What is spiritual abuse? What might it look like? Like any other forms of non-physical abuse, it tends to be more subtle. Sometimes victims are not aware of it until after they feel so pressured and so hurt that they just apostatize.
Not one denomination is immune to it. Yet learning to recognize the signs of it is important in preventing it and correcting it.
Often it might even start off as a form of discipline, but over time, it becomes abuse as the victim begins to feel socially isolated from their friends and their family unit within the church and community and just ends up leaving altogether. Many of these victims are likely to never set foot in another church again after enduring spiritual abuse as trust in not only people but also trust in God is fractured.
It is a very serious problem and can lead to some very serious results if it is not recognized and corrected soon enough.
The Barnabas Ministry has a lot of different articles about what spiritual abuse is. One of these articles, "The Yeast of the Pharisees: Spiritual Abuse by Pastors and Counselors" by Edward J. Cumella, Ph.D. (2006, Christian Counseling Today from Christian Counseling Today 2005, Vol. 13 No. 1:35), explains that spiritual abuse can lead to serious harm. Christians long for fellowship with one another. For that matter, people long for fellowship with one another. Humans were not designed to be alone without being in community. But when spiritual abuse arises, it hurts that fellowship. Spiritual abuse consists of any actions that cause a distortion or a severance in relationship with God as it hurts a person's sense of self-worth. It can even cause mental and emotional distress.
In their article, "Uncovering and Facing Spiritual Abuse," (John Engler, 2006) spiritual abuse is described as being a situation in which a person in a position of spiritual authority misuses his/her position and can involve an outright mistreatment and harshness or a subtle direction for the his/her own prestige. This is often evidenced by the stereotypical televangelist.
Engler defines spiritual abuse as "the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person's spiritual empowerment." Functionally, it can occur "when a leader uses his/her spiritual position to control or dominate another person," and "often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person's state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being" (from The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, 20-21). It can also happen "when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds" (Healing Spiritual Abuse by Ken Blue, p. 12).
For individuals who come from an already harsh background and may have been abused growing up, this very subtle abuse can actually cause a lot of trauma. Whereas someone who grew up with a loving family may not experience any trauma.
Because church membership often involves a lifelong commitment, if the victim feels pressured to leave the church, they risk being separated from friends and family, and that is what makes it a hard issue.
Cumella lays out thirteen features of spiritual abuse based on Matthew 23 when Jesus addressed the actions of the Pharisees. These features are:
1. Authoritarianism - Instead of modeling and teaching obedience to God, leaders just expect believers to obey them. They expect everyone to just approve of everything instead of actually being accountable.
2. Coercion - Instead of respecting freedom and conscience, and "offering messages that persuade based on scriptural integrity and reason," abusive leaders strong-arm members and coerce them to overrule better judgment and follow their demands.(This could be a situation in which a member has confessed to sin and expressed willingness to cooperate so there can be restoration, but instead of moving toward restoration, they make even more demands and then don't allow for questions to be asked as to why and don't explain why. The result is then a member who feels socially isolated and is ready to apostatize due to the mourning he/she is going through over the loss of all their friends, community and fellowship. Especially if leaders have prohibited the member from being in community by prohibiting small group - the family unit of the church - that even non-members are allowed to attend - without explanation.)
3. Intimidation - Instead of building up the church body in love, there are threats of punishment, excommunication and condemnation in the effort to force people to submit and continue church membership.
4. Terrorism - Abusive leaders intensify fear, shame and false guilt instead of inviting people to follow Christ with the Gospel of love and forgiveness. They teach "that problems in believers' lives are due to the believers' personal sins." (Although on a side note in some ways, a lot of problems in the life of a believer are in fact a result of sin.)
5. Condemnation - Instead of refraining from judgment, they condemn anyone they feel is a sinner and then suggest that anyone associating with the individual may need to leave. The individual becomes the scapegoat.
6. Classism - Abusive leaders tend to be preoccupied with a hierarchy. (This could also be a form of elitism.)
7. Conformity - Abusive leaders may unintentionally target inexperienced and dependent individuals who are seeking a strong leader. The individuals will often keep quiet when they object to something the leader does due to fear of shame.
8. Manipulation - Twisting the scripture to convey personal opinion rather than God's intent. Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden did with Eve.
9. Irrationality - This happens when scripture gets manipulated and often causes contradictory interpretations.
10. Legalism - Instead of treating people with love, grace and forgiveness, an abusive leader may end up communicating (even unintentionally) that a person's worth and amount of love deserved depends on performance. (So if a person is in a conflict and trying to seek restoration, what might end up happening is that the leader makes demands and then judges the person based on those demands. What ends up happening is that grace becomes contingent on performance and becoming what has been called "cheap grace.")
11. Isolation - This to me is the biggest concern. Abusive leaders might discourage an individual to cut off any ties from anyone they see as being a challenge to them and their ability to be in control. (Conversely, cutting a member off from the very essence of what comprises the community of the church, is another form of isolation. So this one could be demanding that a member cut off ties with non-church people or prohibiting the person from being in community.)
12. Elitism - Sometimes this consists of building up a false pride to compensate for the shame and worthlessness a person might feel due to other experiences. This often involves teaching that members "must protect the church's image at any cost." (When protecting image becomes more important than teaching how to be in community, there might be imbalance.)
13. Ensnarement - Instead of promoting maturity, abusive leaders end up promoting "self-doubt, guilt and identity confusion" as believers struggle with what their conscience says and try to reconcile that with what they are taught. This contradiction between conscience and teaching along "with fear of condemnation and loss of direction and fellowship" is what makes it more difficult and painful for a victim to leave an abusive situation.
The scriptural background that Cumella based his title on is from Galatians 5:7-10 and Matthew 16:6.
Why is it so subtle? Engler calls it a diversion of attention. The abuser might try to minimize the situation by stating that they are imperfect, busy, not take responsibility for their part in causing the hurt and attempt to treat such situations as individual cases rather than a pattern. He/she might blame the victim claim that the victim brought up the issues in the wrong way; claiming those who are hurt are "just too sensitive, not mature enough, didn't understand understand what was meant, etc.; find a lot of people who think that he/she is "just wonderful" and cite the victim as just being bitter; accusing the victim of not strictly following Matthew 18:15-17 and then intimidate and bully people so hardly anyone will directly challenge him/her - misuse their authority; and claim that if the person "had just come to them and expressed how they felt, they would have been so sorry for the hurts that were caused." The abuser might create confusion by associating themselves with the good work of the church which makes it harder to hold them accountable for their actions as doing so becomes "opposing or attacking the work of the church," appealing to others that they are under attack instead of just being held accountable, acting hurt and playing the victim, appealing to the good results of his/her ministry in attempt to suggest that the good outweighs the bad, citing "Jesus' tough talks with the apostles which could imply that abusive treatment is okay and even necessary, focusing "on the deep frustration and hurt of abused people and call it 'bitterness'" making them the issue instead of the abuser's behavior, having a group of influential supporters who are in subordinate leadership positions and can provide favorable treatment for him/her (this can lead to supporters deflecting all concerns raised and doing counter-attacks on anyone asking questions and then the main leader persistently endorsing the positions of influence causing a lack of checks and balances and leading to favoritism and honest, legitimate questions never getting anywhere), appealing to the concept of grace and expecting forgiveness without ever acknowledging wrongdoing (grace and forgiveness often becomes a lack of accountability for his/her actions), implicitly or explicitly threatening staff members who then feel like their positions are in jeopardy if they question or object to certain behavior and therefore defend the abuser due to intimidation or self-interest (compromise), blackmailing by saying if they are disciplined for what they did there won't be anyone to lead the church, and positioning themselves as being the solution for any problems their behavior caused.
So how does one deal with the issue of spiritual abuse? Some of the lasting effects of it are betrayal of trust, learning to trust again and trying to figure out who can be trusted, falling out with and seeking forgiveness from God and family, grief, and understanding grace and God's loving nature. The victim might feel worthless instead of dignity and self-respect. He/she might try to control their circumstances instead of surrendering everything to God in trust. He/she might feel shame instead of accepting him/herself. He/she might still feel guilt over past mistakes that have already been forgiven. He/she might develop performance anxiety and fear punishment instead expecting peace. He/she might become more morally rigid instead of showing grace and unconditional love. He/she might place him/herself in more isolation and in secrecy instead of trying to belong and be authentic with others. He/she might develop addictions and compulsions instead of healthy boundaries and coping skills. He/she may be confused and lack clear understanding of the Gospel and God's nature. He/she may also feel hopeless instead of having a sense of meaning, purpose and direction.
Cumella also has a lot of suggestions for intervention including "encouraging involvement in a healthy faith and community" and helping the person reduce the cognitive dissonance between conscience and teaching. He suggests that a healthy faith community offer what he calls "the four F's" of: Food from "sound Biblical messages promoting personal growth and maturity," Fellowship from "supportive relationships," Fit from "commonality with other members," and Fruit from "service to community and one another."
What can be done?
Engler suggests that learn to love and seek the truth and not look the other away when mistreatment or abuse arises, since if the abuse is the truth, it demands action. Those who are abused or mistreated and those who cannot even conceive that there is such a problem need to recognize each other and understand that neither side is lying. Everyone involved needs to sort out the good from the bad and act with maturity. People need to realize that just because it has not happened to them personally doesn't mean it does not and has not happened at all. Engler suggests that non-staff and non-leadership might not ever actually see the abuse. Exercising objectiveness with regard to the allegations and weighing love of the truth. Understanding that often abuse is not deliberate. And not demonizing those who report the mistreatment. Engler also explains that others should not minimize or underestimate how hurtful and damaging such abuse or mistreatment can be, particularly for the victims who can end up having emotional scars that stay with them for life. The people who report it are taking risks in terms of their own identity in the organization but deserve respect, support and love and do not deserve to be torn down or have their motives questioned. Listen. Engler suggests churches have explicit policies addressing spiritual abuse and train staff and other leadership in awareness. He also suggests that every church have a clear process for addressing such issues quickly and fairly with unbiased and uninvolved but spiritually mature parties investigating the matters. Depending on the circumstances, abusers might need removal from positions of leadership. If a body is not "uniformly resolute in addressing the problem," it becomes a "grave disservice to abusers who need the truth about their behaviors" if there is ever to be a chance at change and healing. There can be reconciliation between the abusers and the abused, but it might be a long process (where trust might be betrayed so quickly and easily, rebuilding trust is not so quick and not so easy). Forgiving abusers and reconciliation with them "should not be confused with re-establishing the trust necessary for spiritual leadership." Abusers need help once they admit it and recognize a need for help and need someone to tell it them straight.
Other links that might be helpful include:
"Characteristics of Unhealthy, Abusive and Cultic Church Environments" by John Engler (2005, 2008)
Next post will discuss the issue of special needs in the church.