You can find Part 1 here
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse
David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen 1991 Bethany House Publishers
The following series of excerpts will be without comment from me in the initial post. I would be interested in reading your thoughts on this book and their ideas.
63 - 71
Identifying the Abusive System
There are certain characteristics that can be observed in all spirituallyabusive systems. In the next two chapters, we will identify and describe seven that seem most common. This chapter will focus on the unhealthy dynamics that dictate how people function within spiritually abusive systems. In the following chapter, we will talk about the dynamics that create walls around abusive systems, making it difficult for people to get out.
Both dynamics are important to understand because, as with other abuses, it is common for spiritually abused people to move from one abusive system to another. Many do get up the courage to leave an abusive church but, lo and behold, in their next church they miss the signals or they talk themselves out of seeing the same dynamics that were present in the system from which they have just escaped.
Relationships between people in spiritually abusive systems are dictated by the following dynamics:
The first characteristic of an abusive religious system is what we call power-posturing. Power-posturing simply means that leaders spend a lot of time focused on their own authority and reminding others of it, as well. This is necessary because their spiritual authority isn't real-based on genuine godly character-it is postured.
No question, there are many leaders in the body of Christ whom people follow for the right reason-that is, because God has given them authority and they shepherd the flock. They set people free. Unfortunately, there are others who are elected leaders, but don't demonstrate any real authority to set people spiritually free. They spend a lot of energy posturing about how much authority they have and how much everyone else is supposed to submit to it. The fact that they are eager to place people under them-under their word, under their "authority"-is one easy-to-spot clue that they are operating in their own authority.
2. Performance Preoccupation
In abusive spiritual systems, power is postured and authority is legislated. Therefore, these systems are preoccupied with the performance of their members. Obedience and submission are two important words often used.
God teaches that He looks first upon the heart; God is concerned that we not do the right thing for all the wrong reasons. Yes, obedience to God is not negotiable. Yet the way to tell if someone is doing the right thing for the wrong reason is if they are keeping track of it. Let's say that another way. If obedience and service is flowing out of you as a result of your dependence on God alone, you won't keep track of it with an eye toward reward, you'll just do it. But if you're preoccupied with whether you've done enough to please God, then you're not looking at Him, you're looking at your own works. And you're also concerned about who else might be looking at you, evaluating you. Why would anyone keep track of their "godly" behavior unless they were trying to earn spiritual points because of it?
For many reasons, followers sometimes obey or follow orders to avoid being shamed, to gain someone's approval, or to keep their spiritual status or church position intact. This is not true obedience or submission; it is compliant self-seeking. When behavior is simply legislated from the outside, instead of coming from a heart that loves God, it cannot be called obedience. It is merely weak compliance with some form of external pressure.
3. Unspoken Rules
In abusive spiritual systems, people's lives are controlled from the outside in by rules, spoken and unspoken. Unspoken rules are those that govern unhealthy churches or families but are not said out loud. Because they are not said out loud, you don't find out that they're there until you break them.
For instance, no one at a church gathering would ever say out loud, "You know we must never disagree with the pastor on his sermons-and if you do you will never be trusted and never be allowed to minister in any capacity in this church." In this case, the unspoken rule is: Do not disagree with the church authorities-especially the pastor-or your loyalty will be suspect. Rules like this remain unspoken because examining them in the light of mature dialogue would instantly reveal how illogical, unhealthy and anti-Christian they are. So silence becomes the fortress wall of protection, shielding the pastor's power position from scrutiny or challenge.
If you did disagree openly or publicly, you would break the silence-and you would quite likely be punished. You would unwittingly discover that there is a rule, even though it's not spoken. When you find unspoken rules by breaking them unintentionally, you will then suffer one of two consequences: either neglect (being ignored, overlooked, shunned) or aggressive legalism (questioned, openly censured, asked to leave-in extreme cases cursed).
Unspoken rules have an incredible amount of power. Perhaps you are living under the effects of several right now. Let's take a test.
Did you come from a religious background where it was taught that the written rule, the Bible, has the final say? "The Bible is the final authority" was the spoken rule. In that church or family was there also an unwritten and unspoken rule that said, "It is better to be nice than to be honest"? Now, the written rule-the Bible-says in Ephesians 4:25: "Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with his neighbor, for we are members of one another."
Now we have a conflict. The written rule says one thing, the un-written rule says another. Now here is the test. For those who came from a system where both rules were in operation, which rule won most often? Was honesty suppressed, repressed, or even oppressed?
In spiritually abusive families and churches, where people insist that they stand on the authority of Scripture, not even Scripture is as powerful as the unwritten rules.
The "Can't Talk" Rule The most powerful of all unspoken rules in the abusive system is what we have already termed the "can't-talk" rule. The "can't-talk" has this thinking behind it: "The real problem cannot be exposed becausethen it would have to be dealt with and things would have to change; so it must be protected behind walls of silence (neglect) or by assault (legalistic attack). If you speak about the problem out loud, you are the problem. In some way you must be silenced or eliminated." Those who do speak out are most often told, "We didn't have all these problems until you started shooting your mouth off. Everything was fine before you started stirring things up." Or else, to make it sound really spiritual, "You were angry-you didn't confront the matter in a 'loving' way. So it proves you weren't handling the matter in a mature, Christian manner." In either case, the problem remains.
The truth is, when people talk about problems out loud they don't cause them, they simply expose them.
In abusive spiritual systems, there exists a "pretend peace"-what Jeremiah decried, saying, "The prophets say 'peace, peace' when there is none." If what unites us is our pretending to agree, even though we don't agree, then we have nothing more than pretend peace and unity, with undercurrents of tension and backbiting. This is far from "preserving unity and peace in the Holy Spirit," which is to be the hallmark of healthy Christian churches. That is to say, any topic should be open for discussion, and on some points we may agree to disagree and to continue open dialogue on the subject, both parties willing; or we may both agree to suspend discussion for a time if it raises tension.
The important point is that both parties be involved in forming the agreement. If what unites us truly is the Holy Spirit and love for one another, then it is possible to disagree and it will not destroy our unity. The "can't-talk" rule, however, blames the person who talks, and the ensuing punishments pressure questioners into silence.
Here is another test. Susan is being counseled by John, a Christian counselor and leader in the church. John makes aggressive sexual advances toward Susan after a counseling session one afternoon. Susan reports the incident to the church leaders and the secular authorities. John gets in trouble and is taken before courts and boards and committees. Why did John get in trouble?
Was it because Susan exposed him? No. John got into trouble because his advances were inappropriate and illegal. What he might do, however, is somehow communicate to her (and maybe enlist the help of the pastor and other people in the church) that the reason why he's in so much trouble is because Susan spoke up.
Sadly, there are many women like Susan who suffer spiritual abuse when they are called "unsubmissive," "too strong," "disloyal," or "a Jezebel" for exposing abusive Christian male leaders, or even for questioning them. Too many churches communicate this kind of shaming message: "The problem is not that your boundaries were crossed and violated, the problem is that you talked. If you would not have made such a big deal, everything would still be fine." If a person accepts that message, they will stop talking.
The real problem, however, is that if a Christian who feels violated stops talking, then the perpetrator will never be held accountable for his behavior. And the victim will have to "freeze up" the pain and anger of being spiritually abused.
Though some in authority would love to never be questioned or opposed, the fact of the matter is that such a system is a trap and a downfall for any leader. If noticing problems is labeled disloyalty, lack of submission, divisiveness, and a challenge to authority, then there is only a facade of peace and unity. It is impossible for wounds to be healed, and abuse will one day escalate. If authorities are not accountable, then you have built a system that is in opposition to the freedom that is in Christ. You are ignoring James 3: 1, which says, "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment."
Leaders are more accountable because of their position of au- thority-not less accountable. Why? Because if you are a leader peo- ple are following you, behaving the way you do. You are spiritually reproducing after your own kind. What are you reproducing?
4. lack of Balance
The fourth characteristic of a spiritually abusive system is an un- balanced approach to living out the truth of the Christian life. This shows itself in two extremes:
Extreme Objectivism The first extreme is an empirical approach to life, which elevates objective truth to the exclusion of valid subjective experience. This is seen in religious systems where even though the Holy Spirit's work might be acknowledged theologically, on a practical level it would be suspect, or denied.
This approach to spirituality creates a system in which authority is based upon the level of education and intellectual capacity alone, rather than on intimacy with God, obedience and sensitivity to His Spirit. This kind of system is in opposition to Scripture and the Spirit of God.
The objective spiritual system limits God to act only in those ways that we can explain, prove, or experience. It puts God in a box. We are left with a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Bible-as if understanding and memorizing Scripture is the only way to hear from God. We are relegated to songs that commemorate how God used to do thingsExtreme Subjectivism
The other manifestation of lack of balance is seen in an extremely subjective approach to the Christian life. What is true is decided on the basis of feelings and experiences, giving more weight to them than to what the Bible declares. In this system, people can't know or understand truths (even if they really do understand or know them) until the leaders "receive them by spiritual revelation from the Lord" and "impart" them to the people. In such systems, it is more important to act according to the word of a leader who has "a word" for you than to act according to what you know to be true from Scripture, or simply from your spiritual growth-history.
The only way to be absolutely certain that a word from the Lord is for you is if it's the Word of the Lord, that is, Scripture. Even in this, we are never to use Scriptures to manipulate people.
Even further, we believe it is dishonest- even dangerous-simply to receive and act upon a spiritual directive because you are "supposed to be submissive," or because someone is "in authority." In the end, God is the One before whom we must all stand, the One to whom we must answer, As with the extreme objective approach, Christians who are highly subjective also have a view of education-most often, that education is bad or unnecessary, There is almost a pride in not being educated, and a disdain for those who are. Everything that is needed is taught by the Holy Spirit. ("After all, Peter and Timothy didn't go to college or seminary, , . ,")
The truth is that Peter did go to seminary, Both objective truth and subjective experience were given to him by Jesus. Timothy's seminary was Paul. That is because, in their day, people were taught through the Rabbinic method of teaching. This meant living with and experiencing life with a spiritual mentor. Peter's discipleship lasted three years. Even after Timothy got into the ministry he continued "seminary" through the mail, if you will. Remember that Paul wrote to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:15, "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth," The familiar King James Version says, "Study to show yourself approved, . , ,"
It is important to study the Word of God. And it is good, not bad, to acquire mental tools to handle God's Word accurately. Beware of those who put a spiritual premium on not being educated, or of being educated only at certain schools. In the name of some "higher enlightenment" by the Holy Spirit, you may be withering under a teacher with a limited reality who won't be taught by anyone else.
In the next chapter we will examine those characteristics of spiritually abusive systems that make it difficult for people to leave,
END OF PART 2