an amalgamation of over-used defense mechanisms, blended with Scripture, and infused with a desire for power and success that multiplies like mold in a forgotten Tupperware container in the back of the refrigerator.
There are multiple combinations of propensities, character traits and theological teachings that lead to dangerous, toxic, even cultish church situations. Rob Asgarh in “How Toxic Followers Enable Toxic Leaders” names one of these combos– the narcissist/codependent confluence. Several of the recent situations of spiritual abuse by celebrity pastors in megachurches fit this dynamic.
In psychological literature, it is well-documented that people with strong narcissistic tendencies attract codependents in marriage relationships. Visionary, driven, confident leaders in any sector are appealing. When a preacher or evangelist embodies these traits, people jump on board convinced that God has specially gifted this person to accomplish great things for the Kingdom. Their personal magnetism attracts followers who want to be where things are happening, will settle for a small role in visionary plans, and won’t make waves. A perfect job description for codependents.
Codependents often loyal to a fault, will stay in a hard situation too long, doubt their own opinions in favor of someone else’s, set aside their dreams for another’s, have low views of themselves, and a strong desire to feel needed. These proclivities promote a nascent leader’s aspirations and complement those of an already established one.
Bolstered by verses that establish their unquestioned authority, such as Hebrews 13:17 –“have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority” or give them license to remove people who disagree with them (Titus 3:10-11), toxic pastors gradually expand and cement their authority. Codependents prone to submission, accept this teaching without questioning. As in a marriage, the leaders and followers gradually become enmeshed in a symbiotic, yet unhealthy relationship.
Other combinations attract and can turn toxic. Those damaged by abuse—sexual, spiritual, emotional, financial, psychological, or physical—will think abusive pastors or church leaders are normal. Those from rules-filled backgrounds will find comfort in a legalistic church. Those attracted by worldly success will feel be comfortable in a church with a similar focus. Those raised by emotionally distant parents may be drawn to churches with severe leaders or to overly-communal gatherings.
Powerful when it’s healthy, dangerous when it’s toxic, the church is the place for damaged souls to gather and experience God’s healing. When that doesn’t happen, we need to examine the dynamics and our part in them. When it does, we can rejoice.
Next blog post we’ll look at steps to guard against damage turning toxic in ourselves and our churches.