Sunday, November 22, 2009

Spiritual Abuse from John Mark Ministries

Thanks to a sister-in-Christ who blogs as MessyChristian :
Who recommends that we, as "battered sheep" in the Kingdom of God, read this helpful article taken from John Mark Ministries :


Every week, as a counselor, I come across victims of 'spiritual abuse.' The following is offered as a first-draft attempt to promote discussion on a very common problem...

'Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction' (Pascal). 'If the divine call does not make us better, it will make us very much worse. Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst' (CSLewis, 'Reflections on the Psalms', NY: Harcourt Brace, 1958, pp. 31-32). 'The smarter you are, the better your reasons for doing the wrong things' (Grandma Sophie to her precocious grandson Allen, in an episode of the CBS TV show 'Brooklyn Bridge'). 'Hurt people hurt people' (old proverb).

'The greatest threat to the church today is not from without but from our own leadership within' (Philip Keller, p.12).

'Don't you ever be called Doctor, Reverend or Master, for you have but one Master and you are all brothers and sisters' (Ken Blue's paraphrase of Matthew 23:8; p. 80).

'Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock... savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock... Therefore be alert... And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up...' (Acts 20:28-32).

'In the motion picture 'Sleeping with the Enemy', Julia Roberts's character is married to a controlling, tyrannical, high-powered business executive. Like all conscientious Pharisees, he is obsessed with detailed performance. He demands that his wife hang the bathroom towels straight and that she perform perfectly in public. When she accidentally trespasses one of his rules (read "laws"), he verbally, emotionally and physically punishes her. His abusive power over her is virtually total and makes her life unbearable.

'She must break free of him. Divorcing him is out of the question; he is too possessive and powerful to allow that. One of them must die if her freedom is to be secured, so she fakes her own death. Successfully accomplishing this, she flees to another city hundreds of miles away and assumes a new identity. By her "death" she apparently delivers herself from a life of torment.' (Blue, 124).

A woman who was having difficulties in her marriage (mostly due to unresolved childhood sexual abuse from her father) answered the 'phone. It was her pastor, wondering why she wasn't in church. She replied that she was having difficulty relating to crowds these days. His response: 'That's probably because you yourself don't go out of your way to be interested in people.'

This is a true story - and an example of fairly common spiritual and emotional abuse. The pastor did not attempt empathetically to 'resonate' with the woman's feelings, but rather scolded her. Of course, technically (and speaking as a 'church growth motivated church-builder) he may have been 'right'. But he displayed gross insensitivity. And, indeed, a lack of wisdom: if he had connected with the woman's pain and fear, he would certainly have won her back...

*Spiritual Abuse* is sometimes difficult to define. But in general it happens when

# 'a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds' (Blue, p.12)

# one or more persons in a relationship is damaged spiritually and such wounding or scarring affects their relationship with God so that they develop a distorted image of God and of themselves

# a person is disempowered rather than spiritually empowered - instead of the relationship being 'safe' it becomes 'unsafe'; the abused person becomes dependent on the abuser, who imparts subtle or not-so-subtle messages that 'you won't survive without this relationship'

# someone with authority blames the person for a problem rather than empathetically working towards healing; leveling judgment where support is needed; using their power to attack another to subtly gratify themselves

# a pastor or leader or authority figure regards themselves as having supreme authority *because* of their status ('I'm the pastor, that's why!'); their word is final, and not to be challenged; they regard others as 'too immature to handle truth on their own' (and like the scribes and pharisees often quote Scripture to bolster their views); to disobey the leader may even be tantamount to disobeying God; the leader/s are involved in many/most people's important decisions

# people go along with 'authority' whether or not one agrees with the authority, or whether the authority is right; people in the system must deny any thought or opinion contrary to the leaders'; the leaders overtly and covertly remind others regularly of their authority; 'obedience' and 'submission' are preached virtues

# the leader is plagued by unacknowledged doubts and/or feels inferior or insignificant, and compensates by gaining power over others. Or the abuser is narcissistic, and is obsessed with a desire to do something grandiose for God

# a church and its leaders become legalistic rather than affirming the Christian good news about grace; there is an adherence to formulas rather than freedom in Christ; peoples' lives are governed by rules and 'measures of commitment' (frequent attendance at meetings, tithing, etc.)
# young idealistic people want a 'charismatic' leader to follow, a community to join, or simple answers to complex questions

# shame is induced because a person feels they rarely 'measure up'

# a congregation is berated for low attendances, poor giving etc. - focusing away from a pastor's defective leadership style

# a person is not healed following prayer is blamed for having a defective faith: in these situations the person is 'revictimized' to excuse the leader (and perhaps that leader's lack of faith!)

# this- or next-worldly scare tactics are employed to keep people in line; or promises of this- or next-worldy health and wealth if the 'ministry' and its beliefs are supported

# a person's 'boundaries' are not respected

# there is not a free flow of communication within the group: the leader/s control vital knowledge

# leaders appeal for 'unity' to protect themselves from scrutiny/ appraisal

# attending meetings regularly is most important - even at the expense of family life

# people feel guilty for feeling critical of the abusing authority - they have been warned frequently about 'disloyalty' (Some abusing systems require members to sign 'loyalty statements'). Often they want to leave the abusing system but they feel trapped - and they will have a significant chance of being trapped in future abusive relationships, unless they get help.


# The key NT text for spiritual abusers is Hebrews 13:17: 'Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as those who must give an account'. Ken Blue comments: 'The NT word here for "obey" (peithomai) does not refer to the obedience that may be demanded by right or imposed by decree' (p.35).

# Ken Blue notes seven symptoms of abusive religion from Jesus' diatribes against the Pharisees in Matthew 23: '

1. Abusive leaders base their spiritual authority on their position or office rather than on their service to the group. Their style of leadership is authoritarian.

2. Leaders in abusive churches often say one thing but do another. Their words and deeds to not match.

3. They manipulate people by making them feel guilty for not measuring up spiritually. They lay heavy religious loads on people and make no effort to life those loads. You know that you are in an abusive church if the loads just keep getting heavier.

4. Abusive leaders are preoccupied with looking good. They labor to keep up appearance. They stifle any criticism that puts them in a bad light.

5. They seek honorific titles and special privileges that elevate them above the group. They promote a class system with themselves at the top.

6. Their communication is not straight. Their speech becomes expecially vague and confusing when they are defending themselves.

7. They major on minor issues to the neglect of the truly important ones. They are conscientious about religious details but neglect God's larger agendas.' (pp. 134-135).

# 'We must have the courage to follow Christ's example and overturn the system, be it a marriage or an organization, if that system is wrong. Silent submission in the face of violence, dishonesty and abuse will only enable that abuse to be passed on to generations' (Arterburn and Felton, p.72).

# Not all strong leaders are abusive; not all 'black-and-white' fundamentalists are abusive; perhaps (though I have my doubts) not all 'we alone are right / all the other churches are dead' groups are abusive; not all 'hell-fire' preachers are secret adulterers etc. (unlike the high-profile American televangelist who in the midst of a sermon series about Rahab the harlot was visiting one himself)

# 'Abusive spiritual leaders gain followers because they are, in one way or another, attractive. Their attractiveness may very well be their genuine commitment to the work of God and their sincere desire to train mature disciples... [Some of these leaders] are not deliberately abusive' (Blue, p.97).

# Watchman Nee has influenced many with his views about hierarchy, rank and subordination: 'Hence you recognize not only the head but also those whom God has set in his body to represent the head. If you are at odds with them, you will be at odds with God.' ('The Body of Christ', NY: Christian Fellowship Publishers, 1978, pp. 20-21) '...Insubordination is rebellion and for this the one under authority must answer to God' ('Spiritual Authority', NY: Christian Fellowship Publishers, 1972, p.71).

# Often in spiritually abusive situations external 'worldly' behaviors are castigated (can you name some?), but not materialism, greed, lovelessness, injustice etc. And there is more 'sternness' than joy.

# Abusive leaders rarely say 'I'm sorry', 'I wonder how I could have done better...', 'I don't know', 'You were right', 'I need help'.

# Abusive leaders usually insist on special privileges, honours, titles, honorary degrees etc. to bolster their insecurity.

# Mark Twain once said, 'A cat that sits on a hot stove lid won't ever sit on a hot stove lid again. But it probably won't sit on a cold stove lid either.' Spiritually abused people find it difficult to trust authority-figures after their experience.

# 'So, Ken, what you are saying in a nutshell is that if we know for sure that we are really OK with God and other people because Jesus makes us OK, then no one can manipulate and control us ever again. And if the abuser realizes that he too is fully loved and accepted by God, he will never need to lord it over anyone ever again.' Radio host, summarizing a three-hour program on Spiritual Abuse with Ken Blue (p.120).

I have been helped by some of the insights from Ken Blue, 'Healing Spiritual Abuse: How to Break Free from Bad Church Experiences', Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1993; Philip Keller, 'Predators in our Pulpits' Eugene Ore: Harvest House, 1988; David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen, 'The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church', Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1991; Ronald Enroth, 'Churches That Abuse', Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1992; and Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton, 'Toxic Faith', Nashville: Oliver-Nelson Publishers, 1991.

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