Some thoughts on Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual Abuse EA CCPAS

Ever since Jayne Ozanne (Anglican LGBT* activist and editor of Journeys in Grace and Truth) gave a paper to the Royal College of Psychiatrists last year, the topic of ‘spiritual abuse’ (henceforth ‘SA’) has started to emerge on the scene. Ozanne’s paper didn’t particularly achieve anything, other than (in my view) imply that discussion of SA was part of a wider revisionist programme for the church. I was thus heartened to see CCPAS (The Churches Child Protection Advisory Service, who do a great job equipping and training the Church) release a rather more thoughtful, research-based discussion: Understanding Spiritual Abuse in Christian Communities, a report drawing on some research and suggesting issues for further discussion. I would recommend reading it.

The Evangelical Alliance, a generally excellent body in my experience and opinion, responded relatively quickly with a paper expressing some concerns. Whilst I am minded to want to find a way between the EA and CCPAS papers, it is important to note that the authors of the EA report say this in their introduction:

It should be clear that our specific critique of the term ‘Spiritual Abuse’ in no way downplays the harmful actions and effects of Emotional and Psychological Abuse in religious contexts. Rather, we seek to show here that precise, well-founded, workable definitions of abuse actually help the survivors of it, just as accurate diagnoses aid the recovery, wellbeing and human flourishing of those who suffer affliction and pain.

This is important – and that acknowledgement should be borne in mind as you read the EA’s thoughtful critique, Reviewing the Discourse of ‘Spiritual Abuse. I was heartened to read, too, the way in which the EA and CCPAS are seeking to relate to each other on this.

Justin Humphreys, Executive Director for Safeguarding at CCPAS, recently (2016) wrote a few articles for the EA’s excellent IDEA magazine that particularly resonated with me on this area. Not explicitly using the terminology of SA, but mindful of the possibility of abuse of various kinds taking place in any churches, Justin wrote quite firmly about the need to let this discussion take place, and challenge the thinking of our churches:

Sadly, for some leaders, this may mean that we have to challenge ourselves about where our loyalties lie and whether we are putting organisational or institutional needs before those of individuals. A genuine desire to understand vulnerability will be a good place to start building a safer culture. We must also remember that abuse or harmful events can occur both intentionally and unintentionally.

The overlap with leadership is of particular concern – as it is often the most high profile abuse cases in the church that involve leaders, and many of the sobering stories of abuse in our culture relate to individuals respected and looked up to, as well those who exploited vulnerability. It is interesting to me that, in the online discussion of this emerging issue, it tends to be ‘leaders’ who are speaking, with little space given to victims of abuse of any kind.

One article on the discussion quotes David Hilborn, Chair of the Evangelical Alliance’s Theological Advisory Group;

He said: “What we want to do is say that there is psychological abuse, there’s emotional abuse.

“That’s well defined legally, there’s case law on that. Let’s accept that sometimes that might take place on church premises and sometimes that might not.

I think that Justin’s second article in the aforementioned IDEA series provides a great challenge to church leaders with this in mind:

Next time there is any safeguarding training of any description in your church, your members should expect to find your leader – or the entire leadership team – in the front row. In so doing they send out the strong, clear message that safeguarding is at the heart of the church’s ministry. It would also set a wonderful example to the rest of the church membership.

Recently, I’ve been fortunate to be part of a Church that takes this seriously – and members of pastoral staff are regularly present at basic and top up training on this vital issue. Note carefully Justin’s wording – this is not the heart of the church’s ministry, but creating a safe place and a culture of honesty is at the heart of the church’s ministry.

My concern is that some with whom I have much in common will overlook abuse of any kinds in their churches – not least because of concern about early-adoption of SA language, melded together with cultural shifts and ongoing change – and in doing so neglect the charge of scripture to care for the weakest amongst us.

Like many, I am concerned about SA being used as a trojan horse to squash legitimate and orthodox Christian teaching. But, at the same time, two bible verses have continually come to mind as I’ve thought, read and prayed around the topic of abuse:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world

James 1:27 is a well known verse – but often glossed over. For some, it inspires a ministry of fostering and adoption, for others, we get distracted talking about faith or works, when in fact it might rather be faith and/leading to/evidenced by good works. But I digress. To the matter at hand, two points. Firstly, God is pleased when we receive affliction – using the specific examples of orphans and widows. I believe that recognising and dealing with abuse in the life of the church is of vital importance as it echoes that principle, echoing the root of the word translated ‘affliction’ as also having to do with oppression. Secondly, and less obviously, is the challenge to the church to keep itself unstained from the world. I have had many conversations, particularly at university, about why the hypocrisy of abusers being hidden and protected within the church(es) is a huge roadblock to people considering the claims of Christ. I believe there is an evangelistic imperative for the church to be above reproach, and unstained, in a way that may involve some hard conversations.

The second passage expands on this principle:

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.

Paul, here in Philippians 2:14-16, is characteristically challenging. I don’t think he is precluding firm disagreement – and it is encouraging to see both EA and CCPAS ‘holding firmly to the word of life’ in their responses and thinking – but we are as Christians invited to something more. We live, I believe, in a warped and crooked generation. One evidence of that, I think it is fair to say, is the epidemic of abuse in all spheres and sectors of society. The Church is challenged to live blameless and pure, to shine like stars. I believe that having the discussion about abuse in churches, particularly in relation to issues of leadership and authority, is of vital importance.

To follow the post, you might like to consider reading some books that are relevant to the broader issues I’ve touched on:

  • Post-Charismatic 2.0 by Robby McAlpine – this is a brilliant book, with some good theological reflection on abuse and abusive leaders/heavy shepherding. Recommended.
  • Rid of My Disgrace by Justin and Lindsay Holcomb – a very helpful practical book about loving victims of sexual assault.
  • Scars Across Humanity by Elaine Storkey – a difficult but important book about global issues of violence against women, including abuse.

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