Category Archives: Abuse
I’ve read a lot of discussion recently about the difficulty defining spiritual abuse of adults by faith leaders in positions of power. It seems most debates center on whether to believe victims who report such abuse and whether there is a culture of victimhood. Behind these discussions is the question of whether we can operationally define spiritual abuse.
For some, since there isn’t consensus on a definition, then there is little to no value in discussing its reality. “It is too subjective and can’t be known.” For others, “too many good leaders will be hurt by false allegations” is reason enough to doubt an accuser’s experience.
Permit me two small historical sidebars to give context on these kinds of debates. 15 years ago I gave a lecture at a denomination’s general assembly on the problem of child sexual abuse. In the room were 300 or so pastors. The very first question asked from the floor was whether it was biblically proper to accept a child’s report of abuse against an elder if there wasn’t a second witness. The second comment from the floor was a statement expressing concern that false allegations would ruin the ministries of many good pastors. The third question amounted to, “Why do we call it abuse, can’t we just call it sin?”
My second historical point goes back a bit further. In the mid-1800s doctors did not routinely wash their hands or instruments after doing cadaver work. As a result, when they delivered babies, mothers and infants died at alarming rates, especially when compared to mortality rates of mid-wife deliveries. When the medical community began speaking about microbes and the need to wash, doctors often resisted. The renowned Dr. Oliver Wendall Holmes was castigated for speaking about the need for better hygiene and some New York doctors wrote letters expressing that such practices would harm their business and the public’s trust of their guild.
In both examples, the primary concern seemed to be to protect the guild, much like our current discussion.
Two criteria for determining spiritual abuse
Consider the case of child abuse. There are two accepted criteria used in defining child abuse that can be helpful here: 1. Actions that result in abuse, and 2. Impact on victim. For example, refusing to take a sick child to the doctor may be found to be abuse/neglect whether or not the child recovers. Or, in another example, one parent routinely expresses paranoia that aliens are trying to hurt them. One child appears resilient and unbothered while the other child becomes suicidal. The impact on the second child is what may lead to a finding of abuse. Note that intentionality is not a criteria for whether a finding of abuse is valid.
So, try on some of these action words for size. How do they fit for criteria of spiritual abuse? Rejecting…terrorizing…isolating…ignoring…corrupting…verbally assaulting…over pressuring.
Let’s apply to a specific case. A man pressures his wife daily for sex and when she does not comply (she often does) he gives her the cold shoulder and refuses to speak to her. When he does talk to her, he quotes bible passages and tells her she is sinning and may be responsible if he looks at porn. This woman comes to her pastor for help and to tell him that her therapist has encouraged her to leave to preserve her emotional safety. In this hour-long meeting, the pastor asks no further questions about her experience even though he does express some empathy for her pain. Because he does not ask questions, he does not find out that she being raped, that she regularly wakes up in the night to find her husband trying to penetrate her. Instead, this pastor tells her to be wary of leaving as it will lead to divorce and potentially harm the husband’s reputation as head of a Christian non-profit ministry. He also wonders aloud if her therapist is giving Godly counsel. As the meeting ends, he asks her to come back next week to talk further and gives her homework to identify the log in her own eye. She leaves confused, sad, afraid, and wondering if she is the problem in her marriage.
Now, has the leader committed spiritual abuse? Quite possibly. Is talking about sin and divorce spiritual abuse? No. But, it also is naïve and poor spiritual leadership. As far as actions go, he ignored her pain, he implicitly isolated her by questioning her therapist, asking her to stay, and showing undue concern for the husband’s reputation. She leaves feeling he has rejected her concerns.
If they continue to meet and he continues to emphasize her need to bear up under this burden and to examine her own heart, then he is likely overpressuring (aka coercing) her. Let’s assume the pastor does not want to harm the wife and believes his counsel is helpful. There is no intention to commit spiritual abuse. But, using his spiritual position and wrapping his counsel in biblical and doctrinal language, the pastor has indeed begun to spiritually abuse his parishioner. The abuse could be averted with some basic education if the pastor was open to learning. But ongoing mild to moderate use of these actions would constitute spiritual abuse for this woman. Another woman might just tell the pastor off on the first visit and walk away. In this case it wouldn’t be spiritual abuse. It would be incompetent pastoral care. But in our imaginary case, this woman stayed because (a) she had been raised to always trust pastors, (b) her husband’s chronic belittling had convinced her that she was in the wrong, and (c) she was already rather isolated. What was incompetent care becomes spiritual abuse due to action AND impact.
Why call it spiritual abuse?
Recall the question posed at the beginning of this essay: Why not just call it sin (or bad care in this instance)? Why call it (spiritual) abuse? I would argue that this question comes from a cultural sense that abuse label means the person who committed it is an ABUSER and therefore unable to change and worthy of being cast out of society. Sin feels better because it can be just a “one off” misbehavior. The problems with calling it sin are several. It reveals we are likely far too comfortable with sin. It denies patterns that need attention. It favors the one who has done the wrong and minimizes the impact on the victim. We seem more focused on propping up the careers of those with certain leadership capacities than recognizing the numerous examples in the bible of how God handles those who misrepresent him (e.g., Job’s friends, bad shepherds (Eze 34), blind guides and white-washed tombs, false teachers in Jude).
Labeling certain behaviors as spiritual abuse helps us focus on those actions that crush spirits. Just as labeling the failure to wash hands may cause infections. Identifying spiritual abuse and its impact helps us focus on consequences rather than intentions.
Want to read more on defining spiritual abuse?
 This essay concisely describes the action and impact criteria for child abuse. Some actions are not per se abusive but create a negative impact. These behaviors, if not stopped, could however be labeled abusive in the future if the parent does not respond to corrective education.
In case you haven’t seen it, Christianity Today recently published an essay entitled, “When Restoration Hurts: Christian counselors grapple with how to encourage reconciliation while protecting victims.” Not quite an expose, it does detail some of the damage done by biblical counselors pressing victims for forgiveness of and reconciliation with those who abused them.
The essay details some of the experience “Amanda” had, both when looking for help as a 17 year old after sexual abuse by her father had come to light and then later when she brought a complaint against the organization that had certified the counselor. The writer of the essay goes on to describe the landscape of biblical counseling, integrationist counseling, and a new version of Christian psychology before returning to the challenge of what Christian counseling care is available for victims and perpetrators. Of concern in this essay is how the biblical counseling group views the bible’s place in counseling victims of abuse.
Before I make my observations, which will only be a small portion of what could be discussed, I want to give some background. I was first trained by CCEF (mentioned in the article) and worked as a part-time counselor there. I still have many friends at that organization. I’m quite impressed with Darby Strickland’s teaching on abuse in families. I’m acquainted with ACBC (formerly NANC) and know many who have been certified by them. I got my psychological training at Wheaton College and there became good friends with Eric Johnson mentioned in the article and was present for the early days of the Christian Psychology movement. Then, I spent 18 years leading a MA counseling program at a seminary. While this background does not mean I am smarter than anyone else, I repeat here to say I know the people and the conversations well. Over the years I have listened to stories of pain and healing at the hands of counselors from all parts of the professional, biblical, and pastoral counseling worlds.
Here are some thoughts of mine about what problems lie behind the misapplication of spiritual principles in these cases of abuse.
Restoration over protection. When restoration is valued over protection, it can only be for the benefit of the one pressing for restoration. What benefit do they get? They get to feel that God is indeed in control. Why do you think that false prophets told the exiles in Babylon that in 2 years they would be back in the land? Was it to earn money? Doubtful. Was it to appear wise? Maybe. But, most of all, it was likely that in repeating this belief (based on knowledge that God would redeem) they could take comfort now rather than sit in the reality that life was broken and not likely going to be restored in their lifetime.
Misapprehending fruit of repentance. I’m going to skip over the large problem of counselors pressing for any change whatsoever. (Suffice it to say that pressing a client for forgiveness, confession, reconciliation, or any other action rarely works and more often causes harm. You cannot heal a trauma caused by misuse of power with more force–even if your goal is good.) One of the great mistakes counselors make is speaking as if they know the heart of another. In no case is this more true than trying to speak with confidence about those who have a long pattern of deception. Tears, time, nice words are not evidences of a changed heart. It is ironic that those who are caring most about righteousness, who seem to be aware of “bad” fruit of not reconciling with someone who has done harm, appear naive in recognizing that tears and the right words are not evidence of change. For example, if a parent who abuses a child seems wholly focused on return home and to church life, is it possible that they only want the benefits of repentance without the work? Might better evidence be a willingness to die to own desires and to ask, “what do those I harmed most need?” while looking for the answer from others.
I conclude this point noting that those in the biblical counseling tradition have been quite willing to acknowledge the problem of evil and deception in the human heart. It is strange, then that some hold those who resist reconciliation to a tougher standard than they do those who have been harming others in the dark but now claim repentant hearts.
Restoration to what? One disheartening experience mentioned in the essay is when those in power demand that the primary goal of forgiveness is restoration and reconciliation. The essay quotes Heath Lambert, former ACBC head, “the goal in ministry to an abuser–as long as he will receive such ministry–is to see him be restored to his family, and ultimately to Christ.” In Ezekiel 34 God charges the priests of Israel with abusing the people, as shepherds who feed on the sheep. In chapter 44 he announces judgment on these idolatrous priests. He will restore them but only to the work of cleaning up the mess after the sacrifices. They will not be restored to their previous position. Today, the modern equivalent would be for an abusive church leader to be allowed to clean the church and the toilets but not to preach, teach or lead. Lambert is right in desiring to see restoration to Christ but his apparent assumption that the restoration would be to position (family) seems faulty. The goal should be to be present with the perpetrator on their journey rather than focus on the final destination.
Pride is the issue. “…Several victims pointed out the difficulty of knowing when real change [in perpetrators] has happened, and that it was prideful for their counselor to assume they knew the hearts of their abusers.” Pride is one of the greatest sins of counselors and pastors. We think we know the problem/diagnosis and therefore we know the solution. The great trap for spiritual leaders and helpers is that we want to be seen as such.
Do you want to be a leader? Be a servant. In this case, be a student of those you want to help. Learn from them. Stop trying to dictate what they do and how they do it. When we experience pride as therapists we stop asking questions of ourselves, stop evaluating our motives and our hypotheses, stop desiring to learn. This can happen to licensed therapists as well as pastoral counselors. Those who want to work with trauma should ready widely those who have the most experience with trauma–regardless of their religious and philosophical moorings. Those who want to work with people who have abused power ought to learn from those who have worked most closely with patterns of deception. Don’t assume you know something just because you know basic categories of right and wrong. Your pride may be evident to those practiced in deception who will tell you what you want to hear (your greatness) in order for you to do their bidding.
Nothing harms the bible and Christian counseling more than someone with half understanding of basic ideas acting as if their opinions should be taken as pure doctrine. If you are facing a situation where you are wanting either a perpetrator or victim to progress, take a moment and write down what you think their most pressing need is today. Take a moment to listen well and see if they also agree. When pressures mount to get to some destination, resist it. Pray for God to give light to the path today. Let him hold the concern for where the journey ends. For that we can be sure he will be faithful to complete in his timing.
Consider joining me September 4, 2019 on a webinar hosted by The Partnership Center: Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, US Dept of Health and Human Services. I will be presenting on the spiritual impact of child abuse on adult survivors.
Part IV: Mental Illness 101: Childhood Trauma and Mental Health Impacts
Wedneday, September 4, 2019 | 12:00 —1:00 p.m. EDT
Trauma ― specifically trauma experienced as children or adolescents ― can significantly impact individuals across their entire lives. In fact, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (@NCTSN) notes that survivors of childhood trauma are more likely to have long-term health problems or are at higher risk to die at an earlier age than their peers. With so many walking wounded souls in our midst, people are starting to ask, “How can I make a difference?” Our July webinar will focus on this important factor impacting many people who are struggling with mental illness concerns – untreated childhood trauma. Our goals are to equip local faith and community leaders with the signs and symptoms of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and provide the proven resources they can incorporate into their congregational and community outreach efforts. Register today for our September 4th webinar, and invite a friend
Looking for a good introduction and tips to respond well when abuse is alleged or exposed? Dr. Diane Langberg has a great blog as your launch point: http://www.dianelangberg.com/2019/02/recommendations-for-churches-dealing-with-abuse/.
I could summarize it but I’d rather you just go and read it!
This year the Global Community of Practice is on the theme of generational trauma (and its antidotes). If you aren’t coming, you may wish to access the live stream link below and watch the main sessions. I believe the link will contain the means to text or type questions and comments to what you are seeing. A moderator will review the comments and questions to be included in large group discussions so your thoughts may well be part of the global discussion.
See Agenda flyer listing the program for the next three days. The times listed are Eastern Daylight Time. Be sure to note the time that Diane Langberg is speaking on Tuesday on “living with generational trauma” and her closing on Thursday afternoon. There are many other can’t miss moments: devotions by Rev. Gus Roman and Carol Bremer-Bennett; presentations by Dr. Michael Lyles, Carolyn Custis James, Rod Williams and many more.
Live stream link: abs.us/COPLive
At the American Bible Society, where I work, those of us involved in trauma healing often say that what gets us up in the morning is our mission to equip the church to be a safe place, a place of hope and healing, for traumatized individuals. I think most Christians want to believe that the church is a safe place for the most vulnerable among us.
But this has not been the case for far to many who report child or adult abuse and harassment.
Now, as a son of a pastor, I am well aware of the challenges pastors and church leaders have in leading their congregations. Frequently, the leaders need the wisdom of Solomon, especially in cases of life and death conflict. The work of pastoring through abuse allegations is never easy. Don’t let your love of the church stop you from reading the rest!
I imagine we all believe that the Church can do so much better. And we ought to be asking ourselves, why have we failed as much as we have? In theory, we are always against abuse and always for protecting the vulnerable. But it does not always play out this way.
Consider what responses might be given to these three “first meeting” vignettes:
- A woman comes to church leadership to seek pastoral support in light of her husband’s abusive behavior. This man is well-known to be antagonistic to church and to the Christian faith.
- A woman comes seeking pastoral support in light of her husband’s abusive behavior. This man is well-respected in the community and has been a Sunday School teacher for the past decade. She is also known to be a wise and careful woman.
- A woman comes seeking pastoral support in light of her husband’s abusive behavior. The man is involved in the church and the woman has been known to be a bit of a church hopper.
Whether or not there is objective evidence supporting her allegations what response should these women receive? Will it be the same? Will the compassion and support offered be the same for each woman? Who will be treated with more compassion, who will be treated with more suspicion (or even just neutrality)? Will the amount of circumstantial evidence influence our response?
Minto, Hornsey, Gillespie, Healy, & Jetten (2016) have attempted to research (a) whether we are more likely to fail to support abuse victims when the abuser is one of our own and (b) whether circumstantial evidence will change our position. [You can download their full-text research essay here.] Their interest was exploring how social identity (what group you are a part of and have pride in) influences how we handle allegations of abuse by fell0w group members.
Study 1. 601 individuals read a vignette of an adult male alleging that a priest sexually abused him as a ten year old. The vignette included details of the alleged abuse and the rebuttal made by the defense attorney for the priest. Catholics, Prostestants, and non-believers all rated the assumed credibility of the victim and the perpetrator. Results indicate both Catholic and Protestant individuals with high church identity were significantly more likely to defend the accused and doubt the accuser. This was especially true if their faith was central to their core identity.
Study 2. 404 individuals also read the same vignette however the level of circumstantial evidence against the priest was manipulated. For some, the survey participants learned that church authorities were not defending the priest and that there had been a previous suspension for similar behavior (i.e., higher certainty of truth). The remaining participants learned that there had been no other cases and that this case was thrown out for insufficient evidence. The results for this study indicate,
ingroup participants were more likely to defend the integrity of the accused (and to cast doubt on the accuser) than were other participants, an effect that was exclusively driven by high identifiers. Interestingly–and somewhat surprisingly–this effect was not moderated by the subjective level of certainty surrounding the guilt of the accused.
In other words, those who highly identify with the Catholic church are more likely to defend the accused even when there is considerable circumstantial evidence against that person.
While this research was carried out examining responses to Catholic priest allegations, it appears that the problem does not lie only within the Church. Consider the obstructing responses of Michigan State to allegations of Dr. Nasser’s abuse of young female athletes over the years. The authors conclude,
Our data confirm that such highly identified ingroup members are the least willing to believe that the accusations are based on fact. This helps to provide psychological explanations for qualitative and anecdotal accounts of senior group members failing to adequately follow up allegations of child sexual abuse within their institution.
But why? The authors ask, wouldn’t the ingroup members be more motivated to purify their ranks by rejecting those who are accused of bad behavior? What is gained (or lost) by standing by accusers when the there is circumstantial evidence of abuse and no evidence of circumstantial evidence of lying on the side of the accuser? This is the challenge for those of use who listen to stories of abuse that happen in our own cherished communities.
Until we solve this problem, we will stand with the young women who accused Dr. Nasser of sexual abuse because he was not one of us but refuse to do the same when the accused is one of our own.
For further reading on reasons why we fail to act well in light of abuse allegations or reports of failures to act:
Are you watching #metoo trending in social media settings? It is sobering to remember that the numbers of men and women who have suffered sexual assault, harassment, and abuse are astronomical. Such posts have the opportunity to help others recognize this hidden wound that many carry around their entire lives. I’m grateful when a victim is able to voice something that has held power over them for far too long. It can be part of the healing journey. And yet I also know that voicing our pain can lead to further pain. I’ve created this anonymous poll to find out how those who have considered posting #metoo (whether you posted or not does not matter) to see how the hashtag trend is impacting them. Results will only show how many numbers of votes per option.
Thankful for all who respond here.
Today I will be presenting a one hour breakout at the 2017 AACC World Conference in Nashville, TN. If you are interested in seeing the slides, down them here.
Today Dr. Diane Langberg and I will be presenting Spiritual Abuse and Toxic Systems in a 3 hour pre-conference seminar at the 2017 AACC World Conference. Take a look if you like.