Be careful what you become in pursuit of what you want.
That prescient comment was revealed yesterday in a national Australian newspaper in relation to a political/sexual scandal that has dogged several people in Federal Parliament in recent years.
The sage who uttered these words was advising against a “pursue at all costs” approach in which both sides of Federal Parliament were attempting to use the disdainful events to highlight their own grievances, discredit their political enemies and further their own causes.
His words would have been also directed towards the offended person in the murky dealings who has loudly and frequently sought public justice in the matter, and who has shown tendencies to do a lot to get it.
Read it aloud and listen as you say it:
Be careful what you become in pursuit of what you want.
I recently stated that the culture of overexposure has resulted in the exposure of many scandals in our society, not least of all sexual abuse scandals in the church. But there’s been some heavy exposure of spiritual abuse scandals in the church recently, and, in a particular, within a very public wing of evangelicalism. With the advent of social media the once powerless abused now can, with the traction of critical mass and a Facebook page or blog, get their abuse out into the open. They can also easily “out” their abuser in the process. And it always helps of course if so called theological “enemies” get a hold of this information and move it to another level. For this crew not only can they piñata the perpetrator, but they can give a good old fashioned caning to the perpetrator’s theological position in the process, labelling it as the source of all the problems, the one aspect of western theology we need to rid ourselves of, the source of most abuse etc, etc (let the reader understand).
If you have been the victim of spiritual abuse here is what I believe you should not do:
1. Don’t Facebook or Blog It. Am I saying, don’t expose it? No. I am saying don’t flog it around out in the blogosphere or seek “likes” for your FB page about it. In the context of a church setting Ephesians 5:11 states: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.”
I say this carefully: Overexposure is not the same as exposure. Spiritual abuse is indeed a fruitless deed of darkness, and it is a slippery little sucker as it often masquerades as a zealous gospel position. The risk is that we think that the only way to deal with it is to overexpose it and shout it to everyone. That’s usually because we have kept silent for so long about it, either because we’re unsure of what’s happening or because we are sure of what is happening, but are scared to do anything about it. Any extreme reaction always has a polar extreme. When the dam wall breaks and we find our voice we run the risk of not just telling some people, but telling all people, all people who will listen anyway. Something that was once hidden is now not only exposed, but taken into the highways and byways for everyone to have a look at.
We do this because of our rightful sense of injustice, but I caution you with these words: Be careful what you become in pursuit of what you want! The pursuit of justice in this world has two problems. The first problem is with justice, in that you can never truly get it. Our relentless pursuit of it is doomed to fail, as true and final justice is never going to be realised this side of eternity. The second problem with justice is you. You are, in yourself, not fully just. Your stated motive for exposing such injustice as spiritual abuse, may well be that others not be so treated, but a whole heap of Schadenfreude might be in there too. We love to see our enemies fail, and we love to gloat over their bodies. There is a tipping point somewhere in the human heart – one that we lose the ability to determine when seeking hot justice – where the righteous requirement to seek it becomes a self-righteous determination to administer it. I caution against this. After all, how much justice is enough for us? Usually just a little bit more.
2. Don’t Stay Silent. Don’t stay silent? Don’t Facebook it? Ok Mr Dickens, it was either the best of times OR it was the worst of times, it can’t be both! Here’s what I mean. Go to Matthew 18:15-20. I know that this passage is problematic if the brother with whom you have a problem is the pastor and the elders are on his side in the matter, but that is what Jesus counsels us to do. The key term in this passage is to remember your audience. If, as someone who has been abused, you have a tendency to be a man-fearer or a people-pleaser, the liberty Jesus announces is that Jesus is in the midst of his church in these dealings. He is the ultimate listener, audience and judge, and the one to whom you are accountable. You are not, contrary to what any pastor tells you, actually ever commanded to be accountable to your church leaders. Rather, everyone is to live transparent lives before each other. Now, it may be hard to front up to leaders and say “no more abuse”, or “I am going to inform the congregation why we are leaving this church”, but that’s what you should do.
There are two reasons I say that – apart from the fact I think it’s what the Bible requires! First, it helps you. You get to clarify the problem and make it clear to the leadership what is happening. Not what you think is happening, but what is happening. Their listening or not listening to you, or their attempt to put it back on you is, in the grand scheme of things, not the issue. Let’s be clear, there is very little that is original to spiritual abuse. Down the centuries, across the cultures it’s the same mantra being chanted “I’m in charge, you’re being ungodly.”, “You need to be accountable,” “So and so says you have a problem with gossip/unbelief/lust”, etc etc. And if there is a pattern of abuse in the church then those same phrases will have been trotted out in the past about others, perhaps even in your presence. Once you hear them said of yourself your first reaction might be to shrink back. But you will soon realise that’s just the abuser’s Plan A. They actually have no Plan B so they’re putting all their hopes in you backing down. So call it for the bluff that it is.
Secondly it helps others. Being clear and firm, answering the questions of others, even making a clear statement about why you are leaving, (remember, don’t sign anything drafted for you!), is appropriate and helpful. It may give others the courage to leave also if they are being similarly abused. It will certainly give the remainder a wake up call. That wake up call may result in you being ostracised or abused further, and at the very least estranged from people you have grown to love. But that is simply them patterning in a small way, the dysfunctional relational pattern modelled to them, in which spiritual abusers either hold out or withhold their affections, depending on your response to them. It’s a sharp sting at first, but just as in any abusive relationship, the holding and withholding of love is simply a way to keep you on your toes.
Neither of these two positive responses is easy. In fact, they may be the hardest things you have had to do in your life. But if spiritual abuse is a fruitless deed of darkness, as I believe it is, then exposing it and removing yourself from its shadows can, over time, bring you back into the light, where many fruitful, love-filled deeds can be done by you and for you by the people of God who understand that they are simply under-shepherds of the Chief Shepherd who will one day appear and ask for an account of his sheep under their care.
In the end, you’re better off pursuing peace with everyone (and I take it that Matthew 18’s confrontation is designed to do that even if it doesn’t always achieve it) and the holiness without which one will not see the Lord (Heb 12:14), rather than your own sense of justice. It’s instructive that the next verse in Hebrews warns us against the root of bitterness springing up. Cut that root out by revelling in the fact that you, a sinner, who deserved justice, received mercy from the Judge of all the earth who will, one day, fully right all wrongs.
I love your thoughts here, though I wonder whether you could go a bit further into the Matthew text. In particular, if a person is spiritually abused, and takes it through those steps, but the abuse simply escalates, then verse 17 would seem to apply. But what does that actually mean in this context? My interpretation is that the abuser loses the right to continue to try to resolve the issue within the church. And since the logical outcome of the situation is that the abused is no longer comfortable in the church… then what?
I think that there is a space for allowing the abused to tell their story, in a sensible way: in the same way as you suggest you might ‘inform[…] the congregation why we are leaving’. Writing and talking are both helpful healing tools.
Hi – yes that’s a great thought too. I do think that eventually an abuser or an abusive system has to be outed. How that is to be done is a little tricky. I think that once someone is very clearly an abuser, rather than just someone who has slipped up or has a tendency to be a little tight on issues if left untended, then they do lose their “privileges”. I would certainly write to the congregation about why you are leaving (I have seen someone do that in a group I was once in to great effect), however you may find that the leadership will attempt to shut that down. Yep- writing and talking about it work – if the victim also determines to allow the gospel to be the primary healer rather than simply vengeance or time. In the end we need to be responsible for our own self and our own families and get out of an abusive situation rather than linger. If you’ve got doubts get out – that would be my thinking on it now. It’s no use trying to persuade others that there is a problem as many of them – including the leaders – have Stockholm Syndrome.
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