If we are going to talk about the definition of spiritual abuse, I think it is a good idea to first define abuse. Dictionary.com defines abuse in the verb form as:
- to use wrongly or improperly, misuse
- to treat in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way
- to speak insultingly, harshly, and unjustly to or about; revile; malign
Physical and sexual abuse are probably most commonly thought of when we hear the word abuse. These abuses leave scars on one's psyche that can last long after the physical wounds heal. A child who is beaten and neglected can have health and mental problems. They can have difficulty trusting others, becoming withdrawn and reclusive. They can become overly timid and shy. Sometimes they later become abusers themselves. It is not uncommon for people who are sexually abused to have difficulty forming healthy sexual relationships or to begin acting out in inappropriate sexual ways at an early age. A somewhat less commonly discussed form of abuse is emotional. If a person is constantly told that they are worthless, won't amount to anything, and not loved, they will likely develop self-esteem issues, have difficulty asserting themselves, and sometimes seek out love "in all the wrong places."
Spiritual abuse can have analogous consequences. People who are spiritually abused can begin to doubt their faith, may abandon church, sink into depression, deal with feelings of inadequacy, and even become spiritually abusive themselves. Unlike physical and sexual abuse, there are no physical signs left on the body to draw attention to the abuse. There are also no laws dealing with spiritual abuse. If you beat or molest a child, you commit a felony and are sent to prison upon conviction. Not so with spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse can also be more subtle than emotional abuse. Many instances of spiritual abuse occur in Bible-believing protestant Christian churches at the hands of respected leaders who use the Bible to back up what they say. Unless you know what to look for, it is possible you don't even realize it is happening until you have been so worn down and battered that you don't know what to do.
So what is spiritual abuse? In general terms, it is the misuse of the Bible and/or Biblical principles that is harmful to others. This can take on many forms, which I will discuss in more depth in later posts. A common thread when it comes to spiritual abuse, however, is that of elevating non-essential, secondary doctrines to a level of first importance. I will expound on this idea in my next post. The basic idea however, is that there are doctrines of Christianity that are core doctrines. That is, they are the most basic beliefs that one must have to resemble that of orthodox Christianity. It would be near impossible to be a Christian and not hold these beliefs. There are some issues of Christianity, however, in which there is some disagreement. These are issues that are not the most basic, core parts of the faith, but are sometimes important to some nonetheless. Often in a spiritually abusive environment, one of these doctrines, beliefs, or rules for behavior are elevated such that if you don't believe them or follow them, then you are either 1) not a Christian, or 2) a "bad" Christian. What happens is a sense of elitism is created.
Those who hold to these beliefs or behaviors will view themselves as "better" than those who don't. Those that hold to these ideas, often the leaders, will either distort meanings of the Bible to force the "unbelievers" into submission, or will belittle the "unbeliever", making them doubt their sense of worthiness, value, and use as a Christian.
I will attempt to unpack more of what this means in future blog posts. As I mentioned before, in my next post I plan to explain more of what I mean about essential and non-essential doctrines, and how that ties into spiritual abuse. Why is it that I am writing about this topic though? I am writing for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I have come to learn that there are those in my life who have suffered through some form of spiritual abuse. This abuse has created lasting wounds that are slow to heal and can suck the vibrancy of life from a person's soul. Secondly, I am learning more and more what it means to be free. Galatians 5:1 states, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." Spiritual abuse puts people back into the slavery of the law, sometimes even only man-made law. It is hurtful, manipulative, degrading, and sinful. It is something I wish nobody would endure. Sadly, I believe there are ideas and doctrines infiltrating mainstream Christian churches that are hurtful and abusive. I will get into what I believe some of those ideas are in later posts.