Preventing spiritual abuse? Listen to that little voice plus…


Over the summer, I have been writing a few thoughts about the nature and causes of spiritual abuse. At the end of this post, you can find links to those entries. I have been doing this in concert with Carolyn Custis James over at the Whitby Forum. I heartily recommend you read her take as well. This post will give you her latest and also provide links to her previous as well. For those of you who are new to the concept of abuse, here is my definition:

Spiritual abuse is the use of faith, belief, and/or religious practices to coerce, control, or damage another for a purpose beyond the victim’s well-being (i.e., church discipline for the purpose of love of the offender need not be abuse).

Like child abuse, spiritual abuse comes in many forms. It can take the form of neglect or intentional harm of another. It can take the form of naïve manipulation or predatory “feeding on the sheep.”

With this post I want to consider two means by which we might prevent spiritual abuse (both to ourselves and to others)

Listen to that little voice inside

If you are experiencing that ping inside that says you are being mistreated…stop and listen to it. Too often, we ignore that voice inside that says something is not right. And in those settings where leaders wield significant authority, those vulnerable to abuse are most likely to believe (or be told) that their feelings can’t be trusted. This is especially true in environments where a significant portion of the community (e.g., children, women) are treated as less trustworthy.

Now, notice I said “listen” to that inner hitch in your soul. Notice I didn’t say to always “believe” your gut. Our gut isn’t any more or less accurate than any other portion of our being, and feelings may or may not be accurate. But just as we out to pay attention to fire alarms and not grow complacent, we ought also to pay attention to that voice that says something in wrong with how we are being treated.

If that voice is ringing in your ears, I suggest you find someone to talk to who doesn’t have a major stake in how you respond to that voice. Such a person will be less likely to have their own axe to grind. You don’t need someone who tries to force you to stay in an abusive situation or someone who believes all spiritual leaders are abusive giving you advice. That sort of problem only continues the manipulation.

The point of listening to your own little voice is to notice your own experiences and to take them seriously as you explore what is happening.

Other ideas

Of course, there is much more objective ideas for preventing spiritual abuse. Education is one of our best means to prevent spiritual abuse

  • Educate the entire church about servant leadership and how it opposes power grabs
  • Educate the entire church about how the Gospel opposes all forms of oppression/abuse as well as opposed the subjugation of any portion of the community
  • Become missional (joining what God is doing in the world, opposed to focusing only on our own mission)
  • Teach leaders to listen as much as they exhort
  • Teach congregants to be Berean with everything that they are learning–to search the Scriptures to see if what is being taught is in accord with the whole of Scripture
  • Teach the congregation that deception and cover-up of abuses by Shepherds never pleases God

6 Comments

Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, Doctrine/Theology, Evangelicals, Missional Church

6 responses to “Preventing spiritual abuse? Listen to that little voice plus…

  1. ThereIsAStandard

    Spiritual abuse can go the other direction too, only without the authority aspect to it. I’m in leadership and I have someone making accusations against me because I chastised them for a couple of rebellion issues. I had to listen to that inner voice to know that I didn’t do anything, it was okay to stand up for myself, and stick with the word of God. This person will fight to the death that her sin issue isn’t sin and it’s someone else’s fault. It has been that way at every other church she’s stomped out of too.

    • I have no doubt leaders get abused by the flock and have written about that on this site in the past. Not having details of your situation, I can imagine that you might have the voice telling you that you were right to point out their error. The question, of course, is how we point out the errors of others. Do we do it with gentleness or self-righteousness? That is the challenge at least in my heart.

    • D.S.

      A good question to ask yourself – What is your knee-jerk response if this person chastises you?

      1. Is it inappropriate to do that if they aren’t in a leadership position? That is, is it inappropriate for non-leaders to chastise leaders?
      2. Are you inclined to discount their words because of the obvious rebellion/sin in their life?
      3. Something else?

      I suggest, that if you in any way put yourself above this other person, your chastising is probably to some degree spiritually abusive to that person. (To be clear – If your answer to either question 1, or 2, are yes, you place yourself above them)

      It is usual for me to give only a passing glance at my beams on my way to point out the mote of another. When I am criticized, it is oh so easy to rationalize why I am right. I know I can be as obstinate as Balaam, that God might need to use a donkey to get my attention. I’m certain I’m not the only one for whom this is true. Maybe you too?

  2. Pingback: From Angst to Action—Preventing Spiritual Abuse | Missio Alliance

  3. Robin A Greiner

    Thank you for addressing the issue of spiritual abuse. So many sheep have been wounded and walked away 😥

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