Book Review: Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse

Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse

It was hard work to read this robust and practical book – not least because of the subject matter. There has been an ongoing conversation about what spiritual abuse is, whether it should be even called that, and what to do about it. Having now read the book (provided free in exchange for a review), I agree with the authors that there is a phenomenon that can be identified, and that part of the solution is, as the subtitle suggests, ‘creating healthy Christian cultures’. The working definition of Spiritual Abuse that Oakley and Humphreys offer, noting that they “are open to reflections and feedback on this definition as we want to continue to grow our understanding and provide a definition that is accurate and helpful” is:

‘Spiritual abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. It is characterized by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context. Spiritual abuse can have a deeply damaging impact on those who experience it.

This abuse may include: manipulation and exploitation, enforced accountability, censorship of decision making, requirements for secrecy and silence, coercion to conform, control through the use of sacred texts or teaching, requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position.“(p. 31)

This is the difference between spiritual abuse and other forms of abuse. This is not a denigration of the Bible, but instead a recognition of reality and the power of spiritual relationships. As I noted in a recent blog post, we need to think carefully about what this actually means, and recognise (As the authors of this book do) that it is a complex issue affecting all sorts of churches (And, arguably, if it were to be legislated for, would affect all spiritual communities). Further, it isn’t linked to any one theological position: spiritual abuse can take place in any religious context. This, however, calls us to the long and slow work of improving things:

We live in a quick­fix world where we can find the solution to any problem and almost instantaneously buy anything that we need – all on the Internet. This can leave us in a position where we find access­ ing long­term help and support a challenge. However, the future of healthy cultures rests partly in our ability to walk with the damaged and hurt at their pace and on their journey.” (p. 68)

Escpaing the Maze of Spiritual Abuse is a deeply practical book. It is also a book that is distinctly Christian, referencing the Bible appropriately throughout, including one very helpful approach to anger. This is not a book written to attack the church. A significant part of it’s content is stories and reflections from survivors of spiritual abuse – in this, the book both models a way of listening and shows the importance of tackling this issue. It includes chapters on leadership and culture change that give some suggested practical ideas on how to do this. At heart, though, there is a necessary reality check: “In facing this uncomfortable reality, we must first be prepared to accept the fact that we are a broken world (and therefore church) and must acknowledge the effects of our negative and harmful be­haviour.” (p. 163). I hope that this book will be widely read and prayerfully thought through by people involved in church, particularly those involved in leadership of churches and Christian organisations. It is not an easy read, but it is an important one. At the very least, this is a robust and biblically-engaged first step in the conversation that needs to happen.

Reading this review may have opened up issues and questions for you. You may find the following helpful:

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