My wife had not been attending our group meetings consistently for a while. She would come one week, then skip a couple of weeks; come the next couple of weeks, and then skip a week or two again.
You should keep in mind that, at that time, our group did not claim to be a church. It presented itself as a Christian therapy group. Only later, after it had succeeded in separating virtually all of its members from their friends, families and former churches, did it begin to claim to be a "fellowship."
In any case, one night, in front of the rest of the group (which violated Matthew 18:15), our leader confronted my wife about her inconsistent attendance.
He told her that he wanted her to commit to coming every week, from that point on. She said she was not sure that she wanted to make that commitment.
"Well then I think you should leave," he told her.
Humiliated before the entire group, she left the room. When she reached the outside door to the building, her anger caught up with her, and she slammed the door behind her.
Months later, when she wanted to come back, she first had to confess her "sin" of anger.
Someone once cynically observed that war is simply diplomacy by other means. In similar fashion, coercion is manipulation by other means.
Actually, it is manipulation in its most raw form. To "coerce," according to Webster, is "1 to restrain or constrain by force, esp. by legal authority; curb 2 to compel to do something by the use of power, intimidation, or threats 3 to bring about by using force; enforce" (New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, 1988, p. 270). Harold Bussell writes:
... avoid making major decisions when you are under stress or confused, particularly in the presence of the person who has triggered the emotional reaction. Tell them you'll decide later.
[By Hook or By Crook: How Cults Lure Christians, by Harold Bussell. (New York: McCracken Press, 1993), p. 126. Previously published as Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians, (Zondervan, 1983).]
Of course, in a spiritually abusive group, telling them that "you'll decide later" in such a situation is usually your quickest ticket out of the group! And this fact alone demonstrates that it has been nothing but a game of manipulation all along, because overt coercion is what abusers use when covert techniques have failed.
When the spiritual abuser becomes frustrated in his efforts to get you to conform, and he has run out of more subtle manipulative ploys, he can always threaten.
• He can start by employing Spiritual Intimidation -- threatening you with Hell, or some other judgment from God.
• He can implement Excessive Discipline.
• He can turn the group against you so that they shun you, making you a pariah, an outcast, totally isolated.
• If he has found out secrets about you through Coercive Confession, he can threaten to expose them to others.
• If your spouse is also a member of the group, he can turn him or her against you, making your home life extremely difficult, even threatening to remove that person from your life.
• If you have turned over all your possessions to his control, and moved into his commune (assuming the group has this arrangement), he can threaten to put you out on the street.
And most likely he will.
Except for the example involving the commune, I have had all these things happen to me. I know what they are like. (Ironically, our leader did talk about the possibility of moving us into a communal setting at the time I was leaving. If I had stayed any longer -- who knows?)
The shock of suddenly realizing just how much control you have given over to another person comes crashing through at times when the spiritual abuser starts "pulling out all the stops" and utilizing his most coercive techniques against you.
Why does he do it? Why would someone treat another human being this way? The answer is simple: fear.
Notice that each of the above-listed coercive techniques has one of two primary goals:
1. To get you to question yourself, your decision to leave, your own judgment; or
2. To get others to question your credibility.
Only someone who is afraid of what you might say to outsiders would put this kind of pressure on you. You know what really goes on inside the group. You know how the leader treats people. You can testify to the abuse. Therefore, the leadership feels compelled to do everything it can to discredit you, both in your own mind (through self-doubt), and in the minds of others (through attacking your reputation).
The leader will invariably claim that he's coercing you because of some higher motive, but when that claim is closely examined, it does not match any "higher motive" that the could be supported from the Bible.
In my case, all the while the leader claimed he was doing these things because he "loved" me. And yet, after I left, he actually went through with some of his threats. As my wife remained in the group, my home life became a living hell -- and, of course, it was "all my fault."
The leader also carried through on his threats to betray my confidence: he divulged personal information he obtained through Coercive Confession. (I later learned that, because this man held himself out as a "therapist," he was actually violating the laws of our state by doing this.)
Spiritual abusers realize that threats are not very useful unless they are backed up with action at least some of the time. You should therefore take what such a person says seriously, and carefully weigh the consequences before "calling his bluff." It may not be a bluff.
Rebuilding trust for the victim of spiritual abuse is no easy thing. I don't mean to offend anyone here -- and please don't take this personally -- but Christians who like to spout out facile "answers" to victims about how they should just learn from the experience, and move on with their lives, really ought to consider sticking a sock in their mouths when that temptation comes over them.