Thinking Carefully about Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual Abuse

Following recent revelations publicly about a leading Anglican evangelical and abuse, and with a new book about Spiritual Abuse just published, I was prompted again (whilst reading Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse) of the need to think carefully about this term, as it emerges into more general churchly conversations. I wrote about this last year, closing with this thought:

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.

The little New Testament epistle of James offers much practical wisdom for us as we seek to think carefully about Spiritual Abuse, and 1:19 is perhaps the most pertinent:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry

Firstly, we are likely dealing with fellow brothers and sisters when talking about spiritual abuse – and we need to remember that. Secondly, particularly in a church built on speech and communication, we must remember to listen. That listening – particularly to those in pain – must lead us to slow speech, speech that has taken on board what is said, and seeks justice rather than coverup. Finally, whilst anger (or similar) may be the correct response, that too is to be slow and measured, rather than hot and instant. I write this as a broken, sinful person, who has both hurt others and been hurt by others. Any pain I have caused or feel is real, and so I do not write this as an expert, but as one person seeking to think carefully about something serious and important.

In their new book, which I will review fully next week when I’ve finished it, Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys attempt to continue the conversation about spiritual abuse and it’s recognition and cure. I appreciated their Christo-centric opening:

Jesus Christ never breaks a bruised reed, nor does he snuff out a smouldering wick (Isaiah 42.3). He is never spiritually abusive, and nor should we be either.

Jesus Christ also brings forth justice in faithfulness (Isaiah 42.3), and so should we, especially when it comes to those who have suf­ fered from spiritual abuse and for whom justice has never been done.

When we are talking about something new, something serious, and something we don’t know about, we need to remember the head of our family, our ‘big brother’ to the brothers and sisters that James is referring to. Jesus is our head and our model – showing us how to think about issues of abuse and justice. With that in mind, and a concern for the truth at the forefront, I think a few principles from Oakley and Humphrey’s book’s opening chapter are well worth repeating.

Firstly, this is a relatively new issue, and we must both get this right, and have this conversation. Spiritual abuse, which is difficult to define, is an appropriate label for some forms of behaviour that can occur in all sorts of churches, and has all sorts of repercussions. Given that it is relatively new, I think it is important to quote Oakley and Humphrey again:

Work in the area of spiritual abuse has continued to develop but it is still in its early stages. There have been many conversations which have gone along the lines of ‘We are in the same position with this, as we were with domestic abuse 50 years ago’. The message is really that 50 years ago people were beginning to realize that domestic abuse happened and that it was real. This led to the under­ standing that this was not just a ‘domestic issue’ and that it was not the ‘women’s fault’. As with all forms of abuse, knowledge continues to grow as stories are told and research is shared. Now we recognize male and female victims of domestic violence and abuse, and acknowledge that children can be violent to their parents or carers. We realize that teenagers experience this and that services are continually developing to meet their needs.

In relation to spiritual abuse, the term is being used more and more frequently. Understandings are starting to emerge, some church safeguarding policies contain mention of this form of abuse, conferences including talks on this topic are being held – but there is much work to do and many obstacles to overcome or reimagine.

With that in mind, we need to be very careful about how and what we say about Spiritual Abuse. We need to be quick to listen and slow to speak. From this, and the fact that discussion of this form of abuse is in the early stage, a couple of other things need to be said.

So, secondly, this issue is not just about leaders – anyone in the church can abuse others. Oakley and Humphreys’ write that “it is important to reiterate that this sort of behaviour is not tied to leadership positions“, and the stories in their book echo this. This is why I am concerned when, aware of the existence of this book, I hear or see church leaders discussing disconnecting from thirtyoneeight (Formerly CCPAS) or moving away from conversations that need to happen. I honestly believe that the church can be and should be the easiest place to talk about this stuff – so I am encouraged by the new website set up for engaging with the situation I alluded to above. This website leads me on to my third and final point.

In Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse, the authors note that “All our re­search to date provides evidence that spiritual abuse is not tied to a denomination or expression of church“, and this would seem to be true from even the most cursory reading of the news: every church and organisation has humans in it, and some humans abuse other humans. Perhaps most importantly, though, particularly with the way that some activists have already attempted to weaponise the language of Spiritual Abuse (for example in challenging historic Christian teaching on sexuality) against theological positions, is this robust observation from Oakley and Humphreys:

In addition to spiritual abuse not being tied to a denominational position, it is also not bound to a particular theological stance or theological positions… holding a theological position is not in itself necessarily spiritually abusive.

This is an important point to make at the outset because many people will seek to use the language of spiritual abuse to support their own theological position on an issue. They may suggest that to think differently is spiritually abusive, whereas those seeking to protect religious freedom are keen to ensure that all theological stances can be taken. However, any theological position should be shared and practised in an attitude of grace, freedom and respect.

I think this is an incredibly important observation – and one that demonstrates the importance of the conversation about Spiritual Abuse. The example the authors use is of financial giving – believing that Christians should give money to the church is fine, forcing or coercing anyone to give is not. This is complex, and it will require thoughtfulness, but I think the conversation about and around Spiritual Abuse is an opportunity for the Church to continue to step into what it can be. I’ll close with some words from Oakley and Humphreys:

there is real hope for the future. The Bible tells us the Church is God’s plan. He came up with the idea and therefore it has to be possible for what happens in the Church and Christian contexts to be the best model of how we treat and care for each other.

Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse

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