Recovery from Spiritual Abuse Part 2B-Five Criteria Continued … Learning Discernment

I responded earlier this week to a thought-provoking post on Brother Maynard’s blog. It reminded me of a number of comments I’ve seen on blogs or heard in person lately, in response to critiques of this or that theology, methodology, etceterology of “church.” Things like: Well, haven’t they done anything good? Can you only see the bad? Thousands of people have been saved/served/sanctified through their ministry – can’t we just celebrate that? In my comment on his blog post, I stated that “We’re addicted to all-or-nothing thinking, it seems … plus we confuse judging (as in discerning) with judgmentalism (as in condemning). I am one who tries to identify both good and bad in systems and structures, but the presence of some good does not validate the bad, and the presence of some bad does not invalidate the good. Maybe part of the problem is that we’re just slackers. It’s much easier to engage in black-or-white thinking than to try to discover the actual complexities – when it’s not a matter of obedience/disobedience, of course – then it is black or white. (Oh! I just nuanced myself!) (Maybe there is hope ..)”

There is much left to say about choosing a relatively healthy fellowship, and what factors might make it difficult to find one. I suspect a lot of people personally dealing from spiritual abuse would prefer I move right on to the principles of recovery, but sorry, this is complex stuff and there are no quick fixes.

If you simply can’t wait, there are resources already available that can help work through issues. But for the time being, I must keep plodding along to make what I suspect may be a unique contribution, in surrounding the issues of spiritual abuse with a larger framework. I am taking the time to do this because I believe identifying spiritual abuse and recovering from it is about far more than just our individual vulnerabilities or individual toxic leaders.

So, my game plan is for two more posts to complete Part 2. In Part 2B, I’ll share about the need for discernment, and in Part 2C, I’ll share more details of my five criteria and offer do-it-yourself questions for discernment, while exploring a bit more about why I’m making such a big deal about organizational systems and leadership issues.

In the next set of two Parts after that, I plan to explore the interrelated topics of what makes us susceptible to abuse from unhealthy leaders; dynamics of toxic misuses of compassion, power, and vision; and why leaders of true integrity should not mind if we evaluate them carefully before authorizing their leadership role in our lives. In the final set of two Parts, I plan to explore topics related to transformation for both perpetrators of spiritual abuse and survivors of their victimization, and discerning God’s redemptive purposes as we all move forward.


Providentially, I’m in the middle of watching Pride and Prejudice (the most excellent two-disc BBC TV mini-series version) for the umpteenth time. It contains an important and layered set of lessons about learning discernment. Please hang in there with me while I set the stage. I believe it will be worth the investment of listening to this storyline …

At the end of the first disc, Mr. Darcy has just asked Miss Elizabeth Bennett to marry him. This comes as an utter astonishment to her, as she had never sought his attentions or affection. But, more difficult, however could she possibly accept Mr. Darcy? Darcy is the very man who had intervened to ruin her older sister Jane’s budding relationship with his best friend, Mr. Bingley – and who also had (or so, she thinks) maltreated her friend, Mr. Wickham. She rejects his proposal, accusing him of pride, spite, and selfishness.

At the beginning of the second disc, we hear Darcy’s thoughts as he writes her a letter, seeking at the least to correct her faulty view of his treatment of Mr. Wickham. He gives her the facts of the situation, verifiable at all points by their mutual friend, Colonel Fitzwilliam. In truth, Mr. Wickham (who has a grudge against Mr. Darcy) attempted to seduce Georgiana, Darcy’s young and naïve sister, into eloping with him. If Wickham had succeeded, his vengeance on Darcy would be complete, plus he would have locked in Georgiana’s inheritance of 30,000 pounds. When you consider this was worth approximately $2.4 million in year 2000 dollars, his revenge scheme is an utterly despicable combination of money, sex, and power. (See CliffsNotes on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, where literary critic Edward Copeland estimated the modern value in dollars of pounds in Jane Austen’s time).

Elizabeth is mortified when she realizes she’d based her prejudices against Darcy and her actions towards him on Wickham’s slender selection of “facts” with a particular “spin.” He portrayed himself as the victim of evil, when in fact he was the agent. In a later conversation, Elizabeth shares the truth about Wickham with her older sister Jane. At first, Jane refuses to believe Wickham is as vicious as Darcy reports. However, as she considers Darcy’s details and the context, she finally concludes it must be true. But then Jane goes back to her default view on people, which is trusting and kind, and she suggests that “perhaps there has been some terrible mistake!”

Elizabeth laughs and shakes her head. “No, Jane! That won’t do. You’ll never be able to make them both good. There is just enough merit between them to make just one good sort of man. And for my part, I’m inclined to believe it’s all Mr. Darcy’s.”

“Poor Mr. Darcy,” Jane laments, then looks astonished: “Poor Mr. Wickham! There is such an expression of goodness in his countenance.”

Again Elizabeth laughs, “Yes … I’m afraid one has all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it.” She goes on to say that until that very uncomfortable moment of reading Mr. Darcy’s letter, she never knew herself.

Elizabeth and Jane go on to talk about whether they should disclose the details about Mr. Wickham to others, whether that would block him from the possibility of making a fresh start, whether they would need the permission of Mr. Darcy to disclose, etc.

I see many parallels to the difficult but necessary responsibility all of us have to learn to discern between good and evil – and discernment is, according to Hebrews 5:14, a sign of spiritual maturity. I won’t go into all the possible spin-offs of this illustration with discernment and disclosure, but here are at least some “starter thoughts” on the subjects.

This problem of appearance versus substance is critical in discerning the actual status of church systems and leadership.

While I understand the need for leaders to keep some details about decisions and processes confidential, I also see that there are things done behind closed church doors and hidden away that need to be brought into the light. Like Mr. Wickham, toxic church leaders show consistent talent at maintaining the appearance of propriety. Their systems, strategies, and structures may look perfectly good on the surface – but underneath, there is either no biblical substance, or, even worse, there is anti-biblical substance.

If leaders are poseurs instead of genuine, they will find ways to excuse their irresponsible actions, blame others, avoid oversight, refuse accountability or consequences, etc. But sooner or later, their true fruit will show itself and they will reveal themselves as imposters.

The more tactful and practiced someone is at the craft of false impressions, the more difficult it may be for us to discern the reality. However, we must take the Scriptures at their word: Sooner or later – for all of us, not just leaders – the fruit of our theology, character, and activities catches up with us. “The sins of some people are soon in evidence; they lead on to judgment. But in the case of others they dog their steps. Equally so are good works readily observed; while those which are otherwise cannot remain hidden.” (1 Timothy 5:24-25, Modern Language Bible)

Toxic people can fool us for a while by maintaining a fully fake or partially true picture of their attitudes and actions. But sooner or later, the negative shows through. While a “snapshot” of a church’s substance shows itself to seem healthy, we are responsible to discern whether a series of snapshots or a “video” of the church’s actions over time shows a genuinely biblical goal, wise trajectory, and righteous methods.

Is Elizabeth’s experience of seeing the larger picture all that different from what we realize when we conclude we have been spiritually abused in a church or other Christian context? Once we have more facts and change our interpretation, it also means acknowledging that we were in some degree responsible for being duped. However, the vulnerabilities exhibited by us meshed with the search for a victim by the perpetrator(s), so we are not fully responsible.

Toxic leaders often attempt to evade their responsibility by deflecting us with guilt (you’re doing something wrong) or shame (you are something wrong, such as … You are a woman, you can’t tell male leaders what to do. You are not spiritually mature, so you have no right to say that. You are not a member here, so you aren’t really involved.) Their “you are’s” do not negate their “Rs” – responsibility and respectability. (More in these topics in forthcoming Parts 3 and 4.)

Leaders who have nothing to hide will be open to reasonable scrutiny. Also, good leaders will be genuinely open to input before making decisions, and to corrections afterwards – especially those confrontations that are conducted in a truthful and constructive manner. This is a serious charge, never to be refused by leaders or to be undertaken lightly by congregants.

In 1 Timothy 3, we learn that elders must be proven above reproach. Deacons are not to serve until first tested. If a leader refuses to submit to such processes that examine their character for Christlikeness, they should never have been put in a position of authority in the first place nor be allowed to remain if already there.

In 1 Timothy 5, we see that we are not to recognize charges brought against elders unless supported by two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin are to be corrected publicly. We are warned not to show favoritism in this, nor to put people into leadership roles when they are disqualified or not yet qualified. In other words, we are not to “lay on hands” on them, which shows we accept them as leaders and identify with them … and thus share in their fruit, whether good or evil!

James lets us know that teachers are not exempt from legitimate evaluation either. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know we are assuming the more accountability; because we all make many a mistake. Whoever makes no mistake with the tongue is certainly a perfect [i.e., mature, complete] man, able as well to control his entire body” (James 3:1-2, Modern Language Bible).

Even John – the Apostle of Love – has some quite stern things to say about a self-willed and aggressive leader. “I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have first place among them, does not receive us. This is why, if I come, I will remind him of the works he is doing, slandering us with malicious words. And he is not satisfied with that! He not only refuses to welcome the brothers himself, but he even stops those who want to do so and expels them from the church” (3 John 9-10, Holman Christian Standard Bible). I find this warning of particular interest, as a hallmark of spiritual abusive organizations is unwarranted removal of people under the false cover of “church discipline.”

Again, this is NOT about authoritarian perfection, it is about inauthenticity and protection. Leaders who wish to escape reasonable scrutiny might even acknowledge the above passages but in reality refuse to submit to them. It is yet another sign that they do not truly uphold the authority of Scripture. Even if they say they do, the fruit of their words and actions says they do not. Their “nice” appearance is in reality a lie. And if they cannot submit to God’s authority as shown in these commands of Scripture, they should not expect us to “submit” to their authoritarian ways that go contrary to His commands for what disciples should do and how they should do it.

I am concerned that in our culture of individualism and our adoption of the “theology of being nice,” we have lost our will and ability to evaluate leaders firmly and fairly.

Being a leader is a tough job, and I believe most leaders are sincere in their desire to use their gifts and opportunities for Kingdom impact. However, if the blogs, books, and surveys on recovery from spiritual abuse and burn-out from churches are accurate indicators, there is a pervasive experience in American churches with mediocre leadership and/or overt or covert spiritual abuse. In light of this, I definitely see the need for a set of evaluation tools and interview questions that can help assess potential leaders. Again, the process of evaluating character and actions is NOT meant to punish anyone or block them from leading. However, it is meant to protect the flock from those whose actions and immaturity disqualify them, and by preventing those who are not yet qualified or seasoned from entering into positions incompatible with their giftings or too far beyond their maturity level to deal with.

Who will invest in developing such tools, and would we – both leaders and congregants – even commit ourselves to use them wisely? I wonder … I really, REALLY do wonder …

We need to keep in mind our redemptive purpose: to demonstrate what it means to participate actively in the ongoing story of the Triune God’s reconciling of all things in Christ. Any other storyline constitutes a counterfeit.

In concluding Part 2B, I would remind us with another film analogy that we are meant to serve together as an ensemble cast where every role is vitally important to the progression of the storyline of Christ’s redemption, reconciliation, and restoration. And so, we have the distinct responsibility to choose wisely whom we follow, and treat them as our fellow actors and prompters, not as our script writers and directors. Otherwise, we can expect to be co-opted into their own storyline as unscrupulous leaders who see themselves as the main actor in the supposedly most important story, and us as merely their extras. This applies to us in our choices for a church home, ministries we serve in, and agencies we support financially or otherwise partner with. Discern and choose wisely!

But what if we have not discerned well or not chosen wisely? Whether we have been a perpetrator or victim in a counterfeit storyline, may we sense the nearness of the Father of All Comforts if we need to grieve the temporary loss of our true redemptive purpose due to abuse. May we sense the leading of the Holy Spirit as we seek to embrace life and take our rightful place in the Body of Christ again. And may we sense the strength of our Lord Jesus Christ as we seek to reconnect with a body of disciples who seek authentic hope and wholeness in Him.

Back to Part 1 – Five Personal Lessons …

Back to Part 2A – Five Criteria to Choose a Healthy Fellowship …

Forward to Part 2C – Five Criteria (Concluded) …

Forward to Interlude – What Issues Would We Most Like To Explore?

Forward to Part 2D – Organizational Cultural Dynamics and Governance

Forward to Part 2E – Mentoring and Moving Toward Hope

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 Links for “Recovery from Spiritual Abuse” Series

UPDATE September 4, 2017. I am adding the full set of links to the series to make it easier to access the posts that are available and to explain what happened with those that are not. I plan to compile this material and more into book projects that will be available in the near future. Please note that these posts have not been updated for nearly 10 years. I have learned much more since then, so I expect the revised versions will be much more clear, divided into smaller chunks to make them more accessible, and with graphics added.

Part 1. Five Personal Lessons from My Surviving Toxic Leaders.

Part 2A. Five Criteria I Now Use to Choose a Relatively Healthy Fellowship.

Part 2B. Five Criteria Continued … Learning Discernment.

Part 2C. Five Criteria Concluded … Detailed Criteria.

Part 2D. Organizational Cultural Dynamics and Governance.

Part 2E. Mentoring and Moving Toward Hope.

Part 3A. Finding Authentic Hope and Wholeness.

Part 3B presented a series of movies to illustrate the concepts in Finding Authentic Hope and Wholeness. I took this post down, as it needed revising. It will be part of a forthcoming book.

Part 3C. Power Addiction is Like Porn.

Part 3D. Detailing the System – Abusers, Survivors, Enablers, Crusaders, Resistors, Spectators. This became an entire series in 2014, which I’ve compiled on this page: Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse. It identifies and describes not only the kinds of people involved as perpetrators of abuse and their victims, but also those who protect and perpetuate the system. There are also practical how-to’s for dealing with malignant leaders and toxic organizations

The following posts were originally planned to complete the series in 2008, but I did not complete them for the blog. However, I will be including them when I revise the entire series into an upcoming book.

  • Part 3E. Detailing Transformation – Security, Identity, Belonging, Purpose, Competence.
  • Part 3F. Picturing the System – Four Films.
  • Part 3G. Presentational Temperature Guide to Toxic Leader Types – Six Films.

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2 thoughts on “Recovery from Spiritual Abuse Part 2B-Five Criteria Continued … Learning Discernment

  1. It amazes me how brainless and sheeplike we are trained to be about spiritual abuse. This passivity and blind obedience is a huge factor in the overall system of abuse that occurs in churches.

    “We are responsible to discern whether a series of snapshots or a “video” of the church’s actions over time shows a genuinely biblical goal, wise trajectory, and righteous methods.”

    This is often set aside in favor of justifying all manner of evil methodology under the guise of good intentions and not wanting to judge.

    Great job so far. There is so much that yet needs to be discussed and described about the systemic issues that contribute to spiritual abuse.

  2. Ditto, grace…let’s remember where the road paved with good intentions leads. ;^) And the time-lapsed photography of a church’s actions is exactly what I have come to see is critical when abuse (even if “ignorant”) is a long-term pattern.

    Thanks, again, Brad…looking forward to what you have next — praying for discernment about how to respond “locally” to what you’ve already provided.

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