I have heard the term “spiritual abuse” thrown around the blogosphere lately and I just realized that I wasn’t really sure of a good definition of the term. I did some digging around on the internet and found a variety of definitions and aspects. There doesn’t seem to be one consensus on what the term means, exactly. Some bloggers give it a wide definition while others give it a very narrow one.
But as I thought about spiritual abuse, I kept coming back to one thing. Spiritual abuse involves one person telling another person or group of people what to believe and how to live, and then backing that up with some sort of coercive force, whether it be claims to divine authority or simple emotional manipulation. And as I thought about it, I realized something: Christian patriarchy is by its very nature spiritually abusive. Let me explain.
Christian Patriarchy holds that a woman must always be under male authority. And, that authority includes obedience. Christian Patriarchy holds that women must always obey their male authorities, be that father or husband. Here is a quote:
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Scriptures say a woman ought to obey her husband! … If you are intellectually honest, you will have to admit that it is impossible to find a single loophole, a single exception, an “if” or “unless.” The Scriptures say, without qualification, to the openminded reader, that a woman ought to obey her husband. (pp. 24, 25)
Christian Patriarchy says you have to obey your male authority, live as he says to live, move where he says to move, believe as he instructs you to believe, because God says you have to. Christian Patriarchy thus uses the “God card” to tell people what to believe and how to act – and backs that up with every bit of force it can muster, from religious guilt to emotional manipulation. I’m sorry, but that’s spiritual abuse.
When I started to ask questions and form my own beliefs, my mother told me that I should ask any spiritual questions I might have of my father, and then believe what he told me whether I agreed with it or not. My mother said that my father’s timing for me was God’s timing for me, and that I should heed that. My parents did everything in their power to get me to obey them, to live as they live, to believe as they believe, and they backed that all up with appeals to scripture and God’s authority – and, of course, emotional and social manipulation.
Really, how can Christian Patriarchy not be spiritually abusive? As long as it involves one group telling another group how to live and what to believe, or one person telling another person how to live and what to believe, and backs that up with some sort of coercive force – in the form of shame, manipulation, threats, or what have you – how can it not be?
You may wonder what I mean by “coercive force.” What I mean, quite simply, is inducing religious guilt and employing emotional manipulation, threatening consequences like a loss of access to family or making one’s life miserable if one deviates in any way. Given that Christian Patriarchy is family-based, and is thus something one can’t easily or without consequence simply walk away from, its spiritually abusive potential is magnified.
After writing everything above, I came upon an article on spiritual abuse posted on a conservative Christian blog here on Patheos. What is uncanny about this article is that it echoes so much of what I said above, and of what I have thought, and it also seems to – completely unintentionally – drive home the connections between the beliefs and practices of the Christian Patriarchy movement and spiritual abuse. And yet, it’s by an author in the evangelical channel. It’s definitely worth a read, and I’ll finish this post by excerpting the best parts here, highlighting what I found especially pertinent, and ending with a comment:
One of the most recent cases was a young couple who sought me out for informal counseling (not psychotherapy). They told me about their home church and the circumstances surrounding their leaving it which was extremely painful. As is often the case with spiritual abuse, their home church was their extended family. But they began to notice some unethical conduct among the church’s leaders and tried to point it out. They were labeled “the problem” and shamed for daring to speak up about the ethical problems. Soon they were ostracized and they eventually, sadly, left the church.
Put most simply, spiritual abuse is the control of people by manipulation of their religious needs or sensitivities by means of shame.
This usually takes place in a hierarchical religious context led by unaccountable spiritual leaders of dubious morality and/or dominating personality.
In such a spiritual context, it is usually an unwritten rule that members will submit unquestioningly to the leaders and turn a blind eye to any unethical, immoral or abusive conduct.
In such spiritual contexts, leaders will often select a person perceived as not totally submissive (to the leaders or the system) and subject him or her to special negative treatment to force the person “into line” or out of the organization.
The tool most often used in spiritual abuse is shame. A person who dares to ask a question that might be perceived as critical of what a leader is saying or doing is shamed as unspiritual. For example “God is doing a mighty work in this place and who are you to question it or slow it down?” Often questioning the leaders is turned around so that it is made to be questioning God.
Usually the shame is implying that the insubordinate or nonsubmissive person is unspiritual–simply by virtue of daring to question or point out a real problem.
I’m not talking about church discipline. Spiritual abuse can happen under the guise of church discipline, but it’s something else. It’s almost always aimed at protecting the religious system and/or its leaders.
Church discipline is requiring repentance or departure by someone who has knowingly violated a community norm (that he or she knew about when joining).
If that “community norm” is “protect the leader(s) no matter what” and/or “never question anything” with the threat of spiritual shame or possible expulsion, then that “church discipline” is, in my opinion, spiritually abusive.
In a toxic spiritual context, new rules, new community norms, are often invented for no other reason than to force conformity and submission. In that case, what is happening is not church discipline but spiritual abuse.
Two things to note: In the case of Christian Patriarchy, one’s spiritual leader is one’s husband or father and one’s church community is one’s family – especially when homeschooling is involved, as it essentially always is. Further, the idea that you are not to question or disobey the spiritual leader – your male head, the patriarch of your household – and that he is always right and always knows what God wants is actually a core doctrine of the movement. Finally, the use of shame to bring an “erring” individual back in line is huge. And worst of all, that shame takes place within your family. That’s spiritual abuse at its worst.
In the end, the Christian Patriarchy movement is simply an institutionalized form of spiritual abuse.