In my previous post, I wrote about a few of the essential doctrines and how, often times, spiritual abuse will result from elevating secondary issues to greater importance than they ought to be. In part one of this post, I will examine more of what that looks like in a church setting. Read on after the jump.
So what does spiritual abuse entail?
The first thing we should remember is that spiritual abuse is just that, abuse. It shares characteristics with other forms of abuse. I defined abuse and specifically spiritual abuse in my first post on the topic. Something to remember about abuse is that pretty much all abuse involves a paradigm of a power differential. What I mean by this is that in most instances of abuse, the perpetrator is, or has a perception of being, more powerful than or in authority over the victim. A boss is more likely to abuse their subordinate than vice versa. Virtually all rape cases involve a male perpetrator and female victim. Adults or older children molest younger children. Most domestic violence is at the hands of a violent man. In the case of spiritual abuse, it pretty much always begins with the leadership (pastors/elders/deacons) and their teachings. In the minds of most church goers, the pastor has a position of authority over the church body and is elevated above others in the church. This creates a power differential that, when coupled with errant teachings and a controlling personality, can easily lead to spiritual abuse.
That leads me to the other paradigm of abuse: control. Abuse begins with a power differential, and then actually takes place when the one with the power, whether it is real or perceived, exercises that power in an unhealthy, harmful manner that seeks to control the victim, assert their power, or both. The exercising of this power can take various forms. With sexual deviants, it will often take the form of rape or molestation. With an angry husband, it can be in the form of physical violence toward his family. With a cold-hearted person, it can be in the form of belittling and degrading another human being.
It is not much different with spiritual abuse. As I said, spiritual abuse in a church much more often than not will originate with the pastors and leaders of that church. The pastor in a spiritually abusive church has consolidated power. He has taught his church, overtly, subtly, or both, that he knows the right interpretation of God's word, and to question his understanding is to question God. What this generates in the minds of those in the church is the idea that if they want to get to heaven, to be in good standing with God, they must do what their pastor says, think like their pastor thinks, and believe what their pastor believes. The pastor uses this power to maintain control and authority over the church. The pastor essentially becomes the arbiter of salvation. The Bible of course is very clear that their is but one arbiter of salvation. 1 Timothy 2:5-6 states, "For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time."
I believe a big reason that people can fall into this mindset is because deep down, many of us have difficulty truly understanding the concept of free grace. We think that we don't deserve it, and so we feel that we must in some way earn it, or at the very least be assured in some tangible way that we have it. The spiritually abusive and controlling pastor play on these insecurities. They help to assure us that we are indeed saved and in good standing before God, if...IF...we fall in line with what they are saying we should fall in line with. At this point, it is no longer God's free grace we are relying on for our salvation, however. We are instead relying on what man says. This is works based salvation, not grace based.
A difficulty that arises in recognizing spiritual abuse and control is that often times, in these Bible based churches, the pastor will preach that salvation is by grace alone through faith in Jesus. They will attest that good deeds do not and cannot save us. They will say that they have no part in the salvation of those who go to their church. They may even be a church that tries to do a lot of good in the community, which goes further to make them look like an upstanding, healthy, Bible based church. How could a pastor that preaches these things be teaching something that is works based? It is more subtle than that.
This is often where the issues of secondary doctrines and beliefs come in that I mentioned in my previous post. They will tend to make statements that are rather black and white from the pulpit, preaching that if you really want to be loved by God, you must do or not do these things. These things can have very spiritual overtones, or they may be things that are not necessarily or explicitly discussed in the Bible, but the pastor will say shows a person's morality.
One example could be if a pastor says that true Christians speak in tongues. How do you think this will make a person feel if they have not been gifted with this ability? They will probably doubt their faith or feign having an experience of speaking in tongues when it is nothing more than gibberish. On the flip side, what if a pastor preached that the gift of tongues had definitively ceased, and that if you spoke in tongues, you were obviously filled with or led by an evil spirit, not the Holy Spirit. One whom God has granted this spiritual gift might then think their conversion was fake and fear they are demon possessed. In both cases, a Christian is led to believe they are in sin, or not saved, and made to feel like they are not in good standing with God. This is just one example, one that I picked because of its controversy. Similar things could be said when it comes to the issues of complementarianism versus egalitarianism, Calvinism versus Arminianism, or a pre-millennial versus post-millennial view of the end times.
Another way, and probably the more common way, that a church can begin teaching a form of legalism is by equating a person's morality or righteousness with the things they do or don't do. This is somewhat of an easy trap to fall into. After all, the Bible does speak highly of doing good works (though good deeds do not save us). Ephesians 2:10 says, "For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." James 2:15-16 says, "Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?" Many times, those in the faith we look up to the most are the ones that have done or are doing many wonderful things, sometimes extraordinary things, for the kingdom of God. The problem arises when we start to believe that doing these things makes us more righteous before God, or a "better Christian."
Christians should read their Bible and pray for at least an hour a day. More would be better. Christians should never listen to rock music, even if the band members are Christian and the lyrics glorify Christ. Christians should home school their children or else they could be corrupted by those in the public school system. The father in the household has full authority over all matters in his wife and childrens' lives. Not obeying him is rebellion. Christians shouldn't dance because it is a form of public sexuality. Christians should vote for conservative republicans because they uphold Biblical values. Christians should attend church service every week as well as all church related functions, because it shows they are really committed. Christians should always trust and follow their pastor, because he is God's anointed. A Christian should give of their time and money until it hurts, not just what they are able.
All of the things in the preceding paragraph, and more, can be and have been used as measures of righteousness. The idea that is put into people's minds is that if they do or don't do these kinds of things, then they are a more spiritual or more righteous person compared to somebody else. They are using a man-made standard to measure their standing before God. Now, if God leads you to home school your children, then you should do it. If God is convicting you to read your Bible and pray for an hour a day, then you should do it. If God is using your pastor to lead you to give more, then you should listen to your pastor and give more. The point is, we are to follow after God, not man. We are not made righteous or even more righteous by following a set of arbitrary rules. We are made righteous by Christ's blood. The good works we do after we are saved are an outpouring of our love for him, not an effort to gain his favor.
By following rules, laws, and regulations set down by man, in this case the leadership of a church, we are allowing man to determine how righteous we are, not God. We give that man the power to tell us if we are good or not. In doing so, we subject ourselves to him, making us slaves to his interpretations and standards, constantly trying to determine if we are good enough. When a pastor has this kind of power, it becomes all too easy for them to control the lives of those in the church, holding them back from the real freedom found in Christ.
So how is it that pastors gain and maintain this kind of power? How is it that the leadership can control the lives of those in the church? How are some ways that you can recognize a spiritually abusive and controlling church? What are some red flags? I will cover these in more detail in part two of this post, still to come.