Abusive Adventists?

How do we grow healthy people and healthy congregations?

Courtney Ray, Ph.D., clinical psychologist
Abusive Adventists?

During my years as a pastor, church members would come to me for counseling. Despite having completed all the elective counseling courses the seminary had to offer, my ability to help people with serious mental health issues and trauma was severely limited. When I referred them to professional help, they were often reluctant to seek a psychologist or psychotherapist. My church members trusted me more than an outside mental health professional. 

If they were going to get competent professional psychological care, I determined that I would need to become a competent professional in the field myself. Thankfully, I was able to earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology while serving as a pastor. Currently I help others in the community and throughout the church—not only individual members, but entire congregations, conferences, and unions—to cultivate mental wellness and create mental health ministries. What is increasingly clear, however, is that churches undermine their claims to be places of healing if they continue to be places of trauma.

Those who are traumatized aren’t going to seek help in the same places where the trauma is being perpetuated and endorsed.

My psychology internship required me to perform a number of assessments for potential surgical patients—people who needed to undergo transplants: organ transplants, bone marrow transplants, or bariatric surgery.  Individuals are psychologically tested before these procedures because surgery can’t help to address a health issue that hasn’t been dealt with mentally. If someone wants bariatric surgery (colloquially known as weight loss surgery), success will be determined by their ability to change the causes that led to their health problems in the first place. Unless systemic lifestyle modifications are made and root factors are addressed, they will find themselves in the same pre-surgery position before long. Likewise, if a hepatology patient is still an active alcoholic, they are continuing to abuse their liver. Giving them a transplant isn’t going to change things. They will damage their new organ just as they damaged the old one.

In much the same way, it’s ineffectual to help congregations establish mental health ministries while the church is simultaneously subjecting members of the body of Christ to abuse. Abuse is not uncommon in Adventist churches. When sensational incidents go viral, we gasp and wonder aloud: “How could this happen?” But that wondering occurs mainly when things have become too salient to ignore; when there is national media scrutiny; when a teacher is arrested; or when a pastor endorses marital rape in a sermon. We expect administrators to move quickly and decisively. And they often do . . . when these events become known to the public. Regrettably, there are more insidious instances of spiritual manipulation and psychological abuse that go unnoticed and even, I might say, sometimes subtly endorsed.

Boys are also the object of sexual violence and physical abuse. One in five boys is sexually abused before the age of 18.

Many responded with horror when an Adventist pastor recently included affirmative comments about marital rape in his sermon on November 13, 2021. But his comments were enveloped in a commonly preached interpretation of Ephesians 5. That is, he spoke about wives belonging to their husbands and therefore being subject to the will of their husbands. This isn’t a foreign concept among many in our churches. In fact, I would venture that had this preacher refrained from using the word “rape,” his sermon wouldn’t have elicited much reaction from others at all. But for his inclusion of the word “rape,” his teaching on the matter is not unlike that preached by thousands of pastors, including Adventist pastors.

The emotional and spiritual subjugation of women isn’t new. We don’t have to enter into a discussion about ordination to see examples of theological perspectives that teach that women are subordinate. I have heard from dozens of women who were counseled to remain in abusive marriages based on a horrific interpretation of 1 Peter 3. Many wives have been told that resigning themselves to endure domestic violence could possibly win their husbands to God. First Timothy 3 has been used to berate women—and even young girls—into believing that if their appearance doesn’t clear someone’s hurdle for modesty, they are ungodly. It’s not uncommon for women to be told that because they are women, they are a temptation and tempters. They are responsible for men’s lustful thoughts. Meanwhile, one in three girls will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18. And many of them are shamed into silence, believing that women are to blame for male sexual violence.

Victims of abuse must not be further degraded by the theory that it is their fault.

Notable acts of sexual violence aren’t usually perpetrated by strangers, but most often by trusted people: family, teachers, church leaders. They happen in trusted places: home, schools, churches. And even if an attack doesn’t occur within the physical walls of our churches, the church’s pervasive implicit and explicit messages often frighten victims into shameful silence. Women frequently suffer from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and multiple other psychological ailments because society’s leaders—often enough male, but female too—don’t want to acknowledge the ways in which we’ve been complicit in creating psychologically abusive environments.

A heartfelt Adventist Review article by Chantal Klingbeil urged that victims should know that it’s appropriate to talk about these abuses because it’s not appropriate for abuse to go unchecked. But those who are traumatized aren’t going to seek help in the same places where the trauma is being perpetuated and endorsed. If we’re serious about cultivating mental wellness among our members, churches must first cease committing mental harm. 

Adventists have a special commitment to wellness. Our health message is among our denomination’s most defining traits. And it should be! It’s a component of stewardship. Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (sometimes called Hippocrates II) is well remembered for the eponymous Hippocratic Oath. In his work Of the Epidemics, he admonishes those who seek to heal to prioritize both curative and preventative measures:

“The physician must be able to tell the antecedents, know the present, and foretell the future—must mediate these things, and have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm.”

Not only is it important to seek to “do good,” but it’s equally imperative to “do no harm.” We need to examine and acknowledge the ways in which unaddressed teachings stemming from headship theology and purity culture cause inexcusable harm. Whether the word “rape” is used or not, we need to root out teaching about God as the author of female subjugation. Incidences of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and other psychological disorders can be directly traced to beliefs instilled in women and girls that they have little value outside of their sexual use for men.

Men too are harmed by these teachings. Those who don’t fall into tropes of machismo and hyper-aggression are often questioned about their masculinity. Teaching them to harbor and espouse violent beliefs also leads men to develop psychological disorders. In addition to anxiety and depression, impulse control, substance use, and addictive disorders are prevalent among young men. Boys are also the object of sexual violence and physical abuse. One in five boys is sexually abused before the age of 18.

Third John 2 expresses the ideal for Christians to prosper and be in good health. Fostering good health includes eliminating harm. So what should we do?

  1. Let’s first make it clear that we believe that both women and men are created in the image of God. The children of God, regardless of gender, may be filled with the Spirit of God. Our value to God and instrumentality for His service isn’t determined by gender: all are to be taught and treated as equal in worth. And our value isn’t to be intermingled with some weird assessment of sexual superiority, availability, or experience. 
  2. We need to correctly exegete Ephesians 5 and other misused texts. Homing in on Ephesians 5:22 alone is easily misleading: that much wielded verse isn’t designed to stand alone, or as a rhetorical climax. No verb appears in the Greek. Rather, the true message of the passage is drawn from verse 21, which clearly encourages all Christians to submit to one another. Again, we must correctly define such terms as “submission” so people don’t confuse voluntary actions of mutual caring with a hierarchy of force or a mentality of entitlement.
  3. Persons of influence, including pastors and teachers, must exercise their inescapable and sacred duty to honor the trust others have in them. Manipulation and coercion of those under one’s care is abuse whether or not it involves physical force.
  4. Victims of abuse must not be further degraded by the theory that it is their fault. We must reject victim blaming. It’s imperative to teach those who’ve been subjected to abuse that it’s never their fault. Appearance and adornment are never an invitation for assault. 
  5. Our churches should be places of refuge where people find solace in knowing
    1. that they can report abuse; and
    2. that the perpetrators will be held accountable. 
  6. We should normalize seeking professional mental health services. Just as we attach no shame to seeking care from a physician, we shouldn’t stigmatize psychological care. Mental health care is health care. If we are to be proper stewards of our health, we will sometimes need to consult with health specialists. That includes psychological health.

7.  In addition to destigmatizing therapy, we should actively encourage practices that foster mental well-being. Referring people to professionals who can assist in those goals will go a long way toward creating healthy churches.

These steps need to be taken at every level of our denomination. From administrators at the General Conference to the members in the pews, our unity should be displayed in the way we love one another. That’s how Jesus says we will be known as His disciples (John 13:35). And showing love for the vulnerable, abused, and hurting includes steps to ensure that we aren’t contributing to their pain. Every such step is one more stride for God’s church and each of us toward becoming conduits for wholeness of body and mind.

1. https://religionnews.com/2021/11/24/pastor-who-approved-of-marital-rape-removed-from-seventh-day-adventist-church/.

2. https://www.enditnownorthamerica.org/about

3. https://www.adventistreview.org/its-not-ok

4. http://classics.mit.edu/Hippocrates/epidemics.1.i.html

5. https://spectrummagazine.org/views/2019/collard-greens-fear-and-sex

6. https://www.elgaronline.com/view/edcoll/9781784710859/9781784710859.00018.xml

7. https://www.verywellmind.com/the-dangerous-mental-health-effects-of-toxic-masculinity-5073957; https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/332974/9789289055130-eng.pdf

8. https://www.enditnownorthamerica.org/about

9. https://record.adventistchurch.com/2021/11/16/to-submit-or-not-to-submit-that-is-the-question/

Courtney Ray, Ph.D., clinical psychologist