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.
Tag Archives: Abuse
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
When we hear about abuse within churches these days we often think about sexual abuse by leaders. But there are other forms of abuse that happen in other parts of the world. The following link talks about abuse that happens as a child is accused of being a witch or engaging the demonic world. In our Global Trauma Recovery course, we looked at some of the ways adult women in Ghana are accused of sorcery and who must then flee to witch camps to save their lives. The link below addresses the abuse of children labeled demonic in the DRC.
When you finish reading, you might sigh with relief that this isn’t a problem in the US church. Well, maybe not so fast? If you check out the lawsuit against Sovereign Grace Ministries, there are equally distressing accounts of abuse and cover-up.
This afternoon I will be speaking to pastors, ministers, elders, and key ministry leaders of the Bible Fellowship Church denomination at their annual conference. Their website states they have over 65 churches and over 10,000 in worship on a given Sunday.
It is a wonderful opportunity to talk about a difficult subject: abuse in the church.
We would like to believe that it happens elsewhere. But the church is not free from those who would harm children. The church has never been free from matters of abuse. The Apostle Paul takes a church to task for putting up with what sounds like abuse and incest. Thankfully, the evangelical church is waking up to the need to educate leaders about sexual abuse and how to care for both victims and perpetrators.
If you are interested in seeing what I will be talking about, here’s the slide show: Abuse In the Church
NEED MORE RESOURCES?
If you are new to this blog, use the search engine to find many other posts about preventing and responding abuse in the church. Or, click the image to the right for a 5 plus hour DVD on this very topic. Or check out www.netgrace.org for excellent resources and help on dealing with abuse in Christian settings.
You will find the theme of sexual abuse all over the news these days, from clergy sexual abuse to teacher-student improprieties. This level of public discussion allows some victims to feel empowered to speak about past abuse. Hopefully these same individuals find the courage to seek out a counselor to address ongoing struggles with memories, shame, and self-doubt.
But will just any counselor do?
How can you know if the counselor you’ve picked is the right one? Are there questions you can ask to determine whether you are getting good care? Check out the following questions.
How does my counselor handle my disclosure of sexual abuse?
It takes great courage to tell another person about violations of body and soul. Victims fear not being believed, blamed, or worse, having their secret told to others. Thus, when a person sets aside those fears and speaks of what has been hidden, it is a great honor to be blessed with that story. Consider these questions to see how your counselor rates:
- Does my counselor show evidence of great care for my story? Do they treat it as precious? Once you have told the story, what do they do next? While we counselors hear many tales of woe, it can be tempting to ignore sexual trauma, especially if it happened many years ago or is especially horrific. Some counselors think that past experiences should remain there. They choose to focus only on present problems. Or, counselors can dive into the story and unintentionally force the client to talk too much about the abuse before trust has been fully established.
- Does my counselor seem in a rush to “get beyond” my abuse to forgiveness, confrontation or reconciliation? There is a place and time to talk about these matters. However, if you have just started telling your story and these topics are their prime focus, then you know that they are most interested in getting to the end of the story, the happily ever after part. The impulse to get to the end will inevitably make you feel like your abuse was a mere trifle.
- Does my counselor seem to have an unhealthy interest in all the details of my abuse? Counselors who ignore your abuse story are not the only danger. Counselors who dive into your story with great relish may cause you to feel re-victimized. There is a time and place for telling the story in greater detail (so as to process what you have come to believe about yourself and others). Those who rush in to the gory details seem to think that all story-telling is beneficial (see this link for the difference between bad and good trauma storytelling). By the way, a counselor who offers you private access (texting, emailing, late-night phone calls, house visits) without limits and boundaries may be offering you something that is for them and NOT you.
- Does my counselor let me set the pace of counseling? The heart of abuse is oppression and stealing voice and power (I’ve written more about that in my chapter in this book). A good therapist may unintentionally re-enact abuse when they use their position to coerce clients to meet their own agenda. A benign dictator is still an oppressor! A common question I have received from beginning counselors goes something like this, “How can I make [name] tell me about her abuse?” My answer? You should not try to force her. What happened to her was coercion. You can provide a small modicum of healing by allowing her to decide when and if she will tell you anything. “But, won’t that mean that [name] will not get better?” Yes, it means her recovery will take longer. But consider this: you are undoing her abuse experience by giving her power to decide what she does with her body, including her mouth. It is true that there will be some pushing and prodding, but it should be gentle with the client feeling that he or she has the power to say no or to slow down the process.
- Does my counselor educate me about trauma symptoms and typical treatments? Trauma symptoms (intrusive memories, hypervigilance, attempts to avoid triggers, numbing, etc.) are not just a psychological phenomenon. The whole body has been traumatized. Your counselor should be able to talk about the effect of trauma on the brain at a lay person level. Further, your counselor should be able to tell you what we *think* we know about the biology of trauma and what we still do not know. (By the way, if they are too enamored with one particular theory or cure-all treatment…RUN).
A quality counselor will also talk to you about the typical 3 phase model of trauma recovery. They will educate you why it is important to develop good self-care strategies and to eliminate harmful behaviors (addictions, cutting, risky behaviors) before entering into the work of processing memories. They will tell you that safety and stabilization phase (first and ongoing) is about finding ways to stay in the present and to reduce dissociation. When you do tell your story in greater detail, the effective counselor always leaves room in each session to help you leave the office well.
- When my memories are fuzzy, does my counselor urge me to try to remember? The very nature of talking about past events (whether happy or horrific) brings old memories to the surface. Inevitably, a client will recall some feature of their abuse they had not remembered for some period of time. Or, they will recall something in a very different light and as a result it will feel like a brand new memory. However, your counselor should not be intent on finding lost memories. There are two reasons for this. First, memories can be constructed. When details are vague, our minds may have ways of filling in the blanks with false ideas (However, the likelihood of constructing an entire memory of abuse ex nihilo is rather rare. In my 24 years of counseling, no abuse victims in my office ever reported having NO lasting memory of abuse. All recalled many details even if some details were not). Second, God may have a reason for keeping certain memories from you. Not everything needs to be remembered to get well.
- What goal does my counselor seek? Counseling works best when counselee and counselor agree on goals and the means to get to those goals. Do the goals your counselor seeks make sense to you? Some goals are unrealistic and even dangerous. “Completely healed” or “as if it never happened” are unlikely and could even be dangerous in that they would make you vulnerable to re-victimization. Goals to confront, cut-off, or reconcile may be legitimate but expectations and safety plans must be reviewed ahead of time. Consider also that reconciliation may not be a good idea.
I have just touched the surface on a few questions. You might have many other questions you’d like answered. Feel free to suggest questions here and I will attempt to answer some over the next few days.