“Americans, indeed all freemen, remember that in the final choice, a soldier's pack is not so heavy a burden as a prisoner's chains.”Dwight D. Eisenhower
Signs of a Spiritually Abusive Church
We hope our discussion of spiritual abuse has been helpful, and we pray that you are NOT recognizing any of the first four characteristics of spiritually abusive systems where you worship. The subtitle of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse is "recognizing and escaping spiritual manipulation and false spiritual authority within the church". Unfortunately, our enemy realizes that one of the best places to deceive is IN THE CHURCH. This has been true throughout history, and we fear it will only get worse as Satan's time is running out. That's why we must be extremely alert!
The saddest part of deception within the church is that sometimes those who are being deceived, whether they be pastors or congregants, do not realize it. David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen have compiled an excellent list of characteristics that enables all of us to recognize when we are being manipulated.
There are three more characteristics that need to be presented, specifically: spiritual paranoia, misplaced loyalty, and secretiveness. We are presenting them together because they are often intertwined.
Spiritual paranoia — When spiritual paranoia is present in a church, there is a sense among the congregation that people, resources, and relationships outside the system are unsafe. In a spiritually abusive church, there is a sense, whether it is spoken or unspoken, that "others will not understand what we're all about, so let's not let them know — that way they won't be able to ridicule or persecute us." There is an assumption that: (1) what we say, know, or do is a result of our being more enlightened than others, (2) others will not understand unless they become one of us, (3) other will respond negatively. (p. 73)
Johnson and Van Vonderen explain: "In a place where authority is grasped or legislated, not simply demonstrated, persecution sensitivity builds a case for keeping everything within the system. Why? Because of the evil, dangerous, or unspiritual people outside of the system who are trying to weaken or destroy "us." This mentality builds a strong wall or bunker around the abusive system, isolates the abusers from scrutiny and accountability, and makes it more difficult for people to leave — because they will then be outsiders too." While it is true that there is a world of evil outside of the system, there is also good out there. But people are misled into thinking that the only safety is in the system. Ironically, Jesus and Paul both warned that one of the worst dangers to a flock was from the wolves in the house." (Matthew 10:16; Acts 20:29-30)." (pp. 73-74)
Not only does this spiritualized paranoia make it difficult to leave the "system", but it keeps people from getting the help they desperately need. Johnson and Van Vonderen write: "How sad when we hear that a pastor has covered up child abuse in one of his church families because of distrusting the 'evil, secular, social service system. It's true, the welfare department does not know about God's grace and love — but neither do the Christian parents who are abusing their children. What the social services people do know is how to help someone who is being abused. And they know how to hold perpetrators of abuse accountable for their behavior. A child abuser is breaking the law, and God uses the legal system as 'an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil' (Romans 13:4)". (p. 74)
One of the main functions of pastors and other spiritual leaders in the church is to guide God's flock. Sometimes that means finding help for hurting people, even if it means submitting to someone outside of the church who has expertise in an area where the pastors have little or no wisdom. For example, if someone has been sexually abused (whether a child or adult), the victim needs to seek help from a professional counselor (preferably a Christian). Sometimes pastors falsely believe they are equipped to counsel sexually abused victims when they have received little to no training in sexual abuse. If they truly care about the emotional and spiritual health of the victim, they will encourage him/her to seek help from a professional who has undergone years of extensive training.
Misplaced loyalty — There is a strong sense of loyalty toward programs, things, and people, rather than toward Jesus Christ. Sometimes this loyalty is demanded. To be clear, misplaced loyalty does not concern a loyalty to Christ, but a loyalty to a given organization, church, or leader. In a spiritually abusive system, because authority is assumed or legislated (and therefore not real), following must be legislated as well. Most often this is accomplished by setting up a system where disloyalty to or disagreement with the leadership is construed as disobeying God. In other words, questioning one's leaders is equivalent to questioning Almighty God. (p. 76)
We Alone Are Right
There are three factors that come into play here, adding up to misplaced loyalty. First, the leadership projects a "we alone are right" mentality, which permeates the system. Members must remain in the system if they want to be "safe", or to stay "on good terms" with God, or not be views as wrong or "backslidden". (p. 76)
The second factor that brings about misplaced loyalty is the use of "scare tactics". These are much more serious than spiritual paranoia (as described above). This is much more than just the risk of being polluted by an ungodly world. The authors explain that they have counseled many Christians who, after deciding to leave their church, were told horrifying things, such as: "God is going to withdraw His Spirit from you and your family", or "God will destroy your business", or "Without our protection, Satan will get your children", or "You and your family will come under a curse". This is spiritual blackmail, and it is also ABUSE!!! Unfortunately, it does cause people to remain in abusive systems. (p. 77)
The third method of calling forth misplaced loyalty is the threat of humiliation. This is done by publicly shaming, exposing, or threatening to remove people from the group. Without question, there is a place for appropriate church discipline. In a spiritually abusive system, it is the fear of being exposed, humiliated, or removed that insures your proper allegiance and insulates those in authority. You can be "exposed" for asking too many questions, for disobeying the unspoken rules (which you probably don't even know!), or for disagreeing with authority. People are made public examples in order to send a message to those who remain. Others have phone campaigns launched against them to warn their friends and others in the group about how "dangerous" they are. Those in control of a spiritually abusive church may even LIE by spreading rumors that your marriage is in trouble when in fact it is not! Often leaders will use desperate measures to control the flock. (pp. 77-78)
Secretiveness — "Certain" information can only be shared with a select group within the church. Such information must be kept secret from other members of the congregation. Usually this secret information flows down from the pastors to their "inner circle", and the rest of the church members are kept completely in the dark. When you see people in a religious system being secretive — WATCH OUT!!! People don't hide what is appropriate; they only hide what is inappropriate.
One of the reasons why spiritually abusive families and churches are secretive is because they are so image conscious. People in these systems can't even live up to their own performance standards, so they have to hide what is real. Some believe they must do this to protect God's good name. How things look and what others think become FAR MORE IMPORTANT than what's real. They become God's "public relations agents". The truth is — He is not hiring anyone for this position.
Another reason for secrecy in a church is that the leadership has a condescending, negative view of the laity. This results in conspiracies on the leadership level. They tell themselves, "People are not mature enough to handle the truth." This is patronizing at best. Conspiracies also develop among the lay people. Since it not appropriate to notice or discuss problems, people form conspiracies behind closed doors and over the phone as they try to solve things informally; however, since they have no authority they solve and solve, and solve — but nothing really gets solved. The end result is that the building of God's true kingdom is put on hold. (p. 78)
When any of these seven characteristics exist in a church or Christian family system, the result will ALWAYS be Spiritual Abuse. It will be a closed system with rigid boundaries that prevent people from leaving. There will be the perception that the outside world is evil in order to keep people from leaving. Furthermore, there will be a lot of power postured on the inside to compel members to perform. There will also be tired, wounded people who feel they are either unspiritual or CRAZY! And they will have major problems relating to God from the heart.
What is so sad about spiritually abusive systems is that those who live in these systems are often ill-equipped for life. When they leave, for whatever reason, they are often easily drawn into other abusive systems. How is this possible? The reason is that those in charge of an abusive system MISUSE Scripture to deceive their followers. (p. 79)
"Used rightly, the Word of God is a sword, exposing motives of the heart, and a lamp, lighting the way for those who follow God. Misused, it can become nothing more than a club in the hands of those who equate pretending with obedience and silence with peace." (p. 80)
Over the next two days, we will discuss the following topics:
Abuse and Scripture
Abusive leaders and why they are trapped
The kind of person who is drawn into an abusive system