Spiritual Abuse?

Spiritual Abuse? January 9, 2018


A new category of harm is emerging that pastors especially need to be aware of:  spiritual abuse.  The phenomenon is real, though I worry that it will be used as a club against pastors exercising legitimate church discipline and pastoral care.

The Church of England recently held an ecclesiastical trial that convicted a priest for spiritually abusing a 16-year-old boy.

Meanwhile, a British organization called the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service sponsored an online survey in which two-thirds of the respondents reported having experienced “spiritually abuse” in churches or other religious organizations.  Such abuse was defined as “coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring of individuals, control through the misuse of religious texts and scripture and providing a ‘divine’ rationale for behaviour.”

That sounds like my fifth grade Sunday School class!  The study admitted that the terms were inadequately defined and that the statistics lack validity, since survey participants were not randomly distributed but self-selected, with individuals who felt abused being more likely to respond.

As for the priest who was suspended, he sounds guilty of some kind of professional malpractice, though part of what he was condemned for sounds like it might have been legitimate spiritual counsel.  Here is an account of the case:

The 20-page judgment found that Davis had engaged in ‘mentoring so intense’ that the victim had been ‘deprived of his freedom of choice as to whether to continue’ with it.

At one point. Davis moved in with the family, who reportedly wanted to help him during a period of loneliness and illness. He later holidayed with them in Crete, which led to concerns from the congregation as to the ‘intensity of the contact’ between mentor and mentee, and the involvement of the Bishop of Reading, Andrew Proud. . . .

Davis was also judged to have, ‘under the guise of his authority, sought to control by the use of admonition, scripture, prayer and revealed prophecy, the life’ of the victim and his relationship with his girlfriend, and ‘throughout the said period failed to have any regard to the propriety of the said conduct’ and its effect on others, in particular the victim. .  . .

The victim’s mother also reported that Davis became angry regarding contact with her son on numerous occasions. ‘He would be angry if [her son] did not come to an evening service because of being with his girlfriend,’ the judgment reads. ‘She told us that [Davis] would say that he was God’s anointed, and a person had died because he did not do something that [Davis] wanted.’

She further gave evidence of how Davis had ‘invested the will of God in the relationship he had with the family in broad terms, and her fear of what would happen if she crossed [him] and thereby, in her understanding at the time, crossed the will of God’.

It’s probably not a good idea for the pastor to move in with the family of a teen-ager he is counseling.  Or to act like the leader of a cult.  But is “the use of admonition, scripture, prayer” necessarily an improper attempt to “control” the young man’s life?  I wonder, though, about “revealed prophecy.”  Was this what cult leaders do when they claim that “God told me” that you have to do one thing or another?

I suspect that some, if not most, of the cases of “spiritual abuse” stem from extreme applications of the “shepherding movement,” which had its origins among British charismatics.  Also known as the “discipleship movement,” these involve individuals pledging complete submission to a spiritual leader, whether a pastor or even another layperson.  Christians who do not believe in the Pope nevertheless submit themselves to their own individual popes.  Not to be confused with actual discipleship to Christ or receiving genuine shepherding from a pastor, these movements are not Biblical at all.

Sometimes these “shepherds” require complete obedience from their “disciples,” psychologically dominating them and taking over all of their decisions about marriage, money, associations, and the details of their daily lives.

Sometimes entire congregations are built around these principles, so that the pastor exercises a control over his flock that goes far beyond legitimate pastoral authority, exercising a self-serving tyranny over the members of his congregation.

So if you have a pastor who tells you to cash in your I.R.A. and give him the money so that he can buy a Mercedes, who demands that you and your wife get permission from him before having marital relations, who tells you that if you do not obey him or try to leave that God will strike you down, you are being abused.  Leave at once and find an orthodox congregation!

I worry, though, that if laws are passed against “spiritual abuse” that legitimate ministry will also become criminalized.

See this article How to recognise spiritual abuse: 8 warning signs for churches | Christian News on Christian Today.  I’ll list the eight signs.  Go to the link for explanations of each one.

1. You’re made to feel guilty because unreasonable demands are made on your time or your finances.

2. Your voice is silenced or your opinions are denigrated.

4. Leaders exercise improper authority over you.

7. You’re a leader who’s being bullied by your congregation.

Again, notice how each one addresses valid concerns and what happens in cultic churches; but how each one can also be applied to the ordinary teachings and practices of a faithful pastor.
Photograph of Rev. Jim Jones, Disciples of Christ pastor and leader of the People’s Temple suicide cult, By Nancy Wong (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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