"Spiritual abuse is as old as false religion itself. While the practice is old, the term "spiritual abuse" may have been coined first by Jeff VanVonderen." David Henke
My heart breaks for those who have been spiritually abused. I praise God that there are excellent resources on the internet that can help victims of spiritual abuse become survivors.
One such resource is provided by Watchman Fellowship, which we highly recommend. David Henke has written an excellent article that will help Christians identify spiritually abusive organizations. Henke makes an extremely important point regarding their organizational structure. He explains that often spiritually abusive ministries will have "top down" hierarchical structures. This cannot be over-emphasized! It's the primary reason why spiritual abuse persists.
Henke has compiled a list of common characteristics of spiritual abusive ministries, which we believe are excellent! Although we shared similar characteristics in yesterday's post, we believe they bear repeating.
The most distinctive characteristic of a spiritually abusive religious system, or leader, is the over-emphasis on authority. Because a group claims to have been established by God Himself the leaders in this system claim the right to command their followers.
This authority supposedly comes from the position they occupy. In Matthew 23:1-2 Jesus said the Scribes and Pharisees "sit in Moses' seat," a position of spiritual authority. Many names are used but in the abusive system this is a position of power, not moral authority. The assumption is that God operates among His people through a hierarchy, or "chain of command." In this abusive system unconditional submission is often called a "covering," or "umbrella of protection" which will provide some spiritual blessing to those who fully submit. Followers may be told that God will bless their submission even if the leadship is wrong. It is not their place to judge or correct the leadership – God will see to that.
#2) Image Conscious
The abusive religious system is scrupulous to maintain an image of righteousness. The organization's history is often misrepresented in the effort to demonstrate the organization's special relationship to God. The mistaken judgements and character flaws of its leaders are denied or covered up in order to validate their authority. Impossibly high legalistic standards of thought and behavior may be imposed on the members. Their failure to live up to these standards is a constant reminder of the follower's inferiority to his leaders, and the necessity of submission to them. Abusive religion is, at heart, legalism.
Abusive religion is also paranoid. Because the truth about the abusive religious system would be quickly rejected if recognized, outsiders are shown only a positive image of the group. This is rationalized by assuming that the religion would not be understood by "worldly" people; therefore they have no right to know. This attitude leads to members being secretive about some doctrines and the inner policies and proceedures of the group. Leaders, especially, will keep secrets from their members. This secrecy is rooted in a basic distrust of others because the belief system is false and can not stand scrutiny.
#3) Suppresses Criticism
Because the religious system is not based on the truth it cannot allow questions, dissent, or open discussions about issues. The person who dissents becomes the problem rather than the issue he raised. The truth about any issue is settled and handed down from the top of the hierarchy. Questioning anything is considered a challenge to authority. Thinking for oneself is suppressed by pointing out that it leads to doubts. This is portrayed as unbelief in God and His anointed leaders. Thus the follower controls his own thoughts by fear of doubting God.
A most natural assumption is that a person does not get something for nothing. Apart from the express declarations of salvation by grace through faith God has given in the scriptures, it would be natural to think that one must earn salvation, or at least work to keep it. Thus, in abusive religions all blessings come through performance of spiritual requirements. Failure is strongly condemned so there is only one alternative, perfection. So long as he thinks he is succeeding in his observation of the rules, the follower typically exhibits pride, elitism, and arrogance. However, when reality and failure eventually set in, the result is the person experiences spiritual burnout, or even shipwreck of his faith. Those who fail in their efforts are labeled as apostates, weak, or some other such term so that they can be discarded by the system.
Abusive religions must distinguish themselves from all other religions so they can claim to be distinctive and therefore special to God. This is usually done by majoring on minor issues such as prophecy, carrying biblical law to extremes, or using strange methods of biblical interpretation. The imbalanced spiritual hobby-horse thus produced represents unique knowledge or practices which seem to validate the group's claim to special status with God.
Thank you, David Henke, for explaining these characteristics in such an understandable way!
Our purpose in focusing on spiritual abuse is first to help those who have been hurt to recognize that they have been abused and second to help them heal from these devastating experiences.
In our upcoming post, I will be reviewing an important book called Toxic Faith, written by Dr. Stephen Arterburn. Until then, here is Dr. Arterburn addressing spiritual abuse, which he calls "Toxic Faith".