With #MeToo spreading in response to sexual abuse scandals in Hollywood and with Australia having just come out of a Royal Commission examining many institutional responses to child abuse, I started thinking about the church.
It is often easy to assume that all is going well when Christians, especially those in positions of authority, fail to recognise the abuse. Undoubtedly this is going to be quite a sticky issue in many churches but to tackle this abuse, its prevalence must first be identified.
Many will ask the good question of ‘what exactly is spiritual abuse?’ Put simply it is abuse committed under the banner of spirituality that can range from unquestionable practices, shaming group members for falling outside expectations to gossiping about former members.
In their book ‘The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse’, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen explain that “Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person's state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being”.
Power is often used to increase the position or influence of an authority figure at the expense of those who come to them in need.
Physical abuse is often easier to spot and usually the focus of condemnation. But we must begin to recognise that spiritual abuse has significant emotional and psychological implications as well. If spiritual abuse is taking place in your church, it is the responsibility for all to address it but even then a cure is prevention.
Watch out for the distorted truth
Some examples of spiritual abuse may be using his or her authority to limit the range of Bible teaching made available to group members to avoid the true Gospel’s conviction of the leader’s distortions.
I know of a situation where a teenager in a church was shown the door once he started reading the Bible for himself and raised questions about some of the practices within their church group. Others remain in the group as they are so in fear of alienation and the repercussions of speaking out that they accept the relative security of the abusive leader.
Warnings against leaders putting their own agendas ahead of kingdom building can be found throughout the Bible but, the prophet Ezekiel writes in Chapter 34 verses 2 to 5 that woes will come to shepherds (leaders) who supposed to care for the flock (church members) but instead have weakened them to the extent that they became food for wild animals (near defenceless).
A good friend of mine that went to church every week since primary school fell victim to spiritual abuse when he attended a church group with a leader that preached the prosperity gospel. So spiritually abusive was the culture of that group, that the leader centered the group around himself instead of Christ through buying the loyalties of members with gifts and free meals.
In spreading a distorted Gospel where Christ was secondary, my friend found that they lacked the necessary Biblical guidance to stand firm against the temptations of the world. So, when a life’s challenges swept in like a tsunami, my friend, being fearful that going to another church would offend the leader and bring shame to his family, decided that the best way out of this abusive situation was to deny Christ and profess atheism.
By keeping people in fear, spiritually abusive leaders act to further their own individual kingdoms within the church instead of leading others to find God’s kingdom. As followers of Jesus, we ought to weary of an “us versus them” mentality as this is a sign of spiritual elitism – anyone that is outside the bounds of a spiritually abusive leader’s circle is seen by that group as rebellious.
The Bible clearly tells us that spiritual elitism is evil. This can be seen through the book of 3 John, with the apostle John himself promising to draw attention to the malice of such spiritual abuses.
Making things right
As public opinion increasingly turns away from the church, the followers of Jesus ought to get their house in order or risk further undermining the Gospel of Christ. There are several things that we can do collectively to tackle spiritual abuse among our churches.
We can firstly cultivate an open environment where no leader or member is able to have the unquestionable authority or be able to get away with things. Along with adequate accountability, a culture where everyone feels safe to express themselves is vital for preventing spiritual abuse. And when people do speak up, it is critical that we listen with sincerity especially when they express hurt.
Reflecting on current and past practices is also a great starting point. Often tradition remaining unquestioned leaves the congregation so used to issues that its problematic nature is forgotten. It is the time that we change our perspective to prevent another generation of Christians from spiritual abuse.
For those suffering and affected by spiritual abuse, Jesus’ words of comfort found in Matthew chapter 11 verse 30 “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” and Matthew chapter 9 verse 36 “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” are a starting point to healing.
Dealing and overcoming spiritual abuse will often be difficult but can be done prayerfully by considering all the keys of God’s guidance in every decision that we take.
Roydon Ng is a freelance journalist having completed a Master of Journalism and Communication at the University of New South Wales. He lives in Western Sydney and attends Auburn Baptist Church and Western District Chinese Christian Church serving as a youth group leader.