shame, systems, and spiritual abuse.

church systems

I have been fringe-following the whole Mark Driscoll thing for years.  In fact, over 8 years ago when we were starting The Refuge, some random person told my partner-in-this-crazy-endeavor about the Acts 29 Network and that “we should consider joining because they might have planting money for us.” He had no idea what Acts 29 was and neither did I. I told him I’d look it up. As I was reading their website, my stomach started getting sicker and sicker as the words “he” and “him” and “spiritual leader” kept scrolling through the pages. I couldn’t even get to the bottom before I clicked off it and started crying. It was early on in my stepping into leading as a female co-pastor and seeing the strength of the organization and the scriptural references behind their words was exactly what I did not need in my life.

What was most interesting about it, though, was that I had no idea what Acts 29 was.

So many people don’t.

It looks and sounds cool.

It’s slick and funded and supportive of new planters.

It’s been a growing network–cultivating a particular kind of patriarchal theology and practice all over the place in small and big ways.

After then making the connection of Acts 29 to Mark Driscoll, I watched a few videos and read a few things he had written and immediately swore off ever even touching anything related to him because it all made me feel so sad and mad.  The worst part isn’t his theology; lots of people have what I think is damaging theology.

To me, the worst part is that thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people flock to his churches & go to his conferences & plant new churches built upon those principles.

What about the people who have joined in and gone along with this? The truth is that they are sincere, dear, amazing people who love Jesus and got sucked into a system that preys upon their faith and indoctrinates them in a very systematic yet subtle way.

Shame is a powerful controlling tool. A shame-based theology permeates our souls and makes us need our “fix from God” to somehow realign with him. It is actually a big draw because it becomes an identity–feeling bad and feeling good.The result is that people flock to church to get back on track spiritually week after week after week.  In a weird way, it’s like smoking. Tobacco companies put nicotine in to keep drawing millions of people back to the local store to buy a pack.

Shame works the same wayit keeps drawing countless numbers of people into church so that we can find some weird sense of relief by being attached to the rigid, clear rules of a shame-based system where someone is in charge of dispensing God to us.

The hardest part for me to swallow is how Jesus is all tied up in it and is being used in a way that was everything he was against.

But that’s what sick systems do–twist truth and try to control people instead of setting them free.

Church systems are supposed to be spiritual hospitals, safe havens, places of refuge, spaces-to-meet-and-touch-and-find-the-real-Jesus, living systems of hope, and cultivators of peace. 

but alas, sometimes they have operated much more like corporations, prisons, movie theaters. and also like crazy you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me-how-did-that-guy-get-them-to-do-or-believe-that cults that can look like rocking contemporary churches in cool cities around the US.

Unhealthy systems thrive on control and homogeneity. This is why “belief” and kick-butt-and-take-names leadership makes these systems go. It is nuts, really, how well it works. However, I do not think that has anything to do with God. I think it has to do with human nature and our desire for kings & celebrities & someone-to-just-tell-us-what-to-do-so-we-can-just-fit-in.

But the worst part about all of this is that shame & unhealthy systems create the perfect cocktail for spiritual abuse.  And spiritual abuse is Real with a capital R. Abuse does a number on our heads and confuses us.  It strips us of dignity and strength and so we think the way we’re being treated or pastored or lead is normal. The God trump card makes it even more crazy-making because when we resist or speak out or question or wonder or doubt, abusive systems immediately have the trump that puts us back in line and further complicates our ability to see or think clearly.

The easy thing that some people can say on the sidelines to people in abusive churches (and women or men trying to leave abusive relationships) is “Why don’t they just leave? Why are they so dumb to follow?” “What’s their problem?”

After being on the outside of an extremely unhealthy system for a good chunk of years now, I can say without a doubt–when you are in it, it sounds good, it feels good, it looks good. It works. It is your life. It is your kids’ lives.  It makes sense. It is all tangled up with God and our souls and it seems normal.

Right now, my heart hurts for all of the dear folks who are stumbling & tumbling & crawling their way out of shame-based unhealthy spiritually abusive systems during this season.

You are so not alone.

The road to freedom is long and rough and scary, but it’s so worth it in the end.

There is life on the other side.

And may we keep praying for all those who still think it’s normal & are stuck in a perpetual cycle of shame & control. Who are still following abusive leaders and giving themselves week after week to systems that power up and use them. Who have yet to taste freedom.

Oh, how I hope that over time the words of Toni Morrison ring true for those of us who once were in shame-based, unhealthy & sometimes spiritually abusive systems–may we get a chance to use our freedom to help set someone else free, too.

God, we need your help. There’s a lot of free-ing to be done these days. 

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • So many of these systems amount to organized “religion”, but sadly look nothing like Jesus. Of course if one doesn’t know what Jesus looks like, then one would not know this. There’s an idea Kathy, a series of posts “This Is What Jesus Looks Like”.

    • thanks, sam. that is a great idea. way back when i wrote a post about it somehow related to the refuge and can’t remember what i called it and couldn’t find it this morning–it was stories of what Jesus looked like here and would love to expand it..maybe it’s looks like, smells, like, sounds like 🙂 i always remember my friend cindy sharing about smelling God.. lots of love from here to there. it snowed a little last night and we are depressed.

  • “The road to freedom is long and rough and scary, but it’s so worth it in the end.”

    Yes it is long and rough and scary, because you not only have to deal with the damage that’s been done to you, but you also have to dismantle a toxic belief system. Realising how much crap you’ve been living with is confronting, and unlearning is a slow and painful process.

    But yes, it really is worth it. Worth it for the unsuspected freedom it brings. Worth it for the sake of your children. Worth it because Jesus is so much better than the distorted image presented by the church system.

  • Living just miles from where the whole Mars Hill/Acts 29 thing started I am frustrated by the whole thing. Now there is a new Mars Hill church plant in a building in my neighborhood in Downtown Tacoma where I live just 45 minutes South of Seattle and another Acts 29 growing church that a lot of people go to also. I hear a lot of weird stories of manipulation from people who have lost faith because of their experience. I try not to get too wrapped up in all of this because it is all around me and I will lose my sense of love for life, authenticity and common work that I feel called to do with the poor, with writing, with community in my neighborhood. All this is troubling to me and I cry out to God for an authentic church where we all learn to love, where we leave manipulation and abuse. I once had an encounter with Mark Driscoll at a conference in Tacoma about eight years ago. I had no idea who he was. My encounter with him was not good and I later found out he was one of the big leaders at Mars Hill. Oh well, I thought. I would never listen to that guy! I am very distrustful of male leaders in the church. I haven’t met a lot of them who I respect. Although there are some good men out there. Too many of them are into patriarchy and colonialism which I have trouble with. Thanks for your thoughts and encouragement Kathy!

    • thanks so much for sharing, mark. it is a fascinating and painful phenomenon, a case study for sure, a Biblical story for sure, a close up look at here’s-what-humans-do-and-how-weird-it-all-is. grateful for your voice and practice.

  • Kathy, I’m so glad you have addressed the Acts 29 and Mars Hill/Driscoll matter as you have… primarily from the psycho-spiritual side, with the emotion that is involved in it… both the “positive” (i.e. sometimes good feelings) and the over-riding “negative” (or unhealthy, immature, etc.). People need that kind of “being heard” and supported.

    My own natural inclination is more to dissect and try to explain such phenomena (not just Driscoll as a person or teacher/leader, but those joining him in leadership or following… AND all of it as part of cultural arrangements, trends, etc.). In other words, believing that understanding and education is vital (as I know you do also). Anyway… no big solutions today, but it all is a reminder that your “gut reaction” so well vindicated all along, but very publicly so in the last few weeks, was properly attuned. Evangelical Christianity (other than its egalitarian and otherwise progressive wing, often disavowed by the rest) sadly is a perpetrator of a still-overly-hierarchical and generally male-dominated culture. However, as I just hinted, many Evangelicals are also seeing this and bringing what correction they can! Ever optimistic 🙂

    • thanks, howard, i do think some of a more conservative persuasion are trying to make big shifts. it’s so hard, though, when the systems are so hierarchical and male-dominated and the grooves go so deep. it’s not just a little shift we’re talking about but a major systemic overhaul and that will take a serious movement of God over a long, long, long period of time. but i am always really happy when things do move and change does happen. but let us never forget how strong the machine really is. it’s got some serious juice behind it and has a long way to go before it dies.

  • Can’t resist a follow-up thought: I keep being prompted to focus mostly on how we can improve and create new systems that will reach more teens/young adults with deeper understandings of their personal maturation, developing a healthy and “real” worldview, etc. And educate re. the insidious and flawed spiritual, cultural approaches they are either within or can expect to be exposed to.

  • I am with you. When I first saw some of the videos on YouTube, I was dumbfounded. One in particular about stay at home dads was so hurtful to our family at a time when my husband was staying at home with our one-year old daughter. That’s not the case now, but we remember it as actually a really beautiful family season. It pains me to think others might consume that kind of teaching and believe the hurtful message that a stay at home dad is somehow dishonoring God. Shaming can wreck such havoc. Thank you for your voice.


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