Part 1 of a 3 Part Series
A major event in the Christian world has just occurred here in Seattle with the resignation of senior pastor and the disbanding of a church. Its dissolution, amid charges of pastoral misconduct and broken trust, has brought issues of spiritual abuse to the foreground. To some this may be an entirely new concept. Child abuse and spousal abuse are not new topics to most people, but spiritual abuse has been in the background. Some may even question whether there is such a thing. It is time for a closer look at spiritual abuse.
This is a thorny subject for many Christian believers, since it involves the theological question of spiritual authority. While there is disagreement in Christian circles as to how much authority church leaders may have over others, that is not the focus of this article. Rather, I will explain what spiritual abuse is, describe some identifying signs, and explore what happens when authority in the realm of faith is abused.
Spiritual Abuse Involves the Misuse of Authority
Abuse involves coercion, manipulation, domination, or intimidation. It is a way of treating another person that produces control for the person with the upper hand in the relationship. When there is a pattern of controlling behavior in a couple’s relationship, more commonly by the male, this is domestic abuse ̶ even if it does not involve physical harm.
Spiritual abuse is not as easily identifiable. Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in the church or in a Christian organization, who has authority and therefore power, wounds a believer by the way he wields that authority. The scale of this abuse can vary from very mild to devastating.
Since spiritual abuse involves the misuse of authority to distort relations for the purposes of control, it is necessary to establish what the ultimate authority is for Christ followers. Christ, the God who is both God and man, speaks through the Bible. The Holy Spirit, working through illumination, confirmation, and interpretation, assists the believer by guiding, comforting, and applying scriptural truth. Christ is authoritative in the believer and in Scripture. We can trust the work of God in the individual through the leading of the Holy Spirit and guidance and interpretation of several trusted believers.
A Relationship of Control
One way to recognize any kind of abuse is to examine whether the person who feels the pressure of control has the freedom to make their own decisions. Are they treated as a capable person and treated with respect? If they have no voice in a situation, there may be unhealthy kinds of control going on. (Note: in this article I am not speaking of children, or the very elderly, or those who are mentally compromised, but the average Christian person).
Many who have experienced spiritual abuse do not realize the relational pattern of control that has developed until there is a major betrayal by the controller. Picture a family that has been deeply involved in a church, and close to the church leadership. The family makes a decision about direction for themselves and this decision evokes disagreement from the church leadership. This family then finds themselves distanced and on the outs socially. They lose friends, experience slander, and may even be shunned. The damage extends to their children and they may find it impossible to trust other Christ followers or even God.
Signs of Spiritual Abuse
How can spiritual abuse be detected? What are the signs?
One clear indication of this danger is following a leader who insists that they hear from God for you, with specific personal directives. When your relationship with God needs to be channeled through a superior person, and that person speaks as the “mouthpiece” of God, as it were, directing your life situation and decision-making, the stage is set for abuse. The directing person has a “superior” status ̶ and you are seen as lesser than, or clearly inferior to, them in ability. The individual’s personal relationship with God is eclipsed and even discounted in favor of the superior directives. The power of the “superior” person gets additional traction because the follower may be a new convert, who is unsure in the newness of this new life and vulnerable and susceptible in their spiritual immaturity. Solid and biblical teaching and preaching is not the same as “hearing from God” for you ̶ and true opening of the Word of God applies to all.
A second sign of an abusive spiritual relationship is when you experience pressure to confess all the intimate details of your life to the leader, and not just the wrongs you have committed. As followers of Christ, we are to confess our sins to each other, seek forgiveness and reconciliation, and then encourage each other. But when the confession is one-sided, involuntary, and the consequences of not confessing all are named as hiding and sin itself, personal boundaries are breached and the follower becomes more vulnerable to abuse. An example of this is a young man who asks his pastor for advice in a dating problem, and ends up having to report his complete sexual history and any current sexual behavior to a leader in that church.
When Questioning Leads to Ostracism
In a group with a strong emphasis on compliance, and in which that compliance results in closer relationships and favor with the leadership, the stage is set for distorted relationships and possible spiritual abuse. Questioning or non-compliance evokes distance and disfavor, and can result in being called out in a group and other forms of social ostracism. The distinction between the inner core and the outer group in a church or Christian group is stressed, whether clearly or subtly, and the two-tier social arrangement becomes evident. The oneness of the body of Christ is not emphasized or even taught.
Christian Counseling for Spiritual Abuse
Other signs of spiritual abuse, and the remedy for it, will be covered in subsequent articles. We need to consider that spiritual abuse occurs in Christian circles and in our churches. It leaves a legacy of broken trust, shattered relationships, and damaged Christians. If you or someone you know is struggling with this particular kind of wounding, don’t hesitate to explore Christian counseling. And if you see the following signs, you should be very concerned:
- Suggestions that rejection of their teaching imperils one’s salvation
- Emphasis on compliance
- Disposable relationships
- Emphasis on titles and layers of authority
- Emphasis on authority
- Black and white thinking
- A trail of cut off relationships
But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
“Bible_Coffee” by Oklahoma Christian University, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Day 83,” by Jacqui Brown, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY-SA 2.0); “Dead Tree” by Karen Arnold, publicdomainpictures.net