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.