January is “Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month”
An edited version of the following excerpt will appear in the introduction to the book, Safe Houses for God’s People.
At long last, it looks like the first book in my Opal Design Systems series will be published within the next month or so. This curriculum is meant to equip participants in churches, agencies, and Kingdom enterprises with the frameworks and tools they need to create holistic, sustainable, transformational ministry. I’ve title this inaugural volume, Safe Houses for God’s People. It focuses on discerning malignant ministry, dismantling systems of spiritual abuse, and (re)building safe and sustainable places of discipleship. Many topics wrapped up in spiritual abuse and toxic organizations are uncomfortable, but I’m approaching them with a redemptive edge for those in need instead of an inflammatory exposé of the experiences I’ve survived.
I crafted this title and focus because I believe all followers of Christ need to become safe people to serve those who have endured the grievous wounds of spiritual abuse (and other kinds of human frailty). Also, as teams and congregations of His disciples, we need to ensure that our churches, ministries, and activities are safe places where bullying is never tolerated. The house of God should be a safe house for discipling all people … even for repentant abusers … and we should consistently deal with any attempts at manipulation or control in the name of Christ there and, in fact, vigilantly prevent them.
The safe house image provides a powerful illustration for these every-disciple responsibilities to protect and nurture. I learned about safe houses many decades ago from my sister, and the grit and grace required in her advocacy work has stuck with me. In the mid-1970s, she served as a pioneer in helping women who were survivors of domestic violence. It all started when a friend showed up at my sister’s place with a camera. She asked my sister to take photos to document the huge bruises she had from her husband beating her. Her friend knew if she didn’t leave him now, there just might not be another opportunity.
Her friend’s serious situation jolted my sister into further action – just documenting the damage didn’t seem like enough of a response. So, she became an activist and advocate for survivors on this and other forms of abuse. That was an era when bullying was not on the “social radar” yet, and there was a very uneven response to this particular form of violence. Still, there were women who’d survived physical, emotional, and verbal abuse and had the courage to leave their toxic situations. They needed somewhere to shelter them while they reconstructed their lives. Where could they go?
Safe houses provided a kind of “underground railroad” station for women to escape their oppressors, recuperate in hiding, and relaunch life with a more healed identity. Typically, there they would find a combination of friendship, advocacy, counseling, and training – all in a safe environment designed to protect and nurture them.
My sister steadfastly kept the confidentiality of her clients. She did not tell me specific details about individuals, but did educate me about the relevant concepts and practical needs. (I’ve ended up applying those in my work with other kinds of marginalized individuals and groups through the years.) She also attempted to educate church leaders and members, but to little avail. The unfortunate truth was that many theologically conservative and evangelical churches back then generally didn’t offer safety or solace to survivors of abuse. “Pastoral care” often just consisted of telling a battered wife to return to her husband and submit to him – frequently with the implication of, By the way, whatever did you do to make him so angry that he hit you?
Is it shocking that Christian “leaders” would justify what is absolutely unjustifiable, and leave victims without help or hope? That unyielding ignorance was a heartbreaking tragedy back then. Yet, a similar tragedy continues to occur these days because too many of our churches, ministries, and Christian agencies protect the perpetrators of spiritual abuse. They fail to confront the infliction of vile attacks on God’s people through legalistic rules, relational control, and emotional manipulation. They refuse to acknowledge the presence of spiritual bruises, and may even blame the victim as if they brought such “discipline” upon themselves and deserve what they got. In extreme cases, they invoke the name of Jesus Christ while actually promoting a system that perpetuates damage on all whom they claim to disciple. Such abusive individuals and organizations in particular are flirting with the thin border between “toxic” and “cultic.”
And how should we respond? Or, better questions are based on this: How will we respond? Curtailing malignancy is more than just a matter of theology; it requires us to choose a basic course of action that may affect every facet of our ministry, and follow it through.
- What should every disciple know and do to support survivors sensitively and block bullying relentlessly?
- What responsibilities fall to the congregation together as a community of those who follow Jesus?
- What are the roles and responsibilities of leaders to ensure a constructive environment for everyone’s spiritual transformation?
- What do we do when Christian celebrities in the larger society or online world demonstrate themselves to be spiritual bullies – even if they are not doctrinal heretics – and they spread their poisonous paradigm via downloads, blogs, books, conferences, and ministry associations?
Yes … What will we do to become safe houses that protect and nurture God’s people?