Spiritual abuse - at home and in our community
Updated: Sep 25
"Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock.. With force and with cruelty have ye ruled them" (Ezekiel 34:2-4).
The scriptural warnings toward shepherds and about shepherds who are motivated by self-interest are found in Old and New Testaments, within our Lord's teaching and that of his apostles. Our Lord's characterisation of the Jewish rulers as a generation of vipers and his direct renouncement of their practices pervades his ministry, instruction and warnings.
As those claiming to be Christ's disciples these warnings should be sharp, and if we are in positions of leadership - whether in appointed positions or as elders in our community, we need to take the warnings to heart personally and particularly ensuring we are protecting the Body from spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse is the use of spiritual, scriptural and religious concepts and teachings to gain or to maintain control over another. It is the inappropriate use of power over another. It may be doctrinal error or hypocrisy or some combination. The motivation may even be to support a legitimate objective but using an illegitimate means - it is fundamentally unethical, unChristlike and in direct contravention of our Lord's teachings about sincerity and truth, and his instruction that we bear witness of the truth and not be deceptive or lie.
Our Body should be free of the characteristics of abusive religious systems. This does challenge us and require us to hold up to the light of the Word, long-held practices, cultures and biases. Practices developed to address particular issues must not be allowed to perpetuate abuse. Wholesome teachings must not be mixed with error so as to justify oppression or violence.
Sometimes we fall into this trap, and in the situation of family and domestic violence it is easy to find ourselves doing it, and particularly if we don't understand domestic violence. Here are some examples.
Elevating marriage above non-violence: justice and mercy are higher principles and God's hate of violence (and Malachi would add, violence in marriage) is clear and direct. We enable violence when we elevate the principle that marriage is for life between a man and wife above non-violence by demanding a wife return home to a situation that is detrimental to her spiritual and mental well-being, be it from emotional abuse or physical abuse.
Demanding victims forgive abusers and have them back: we confuse forgiveness (which is not ours to give to a abuser after all - the ecclesia doesn't forgive an abuser. Only a victim can choose to do that) with trust and safety. If a victim chooses not to live with an abuser it does not mean they have not forgiven them and it is no our position to tell them when they should forgive another. We don't know the extent of the sins against them. We don't know what the victim may consider fruits meet for repentance. We don't know what restitution has been made or is appropriate. These are all scriptural principles.
Withdrawal of fellowship for punishment: sometimes it seems we conclude that every sin needs punishment in the way of ecclesial discipline, and often it seems we can think of withdrawal of fellowship as the only available means of ecclesial discipline. Scripturally, however, there are other forms of ecclesial discipline including instruction and private or public rebuke available to the ecclesia. But the purpose of withdrawal is to recover the lost and if our actions are not supported by actions to recover the lost we are negligent and are not being careful how we treat Christ's little ones. Similarly if we think that it is appropriate to withdraw from someone without a case by case evaluation of the situation and a personal engagement and entreaty to change their ways and begin a journey or repentance and return to the Body we are also abusing what may otherwise be a legitimate scriptural action made in love and care, and making it an exercise of power and a punishment that our Lord never intended.
Demanding victims confront their abusers: People working in our community with survivors of domestic violence are frequently accused of being unChristlike for not following Matthew 18. These accusations are made by abusers, their friends, their families and also their ecclesias at times. People who are avoiding the power and control behaviours of abusers often are recommended to go "no-contact" with their abusers. This breaks the communication channels which are used to communicate overt and subtle coercive and controlling messages to them. They may be veiled in language other people wouldn't understand or would think were harmless and normal, yet to the victim, they know what those messages mean. Victims themselves are given guilt trips by people, like, "If you won't talk to him how will you ever save your marriage", or "If you don't talk to him how can he ever understand what he needs to change". What those words are really saying however is, "Go back to your abuser and give him another opportunity to gaslight you, lie to you, convince you yet again that it is in your interests or safety to return to him just to receive more cycles of abuse and perhaps to be practically imprisoned in a relationship you can't escape from".
The role of arranging brothers and ecclesial elders: However confronting it is to accept it, people in leadership roles (formal or informal) in our community exercise power. Even if this power is out of respect for the leaders it is imperative that power is exercised only in love and care of the flock - genuine love and care too, and not a hypocritical love and care of a misplaced understanding of what is loving and caring. We hear arranging brothers saying, "Why didn't they come and talk to us about it?" For that, the answers will only come when the required level of introspection is able to be used. Reality is the victim did not trust those arranging brothers to respond effectively and more than likely their insight would be on the mark. Further, victims may have seen other responses, be it to their situation or others' situation. They may have recognised biases like prejudices toward the abuser that would have denied them a fair hearing. They may have identified that the abuser could readily manipulate the arranging brothers, just like they have manipulated the abused and their loved ones.
Ecclesial leadership is not an authoritarian role but a caring and developing role. As we know from every dictator, authoritarianism promotes the leaders own wealth, or power, or prestige - it takes little reflection and awareness of past examples to recognise that we have fallen for this in the past and must guard against it in the future - both in creating spiritual authorities that essentially are a law unto themselves, or in giving men adulation.
Ecclesial leadership cannot provide for the flock if the principle focus is maintaining an appearance of happy ecclesias and happy families whilst "wall-papering over cracks" or "sweeping under the carpet" problems that are left to fester or to oppress and destroy. When the outside is a whited sepulchre but inside it is full of dead men's bones it cannot give glory to the Father or be a healthy and wholesome place for Christ's disciples.
Ecclesial leadership can make no demands for loyalty. Paul says in 1 Thess 5:12-13 (NIV):
Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you.
And similarly to Timothy in 1 Tim 5:17 (NIV)
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.
Note that in both of these quotations the King James Version does us a great disservice by reference to "rule" or "have the rule over you". This is not the intent of the original and would seem to be a bias we can appreciate when we consider the commission of the translators and who they were working for!
Respect and acknowledgement is not a mindless loyalty - and it is respect for working hard and caring and admonishing when needed. It is a travesty to suggest that in the Divine Economy the Father would demand respect for someone to whom respect is not due. It is thus the responsibility of ecclesial leadership to command respect by their actions and not from a sense of entitlement. Our Father is not blessing submission to elders if they are wrong, although peacemakers - those who work for reconciliation will be blessed.
Ecclesial leadership must be balanced. This means spiritual leadership balanced with pastoral care. This means care of all the ecclesia without prejudice and even an appearance of it. This means recognising that even in our biggest ecclesias we have family and friendship groupings, brothers and sisters on the outer, ranges of socio-economic backgrounds and financial capacities, different talents and different maturities in Christ. This is the fabric of our ecclesia and the very reason our Lord put is in ecclesias, but a reality that needs to be constantly reflected in our thinking, decision making and actions. This means not straining a gnat but swallowing a camel.
Ecclesial leadership must be accountable (to the ecclesia but ultimately to the Father). After all, they should receive public rebuke and condemnation (1 Tim 5:19-20) when found to be wayward, and teachers will receive the "greater condemnation" (James 3:1). If we are (whether we claim to be or not) teachers we have a great responsibility and must approach the work in the diligence spoken of by Paul to Timothy - workers not ashamed, rightly dividing the word of Truth (2 Tim 2:15).
Abusers use spiritual abuse too
Spiritual abuse is usually also a feature of family and domestic violence in our community. Examples of this include:
Scriptural justifications for unwarranted control: what an adult wears; where an adult goes; who an adult meets with (for instance).
Scriptural justifications for isolation: scriptural calls for separation from the world, or "leaving father and mother", or escaping a spiritually dangerous environment. Scriptural justifications for financial abuse: justification for not allowing a wife to work, or that it is the husband's "role" to manage the finances or make the big decisions.
Vilification of victims: loudly proclaiming to victims and others that they are sinful because they have left the family home; or that they are so sinful and terrible for breaking the abusers rules that they will "not be in the Kingdom"; or accusing victims of being abusers when they were exercising the only autonomy they had - perhaps to lash out or to shout loudly.
Avoidance of Police or Court protection: suggesting that it is inappropriate for believers to call the Police or seek the intervention of the Courts for their safety. Needless to say Paul was not suggesting we should not go to Court so abusers could continue to oppress victims.
Scriptural justification for the family staying together: rightly suggesting that children should have the benefit of a loving caring father and that separation of the parents may stop this happening. Of course it neglects to mention the child abuse that includes the witnessing of domestic abuse by children, and the fact that children learning from abusive parents will have a mixed up view of what is normal and acceptable behaviour. Many children from these settings do not accept the saving name of the Lord Jesus in baptism because they see the hypocrisy in their abusive parent or parents.
So what should we do about it?
Firstly it is your responsibility and mine, leader or not to be part of the solution. Christ in the Apocalypse and the Apostle Paul’s letters were generally written to whole ecclesias - not to the elders of the ecclesia even though clearly their responsibilities are detailed in scripture. And we are all members of ecclesias or should be. Every ecclesial constitution I have seen provides that the ecclesia makes decisions and whilst arranging groups may make decisions on an ecclesia's behalf their decisions are open to ecclesial review. Respectful engagement with the ecclesia should be a part of every significant ecclesial decision. Leaders must not “Lord it over” the flock (1 Peter 5:3; Matthew 20:25, 26) but as members one of another take account of what "the eye" and "the hand" say. Dialogue respectfully listening and engaging everyone's views, teaching where needed, gradually developing and encouraging the development of every believer. Needless to say, not every decision will reflect everyone's preferences and from time to time there are serious matters where we are potentially no longer of like mind, but these should be very rare and unusual. In general we should be accepting of "the will of the greater number" (as most constitutions say) and having made "ecclesial decisions" work constructively and in kindness and love regardless of their impact upon us.
We are commanded to meet together, and ecclesias are God's chosen way for us to have an ecclesial home where we are supported, loved and developed - even missed when we are not there, and cared for when we have needs - spiritual and physical. It is up to all of us to ensure that we contribute to making the ecclesia we are a part of reflect our Lord and be the supporting loving place providing spiritual development and physical needs and care to each and every member. When our ecclesias are this environment, and when victims of family and domestic violence including the spiritual abuse that always accompanies it in our ecclesia (in our experience) - when they disclose their abuse, individual members and loving shepherds can ensure that they get the help needed, be provided a place of safety and their oppression relieved.