Friday, May 8, 2015

Defining Spiritual Abuse

In light of trying to raise awareness of Spiritual Abuse and celebrating our first annual Spiritual Freedom Week, I thought it might be helpful to clarify and define what is being discussed when terms like "spiritual abuse" are used in conversation or articles.  

I must start with a disclaimer though, because just as abuse has many forms, spiritual abuse does not always look the same, and often is subtle and hard to detect in situations that are the closest to you.  At first glance a situation may seem good and proper and appropriate, and it may take years of reflection and retrospect to realize that the people or leadership involved were, in fact, spiritually abusive and manipulative or enabling others to use abusive tactics without realizing it.

Entering the Conversation
So what is Spiritual Abuse?  A lot of people consider that an odd term the first time they hear it.  It sounds overly-dramatic or possibly a hyperbolic term.  We've grown accustomed to using "physical abuse" when a man hits his wife or a parent hits their child.  We've become familiar with the term "sexual abuse" in cases where adults have molested children.  In more recent days, some have even integrated the term "emotional abuse" into the conversation to include adults barraging children with the idea that they are worthless or damaged or stupid to the point where they grow up adopting this belief and live with it for the rest of their lives unless someone or something helps them to change that perspective.

All of these above circumstances are merely examples.  There are a thousand different ways a person can be abused in different ways by different types of people in their lives.  I've given quick snapshot examples in hopes of connecting to previous knowledge we all are familiar with so that I can focus primarily on the realm of Spiritual Abuse.  What is it?  How does it happen?  What are the effects of being spiritually abused?  How can you tell if you are or have been spiritually abused?  These questions can quickly become confusing and overwhelming.  Let's start off with simple definitions and go from there.

What is abuse?  Merriam Webster's Learner's Dictionary defines abuse (in its verb form) as "1: to treat (a person or animal) in a harsh or harmful way. 2: to use or treat (something) in a way that causes damage. 3: to use (something) wrongly. 4: to use too much of (a drug, alcohol, etc.). 5: to attack (someone) in words."  Let's focus on the first three definitions offered to us.  Abusing someone or something is to treat them in a harsh or harmful way, to use or treat them in a way that causes damage, or to use them (it) wrongly.  To be fair to the dictionary's original intent, we will only focus on the first definition offered "To treat a person or animal in a harsh or harmful way,"  but I think it is fair to include in that definition the idea of causing damage, because "harmful" includes the idea that damage is being inflicted on the victim.  So where does the spiritual aspect come into play?  Spiritual Abuse is different from all other forms of abuse in that--Spiritual Abuse occurs when people are abused in the name of "ministry," "becoming more Christ-like," "serving the church's purpose," or "serving God's purpose."  
In other words, Spiritual Abuse is abuse inflicted in the name of God.  
It is the worst possible way to misuse the name of God, and can be combined with every other type of abuse.  Physical abuse becomes spiritual abuse when instead of simply beating your child, you are beating your child because God commands and expects it.  Sexual abuse becomes spiritual abuse when a pastor convinces a teenage girl he's molesting to not come forward because she will "hurt the work of the church" he's leading, and "he has God's blessing on his ministry."  

Even emotional abuse can become spiritual abuse when children are convinced that they are only valuable to their parents and God through their obedience and successful performance.  When people are taught from a young age that their worth comes through what they do and not who God has created them to be or what Christ has done on the Cross, they are spiritually abused and likely to end up confused for years to come.

Emotional Abuse
I give special time and attention to emotional abuse, because the other examples seem much easier to point at and condemn as unscriptural and outright ungodly behavior.  Most civilized adults in the world don't have to be convinced that beating or starving your children in the name of God is wrong.  Most of those same adults also don't need to be told that pastors committing and covering up rape in the name of God is just as wrong (though sadly some do, but that's another post).  What raises much concern, is the fact that people are largely blinded to the largest category of unrecorded and unrecognized form of spiritual abuse that is spreading through churches like the latest flu bug.  

Many people simply do not realize that the teaching they have heard all their lives is not only wrong, but it is completely contrary to the good news of the Gospel.  God does not value humanity based on what good they can do for Him.  Many churches are fighting tooth and nail to teach against a works salvation only to turn around and on all practical levels fight just as hard for a works-based sanctification.  This is spiritual abuse, and its effects have been devastating on Christians around the globe.  

People are worn out and weary of trying to live up to the manipulation and latest guilt trips of their equally worn down and weary leaders who don't understand why everybody else isn't happily killing themselves for Jesus like they are.  This pressure to perform based on fear of what others will think or what God will think is not healthy for the church, and it's not healthy for the believers who are trapped in this lifestyle.

Just as many families have spent generations trapped in unhealthy cycles of parents abusing children and spouses only to repeat itself for years in the next generation, so churches have followed a similar pattern with one pastor following the lead of his predecessor only to change the colour scheme of his abuse.  

The theme song may sound different, but the words are exactly the same.  "Do, so you can be accepted."  The Gospel has always sung a different song, "You are already accepted.  Do, simply because I love you, and you love me..."

I hope this is helpful in introducing the topic of what Spiritual Abuse can look like and some of the forms it can take.  For a more thorough resource I would suggest reading The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Johnson and Van Vonderen.  I found it very helpful in realizing how much of my past was explained in it and how much of my present wrong thinking was a product of where I had been.  We will be continuing this theme of Spiritual Abuse as our week continues and in the future to keep the discussion going.  If you have any thoughts or questions you'd like to contribute please feel free to comment at the bottom.

Grace and Peace.


Jonathan Gibson said...

I feel like I am seeing more about spiritual abuse in recent years. Do you feel like spiritual abuse is on the rise or do you feel like people are becoming more aware of it?

Also are you aware of other resources that might discuss the increase of spiritual abuse?

katie gibson said...

I think it has been around (by the definitions used in the post) for centuries. As long as people have harmed other people in the name of religion, they have been spiritually abusing them. However, the term is fairly new in usage. I believe it came into use somewhere in possibly the early 90's? I know of several blogs that deal with spiritual abuse. We're actually in the process of compiling a page of resources on the blog dealing with all the topics we discuss if you want to check that periodically it should have at least a few things on it already.

Anonymous said...

Rather than worn out, over worked pastors, pushing their congregations to work harder and longer for the gospel, how I see spiritual abuse is when leadership in the home or church uses/manipulates scripture to bully those under them to do the work, hold to certain convictions or standards etc., but excuses themselves from the same.