“Spiritual abuse is a real phenomenon that actually happens in the body of Christ. It is a subtle trap in which the ones who perpetrate spiritual abuse on others are just as trapped in their unhealthy beliefs and actions as those whom they, knowingly and unknowingly, abuse.”
When Dee and I began researching Christian topics over nine years ago, it didn’t take us long to discover that Christendom is riddled with problems involving spiritual abuse. We have shared countless testimonies of abuse within the church across denominational lines. And in our opinion, one of the most important books that has ever been written on this topic is The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.
This powerful book was first published in 1991 by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, and because it has been in such high demand through the years, it is still in print.
Here is a little background information. David Johnson began pastoring at Church of the Open Door, located just outside Minneapolis in 1980 — incidentally, the same year John Piper was called to pastor Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Johnson, a graduate of Bethel College, received his theological training at Bethel Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He continues to serve as a pastor at Church of the Open Door, where he has been for over 37 years. Under his direction, the church grew from 180 to a congregation of 5,000 (as of the original printing of the book).
Jeff VanVonderen served as Pastor of Counseling at Church of the Open Door when he co-wrote The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. He worked at the church for 15 years. In addition, he co-founded and is the former Director of Passages Counseling Center, a licensed out-patient mental health clinic in Minneapolis. Jeff VanVonderen is a Certified Case Manager Interventionist – Masters Level (CCMI-M) and a nationally known speaker on issues concerning church and family wellness. Perhaps you have seen him on the A&E program Intervention.
Here are the important themes of the book:
- What are the abusive spiritual dynamics that can develop in a church.
- How do people get hooked into these abusive systems?
- What are the marks of false spiritual leadership and their impact on a congregation?
- What are the scriptures and doctrinal concepts that can be misused to keep Christians under bondage?
- How can an abused Christian find rest and recovery?
David Johnson begins the book by sharing that a woman came forward for prayer at the end of a church service. She had fear in her eyes, and David soon realized that she was afraid of him! He quickly realized that she was afraid of him as a spiritual authority – a “representative of God”. He later realized that she was a victim of spiritual abuse. In the book’s introduction, David Johnson shared:
“It was this one woman who opened my eyes to the impact unhealthy spirituality can have on men, women, and children… What I see in this I cannot ignore. I see the symptoms of a disease for which I have finally found a name: spiritual abuse.”
In his introductory comments, Jeff VanVonderen explains that he and David Johnson have been pastoring together at Church of the Open Door for over a decade and that they have seen some ‘incredibly wounded people’. Remember, the book was written in 1991. We can’t help but wonder where these wounded Christians attended church before they finally made their way to Church of the Open Door…
The desire of Johnson and VanVonderen is to bring grace and liberation to wounded people, which we believe they have been tremendously successful in doing.
In Chapter 1, they define Spiritual Abuse as follows:
the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.
In Chapter 2, Johnson and VonVonderen explain that spiritual abuse is not new. They cite passages of scripture that demontrate it was prevalent during Biblical times. They remind their readers that Jesus warned in Matthew 7:15 to “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
Part I of the book (Spiritual Abuse and Its Victims) also includes the following chapters:
3. Abused Christians
4. The Pre-Abuse Set-Up
5. Identifying the Abusive System
6. When You Cannot Leave
7. Abuse and Scripture
8. Revictimizing Victims
Part II of the book concerns “Abusive Leaders and Why They Are Trapped”. the first chapter is this section is “Because I’m the Pastor, That’s Why!” And the final chapter in this section is “The People Get Devoured”.
Finally, Part III focuses on Post-Abuse Recovery, and the first chapter in this section is titled: “How to Escape a Spiritual Trap”.
Over at Amazon, Gennie left the following recommendation (see screen shot of her review below).
Dee and I are unpaid, unsolicited endorsers of this outstanding resource regarding spiritual abuse. It is our hope that those who have not read it will take the time to do so. Amazon is currently offering both new and used copies, as well as a Kindle version.
As David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen share in the book:
“Spiritually abusive systems are easy to get into but hard to leave.” (p. 184)
It is our desire that if you are in an abusive system this book will give you the knowledge and skills to leave. Furthermore, we hope that this helpful information will prevent you from getting sucked into a spiritually abusive system in the future.
Knowledge is power!