Note: This blog is the second in a series seeking ways those who have been traumatized by toxic leaders can find healing in Christ’s love through the church.
We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” according to David. However, we live in a time of strange in-betweenness! We were created perfectly by a powerful and loving God [אֱלֹהִים] and placed in a beautiful garden where all things were good; the relationships between man and God, man and his wife, man and the created world, and man and self. But, only two chapters later, the man and his wife rejected God’s authority and goodness and sinned against him. The results of that first sin are felt by every one of us in all four relationships noted above.
Our time is in between that incredible creation and the future paradise of the New Heavens and New Earth we first hear by name in the book of Isaiah (and numerous other places in the Bible). Everything will be made right in those relationships when Christ comes again and brings heaven to earth in newness.
But, now we live with the horrible effects of the fall while awaiting a renewal of all things. Our relationships are a struggle as we sin and are sinned against. Man and woman struggle. Man and God struggle. Man and creation struggles. And, man struggles with his own self.
It is this last relationship that we must consider as we think about the effects of trauma brought by that boss or supervisor in the church or parachurch organization. There is real trauma created by abusive authorities. They don’t have to be physically abusive. Emotional abuse is often just as bad or worse, according to Bessel van der Kolk. He says, “Over the years our research team has repeatedly found that chronic emotional abuse and neglect can be just as devastating as physical abuse and sexual molestation.” Though there is a big difference between seeing someone murdered in front of you (or being the one who did the murdering) and being abused by a boss, our brains respond to it similarly.
A difficult concept sometimes for the church to understand is that all relationships were broken in the fall of man into sin. Though we understand and accept that we fight with God and man in the normal warp and woof of life, it is much more difficult to comprehend that we also battle with our own selves. Our bodies are physically broken by the fall and that includes both our vascular system and our brains. Our thinking is goofy and our neurons are goofy.
A question I have asked myself (and others) is whether our brains respond to trauma as God has created them or as broken pieces of our self to the broken world around us. I believe, though cannot state it emphatically, that it is both. Our brains were made by a good and powerful Creator…and, we are broken and do not respond physically or spiritually the way we would in our original created self.
So, that leaves us with seeking to understand the physical effects of trauma on our brain and determining how our God would desire for us to seek healing.
There is some fascinating research by Kolk and others that helps us understand how God has created us. When faced with trauma, Kolk says,
“We automatically signal our upset in our facial expressions and tone of voice, changes meant to beckon others to come to our assistance. However, if no one responds to our call for help, the threat increases…and the sympathetic nervous system takes over, mobilizing muscles, heart, and lungs for fight or flight.”
Notice, we are hardwired by the Lord to seek the aid of others [see part 1 of this series]. Communicating with others about the trauma is a God-given drive deeply embedded in our brain’s functioning. But, Kolk notes that when those needs aren’t met [no one comes to our aid or is available to help], we move towards the “flight or fight” reaction to trauma. Fighting or fleeing are legitimate biblical reactions to an unsafe individual (toxic boss for instance). We see examples of both responses by historical characters in the Bible, often approved of by the writers.
Remember the Apostle Paul being let down off the city wall to escape those who were seeking his harm as he shared the Gospel. Consider Jesus’ example when he had challenged his hearers and they did not believe, “departed and hid himself from them.”
On the other hand, heroes of the faith have also confronted (fought) the toxicity of others. The most extraordinary examples come from Jesus as He not only got to safety in some instances, but in some went up against leaders head-on. He challenged their toxicity in many clever ways including simply asking them questions.
Much more needs to be said regarding the question of “fight or flight” responses. In my own study of those who have faced toxic leaders, there is a mixture of how effective either of these responses were. One individual who has commented on this blog noted his need to leave two particular toxic leaders – what I would classify as “flight.” Most of those I have interviewed would agree with this particular response as bringing the most safety and room for healing from the trauma created by abusive leadership.
Tell us your experiences of seeking the aid of others, fighting, or fleeing toxicity in your Christian organization.
 Psalm 139:14.
 Isaiah 65:17, 2 Peter 3:13.
 Bessel van der Kolk MD, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, 1st ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), Kindle Location 1705-1707.
 Ibid., Kindle Locations 1598-1601.
 Acts 9:23-25 says, “When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill [Paul], but their plot became known to [Paul]. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.”
 John 12:36.
 In Matthew 15, Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ questions with his own questions, cleverly turning their arguments in on themselves.