When Faith Turns Ugly… An interview

Posted by on Apr 15, 2016 in Blog | 10 comments

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that my next book When Faith Turns Ugly: Toxic Faith and How to Avoid It (Paternoster, 2016) is due out in a few weeks. As with several of my other books, each chapter finishes with an interview which tries to earth some of what the chapter has been speaking about. I think each interview greatly enhances the book, and as you read this interview with Deborah Hurn, you will probably understand why. Her experience is poignant and raises more than a few unsettling questions. I am grateful to Deb for sharing her experience in the book and for also allowing it to feature on the blog as another little taster for the book. It comes at the end of chapter five of the book…

In Conversation with Deborah Hurn

Deborah Hurn is a research student at Vose Seminary. Some years ago she was expelled from her church. Here are some of her reflections on that time.

Deb, you had a painful split from your church some years ago. What was that about?

All our family were active life-long members of a high-commitment fundamentalist lay sect, in which women may not preach, read, pray aloud, or serve as elders. In 2006-7, I changed my mind about the role of women, and created a website with a collection of original articles that addressed the issue biblically. I did not otherwise propagate my views in our church, and we made every effort to remain as inoffensive and dependable as before. However, the elders removed my husband and adult sons from their speaking and leading offices (my husband had been secretary of our church for fifteen years and a bible teacher all his adult life, our sons were involved in youth ministry), intensively presented only one view to affiliated churches in the city, and banned members from speaking to us. Using an unrelated constitutional clause regarding ‘submission to the majority’ they created a ‘Catch 22’ style survey of members’ views on the silence of women. On the basis of the resulting majority, they demanded I remove my articles from the website or be excommunicated (‘disfellowshipped’). I refused to do so and in due course received a letter of disfellowship. But within four days, because of my husband’s extreme distress, I removed the articles, and the action was reversed.

What did you learn through the process?

Reform has ever been a bloody affair… for the reformers… as seen in the OT prophets, the crucifixion of Christ, and the history of the Church. We learned that the ‘immune system’ of authoritarian groups operates similarly in every era. Those in power persecute ‘heretics’ to the full extent of secular law: that is to say, whether contemporary society allows murder, torture, eviction, demotion, or only shunning, the institution will apply maximum permissible force to eliminate threats. We also learned how the ‘ordinary people’ in a community would rather amputate valuable members and services than disturb the status quo. On the positive side (and there are many positives) the dislocation from community brought us much free time, the release from expectations and duty, and an unexpected commonality with rejected and lapsed ex-members who were so very understanding and accepting! As a direct result of the confusion and doubt I experienced in exile, I started formal theological studies, and have been delighted to discover the wider world of Christian thought and fellowship.

What still hurts when you think back to that time?

Until our own crisis of dissent, we had not fully realised how friendships in our sect were conditional upon compliance with a rigid creed and tradition, such that anyone who challenged or failed expectations would be eliminated. The process and outcome was deeply traumatic for us and our children, and the loss of community and identity continues to disrupt and divide our extended family years later. We were shocked and hurt that trusted friends allowed and even participated in our persecution. These were people we had known all our lives, sharing every social and spiritual experience and raising our children together. The long-term effect on our three married children continues to play out – they are now atheists, expressing varying degrees of blame towards us for having raised them within a religious community. Our two pre-teenagers, who also lost their friends and connections, experienced depression and dislocation and are now almost unchurched.

What do you think are some warning signals that a local church might be turning toxic?

In our case, the church tradition was already toxic because its foundational principles were dogma, uniformity, and exclusivity. Controlling behaviour and stagnant numbers were put down to ‘human nature’ or ‘the last days’ and not to flawed theology. Likewise, dissent or under-commitment was seen as individual, rather than institutional, weakness and indeed this is how my feminist ‘rebellion’ was interpreted – as spiritual failure. As long as we were accepted and relatively empowered within the community, we could not see how toxic it was. I have since had time to analyse the negative effects of the practices of total doctrinal conformity, separation from ‘the world’, and closed membership, and would list these among the most toxic elements for any church. All three are in fact opposed to Jesus’ message and practice. He made no comment on many beliefs of the day, lived within society at all levels, and accepted and ministered to anyone.

What do you think are signs that a local church is a genuine centre of life and hope?

I must confess I am doubtful whether ‘extractional’ church models can operate as ‘centres of life and hope’. I have moved to the view that our real lives in Christ are outside the church in our everyday relationships with family, friends, and contacts – who may be of any faith or none. In a post-Christian society, I would prefer churches to operate as spiritual ‘services’ rather than as communities. Perhaps we need to move from the ‘club’ model of church to one where Christ is dispersed into the world through each of our unique and random ‘social footprints’ – we are not supposed to know all the same people! I love to go to church to worship, to be taught, comforted, and inspired (I left our former sect), but I will avoid sourcing all my social needs within one network, or placing my spiritual welfare at the mercy of an institution, no matter how benign it may appear. I can see how church may provide community for the lonely, but I well know how if things go wrong, people who have come to depend on a church population for social support may lose not just a few contacts but all of them! A generous and tolerant outlook always offers more ‘life and hope’ than an agenda of conversion and conformity.

Sobering reading, and lots to think about here. As always, feel free to add any comments or thoughts.


  1. Interesting reading and I believe I might know the sect to which she belonged. I have recently experienced a very similar thing in a Baptist church that I pastored. From the week that my wife died I began to experience a distancing from certain members and leaders. I do think that in my grief that perhaps some of my actions were not what they should have been, however many in the church simply pushed me away. I am still coming to terms with the uncaring attitude of the church at a time when I needed their support more than ever. It has also made he grieving process much more prolonged and difficult. To this day some eight months since leaving that church I have not attended a church anywhere, at this time I feel unable to place myself in a position where such hurt might happen again. Where can I get a copy of the book when its released?

  2. Hello Brian
    A good but sad interview. I think all controlling and manipulative behaviour fits under witchcraft. Many well meaning Christians are unaware they practice this, and are fixated round traditions and inner circles that exclude others and are unaware of the long term damage they do. Those in authority over us will be judged more harshly . It is simple to say Jesus died on the cross for me – we make pretty gold crosses but it was a very ugly thing – the ugliness of betrayal and brutality; the loneliness and rejection we all have to fight. I have to cut out sophisticated stuff and realise I am a child again and Jesus loves me, Yes, jesus loves me … and He loves you, too. And that is enough for now.

  3. This my ‘story’ was written a year ago now, and sadly the situation in the family has since gotten worse overall. It appears to me that our older ‘children’ are experiencing a progression of painful PTSD symptoms, while still operating out of the same absolutist, exclusivist tendencies that were advocated during our time in the sect albeit now from a position strongly opposed to religious faith.

    As for my views on church life as explored above… lately I am feeling a strong pull to my ethno-cultural-religious roots before my great-grand-parents were diverted by the modernist appeal of 19th century ultra-Protestantism. I still firmly believe that exchanging one closed social group with another is not the right lesson to learn, but remaining on the fringes of all and any churches is not a solution either.

    I have (with much joy) come to a position where I can relate positively to any expression of Christianity and attend any denominational service and find Jesus at work. However the open table and ‘anonymity’ offered by the Anglican Church, combined with the reverence of its liturgy, the full egalitarian state of its social policy, the beautiful churches, and rich deep (familiar) history, are considerations as I try to find a spiritual home for the rest of my life.

    • Thanks so much Deb. Your last paragraph especially resonates with me as I also have been draw to a similar interior realisation. Two Christmases ago we attended the Anglican midnight mass and the call to come forward and take the Eucharist was announced with a definite emphasis made that this would be offered to anyone of Christian faith regardless of denomination. This took me by surprise but also left a lasting impression at many levels…. a window opened in my mind and let in some oxygen to my atrophied brain. I too love the beauty of the liturgy, the egalitarian approach and the focus on being and doing the elements of the kingdom of God on earth right now through the medium of ourselves (among many other things).

      • Phil, the first time I took communion in an Anglican Church (or any mainstream church) was the morning of my ‘disfellowship’ as I fled to a nearby one for refuge. I was crying so hard through the service that the (female) deacon there had to support me at the rail. The newly consecrated first female bishop of Australia, Kay Goldsworthy, heard about it and rang me two weeks later to offer her understanding (she had been an activist for female ordination in the ’70s and ’80s) and any support the church could provide.

  4. I feel for you Deb! You expressed it all so very well and I can relate to all that you’ve been through. I’ve come to understand that people only do these things to you because they are afraid. Fear is never a good motivator.

  5. I view another perspective of what I term spiritual abuse. I have regularly dealt with clients who have become unchurched and deemed ‘backslidden’ (a terrible judgment)according to their denominational leaders. I do not think Jesus would use such awful means to keep souls loving and obeying Him. Such merciless, systemic and emotionally contagious negativity towards genuinely curious souls. How does a person ‘work out their own salvation’ if they cannot ask genuine questions?
    On the other issue….I can’t count how many women I have worked with who have been emotionally, psychologically and/or sexually abused within organisations calling themselves Christian churches…as if they are NOT too the image and likeness of God and God wouldn’t care about HIS daughters.
    Jesus was an advocate for women…the Holy Spirit didn’t discriminate at Pentecost…..how did the church learn to do this?

  6. Hi Deborah, Are you the same person who wrote an article on the Kenites and Kenazites? Would be blessed to hear from you is so. I really loved that article, as I have been doing much research on Adoption (biblical)

    • Hi Patrick, yes that’s me. I am so glad you have found it (at all!) and have found it useful. It was a spin-off from my work on the exodus and wilderness itineraries. Deb

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