Written by Stephanie Massicotte
I met her at university. Since we were both in wheelchairs, we started off by joking about getting stuck in snowbanks on campus and laughing about automatic doors that don’t open. You know, daily wheelchair-related struggles. One day after class, as we talked about our weekends, she reacted with shock when I mentioned going to church every Sunday. When I asked her why she was so surprised, she took a deep breath and started to share her story with me.
She told me that she had always been curious about God and grew up wanting to know more. During her university years, she started dating a Christian guy who invited her to his church. At first, she loved the experience. She loved the worship and she enjoyed finally getting to know more about God. Her dating relationship was also going well, and her boyfriend eventually proposed to her.
But when he told his pastor about their plans to marry, the pastor discouraged him, suggesting that she was probably in a wheelchair because she was demon-possessed. Devastatingly, the guy in question was so terrified that he called off the engagement and did not contact her after that.
My poor friend has understandably not set foot in a church again, afraid that Christians might really view her in this way. It was heartbreaking to hear how deeply hurt she had been by people who should have loved her as their neighbour.
I wish we lived in a world where the Church lived up to its legacy every time and embodied Jesus perfectly, without fail. I wish every Christian was fully mature and perfectly applied Scripture in a loving way. But when we get involved in church communities, we live in these contested spaces of experiencing simultaneously the beauty of what the Church is meant to be, and the pain we inflict on each other through our broken human nature.
Church hurt can come in all shapes and sizes. It can range from disappointments and unmet expectations to more serious manipulations, covert agendas, and abuse. So how can we separate painful human wrongdoings from the beauty of what God intends the Church to be?
That is a complex question and requires more than one simple article to adequately address in depth. But I would like to start by pointing out that the universal Church is spoken of in the highest regard in the Bible.
In fact, the Bible refers to the Church as “the Body of Christ” and the “Bride of Christ.” And when Saul persecuted Christians, Jesus appeared to him and said “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4, emphasis mine). It is mind-blowing to think of how important the Church is to Jesus! Jesus builds his Church on the rock and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).
Because Jesus intimately identified with the Church, I do not believe it is possible to hate the Church and love Jesus at the same time. It is right to be angry at injustices. Injustices should never be tolerated or normalized anywhere, but especially in the Church.
However, the churches we build out of our own humanness outside of God’s will can and will be overcome.
We need discernment to differentiate between what is from God, and what is born of our human brokenness.
When a marriage falls apart, or we go through a messy breakup or a betrayal, these experiences are deeply destructive and painful. But most of us come to realize our lives will not be improved by giving up on relationships, or on marriage. I have witnessed people in horribly abusive marriages, and I have also witnessed others in wonderfully loving and lasting marriages. Abusive marriages do exist. But they do not undermine the healthy ones.
Similarly, we need to heal from bad relationships in the church. It’s okay to need space and to need a season to “lick our wounds” so to speak. But as deep as the pain and the broken trust can be, there is so much more goodness available to us. I truly believe that it is God’s heart to bring healing, redemption, and restoration to church hurts in all their forms. What that restoration will look like may differ from one person to another, but it is still absolutely possible and available.
A practical place to start the mending is by acknowledging it, validating the pain, and recognizing that the damaging behaviour did not stem from God’s heart towards us, but rather from human brokenness. You could share your story with a trusted and safe person. If you like to journal, write down your experience. This helps gain objectivity by taking a step back and it also helps process the emotions connected to these events. You could work through your emotions by seeing a therapist or a counsellor.
Eventually, reconnecting with a church (possibly in a different church community if the last one was unhealthy) is a scary but important part of the healing process. We can deepen the healing process by re-engaging in a healthier church community, and this allows us to add a new, life-giving chapter to our story.
I have witnessed the Church in terribly toxic ways, and I have also witnessed the Church in amazingly beautiful ways. I have seen the Church be the hands and feet of Jesus in countless ways over the years. Experiencing true acceptance, love, and grace in churches and from Christians has been the best way to heal some of those past hurts. This enables me to move past the painful experiences and reminds me that the Church is God’s invention, not my own.