Overemphasizing Spiritual Abuse?

Overemphasizing Spiritual Abuse? April 10, 2013


Yesterday I discovered this thought-provoking interview on abusive religious groups. The interviewee, Samantha Field (a Fare Forward reader, by the way) blogs at Defeating the Dragons about her experience rethinking faith after a youth spent in extreme Christian fundamentalism. Everyone I shared the interview with agreed that Samantha’s experience was horrific, and we are all impressed with her efforts to think through these issues and recover a healthy, orthodox Christian practice. Many of us know other “burn victims” who have incurred lasting emotional and spiritual damage through contact with cult-like, abusive religious groups. Spiritual abuse is clearly a real issue, and I’m very grateful that there are resources like the Spiritual Abuse Survival Network available for victims.

You can probably hear the “but” coming, and I regret that, because I sincerely don’t mean to minimize the evils of spiritual abuse. Nevertheless, one friend pointed out that “spiritual abuse awareness” is likely to become a major topic in the Christian blogosphere thanks to attention from bloggers like Elizabeth Esther and Rachel Held Evans, and I have some misgivings about that prospect.

Without diminishing in any way the devastating effects of spiritual abuse in individual lives, I hope that we can keep this subject in perspective if it begins to receive widespread attention. Our society has a habit of focusing national conversations on scary—but ultimately marginal—threats. For those in the grip of extreme sects,  fundamentalism is a dire threat to their wellbeing. But like a devastating but rare disease, our attention might be better focused on treating individual cases than on preparing for a very unlikely pandemic. 

C.S. Lewis has an instructive passage on this point in The Screwtape Letters. Lewis’s Senior Tempter writes,

The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is in the least danger, and fix its approval on the virtue that is nearest the vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running around with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to the side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.

Now, I think that reasonable minds can differ on this point, but I would posit that Fundamentalism is a vice from which we millennials are in very little danger. By all accounts we are suspicious of authority, contemptuous of dogma, and hostile towards efforts at social control of the religious kind. That is exactly why experiences like Samantha’s move us; we see such oppression clearly and immediately. So we should be asking ourselves: in our rush to denounce an already unpopular group, what threat are we overlooking?

Sociological studies suggest that the real danger for millennials is not “spiritual indoctrination.” On the contrary, we are perhaps the least catechized, the most theologically and ethically illiterate generation ever. We are in less danger of being dominated than of being hopelessly (and even unconsciously) adrift. This unmoored way of living then, in turn, opens us up to all kinds of more subtle social control, though advertising and other consumerist cultural liturgies. This is not to say that fundamentalism is a preferable alternative to our present fecklessness, simply that of the two ways of straying from the Golden Mean, we seem much more prone to the latter but spend more time worrying about the former. 

The blogosphere should be outraged by the accounts of spiritual abuse that brave survivors are bringing to light, and the church should make every effort to bring healing to these individuals. At the same time, we should not be distracted from the less overtly offensive, watered-down, undisciplined Christian derivatives, like the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that is rampant among millennials.

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  • Hey Charles, thanks for this thoughtful piece. Before Rachel and I started writing about spiritual abuse online, the conversation about this issue was mostly relegated to isolated bands of survivors who read similar books but who felt like their experiences were so “weird” or “rare” and didn’t have much in common with mainstream Christianity. What I have found, however, is that MANY–if not most–of my experiences inside abusive fundamentalism were simply a more concentrated, potent version of the SAME problems that can be found in many of the most popular churches today. Which is to say, spiritual abuse is very widespread and I would say–it’s an even GREATER threat to Millenials who are unfamiliar with a deeply religious lifestyle. Spiritual abuse is often so very subtle and actually, the “least catechized” among us are at greater danger of being sucked into a spiritually abusive church or group. So, while I can appreciate your call for keeping spiritual abuse in perspective, I do think you’re setting up a false dichotomy, here, and overlooking the great peril spiritual abuse poses to an unchurched generation.

    • Charlie Clark

      Elizabeth, I really appreciate your taking the time to dialogue about this issue, and I’m interested in hearing more about where you see less potent forms of spiritual abuse taking place in mainstream Christianity. I’m not absolutely committed to the position I stake out above, and I’m looking to learn.

  • Charles, I was on staff with a church about fifteen years ago that became incredibly dysfunctional and eventually disbanded. Part of that downward spiral was the result of me being publicly disciplined by the senior pastor. I submitted willingly, but once “free” of the church (and the pastor), came to see the situation as terribly wrong. The recovery movement among Millennials may seem new to them. But after my experience, I learned there was an ongoing discussion about the subject (back in the late 90s) among many evangelicals. Books like Healing Spiritual Abuse by Ken Blue, Toxic Faith by Steve Arterburn, and The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Johnson and VanVonderen, helped me greatly. While fundamentalism may bring its own set of specifics, spiritual abuse is not really new to the Church.

    I tend to agree with you that today’s believers over-emphasize spiritual abuse. Some of this is the result of a society that has become hyper-sensitive to offense, thin-skinned, and defiantly autonomous. It’s the flip side of the “Me Generation.” As a result, America is, sadly, becoming a nation of victims — victims of parents, teachers, priests, churches, pharmaceutical companies, employers, government, rich people, whoever. Of course, there is genuine abuse and genuine abusers in the church. But I fear it’s getting harder and harder to address because too many are too quick to label themselves victims and too quick to label others as abusers. Anyway, thanks for a thoughtful post!

    • “America is, sadly, becoming a nation of victims — victims of parents, teachers, priests, churches, pharmaceutical companies, employers, government, rich people, whoever.”

      Maybe the solution is not to shame victims for coming forward and telling their stories. Maybe the solution is for, you know, parents, teachers, priests, churches, etc. to STOP VICTIMIZING PEOPLE.

      • Sarah, of course the way to end abuse is to stop the abusers. But are you suggesting that victims and survivors’ groups should NEVER BE QUESTIONED?

  • Hi Charlie,

    I just found your site and your article. I would like to chime in on the issue of spiritual abuse. I did a doctoral research project on spiritual abuse and recovery. My book is: Spiritual Abuse Recovery.
    My website is: http://www.ChurchExiters.com

    Since many people think that spiritual abuse is only found in cults or cult-like groups, it is a shocking reality to be informed that: spiritual abuse can be found in many Bible-believing churches with orthodox doctrinal statements. It is, therefore, not so much ‘what’ people believe, but ‘how they practice’ what they believe that is the issue.

    I agree with what Ronald Enroth concludes: “It [spiritual abuse] is far more prevalent and much closer to the evangelical mainstream than many are willing to admit.”

    I invite you and others to check out my website. Send me an email at: info@churchexiters.com

    All the best!

  • nchoirnmind

    not exactly a new phenomenon you know, and calling it out is no fad.
    1Then the word of the LORD came to me saying,2“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock?3“You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock.4“Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them.5“They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered.6“My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill; My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth, and there was no one to search or seek for them.”’”

  • It’s always unfortunate when theology gets in the way of (or blinds us from) seeing the hurt and pain of others. Jesus never promoted a theology. He reached out to a heal and help hurting and lost people. If you are so focused on your particular theology that it causes you to neglect the individual and/or minimize their hurt and pain then you are guilty of abusing spiritually. There is more to Christianity than theology.

    You say things like “I sincerely don’t mean to minimize the evils of spiritual abuse…” and “Without diminishing in any way the devastating effects of spiritual abuse in individual lives,…” yet that’s exactly what you’re doing (minimizing and diminishing) by what you wrote. Just because you say you don’t mean to do something doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing it. That’s similar to the person who says “with all due respect…” then proceed to say something disrespectful – as if saying “with all due respect…” neutralizes any disrespect that may proceed. Your statements come across the same way unfortunately which I think is sad and really trivializes a very serious issue.

    You’re welcome to read my full rebuttal on my site if you’d like.