“Spiritual abuse is a real phenomenon that actually happens in the body of Christ. It is a subtle trap in which the ones who perpetrate spiritual abuse on others are just as trapped in their unhealthy beliefs and actions as those whom they, knowingly or unknowingly, abuse.”
Perhaps one of the most alarming facts about spiritual abuse is that when the subject comes up “abusers don’t recognize themselves.” The abuser can be oblivious to the hurtfulness of their actions and be acting with the best of intentions. Or their abusive behavior is the dark face of a beloved and respected Christian leader, which makes it next to impossible for those who have only seen the sunny side of the abuser and are fiercely loyal to them to believe they are capable of spiritual abuse. We’ve seen examples of this kind of misplaced loyalty online in recent weeks.
And so the abuse continues.
As I started working on this post, I received an email from an old friend who is actively involved in Recovering Grace an online ministry designed by former “Gothard Generation” survivors to help others coming out of the spiritual, emotional, and even sexual abuse they encountered in the Bill Gothard system.
Her email reminded me of a short-lived stint I had in the employ of a man who was a devoted Gothard follower. My boss was a highly respected deeply committed Christian leader with only the best of intentions. He was one of those who “unknowingly” abuses, but whose well-meaning actions carried damaging repercussions. I say “unknowingly” because I did not know him well. But I sometimes wonder whether the Gothard approach simply validated his already existent abusive inclinations or if he was sincerely deluded.
Only God knows.
Convinced he was the spiritual leader of his employees, he stationed himself to work where he could keep a watchful eye on all of us. That in itself was rather intimidating to say the least. It also meant the slightest faux pas or difference of opinion was an occasion for a “spiritual teaching moment”—a lecture instructing that employee on how their actions failed to measure up to biblical spirituality according to Gothard.
Once I was on the receiving end of one of those “spiritual teaching moments” after he overheard me apologizing to someone by saying, “I’m sorry,” instead of “Will you please forgive me?”—as Gothard specifically instructed.
The entire staff worked in a constant state of paranoia. Suffice it to say, I did not remain long in that environment.
That was nothing compared to dangerous advice he was giving another employee, a gentle soul who confided to him in desperation that her husband was physically abusing her. Our Christian employer was advising her that the abuse at home would stop if she simply worked harder to be submissive—meaning she was the problem, not her husband.
That’s the backwards thinking of spiritual abuse. The victim is the problem. S/he’s at fault and needs to be coerced and shamed into fixing the problem and getting in line, whatever that problem might be. Or else s/he needs to be shown the door.
My goal in continuing the discussion on spiritual abuse is twofold: (1) to be one voice among others who are sounding the alarm about the spiritual abuse that smolders, often undetected or deliberately concealed, beneath the surface in American evangelicalism and that needs to be exposed and (2) to open an online discussion where we can learn from one another and join together to address and take preventive action against this injustice that is thriving among us.
This means I’m going to need your help.
Nothing will change if we allow ourselves to remain silent spectators to wrongs that are deliberately or innocently perpetrated within the church of Jesus Christ. If you have a story, a resource, or a link that might be helpful to someone else, please share it in the comments. If you fear your comment might make things more difficult for yourself or someone else, please feel free to comment anonymously. Some situations are simply too volatile at the moment. I’ve learned of two more situations like that this morning.
I’m grateful to have an expert like Dr. Phil Monroe weighing in as he is able. At the moment he is blogging from Rwanda where he is leading a training project with Biblical Seminary’s Global Trauma Recovery Institute. So Phil isn’t talking theory. He’s actively engaged in ministering to those who have suffered from unimaginable abuse.
As he was packing his bags for Rwanda, he took time out to post this helpful article for our discussion about spiritual abusers. He’ll be joining in with comments and/or to respond to questions as he is able.
One of the frustrations in discussing spiritual abusers is the fact that there is no clearly defined profile to help us identify them. Dr. Monroe writes, “we do not have empirical survey evidence for those who use spiritual tools to harm or manipulate others.”
The lack of a profile is further complicated by the realization that some spiritual abusers are deliberate and malicious, while others “unknowingly” abuse others for what they believe are biblical reasons. Some consciously justify abusive behavior for what they deem the greater good, as a kind of “war ethic” where the usual Christian ethical norms are set aside and collateral damage is accepted as an inevitable by-product of war.
These are just some of the faces of spiritual abuse.
The centerpiece of any kind of abuse, however, is power and authority. Typically, we think of people in official positions of power—Christian leaders who have publicly recognized spiritual power and authority over others. To be sure, these leaders are especially vulnerable to the temptation to spiritually manipulate those in their care for selfish purposes.
It may be helpful, however, to be reminded that we don’t have to be at the top of the leadership ladder or the power pyramid to have power over someone else and to abuse that power to serve our personal agenda. Nor is the person at the top of the organizational chart—the pastor, the president, the chairperson—immune from suffering spiritual abuse. See The Plea of the Pastor’s Wife for an anguished example of the deep wounds and trauma inflicted when a leader is abused.
At the very least, this means we all need to be on guard against our own fallen tendencies to spiritually abuse others. In his article on the spiritual abuser, Dr. Monroe doesn’t let anyone off the hook. He lists motives we all share that can easily prompt a person to spiritually abuse others: fear, love of power, efficiency, ego, and habit.
In The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority within the Church (a superb resource on spiritual abuse recommended by a commenter) co-authors David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen point to this callous disregard for others in the service of self as central to the problem.
“Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being. In this application, power is used to bolster the position or needs of a leader, over and above one who comes to them in need.” (p.21)
Let us keep in mind that that not every strong, decisive leader, not every tough decision, difficult conversation, or employee firing qualifies as spiritual abuse.
At the risk of oversimplifying, it seems to boil down to basic questions about how we live out the gospel in our relationships with others, or how we use power, not selfishly, but for good in the lives of others.
Although he isn’t talking about spiritual abuse per se, Andy Crouch’s Q talk on power has enormous relevance to this discussion. Andy insists that power as God intended is supposed to be good. It is intended for the flourishing of others and reflects how we image God.
Please take time to watch Andy’s talk—When Christians Have Power—where he takes this discussion to an entirely new level.
For beings made in the image of God, to misuse our God-given power is to misrepresent God by presenting a false image of the true God. This ultimately leads to injustice, instead of to greater flourishing of all involved.
Spiritual abusers come in all sizes and shapes. Some are sincerely deluded, others are deliberately and maliciously abusive. Some are men; some are women. Some have a great deal of power while others use what little power they have to belittle and browbeat those at the very bottom of the food chain. Often an abuser has an inflated view of themselves and a lack of accountability. Worse still, those who should hold them accountable are blinded by a misplaced loyalty or condition to go along with the so-called authority figure.
The Good News of Jesus Christ (through the power of his Holy Spirit) calls us to overcome the world by “loving our neighbors as ourselves,” not abusing them.
How would you describe spiritual abusers you’ve encountered? What characteristics have you seen? How have you’ve seen people constructively point out abusive behavior to those who are “unknowingly” abusing? Have you ever been spiritually abusive—knowingly or unknowingly? How have you seen people use their power and authority selflessly to promote the flourishing of those in their care?
Previous posts on Spiritual Abuse:
Other blog posts on Spiritual Abuse:
- Spiritual Abuse: What it is and Why it Hurts, by Phil Monroe
- Spiritual Abuse: 10 Ways to Spot It by Mary DeMuth
To learn more about the Rwanda Project, read Trauma Recovery and Counseling Training in Rwanda.