Responding in Love When You’ve Been Hurt By The Church
Deanna was a widow who had been a faithful member of her local church for years. She taught Sunday school, helped out in the nursery, and even led some of the women’s events when they needed a speaker.
So, when Deanna was cheated out of money by one of the deacons, she went to the pastor. She had the evidence to prove her claims and asked the older man to settle the matter quietly.
Unfortunately, Deanna’s pastor covered up the deacon’s theft and made it sound like Deanna and her family members were liars. People she’d spent years ministering to suddenly turned their backs on her.
Deanna was shocked and hurt by how quickly everything changed. She’d poured her time and talents into her local church. She’d trusted that they would take up her cause and give her justice when she'd been wronged.
When You’ve Been Hurt By The Church
Unfortunately, Deanna’s situation isn’t unique. Many Christians find themselves hurt by the church for one reason or another.
Maybe you pointed out a problem only to be seen as the problem. Perhaps you sided with someone who was in the right (like Deanna) only to find you’re also shunned. Maybe you chose to love someone your church deemed too far gone or too unworthy.
When you are hurt by the church, it can feel as if your faith is shattering. You might wonder who you are, if what you believe is really true, or even if God cares about what you’re going through.
This can be compounded by the fact that their faith is intertwined with the church for many Christians. You might believe that you’re a “good” Christian because you attend church a certain number of times a week or help out with a particular ministry.
After being hurt by the church, you’re no longer sure of your identity. You question everything, wondering if you’ve believed in lies.
These feelings are completely normal, and they don’t make you a bad person. When something terrible happens (inside or outside of the church), it’s a natural reaction to spend time in reflection. You’ll have many questions like…
- Why does this hurt so much?
- Should I stay or go?
- What does this mean for my faith?
- Has God abandoned me?
- Why doesn’t anyone see how wrong this is?
- Am I losing my church?
- How can I stay here and continue to worship?
These are serious questions, and it can take weeks or months to work through them. You might find it helpful to reach out to a Christian counselor you trust or a Godly, supportive friend that can walk with you through this season.
Why Being Hurt By The Church Cuts So Deeply
It can be incredibly painful when your sisters and brothers in the faith have abandoned you, lied about you, or shunned you. The ache is more profound because we feel as though we’ve lost our community.
God designed the church to function much like a family at its core. He longs for us to support, protect, guide, love, respect, and cherish one another. He wants us to walk in perfect harmony, seeking Him and living a holy life together.
It's natural to grieve when our fellowship with those we love is broken. You may find yourself walking through moments of intense denial, anger, or sadness. These emotions may come on like waves. Once one wave recedes, the next starts, and you feel as if you’re trapped in a cycle of pain.
Leaving Your Church: Should You Stay or Go?
It’s important to understand that a church is a family. Just as some families are healthy, nurturing places, so are some churches. But the reverse is also true. As some families are dysfunctional and destructive, so are some churches.
This can lead you to question whether it’s best to stay at your church or if it’s time to depart and break fellowship with your local gathering. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer here, and each situation is unique.
You can start your search with prayer. Ask God to show you what to do. Ask Him to give you the wisdom and discernment to see the situation clearly. Ask the Holy Spirit that emotions wouldn’t blind you but that you would honor Him with your reactions.
Next, consider your safety. Are you safe in your church? Even David, the mighty prayer warrior, slipped away from the presence of his enemies (1 Samuel 23:7-13). When Saul knew the local people planned to kill him, he also left the area (Acts 9:23-25).
When members of the youth group were physically bullying Tina’s daughter, Tina brought it to her pastor’s attention.
She thought he would defend her young daughter and stop the abuse. Unfortunately, the pastor sided with the “good families” who had been at the church longer. Fearing for her daughter’s safety, Tina decided to leave her local church.
It’s not wrong to leave a situation where you are unsafe. If anything, it’s a mark of wisdom to walk away from an abusive or violent situation.
You may also want to consider the health of the church. If it’s a destructive place crushing your spirit and causing you emotional (or mental) harm, it’s a smart decision to leave. You can always take a break from your local church and return when you feel healthier.
How to Stay without Becoming Bitter
Of course, you don’t have to leave your local church. You may see enough valid reasons to stay. Perhaps you’re good friends with many of the attendees. Maybe you enjoy your church routines. Perhaps you love the ministry you work in and believe that God is calling you to stay.
If that’s your situation, then the challenge will be to stay without becoming bitter. Because of the nature of church, you will end up seeing or even interacting with those that hurt you in the future.
Just as healthy families practice forgiveness, it’s important to practice forgiveness within the church family. This doesn’t mean that you have to overlook someone’s offense and pretend it didn’t happen or immediately trust them again and allow them the same level of intimacy.
In a healthy relationship, the offending party recognizes there is a time period of restoration. During this time, the offender works to express Godly sorrow over their actions, rebuild trust, and seek healing.
However, if it’s a situation like Deanna’s, the offending party may be unwilling to admit their sin. Others might cover it up, and they may even be protected by church leadership.
Forgiving someone who has not sought to make amends can be especially challenging. It might feel as though you need the other person to say “sorry” and express remorse before you can begin to forgive and heal.
However, consider Jesus on the Cross. Jesus said,
34“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
As he was being stoned, Stephen uttered a similar prayer (Acts 7:60).
It’s certainly wonderful to receive an apology, and a sincere one can go a long way toward healing your heart. But both of these verses above illustrate that you do not have to hear the offender say they’re sorry before you can offer forgiveness.
In fact, your offender may never apologize to you. They may never realize the depth of hurt they’ve caused or how they’ve forever altered your life.
How to Leave without Losing Your Faith
It’s a beautiful thing to stay within your church and continue to fellowship with those you’ve grown to love. However, you may be in a situation where you can’t stay with your church any longer.
Perhaps you were asked to leave. Maybe you decided it would be best for your health to spend some time away from church. Perhaps you cannot continue any longer and need space to recover from a toxic church family.
It’s not easy to leave when you’ve been hurt by the church. Even a bad one may have provided certain things you wanted, such as a feeling of belonging, a sense of connection, or simply the belief that you were not alone.
Understanding what the church was giving you can help you work through your grief as you leave. You might find that God can fulfill that need for you in other ways. For example, if your church gave you a feeling of belonging, perhaps God will send you a sweet group of friends who will make you feel included and wanted.
Just as forgiveness is essential for those staying in the church, it’s essential for those who have left, too. Forgiveness allows you to live unburdened by bitterness, hatred, jealousy, anger, resentment, and pain.
However, it’s important to understand that the decision to forgive will sometimes have to be made again and again. That’s what happened with Deanna. She left her church but chose to forgive the deacon who cheated her out of money.
But there were moments when she had to make the decision repeatedly, like when she saw him out at the supermarket or heard he was being honored as the town’s businessman of the year.
Ultimately, she didn’t do it for the deacon. She did it so she could live with peace and joy in her heart. She chose not to carry around the stone of unforgiveness and allow it to poison her life.
Coming Back into the Fold
Sometimes, you have to step away from church for a season. During this time, your faith can still grow, and you may still enjoy deep fellowship with God. But at some point, you may long for a church family again.
In these situations, you have two options: you can return to your previous church family or begin looking for a new one.
If you return to your previous church family, do it with your eyes wide open. Unless there’s been an expression of genuine repentance, don’t expect that much will have changed.
Most people don't lead changed lives outside of the Holy Spirit’s conviction. This means you may encounter the same situations and people all over again. If you’re prepared for that and willing to accept things as they are, then returning to an old church family might be a positive experience for you.
If you’ve decided to seek a new church family, there are many things to consider. The first might be whether the church you will be attending shares your beliefs. While you don’t have to agree on every little point, some basics theological beliefs are probably crucial to you. Write these down, so you know what truly matters to you.
Next, you can ask around for church recommendations. If you already have a wide network of Christian friends, you may get many suggestions. However, if you’re not surrounded by church-attending believers, you may want to look online. Most churches will post a summary of their beliefs on their website. You can use this to determine if a church matches your theological outlook.
Once you find a place that looks like it might be a fit for you, consider listening to or watching a few sermons online. Get an idea of the pastor’s style and the worship service before attending in person. You’ll be better prepared for what to expect and less likely to be surprised by the church’s traditions or routines.
Do keep in mind that sometimes you’ll have to attend a few different worship services at different times to truly get a feel for the church. Much like it can be hard to describe your family in a single word; it’s hard to judge a church from a single meeting.
While you’re attending, pay attention to the spirit of the Christians that are already in the church. Are they warm and welcoming, or are they cold and aloof? Do they make an effort to include everyone, even “outsiders,” or does it feel more like a high school clique?
A church that’s genuinely trying to walk in the Spirit will be known by their love and compassion for others.
If a church seems judgmental or unkind, you don’t have to keep attending the services. Just as God wants families to be healthy and whole, He wants you to participate in a church where the family is healthy and whole. Remember that dysfunction and destruction never honor God.
Be Real About the Journey
As your relationship with your church changes, or if you choose to leave, be honest with God. Talk about your disappointment and frustration, your struggle to forgive, your moments of doubt, and your insecurities because you’ve been hurt by the church.
There’s a beautiful verse in Psalm 62,
8“Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” (Psalm 62:8)
God wants all of your emotions—the good, the bad, and the ugly. He wants you to share your heart with Him. No matter what you’re going through with your church family, He still loves you and wants a relationship with you!
Grace and peace,