Another day another familiar tale of familiar spiritual abuse in an evangelical church. This time in which multiple families and their children are forced to leave. And they’re cast out with the warning “Don’t say anything to anyone within the church.” Sigh…
I’ve heard that “Keep it secret for the sake of..” line from spiritual abuse victims so often that it’s become a cliche. And it’s not even an original cliche. It’s the version of that most sickly of all cliches, the child sexual abuse victim who is told “Let’s keep it a secret.”
Countless sexual abuse victims have been conned into silence, often threatened into it with the equally classic cliches “People won’t believe you”, or “You don’t want to cause trouble do you?”
And countless spiritual abuse victims have too.
Why are there so many parallels between these two forms of abuse? Because both sexual abuse and spiritual abuse disturb intimacy boundaries. Lines are crossed, damage is done, at deep levels of what it means to be human. And both can take years to recover from.
So why should you not bow to this toxic “honour code” of secrecy if you suffer spiritual abuse from a church that you are forced to leave.
Here are four reasons you should not remain silent:
1.For the Sake of Your Health
Chances are if you’ve been spiritually abused you’ve had many a long conversation in your head about it. Long before you ever speak up you’ve lain awake at night trying to process what is going on before your eyes. In a church setting if it occurs to you, you say very little at the time, furtively looking around to see any familiar signs of someone else going through. If you do speak it’s often in coded tones.
And then when it happens, when you confront the toxic leader/s of a church they swing into damage control. They not only fail to hear what your concerns are, they turn it back on to you and forbid you discussing it with other people within the church. You slip out the back door and into a world in which you have lost your primary conversational community – God’s people whom you have grown to love and trust. Many people at that point go into shut down, and become, if not actual recluses, then emotionally so.
I have never met anyone who, after being spiritually abused, says “I am so glad I said nothing at the time.” Rather they are wracked with guilt and confusion about why they did not speak up, if not to the leadership, at least to others among God’s people. The aim of the abuser/s is to give you the impression that you are the “only one with a problem here”.
2. For The Sake of the Health of Others
We need to lose the more-pious-than-Jesus notion that if we are spiritually abused we should not put that on to others, as if somehow we are being godly by not involving ourselves in gossip.
It’s no more wrong to point out the perils of a spiritually abusive situation in order that someone else avoids it or escapes it, than it is to flag down and warn an approaching vehicle that the bridge one mile down has collapsed in the storm.
Let’s not confuse middle-class sensibilities with gospel love. It is deeply unloving to allow people to go into, or continue in an abuse situation, that could be revealed by you saying something.
We’ve just done a whole Saturday training day on Safe Churches at our church and the key factor is always “speak to someone”. Reporting to relevant authorities is mandatory in sexual abuse cases. Unfortunately in spiritual abuse cases much of what is being done is not illegal (though increasingly it is becoming so).
Besides all this, often there are no clear protocols or guidelines for reporting, especially in non-denominationally aligned smaller church groups. Incidentally such groups are statistically more likely to attract sexual predators as they have fewer safeguards and procedural firewalls. The same seems to be the case for spiritual abuse. Narcissistic leaders shy away from any system which has them answering to anyone further up the food chain.
3. For The Sake of Their Health
Say what? Who cares about the abuser/s? Well, unless they are actual wolves in sheep clothing as opposed to heavy shepherds, Jesus probably does. Those who spiritually abuse others are endangering their salvation through doing so (don’t even ask me how that fits my doctrinal position!).
But Scripture is clear that one day the Chief Shepherd will appear (1Peter 5). Under shepherds will be called to account for either glory or shame, and often what is humans’ glory will turn out to be shame for God. It would be far better if that process of exposure were begun in this age as it gives toxic leaders an opportunity to repent and turn from their abusive ways.
I know that in the wake of the abuse trail the last people that you will be thinking of how to benefit will be the abusers, but Jesus also said to pray for your enemies. And they are your enemies. Once again, don’t be more pious than Jesus. These people intend you harm, name them as your enemies and pray for them (it will also help you avoid bitterness). Who knows, perhaps God will give them the chance in this age to repent, rather than for them to discover on the last day that their work was all wood, hay and stubble destined for the fire.
But when something is sick it needs healed. When a boil is full of pus it needs lanced. Say something for the sake of the abuser.
4. For The Sake of The Health of The Body of Christ
I was warned off (via a third person) when I published an account of abuse, with the rather sanctimonious telling off that what I was doing “was divisive to the body of Christ.”
That, my friends, is a threat. And it is the spiritual equivalent of the sexual abuser’s line “You don’t want to upset everyone and make them sad do you?”
It’s also a lie. Spiritual abuse is divisive to the body, both the local body and the body of Christ universal. It allows the sulphuric acid of arrogant leadership, ungodliness and fear to run riot in the church. Speaking out against this is necessary. Speaking out against it may also be frightening to do, but let’s also take a lesson from the many spiritual abuse cases coming to the surface in so many of our institutions.
There was a time when the perpetrators viewed themselves as above reprimand. It would never come out. It would never damage their institution. And many abused people believed that silence was better as the institution they perhaps loved would be damaged by the exposure.
How far from Jesus’ words in Luke: For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be … There is nothing kept secret that will not come to light.
Institutions are being roundly discredited because of sexual abuse that they tried to cover up. Many years later the toxicity is so strong and widespread that many will struggle to recover their image. Think of churches, private schools, the problems at the BBC, and most recently the English football leagues.
Simply put, a cultural shift came to play that no-one foresaw: one that honoured the victim and demanded exposure, rather than privileging the powerful and maintaining outward appearances. And that cultural shift swept away all that secrecy and sin, and a lot of peoples’ reputations and livelihoods.
The same zeitgeist that has allowed the exposure of sexual abuse on a large scale in churches will inevitably come to the issue of spiritual abuse. It’s only a matter of time. The church’s witness is NOT endangered when spiritually abused people call out their abusers. Abusers know it and that’s why they play all manner of tricks to cover it up.
The church’s witness is endangered when they don’t. What’s more, Jesus has been known to snuff out a few lighted candlesticks due to them being unhealthy as he wanders through and around them from time to time. He knows what’s healthy and what’s unhealthy and he will keep his obedient church united. It doesn’t need the secrets and lies of abusive leaders to do what only he can and will do.
So don’t fall for the “Sshh: It’s our little secret” trap. It’s their little secret, and for all manner of toxic reasons they wish to keep it that way.
Thank you Stephen. This needed to be said. No secrets with God, or with the Apostle Paul and co for that matter.
There is are some very damaged individuals around the Perth evangelical church scene, who have suffered sexual abuse within the when they were young – only to have it covered up or glossed over. This injustice has then opened up all sorts of problems in those believers after the event. Potentially it can then push these individuals into political activism for the victimised; which in reality is their personal sub-conscious coping mechanism for the victimisation they have suffered in childhood. It can get a lot more complex & messy than some people realise.
If we’re encouraging the reporting of spiritual abuse, then we need to have it defined carefully. How would you define it? Love your writing by the way!
Good question. Though in the sense there’s something like sexual abuse there too – it’s a line that you pretty much know has been crossed. harder for the one off spiritual abuse event, but for the pattern it’s more obvious. I have written some stuff on this before, but a technical assessment is not a bad way forward. Often it’s after the event that those abused pick up the key to it. Let me have a think about how best to describe its parameters and a blog post will ensue
Thanks Stephen, would be very interested to read your definition. I often thought through the concept of spiritual abuse when looking at risk management in camping ministry, but always struggled to define it well. Look forward to reading more.
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