Beware of Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse? What’s that? Is there such a thing? David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, authors of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Bethany House Publishers, 1991), say there is. In the book, the authors define 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” (20). Johnson and VanVonderen say that spiritual abuse can happen when spirituality is used to make others live up to a false “spiritual standard”. Often feelings of guilt and shame are heaped upon people to make them feel spiritually inferior, and as a result, they are compelled to put their trust and faith in the group or system, rather than in Christ and God.

Biblical Christian spirituality teaches that you become spiritually right with God only by faith in Christ Jesus. Your spiritual performance does not make God love you more or love you less. It is Christ’s performance, what Jesus did, that makes the difference. And God loves you in Christ Jesus. You are regarded as righteous not because of what you have done or will do but by what Jesus had already done. Your contribution is to believe and try your best to live consistently and faithfully with that faith and trust in God. But how successful or unsuccessful we are in our attempts to be faithful do not determine our standing with God. Our faith in Christ and God’s grace to us determine where we stand with God. Therefore, we should be cautious of any system that places performance above trust in God’s promises.

Often, cult groups are guilty of being spiritually abusive. But Johnson and VanVonderen show that any religious group, even Christian churches, can become spiritually abusive when the group’s culture start manifesting the characteristics of an abusive spiritual system. It is not what the church or group believes doctrinally but how they behave that makes them spiritually abusive.

So, what are these characteristics of a spiritually abusive system? How do we recognize an abusive system? Spiritually abusive systems have seven characteristics.

  1. Power-Posturing. Leaders spend a lot of time focused on justifying their authority and reminding others of it. This is necessary because their spiritual authority is not genuine – real spiritual authority is based on genuine godly character. Thus, you may hear leaders insist that what they say is equal to what God says and that to disobey them is to disobey God. This is power-posturing. True leaders earn the respect of others by their godly lives and message.
  2. Performance Preoccupation. A spiritually abusive system is preoccupied with performance from its members. Obedience and submission are used too often to guilt and shame members into following the “party-line”. It is only appropriate to obey and submit to leadership when their stance is consistent with God’s as revealed in the Bible.
  3. Unspoken Rules. In abusive spiritual systems, people’s lives are controlled from the outside by rules, spoken and unspoken. Unspoken rules are never said out loud but you find out about them when they are broken! For instance, an unspoken rule may be that you can never disagree with the leadership.
  4. Lack of Balance. Abusive systems usually manifest themselves in two extremes: extreme objectivism and extreme subjectivism. Extreme objectivism elevates objective truth to the exclusion of valid subjective experience. This approach to spirituality creates a system where authority is based entirely on the level of education and/or intellectual capacity, rather on closeness to God and wisdom from the Spirit. This objective system limits God to act only in ways that we can explain, prove or experience. It puts God in an intellectual box. Extreme subjectivism, on the other hand, creates a system where truth can only be understood when people receive a direct revelation from God. In a subjective system, people act only when they hear a “word” from the Lord, rather than act also on what they know from Scripture. Always remember that if the Holy Spirit gives a directive or command to you, the Spirit will also confirm it in Scripture (and other means). Until the Spirit does confirm it, one should not obey the “word” as God’s word, even if it comes from a spiritual leader, like a Pastor. Subjective systems tend to downplay education. Often you will hear sayings like, “After all, Peter and Timothy never went to seminary!” But Peter and Timothy did go to the seminary of their time – by being disciples of specific religious teachers, i.e. Jesus and Paul. Peter spent three years in Jesus’ “seminary”!
  5. Paranoia. In abusive systems, there is often the assumptions that 1) what we say, know, or do is a result of our being more enlightened than others; 2) others will not understand at all unless they become one of us; and 3) others will respond negatively. The result is that members become suspicious of outsiders and their circle of friends and community eventually get reduced to only the spiritually abusive group. Because of the fear of outsiders members feel they cannot leave the group as their spiritual welfare becomes unhealthily tied to the group.
  6. Misplaced Loyalty. Loyalty becomes focused not on Christ but on the organization, church, group or leaders. Disloyalty to the group or organization is seen as disloyalty to God. Questioning leaders is equated with questioning God. This kind of misplaced loyalty is often reinforced by scare tactics (“you will go to hell if you leave us”), exclusive enlightenment claims (“we alone have the spiritual truth”), and humiliation (public shaming of people who leave).
  7. Secretive. Remember, people don’t hide what is appropriate; they only hide what is inappropriate. So, if there are lots of secrets, watch out!

We should not be confused, however, between spiritual abuse and legitimate exercises of spiritual authority. For instance:

1. It is not abusive when leaders, using their best judgments, choose to disagree with you. It is abusive, however, if your opposing viewpoint is used to devalue your spirituality.

2. It is not abusive when a Christian confronts another Christian about sin, wrongdoing or even honest mistakes in order to correct, heal and restore. But it is abusive if such confrontation is used to shame or discredit someone, especially in public.

3. It is not abusive to disagree, even in public, as long as it is done with respect and civility. It is abusive to attack a person’s spirituality in public simply because of differences in opinion.

4. It is not abusive to have certain commonly agreed to standards of group conduct or behaviour (e.g. no smoking, no dancing, etc.). But it becomes abusive if those who do not follow the same convictions about these standards are spiritually degraded or shamed into feeling inferior.

5. It is not abusive for leaders to be strong and decisive. It is abusive, however, if they make others feel inferior and dependent on them.

6. It is not abusive to have standards for your leaders. But it is abusive if the standards are unreasonable and if there is no room for honest mistakes and no recognition of a leader’s spiritual gifts and weaknesses. For instance, it is not unreasonable to expect a Pastor who is gifted at public preaching to also do some individual counselling, but it is unreasonable to expect that Pastor to be as good in counselling as in preaching if that is not an area of giftedness. And vice-versa.

7. Keep in mind that people can be both a victim and a perpetrator at the same time. For example, leaders may feel great pressure to perform up to a spiritual standard and in turn pressure their children to also live up to unreasonable expectations.

It is important to remember that spiritual leaders are not exempt from being spiritually abused. Followers are not always victims and leaders are not always perpetrators. Spiritual abuse can wound and hurt both leaders and followers. Leaders can feel guilty as being unworthy and feel they have to live up to certain spiritual expectations. They end up being preoccupied with doing good and looking good rather than depending on God’s strength and on being faithful.

Each of us needs to be careful not to fall prey to spiritually abusive systems. But Christian groups or churches can start out healthy and slide into an abusive system. So, knowing what the signs and characteristics of an abusive system will help us prevent that from happening.

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