Religious Trauma Syndrome


Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a real condition that happens when people are raised in overbearing religious homes or members of overbearing churches.  Those that suffer from RTS have been immersed in a controlling religious environment.  That often occurs as a child but can also occur as an adult.  Some psychological professionals are skeptical that RTS is just a newly made-up disorder.  Some religious folks are suspicious that it is a disorder that was made-up to discredit organized religions.  I am less skeptical because my work with recovering addicts and alcoholics has put me in contact with many that seem to suffer from RTS.


RTS is not something caused by a belief in God.  Several studies have shown religious people as a collective group benefit from religious experiences.  Religious people tend to have better health – both physical and mental.  When they do get sick, they tend to recover faster.  They tend to be happier in life, suffer less from anxiety and depression and even have healthier relationships with people around them.  


For many years evangelical Christians have stated that Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship.  Of course, Christianity is a religion if we go by the dictionary definition of what religion is.  However I can see the point the evangelicals are trying to make.  Many historically great theologians, from Martin Luther to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, have embraced the concept that Christianity is distinct from religion.  The English word religion comes from a Latin word which means to be bound or tied.  The purpose of Jesus, it is pointed out, was to free us from bondage.  Many New Testament passages refer to Jesus making us free and releasing us from bondage.  When the word religion is mentioned in the Bible, it is often mentioned in a negative context.  Religion is described by these Christian theologians as a set of rules and teachings to be adhered to.  Certainly many Christian groups have slipped into that definition but the point these theologians have tried to make is that they shouldn’t.  Christianity should be distinct from religion.


In Christianity, Jesus, as a man and a deity, is the focus.  Jesus stated that He was the resurrection.  He was the life.  He was the way.  He was the truth.  There are many religions in the world that have teachings.  Most of those religions have excellent teachings.  Some are a bit more oppressive.  Regardless if they are excellent or oppressive, they are simply teachings.  Certainly a living Savior that listens to and cares for His followers is something distinctive about Christianity.  It is undeniable that Christianity has teachings associated with it.  Following Jesus includes obeying His teachings.  There is no avoiding the link between them.  However unlike other religions, Christianity is not Christianity without the relationship between the believer and Jesus.


Jesus tied a relationship with Him to the law of God when He said, “If you love Me, keep My Commandments” (John 14:15).  These Commandments are intended to free the believer and not bind him.  The Apostle James called the Commandments “the law of liberty” (James 1:5).  Solomon wrote that he who keeps the Commandments is happy (Prov. 29:18).  Jesus characterized a relationship with Him as relief from a burdensome life. “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28, 29).  So while having a relationship with Jesus includes obeying His Commandments, those same Commandments are to free the believer and not bind him or her.


Unfortunately many so-called Christians take the law of God and turn it into a burden.  Then they impose their warped concept of God’s law on others.  This process can be overbearing and oppressive.  The law which God gave to free us from the burden of sin is itself used to control and oppress.  That very thing was going on by the organized church at the time that Jesus lived on earth.  The New Testament is full of stories of Jesus, and later the Apostles, scolding the religious leaders of that time for turning liberty into oppression.  That is where RTS comes from.


Parents are to train their children in their religious faith.  The greatest influence comes from the parent’s example.  Parents need to model a healthy relationship with Jesus for their children to follow.  Parental control in spiritual matters needs to slowly decrease as the children advance through their teenage years.  While children should attend church with their parents as long as they live at home, there are many areas where the child can be given more and more choice in spiritual matters as they get older and older.  The parents’ responsibility is to expose the children to the truth so the child can make an educated decision about their spiritual life.  But the choice belongs to the child – not the parent.  RTS is caused by overbearing parents and churches that try to make the decisions for their children or church members.

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