Do you think it is possible to be abused spiritually? What does that look like? Can we learn the signs? How can we tell if others have been spiritually abused? How does a person heal when things like prayer, scripture, and music, which many find comforting, have been used to wield damaging blows? When pulling into a church parking lot brings on anxiety? When opening a Bible and only being able to hear the voice of your leader and his interpretation? When you are swallowed by guilt over drawing healthy boundaries?
January is Spiritual Abuse Awareness month. We at Recovering Grace would like to share with you some of the books and blogs that we personally have found helpful in our healing, including the following guest post below. Along with these we highly recommend the book series recently posted here on RG, “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.”
–The Recovering Grace Team
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
—Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 14:18–19)
January is Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month.
(You can read all about it here.)
Spiritual what, you say? Ah, that’s why we need an awareness month. Here are a few definitions to get you up to speed:
Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority, the purpose of which is to ‘come underneath’ and serve, build, equip and make God’s people more free, misuses that authority, placing themselves over God’s people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly Godly purposes which are really their own. – Jeff VanVonderen
Spiritual abuse is the misuse of a position of power, leadership, or influence to further the selfish interests of someone other than the individual who needs help. Sometimes abuse arises out of a doctrinal position. At other times it occurs because of legitimate personal needs of a leader that are being met by illegitimate means. Spiritually abusive religious systems are sometimes described as legalistic, mind controlling, religiously addictive, and authoritarian. – David Henke, Watchman Fellowship
Spiritual abuse occurs when a leader, church, or a belief system, whether well intentioned or not, dominates, manipulates, or castigates individuals through fear tactics, mind control, or some other psychological or emotional abuse. – Spiritual Research Network
You see it in cults and in mainstream churches. You see it from televangelists and pastors and elders and priests. You hear about it on the news when another child is molested by a priest or pastor. You don’t see it in the faces of the people next to you who once heard and believed that they can’t please God unless they’re good enough. It’s there too.
It’s bad because it hurts people.
It’s worse because it hurts people and tells them they deserve it.
It’s worst because it hurts people and teaches them that God does too.
I think it’s no exaggeration to say that Spiritual Abuse is arguably the one of the most pressing moral, theological, and social issues facing the church (the followers of Jesus) today. Spiritual abuse not only leaves people emotionally and psychologically devastated, it turns them away from faith in the God who could be their source of consolation and encouragement. A church that doesn’t address the realities of Spiritual Abuse leaves its message savaged and discredited, often without even realizing it. If people associate you with the hypocrites, the manipulators, the bullies, and the abusers, why should they listen to anything you have to say on any other subject — even the Gospel itself?
Though like all abuse it’s hard to quantify, statistics seem to bear out this view. A 2010 study by the Barna group revealed that tens of millions of “unchurched” people in America — about 4 of every 10 adults who don’t attend church — “said they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people.” Guess who is the largest segment in the “unchurched” demographic? Self-identified Christians. The problem isn’t that we haven’t reached the “unchurched” with our evangelistic efforts; the problem is that we have, and we hurt them in the process. The wise words of Pogo come to mind….
WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY, AND HE IS US!
The best way to learn about spiritual abuse is, as with most things, to take the time to read about it. (For a quick-and-dirty immersible experience, Provender’s “Model of Spiritually Abusive Language” is probably the most accurate primer I’ve seen of what it really looks like in practice.) Over the past few years, I’ve had occasion to write several articles on the subject. In honor of Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month, I’ve put together a list for you. First are my own articles, then are some links to other resources I’ve found helpful. Find one that looks interesting and give it a read.
Articles on Spiritual Abuse
Antidotes to Spiritual Abuse - Things spiritual abusers say vs. things the Bible says. One of these things is not like the other; one of these things just doesn’t belong.
How Does Jesus Love You? - The best treatment for spiritual abuse is to understand how Jesus really loves you. I went all out on this first guest post for “Quivering Daughters”, and it’s still probably my favorite thing I’ve ever written.
The Galatian Road out of Legalism - The New Testament has an entire book attacking the legalistic doctrine of manipulative spiritual leaders. Here’s a handy summary.
The Myth of the Lukewarm Christian - The truth behind a familiar Scripture that abusers love to quote at you.
Spiritual Abuse Files: The Untold Story of “Grace on a Snake”! - A goofy, often-overlooked story from the Old Testament shows how to respond to a king who talked about grace but got it totally wrong. If they made a movie, it might star Samuel L. Jackson.
You Might Be A Sadducee If… - … if you thought the Pharisees were the only nasty religious people in the New Testament. Surprise!
I Have A Sign: Answering Spiritual Abusers According to their Folly - A hilarious real-life news story: Absurdist pranksters beat infamous abuser Fred “God Hates F**s” Phelps at his own game.
Godly Authority: A Flight to Topsyturvydom - Spiritual abusers often make a big deal out of “godly authority.” Jesus often made a big deal out of godly humility and self-sacrifice. Somebody must be flying upside down.
Should Christians Celebrate Birthdays? - A reader’s family canceled her childhood birthday celebrations for being “unbiblical.” What does that say about the way we view the Bible?
Broken - Does God want you to be broken… or does God want to heal you?
Sheep Story - A few thousand years before anybody ever heard the term “Spiritual Abuse,” God described it perfectly in a poem about sheep.
Just As You Received Christ - You may not believe we’re “saved by works,” but do you believe we have to live by works? Here’s why you shouldn’t.
The True Meaning of Christmas Trees: The Spiritual Abuse Connection - A religious urban legend about the origins of the Christmas tree winds up showing the true meaning of Spiritual Abuse.
Reader Question: Did Jesus Teach Legalism? - Look at a couple of frequently-quoted verses and you might think He did. Behind-the-scenes Bible study tells a different story.
20 Reasons to Abandon a Bugaboo - So you want to abandon religion because you object to all the cruelty and abuse in its name? Great! Did you know you’re agreeing with the Bible?
Turn Your Eyes Upon… - “If you focus on Jesus, you’ll become like Jesus; if you focus on worldliness—even in order to avoid it—you’ll become worldly.” Why separating yourself from the world makes you worldly.
Hypocriticism - All the most wonderful people I know are Christians; so are all the most annoying jerks I know. Will the real hypocrites please stand up?
Hypocriticism II: Blessed Are the Disillusioned - I found a hypocrite… in my mirror. Oswald Chambers suggests that this disillusionment with hypocrisy is actually a very good thing.
The Bondage of Betrothal - A sure-fire sign of a cult or high-control group is that they say they have authority over whom you decide to marry. What does the Bible say?
Garments of Salvation - Legalist doctrinaires like to make rules about “biblical principles for modesty.” What the Bible really says about clothing may completely change the way you read it.
What It’s All About - An anonymous reader’s tear-jerking comment on “Garments of Salvation” reveals why it’s so important to avoid destructive doctrines before it’s too late.
Ashamed of the Gospel? A Case Study of Teen Mania and Works-Based Doctrine - I examine a controversial youth ministry, Teen Mania’s Honor Academy, to see how a professing Christian group’s doctrine can reveal whether it actually believes in the Gospel or in a works-based relationship with God. (Spoiler: Turns out Teen Mania belongs decisively in the latter category.)
The Truth about “Effeminate Worship” - If “manly men” are staying away from church, does it prove the church has become “feminized”? Or can doctrines about gender become a pretext for religious bullying?