In the first article in this series, I discussed what spiritual abuse is and looked at how to recognize some of its signs. This second article in the three-part series examines more signs of the misuse of spiritual authority.
Let’s review what spiritual abuse is. It is something that occurs when a leader with spiritual authority uses that power to coerce, dominate, or control someone, instead of genuinely leading and guiding a follower. This is a betrayal of confidence and trust, and results in a wounded follower. The damage can be subtle or open, mild or profound, but it is nonetheless a serious wrong.
Abuse Thrives in an Authoritarian Religious Setting
A religious system or church with a strong emphasis on authority, and on submission to that authority, can set the stage for this kind of abuse. When the emphasis is on conformity to the distinctives of a particular religious group, compliance and obedience become the goals, instead of genuine personal growth. Questioning and open discussion is healthy for true understanding and clear agreement, and need not be a threat to the group’s leadership. If members are discouraged from forming their own opinions, but instead are directed to rely on the interpretations of scripture and the particular views of the authoritative leader, that top person can easily abuse their followers.
A strong reliance on the use of special titles, such as pastor, reverend, or elder, in addressing a leader can also signal an unhealthy spiritual relationship. When the leader insists on being addressed in a prescribed manner, take a good look at what is happening in terms of authority in that group. Why does this person need those titles of honor?
Religious Abuse Leads to Fear
The kind of abusive religious systems described here often produce fear and indecision in followers who have genuine questions. For example, a young believer may have studied the Word and prayed for guidance about where to attend school for a particular training. When he announces his intention to move away to that school, the pastor suggests that the decision conflicts with his teachings, and discourages the young person from following his plan. The leader further suggests that the young person’s plan will lead him astray and put his salvation in jeopardy. This is clear spiritual abuse. A genuine leader with integrity will encourage the young man to seek his own path and guidance from God. He will respect, encourage, and offer resources to the young person.
Black and White Thinking
Closely related to this example is the use of black and white thinking about others, relationships, and ideas. This kind of thinking has little tolerance for ambiguity, or for those grey areas most people need to wade through in order to understand issues or make meaningful decisions. Black and white thinking limits free and independent personal thought. Actions, together with life, people, ideas, cultures, and so on, are seen as all good or all bad. Other people are either “for us/me or against us/me.” The followers usually adopt the leader’s opinions without examination or without testing them against their own ideas or knowledge.
It is not difficult to see what happens to many relationships in this overly authoritative system. When disagreements do occur, then relationships are cut off, often without any attempt to understand or to reconcile. The emphasis on agreement and compliance leaves those with dissonant opinions outside the circle of favor. Thus relationships become disposable, not a source of strength and community.
Christian Counseling for Spiritual Abuse
In the final article in this series on spiritual abuse, we will look at the impact this kind of abusive system has on the individual, and at what Christian counseling can offer the victim.
Perhaps you are beginning to wonder whether you have been affected by inappropriately used spiritual authority. Or you may be realizing that something is not right, and are now seeing that you have been abused.
“A Timeless Cross Revisited,” courtesy of Resclassic2 Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Chain Link Fence, 12.0012.jpg,” courtesy of nacu, morguefile.com; “Fear – Graffiti,” courtesy of Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY-SA 2.0)