When the Bible’s been used to bash, clobber, or hurt you.

9 min. to read.

I was in my church office. A woman, sitting in the chair across from me, was crying. My heart was breaking for her.

She had just confessed to me—apparently embarrassed and ashamed—that she felt enormous anger about the Bible. There were parts she couldn’t even bring herself to read!

Hearing her story, I wondered how she had hung in with the church for so long. She said it was because she loved Jesus; she was so moved by who Jesus is, and what He had meant in her life. But Paul! That was another thing. So many stories. So many verses, Paul’s verses mostly, that had been used to shut down conversation with her, to put her in her place, to explain her story away, to cut her out of community.

She wasn’t arguing with Paul or suggesting his ideas were culturally bound. This wasn’t an intellectual disagreement. This was pain! People had used these words to exclude and demean her. Whole sections of the Bible were clouded over in the fog of these experiences. Something meant to be life-giving has been used to harm, to limit, to silence and exclude.

This woman had experienced spiritual abuse. The words of the Bible have been used over and over again by people wanting to exclude, to shut down or control. The book becomes a bludgeon. Some people wielding the bludgeon even think they are helping, doing something in love. But instead of these words giving life, they do damage.

For some of us, the roadblock standing between us and the Bible isn’t the Bible at all. It’s emotional pain, wounds caused by people using the Bible as a weapon — against us or against people we love.

This is the highest, hardest hurdle of all.

If you have pain because the Bible was used to harm you, first I want to apologize to you.

The Bible contains the words of life (Technically, it’s JESUS that has the words of life (See John 6:68), but, we do learn of Jesus in the Bible.) These words are meant to bring us hope, to make us wise about the things that matter most, to revive our souls. Above all, these words are meant to show us Jesus.

It’s true that some of these words are hard, even confrontational and yet, when scripture leads us into hard truth, the process must still reflect the character of Jesus.

In Matthew 12:18-20, an Old Testament passage is applied to Jesus that tells us specifically about his methodology. He will not argue. He will not shout. He will not break a bruised reed or put out a smouldering wick. This was Jesus’ way. Jesus brought us God’s truth, but Jesus brought that truth in a way that never hurt the already-wounded.

Quote - Jesus Methods

So, if someone tried to deliver truth into your life in a way that was hurtful, whether their intention was to help or not, they blew it.

If scripture has been used by people to exclude you, to shame you, to silence you, then you have not experienced the hope I believe God intends these words to bring you. What you experienced should never have happened.

So, how can you move forward?

Steps toward healing.

Some people move forward by abandoning the Bible, even the Christian community, entirely. I can’t say I blame them. Churchs can be abusive, controlling, toxic places. Far too many are. When healing starts, the natural intuition is to run But it doesn’t have to be that way. How can you move forward?

1. Tell God Your honest truth.

Start with honesty. Acknowledge to yourself and to God what has happened for you. God’s able to take it. Yelling at God, saying that you’re angry at the Apostle Paul, that you were hurt by people who wear the label Christian, that you just want to run — if these are your truth, then tell God.

God’s not offended by any of this. Certain religious gate-keepers might be, but this is not about them. Telling your truth isn’t going to evaporate God in a puff of green smoke, or cause God to huff with wounded pride.

A meaningful relationship with God always begins in honestly. Any kind of relationship with the Bible can only make sense inside of an honest relationship wtih God. If you’re going to experience healing around your wounds, you must start with honestly about what happened and how it impacted you.

Quick aside: None of this is to discount any work that those who victimized you need to do. I’m not assuming they are free to go their own way, without accountability, justice or process of some kind. That’s a different conversation. I’m just talking with you about your personal process.

2. Face your pain and deal with it.

Too many of us, out of self-protection, have turned our pain inward allowing it to birth bitterness, cynacism, and greater isolation. As time passes, the wound hurts less. We think we’re over it. But then an unexpected news story or comment from a friend triggers that wound, and it’s as livid and painful as ever. We were not healed.

The only way forward is through. Face and deal with your emotional pain. What you need to do here will depend on the severity of your experience.

For some people, simply studying the texts that were used hurtfully is enough to help them move on. When you study those passages yourself, learning their context and historical background, it often brings a new perspective. You’ll likely discover that those very passages are understood differently by a variety of scholars. It is not uncommon to learn that the way the verse was used in your life has little connection with the context of the verse.

This brings something clearly into focus: Some Christians wield scripture as a way to justify their own authority. Some use scripture as a means of control and manipulation. When this becomes clear–especially if you learn the verses were used out of context, or without concern for the nuance of the text–you can hold the perpetrators responsible, instead of the text that was misused against you.

Never forget this: The Bible doesn’t belong to the Christians who hurt you.

The Bible doesn’t belong to the Christians who hurt you. Their interpretation is not the final word.

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Their interpretation of it is not the final word. If those people claim to be Christians, then they are accountable to a large community, presently and across time, that lives in submission to the Bible and in tension with it. Even Jesus challenged judgemental religious people who used scripture to justify themselves and condemn others.

Your experience may have been much more deeply wounding. Spiritual abuse, justified with the words of scripture, can be crushing to the spirit, punishing you for expressing one of God’s greatest gifts, spiritual autonomy. If this is your experience, you need emotional support and encouragement, likely even counseling. If you experienced spiritual abuse, there is help available. I’ve included links to some resources to get you started in the notes below.

3. Start where you are able.

It may help you to know that the Bible isn’t really a single book. It’s a library of books, written by a range of people across time and cultures. If one part of the Bible was used to hurt you, and you’ve not finished processing that wound, don’t give up. There’s plenty of Biblical material left.

Find a place that doesn’t trigger you, and start there. If the only thing you can do is read the 23rd Psalm over and over again, then just do that. Or maybe stick to the Gospel of Mark for a while. God is big. The Holy Spirit is present. Ask God to work through this with you. Slowly through grace and healing, expand your comfort zone.

4. Walk forward with friends.

You are not alone. Spiritual abuse is all too common. You can process your anger, your sadness, your grief with others who know the same story, even with people who have found healing and freedom.

There are Christian churches committed to healthy community and spiritual autonomy. They won’t tell you to pray harder to solve the problem. They won’t make you sign a contract where you give away your spiritual autonomy. They will listen, and cry with you. They will walk with you, and at your request, help you discern useful next steps. They won’t require you to be well when you’re not well yet.

Jesus made another promise that’s incredibly important to you at this time. Jesus promised that God would be present to us in the form of the Holy Spirit. Jesus didn’t promise the Holy Spirit only to people who successfully sit in a church pew four weekends a month, or to people who promise to read 25 verses of the Bible every day. Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to all who receive Him.

The Holy Spirit is the One with the job of comforting, healing, and leading into truth. The Holy Spirit, like a gardener, is incredibly patient and mindful of the season. Trust God’s work in your life.

The Bible is a vital tool in coming to know God’s heart for you. When someone chose to use the words of scripture to wound you, they committed a grievous sin. They made it more difficult for you to access the very God-given tool meant to lead you to hope and life.

It’s tragic. It’s angering. It’s a painful loss. But it’s not the end. God is committed to You. So, don’t quit. Even if your steps are hesitant and unsure, keep walking forward.

This post is part of a series about ways we get in the way of our experience of scripture. The series is called Jumping the Hurdles.

  1. Maybe you need to ignore the rules in the Bible.
  2. Is the Bible human or divine? The problem is in your either/or question.
  3. 2 Reasons why using the Bible to prove your point is often wrong.
  4. Has familiarity with the Bible left you bored and jaded?
  5. New to the Bible? Wandering around confused?
  6. Why reading the Bible straight through is usually a bad idea.
  7. When the Bible has been used to bash, clobber or hurt you.

22 thoughts on “When the Bible’s been used to bash, clobber, or hurt you.

  1. At the moment we begin to believe we have a right to something that we have been denied, we become miserable, despondent and angry. It should be our own vile sin, committed against a holy God and for which Christ suffered, that fills us with sorrow and remorse – not the sin that others commit against us. Today it is fashionable, almost desirable, to be a victim. Everyone has a story and no one can be outdone when it comes to how severely he has been abused. Even in Christian circles this is a popular theme. The attitude that dominates these tales of woe is, “Someone has violated me and intruded on my rights. Having endured this commends me, makes me special to God. He is now, or will be or should be giving me the peace, happiness, contentment and success that were rightfully mine all along.” Sexual defilement of a child is a monstrous sin, and the rape of a child’s spirit is on equal footing. The damage from either would appear irreversible. Dr. David Jeremiah has said, “Our God has the power to reverse the irreversible.” It is true, for I have tasted of His cure from both, and it fills me with a longing for Him that the happiest of childhoods could not have given. ~Glenda Revell in her amazing book Glenda’s Story: Led by Grace with a foreword by Elizabeth Elliot

    The messiness of the messenger NEVER negates the Truth of the Message, which is the Word of God in both written and fleshly form!

  2. Thank you so much for bringing awareness to this very important topic. I’m a spiritual abuse survivor, and I know this effect well. I don’t enjoy the Bible at all in the KJV due to the specific nature of my abuse. But I have found other versions palatable again. Once again thank you for writing on this topic and providing a great list of resources. Please check out Soulation’s Freeatlast.me dedicated to helping people heal from spiritual abuse.

    1. Carissa, thanks for your comment. I’m glad that you’re finding healing and being able to move on in your relationship with Jesus. Thanks for sharing the resource. And thanks for reading!

      1. Thank you so very much !! I have not loss faith in the Bible . I was searching for a means to help my beautiful daughter deal with spiritual abuse put upon her by “the love of her life’s mother “ . The woman does not know my daughter but unleashed the most hurtful text messages , of course , backing them up with scripture . She called my daughter the devil! My daughter is the devil because she is beautiful on the outside and her son loves my daughter . My daughter has always struggled with her identity and self worth . This came as a heartbreaking blow . I knew immediately what she was doing but my precious “ child of God “ couldn’t comprehend . Your article was my lifeline and my daughters as well . I thank you so much !!!

      1. If you mean the link that Carissa posted in her comment, it looks like that website is not longer functional.

  3. Hi Marc

    Can you direct me to your posts that give examples of spiritual abuse? You mentioned the Apostle Paul being used to spiritually abuse. Some examples please?

    1. Hey Raphael,

      I’m not entirely sure what you’re question is, but I’ll take a stab. I don’t have posts with examples of spiritual abuse. I’ve just witnessed it in 20 years of pastoral ministry.

      To be clear, scripture does not abuse people. Paul is not abusing people. However, people can and often do use scripture as a tool to abuse others. This happens in a variety of ways. Abuse at its core (spiritual or otherwise) is when someone injures another, most often, we mean that they injure another for their own personal benefit. How does this play out spiritually?

      In my view we commit spiritual abuse when we use scripture, God-talk, or our authority in the church to dehumanize, silence, or marginalize people, or when we demand that they surrender their spiritual freedom of choice to us, or threaten that if they don’t do things our way, God will punish them. Scripture is often quoted (out of context, usually) to pressure people, make them wrong, or protect our own power and position.

      In one instance I observed, a group of church leaders used Paul’s teachings on church discipline in a profoundly inappropriate way to shame a woman in the church. Paul’s teaching on church discipline wasn’t the issue. The power issues of the men involved were the issue, but they used scripture written by Paul to legitimize their attacks on this woman.

      My friend Mary DeMuth has written an excellent post on how to identify spiritual abuse in the church. I recommend it to you: http://www.marydemuth.com/spiritual-abuse-10-ways-to-spot-it/

  4. I found this article about spiritual abuse and the resources very helpful. As the spread of authoritarianism has spread across the country in many churches, there has been a horrific amount of damage done to Christians. We are no longer, in many churches, a priesthood of believers, but there is a ruling elite among clergy who “lords it over the flock” and treats them like recalcitrant children.

    At my ex-NeoCalvinist church I saw a godly doctor, married for 50 years, faithful husband, loving father to grown children, bold evangelist, gave of his time and money, ordered to be excommunicated and shunned by the pastors/elders. The good doctor’s crime? He had disagreed with the pastors/elders in private.
    (The doctor is a long-time close personal friend of the conservative Pastor John MacArthur’s, outraged that his friend was so terribly treated.)

    A middle-aged professional woman was the subject of similar “church discipline” before the entire membership. Reason? She went to another church and refused to return to this church because of how toxic it had become. The pastors/elders ordered that she be harassed by church members. She responded by moving out of the family home, disconnecting her cell phone and email.

    Countless families left due to horrific spiritual abuse by the pastors/elders.

    Finally, I was excommunicated and ordered to be shunned for opposing the pastors bringing a Megan’s List sex offender to church, telling no one, putting him in a position of leadership and trust, and giving him access to children. The pastors said he was “fine” and “safe” because he’d said a few words about Jesus. His supervising law enforcement agency disagreed.

    Jesus reserved His harshest criticism for abusive church leaders. I can see why.

    1. Yes, this is sad and frustrating stuff. Unfortunately, neo-calvinism really fosters it. While there are some aspects of Calvinist theology that are beautiful, focusing on the glory of God, it really can easily support authoritarian and top-down command structure. I’ve seen the exact same thing here in Portland in some notable churches. I’m sorry that you experienced those things. We are called to be better than that as a community.

  5. The extremities of the comments here demonstrate the confusion I have with being part of a church. In my experience, the most dominate strive to prevail and the more introverted either submit and surrender their God-given freedom or are not welcome.
    It isn’t about avoiding accountability, that’s a healthy discipline I crave, as anyone wanting to develop and grow does.
    It’s about acknowledging authority and responsibly with authority.
    But what do I know??? I gave up on organised religion, I’m afraid. I look for God everywhere and try to learn all the time, in all circumstances, in every situation. I believe He has a plan for all our lives…

    1. It is frustrating. I agree. Some people don’t like hearing that churches have a power and abuse problem. I’ve found that especially people in power don’t like hearing that. That just encouraged me on, though. The message of grace is desperately needed. Thanks for reading and commenting! I hope you can find the kind of community where you can get the support and encouragement you’re looking for.

  6. This really helpful in my topic, I actually think about how holy hurt feelings .. using scriptures to abuse, and they will argue about there is something wrong with the listener itself

    1. That’s not uncommon. It’s “gas-lighting” the victim, making them think they are at fault for their own abuse. It’s terrible that so often we in the church are not willing to accept responsibility when we do harm.

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment!

  7. Once I read the saying this, somebody bigotry selfish utterly joyless narrow-minded cruel and rudeness said there are what said inside the bible…. They are church people made me confused how can they saying things like this?

  8. I experienced this in Churches in my area. I have been a believer all my life – but I do not believe in corporate worship with the way these preachers are trying to control & silence people. I have been VERY upset & this article hit me to my core. Thank you so much for acknowledging the truth that is happening all too often. I’m glad others are not afraid to admit it.

    1. I’m so sorry you’ve had this experience. I agree with you that this is not the way the church ought to be.

  9. Dear Marc, My sister has used the Bible to bludgeon or bullie me most of my adult life. She is very learned and studies often. Therefore she is able to quote and/or find scriptures for everything from justifing her anger at being asked to wash dishes — to not financially helping our Dad’s widow who was left destitude when Dad died. How can I respond( or should I respond)? I find that verses are taken out of context, shortened, or wrongly interpreted to fit various situations. When i point it out, she just finds another verse or cries and accuses me of attacking her. What Scripture should I use to shut it down before we escalatete and have everyone in the house upset?

    1. That’s so frustrating to experience. I’m sorry. First, I would say that I don’t think finding a particular Bible verse to “shut it down” is going to help. The issue here is not the Bible verses but the attitude and self-justification that’s going on. When two people or two groups are in conflict, the conflict is not going to be resolved by one of them finding a better Bible verse. I could point you to Jesus’ command that we are to love each other in the same way He loves us (which includes self-sacrifice). I could point you to Paul’s admonition that we are to bear one another’s burdens and in this way fulfill the law of Christ. But even those verse can be used as weapons when we come with the attitude of, “You better act lovingly. See the Bible says so.” Love isn’t love when people are coerced or argued or proof-texted into it.

      So, the second thing I would say is this: You probably aren’t going to be able to argue or proof-text your sister into a change of behavior. I suspect any attempt to do so is wasted time and emotional effort on your part. All you can do is decide what kind of person you are going to be. Draw boundaries where needed with her. You don’t have to put up with her being a bully. But don’t expect her behavior to change. You do the right thing, and the loving thing, and release the idea of changing her. If she is going to change it’s going to because something changes within her, and that will be a work of the Spirit, not something you argue her into.

  10. Thank you. I tell my own children Bible stories but I rarely read to them about the bible. I fight my own guilt and shame over this. I find myself turning scriptures around while I read, either in my head or to my horror I turn them in to weapons to my children. So I avoid. When I talk about how I feel I am accused of being bitter. If I talk about my childhood and it makes me sad, I am accused of being bitter or I need intervention. I go to the same church I grew up in. Only 1 other still goes from my generation that grew up there. I am not bitter. I know that those adults did what they were taught themselves or what they really believed was right but the damage was done in my brain. I have lived my entire life fighting every single day the biblical accusations and the abusive condemnation. Every thing I do I have to combate it and cast it down and fight those triggers. Most of the time people don’t see the torment inside because I put up my shield to the darts that have never stopped. I don’t sleep well, I have o lying recently accepted that it is OK that I don’t listen to scripture to help me sleep. Because I spend my time having to fight the arrows of accusation. Constantly! I listen to old repeated sitcoms. One’s that I know I will fall asleep to quickly. When I wake up during the night I try to put those shows on quickly, no longer feeling like a bad Christian for doing so. At church recently leaders were talking to Mr how much they love their kids. They really love the Lord. They are happy. They serve and they answer so many questions about the bible. I pray that I show Gods love, grace and mercy even though I can’t always show them scriptures. On a beautiful note, my 12 yr old daughter has been asking to spend tine with me reading through the bible. So we have taken our time. I bought her a bi le with colouring in pages. At first I had to fight my own arrows over the need for pages to colour but how beautiful. It’s really started to help me. I am now thinking of getting g rid of all my old bibles – or just putting them away – starting again myself. Maybe get a bible I can draw in and colour and write and mark.

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