My bio indicates that I was in the Christian church for over 30 years. The US, patriarchal, evangelical, Republican, anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ, anti-etc church. I am really unclear how I got out of that place, but now that I have, I’m extremely aware of the rampant emotional, psychological, and spiritual abuse that is accepted and promoted in the church. Promoted as god’s will, of course, and supported by cherry-picked scripture.
I ran up against some spiritual abuse this week from a non-Christian source and I was going to write on that, but when I did a search for the definition of spiritual abuse, a Christian website came up with a definition…except that it wasn’t a definition. It was a declaration that the spiritual abuse perpetuated in the Christian church isn’t abuse. The article in question said that spiritual abuse existed, but provided no real definition of it nor clearly identified how to avoid it. Mostly the article explained some of the cherry-picked scriptures to indicate how common practices in the church are NOT abusive.
There are probably some Christian churches who do not have spiritually abusive practices, but I’m not focusing on them in this post. I believe that by identifying ways that abusive practices are perpetuated, we can find the churches that don’t use them as well as the churches that do. So here goes.
All abuse has as its goal power and control over the abused. Different methods are employed, but the goal is always power and control. While obviously different in expression, financial abuse, such as withholding funds, threatens and controls a person similarly to the fear of being beaten. Spiritual abuse also has its goal: the power and control over a person using spiritual means.
Personally, within my experience of this, the use of isolation was one of the most prevalent and effective forms of perpetrating this abuse. While the flock was supposedly filled with the spirit of wisdom and understanding, we were reminded constantly of the threat of being deceived by the world and the devil. The only way to combat that threat was to avoid all “carnal” or “worldly” influence, which included psychology, science, mainstream authorities on subjects such as child rearing, etc. Basically anything except the bible AND approved interpretations of prominent scriptures.
This Christian website I mentioned does not define spiritual abuse, but it warned of psychology, and of false prophets. It also stated that spiritual abuse happens when “our perversion and faulty compliance with God’s instruction and system” come into play. So, according to this fellow, your disobedience to God’s will (not obeying the pastor) opens the door to spiritual abuse, or you are led astray by a false prophet. How do you recognize when this is happening? Good question. I guess you have to ask your pastor, because you certainly shouldn’t ask anyone else. And therein lies the problem, doesn’t it?
“I am afraid of disappointing God. I want to obey him and love him. My pastor says that to do that I need to submit to him (the pastor) as a teacher, a mentor, and one who watches over my soul. I need to allow him to correct me and teach me. I am subject to deception so I must submit to someone to prevent deception from happening. I must not read or listen to or be influenced by anything except the bible and my pastor’s teaching or I will be at risk of being deceived and drawn away by the devil or false prophets (same thing).”
This is a problem. Even if we assume that ALL of this is valid, there is no way to determine if my pastor is not a false prophet. No way to determine if my pastor is, himself, deceived. This blind submission out of “faith” that God will not allow me to be treated poorly (historically inaccurate) is the ticket for abuse.
I was part of a church once whose pastor, a good friend of mine of course, was convinced that Every Other Church was missing the mark. I didn’t realize this at first, but the longer we kept this tiny little church of The Faithful, the more he would talk about it in his preaching. This pastor was The Only One who had the truth. I finally followed the very uncomfortable feelings I had and left his church.
This is isolation. This isn’t even the isolation of having no help or support to leave an abusive situation. This is the intellectual isolation of being afraid to investigate or discover what abuse is, what “normal” looks like, the isolation of having to believe your abuser when they say they aren’t abusive, that they are only acting in the love of God.
An abuser will always deny they are abusive.
A false prophet will always deny they are a false prophet.
Without the ability to step back out of the situation and see it in another light, we are trapped. It is abuse when the church claims a person examining their situation is only doing so because they have been deceived and are inevitably falling from faith. People are controlled by fear. Power and control are the goals of abuse.
As I said earlier, I had encountered a non-Christian form of spiritual abuse which I’d also like to bring to light. I confronted someone for some unethical behavior and she took offense to my words.
Her response was that my words would “backfire” on me.
The practice of using karma as one’s personal god of vengeance is not new or uncommon. The spiritually abusive person threatens the abusee with the karmic slap that is sure to come. I reminded this person that perhaps my words were the backfire from her unethical behavior.
Karma is not the guard dog of one person, biting everyone else at their command. But even though I knew this, I still had a quick initial gut response of fear.
Spiritual abuse is commonly used against people who care how they stand spiritually, and it’s really quite easy to convince people that they stand on sinking sand, particularly with something as difficult to pin down and identify as faith.