The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse - Part 3

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  • Lady Lee
    Lady Lee

    You can find Part 1 here

    You can find Part 2 here

    The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse - Part 3

    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.

    73 - 79

    Chapter 6

    When You Cannot Leave

    In the field of astronomy there is a phenomenon called a "black hole." A black hole is a star whose mass got so incredibly dense that it actually "imploded"-that is, instead of exploding outward it exploded inward. Now its gravity has grown so strong that it prevents even light from leaving. Hence, the term "black hole."

    As we've noted, certain characteristics of spiritually abusive systems make it immensely difficult for people caught up in them to leave. Because of the focus on religious performance, things look good to those on the outside. This system acts like a "spiritual magnet" pulling in people from the outside. Inside, however, the system acts like a black hole with spiritual gravity so strong it is very hard for people to get out. In fact, as you've already seen with the "can't-talk" rule, even information about what is going on within the system can't get out. If you talk to anyone, you are treated as if you are the problem. The following characteristics are what make these abusive spiritual systems so difficult to escape.

    5. Paranoia

    In the church or family that is spiritually abusive, there is a sense, 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; and (3) others will respond negatively.

    In a place where authority is grasped and 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.

    Keeping People Wounded

    Not only does this spiritualized paranoia make it hard to leave the system, it prevents people from getting the help they need. "Do you want to have no fear of authority?" Paul asks in Romans 13:3. "Then do what is good." He does not tell us to hide the problem.

    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 3:4).

    6. Misplaced Loyalty

    The next characteristic of spiritually abusive systems is that a misplaced sense of loyalty is fostered and even demanded. We're not talking about loyalty to Christ, but about loyalty to a given organization, church, or leader.

    Once again, because authority is assumed or legislated (and therefore not real), following must be legislated as well. A common way this is accomplished is by setting up a system where disloyalty to or disagreement with the leadership is construed as the same thing as disobeying God. Questioning leaders is equal to questioning God. After all, the leader is the authority, and authority is always right. This causes people to misplace their loyalty in a leader, a church, or an organization. Once again, this makes the wall around the system thicker and makes it more difficult to leave.

    "We Alone Are Right"

    There are three factors that come into play here, adding up to misplaced loyalty. First, 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 to be viewed as wrong or "backslidden."

    Scare Tactics

    The second factor that brings about misplaced loyalty is the use of "scare tactics." We've already seen some of this in the paranoia described in the last section. Scare tactics are more serious. This is more than just the risk of being polluted by the world.

    Not long ago a Christian man made it clear to us that he had separated himself from the world by not fellowshiping with "the infidels," As we talked, we learned that his definition of "infidel" was not limited to non-Christians. It also included Christians from other denominations, certain Christians from his own denomination, and even Christians from his own church who didn't think as he did. In fact, we were dismayed to learn that we were also considered "infidels" because we failed to agree with him.

    We have counseled many Christians who, after deciding to leave their church, were told horrifying things. "God is going to withdraw His Spirit from you and your family." "God will destroy your business." "Without our protection, Satan will get your children." "You and your family will come under a curse." This is spiritual blackmail and it's abuse. And it does cause people to stay in abusive places.


    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.

    Unquestionably, there is a place for appropriate church discipline (which we will discuss later). In the 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, 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.

    One of several things usually happens after such pressures are employed. First, people stay and shut up. Second, they are eventually driven away because they end up isolated and spiritually starved to death. Third, they finally get up and say, "Fine, I am leaving because this is abusive and I disagree."

    Many people have reported a curious thing after having taken such a stand. Although many in the system wanted them to leave when they did, they received calls and correspondence asking them to come back again. This is so confusing that some people actually go back.

    7. Secretive

    When you see people in a religious system being secretive-watch out. People don't hide what is appropriate; they hide what is inappropriate.

    One reason 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 in order to protect God's good name. So how things look and what others think becomes more important than what's real. They become God's "public relations agents." The truth is, He's 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 truth." This is patronizing, at best. Conspiracies also develop among the lay people. Since it is not all right to notice or talk about problems, people form conspiracies behind closed doors and over the telephone as they try to solve things informally. But since they have no authority, they solve, and solve, and solve-but nothing really gets solved. And all the while, building God's true kingdom is put on hold.


    When these characteristics exist in a church or Christian family system, the result will be spiritual abuse. It will be a closed system, with rigid boundaries that prevent people from leaving. There will be the perception of a lot of evil on the outside, to keep people in, and there will be a lot of power postured on the inside to compel you to perform. There will also be tired, wounded people who feel that they are either unspiritual or crazy. And they will have major problems relating to God from the heart. In addition, people who live in these systems can wind up totally ill-equipped for life. When they leave, for whatever reason, they may be blown around like dry leaves, or easily drawn into other abusive systems.

    How is this possible? How could someone who loves God decide to shun Him? And how could someone who has once been abused in a spiritual setting jump into the arms of further abuse? We believe one answer lies in the abusive system's use-or misuse-of Scripture. This is a most serious problem, which bears close examination.

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