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.
Tag Archives: Spiritual abuse
There is a serious problem within protestant evangelical Christianity. We love right preaching and teaching more than we love right living. We love power and authority more than sacrifice and submission. We love honor over humility. We love being led by popular leaders who make us feel good more than following the despised and rejected One—who has no “beauty or majesty to attract us to him.” (Isa 53)
We want King Saul over young David.
Of course I do not accuse all protestant Christians nor all leaders with this charge. And yet, we must all own this problem together. It is not merely the Catholic Church that has covered up abuse or used power to protect itself. While the system of the Catholic Church enables a wider and deeper cover-up, we have all of the same issues on a (slightly) smaller scale.
A picture of a true leader of God’s church…and the opposite
Leaders of the church are to be representatives of Jesus, individuals set apart to be under-shepherds. They are to care for the flock. And what do we need? We need teaching, encouragement, comfort, and rebuke in their proper times and measures. But most of all we need our leaders to be images/examples of our true Shepherd.
Quite simply, the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11) and who feeds, carries, and gently leads (Isa 40:11). Of course this is a picture of a powerful leader. Only one with power who knows right and wrong can choose to sacrifice rights and become smaller for the purpose of care of the most vulnerable.
But we have a pattern of enabling self-promoting leaders of the flock. These want to be listened to, respected and followed for their own sake. Sure, they may speak of the Gospel of grace, but how do they live it? How do they treat the ones who have the least power? How do they handle criticism? Do they even have a Paul (wise older leader with a track record of being willing to encourage and also say hard things) to speak to them as he did to Timothy? Or would they tolerate one who spoke to them as Paul did to Peter when he acted out of accord with the Gospel (Gal 2:11f)?
It seems that when we do see brokenness in our leaders we tend to excuse it, especially when their gifts are attractive and the ones revealing these flaws are expendable.
Consider this warning
What makes Jesus angry? The New Testament records a few instances of expressed anger: Money changers, self-righteous religious leaders, hindering children, and the pain of death (Lazarus). We see it most clearly in his language toward the religious leaders when he calls them “brood of vipers…white washed tombs…hypocrites.”
What are these leaders doing that evoke Jesus’ just anger? Matthew 23 provides some answers.
- Everything they do is for show to receive the praise and honor of followers
- They seek power and control. They (try to) decide who can be in the kingdom; they seek converts who will work for their interests
- They develop special rules that support their apparent position of authority
- They makes a show of sacrifice yet forget the most important values: justice, mercy, and faith/submission to God
- Their public and private selves do not match—the outside looks great but inside is abominable
It does not matter if they deliver well-crafted and biblically sound sermons. It does not matter if many flock to their ministries. If their motive, efforts, and tactics (public and private) do not match God’s character of a good shepherd, their good human gifts of are no value. Even worse, they deserve rebuke (Ezekiel 34; Jeremiah 23) and even removal from speaking for God anymore (Ezekiel 44).
The true problem?
There have always been false shepherds. There always will be false shepherds. But, what enables them to stay in positions of power is that we allow it. G. Campbell Morgan minces no words when he highlights the problem of false shepherds.
Now the false in religion stands revealed in Christ’s contemplation of these men [described in Matthew 23], not only in the case of the men themselves, but in the case of the people who are under the influence of such men. The false in religion in the case of the people is due to failure to discriminate between the human and the divine; and consists of submission to unauthorized authority.
Morgan, Gospel According to Matthew, p. 273†
Why do we fail to discriminate between human and divine? We overlook “foibles” because we know our own hidden sins. We fear being ostracized and losing our position in the inner-ring of power. We ignore the words of victims in order to maintain the appearance of health in the system. We love the image of redemption (the happily ever after restoration) more than the long slog of obedience. In short, false shepherds cannot maintain or increase power unless we protect and enable them.
The beginning of a solution
Let us repent of these our sins. Let us study anew what we and our leaders are to be like. Let us listen to the ones we call expendable when they speak about abuse of power. In the words of my former pastor, let us pray to God for better leaders than we deserve and to be the kinds of undershepherds we are called to be in God’s wide kingdom.
Consider these previous posts on related topics:
† My thanks to Dr. Diane Langberg for pointing me to this quote in Morgan’s commentary.
In breakout format, Darby Strickland presented on this topic today at #CCEF16. She defined emotional abuse using the word oppression instead. She defined it as a pattern of coercive controlling and punishing behaviors whereby one spouse seeks to control and dominate the other. Oppressors enslave others, but tend to self-justify behaviors. The oppressor tends to be entitled (people are there to please them; people should sacrifice for their well-being). They tend to dominate others and threaten as a means of control. Oppressors are willing to wound to keep control (which Darby reminds us is the opposite of how Jesus wields power–he was willing to be wounded for others). On the other hand, oppressors tend to be self-deceived, lack remorse and blameshift when accused.
Sometimes abuse is misunderstood as an anger problem. But the reality is that the root is self-worship and control. The only thing that matters are their words, their rules, their emotions, and their physical and sexual needs that must be obeyed. It is “enforced worship.”
Darby then explored emotional abuse in particular. Symptoms include a chronic pattern of rejecting, neglecting, degrading, terrorizing, isolating, exploiting, belittling, deceiving, blaming, ignoring, shaming, and threatening. She also talked about “gas lighting” which is the attempt to make someone think that something that did happen never happened. Within emotional abuse is also spiritual abuse. The use of Scripture, doctrinc, or position of leadership to abuse. It can be subtle but it lording power over others, demanding submission, and use Scripture to shame.
Darby pulls no punches when she describes behaviors by oppressive and abusive men (yes, women can do this as well, but this talk is focused on the experience of oppressed women). It is destructive to souls and does not reflect any part of Jesus Christ. She was equally clear on the destructive impact on victims. Eccl 4: the dead are happier than the oppressed.
What does God say about oppression?
- Not your fault. Evil comes out of the heart of the one doing it: Mark 7. You might be a stressor by just being a person.
- You do not deserve this. (Victims and leaders look for reasons, like Job’s friends). Heb 10:17. Your sins and lawless deeds I will not remember anymore. God is your rescuer, not your punisher
- It is not a marriage problem. Luke 6:45 shows us that evil comes out of the evil person’s heart. It is not merely some interaction problem. Do not ask the oppressed to serve the oppressor more. It emboldens oppressors.
- Oppression violates God’s design for marriage. It is not to be submitted to but rather brought into the light. He tells the head to reject control for self sacrifice.
- God sees your suffering. Jesus sees and knows oppression too.
- God cares about your safety. Do you think that God cares more about you keeping your vows than he does about your safety?
- God’s desire is to rescue you. I will rescue my flock and they show no longer be a prey (Ex 34:22)
Draw near to God through laments; he does not ask you to forget your suffering. Learning to lament is a process. It may not be “sanctified speech” when you first start to speak. That is okay, just begin to speak. Listen for the content, less focus on the tone. Then, you can ask God to help shape your expression. To counter the shaming words, remember who God says about you. “Remember who Jesus is because he is everything your oppressor isn’t.” He woos you, he does not demand subjection.
She closed with Proverbs 12:18: The words of the reckless pierce like swords. But the tongue of the wise brings healing.
You might find it interesting that Darby chose to not take questions at the end. Her reason is that knowing that 25% of the christian world has experienced domestic abuse. Thus, she expected a number of victims in the room. She felt that taking questions might subject some, inadvertently, to further pain. (She was willing to take questions afterwards in private).
I very much appreciated her strong words to identify the pattern and indicate the primary concern for care for the victim. I know she has written and spoken on the topic of working with oppressors. This was not that talk.
Anyone in a power position recognizes the possibility of abusing that power. Bosses can take advantage of vulnerable employees, parents can abuse children, and church leaders can manipulate parishioners. I start with the assumption that most church leaders do not want to harm their parishioners. I would go even farther that when spiritual abuse does happen, most leaders don’t see what they have done/not done as abusive. Rather, they act with the intent to maintain good order, prevent further sin, and the like.
to get caught up on what spiritual abuse is, take a look at these posts:
The church in her leaders who wish to avoid falling into acts of spiritual abuse may want to consider the following preventative steps:
- Study the Character and Leadership of Christ. You know that tired but true adage, you will better recognize counterfeits if you study the real deal. How does Jesus wield power? How does the true Servant Leader treat the most vulnerable? Sinners? Pray that God will show you where you or your leadership team look more like the world than of your head, Jesus. As a part of this study, invite someone who has experienced spiritual abuse to tell you about their experience. What was the damage done, the impact?
- Identify Risk Factors. Life has risk. We try to minimize unnecessary risk and make wise choices when risk cannot be mitigated. While usually it is better to reduce risk, sometimes risk is essential to save life. There are a few risks that need to be acknowledged that increase potential for spiritual abuse: Having all male staff/elders/deacons may increase risk for women who have little voice in church policy, hierarchical leadership with little oversight by others increases risk of abuse. So, it is helpful to churches to review church discipline policies, pastoral care procedures especially in regards to the most vulnerable members of the church. There is a reason why churches have child abuse policies–to recognize vulnerabilities and to ensure protection. A similar review would help reduce the likelihood of incidence of spiritual abuse.
- Develop Continuous Assessment and Learning. In medical and mental health fields, professionals are required to complete continuing education. In addition, many practitioners participate in agency-wide case consultations. The consultation is designed for mutual learning and input. A counselor presents a case and takes questions and recommendations from peers. What if church leaders held these kinds of “grand rounds” where those tasked to work with an individual or family presented the basic facts, the agreed upon goals and “interventions” tried. The audience of other elders and/or pastors could ask questions and offer alternate hypotheses or responses. If you have ever worked on a problem, you know that getting another set of eyes on the problem can sometime stir a new perspective. Encourage at least one group member to ask questions about the parishioner’s experience of help. Of course, confidentiality is a must and so be sure that the leadership can keep matter private.
- Review Difficult Pastoral Cases. Seek External Feedback. No matter how wise and spiritual your church leaders are, they do not have all the expertise they need to handle any and every case. In the case of difficult and protracted marriage conflict, be willing to seek expert opinion outside of the church. Seek outside consultation when there has been abuse in a relationship and there are power differentials. God has given some people expertise in understanding major mental illness, trauma, and relational dynamics. Invite these individuals into session meetings to help guide the response the church makes. This can be done in ways that maintains complete confidentiality.
These are simple and general measures you can take to reduce the likelihood of abusing spiritual power that leaders have over congregants. While you may think such abuse is extremely rare, our call to be like our head Jesus demands that we hoist no millstones around the necks of vulnerable members.
Today I will be presenting a break out at the AACC World Conference on spiritual abuse. If you are interested in seeing slides of my talk, click: Spiritual Abuse.
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.
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
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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
Have you ever wondered how a person could stay in an abusive relationship? “Why don’t they just leave the first time they get hit?”, you wonder. I suppose many have the same question when they hear about those who are being abused by spiritual leaders. Can’t they just up and leave and find a new church? Well, there are a few reasons why someone might be prone to become spiritually abused.
- Need. Tangible help received from a person or organization (with a sense that without that help there would be serious problems) increases the risk a person will tolerate inappropriate behavior
- Culture. A black/white culture that treats outsiders as heretics. A community that puts pressure on compliance will be a community that is tempted to use spiritual abuse to get that compliance
- Gender views. religious authoritarian systems that promote male dominance in all areas of life will be more prone to use spiritual controls over women when women are perceived to exert too much power.
- Identity. When your identity becomes too wrapped up in a system. The more you need a system (or think you do), the greater the importance you feel being connected to an institution or leader the greater the likelihood that you will not jump ship at the first sign of manipulation or abuse
- Self-doubt. A deep belief that others know better than you. Such a person will likely turn off their warning signs when others coerce them using spiritual language. The more a person denigrates themself, the more likely he or she will allow others to exert control and accept an abusers judgment that he/she is a sinner in need of discipline
- History. Ironically, those who have suffered abuse are more prone to be re-victimized again.
Spiritual abuse, a form of psychological abuse, almost always creeps up on a person. It rarely shows its true form until the victimized person is fully entangled. And even then, the victim is commonly confused and unsure of self. Clarity rarely comes until after the person has extricated themself from the environment. Why? Those in power use well-known verses and doctrines to shape conversations and press others into submission. For example, who would be against forgiveness? Against reconciliation? These concepts form the heart of the Gospel. And yet these wonderful portions of the Gospel are used to force victims of sexual abuse to quickly forgive their perpetrators and to reconcile with them–as if the offense never happened. Those who desire justice may be forced to keep silent under the guise of reconciliation.
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.