Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month: Emerging Issues, 2012

January is “Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month”

January seems to be the traditional time to offer a look back and a projection forward. We start the month off with New Year’s resolutions, and close it with the State of the Union presentation by the President of the United States. For a few years now, January has been designated as “Spiritual Abuse Awareness” month. So, I wanted to post a list of “barometer” readings of recent events plus suggest emerging issues that help us identify indications of change in the atmosphere on this issue.

Support and Resource Networks

Support Networks. One day this month, I checked the number of Facebook pages/groups with the words “spiritual abuse.” In the top 40 listed, most were support-type groups with small numbers of members/“likes” (25 or fewer). Some of the larger support-type groups were closed and had several hundred members. Most of the rest were pages for books or counseling ministries. (It would be helpful for someone who feels called to create a baseline list of social network groups that have spiritual abuse as a central theme, and analyze the kinds, sizes, and topics involved.)

Resource Networks. I’ve noticed several trends in terms of resource networks. First, their numbers are small but there seems to be a gradual increase in them. And I’m not talking about relational support as much as cooperative efforts at research and resource production. One such group recently launched the Abuse Resource Network. This particular group indicates another trend that I’ve picked up for my own involvement with online and private networks for spiritual abuse survivors and those who minister to them, and that is the cross-pollination among different kinds of abuse. There are many problems and solutions that survivors of different sorts of abuse hold in common So, the Abuse Resource Network offers sections on Spiritual Abuse, Physical Abuse/Domestic Violence, Sexual Abuse by Clergy, Sexual Abuse of Adults, and Sexual Abuse of Children.

Second, the past few years have seen a noticeable increase in research and resource production related to various aspects of spiritual abuse. Here is my opinion of the four most important emerging issues of the past few years. Most won’t be much of a surprise for those who’ve been watching this topic, but the other issues seem to be just starting to peek their noses over the horizon. We need to watch the last two especially, as they will strongly influence the positive or negative impact of the spiritual abuse recovery movement.

Four Emerging Issues in Spiritual Abuse

1. De-Churched Christians. Dr. Barbara Orlowski’s book Spiritual Abuse Recovery (2010) and Church Exiters website share the results of an extensive research survey she conducted for her doctoral program. Among other things, her work addresses leaders who leave churches where spiritual abuse is involved in that process (although she also focuses on reestablishment of “spiritual integrity and harmony” for those who were victimized, and their reintegration into some kind of involvement with a local body of disciples).

I note Dr. Orlowski’s work on those leaving church particularly because there has been a growing concern over the entire opening decade of this millennium about the emergence of “the de-churched” and “non-churched Christians.” While overtly intensive spiritual abuse does not necessarily get involved in every de-churched person’s decision to leave a conventional church, I suspect there is a related cluster of abusive elements involved, such as: overly black-and-white thinking and legalistic practices, authoritarian leadership, cronyism and nepotism that block the everyday disciple from using his/her spiritual gifts for church ministry.

2. No virtual pass for abusive actions by leaders. Another prominent emerging issue deals with push-back on leaders who range from abrasive to abusive, and may show significant behaviors indicating personal immaturity. For instance, Lance Ford has a forthcoming book (autumn 2012) on leadership which will address the concept of not allowing leaders to have immunity from scrutiny or giving them a “free pass” when they are caught in egregious sin.

Also, I see the unfolding multi-dramas of Mark Driscoll and concerns about his conduct with press interviews, church discipline at Mars Hill Church, and certain doctrinal stances as the intense surfacing of a trend that has been building for a number of years about online behaviors that fall far short of the biblical requirements of leaders in public ministry roles. (As a starting place, read Dr. David Fitch’s post and check out the many comments, commenters’ blogs, and related links and you’ll be able to sense the range of issues and reactions.)

This kind of response is not limited to theologically conservative or Neo-Calvinist/Neo-Puritan circles. In 2008, there was substantial fallout from the “Lakeland Outpouring” and especially in reaction to leaders in the New Apostolic Reformation who initially endorsed Todd Bentley but then mostly distanced themselves from him when significant troubles arose with his personal life and ministry.

3. More “citizen journalist” reports with detailed documentation of alleged spiritual abuse. Though many of the social network groups for survivors of spiritual abuse are closed, there has also been an increase in the number of open, online reports about peoples’ experiences of what they see as “malignant ministry” in churches and other Christian organizations. Again, this appears to cover the whole spectrum of theologies and movements in North America.

Unfortunately, many of the reports and comments are inflammatory. While this is understandable, given the emotional nature of violation by those in roles of spiritual authority who harm people in the misused name of God, wouldn’t it be better if we could report our experiences without sarcasm (which literally means, from the Greek, to “tear flesh”), vengeful personal attacks, and negative labeling – and with as much prayer, discernment, and peace as possible while giving appropriate details?

Here is one of the best role models for sharing a first-person account of a couple’s experience abuse and their attempts to grapple with what happened and interpret it. I found it conscientious, balanced, humble, expository, and explanatory rather than a sensationalistic or vindictive exposé designed to stir up anger. It is holistic and draws in relevant thoughts, emotions, and discernments. As I noted in my comment there, “…when there is an in-depth case study available, the harder it is for those who remain at the toxic organization to refute or deny various details and with it, alternative interpretations to the events from what they tell. So, thank you for investing the time to detail for us what you experienced. The flow of the events is instructive and insightful, and leaves a trail of documentable evidence that proves invaluable to others experiencing similar things …”

4. Expanding the concept of accountability to “system partners” that enable abusive behavior by celebrity Christians. For those with a national or international ministry platform, the borders of “local” in their local church have changed. And with a broader public ministry comes legitimately increased scrutiny. If my sense of the previous two trends is at all accurate, then it should also make sense that there is growing pressure to start holding accountable not just those Christians who are in the public eye yet who speak and behave in very questionable – if not outright toxic – ways, but also the partners who stand behind them, promote them, and facilitate them gaining or continuing their platforms.

Here I am thinking of various entities that enhance the status of high-profile Christians: publishing houses that pay and promote big-name authors, venues that run conferences and speaking engagements, non-profit agencies and ministry associations that offer directorships and advisory positions, and other kinds of media sources. These businesses and organizations are acting in a sort of apostolic role, commending to the larger Body of Christ the celebrities they stand behind. They are vouching for the character and qualifications of their authors-speakers-representatives-promotees. As endorsers of high-profile Christians, they, too, are inviting legitimate scrutiny.

In the classic terminology of the recovery movement and “interventions,” these entities function as “enablers.” Maybe they are not directly abusing God’s people, but they have often created a support and safety net and ongoing platform for those who allegedly do. As chains of evidence demonstrating claims of abuse mount – especially online, where digital details cannot be erased – more cases of alleged abuse will have irrefutable weight of evidence behind them. And then the enabler organizations should expect to be examined for their roles and questioned as to whether they are more committed to their own preservation or to protecting the Body of Christ.

I believe in the next few years we will see intensified efforts to hold these organizations – and their boards of directors, staff members, apostles, elders, shareholders – partially responsible for the harm done by those whom they metaphorically laid hands on and recognized and endorsed as qualified for public leadership. I’m not advocating or expecting that all such issues be hammered out in the court system or on the internet. But, if face-to-face confrontations and attempts at reconciliation fail, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see some traditional and emerging indicators of social resistance take their place: civil suits filed against non-profit institutions, online petitions demanding change, boycotts of products, Twitter campaigns, synchro-blogs, etc.

This brings up theological issues about taking fellow followers of Christ to court to settle what should be settled within the church, but again, I’m looking at situations that are no longer centered in “local” churches because of the larger systems of businesses and/or non-profits involved. But the larger issue will still need to be addressed: Perpetrators and enablers of evil cannot count on their victims remaining silent …

Conclusion

The whole topic of spiritual abuse is one I entered as a survivor of a devastating church split that occurred 35 years ago when I had only been a disciple for a few years. At the time, I had to wrestle with one horrible decision: Either what was done “in the name of Jesus” was false and despicable and there must be a way to understand how and why this happened, or else Christianity was a crock.

I simply couldn’t turn myself away from Jesus, so I worked hard on the first option, seeking to understand the events that had nearly crushed my faith. That choice led to my eventual commitment not to knowingly protect those who are spiritually abusive, because if I did I would be adding to their “body count.” Also, for me, that decision meant pursuing what makes for healthy and holistic spiritual formation in Christian community has become a driving force. (That is why, after noting the above trends, I’m adding three more chapters – citizen journalism, toxic systems analysis, and distinguishing healthy organizations from toxic and cultic ones – to my forthcoming book, Safe Houses for God’s People.) I hope you find something helpful in the resources I produce, and that they offer you a balanced and redemptive perspective for following Christ more closely in your own life.

“Supporters of Spiritual Abuse Awareness and the victims do not all unite under one specified doctrinal statement. We simply stand for the victims and support you in recovery. You are free.”

~ Spiritual Abuse Awareness, 28 January 2012 ~


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2 thoughts on “Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month: Emerging Issues, 2012

  1. I appreciate you bringing this to the forefront. I just came out of 12 years in a very controlling, destructive cult after losing my marriage, my kids, my grandkids, my house, my car, and my multi-million dollar Christian publishing company.

    In the name of Christ I was financially, emotionally and spiritually raped. The experience almost made me decide I didn’t want to follow God, but I have since determined that I will not let this traumatic experience steal my faith. Initially I was going to just go away, declare bankruptcy, forgive them and not “gossip” but now that I am healing and seeing more clearly, I cannot allow them to continue to destroy marriages, families and lives, so now instead, I will tell my story without fear.

    Ephesians 5:11
    Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.

    Thank you for what you are doing.

    Athena Dean
    http://www.notafraidtotellmystory.com

    • Athena … so sorry for all the trauma you experienced, but know that you are on a journey back to finding grace, mercy, and wholeness in Jesus.

      I understand all too well the anguishing choice that often arises after severe spiritual abuse: Is Christianity a lie and I should forget about God and Jesus … or where these Christians lying and I cannot turn away from Jesus? Blessing your decision to remain a disciple, Athena — Brad

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