Some time ago someone here asked me to comment on the phenomenon of “spiritual abuse.” After a recent lengthy phone conversation with a young man who is in his first full time pastoral position at a large evangelical church, I’m ready to comment.
It seems to me that the concept “spiritual abuse” can be over used. And because it has been stretched to cover too much (e.g., all strong religious leadership), many have abandoned it. I don’t think that’s justified. The proper response to abuse of a good term is not abandonment but correction. I don’t know what else to call the phenomenon I experienced in my twenties and saw first hand during my first teaching job (in a large Christian university).
So far as I know the pioneers in identifying spiritual abuse were David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen–then co-pastors of a large suburban evangelical church in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. The church was known for being a safe place for people who had experienced spiritual abuse. Johnson and VanVonderen wrote a book entitled The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse that is still in print. I highly recommend it.
After their book was first published in the 1980s many Christian counselors jumped on the bandwagon and began talking about things like “toxic faith.” But I don’t think spiritual abuse and toxic faith are quite the same thing. I would say that toxic faith is the atmosphere that breeds and enables spiritual abuse.
Over the years I have met and counseled dozens, maybe scores, of students and others who suffered spiritual abuse.
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.
I have experienced that myself, many years ago, in the denomination, college and church of my youth, so I know it is a real problem. I personally saw and experienced unethical, immoral and even illegal conduct by religious leaders to whom I was subordinate and was expected to be submissive. When I dared to speak up I was shamed even by those who knew very well that I was right. It was simply not my “place” to talk about it. One powerful pastor told me that my role was only to pray for those God had put over me in God’s chain of command and not to speak about their conduct no matter what.
Over the years I have come to believe that this problem of spiritual abuse is rampant in certain segments of American Christianity and I will dare to identify Pentecostalism, fundamentalism and the charismatic movement as those segments. What I am saying is not that these are bad movements; I am saying they tend to be breeding grounds where toxic faith and spiritual abuse can grow. Too often the leaders do not address the problem because the underlying ethos is authoritarian and the people engaging in spiritual abuse are powerful and influential.
But most often, in my experience, there’s nothing anyone can really do (except run) because the spiritual abusers are autonomous; there is no one over them to hold them accountable. They are religious entrepreneurs who have a solid grip on their churches and organizations. In many cases they own them outright or have set them up so that nobody can challenge their leadership.
So, finally, what is spiritual abuse? How is it detected? And what should a person do about it?
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.
My advice to everyone who feels caught in such a spiritually abusive context is: run! Get away as fast as you can. Don’t linger or hope to change things. Get out.