Tag Archives: pastoral care

Considering Criteria for Spiritual 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.[1]

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?

Check out this and this link for definitions of spiritual abuse.


[1] 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.

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What does recovery look like after traumatic experiences


After trauma, what does recovery look like? Is it possible to “move on?” How can you when you can never unsee or unremember what happened to you? 

Is it possible to experience joy rather than emotional pain when remembering past or ongoing hurts? If so, just what does that look and feel like for the victim? What can be expected if I am “healed”? Can I be free from the typical experience of trauma (e.g., Hopelessness, despair, anxiety, confusion, shame, anger, loss of identity, feeling stuck but the demand to act as if the trauma did not take place, and spiritual angst over the goodness and love of God)?

As Diane Langberg has so aptly reminded us, “Trauma is the mission field of this century.” Around the world there is much openness to talk about the impact of trauma and to use spiritual practices as part of the recovery process. In Christian language, we talk about healing the wounds of the heart and one of the best programs out there is the Trauma Healing Institute’s, Healing the Wounds of Trauma. This program is based on the strong Christian belief that God, through the work of the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures,  is in the business of healing wounded hearts. At the heart of this belief sits two important passages:

Isa 61:1-4 The Spirit of the Lord Yahweh is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me, he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives and liberation to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of Yahweh’s favor, and our God’s day of vengeance, to comfort all those in mourning, to give for those in mourning in Zion, to give them a head wrap instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of a faint spirit. 

2 Cor 4: 16-18 Therefore we do not lose heart, but even if our outer person is being destroyed, yet our inner person is being renewed day after day. For our momentary light affliction is producing in us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure and proportion, because we are not looking at what is seen, but what is not seen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is not seen is eternal.  

These two beautiful passages present a picture of recovery. Good news, release, favor, comfort, joy and beauty in place of mourning and oppression. Renewal in the face of affliction. But what does this mean in real life? Does a “double portion” instead of shame feel like to a victim of sexual trauma? What does renewal and release feel like after a natural disaster? 

Prognosis for Complete Recovery?

If you suffer a serious knee injury requiring surgery, you will need time for rehabilitation. But rehab does not necessarily mean you will recover the full range of motion you once had, or that  your knee will be entirely pain free when you are finished with physical therapy. Your prognosis for recovery depends on many factors such as age, extent of injury, physical health prior to the accident, and availability of quality care. Even with the best care provided to top athletes, recovery may not lead to return to top form. For example, an Olympic skier may be able to ski again but not at a quality that allows for competitive skiing. 

What about the prognosis for spiritual and emotional recovery? Of course, just as in the knee injury example, the answer must be “it depends.” Still, considering the two passages above, words like liberation, joy, release, and renewal shape our imagination for recovery. Do we imagine complete recovery to top spiritual and emotional form, without pain and limitation? It appears to me that we sometimes imagine emotional and spiritual healing without taking consideration the reality of broken bodies and a fallen world. We are not guaranteed a pain free life or faith without distressing questions. In fact, Paul’s beautiful words in 2 Corinthians bear this out. afflicted in every way, persecuted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, always carrying around death, burdened, groaning and more. Yes, he also says not crushed, not despairing, not destroyed, but alive. But both must be considered together at the same time if we are indeed to imagine our prognosis. Recovery means comfort and lament, joy in mourning, perplexed while trusting, dying yet alive. 

Sprouts of Justice and Recovery?

Isaiah describes sprouts of justice and righteousness beginning in the recovery of the oppressed (Isa 61:11). As a gardener, I see sprouts as the beginning of hope. After planting seeds, the tiny sprouts give me hope for a later harvest but that hope is still tempered with the knowledge of the challenge of getting sprouts to develop into fruited plants. I have to be vigilant about bugs, weeds, and drought. I need to cultivate and fertilize or my sprouts will not turn into much. And even if I do everything right, the seed may be weak or the weather may mean I only have spindly or stunted plants that cannot bear much fruit. Yet, the sight of sprouts brings the hope that empowers us to keep at the gardening work. 

So, what are these sprouts of justice and recovery that victims of trauma may first see that encourage hope and further empowerment? Consider some of these: 

  • Capacity to Name Truth and Justice

Recovery begins when oppressed people find words to name injustices done to self and other. For example, a victim of domestic violence may become well aware of the subtle signs of verbal and emotional coercion, long before any physical violence. They become the canary in the mine, aware of poison that others may not yet sense. 

As this capacity grows beyond a mere sprout, the person may be able to speak the truth aloud, even with courage to say it to leaders. 

As naming capacity grows, it moves from awareness of personal risk to capacity to notice and care for the injustices others experience

  • Accepting weaknesses without hopelessness

Part of recovery requires honest reflection of the damage done. Signs of recovery include the ability to recognize limitations and working within capacity without self-hatred (though there may be lament for losses of previously held abilities). When we truly accept the “new normal” we then can stop evaluating daily life from the perspective of who we used to be

As we accept our limits, we can then begin to see the opportunities we do have even within our limitations

  • Identify resilience and new capacities in the midst of struggle

There may be new capacities we never observed before (e.g., the capacity to speak up to power, the ability to withstand rejection, increased empathy for the pain of others). We now notice these resiliences and growth as they stand on their own

Though we will not call the suffering good, we will be able to identify blessings that we have received in spite of and as a result of the trauma experienced 

Be Careful Not to Damage the Sprouts

For those who are not attempting the impossible, to “move on” from trauma and abuse, it is good to remember that sprouts are tender and can be easily damaged with too much interference. You may need to leave a few weeds you see near the fledgling plants so as not to disturb their roots or bruise the green shoots. How do we do this to the sprouts of recovery? We may unintentional limit growth by questioning why the person learning to speak the truth isn’t doing it in a even-tempered manner. Sadly, too often those in domestically violent marriages are told to stop being so dramatic and to calm down when they begin to speak about the truth of the violence they have experienced. Or, we can point out the sins of the victim as if somehow their responsive sins eliminate their right to speak up about the trauma they experienced. Or, we can hear someone accepting brokenness and accuse them of not trusting God for complete healing. 

Nurture recovery as you would a tender plant. It is a scandalous act of grace! By paying attention to safety needs, by bearing witness to trauma, by being willing to lament and to stay connected, we provide a greenhouse for such plants to grow into levels of recovery never before dreamed of. 

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Video: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse in Christian Contexts


This video was shot last October during a conference in South Africa cosponsored by the World Reformed Fellowship and North West University. In it I cover these objectives:

  • Understand common practices of offenders
  • Develop policies to hinder predatory behavior
  • Avoid poor reactions to allegations known to compound injury
  • Provide care to all parties

I’m thankful to Boz Tchividjian of GRACE who allowed me to use some of his material since he could not be present to deliver it himself. If you are interested in seeing Boz’ far more eloquent work, check out videos at the GRACE site or, even better, click the link to the right of this entry and purchase the 5 hour video he and I filmed in 2012.

Link for video here. Link for accompanying slides here.

Want more resources? I encourage you to watch the other videos from this conference, especially the powerful one by Jim Gamble that should NOT BE MISSED (Thinkuknow) and another by Diane Langberg: http://wrfnet.org/resources/media

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Video: Making the Church a Safe Place for Trauma Recovery


In October I represented Biblical Seminary’s Global Trauma Recovery Institute at a conference co-hosted by the World Reformed Fellowship and North West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Previously I posted the accompanying slides here. Now, WRF has made available the video for this presentation. Presentation runs about 30 minutes plus a Q and A at the end with another speaker.

Main objectives of the video?

  • Understand the experience of psychosocial trauma
  • Make the church a safer place for those who have been traumatized

Link to video here.

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Did God injure me? A great pastoral response


I am reading a version of a paper entitled, “Connecting horizons with Job: Pastoral care (in cooperation with professionals) in the trauma-coping process” by Egbert Brink. In one section he discusses pastoral care responses to the victim’s experience that God was the adversary (such as Job experienced). Mr. Brink cites Job 9:10-12, 9:16-17 where Job feels like God’s hand is the one who is doing the wounding. The victim that Mr. Brink is meeting with says,

Did God do this, did He wound me? My heart says yes, but my mind does not allow that answer….Again; did God wound me? Yes…Okay. That’s what Job feels, and I identify with Job. The next logical step is: what emotions do I have? … This is scary, but the step must be taken. It’s not until you say it, that the emotion can be set free. I can do it, I say: I am disappointed in God, and angry, I think. That last bit isn’t proper, but I can’t help it. Don’t take it too harshly. (p. 16)

Mr. Brink (or is it Dr? I do not know) provides this commentary,

…this is a special moment in trauma coping process…every traumatized person is faced with the question why God let it happen and did not protect him or her. The book of Job grants the necessary space to ask these probing life questions dealing with the mysteries of God. Faith in God’s omnipotence and goodness raises many questions in this context, but also provides space for them. Passionate complaints don’t immediately put God’s omnipotence in question but rather underline it.  (ibid, emphasis mine)

And then Mr. Brink says this,

The pastoral task, then, is not to stand in the way of the traumatized client with apologetics, as Job’s friends do. God does not need advocates to plead his case. (ibid, emphasis his)

I found the following Vimeo link (http://vimeo.com/48232843) of Mr. Brink giving a talk on this paper and pastoral case.

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Ministry to Sex Offenders? post on www.biblical.edu blog site


I have another post on our Seminary’s faculty blog site today. You can read it here. In it I give a few very initial steps a church might take when considering starting a ministry to sex offenders.

Such a ministry is good, sorely needed, but should not be taken without concern for the entire church, including victims of abuse. as well as the family members of the offender. Any ministry we undertake should put spiritual protection–the very soul of our ministry targets–as a primary objective. Thus, helping an offender to limit access to vulnerable peoples would be seen as part of their spiritual care. As I have said on this site before, the grace of limits is a very good thing. When I accept boundaries, I am accepting God’s grace.

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Forthcoming:collaborative book addressing sexual abuse


Andrew Schmutzer, an OT professor at Moody, is editing a collaborative approach to the topic of sexual abuse. Chapter writers include psychologists, theologians, and pastoral care providers. The book is due out this coming July/August and is to be published by Wipf & Stock.

Title: The Long Journey Home: Understanding and Ministering to the Sexually Abused

Check out the Long Journey Home TOC for chapter titles and contributors (including your’s truly). My chapter is intitled, “The Nature of Evil in Child Sexual Abuse: Theological Consideration of Oppression and its Consequences”

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A Christian Psychology 2


Chapter 2 of Eric Johnson’s book, Foundations for Soul Care(IVP, 2007) traces the use of the bible as soul healing agent throughout the history of the church. Eric explores the work of early church fathers, medieval church, reformation, and Puritanism as examples of soul care writings based on the biblical text.

The chapter then moves to consider the historical movement of the relationship between Christianity and science. While early scientists saw their field of study as something revealing evidence of God’s handiwork, a “fracture” begins with Enlightenment thinking.

Ironically, while Christianity contributed to the development of the scientific revolution, that revolution came to be increasingly linked to an alternative worldview: modernism (p. 63)

 Eric does a nice job summarizing the transition. One moves from the use of metaphysics, tradition, and revelation (Eric’s words) to a focus on the specific object of study and the use of observation. Thus, human reason and empiricism rule the day.

At core what distinguishes modernism and Christianity as ways of thinking about human life are their different ultimate commitments. Christianity assumes a God-centered worldview in which the individual self (with its submissive reason) is seen as relatively important in relation to the rest of creation but relatively unimportant in comparison to the infinite God. In such a framework, science is a noble task done first for the glory of God and second for the benefit of humanity, a good means to a greater end. Modernism inherited the self of Christianity, but without its God to keep things in proper perspective, the self became the center of the universe (an anti-Copernican revolution!), eventually regarding its own experience, together with its autonomous reason, as the foundations of truth and morality…Consequently, individualism–and not relationship–was established at the base of the modern worldview. (p. 65)

Eric goes on to talk about how Christianity imbibed the modernistic assumptions (either trying to use empiricism to defend fundamentalism or accepting that psychology is the best way to understand human functioning).

Eric does a good job summarizing the modern pastoral care movement and capitulation to psychotherapy models. Further, he shows how a Barthian model of soul care was not quite liberalism nor evangelicalism. Finally, he reviews the postmodern turn and “postliberal recovery.”

Johnson’s take on modern pastoral care movement? It doesn’t offer much to the evangelical in the way of thinking biblically about souls. The postliberal engagement with the Bible does two things: re-engages the text of Scripture as a real dialogue partner while not dismissing the helps within positivist psychology.

If you are unfamiliar with the modern history of Christian counseling and pastoral care, this is a great chapter to start with. You can get  a quick overview plus a bibliography to point you to original sources. The next chapters deal with evangelical and fundamentalist counseling models and how they dealt with Scripture (i.e., biblical counseling or integrationism).

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