A recent article about Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) traces whistleblower Ruth Malhotra’s dawning realization that everything with the apologist and his ministry was not what it seemed to be. The piece alludes to questions that no doubt many have asked about Malhotra—who worked closely with Zacharias—and others: How could they not have seen this sooner? And why didn’t they leave earlier?

Those questions are not unreasonable. After all, we might listen to CT’s podcastThe Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and wonder of those who left the church staff, “How did you not see all along the narcissism and dysfunction in such a setting?” Or even further afield, we might watch a documentary about Leah Remini’s departure from scientology and ask, “How could you not see that this was a multilevel marketing scheme combined with a UFO cult?”

There are many reasons why people stay in toxic systems as long as they do. Some of those reasons are rooted in the human sins of pride and ambition and some in the human foibles of fear or ignorance. But not all are. In some cases, what’s at work is “betrayal blindness.” The concept belongs to psychologist Jennifer Freyd and refers to the need for a person to trust a spouse, a parent, a caregiver, or a leader and, when betrayed by them, to fluctuate between the need to end the abuse and the need to preserve the relationship.

Lori Anne Thompson, the first woman to come forward publicly with charges against Zacharias, uses the term in her interview with Bob Smietana. After Malhotra spoke out and was ostracized from the ministry, Thompson supported her, prayed for her, and provided her with counsel, even though Malhotra had previously served as public relations officer for Thompson’s abuser.

Thompson told Smietana that the “betrayal blindness” concept helped her to better understand why some people stay in situations that from the outside are clearly toxic.

I’m not suggesting that betrayal blindness as Freyd articulates it is necessarily behind the case of Malhotra (who, full disclosure, is a friend) or any other group of whistleblowers there or elsewhere. But nonetheless, understanding the concept is essential for churches and other institutions to overcome the epidemic of abuse and abuse cover-ups. It’s also essential for making sense of the even-more-normalized patterns of toxic and spiritually abusive practices that characterize too many churches, ministries, governments, and political movements.

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Every person is created with a need to be loved and accepted by those in authority, starting first with parents. When a parent rejects a child through abuse or neglect, some children cannot bear the psychological ramifications of thinking there is something wrong with their parents.

After all, such a thought would end with a scary and chaotic world, where the child would feel unprotected and alone. In some cases, then, the child concludes that there is something wrong with himself or herself. Sometimes the child thinks, “If only I behave better and work harder, then I can find safety and also help the caregiver be better.”

More often than not, this pattern of thinking doesn’t stop with childhood. Many of us have counseled abused women who conclude that the problem was that they didn’t adequately alleviate their partner’s stress. A spouse who is cheated on sometimes concludes that he or she wasn’t attractive enough, or is in some other way to blame for what happened. This often happens in church situations, where people sometimes find it difficult to see—sometimes until years later—that what they assumed was just “the messiness of dealing with people” turns out to have been a toxic and harmful environment.

That’s especially true when institutions—even churches—sometimes further the abuse of victims (or those who seek to help them) by gaslighting them, as though their reaction to the abuse—not the abuse itself—is the problem. Sometimes that happens when a person critiques the particular way the victim brought forward the complaint, or searches for other issues to pin on the victim.

In a church or ministry situation, this is especially perilous. When a person has been taught to see the church as “home” and as “family,” they sometimes start to question whether the red flags they have seen are real. When they are charged with sacrificing the “unity” of the ministry, they sometimes start to believe the rhetoric that they—not the problem itself—are the issue. Any institution can bully and intimidate a whistleblower—but no institution can do so with more claimed power than one that says, “If you do this, you’re walking away from Jesus.”

Just as a child with a parent, some people cannot bear to think that a church, ministry, or denomination—especially those that introduced them to Jesus—could be fraudulent. Some part of them might begin to think, “Maybe what they told me about Jesus and about the gospel might be fraudulent too.” And so they sometimes start to look for other possible explanations—ones that will pin the blame on themselves, rather than on those who are making things wrong.

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Often, these people cannot even imagine themselves apart from their church, ministry, or denomination, so enmeshed is their identity with it. As neurologists and psychologists have shown, the experience of exile from a tribe is often experienced in the same way as physical pain.

The rationalizations, then, can be easy to believe: “The mission is too important for me to spend time dwelling on my intuitions telling me something’s not right”; or, “No one else seems to see this, so I must be the crazy one”; or, “If I’m gone, I’ll be replaced by someone much worse, and I can do more from the inside.” As we’ve seen time and time again, those lines of thinking end in disaster.

Even then, sometimes the counsel of outside friends is just as second-guessed as one’s own doubts. And sometimes it takes a breaking point to see that leaving is necessary. For some, as with Malhotra, that is when the evidence emerges—that one’s intuitions were right after all.

When I was in a toxic and spiritually abusive environment, I found myself coming out of years of second-guessing and finding ways to blame myself for what I was experiencing. It happened while reading a children’s book to my son. I read the final statement at the end of Mo Willems’s Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs: “If you find yourself in the wrong story, leave.” I put away the book and realized, “I’m in the wrong story.”

The scandals and frauds, deceptions and abuses within the church are the responsibility of all of us who belong to it. We have to take many steps—from creating accountability structures to training people how to identify problems to teaching leaders how to care for those harmed by them. We must insist on protections for whistleblowers. But we also should take steps—long before problems emerge—to train people to see the vision of the church Jesus has given us, where accountability is not sacrificed for unity and integrity is not sacrificed for mission.

As early as Sunday school, we should start helping people tell the difference between loyalty to Christ and loyalty to some who would claim his name. We should expend resources teaching them how to know when they are manipulated into blaming themselves and when they should step forward to say, “Something is wrong here.”

And we need to teach people that the story of Jesus does not harm the vulnerable. So if you find yourself in the wrong story, you can always leave.

Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.

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