The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse

Last week we laid the groundwork for a more in depth look at spiritual abuse in churches.  During the next two weeks we will examine the fine line between Biblical leadership and abuse.  Unfortunately, well-intentioned shepherds can sometimes have abusive effects on their flocks.


One of the best books available that addresses unhealthy spiritual patterns is The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Pastor David Johnson and Dr. Jeff VanVonderen.  Johnson serves as Senior Pastor of the Church of the Open Door near Minneapolis, Minnesota and VanVonderen is a counselor and author of several bestselling Christian books.  He is also featured on A&E's critically acclaimed television show "Intervention". 


The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse identifies common characteristics of spiritually abusive systems.  The authors discovered that when these traits are present in churches, they make the relationships in that fellowship hurtful. 


Here are seven characteristics of graceless churches, which can be found on Dr. VanVonderen's Spiritual Abuse website :


1. Power-posturing. Those in leadership positions spend a lot of time and energy reminding others of their authority. Authority is used to boss and control members of God’s family.


2. Performance preoccupation. How people act is more important than what’s really going on in their lives. People aren’t what is loved and accepted. Behavior is the most important thing.


3. Unspoken rules. How relationships function is governed by rules that aren’t said out loud, but in many cases these unspoken rules have more weight than the out-loud rules or even Scripture. The most powerful and damaging of all the unspoken rules is the “can’t talk” rule. This rule keeps the truth quiet because the problem itself isn’t treated as the problem; talking about it is treated as the problem. People who notice problems and confront them are labeled divisive and disloyal. People shut up and call it unity.


4. Lack of balance. There are disproportionate focuses and values placed on certain areas of the Christian life. For instance, you must agree that certain gifts of the Spirit aren’t for today or you’re labeled “unstable” or “deceived.” In other churches, if you lack certain spiritual gifts or don’t exercise the gifts in ways accepted by the group, you are considered a second-class Christian.


5. Spiritual paranoia. There is a sense that people, resources, and relationships outside the system are unsafe.


6. Misplaced loyalty. A sense of loyalty is built toward programs, things, and people, rather than toward Jesus.


7. Secretiveness. Certain information is deemed suitable only for those within the church or only for certain people within the church.


Dr. VanVonderen provides the following insight at the above link:


"It’s unlikely that one church would exhibit all seven of the characteristics I have just mentioned.  Conversely, it’s likely that even in a healthy church you could find one of these traits, or some inkling of these dynamics from time to time.  But wherever even one of these dynamics is present in God’s family people are apt to get hurt.  And without exception, churches with a “can’t talk” rule will be extremely hurtful to their members.  In these places problems can’t be confronted or resolved because you become “the problem” for talking about the problem.  Consequently, the offenders are isolated from accountability, and the ones hurt are isolated from healing.  There is no chance for the healing that true unity in Christ brings."


Ironically, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, was published in 1991; yet it continues to be in great demand.  As we have conducted extensive research on "The New Calvinists", we have discovered that some of the churches that label themselves as such often exhibit some of the above characteristics. 


Tomorrow, we will focus on power-posturing where leaders in spiritually abusive systems spend a great deal of time focusing on their "authority" and reminding their congregations of it.  It is called "posturing" because these shepherds spend a lot of time explaining how much authority they have and how much everyone else is supposed to submit to their control.  

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