The Enablers of Spiritual Abuse … or when silence isn’t golden

In July, when I was in the airport and spotted an abandoned backpack, I didn’t assume it was someone else’s responsibility. I knew the drill. “If you see something, say something.”

So I did.

One of the many disturbing aspects of spiritual abuse and a prime reason that it thrives unchecked in so many churches and in highly respected Christian institutions and ministries is because instead of “saying something” when signs of abuse surface, we take the path of least resistance.

“If you see or hear something, mind your own business!”

We may be innocent of perpetrating abuse ourselves. But that innocence doesn’t count for much if we become enablers of spiritual abuse others perpetrate.

No one is in a position safely to assume they’re immune to becoming an enabler. We are all, at one time or another, subjected to the kinds of pressures, expectations, and behavior patterns that produce enablers. More often than not there’s a price to pay for refusing the enabler role and speaking out to address an abusive situation. Throw in the spiritual dimension, and we’ll all end up second guessing ourselves instead of standing up to wrongs.

Psychologist Dr. Phil Monroe contributes two articles on this topic that highlight the causes and the symptoms of enabling that deserve our careful consideration.

Please read both articles and then take a good long look in the mirror.We all need to do this.

For the person on the receiving end of spiritual abuse, nothing is more crushing than silence after they finally gather the courage to tell their story to someone, and the person they turn to for help is dubious or passive or, worse, becomes complicit in the abuse.

Aloneness never felt so alone!

There’s no getting around the fact that spiritual abuse situations are complicated. Even, as Phil describes, sometimes the abuse victim reaches a point where they may seem to be overreacting. People who have never been targeted by an abuser, can’t possibly understand the emotional toll this kind of abuse can take. But where abuse of any sort exists, not to act, is to enable. Passivity and indifference, regardless of the reasons, are ways of enabling the abuser to continue.

Sadly, an enabler can be just as trapped in the abusive system as the victim. They can be just as intimidated and fearful—and for good reason. If they speak up, they may fall from favor, forfeit their place as an insider, become the target of abuse and character assassination, even risk losing their job or future promotions.

They can and do pay a price.

Obviously, the easiest course of action is to do nothing, to keep their head down, and avoid the conflict. Sometimes, to prove their loyalty to the designated spiritual authorities, an enabler defends the abuser and participates in a cover-up. Sometimes the enabler actually engages in a form of abuse by scolding the victim to stop being so divisive, unspiritual, and disloyal, to trust God to take care of things, and to forgive their abuser.

“We’re all sinners, you know.”

Enabling can be passive or active, and any one of us can assume that role. As Phil says,

“Our own weaknesses plus the pressures of our community and the manipulative actions of offenders conspire to make inaction the easier choice.” 

There’s little doubt that the potential enabler faces a tough situation. They’re confronted with the choice of acting to be a force for good by addressing the abuse or becoming party to it in one way or another. The pressure is tremendous and a lot of well-intentioned people cave in.

So it’s important for us to look the role of the enabler cold in the eye.

Enabling is not a neutral course of action. The enabler actually escapes nothing despite their desperate efforts to avoid trouble for themselves and take the easy way out. It’s a classic Catch 22 for the potential enabler. No matter which way they turn, they face risk. But here’s the kicker: the price of becoming an enabler is significantly higher than the price anyone will pay for openly addressing and opposing abuse.

Think of it! To enable abuse, puts us in conflict with the gospel and in opposition to God’s vision for us as his image bearers. It is antithetical to how we are to live as followers of Jesus. Enabling creates a scenario where everybody loses—the enabler, the victim, the abuser, and the organization that has become a shelter for abuse.

Despite the driving motive to protect, absolutely nothing and no one is protected.

  • Enabling calls us to forfeit our dearest commitments—to supplant our primary loyalty to God with a loyalty to a person or organization whose actions oppose the ways of Jesus.
  • Enabling exposes the victim to greater risk, for instead of having an ally in this battle, they are abandoned yet again and their ability to trust a fellow Christian has suffered yet another blow.
  • Enabling protects corruption within a church or Christian organization by tolerating and supporting corrupt behavior and opens the door for abuse to spread to others. 
  • Enabling hurts the enabler whose attempts to self-protect backfire, for it promotes weakness of character, fear, and cowardice instead of the brand of courage and self-sacrifice following Jesus requires. 
  • Furthermore, enabling does no favors for the abuser, for instead of confronting their sinful abuse of power over others, the enabler reinforces the abuser’s clutch of power, sense of entitlement, and prerogative to abuse others.  

This whole discussion reminds me once again that some of the biggest battles we will ever face as followers of Jesus are the battles we must fight with ourselves. Fear and misplaced loyalties can have an iron grip hold on us. But our first loyalty is to Jesus. As Jesus’ followers, we must not allow our own weaknesses, fears, peer pressure, and cultural conditioning to stop us from stepping up and speaking out with courage when there is spiritual abuse.

These are the very battles Jesus calls and equips us to fight.

“So if you see or hear something, say something!”


How is the role of the potential enabler crucial in breaking the cycle of abuse? How have you seen that happen? What damage have you witnessed or experienced because of enablers? What encouragement can we offer those who are currently battling fear and the urge to go silent because of abusive situations?

Please join in with your comments.


Previous posts on Spiritual Abuse:

Dr. Phil Monroe on Spiritual Abuse:  

Also by Frank A. James:  Structural Patriarchy’s Dilemma for Women
        and Mary DeMuth:  Spiritual Abuse: 10 Ways to Spot It

About carolyncustisjames

www.carolyncustisjames.com
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12 Responses to The Enablers of Spiritual Abuse … or when silence isn’t golden

  1. R.J. Thesman says:

    I regret being an enabler. Many years ago, in my early twenties, I watched a pastor verbally abuse his wife, but I had also been taught submission to authority, so I said nothing. I have often thought of that poor woman and her obvious humiliation in public by her husband and pastor.

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  2. Phil Monroe says:

    Carolyn, have you seen this quote before:
    “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”

    Judith Hermann, Trauma & Recovery, p. 7

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  3. Dr. Dawn says:

    Good reads Carolyn. The Leadership Team at the church where I was horribly bullied by the interim pastor was chock full of enablers. The men were very passive or angry that I would call out abussive behavior. And unfortunately, one woman thought I was “exagerating” and the other told me the abuse was “temporary”! When they became passive was the perfect ingredient for the bullying to continue. The group basically gave the abuser a nod of acceptance. What it pointed out to me was how unhealthy the entire church had become. Those given leadership didn't behave as leaders and the congregation followed the lead and sat mute over what they did actually know. those in the deep nomination above me seemed to have over-looked abuse and counseled me to “get therapy”! BUT left the abuser in his position. All of them enabled abuse.

    Phil- I love the quote above by Judith Hermann!

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  4. Carolyn says:

    Phil, No I haven't seen that quote. Really spells it out clearly. I would add that perpetrators know how to intimidate, so it isn't just a choice of two opposing options. Thanks!

    R.J. Thank you for your honesty. I suspect a lot of have those kinds of regrets. I pray God will use those memories to change how we respond the next time.

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  5. sandy says:

    Thanks again Carolyn. Dr Monroe provides LOTS to think through.

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  6. sandy says:

    Thanks again Carolyn. Dr Monroe provides LOTS to think through.

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  7. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for speaking up. joyfulexiles dot com

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  8. Dietrich Bonheoffer said, Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless.
    Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. Thanks Carolyn for pursuing this important discussion not only to address enabling bullies in the church, but also how we enable bullies at home.

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  9. Carolyn says:

    “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Let that sink in!

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  10. I'm late making a comment because it took me several days to gather strength to read this particular post. Eight years after suffering brutal spiritual abuse at the hands of denominational leaders, I've finally realized that some – whom I counted dear friends and kept believing would cast off fear and come through for me – will never even allow me to tell them my story. These “friendships” hinged, to a far greater degree than I would admit, on my loyalty to a denomination. By the grace of God, I've grieved for and healed from the abuse. Today, at last, I'm grieving the relationships lost because sincere Christians, whom I love, unwittingly persist in enabling spiritual abuse.

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  11. Anonymous says:

    This is an excellent blog post. I was a victim of spiritual abuse many years ago. In a nutshell, I was going through a horrific situation, and ended up writing a minister who was part of a “healing” ministry for help. His reply was the epitome of spiritual abuse–full of scathing condemnation and vitriol, even while starting off his letter with the ostensibly “nice” statement “I FEEL your pain.” This minister made Job's friends look like complete saints. In fact, his abusive words were so cutting that they almost drove me to suicide–no joke.

    Anyway, there is a Web site called GreatNonprofits.org where you can post reviews of various non-profit organizations. I posted a review of this minister/ministry, mentioning that his abuse almost drove me to suicide. I gave him 1 star, while all the other reviews gave him 5 stars. And some of those reviews, referring to my review, said things like:

    1) “That was *so* many years ago. Do you mean you STILL haven't gotten past this by now?”

    2) “If anyone thinks [name of minister] is harsh at all in his counseling, they should remember that our Lord Jesus often spoke hard words to hurting people in order to awaken and challenge them to grasp the truth that could set them free.”

    Even though these people may be sincere, I definitely consider such comments to be enabling and even abusive. In a nutshell, these flatterers of the minister are saying, “You're way too sensitive,” which is definitely a form of abuse.

    Anyway, it's great to be able to read articles like yours that offer a much-needed dose of truth and objectivity on the matter. 🙂 Once you've become a victim of spiritual abuse, it's so easy to become paranoid and think, “No one will *ever* believe me or have sympathy for me but will instead (including God) just side with the minister. Maybe I'm just crazy or something.” Because of that, it can be very hard to talk about the abuse, and may seem almost impossible.

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  12. Guided says:

    Rome’s ministry of propaganda, the catholic church, is a satanic hierarchy designed to terrorize and extort money from people all around the world. Rome’s ultimate goal of ruling the world involves the use of false gods, used to claim authority of the truly unknown creator of all life. The overwhelming proof is found in history.

    During the Inquisition, Galileo was sentenced to house arrest and censored for exposing the fact that planet earth is in fact already in heaven and rotating around the sun with the other heavenly bodies. If common people understand that they were born in heaven, the need to worship Rome’s false gods in order to get to heaven would be negated.

    Ancient societies were often subjected to violent psychotic men that sought to be not only rulers, but also to be worshipped as gods. Ancient Egypt and Rome are two prime examples. In Ancient Rome, Ceasar was legally declared to be god and must therefore be worshipped as such by his subjects, including Jews. In modern day Rome, the pope is not only the political but also the religious leader of the foreign state. While catholic churches have been set up to collect money from people all around the globe, the men responcible are preists that have themselves called “father.” Their leader, the infalible pope, is the “father almighty, who sits on a thrown in heaven.” His only son, the son of god, is a transformed version of a Jewish rebel killed by ancient Rome. The third member of Rome’s “holy trinity”, three false gods used to claim authority of The Creator, is the false god used by the satanic ruling class of Jewish government/religion to enslave the souls of their own people.

    The unseen voice of a ghost used by Jewish and Roman government/religions as The Creator is known to be an unseen voice of schizophrenia that inspires people to commit murder and/or suicide. In my own experience, a loud unseen voice recognized by any person brainwashed by judeo/christians as “God”, said to me, “You’re in hell. Don’t talk to them as long as you can.” In has been more than twenty years, yet the unseen voices that came next are still reading my mind and harassing me daily.

    The fact that I have been labeled schizophrenic does not change the fact that Roman catholics threaten children with eternal torment in hell so that the children will worship Rome’s three false gods as their one god and creator. When the children grow-up, they are expected to pay to have their children brainwashed and give ten-percent of their income to the satanic hierarchy of the Roman government/religion. Generation after generation, Rome uses a terroristic threat of eternal torment in hell to extort money from people outside of its political boundaries.

    As a child, my parents took me to church and sunday school every sunday. Although I did not participate fully because preists and nuns are power-hungry assholes, I was afraid that I would go to hell if I skipped church. By the time I was eighteen, I wanted nothing to do with the religion of a foreign government. After several years of working without paying tithes to Rome, I was attacked by satanic ghosts and labeled incompetent by doctors that fed me drugs with a lie that they could cure “schizophrenia”. The drug routine was similar to that used by Russians on Soviet dissidents and could be considered a form of torture itself.

    Just because I know what it means that “satan and his followers claimed the power of god”, does not mean that I am schizophrenic. What it does mean is that the unseen voices of schizophrenia, including the one called god, are satan and it followers claiming to be “created in the image of god”. Unfortunately, satan’s “One God” is an unseen voice of schizophrenia.

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