Since our readership has rapidly expanded over the past few years, and especially during the past few months, we want to take some time this summer to draw attention to earlier articles for those who may have missed them. During the summer and fall of 2012, one of our writers blogged through each chapter of "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse". We have chosen two of the chapters to share with you this week, however you can follow the links in the article to the rest of the series if you would like to read it in its entirety.
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Chapter 5: Identifying the Abusive System
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse
We continue our series blogging through “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.” The first post in the series is here.
What are the common characteristics of spiritually abusive systems? This chapter looks at the unhealthy dynamics that commonly dictate how people function within spiritually abusive systems. These dynamics result in people who are wounded and tired.
“Power-posturing simply means that leaders spend a lot of time focused on their own authority and reminding others of it, as well.” (p. 63)
Jesus had authority and he was able to give authority. True leadership and true spiritual authority is demonstrated by a person’s life and message. “Spiritual authority is seen in the man or woman who says, by his or her life, “God and his Word are true–I’ve proven them in the fibres of my being. I know there is hope in God!” (p. 64) Conversely, the people who are eager to put others “under” their authority reveal themselves to be power-posturers. They are not operating with God-given authority but rather with their own authority.
2. Performance Preoccupation
When power is postured and authority is legislated, “obedience” and “submission” become important words.
I was sadly amused that the discussion proceeded immediately to an example of a pastor implying that his congregation needed to work harder in order to gain grace. In Gothardism, grace itself is redefined in terms of performance (“desire and power to do God’s will”).
Obedience to God is non-negotiable but God looks at the heart. It’s a good thing when obedience flows out of a heart that is depending on God alone. But a person who is trying to earn something from God will begin to focus on their behavior and keep track of it (and likely be occupied with others keeping track of it as well). This keeping track is about earning spiritual points which is the opposite of trusting God alone.
There is an interesting point from Acts 5:29 (We must obey God rather than men): “It is only appropriate to obey and submit to leadership when their authority is from God and their stance is consistent with His.” (p. 66)
3. Unspoken Rules
Unspoken rules are powerful things. You may not know about them at first but as you break them, you will suffer either neglect, such as the cold shoulder, or extreme legalism, such as being questioned or asked to leave, as a consequence. In a healthy system, topics are up for discussion and it is allowed to agree to disagree.
The most powerful unspoken rule is the “can’t-talk” rule. Exposing problems threatens the system, because the system might have to change in order to address the problems. Therefore, if you speak about the problem, you are the problem. For example, when a woman is mistreated and she speaks up about it, the problem is not that her boundaries were violated but rather that she said something about it. However, the peace that comes from never challenging the leadership is a pretend peace.
4. Lack of Balance
Two extremes tend to appear: extreme objectivism and extreme subjectivism. Extreme objectivism is an empirical approach which puts God in a box, limiting Him to act only in ways we can explain, prove, or experience. In this extreme, intellectual ability and level of education may be prized over the leaders’ relationship to the Lord. But Acts 4:13 says that the religious leaders marveled at the confidence of the untrained fishermen, James and John, and took note that they had been with Jesus. Their confidence stemmed from their relationship with Jesus and having been filled with the Holy Spirit.
Extreme subjectivism emphasizes feelings and experiences even over the Bible. In this system, a special “word from the Lord” or similar subjective insight from the leaders is authoritative. But it is dangerous to submit to another person’s word from the Lord merely because this person is in authority. We will each individually give account to God. In this extreme, there might be a pride in not being educated, as if education is an enemy of being led by the Spirit.
You may have heard someone claim that since Peter nor Timothy went to seminary, neither should we. The authors counter this with a keen observation, but I will leave that to the book.
I have been enjoying reading this book. It’s so refreshing for me to read someone who “gets it.” It is hard–very hard to explain to “outsiders” what spiritual abuse is like from the inside. People don’t want to see it and even if they did, it is confusing.
There have been some new insights as well. The emphasis on power-posturing has been instructive. I always thought my reaction to the authoritarian, controlling nature of ATI/IBLP and my family were due to my own sinful rebellion. It’s not to say that I don’t have any sinful rebellion, but noticing the problem of power-posturing does not equal rebellion. Just like a fish has fins and gills, and just like a dog barks, so spiritually abusive systems have power-posturing leaders. This emphasis on control and authority seems to be an essential property, not just something that a few of them happen to have in common.
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 experienced the can’t-talk rule? Have you ever been in a situation where talking about the problem was treated as if you WERE the problem?
What do you think of their claim that topics should be up for discussion, and if they aren’t, the peace that ensues is a pretend peace?
What do you think of their list? Anything you would add or change?
This one could get complicated: Do you believe that Gothardism falls into either or both extremes of subjectivism or objectivism? To be fair, do you suppose Gothardism falls into neither one?
Do you suppose that “rhemas” from Mr. Gothard might be similar to the versions of a “word from the Lord” described as being overly subjective in this chapter, or would that be an unfair characterization?
The one who offers the most hope has the most authority. (p. 64)
Spiritual authority is seen in the man or woman who says, by his or her life, “God and his Word are true–I’ve proven them in the fibres of my being. I know there is hope in God!” (p. 64)
If a Christian who feels violated stops talking, then the perpetrator will never be held accountable for his behavior. (p. 69)
If noticing problems is labeled disloyalty, lack of submission, divisiveness, and a challenge to authority, then there is only a facade of peace and unity. (p. 69)
(Click here to go on to Chapter 6)