The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 6: When You Cannot Leave
We continue our Thursday series blogging through “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.” The first post in the series is here.
If people in abusive systems are tired and wounded, why don’t they just leave?
This chapter adds items 5, 6, and 7 to the list from the last chapter of characteristics of abusive systems. It concludes that abusive systems are closed systems with “rigid boundaries that prevent people from leaving. There will be the perception of a lot of evil on the outside, to keep people in, and there will be a lot of power postured on the inside to compel you to perform. There will also be tired, wounded people who feel that they are either unspiritual or crazy. And they will have major problems relating to God from the heart.” (p. 79) These rigid boundaries are built with paranoia, misplaced loyalty, and secrecy. Each of these builds on the truth that was laid in the previous chapter, that abusive leaders are not operating under God-given authority but rather by legislating their own authority.
Paranoia has two aspects. First, it creates an us/them bunker mentality where 1) insiders are more enlightened than outsiders; 2) outsiders will not understand unless they become one of us; and 3) outsiders will respond negatively. This bunker mentality gives the leaders a convenient way to avoid scrutiny because any questions of accountability are perceived as attacks from the outside. Interesting that Jesus warned of wolves “inside the house” (Matthew 10:16, Acts 20:29-30).
Second, paranoia keeps wounded people wounded; it keeps them from getting help. Government and social services that might be able to provide help for various problems, including addictions or abuse, are seen as outsiders and dangerous, and therefore to be avoided.
6. Misplaced Loyalty
Some ministries require signed statements of loyalty. Abusive leaders may make it seem that questioning them is equal to questioning God. This reinforces the walls that hold people inside. Misplaced loyalty may be built using three factors: 1) a mindset that “we alone are right,” making it unsafe or punishable to leave; 2) scare tactics, equivalent to spiritual blackmail–including threats that God will destroy your family or business, that you will come under a curse, or that Satan will get your children if you leave; and 3) humiliation, specifically the fear of being publicly shamed.
This third tactic may include phone campaigns against you to your employer or family and friends. Some leaders have written letters of character assassination, publicly attacking those who speak up. This is a very real tactic, and it can and does cost people their jobs.
The need to hide something is a flag that the leaders know it is inappropriate. The performance standards in abusive systems lead people to being image conscious; sometimes people hide things due to the mistaken belief that they need to protect “God’s image.” Sometimes the leaders develop a secretive attitude with a condescension toward the laity that they can’t handle the truth and ought to be protected from it.
A religious system where the leaders grab authority and use paranoia, misplaced loyalty, and secrecy as walls to keep people inside is an abusive system. We now return to the quote with which we opened this summary…that abusive systems are closed systems with “rigid boundaries that prevent people from leaving. There will be the perception of a lot of evil on the outside, to keep people in, and there will be a lot of power postured on the inside to compel you to perform. There will also be tired, wounded people who feel that they are either unspiritual or crazy. And they will have major problems relating to God from the heart.” (p. 79)
When I saw the term “misplaced loyalty,” I was immediately reminded of a quote from the April 5, 1982 LA Times column:
“[T]he former chief pilot for the institute’s $2.4 million dollar Lear Jet (now sold) said, “We gave him [Bill Gothard] a loyalty that should have been given to Jesus Christ himself.”
Interesting that the same article says, “From the beginning, a veil of secrecy has surrounded the organization and Gothard himself.”
I recall that when I first when to the Headquarters in Oak Brook for a visit, I was given a friendly tip that the walls have eyes and they are watching and evaluating every move you make to see if you merit being invited for further opportunities. That certainly could seem to feed into a paranoia, so I believe we’ve got all three covered.
Questions for discussion:
Note: please feel free to comment about these questions or anything else that stands out to you about this chapter.
Have you ever been in a system where you experienced or witnessed paranoia, misplaced loyalty, or secrecy?
“People who live in these systems can wind up totally ill-equipped for life. When they leave, for whatever reason, they may be blown around like dry leaves, or easily drawn into other abusive systems.” (p. 79)
“When you see people in a religious system being secretive–watch out. People don’t hide what is appropriate; they hide what is inappropriate.” (p. 78)
(Click here to go on to Chapter 7)