Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 2A – The “Pyramid of Responsibility” in Toxic Systems

Series Summary: Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse

Part 1- Questions of Culpability, Complicity, and Recovery for Spiritually Abusive Individuals and Toxic Organizations. Real-world problems in discerning what constitutes a toxic organization, who is a spiritually abusive leader, and what to do about them and others who keep a harmful system going. This post includes a list of questions. Some apply generally to any individual or organization apparently engaged in spiritually abusive practices, and some deal specifically with the current situation of the leaders and institution at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington.

Part 2A and Part 2B – The “Pyramid of Responsibility” in Toxic Systems. When it comes to spiritual abuse, who has higher or lower responsibility/accountability and for what – whether they are leaders preaching from the pulpit, or people sitting in the pews, or outside individuals and organizations that keep a sick system propped up? This framework is based on my own experiences of malignant ministers and ministries. I suggest a pyramid of people with different roles and levels of responsibility in creating and perpetuating a toxic system that ultimately harms people, despite any good that its leaders or members may do.

Part 3 – Onlookers Aren’t Necessarily Innocent ~ Moving Toward a Theology of Complicity. This moves from questions and initial ideas of how to organize observations, to figuring out relevant biblical concepts about levels of responsibility when things turn malignant in a ministry. I’ve been writing extensively on personal and organizational aspects of spiritual abuse since 2008. But, this is my first attempt to forge my reflections into a more coherent theological approach on moral responsibility and accountability for spiritual abuse.

The issues I’ll deal with arise out of my own experiences of figuring out peace-making responsibilities I had for reconciliation and restitution as a result of involvement in several churches that turned out to be toxic. I’ll address both the culpability of those who are primarily responsible for creating sick systems, and the complicity of those who might general consider themselves nothing but bystanders and therefore without blame. But are they innocent? I’ll also talk about how I discovered hope and help in the midst of attempting to cope with the confusion, anger, and grief of realizing I’d been victimized … and also served malignant ministers as a surrogate victimizer.

There may be a Part 4 – Current Case Studies from Abuse Survivor Communities ~ Looking for Larger Patterns. Several situations have dominated the focus of spiritual abuse survivor communities the past few years, and there is far more use of “digital dissent” and online documentation to push back on people/organizations who need to be held accountable for the direct harm they inflict under a guise of righteousness. But, this has expanded to holding “Commenders” accountable for indirectly keeping abusive people and their systems propped up though endorsements, certifications, speaking engagements, publishing contracts, positive-spin media exposure, etc. What might these patterns mean for a more transparent, accountable, and responsible Church in the internet era?

Note: This material is from my forthcoming “field guide” on how things go wrong, even when we want to do what’s right in our ministries and social transformation endeavors. I use a similar format here with chunks of fairly compact information, usually accented with an image or illustration, that together gives a meaty mini-meal to chew through in working through topics.

You may find this dense and intense for your tastes, but still, I trust you’ll find the concept frameworks and practical skills stimulating as you think about responses to relevant issues and questions. I will occasionally split some Parts into multiple posts to keep the word count to a reasonable length to sustain your concentration.

Part 2A  [Part 2, Post #1 of 2]

The “Pyramid of Responsibility” in Systems of Spiritual Abuse

Part 2A / Post #1

  • Section 1. Culpability, Complicity, and a Pyramid of Responsibility
    • Power and Its Abuse, In Social and Spiritual Settings
    • What is “Spiritual Abuse” and Who is “Abusive”?
    • Moving from Culpability to Complicity
    • Why Does a Mayan Pyramid Capture Such Systems?

Part 2B / Post #2

  • Section 2. What’s the Big Picture of the Pyramid of Responsibility?
  • Section 3. Layer #1 – Dictators – Highest Culpability
  • Section 4. Layer #2 – Propagators – High Culpability
  • Section 5. Layer #3 – Extinguishers and Reinforcers – Moderate Culpability/Complicity
  • Section 6. Layer #4 – Enablers and Pawns – Lower Culpability/Complicity
  • Suggested Readings/Resources
"Mayan Temple" © George Bailey / Fotolia #16000920.

“Mayan Temple” © George Bailey / Fotolia #16000920.

Section 1. Culpability, Complicity, and a Pyramid of Responsibility

Power and Its Abuse, In Social and Spiritual Settings

I’ve been considering issues of power and its misuse for a very long time – over 40 years, in fact. I had my first taste of studies on social dissent in high school senior history. It was the era of Watergate, and I found myself highly engaged in understanding the practices of investigative reporting. I’d long been interested in politics. (In fact, at the age of nine, I’d asked my parents if I could go to my first local political meeting!) And I’d kept up with national and international news for some years by the time the news of Watergate broke.

In college, I took my first formal course in Political Sociology. I had to get special permission to enroll in the course, as it was an upper-division class and I was a lowly freshman with only Sociology 101 to my credit. I found the studies of values, political systems, and change fascinating. I became intrigued with totalitarian systems especially, and a decade later, was accepted into a master’s program in international relations with an intended focus on Sino-Soviet studies. (It didn’t work out, which was sad at the time but turned out all for the best in the long run.)

A few years into my undergraduate program, my horizons on power abuse got expanded from the political to the spiritual. This was due to an unexpected but horrible event. A friend of mine – I’ll call him “Conrad” – had his faith shattered in a hyper-charismatic church that was part of the Shepherding Movement.

The leaders of the church controlled key life decisions for its members, and the founder-apostle-pastor of the church and his wife got a notion that Conrad would be a great match for a particular young woman in the congregation. Wanting to be obedient to God by being obedient to his overseers, Conrad married the woman – six weeks after being introduced to her. This did not go as the shepherds expected and it was disastrous. The last conversation I had with Conrad was short and poignant as he broke down over what was happening, and he didn’t know that counseling would fix this. He disappeared from the campus shortly after that, and I don’t know what became of him. Eventually, though, that particular church became listed by cult-watch groups. This all turned my attention to the dangers of so-called discipleship that was actually a system of life-dictation-by-leaders that removed personal opportunities and responsibilities for freedom in discernment and decision-making.

These two anecdotes capsulize some of what has captured my attention for the past 40 years. In my reflections on the intersections of social, political, religious, and organizational overcontrol – and my own unfortunate involvements in “malignant ministries” – I’ve come to one main conclusion:

Not every “sociological cult” of control is a theological or religious cult, but every theological/religious cult displays totalist control methods over its members, just like a sociological cult does over its citizens.

That opens a huge topic, but it is crucial to understanding the dynamics of authoritarian organizations, systems, and societies. Research on what a sociological cult is has been available since the early 1960s, primarily in the writings of Dr. Robert Jay Lifton. His work has helped me immensely in seeing the bridges between secular and spiritual forms of abuse of trust, authority, and power; and in processing the social and organizational aspects of my own experiences with spiritual abuse.

What is “Spiritual Abuse” and Who is “Abusive”?

The essence of spiritual abuse lies in intimidating, forcing, coaxing, and/or seducing people to the point where they turn over control of their life to you – and then you can do whatever you want with them that benefits your own selfish purposes, even if those purposes have every appearance of being all for Jesus and for His Kingdom.

Such abuse of people for your purposes removes their right and responsibility to self-determination. You remove their function of discernment and deciding. You limit who they associate with, and what are acceptable beliefs, values, and behaviors.

It’s not just that your hijacking of a life is merely unacceptable. It’s utterly insidious. Despicable. Evil! If you do this to someone, you are a life-thief, an emotional vampire, sucking the soul right out of others and replacing their will with your own. You may not be trafficking their body, but you are enslaving their spirit.

This is called spiritual abuse for at least two reasons. First, it happens in a religious context and is justified with religious language – even though similar dynamics happen in political, societal, and cultural settings. Second, it puts a human in the role of God, dictating what must be done as if it is divine will. Theologically speaking, it removes the rights and responsibilities of every disciple of Jesus Christ to act as his/her own priest before God, and substitutes a dictator-pastor-elder as a new mediator between the believer and his/her Lord. It reenacts the heretical overlording control practices of the Shepherding Movement, just like I saw happen so many years ago with my friend Conrad.

Ironically, taking on a role as spiritual overlord is also inhumane. Besides removing victims’ human right of choice, it reduces them to mere contributors of bits of energy to promote the perpetrators’ grand schemes. From decades of my own experiences with spiritual abuse and years of research writing on this since 2008, three things are clear to me:

  • Abusers at that level are without pangs of conscience over the harm they inflict.
  • They are also without compassion for the emotional and spiritual pain they implant.
  • Their culpability becomes fairly clear eventually through both their negative actions and their negligence.

To be responsible for something means to be answerable and accountable for it. These days, we see many people who ARE responsible nevertheless refuse to be answerable for their perpetrating of spiritual abuse. Similarly, people who keep a sick organizational system going, and thus perpetuate the abuse and the abusers, likewise act as if they have absolutely no responsibility for their apparent complicity.

And what about these others people who prop up a sick system? Are all bystanders and pew-sitters actually enablers? Do they accrue some level of blame and moral complicity for keeping the perpetrators in place? These are the kinds of questions I’ve been wrestling with as I attempt to excavate and interpret the landscape of abuse.

Moving from Culpability to Complicity

These days, spiritual abuse survivors are getting more agitated with “secondary people” who keep such toxic systems propped up by supporting the “primary perpetrators.” Those in the pews are not in leadership roles, yet their financial giving and their in-church and online presence helps perpetuate a system that keeps grinding out more victims. The word complicit shows up far more often online these days in reference to them.

But what does complicit mean, really? In general terms, it’s about bearing at least some blame for what happens. We get our word accomplice from the same Latin root – which is related to the word complex as well. So, in a church, ministry, or religious non-profit setting, complicity in abuse means sharing some level of responsibility for the crushing of someone’s spirit – even if you’ve had no direct involvement with the actions or inactions that inflicted such harm.

I’ve been watching the spiritual abuse survivors’ scene online closely since 2008. My gut intuition is that the agitation, push-back, and even animosity has been growing stronger year by year, and has become far more public. And now, it clearly extends beyond the obvious target of people to blame in a particular church or ministry. Now under greater scrutiny are those I’ve termed Commenders – which I defined in an earlier post [see the chart near the bottom] as outsider people of prominence who “use their reputation and organizations to promote Dictators, and oppose Survivors and their Defenders, as complicit partners, not unwitting pawns.” So, Commenders choose to prop up another leader or system that does not deserve it. They can recommend such malignant ministers and ministries various ways:

  • Openly endorsing the questionable colleague by lending the weight of their own personal reputation and their organization’s resources.
  • Including these colleagues in a network or association.
  • Remaining silent when legitimate questions of qualifications arise.
  • Attempting to intimidate any who challenge their colleague, such as by labeling them as “bitter,” or “theologically deficient,” or “jealous.”
  • Refusing to take any kind of disciplinary action themselves when overwhelming documentation makes it clear there is no question of abusiveness.

After several years of reflection, I’ve concluded that Commenders of colleagues who prove themselves disqualified by abusive actions and bad character from positions of leadership are complicit in the victimization of people who followed their recommendations. Commenders are among the propagators who protect the perpetrators of abuse – and thus keep these Dictators in their reigns of control.

Why Does a Mayan Pyramid Capture Such Systems?

That may seem like a lot of random pieces. But that’s how things often work for people with the particular dominant learning styles like I have. Somehow, it eventually synthesizes into something more coherent. And for me, that seems to be when I create a chart or graphic, or find some kind of image or analogy that brings things together.

In processing all this information on abuse and abusers from my research and experiences, I eventually came to the image of a Mayan temple as a good “governing metaphor.” It seems to illustrate well my observations and interpretations. I considered many kinds of pyramids. But I chose Mayan temples for their unique architectural features. They have long staircases, plus periodic platforms that segment the pyramid into layers. Each layer features a ledge that sticks out and blocks some of the view of what’s above from those who stand below. Also, the top is so high up that those with a vantage point lower down can’t really observe what’s going on up there.

Altogether, I felt those concrete features seemed to capture symbolically the kinds of dynamics embodied in a toxic, hierarchical organizational system. It fit the understanding I’d gradually developed of how toxic systems work. For instance:

  • There is the (small) possibility for a few people to move up the chain of command, getting to higher levels of involvement and influence.
  • But there are also blocks along the way.
  • And very few people are allowed to get near the top, so what goes on at the highest echelons of power is typically shrouded in secrecy.
  • People at lower levels are often purposely kept ignorant of the inner workings of the system.
  • But the “plebes” are also given enough perks to keep them involved enough to support its continuance.

Also, when there is such a magnificent edifice that stands out from all its surroundings, some kinds of people will always be almost magnetically drawn in. Who will resist and stay away from even the outer courtyard – and who will be attracted in and begin the climb from low-level complicity for this system, potentially to ascend to high-level culpability for it?

Take another look at the Mayan Temple image and see what you think …

"Mayan Temple" © George Bailey / Fotolia #16000920.

“Mayan Temple” © George Bailey / Fotolia #16000920.

Anyway, time to get specific about the Pyramid and the roles people play therein – so here we go! (Next, in Post #2: The rest of Part 2.)

Meanwhile, if you’d like some more background, I’d suggest reading: Thoughts on Redemption in the Wake of Abuse: Agents of Damage versus Agents of Healing.

Thanks for your interest. I may respond to comments as time allows … but cannot guarantee doing so, due to an intense writing schedule and deadlines. For details on how I run my comments section, see the Comment Policies page.

All images licensed by Brad Sargent from Fotolia.

Here are links to the entire series on Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse: