Messy Faith,  Personal and Spiritual Ramblings

Advice for those leaving Christian fundamentalism or an abusive church

Beautiful in His Time is a participant in multiple affiliate marketing programs. The author of this blog may receive commission for purchases or clicks made through links on this website.

I received the following message from a former acquaintance recently: What advice would you give someone preparing to step out of a IFB, Legalistic Church? I sent this person a bit of advice over messenger, but as I thought about it a bit more, I felt like it would be apropos to include a post of advice in my series about life after fundamentalism: Grace: How a Recovering Legalist Moves Forward in Faith.

I’m not an expert, so I’m not going to pretend to be. But here’s a few things I’ve learned (most of which, the hard way).

Practical advice for those leaving Christian fundamentalism or an abusive church | I received the following message from a former acquaintance recently: What advice would you give someone preparing to step out of a IFB, Legalistic Church? 

Your journey is your own.

While fundamentalism is a small world, there are many sub-“camps” within it. My theory is that these camps are mostly centered around either prominent pastors or Bible colleges. What college you (or your parents or pastors) attended will impact what “flavor” of fundamentalism to which you were most exposed. If you moved around a lot (either due to physical moves, or due to church-hopping) you will be exposed to more than others. You will probably be hard-pressed to find someone who has an identical story to your (unless it’s a sibling – even then, age can be a factor).

That said, I think it’s helpful to find people who may have gone to the same college or grew up in the same camp as you. For this reason, I am including a list. However, as I will explain in a future point – proceed with caution. I do not 100% endorse this content. Navigating these websites requires a lot of spiritual discernment, prayer, and lining up ideas with Scripture. I only share these because finding someone (even some anonymous internet person) who shares a similar story and “gets it” can be a part of the healing process.

I cannot stress this enough: these websites are for you to find camaraderie and empathy, not theology! 

There is a place BETWEEN legalistic fundamentalism and political, religious liberalism and the social justice movement.

If you spend any time on any of the sites listed above, you’ll find that many of them lean left politically. Many of them have branched out from their stories of leaving fundamentalism to take on bigger issues like racial and social injustice, LGTB issues, feminism vs. patriarchy, gender roles, and more. It can begin to feel like your only option is to jump the fence to the political left. Many have even abandoned faith completely to embrace other religions, atheism, or agnosticism.

People who stay closer to the theological and political right but are still loving and grace-filled or at least stay out of politics and social issues are harder to find. A lot harder.

That’s not to say that we cannot take an honest look at these issues and confront problems as we work through our own spiritual views to see what lines up with the Bible. But it seems to me that many looking for an escape from fundamentalism and abuse swallow anything the political and liberal left dishes up. I caution that you not do the same.

The unfollow button is your friend.

Social media is both a blessing and a curse. There was a time when all of the sites above (along with others that I now refuse to recommend) filled my Facebook and Twitter feeds. It was a phase I feel like, at the time, I needed to go through. I needed to feel like I was not alone in my hurt and anger.


They kept me stuck. Story after story of abuse, neglect, and hurt made me feel a lot less alone. But they also made me constantly angry, anxious, and sick to my stomach. I was looking for spiritual abuse under every rock and almost always found it.

I couldn’t move on. There is a lot of good here, but also a lot of anger, confusion, and REALLY bad theological conclusions. Which is why I reiterate – proceed with caution. Unfollow.

You need to know you are not alone in what happened to you.

You also need to move on.

Only you can figure out when that needs to happen. I recommend sooner rather than later.

On that note…

Healing takes time – a long time – and you can’t rush it.

There are (at least) five stages of grief. Going through the stages is not a linear process. You will go back and forth over and over again. Eventually, you will come through it stronger and better.

Family might not get it.

Siblings, parents, grandparents, and other family who were with you when you were in fundamentalism may not understand why you want to (or did) leave. They also might take it as a personal rejection. This is a normal reaction. Do your best to explain things lovingly and without emotion or personal attack against those who believe you are wrong or sinning. Don’t try too hard to defend yourself either. It can be an emotional drain. Release them from what you want from them (understanding, apologies, revenge, or whatever) and do your best to move on.

The following books were very helpful for me in this department:

If you are a wife who wants to leave the IFB but your husband is still a fundamentalist, or not ready – I recommend reading this: when you and your husband are in different spiritual places

As navigating family relationships is still for me a work in progress, and to respect those closest to me, I will not expound further. But if this is a difficulty for you, feel free to contact me and I can possibly advise you further, depending on the specifics of your situation.

Forgiveness is hard, but paramount.

This journey is one where you will be forced with a choice: hold on to pain and bitterness OR forgive and move on. Your abuser(s) may never understand the pain they have inflicted. A toxic environment cannot apologize for being toxic – and those in it cannot see its toxicity. This means you may never get the apologies or understanding you want – be it from pastors, professors, teachers, parents, siblings, or friends. When you leave you may be shunned, shamed, or gossiped about–and that will hurt like heck.

But if you stay stuck in a place trying to get people to understand, wishing and hoping they will somehow “get it” – it’s only going to cause you more pain. You will be better, stronger, and SO much more at peace when you release them from that “debt” you feel you are “owed” and move on.

It’s the hardest thing to give away
And the last thing on your mind today
It always goes to those that don’t deserve

It’s the opposite of how you feel
When the pain they caused is just to real
It takes everything you have just to say the word…


It flies in the face of all your pride
It moves away the mad inside
It’s always anger’s own worst enemy
Even when the jury and the judge
Say you gotta right to hold a grudge
It’s the whisper in your ear saying “Set It Free”

It’ll clear the bitterness away
It can even set a prisoner free
There is no end to what it’s power can do
So, let it go and be amazed
By what you see through eyes of grace
The prisoner that it really frees is you


Find a place and a support network where you are loved – it spite of your confusion, anger, pain, and unbelief.

This does not have to be a church, but I think it’s better if it is. (I’m sorry – a church like this is hard to find. For a long time I did not believe such a community existed.) If you cannot find a church like this, look into a Christian meetup, Bible study, or (if you are a mother – a moms or MOPS group). As a young mom, para-church studies and meetup groups were so key for me – not only in giving me things to do with my children, but for filling a spiritual void while I was waiting on my husband to be ready as well as in a church where my spiritual needs were not really being met.

You can take yourself out of legalism and fundamentalism. It’s a heck of a lot harder to take legalism and fundamentalism out of yourself.

You are an onion. Legalism, spiritual abuse, perfectionism, are layers – often wrapped up in between layers of your family structure, your personality, and your own flaws. It’s very easy to confuse these things for each other. While the environment you may have left (or be getting ready to leave) may be toxic or abusive – it’s also likely that you were more vulnerable to such an environment because of your pre-existing mental fortitude (such an anxiety or OCD), your personality type, your family structure, and your personal experiences. That’s not to victim-blame or say that it’s your fault. All I’m saying is that it’s complicated and all tangled up together.

I personally would not be where I am today if I had not sought out traditional therapy with a behavioral health professional (a social worker). You may find this helpful (if not an absolutely necessity) as well.

The younger you are, the more complicated this process will be. At least, this is my theory.

If you are in your late teens or any part of your twenties, I hypothesize that this process will be more complicated for you. This was my personal experience.

I have found the portions of the Boundaries book that discuss the stages of development along with the information I have gained from several of my psychology classes (particularly those that talk about adolescence and young adulthood) to be incredibly helpful for me. I feel that because of my upbringing (and a heart that was generally inclined toward submission, obedience, and perfectionism), I experienced somewhat of a delayed adolescence. While I was too scared to rebel in my teens because, “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,” I am now learning that a tumultuous stage of testing boundaries and limits, evaluating ideas, questioning authority, and developing an identity apart from your family of origin is actually completely biologically normal, given the way a brain develops. Similar to how a 2 or 3 year old throws tantrums, says “no,” and stomps his feet when he doesn’t get his way – some amount of independence during adolescence and the young adult years is normal. The prefrontal cortex (which controls “planning, emotional regulation, and impulse control”) doesn’t even finish developing until the mid-twenties. {Source}

I think that fundamentalism really works against this normal stage of development, in the same way that they fight against toddler tantrums – saying that we should instead, “break the will of the child.”

Obviously, both toddlers and adolescence need to learn how to submit to authorities, follow rules, stay safe, be kind, and develop morality. Ideally, as Christian parents, we also want our children to love God and follow Him. These are not bad things.

But learning these things is not always a heart issues – sometimes it’s a brain function issue. Developing these things takes brain development, trial and error, and a loving environment in which the child or adolescent can safely make mistakes, mess up, and have it be okay.

When you are raised in an environment that squashes all independent thought and action as rebellious or sinful, two options remain: either the child will act out and push the boundaries even further OR shut down and become submissive until they are granted a greater measure of freedom.

If you are in the latter camp (like I was), you may still feel guilt at expressing independent thought. You may vacillate between “acting out” in anger or aggression – particularly against family or institution, because you never had a chance to safely do so when you were a teen.

Different sub-camps within fundamentalism approach discipline and parenting in the adolescent years with varying degrees of authoritarianism. There are many families within fundamentalism that still allow for their children to safely make mistakes and have their own identity in the teen years. However, those in the IBLP, Quiverfull movement, or homeschooling camps may struggle with this the most. (Which is why things like SM Davis’ idea of “what to expect from a 12 year old” are so infuriating to me!)

If this is you, also please read up on “parentification” and professional help may be needed. 

Making a distinction between what is a delayed adolescence, what is leaving fundamentalism, and what is normal behavior and identity struggles of being in your twenties is really complicated. It wasn’t until I hit my thirties that I began to be able to look back and realize what was what and have “lightbulb moments” about some things that I thought were wrapped up in leaving fundamentalism that were actually just typical developmental struggles that I didn’t get to experience as a teen.

Anger is normal.

For more on this, read: Grace for the angry recovering legalist: this is where the healing begins

Triggers will happen. Not just in church but other places as well.

For more on this, read:

Develop {healthy} coping skills.

Get professional help. Learn breathing techniques for anxiety and depression. Don’t be ashamed to go on medication if you are struggling with PTSD, anxiety, or depression.

Secular TV and music can be really therapeutic.

As a young adult, I found I was always looking to put my experiences into context. As a 21-25 year old, I watched every Lindsay Lohan and Halylie Duff movie I could get my hands on. I guess I just needed to know that “typical” teenage life was like outside of the context of fundamentalism.

I also found that “breakup” songs helped me put a lot of my anger and feelings into words. Leaving a church or a religious movement is really dang hard. Add to that conflicts with friends and family who didn’t understand what I was going through…most days felt just like a bad breakup.

My personal favorites:

For more on this, read:

Christian music is even better!

I was really good at compartmentalizing and had somewhat of a “secular life” separate from faith. Which meant that I could listen to pretty much any secular music with very little guilt, but felt incredibly wicked when listening to contemporary Christian music. If you can’t stomach “fundy” music but still feel wicked when you listen to contemporary Christian music, I highly recommend the following artists:

  • Praise Baby (all of them!) – don’t let the “baby” part put you off. These are gentle and calm arrangements of popular Christian music and a wonderful introduction to some of the wonderful Christian music that is out there!
  • Keith and Kristyn Getty
  • Bonnie Knopf

See also: Love songs for the girl who needs to remember that God loves her

There are SO many Christian songs that have helped me along this process that I couldn’t possibly list them here. The blog post linked above has a lot of them. I also regularly make quote memes of my favorite songs over on my faith-based Facebook page, so check out my photos to find songs you might like!

Christian humor and satire always helps.

Sometimes, the only way to alleviate the pain is to focus on the hilarious absurdity. See below for a list of Christian comedians who are incredibly talented at making fun of the idiosyncrasies of evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

Other helpful websites & resources:

Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment

Phylicia Masonheimer

Elyse Fitzpatrick

Addie Zierman


Stacey Thacker

More Recommended Reading:

When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over

Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church

Grace for the Good Girl: Letting Go of the Try-Hard Life

You’re Already Amazing: Embracing Who You Are, Becoming All God Created You to Be

Tired of Trying to Measure Up: Getting Free from the Demands, Expectations, and Intimidation of Well-Meaning People


This is most likely a post I will continually update as things come to my mind or I find other / more resources. So it is not meant to be an all-inclusive list. As always, use discernment.

If you would like to talk further, feel free to email me at Also, I invite you to subscribe via email here, or follow us on Facebook at Beautiful Messy Faith.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  • Anthony Baker

    And don’t forget 🙂

    You offered a lot of good insight and advice in this post (more like an article), and from a slightly different perspective. Actually, I appreciate how you offered various resources to help with the transition – I don’t do that very often. What breaks my heart, however, are those who feel like they must leave the church and Christianity in general – that they must walk away from the faith – in order to break free from the legalistic chains that bind them. Unfortunately, there are plenty of organizations who are willing to help the wounded believer transistion into atheist.

    I have recently developed a friendship with a father who was once involved with Steven Anderson and his angry little IFB bunch in Arizona. This father is doing his best to pull his son out of that mess, but it is very difficult. There’s not a lot one can do to convince someone who is so committed to a graceless theology to walk away; it takes a work of the Holy Spirit and exposure to mature and godly counsel. Once the chains are broken, that’s when the former IFB’ers need strong believers who will come along side them to help them adjust to a healthy life of freedom in grace. Thank you for doing that for your friend.

    • Aprille

      Thank you Anthony. I’m sorry for my oversight in leaving off your website.

      It honestly breaks my heart that there are resources that helped me where the authors have since rejected faith. It doesn’t have to be this way, but so many are swept away by a combination of hurt and the liberalist agenda that SOUNDS good to the wounded heart.

Leave a Reply