Spiritual Abuse


If I were to ask you to name all the types of abuse you can think of, odds are your list would be fairly long.  Verbal, physical, sexual, mental, child, elder, financial, etc.  Essentially, any aspect of life in which you work in conjunction with another person, has potential for abuse.  The topic of abuse is so broad, were I to try and address every form of it, this blog would turn into a treatise and I daresay, anyone who has looked forward to reading my writings would no longer seek them.  For now, I would like you to consider the topic of spiritual abuse.  Was this type of abuse on your list?

In The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen define spiritual abuse as, “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” (p.20).  This “spiritual empowerment” has less to do with advancement in an organizational structure and more to do with greater personal understanding and deepening of one’s faith. 

Ways this type of abuse can be administered is through control due to a spiritual position or through communities coercing a spiritual standard based in behavior or a way of thinking as a way to stay in the good graces of the broader group.  This is to say what is used as a standard to spiritually abuse one in a Baptist denomination may look drastically different from what is used in a Pentecostal tradition.  Though the specifics may change, the tactics cross denomination and whether done intentionally or not, abuse is always about power and control.

Diane Langberg in Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse says personhood is comprised of three components: voice, relationship, and power. It is the essence of personhood and the effects of abuse which struck my attention.  God created us in his image and to be made in the Imago Dei means; we have a voice, as God used his to create the world, we are in relationship, as God is a triune God in relationship with all his persons and is also in relationship with us, and we are powerful as God is certainly powerful, though we are in a much more limited though significant capacity.   

Used rightly our voice is a tool which allows us to know others and be known, our relationship is in peace with one another, and our power is used to influence others toward good things within our relationships (Langberg, D, pp. 45-51)  When used incorrectly as in a way to assert ourselves above another, we diminish the voice of another, break the relationship, and leave the other powerless in the wake of whatever situation has taken place. 

The effects of abuse are certainly present in the spiritual communities we find ourselves in when those in power use their position to squelch an opposing view or question the spiritual health of someone with which they disagree.  Or when a friend refuses to acknowledge a wrongdoing against you and insists God will use it for his glory and all is ultimately well, thereby breaking the trusted relationship.  Or when a woman comes to church leadership to ask for help in honoring her marriage commitment, but is fearful for her safety due to escalating physical abuse, and is told to go home and submit to the authority under which she finds herself.   In the case of the last example taken directly from from Johnson and Van Vonderen, a woman went to her church leadership afraid for her life and was told, “Stay with him, and if he kills you, God will use that to draw him to Himself.”

Church, such a dismissive attitude and diminishing of the value of this woman’s life does not reflect the heart of God.  If anything it reflects the laziness at which the church addresses the complicated matters of congregational need. 

Think of your spiritual communities, are you free to ask questions in church?  If you disagree with leadership, are you accused of sowing seeds of discord?  Are women in domestic abuse situations told to be submissive to the point of death? Are the abusers tolerated or excused as a way to “honor” marriage? Is the desire to be Christlike used as a coercive manipulation? Does your church involve law enforcement when laws are broken?  Do children who are abused by members within the church see the church do justly while loving mercy and ministering to the victim and abuser alike? 

The church has a habit of spiritualizing its laziness in order to protect their comfort.  Peace is more than the absence of conflict; it is the presence of rest and safety.  Do we want to follow Christ into the darkness to rescue those held within it, or do we stand at the edge of the light and call blindly into darkness as though we know how to guide from a distance?  

Going back to the definition we were given of spiritual abuse, “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” (p.20), because we take our faith with us and experience life in many different arenas, I cannot help but think that among all the other types of abuse, there is an aspect of spiritual abuse that is present.  Truly, in all abuse is a need for help, support, and spiritual empowerment. 

When hurting people come to God’s followers for help, do we hand them a stone in the place of bread (Matthew 7:9), or avoidantly send them into chaos with empty platitudes superficially speaking peace over them (Jer. 6:14)? When we remove ourselves from suffering, we dishonor the name of Christ and we are following our comfort rather than following him. 

We need to be the followers of the One who became Emmanuel and be with them.  They need to know they are seen as Hagar was seen in the desert.  When they use their voice we must listen, when they need help, we must relate to them, and when they are broken we must help them regain their power by pointing them to the source.  Anything less is spiritually devoid of wholeness and adds a deep injury to an already broken spirit.