Monday, May 20, 2013

What does spiritual abuse even look like? Part 1

A couple of years ago I was introduced to an amazing book by David Johnson and Jeff VonVanderen entitled "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse."

It is a must read for anybody who feels they might have been or are being spiritually abused.
I'm going to quote from this book because it is so powerful.

First let's define the term "spiritual abuse."

"Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support, or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person's spiritual empowerment.
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.
It can also occur when spirituality is used to make others live up to a "spiritual standard "  This promotes external "spiritual performance " also without regard to an individual's actual well-being or is used as a means of "proving" a person's spirituality."

"Not all strong Christian leaders are abusive, nor are all spiritual systems abusive.
There is no such thing as a perfect family or church where people don't ever get hurt.
But the difference between an abusive and a non-abusive system is that while hurtful behaviors might happen in both, it is not permissible to talk about problems, hurts and abuses in the abusive system.  Hence, there is no healing and restoration after the wound has occurred, and the victim is made to feel at fault for questioning or pointing out the problem."

So what does a spiritually abusive system look like?

According to David Johnson and Jeff VonVanderen, something like this:

1. Power-Posturing
"Power posturing simply stated 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.
....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."
"In this flock, I'm the Chief Shepherd."
"Because I'm the pastor, that's why!"
"How dare you doubt me!"
"Don't be a troublemaker."
"Keep the peace."
"Submit to your elder."

2. Performance Preoccupation

"In abusive spiritual systems, power is postured and and authority is legislated. Therefore, these systems are preoccupied with the performance of their members. Obedience and submission are two important words often used.
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.
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."
"For many reasons, followers sometimes obey or follow orders to avoid being shamed, to gain someone's approval, or to keep their spiritual statues 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 e called obedience. It is merely weak compliance with some form of external pressure."
"Do not be CONFORMED, but be TRANSFORMED by the renewing of your mind."
Romans 12:2

3. Unspoken Rules
"Unspoken rules are those that govern unhealthy 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.
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" rule has this thinking behind it: 'The real problem cannot be exposed because then 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.
The truth is, when people talk about problems out loud they don't cause them, the simply expose 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." 

4. Lack of Balance

"The fourth characteristic of a spiritually abusive system is an unbalanced approach to living out the truth of the Christian life. This shows itself in two extremes:

1. Extreme Objectivism
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.
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 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 things. We no longer worship the great I AM, but the great "I Was."

2. Extreme Subjectivisim
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."

Part 2 will cover the last three characteristics of an abusive system as outlined in the book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.

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