After a temporary hiatus from the spiritual abuse blog series while I traveled south to Pennsylvania and west to Oregon, I’m back in Boxford again, stationed at my computer, and ready to pick up where we left off.
Statements I made earlier about abuse (see “The Perfect Storm”) point to the possibility that something is amiss our Christian belief system that is opening the way, if not directly giving rise, to spiritual abuse.
The details are in that blog, but the gist of what I said is that abuse is:
- a denial of the gospel
- the antithesis of what it means to follow Jesus
- an overt rejection of God’s vision for his image bearers
These are serious statements, but the graphic and tragic stories of abuse speak for themselves. Because this topic is particularly important, this blog will be a bit longer than usual, but please read to the end.
It is one thing to address the symptoms—to learn how to detect spiritual abuse, courageously to reject abusive behavior, and to provide care and recovery for those who have been abused. In a future blog, we’ll take things further by looking at ways to prevent abuse from happening in the first place.
But even these important measures are insufficient if we don’t address the thinking that lies beneath spiritual abuse. We must address the underlying belief system—our interpretations of scripture itself—and ask if these convictions are actually part of the problem. If we don’t do this, we are merely bandaging an infection that will continue to flare up.
In his blog, “Four Belief System That Support Spiritual Abuse,” Dr. Phil Monroe identifies some of the underlying beliefs that elevate Christian leaders to a level of unquestioned authority, that give precedence for preserving an institution over caring for people, and that cause those who are not in positions of leadership to distrust themselves and let others think for them. He writes,
“Those who are abused . . . feel that they are not in a position to know truth, that their feelings are distorted more than others, that their needs do not merit help, that the preservation of the institution is more important, and that they are the cause of the problems they experience.”
Spiritual abuse happens where flawed views of authority and submission intersect. These concepts profoundly impact male/female relationships and at their lowest point result in abusive situations.
I note three fatal misconceptions:
First, that female submission means the godly woman’s default mode will be to defer and go along with whatever the men decide. In some Christian circles submission comes with conditioning where girls and women learn to silence their voices, to hold back and be less-than they really are, and to defer to others. A godly woman won’t “rock the boat.”
A women’s ministry team initiated a meeting with male leadership in their church for an honest discussion of the state of marriages and tensions between men and women in the church and what could be done to improve things. Prior to the meeting, the women were eager to proceed, but for some unknown reason fell silent when the discussion commenced. The explanation came later. One of the pastors had sent his wife the “you’d better keep quiet” signal across the room which the other women saw and clammed up too. He might as well have shouted across the room to the wives: “Don’t you dare speak.”
The woman who offers honest opinions, challenges and asks questions, brings up new ideas, or expresses a different perspective can be viewed as critical, insubordinate, and divisive. Countless women live with the constant worry that they aren’t being submissive enough.
Second, that male authority puts a man in a different category from others, giving him a sense of entitlement to the submission of others. Where levels of submission don’t satisfy he feels justified (perhaps even his duty) to thump his Bible and declare that female submission is the natural manifestation of godliness in female behavior.
A third factor that further exacerbates things is the widespread but largely unacknowledged perception that women are somehow secondary to men. It’s politically incorrect to affirm this out loud and will get you in a peck of trouble if you do. But despite protests to the contrary coming from Christian leaders, this thinking has been with us since the fall and has deep roots in human society.
It finds appalling expression when girls and women are objectified, trafficked and consumed, aborted or killed at birth for not being male, and refused education. No country or culture in the past or the present is immune from the impact of this low view of women vis-à-vis men.
But the church is not immune from perpetuating a secondary view of women either. My church historian husband often points out how the shapers of Christian tradition, like Augustine, Tertullian, and Aquinas, simply denied that women were made in the image of God. John Calvin believed women were made in the image of God, but not in the same way that men are. The imago dei in women is said to be derivative from males.
This low view of women is a dangerous blind spot in the church that surfaces regularly in the attitudes and actions of both sexes and of people on both sides of the gender debate.
Pretty much everyone agrees that both men and women are made equally in the image of God, but . . . our equality somehow doesn’t change how things work when men and women come together. “Exceptions” exist in both camps where some women are recognized and respected for their gifts, teaching, and even leadership abilities. But in both camps this doesn’t necessarily change things for the majority of women.
In Christian circles, the need to maintain male authority, the necessity for women to default to a submissive posture in relationship to men, and the subliminal conviction that women rank lower than men is the perfect recipe for spiritual abuse. It protects the abuser and puts the abused at risk. Worse still, it opens the door for other forms of abuse to take place within the church and at home behind closed doors.
How do we regain a clearer perspective on authority, submission, and the implications of both male and female being created in God’s image?
These terms—and many, many others like grace, hope, love, justice, compassion, sacrifice—are redefined for us when we dig through the debris of culture, tradition, and our fallenness that has accumulated over time and corrupted our perceptions of how we are to think and live and work together as followers of Jesus.
When we do this, we will discover the rock solid, unchanging foundation that God established for us in the beginning. We will discover that the way things work in the kingdom of God is nothing like the way things work in this fallen world. Jesus didn’t die and rise to bring us a “kinder, gentler” version of the world’s ways of conducting human relationships, but a radically different, counter-cultural way of relating that Jesus modeled and that is utterly foreign to us. We will realize much to our dismay that even in the best of relationships we all fall short of what God has in mind for us, that we all have reason to repent of our selfishness, small mindedness, and disconnectedness from the heart of God, that we all have more to learn and a lot more ground to gain.
When God created the heavens and the earth and named human beings as his image bearers, he established himself as the only true foundation. Jesus gives us a refresher course by showing us how God’s true image bearer lives. Only on this solid foundation can we begin to build healthy, robust, kingdom relationships.
Concepts of authority, submission, equality, do not float in mid-air. They will always be miss-defined if our reference points come from a fallen human culture and tradition. Jesus must invade our vocabulary and become our dictionary. We cannot properly understand these terms if we sever them from him.
Male/female relationships are opportunities for us to express the heart of God in our interactions and to live out Jesus’ gospel by putting the interests of others ahead of ourselves. Jesus taught us to use our power and privilege to facilitate the well-being and flourishing of others.
I’ve discussed at length submission (The Gospel of Ruth) and image bearing, authority, and equality (Half the Church). So if you want to read more, you can read it there. But to summarize what I’ve learned so far,
Submission is never a call to passivity or deference, but rather to responsibility, wisdom, and strength. Any submission we offer to another person must first pass the test of our prior and primary submission to Jesus—to his character, teaching, example, and mission in the world. To submit is never a woman’s first option. She fails her brothers as an ezer under God if she is passive where courage and firmness are required. Submission is a call for us to use our minds, to work to know God better, and to accept responsibility for what is happening around us—including the decisions the men in our lives want to make.
Submitting to spiritual abuse or turning a blind eye when we know it is happening is never okay.
Jesus had a thing or two to say about authority: first, that all authority belongs to him; second, that the authority he granted his followers was not to rule over women or any other human being, but rather authority over the powers of darkness; and third, that authority is what the Gentiles (unbelievers) wield over others, but that those who follow Jesus are called to be servants—that in the kingdom of God, the first will be last.
Phil’s comments about authority and submission are confirmed by a woman whose experience of spiritual abuse in her church led to this eye-opening moment of truth:
“I realized my concept of submission, authority, introspection and responsibility was distorted, especially as a woman in the church.”
If we are to make strides against spiritual abuse that will help us gain ground against other forms of abuse, we need to return to our foundation and rethink who we are as God’s image bearers and how we are to be valiant for his kingdom. The kind of womanhood God intends for us flourishes when we grow strong and full of courage in God. And the men in our stories will be blessed if we become the stalwart, wise, gracious truth-telling women Jesus calls us to be.
What other aspects of our belief system foster spiritual abuse among Christians?
What conditioning have you experienced that makes it difficult for you to think for yourself, use your voice, and stand against abuse?
How has our own belief system become distorted and what steps can we take to correct course?
IMPORTANT NOTICE: If you haven’t already signed the statement on sexual abuse, please do add your name and spread the word so others can join this effort. This is just a beginning step, but an early demonstration of our determination to support the victims of sexual abuse and stop this atrocity from ever happening in the church again. We need your help!
Here is the complete series on Spiritual Abuse:
- It all started with Lean In: Seek and Speak Your Truth
- Part 1: This Can of Worms Must be Opened!
- Part 2: The Perfect Storm
- Part 3: The Many Faces of Spiritual Abuse
- Part 4: Identifying the Triggers of Spiritual Abuse
- Part 5: Standing Up to Spiritual Abusers
- Part 6: The Underlying Belief System of Spiritual Abuse
- Part 7: The Enablers of Spiritual Abuse … or When Silence isn’t Golden
Dr. Phil Monroe on Spiritual Abuse:
- Spiritual Abuse: What it is and Why it Hurts
- Why Do Some Spiritual Leaders Abuse Power?
- What Factors Support the Use of Spiritual Abuse?
- Four Belief System That Support Spiritual Abuse
- Do You Enable Spiritual Abuse?
- Failures to Act—Why we don’t always blow the whistle on abuse