This is a two part article. See: Part Two
When someone mentions the term, “spiritual abuse” today, sexual molestation of a child often comes to mind. We have too many accounts of priests, pastors and Sunday school teachers preying on the children in their care. And yes, sadly, that is spiritual abuse.
But this kind of abuse can also take on a more subtle form as well. Its definition hinges on the manipulation of power enforced by a spiritual authority figure, with the abused party feeling helpless and coerced.
Children, of course, spring to mind as the most vulnerable. But the net spreads wider.
And a heartbreaking reality emerges: loving God does not exclude us from being hurt, even in the seemingly Godly setting of church. We are all susceptible when it comes to spiritual abuse.
“…Many spiritual abuse victims find themselves struggling to make decisions, and may even have a hard time disciplining themselves to do basic everyday functions such as getting out of bed and brushing their teeth. For so long, we allowed the group/leader to think for us, formulate our opinions for us, and make decisions for us. No wonder so many of us struggle for many years learning how to find ourselves again after leaving a spiritually abusive situation…”
“Spiritual Identity Crisis?” www.churchabuse.com
Used with permission.
When I was mired in the grief of my dad’s death, years ago, I was vulnerable. And, because of my wrong beliefs about myself and God, I had a harmful perception of being a “good Christian.”
I was desperate to have love, reassurance and stability in my life.
So, in that state, fueled by the wrong “good Christian” beliefs I adopted, I placed myself in situations in which I people pleased, at the expense of my true identity, relationships and my grief process.
I felt if I ever said no to a pastor or church leader, I would be sinning against God; I would be a bad person.
And, by being this bad person, I only deserved to be mistreated.
Therefore, in this mindset, scripture, instead of being my refuge, seemed to only be a weapon used against me.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.. Romans 13:1-7
Romans 13:1-7 is there. It should, ideally, be constructive and edifying.
But sometimes, when imperfect humanity gets ahold of it, more sinister, perverted and harmful agendas can easily dictate their abusive terms.
So, let’s break down the scriptural passages on spiritual authority and, dare I say it, challenge them a bit.
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work. Titus 3:1
Submission, deference, respect- whatever you want to call it- it is there, especially concerning matters of faith; we cannot avoid it.
Submission to Authority:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities… Romans 13:1-7
Leaders are inevitable. Whether they are clergy, teachers, politicians, “first responders” or experts in any area of life, people leading other people is a day in, day out, reality. And so, we’re instructed to heed authority.
And that, of course, is quite pronounced within the church. There are understood agreements which state church leaders require our respect and cooperation.
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with that.
However, if certain individuals abuse that respect, submission or cooperation, they show themselves to be unfit. Just because we are under a pastor, a priest or someone in authority, does not give those persons the right to harm us in any way.
Leaders – including church leaders – are not above having wrong mindsets, behaviors or compulsions. And it is these issues which can drive their personal motivations.
Why do we think there are so many scriptures on the heart and its issues? (i.e., 1 Samuel 16:7; Psalms 139:23-24; Proverbs 21:1-2 and Proverbs 23:7).
It’s because we are vulnerable in this area and need them as reality check mirrors. Disorder, deception, misogyny, bigotry, lust, hate and greed can infiltrate any of us. We can all go to “the dark place.” We can all be led astray, pastors, priests, and leaders, included.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? Jeremiah 17:9
In addition, complicating things more, titles and authority can further obscure our responses. Originally, abuse of anyone may not have been a person’s intention. But, subtle encroaching of carnal passions creep in, justify and rationalize why leadership is doing what he/she is doing. All too quickly, things can go from order to disorder, from trusted safety to abuse.
Leadership may earnestly believe…
… he/she is doing “what is best…”
…he/she has the right to do something because of a particular title or role…
…he/she knows more, ergo, “knows better,” than the person needing assistance, mentoring or help, influencing a certain inappropriate behavior and/or relationship…
…his/her title gives that person Divinely-ordered, sovereign power, endorsing any and all behavior “for the good of the church…”
These are just a few of the rationalizations out there, made on a daily basis. Often, they are hidden from view, allowed to flourish unchecked, within the protection of secrecy and authority’s power.
And so, it is within this light, it is all the more important we recognize the Most High’s method of operation:
HE never abuses; HE loves.
And His love does NOT compromise our conscience.
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11
Out of that love, yes, comes guidance and correction, but it is always to help us, never to exploit us. It doesn’t ask us to violate ourselves. It doesn’t coerce a response from us by using physical, mental, emotional or sexual force.
I’m sure, by now, you may have heard the phrase, “God is a gentleman.” Hold tightly to that; it is indicative of His Nature. The Most High God desires our inherent willingness, not our conflicted acquiescence.
If you feel torn, conflicted or exploited in any way, it is not of God. It spotlights, indeed, how things have not be done “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
And that needs to be addressed.
Invoking the Name of God:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God… Romans 13:1-7
Likewise, we are to employ caution whenever anyone uses “God’s Name” or “God’s Will” to persuade you and me into doing something.
Again, our Creator doesn’t use abusive force or manipulation when He deals with us. Scripture, therefore, further instructs us to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1).
This does not simply cover supernaturally-viewed demonic activity. It is about testing an individual statement, attitude or teaching. If a church or a leader is asking disturbing, violating things of us, we need to ask some questions back:
Who’s asking you to do something “for God?”
What are they asking you to do?
How do you feel about it?
What do you believe God thinks about it?
Who else knows about this request?
What are you afraid will happen if you say “yes” or “no” to the request?
If there is any kind of uneasiness with what is being proposed, we are to heed that. We are “Spirit-led,” according to scripture. We will “be led into all truth” (John 16:13). Sometimes, that truth may be…
“This leader/church is unsafe.”
“This leader/church is not doing God’s Will.”
“This leader/church need to be removed from power and restored.”
Guilt, Fear and Shame:
…Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. Romans 13:1-7
Furthermore, pressuring and shaming arguments, in the name of “Holy Authority,” can be hurled as weapons at our less-than-pleasing responses:
“You don’t love God enough.”
“You’re not submissive enough.”
“You don’t have enough of and/or the ‘right’ kind of faith by the evidence of your reactions.”
Man’s Words Versus God’s Words:
But again, we need to discern between man’s agenda-fueled perspective and the Almighty’s loving and perfect viewpoint:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9
Before we get so upset with a leader’s attitude and behavior and how it involves us, it would be helpful for each of us to be well-educated in the Holy requirements expected of that leader.
Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. 1 Corinthians 4:2
“What did I do wrong?”
So, sometimes, instead of asking this question, feeling the fear, guilt and shame it elicits, we need to ask another question in its place…
“What are you, the leader or church, doing wrong?”
For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. Titus 1:7-9
Leadership can get so drunk on power, they forget or forsake the more important aspect of stewardship.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” Matthew 23:23
Stewardship is a higher responsibility to do right with who or what is entrusted to us. We are not to abuse that for our own purposes: for lust, for gain, for ego gratification of any kind.
And we need to keep in mind the role healthy stewardship plays in our lives: freedom.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1
The spirit representing the Most High God is one of liberty, not debilitating oppression.
Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 2 Corinthians 3:17
Spiritual abuse is the antithesis of Divine freedom; it is enslavement. Being enslaved is often defined within the physical realm of the body. And yes, spiritual abuse can incorporate the harmful physical and sexual abuse on the individual.
But it also involves the mistreatment, the neglect and the harmful mental and/or emotional tactics as well. “Mind games,” exertion of title, authority or any other advantage, creates an “or else” message in which the victim sees no escape or choice other than to submit to the abuser. There may not be a gun held to someone’s head, but some threat is, nevertheless, made. And that threat can be wrapped in a lie such as this…
- “No one else will love, understand, believe, forgive or help you if you don’t trust that I know what is best for you… and do as I say.”
Most of the time, that threat is never actually uttered in those exact words. Again, much of spiritual abuse’s message is understood: the abuser’s needs/wants/desires outweigh the victim’s. And it is further sold by emphasizing how God completely approves of this arrangement.
But again, we are to test the spirits. The red flag deal breakers are anything and everything which go against our conscience, our intuition and the violation of our bodies. Remember the “God is a gentleman” principle and apply it directly to the leader/church in question.
This is a two part article. See: Part Two