Category Archives: church and culture

Do you enable spiritual abuse?


There are several kinds of abuse that take place in church settings. On this site we have talked about pastoral sexual abuse, sexual abuse, and spiritual abuse. Most recently, we have been discussing the matter of spiritual abuse in concert with Carolyn Custis James over at the Whitby Forum. I commend you to read her post last week about the underlying belief system of spiritual abuse.

This week we both want to consider some of the types of people who may be prone to enable spiritual abuse. No one, as far as I have ever met, intends to enable abuse. But certain beliefs, attitudes, and motivations may make it easier for abusive people to maintain power and position in the church.

Here are a few of those enabling attitudes that you and I, friends of victims, might display from time to time:

  • Status anxiety. Someone in power gives me status. To speak up against that person would jeopardize my position. Therefore I will not speak up. I do not want to disrupt my position or destabilize an organization that feeds me.
  • Mis-application of log/speck metaphor. A friend is showing signs of distress from an experience of abuse. She is angry, hurt, and confused. I see some “over-reactions” and so I focus on the log in her eye and suggest she has no business speaking of the speck in the abuser’s eye. Similarly, I suggest that we leave vengeance to God and deny the right to seek justice.
  • Defenders of leaders. We like to have strong leaders. When someone suggests one of our leaders is not good, we may feel the urge to come to their defense (either to defend character or to forestall a bad outcome for the leader and his family). We may show undue concern for the leader’s legacy or future in ministry.
  • Fixers. Some of us love to fix others. We offer unsolicited advice. We decide to take action to make calls we weren’t asked to make. Unintentionally we may put the victim at greater risk with our advice.
  • Self-Doubt. Did I really see that leader use theology to manipulate another? I must be mistaken. I’d only look like a greater fool to bring it up again.
  • Bitterness. When we come to believe that the church will never do what is right in protecting the sheep, we may send the message to others that we ought not to expect leaders to be just, kind, gracious, and caring. A victim of spiritual abuse may observe our bitterness and feel they are caught between accepting spiritual abuse and being in Christian community. Rather than lose their only community, they stay in an abusive environment.

I am sure there are other forms of enabling. Consider this post of mine about some of the reasons we fail to do what is right in light of allegations of sexual abuse. Some of those reasons are also present when we fail to do what is right in light of spiritual abuse.

 

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, Doctrine/Theology

Belief System Supports for Spiritual Abuse


We continue our survey of some of the issues regarding spiritual abuse. You can see these links at the end of this post for prior blogs and also check out Carolyn Custis James’ thoughts on the same topic: www.whitbyforum.com. In this post I want to consider some of the beliefs that may support the ongoing presence of spiritual abuse among people of faith.

Beliefs of those who abuse

In my recent trip to Rwanda, we got into a discussion with some Rwandans about husbands and wives and the “right” husbands had to demand sex. In Rwanda, the groom pays a dowry for his bride. He pays it to her family. They set a price of “cows” that she is worth. This is an old custom but one that continues even in modern Rwanda where the “cows” are kept at the bank. In some people’s minds, a man has a right to demand sex at any time because he paid for her. She is property. Sure, he treats her as a prized possession but still, he has the right to have sex whenever he wants. Here, you can see, is a considerable belief system held by those in power about their right to use others. Does something similar exist in evangelical Christianity that enables a person in power to abuse another using spiritual tactics?

  1. The leader should not be questioned. He is ordained by God and therefore speaks for God. While evangelicals and fundamentalists are not papists, they appear to maintain a similar belief that ordination means the leader speaks for truth and for God. And if someone should bring a charge against a leader, it will not be entertained without multiple witnesses. Too bad that most abuse takes place in private, without witnesses. A corollary to this belief is that when a leader abuses a less valued person in the community, it is likely the less valued person’s fault for the abuse.
  2. Important rules must be fenced/protected. The bible speaks against divorce but not in all cases. Thus, we should protect against the abuse of divorce by refusing biblical divorces for those who have the right to them and demanding reconciliation. The bible indicates ordination of men (this is how it is read in many circles). So, in order to protect against women teaching or preaching, we won’t let them have any leadership outside of Sunday School for children. Fencing the law is legitimated in order to protect against the appearance of wrongdoing.
  3. The organization is more important than the individual. If one person does bring a credible charge against leader(s), some orgs will attempt to restore the leader and push the victim on to another church.
  4. Chronic weaknesses (e.g., mental illness) are signs of spiritual flaws and are deserving of rebuke. If a parishioner struggles with chronic anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder, some leaders are prone to make it clear that the primary problem is not mental illness but a lack of faith and obedience. And in light of this ongoing rebellion, the person with mental illness (and their family) are not given the same kind of care as those with physical weaknesses.
  5. Thinking is less biased than feeling. When an allegation of abuse is brought against a leader, the merits of the case are sometimes decided in favor of the leader’s logic and against the victim’s emotional arguments. It is assumed that cognitions are less impaired by sin nature than feelings/emotions. Similar to this belief is the one that says that men are more logical and accurate than women or children.

Those who are abused also maintain many of these same belief system. They feel that they are not in a position to know truth, that their feelings are distorted more than others, that their needs do not merit help, that the preservation of the institution is more important, and that they are the cause of the problems they experience.

What other beliefs have you noticed that support the acceptance and continuation of spiritual abuse?

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What factors support the use of spiritual abuse?


Carolyn Custis James, over at www.whitbyforum.com, has been discussing spiritual abuse, its causes and what we can do to be aware and avoid it. If you have been manipulated by another using spiritual themes and concepts, you likely wondered, “How did this happen? How did I get myself into this position?” While these are good questions, they rarely satisfy since abuse cannot make sense!

Nonetheless, it is good to consider some of the factors that support spiritual abuse (or any other forms of abuse for that matter). For abuse to grow beyond a “one of” event into a pattern a few things need to be in place. Consider the following list and use the questions as the basis for ongoing discussion in your own church.

  • Leadership that uses autocratic power to achieve its ends. A good organization must have strong leadership, clear goals/objectives, and vision casting to achieve its ends. A leader who allows underlings to do whatever they want is not a good leader. However, it is all to common in some circles to see leaders who try to achieve good ends via autocratic methods. They believe that their methods are good because the goal is good. Individuals in an autocratic system do not matter as much as outcomes. They are expendable. In addition, since the visionary knows best, then decisions must always emanate from the top. Freedom for the masses to make decisions cannot be tolerated. Spiritual abuse will flourish in such a setting since a spiritual goal will seem to trump the needs of an individual.

Important question: Why are some leaders attracted to authoritarianism?

  • Protection/honor of leader is elevated over servant leadership. Far too frequently, we engage in leader worship. Someone with charisma, talent and a history of success may find it tempting to assume that anyone questioning their motives and methods must be a hindrance to the vision. In addition, these leaders may be tempted to believe the press clippings about their value and so cease examining personal motives and desires. The inner circle near the leader often feels special because of their relationship to the famous leader. These become militant against those who question the leader since the inner circle only has power when the leader maintains total power. When keeping power becomes the top priority, spiritual abuse will thrive.

Important questions: What theological errors do we make when we promote charisma over servant leadership? What personality features are most prevalent in those who seek a group of yes men and women?

  • A culture of silence about conflicts: silence about what happens to you and what you see happening to others. Any institution or church will have individuals who sin against others and who cloak that sin in spiritual language. It is a given among fallen people. But, a culture of silence is needed in order for spiritual abuse to flourish. Those who experience such sins feel they ought not or cannot speak up. Those who witness spiritual abuse feel the same. The root of this culture of silence may be fear of reprisal or rejection or the misguided belief that the ends justifies overlooking abuse. I once heard a teen explain why she did not speak up about the sexual abuse she received from a senior pastor. She felt that to do so would interfere with the work of evangelism since so many were coming to Christ under his preaching.

Important question: When you experience/see spiritual abuse, what are some of the reasons why you might remain silent? Conversely, what might enable you to speak up with courage?

  • Groupthink caused by discouraging diverse thoughts and identities. The above facets conspire to produce homogenous power structures, decision-making made by a few who think alike. This creates groupthink. Those in power think alike, act alike. Those who think outside the box, who look like an outsider, who are willing to hear and respond well to internal and external criticism often are not allowed in the inner circle. In the church, this primarily means that those of the female gender and those who might not hold cherished but peripheral doctrines have no voice. When you have no voice, you are more likely to be the subject of spiritual abuse–to take one for the team. Consider this example: a male leader of the church is accused of a long pattern of verbal abuse of his wife. The wife speaks up about the problem and asks for others to intervene. The church convenes a care team of 4 other (male) leaders who hear her complaint. When they speak to the husband, he doesn’t deny the verbal abuse but he argues that she has been withholding sex because of unforgiveness from his past porn use. If she would stop withholding sex, he would be less likely to call her names. The men have heard of other women who withhold sex just because their husbands looked at porn a time or two. They are concerned that the wife is failing to live in submission to her husband. They meet with her to remind her of her wifely duties (1 Cor 7) but fail to consider the husband’s coercive behaviors as destructive to the marriage. No one thought to ask about ongoing porn use. In this case, the lack of women on the care team eliminates the voice that might see and acknowledge the impact of verbal abuse and porn use on sexual intimacy. The men are not wholly insensitive to this matter but may find themselves more worried about their own needs/desires than the woman’s need for protection. Or consider one other illustration: a Black man complains that other parishioners are making racializing comments that hurt. The White leadership hears his complaint but assumes he’s too sensitive and has a chip on his shoulder. They speak to him about the need to be understanding and that being an angry Black man doesn’t help his cause. Because leadership does not have experience in being a minority, they fail to care for one of their own and to walk in his shoes. Their use of spiritual categories is not only naive but potentially abusive.

Important question: What are some of the foundations encouraging the formation of groupthink?

I am sure that there are other factors that support spiritual abuse in the church. I imagine all of these points can be boiled down into one factor: CONTROL. The desire for it. The fear of losing it. The belief that we must protect our power and institution and should use all means to do so.

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System justification: motivated avoidance of vulnerability


System justification: the tendency to defend an organization or institution in the face of negative public opinion or distressing facts.

Have you ever noticed that when some person, institution, value, or position you love and cherish is being attacked, you come to its defense? Think back to your childhood. You may have mistreated a sibling but if someone else was a bully, you did not stand idly by. You may have criticisms of your church or country, but if an outsider attacks it, you feel a level of outrage. When you finally do come to see the criticisms of outsiders as valid, it is also common for us to leave our once cherished system and become an enemy. Consider how former catholics converting to evangelical christianity may often be more critical of their former church than those who never followed the tradition.

This is a common, understandable, but potentially unhelpful response. It seems that it is difficult to stay inside a system and yet be vocal about its value AND weaknesses. Either we stay and defend or leave and attack.

Some Evidence

Steven Shepherd and Aaron Kay say,

Being actively critical of something one is dependent on is thought to be psychologically uncomfortable, and therefore avoided in favor of increased perceptions of legitimacy, trust, and desirability. System justification theory posits that people are motivated to justify and legitimize the status quo and the system in which one lives. (Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 102(2), 2012, 264-280)

They go on to say that feeling dependent on a system leads to increased trust in that system which leads to active avoidance of evidence critical of that system. In other words, we like to be comfortable and loss of an important system increases our sense of vulnerability.

This “motivated avoidance” of information that might undermine our sense of safety shows up in domestic violence  research. In the most recent journal of  Psychological Trauma (5(3), 2013, 241-250), Ryan Matlow and Anne DePrince point out the differences between women who experience chronic violence at the hands of one partner versus domestic violence from the hands of multiple partners. Those who stay with a violent partner appear to use active avoidance strategies to ignore the violence but focus only on the good qualities. The assumption is that the attachment bond is more important to protect than to admit that their partner is abusive.

One more piece of anecdotal evidence: many spouses of adulterous partners either leave immediately or stay and defend against the evil other person who “attacked” the family. It is rare (but I have seen it) to stay with someone who you think is the main or sole cause of adultery.

We stay and defend instead of stay and reform. Or, we leave and attack. Staying and criticizing for reform is difficult and potentially dangerous.

Is there another way?

Imagine that one of the authors of the newly revised DSM 5 were to acknowledge that several of the significant changes were based merely on political or philosophical forces and not at all on empirical data. Imagine that a Republican or Democrat in Congress would agree that their party cared more about winning than finding true compromises. Imagine that a member of the PCA (my denomination) admitted that electing but not ordaining deaconesses for service in the church was hiding behind semantics.

What enables us to have the courage to stay and critique our favorite systems (assuming that there is something worth saving!)? I suspect the following must be present:

  • A love for truth above winning arguments (which will influence how we criticize others!)
  • A love for both those outside the system and those inside who need to change
  • Honest admission of previous or current support of problem systems
  • Courage in the face of criticism from others who dislike our truth-telling
  • Vision for reform (it is too easy to destroy, much harder to construct)
  • A willingness to give up what provides comfort, choosing future honor over insider status
  • Acceptance that one outcome may be your being kicked out of your beloved system

Of course, the power to avoid avoidance of vulnerability comes not from intellectual prowess but from no other place than the Holy Spirit. Why else would we trade current comfort now?

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DR Congo’s Withcraft Epidemic: 50,000 Children Accused of Sorcery – IBTimes UK


When we hear about abuse within churches these days we often think about sexual abuse by leaders. But there are other forms of abuse that happen in other parts of the world. The following link talks about abuse that happens as a child is accused of being a witch or engaging the demonic world. In our Global Trauma Recovery course, we looked at some of the ways adult women in Ghana are accused of sorcery and who must then flee to witch camps to save their lives. The link below addresses the abuse of children labeled demonic in the DRC.

When you finish reading, you might sigh with relief that this isn’t a problem in the US church. Well, maybe not so fast? If you check out the lawsuit against Sovereign Grace Ministries, there are equally distressing accounts of abuse and cover-up.

DR Congo’s Withcraft Epidemic: 50,000 Children Accused of Sorcery – IBTimes UK.

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Why “sexy wife” language hurts so many women


Maybe you’ve seen this post: http://deeperstory.com/the-sexy-wife-i-cant-be/? If not, you should read it to learn just how painful and destructive and superficial the “be a sexy wife for your husband” is, especially when combined as “biblical teaching.” Now, the feeling of being sexy isn’t the problem. What is the problem is the failure of speakers/writers to account for the large number of women (and men!) whose sexuality was stolen from them via abuse and other forms of oppression. In addition, these “be sexy” speakers/writers seem to ignore how Scriptures have been distorted to demand sex from spouses (someday I should write a post about the number of times I have been asked during public Q and As about 1 Cor 7 and the demand it makes on women to please their husbands).

Can you imagine giving a talk about the joys of giving birth to an audience where 1:3 women were infertile? Can you imagine NOT acknowledging that a large portion of the audience might struggle with the topic?

For those of you who did read the above talk, the author Mary DeMuth, posted this follow-up post regarding the weight of the stories she heard in the comments section of her first post. Note how she finds hope and comfort among darkness and heaviness. For brave ones, you might read the comments at the bottom of both posts. Note the relief expressed that someone else understands. Note the common refrain, “I didn’t breathe while reading this.” That should tell us how desperate many are for being understood and that most are expecting the other shoe (that “just do it” one) to drop. Note the links to other posts already on this topic.

We need better pictures of sexuality in marriage that recognize pleasure as something that can be had but not at the expense of reality of safety, vulnerability, and comfort. Sexual pleasure is good but it is not the highest end. And decreased quality of pleasure is not a temptation or risk for adultery…unless pleasure has become a god to us.

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Repost at AACC: Seven Questions About Your Church Abuse Prevention Policy


The AACC has reposted my blog designed to help church leaders and counselors review current child abuse prevention policies. You can see the post at their site by clicking here.

As I say in the post, every church with any insurance policy likely has some measure of policy. However, why settle for something designed only to limit liability? Such an approach does not seek first the protection of the vulnerable. Rather, limiting liability places the protection of the organization ahead of the protection of children. In fact, policies that are tools of protection of children will also limit liability. We just need to get the order straight.

For further information and help with child protection, don’t forget to check out G.R.A.C.E.

 

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The priority of relationships in the mission of God


I teach at a missional seminary. You might wonder what “missional” is all about. Well, I’ve tried to articulate why missional is all about redemptive and redeeming relationships. Such relationships change the ways we relate to those we seek to serve, whether here in the U.S. or in any other part of the world. To read a bit about how missional relates to serving others in Africa, read this post over at the Biblical Seminary faculty blog. It came out on Halloween but Hurricane Sandy made her appearance a few days earlier so I doubt many saw this.

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Abuse and Pastors: An Open Letter from a Pastor to Pastors


This letter and website link was forwarded to me today. I don’t know Jeff Crippen but I do like his utter honesty about the cultural influences in some conservative settings that encourage domestic and sexual abuse and that implicitly encourage injustice to victims of oppression.

I encourage you all to read this…especially if you were once a victim and your church didn’t care well for you. Maybe this will bring some healing.

Abuse and Pastors: An Open Letter from a Pastor to Pastors.

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Playing fair in politics? Is it possible?


Getting tired yet of the lies and distortions of the current presidential election race? Tired of the Republican/Democrat fights? Tired of biased media? Would you just like a bit of humility and truth? Well, you might want to read Dr. Sam Logan’s new post over at our Biblical Seminary blog.

His point? Start with yourself. Start by telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth about those with whom you disagree. Imagine pointing out the successes of those in an opposing political or theological party. Imagine pointing out an error without hyperbole or exaggeration.

The section that caught me up short was reviewing what the Westminster Divines saw as violations of the 9th commandment. Sobering. Let Christians be known for telling the whole truth, in love, no matter the personal consequences. Let us not give in to fear-mongering just because others do. And even when it might cost us friends, let us acknowledge the good points our enemies make. Let us play fair even if others do not.

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