The Terrible Legacy of Spiritual Abuse

Posted on 01 April 2008

Evangel 22:2 (Summer 2004)

The Terrible Legacy of Spiritual Abuse

Evangel 22:2 (Summer 2004)

A good friend who has recently suffered a great deal at the hands of spiritual bully boys’ recently lent me a book entitled The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. It is an apt title. Then, recently, I met a young woman with a past that embraced the experience of both Baptist and Catholic Apostolic churches. It did not require a long conversation to justify my comment, ‘I can tell you have been painfully abused by authoritarianism in the church’. She was quick to agree. This young woman is now spiritually ‘nowhere’ and the friend has had a fruitful full-time ministry devastated in its ‘pomp’. They are far from alone. I know, for example, of an internationally known evangelical leader whose spouse no longer attends church because of her husband’s experience of harassment in church and organization. Indeed, repeated occasions both at first hand and in the context of the pastoral support of others have persuaded me that spiritual abuse is pandemic: especially in evangelical churches, agencies and organizations (and, perhaps, above all, in ‘independency’).

  Here, I would like to highlight its tragic, terrible legacy: for its destructive power is frighteningly immense. Firstly, it devastates those who face its full force. In recent years I have witnessed dreadful suffering at the hands of evangelical ‘bully boys’. GP’s, if permitted to speak, would (and privately do) express horror at the physical and mental distress that false claims to authority and illegitimate wielding of power wreak. I have a number of friends who have got through experiences of such harassment only by prayer and a liberal dose of anti-depressants and tranquilizers. I know one person still addicted to anti-depressants and having suffered severe weight-loss years after bullying by a well-known Christian leader. She is not alone. Physical and mental illness (another friend has developed schizophrenia) abound in the wake of some leaders. Without them the pharmaceutical industry would suffer considerable loss!

  While abuse is not always so dramatic in its effects, it is always destructive. In pastoral ministry I witnessed the damage to spiritual growth on a group that had ‘escaped’ from being immersed in an abusive situation. Simply, they found it difficult to ‘be free’ in Christ after the rampant evangelical and reformed legalism in which they had been enmeshed.

Secondly, such abuse is gangrenous. Spouses and families, colleagues and communities become de-humanised in the face of abuse. The woman mentioned above saw her husband’s robust health suddenly decline in the wake of her own suffering. I know one such abused person who feared for the sanity of his own wife consequent upon the vicious attacks upon her husband (himself a respected Christian leader) by those in spiritual authority. I have witnessed the effects of such abuse upon families and friends caught up in the suffering of those they love: people reduced to a ‘shadow’ existence, joylessly enduring the pain, anguish and suffering of each successive footstep through what seems an endless night.

But such dehumanisation is to be witnessed not simply in those who are subject to lies, innuendo, allegations of weakness, uselessness and all the other tricks used by such bullies. There are the effects upon those too vulnerable and weak to cry ‘foul’. I have witnessed scenes in which those who can be ‘knocked into shape’ are publicly humiliated, are driven, against their consciences, to support a bullying culture, made to act like ‘lemmings’, aiding and abetting evil, lest they themselves suffer loss. It is a pathetic scene to witness.

Thirdly, such bullying destroys the work of the kingdom of God. Several years ago I encountered someone who was jealous of a more gifted and popular leader in his church. Systematically, over a period of time, minds were poisoned, the vulnerable confused and manipulated and.,, a fellowship making progress in the LORD destroyed. It needed only one person! Such stories could be oft repeated: the heart ripped out of a work of God by an individual bent on fulfilling his own petty ambitions at the expense of the LORD’s will.

Finally, however, there are the sad, tragic consequences upon the abuser. Such abuse is an accelerating condition. ‘Success’ feeds on each ‘success’ and leads to ever more gross betrayals of the calling of God to servanthood. But not only does success feed success but each destructive act requires a new strategy to mask the reality. Lies succeed to greater and greater lies and acts of bullying to prevent the tawdry ‘truth’ emerging into the light of day… as all historians of despots know well! The pursuit of self-glory proves a will o’-the-wisp: friendless and ever more paranoid, the megalomaniac hastens to destruction… but for the grace of God.

In fact the greatest tragedy of all in spiritual abuse is to be found in the abusers themselves. The tragedy lies, above all, in the fact that those who claim such spiritual authority reveal by their actions their own spiritual poverty. Here, then, is a life still driven by self-will and self-glorification. Inner weakness and vulnerability rather than be faced are hidden beneath a superficial ‘spiritual’ exterior that longs for acceptance, love and adulation such that its pursuit becomes a self-driven addiction.

Indeed, parade as it might, behind a spiritual veneer there is spiritual impotence, behind eloquence (even in prayer) there lies a life that does not commune with God. Indeed, activism is often a cover for inner poverty: though it will be paraded as a virtue. LORD have mercy upon such people!

But how do we recognize such abusers? One way is to listen to their language: especially in their criticism of others. Their vocabulary will be the language of power games and abuse and will, most likely, reflect far more the world that dominates them than the person or group criticized. Thus their words can become mirrors into their own souls. I know one leader who claimed another was abusing power because he longed for the authority and respect of the person he criticized: yet the latter had been won by humble service!

  Another means of recognition is to watch their actions. Abusers will often be highly charismatic personalities, able to draw crowds and even (at least for a while) intense, unwavering devotion. I recall a situation in which a couple well known to me could not but speak of their ‘marvellous’ pastor until doubts arose and, when expressed, precipitated their expulsion from the ‘bully’s’ fold: but only after he had preyed upon them financially (the pursuit of money for themselves or their ‘project’ is also, often, a tell-tale pointer). Thus, how such leaders face those who disagree or appear as ‘threats’ may highlight an abuser. I know, for example, of a pastor who was jealous of the popularity of his young and highly effective assistant and worked to destroy him by manipulating his ‘worshippers’ against the young man, despite his highly successful ministry. Several years down the line, the latter’s ministry has recovered from the anguish and physical effects of the experience and flourished elsewhere but the church has tumbled into turmoil, the deceived leadership have been forced to resign and the leader sacked (but not, predictably, without his demanding a substantial settlement). I know, too, of a situation where a highly gifted theologian who, consequently, used his brain and was seen as a threat was unsympathetically sacked on subjective and false charges of incompetence that all those around him knew to be untrue.
Still further, the abuser will prove completely insensitive to the pain of others, if it may seem to threaten her or him. I know of a leader who saw a rape victim, an attempted suicide, a man devastated by allegations that his daughter had been molested and a social inadequate (all under his ‘care’) as ‘problems’ to be removed lest they taint his progress and his vision of the image of a successful leader.

  Indeed, the tell-tale marks of pride are invariably present. One leader responded to a friend’s brief letter with a lengthy expression of his own recent successes in ministry. Usually, such need to be the centre of every situation in which they find themselves. Somehow, often oblivious to the situation into which they have entered, they assume the focal point. Self-promotion, public adulation, the more prominent aspects of ministry are unceasingly sought. Such pride is seen also in their self-belief that they have a special access to the knowledge of God’s will… unsurprisingly, this is usually identical to their own self-promotion. Such leaders speak of their own ‘progress’, of the vision that all are expected, excitedly, to own. Failure to coerce or achieve such personal aims will often lead to a slipping of the ‘mask’. I recall the sneering of one leader and virtually uncontrolled tantrums of another when ‘faced down’. Try disagreeing with a bully: it is an effective means to identify one! Thus, I know of one leader who stopped writing letters of comfort to a terminally ill young woman when she merely hinted at disagreement on a particular issue.
  Yet, how we need to search our own hearts! What is described above is no more that the testimony of a life where self remains on the throne and where Christ is kept at the margins: the prop to personal ‘fame and fortune’. And, if we are honest, we know the ‘demon’ within us that, given half a chance, would cast us headlong down the same path to spiritual destruction. May we be watchful. - not least of others. It is usually only failure to confront these issues pastorally when they first reared their head that have led to the volcanic eruption of an unsanctified nature in the days, months and years that followed. . . to the destruction of Christ’s kingdom (if that were possible).