Tag Archives: Abuse

Are perpetrators of abuse “other”?


I write, teach, and provide professional care about matters pertaining to child sexual abuse. I sit on a board of a fantastic organization designed to help christian organizations prevent child abuse and respond well when allegations arise. From these experiences I can tell you that victims of abuse struggle the most when they finally get the courage to speak up but then aren’t believed–whether by other family members or those within their community. Since most abuse happens in secret places and since most of us live with happy public facades, it is easy to disbelieve the victim. In fact, the temptation is great since believing the victim means we must alter our perceptions of the perpetrator and the system that supports them. And that alteration disrupts our own lives, threatens our own comfort zone. Since some reports could be, have been false, maybe this one is too…

The first problem in stopping child abuse is the failure to believe victim stories of abuse. Victims know their information will destroy life as it was before the revelation. Believing that they will be singly responsible for damage done by revealing their abuse, they keep silent. Silence always enables further abuse.

But there is another problem, a second problem faced in stopping child abuse: treating abusers as “other,” some sort of monster that is so unlike the rest of us, we can’t imagine being in their presence. Think about these words. Perpetrator. Pedophile. What garish images come to your mind? Or, do you imagine someone with virtue along with their obvious and destructive vices? Do you imagine the image of a victim in that same person?

“Does it make sense to discard an entire oeuvre of work? Or does it simply reflect an inability to live with messiness and ambiguity? To chalk it up as nothing more than the work of a monster, to cast it out of the village, is to senselessly re-affirm the same basic strategy of denial and dehumanization that, ultimately, allows abuse to continue.”

If you are interested in considering the complexities of the person of the perpetrator, I highly recommend this essay where I found the previous quote. It is written by a victim of abuse perpetrated by his father. How do we account for the virtues, the generosities, the humanness, the victim experiences found in individuals who choose to perpetrate against others? Like the author of this essay, I suggest that doing so is absolutely necessary if we are going to make any dent in the incidence of child abuse.

“Most of us would sooner discard all parties who have been tainted by this event than we would look at how tenuous the sanctity of children really is, how commonplace abuse is, or see the capacity for the mostly good to do periodic evil. We live in the same universe as those who abuse kids. We walk among them. If we want to end the sexual abuse of children, it will begin with the recognition that we are simply not that different from them.” (emphasis mine)

Won’t humanizing perpetrators harm victims?

Humanizing perpetrators of abuse does not minimize the need for justice for victims. It does not decrease the place for restitution or incarceration. Naming humanity in perpetrators does not lead to excuse-making (we do that for other reasons!) nor demand explanations for abusive behavior (though sometimes this can be helpful, most would rather have acknowledgement of abuse done). It need not change our triage policy to prioritize victim recovery over all else.

But when we recognize that perpetrators of abuse suffer from the human condition plaguing us all (self-deception, self as the center of the universe, seeing others as objects for self-comfort, choosing fig-leaves rather than truth in response to shame), we have the opportunity to name these conditions wherever they show up in our lives. Naming them early and often hinders the development of the “split-self” where we live publicly one way but privately nurse other shame-inducing habits. And when we are more able to identify these features in ourselves, we may also find that we can identify them in others as well. While we are not responsible for the abuse perpetrated by others, complicity with abusive behavior (failing to respond to evidence of abusive behavior, allowing cover-ups, etc.) does stand as judgment on us.

Let us acknowledge that we are not so different, that “treatment” must start first in our own hearts so that we can help others before abuse takes place.

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Filed under Abuse, christian psychology, news, Psychology, self-deception

Video: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse in Christian Contexts


This video was shot last October during a conference in South Africa cosponsored by the World Reformed Fellowship and North West University. In it I cover these objectives:

  • Understand common practices of offenders
  • Develop policies to hinder predatory behavior
  • Avoid poor reactions to allegations known to compound injury
  • Provide care to all parties

I’m thankful to Boz Tchividjian of GRACE who allowed me to use some of his material since he could not be present to deliver it himself. If you are interested in seeing Boz’ far more eloquent work, check out videos at the GRACE site or, even better, click the link to the right of this entry and purchase the 5 hour video he and I filmed in 2012.

Link for video here. Link for accompanying slides here.

Want more resources? I encourage you to watch the other videos from this conference, especially the powerful one by Jim Gamble that should NOT BE MISSED (Thinkuknow) and another by Diane Langberg: http://wrfnet.org/resources/media

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Preventing & Responding to Abuse in Christian Contexts: Plenary Presentation


Check out the link to slides (below) from my talk today in Potchefstroom, South Africa. I spoke on the topic of preventing and responding to abuse in Christian contexts and how this work is THE work of the Gospel.

Responding to Abuse South Africa

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Advice to an abused wife? Guest post over at biblical.edu


For those interested in a new resource on dealing with abusive relationships, check out this post about Leslie Vernick’s new book on emotionally destructive marriages. I highly recommend it. Leslie gets the insanity of emotional abuse and is able to point out a good and godly response.

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Preventing spiritual abuse? Listen to that little voice plus…


Over the summer, I have been writing a few thoughts about the nature and causes of spiritual abuse. At the end of this post, you can find links to those entries. I have been doing this in concert with Carolyn Custis James over at the Whitby Forum. I heartily recommend you read her take as well. This post will give you her latest and also provide links to her previous as well. For those of you who are new to the concept of abuse, here is my definition:

Spiritual abuse is the use of faith, belief, and/or religious practices to coerce, control, or damage another for a purpose beyond the victim’s well-being (i.e., church discipline for the purpose of love of the offender need not be abuse).

Like child abuse, spiritual abuse comes in many forms. It can take the form of neglect or intentional harm of another. It can take the form of naïve manipulation or predatory “feeding on the sheep.”

With this post I want to consider two means by which we might prevent spiritual abuse (both to ourselves and to others)

Listen to that little voice inside

If you are experiencing that ping inside that says you are being mistreated…stop and listen to it. Too often, we ignore that voice inside that says something is not right. And in those settings where leaders wield significant authority, those vulnerable to abuse are most likely to believe (or be told) that their feelings can’t be trusted. This is especially true in environments where a significant portion of the community (e.g., children, women) are treated as less trustworthy.

Now, notice I said “listen” to that inner hitch in your soul. Notice I didn’t say to always “believe” your gut. Our gut isn’t any more or less accurate than any other portion of our being, and feelings may or may not be accurate. But just as we out to pay attention to fire alarms and not grow complacent, we ought also to pay attention to that voice that says something in wrong with how we are being treated.

If that voice is ringing in your ears, I suggest you find someone to talk to who doesn’t have a major stake in how you respond to that voice. Such a person will be less likely to have their own axe to grind. You don’t need someone who tries to force you to stay in an abusive situation or someone who believes all spiritual leaders are abusive giving you advice. That sort of problem only continues the manipulation.

The point of listening to your own little voice is to notice your own experiences and to take them seriously as you explore what is happening.

Other ideas

Of course, there is much more objective ideas for preventing spiritual abuse. Education is one of our best means to prevent spiritual abuse

  • Educate the entire church about servant leadership and how it opposes power grabs
  • Educate the entire church about how the Gospel opposes all forms of oppression/abuse as well as opposed the subjugation of any portion of the community
  • Become missional (joining what God is doing in the world, opposed to focusing only on our own mission)
  • Teach leaders to listen as much as they exhort
  • Teach congregants to be Berean with everything that they are learning–to search the Scriptures to see if what is being taught is in accord with the whole of Scripture
  • Teach the congregation that deception and cover-up of abuses by Shepherds never pleases God

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Do you enable spiritual abuse?


There are several kinds of abuse that take place in church settings. On this site we have talked about pastoral sexual abuse, sexual abuse, and spiritual abuse. Most recently, we have been discussing the matter of spiritual abuse in concert with Carolyn Custis James over at the Whitby Forum. I commend you to read her post last week about the underlying belief system of spiritual abuse.

This week we both want to consider some of the types of people who may be prone to enable spiritual abuse. No one, as far as I have ever met, intends to enable abuse. But certain beliefs, attitudes, and motivations may make it easier for abusive people to maintain power and position in the church.

Here are a few of those enabling attitudes that you and I, friends of victims, might display from time to time:

  • Status anxiety. Someone in power gives me status. To speak up against that person would jeopardize my position. Therefore I will not speak up. I do not want to disrupt my position or destabilize an organization that feeds me.
  • Mis-application of log/speck metaphor. A friend is showing signs of distress from an experience of abuse. She is angry, hurt, and confused. I see some “over-reactions” and so I focus on the log in her eye and suggest she has no business speaking of the speck in the abuser’s eye. Similarly, I suggest that we leave vengeance to God and deny the right to seek justice.
  • Defenders of leaders. We like to have strong leaders. When someone suggests one of our leaders is not good, we may feel the urge to come to their defense (either to defend character or to forestall a bad outcome for the leader and his family). We may show undue concern for the leader’s legacy or future in ministry.
  • Fixers. Some of us love to fix others. We offer unsolicited advice. We decide to take action to make calls we weren’t asked to make. Unintentionally we may put the victim at greater risk with our advice.
  • Self-Doubt. Did I really see that leader use theology to manipulate another? I must be mistaken. I’d only look like a greater fool to bring it up again.
  • Bitterness. When we come to believe that the church will never do what is right in protecting the sheep, we may send the message to others that we ought not to expect leaders to be just, kind, gracious, and caring. A victim of spiritual abuse may observe our bitterness and feel they are caught between accepting spiritual abuse and being in Christian community. Rather than lose their only community, they stay in an abusive environment.

I am sure there are other forms of enabling. Consider this post of mine about some of the reasons we fail to do what is right in light of allegations of sexual abuse. Some of those reasons are also present when we fail to do what is right in light of spiritual abuse.

 

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What makes a PTSD friendly church?


In a few months I will be speaking to church leaders as to how to improve the capacity of the church to be a safe place for victims of abuse. I have a number of suggestions for them but I am interested in hearing from readers things that churches (leaders) do that make the church a safer place for those who have been abused by those in positions of power. What have you actually seen done that helped you (or someone you cared about) feel at home and increasingly safer in the church community? Of course, consider the flip side as well: what has been done that made you feel less safe.

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Belief System Supports for Spiritual Abuse


We continue our survey of some of the issues regarding spiritual abuse. You can see these links at the end of this post for prior blogs and also check out Carolyn Custis James’ thoughts on the same topic: www.whitbyforum.com. In this post I want to consider some of the beliefs that may support the ongoing presence of spiritual abuse among people of faith.

Beliefs of those who abuse

In my recent trip to Rwanda, we got into a discussion with some Rwandans about husbands and wives and the “right” husbands had to demand sex. In Rwanda, the groom pays a dowry for his bride. He pays it to her family. They set a price of “cows” that she is worth. This is an old custom but one that continues even in modern Rwanda where the “cows” are kept at the bank. In some people’s minds, a man has a right to demand sex at any time because he paid for her. She is property. Sure, he treats her as a prized possession but still, he has the right to have sex whenever he wants. Here, you can see, is a considerable belief system held by those in power about their right to use others. Does something similar exist in evangelical Christianity that enables a person in power to abuse another using spiritual tactics?

  1. The leader should not be questioned. He is ordained by God and therefore speaks for God. While evangelicals and fundamentalists are not papists, they appear to maintain a similar belief that ordination means the leader speaks for truth and for God. And if someone should bring a charge against a leader, it will not be entertained without multiple witnesses. Too bad that most abuse takes place in private, without witnesses. A corollary to this belief is that when a leader abuses a less valued person in the community, it is likely the less valued person’s fault for the abuse.
  2. Important rules must be fenced/protected. The bible speaks against divorce but not in all cases. Thus, we should protect against the abuse of divorce by refusing biblical divorces for those who have the right to them and demanding reconciliation. The bible indicates ordination of men (this is how it is read in many circles). So, in order to protect against women teaching or preaching, we won’t let them have any leadership outside of Sunday School for children. Fencing the law is legitimated in order to protect against the appearance of wrongdoing.
  3. The organization is more important than the individual. If one person does bring a credible charge against leader(s), some orgs will attempt to restore the leader and push the victim on to another church.
  4. Chronic weaknesses (e.g., mental illness) are signs of spiritual flaws and are deserving of rebuke. If a parishioner struggles with chronic anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder, some leaders are prone to make it clear that the primary problem is not mental illness but a lack of faith and obedience. And in light of this ongoing rebellion, the person with mental illness (and their family) are not given the same kind of care as those with physical weaknesses.
  5. Thinking is less biased than feeling. When an allegation of abuse is brought against a leader, the merits of the case are sometimes decided in favor of the leader’s logic and against the victim’s emotional arguments. It is assumed that cognitions are less impaired by sin nature than feelings/emotions. Similar to this belief is the one that says that men are more logical and accurate than women or children.

Those who are abused also maintain many of these same belief system. They feel that they are not in a position to know truth, that their feelings are distorted more than others, that their needs do not merit help, that the preservation of the institution is more important, and that they are the cause of the problems they experience.

What other beliefs have you noticed that support the acceptance and continuation of spiritual abuse?

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, Doctrine/Theology, Uncategorized

Why are some people prone to spiritual abuse?


Have you ever wondered how a person could stay in an abusive relationship? “Why don’t they just leave the first time they get hit?”, you wonder. I suppose many have the same question when they hear about those who are being abused by spiritual leaders. Can’t they just up and leave and find a new church? Well, there are a few reasons why someone might be prone to become spiritually abused.

Environmental:

  • Need. Tangible help received from a person or organization (with a sense that without that help there would be serious problems) increases the risk a person will tolerate inappropriate behavior
  • Culture. A black/white culture that treats outsiders as heretics. A community that puts pressure on compliance will be a community that is tempted to use spiritual abuse to get that compliance
  • Gender views. religious authoritarian systems that promote male dominance in all areas of life will be more prone to use spiritual controls over women when women are perceived to exert too much power.

Personal:

  • Identity. When your identity becomes too wrapped up in a system. The more you need a system (or think you do), the greater the importance you feel being connected to an institution or leader the greater the likelihood that you will not jump ship at the first sign of manipulation or abuse
  • Self-doubt. A deep belief that others know better than you. Such a person will likely turn off their warning signs when others coerce them using spiritual language. The more a person denigrates themself, the more likely he or she will allow others to exert control and accept an abusers judgment that he/she is a sinner in need of discipline
  • History. Ironically, those who have suffered abuse are more prone to be re-victimized again.

Spiritual abuse, a form of psychological abuse, almost always creeps up on a person. It rarely shows its true form until the victimized person is fully entangled. And even then, the victim is commonly confused and unsure of self. Clarity rarely comes until after the person has extricated themself from the environment. Why? Those in power use well-known verses and doctrines to shape conversations and press others into submission. For example, who would be against forgiveness? Against reconciliation? These concepts form the heart of the Gospel. And yet these wonderful portions of the Gospel are used to force victims of sexual abuse to quickly forgive their perpetrators and to reconcile with them–as if the offense never happened. Those who desire justice may be forced to keep silent under the guise of reconciliation.

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Why do some spiritual leaders abuse power?


The topic of spiritual abuse has been in the news of late. In looking at the problem of cover-ups of sexual abuse within the church, we can see that not only bodies are violated and harmed, but spiritual abuse also happens to victims, their families, and those in the community who know about the abuse but are coerced to remain silent and still. Of course spiritual abuse happens outside of sexual abuse. In fact, I would hazard a guess that most of spiritual abuse happens apart from sexual abuse.

As I defined it in an earlier post, spiritual abuse is: the use of faith, belief, and/or religious practices to coerce, control, or damage another for a purpose beyond the victim’s well-being (i.e., church discipline for the purpose of love of the offender need not be abuse).

Over at www.whitbyforum.com, Carolyn Custis James is blogging each Monday about the problem of spiritual abuse. You can see the first post here along with the topics she’ll look at over the next 6 weeks. Today, she will be raising some questions about the abuser and I may comment on her site as I can [note: this is written earlier and if all happens as planned, I am traveling in Rwanda today]. For those of you who don’t know of Carolyn, she is the author of Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women.

What Do We Know About Those Who Abuse?

The truth is we do not have empirical survey evidence for those who use spiritual tools to harm or manipulate others. But, we can say something about the kinds of reasons why someone might want to coerce and manipulate. We know things about this activity because we all have participated in coercive acts. We have used others for our own purposes. In the words of an old Larry Crabb book, we have chosen manipulation of over ministry to those we love. So, in this way, we can learn a bit about why some try to control others by looking at why we try to control others:

  • Fear. We fear losing control, having someone disrupt our plans. We worry that we will be left, abandoned, rejected. We worry that what is important to us will not be cherished and valued by others so we seek to control the outcome. Notice that much of what we want as outcomes are good things. In spiritual matters, it is not good for people to do things that dishonor God. So, we may try to force our kids or parishioners to do what they ought to do. But force violates the picture of love God gives us in the Scriptures. He does not force us to come to him. He draws and woos us.
  • Love of Power. We must admit that we sometimes control others because we like seeing the evidence of our own power. Ever had someone trying to do something to you and you wanted to prove that you could beat them at their game? Maybe you thought, “I’ll show you who’s the boss around here!” This is nothing less than a love of one’s own power. God gives us power. Power is not wrong. But the use of it to serve self (even if in the name of God) is an abuse of power. Spiritual leaders have power of words and these words can be easily used to glorify self.
  • Efficiency. Power works. It gets us what we want. If the outcome is good, then the means seem good. End of story. Spiritual abuse works. People fall in line. They remain orderly and do not disturb church leader’s good goals.
  • Ego. Self is part of why we treat others as objects. We think about self, needs, desires, wants, and expectations. The stronger the ego, the more confidence we have that our way of seeing the world, our expectations, our outcomes are the right ones. And the stronger our confidence, the deafer we become to other ways of seeing the world. Narcissism sometimes operates out of fear (see bullet point 1) but also operates out of arrogance and pride. We become blind to others, insensitive to needs of others. Ego in ministry is a worship of self in place of worship of God—a God who illustrates sacrificial leadership! 
  • Habit. I would argue that many of us engage in controlling behaviors without much thought at all. It is habit or learned behaviors from others. It is said, rather crassly, that starving people tend to starve others. It means that we who have been controlled or manipulated tend to learn the habits of controlling behavior (like tug-of-war, it is natural to pull back in the opposite direction). But in doing so we may become controlling ourselves. So, many are unaware that they may be attempting to control others. Spiritual abuse has been passed down in the name of godly leadership and so many are just doing what they learned from others.

 What Can We Do From Inside The System?

There is little that we can do to stop others who want to abuse, especially when they are knowingly predatory. However, much of the above motives do not fall into intentional abuse—even the love of power. In the cases of naïve or unthoughtful abuse, we can bring truth to light in a couple of ways:

  1. Validate: “What?” you might be asking, “Won’t that encourage them?” On the contrary, validation often opens the validated to conversation and dialog where bare confrontation leads to defense and counter-attack. So, if you see someone who is seeking a good end (e.g., obedient children) but using coercive means, try to validate the good goal even as you suggest alternatives or point out that the means seems to be control oriented or objectifying.
  2. Raise questions: What outcomes are you seeking? How do you think the manipulated person might be feeling? How might you convey concern for the person as well as the situation? How might a good goal become perverted in the intensity by which we seek that goal?
  3. Say ouch. Sometimes just saying, “I’m hurt” can signal to some that they have over-stepped boundaries.

Not all should stay inside an abusive system. But, for those who feel they can stay, these are some of the things they can do. I would love to hear what else others have tried.

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, conflicts, counseling, Psychology, Uncategorized