Thursday, June 12, 2008

How to recognize spiritual abuse: part 1

In a previous post, I discussed the hurt and devastation that is the result of spiritual abuse. Nicki, in her comments, asked what are the symptoms of spiritual abuse. I wasn't planning on writing a second blog about it but I realized this is a very important topic that needs to be discussed. Describing the indicators would be too long for a comment so I decided to post another blog. Also, I think believers need to be aware of the signs for their own sakes as well as for the sake of family and friends.

I'll be quoting from "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse" by David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen. This is one of the books that Father used to bring healing to me after my experience with spiritual abuse so I highly recommend it. For additional resources, check out Tracy's blog.

The authors have taken two chapters to describe these unhealthy dynamics. As they explained:

"There are certain characteristics that can be observed in all spiritually abusive systems. This chapter will focus on the unhealthy dynamics that dictate how people will function within spiritually abusive systems. In the following chapter, we will talk about the dynamics that create walls around abusive systems, making it difficult for people to get out."

In order to avoid making this blog too long, I've decided to divide it into two posts following the chapter division that the authors have set up. The following is taken from chapter 5, the first of the two chapters.

"Relationships between people in spiritually abusive systems are dictated by the following dynamics:

1. Power-Posturing. Power-posturing simply means that leaders spend a lot of time focused on their own authority and reminding others of it, as well. This is necessary because their spiritual authority isn't real - based on genuine godly character - it is postured.

2. Performance Preoccupation. In abusive spiritual systems, power is postured and authority is legislated. Therefore, these systems are preoccupied with the performance of their members. Obedience and submission are two important words often used.

3. Unspoken Rules. In abusive spiritual systems, people's lives are controlled from the outside in by rules, spoken and unspoken. Unspoken rules are those that govern unhealthy churches or families but are not said out loud. Because they are not said out loud, you don't find out that they're there until you break them.

The most powerful of all unspoken rules in the abusive system is what we have already termed the "can't-talk" rule. The "can't-talk" has this thinking behind it: "The real problem cannot be exposed because then it would have to be dealt with and things would have to change; so it must be protected behind walls of silence (neglect) or by assault (legalistic attack). If you speak the problem out loud, you are the problem. In some way you must be silenced or eliminated."

4. Lack of Balance. The fourth characteristic of a spiritually abusive system is an unbalanced approach to living out the truth of the Christian life. This shows itself in two extremes:

Extreme Objectivism. The first extreme is an empirical approach to life, which elevates objective truth to the exclusion of valid subjective experience. This is seen in religious systems where even though the Holy Spirit's work might be acknowledged theologically, on a practical level it would be suspect, or denied.

Extreme Subjectivism. The other manifestation of lack of balance is seen in an extremely subjective approach to the Christian life . . . In this system, people can't know or understand truths (even if they really do understand or know them) until the leaders "receive them by spiritual revelation from the Lord" and "impart" them to the people."

As I'm sure you can tell, a spiritually abusive system is characterized by control. The people lose their freedom to think and act and all power is centered in one person or group of people who wield this power without regard for the well being of the people.

In part 2, I'll continue with a description of the characteristics of spiritually abusive systems that make it difficult for people to leave.


Nicole said...

Wow, I have seen this actually happen but never personally experienced this before! I hurt for those who deal with this and actually think it's perfectly fine and normal!


Love to read more!

In Freedom, Nicki!

Katherine Gunn said...

Hmm... as I said over at Tray's blog, it sounds like they have spent some time observing the church I left. When you're in it, at least for me, I knew something wasn't right, but because of my abusive background, I thought the problem was me... evetually, I got it. ;-)

Aida said...

It really is a horrible experience and, like Katherine, I knew almost immediately that something was wrong. I wanted to leave but, odd as it may seem, Father wouldn't let me leave. In a way I knew the problem wasn't with me but, in a way I didn't. Part of the emotions that go along with that type of environment is a lot of confusion.

I learned a lot through that experience which is probably why Father wouldn't let me leave.
I believe I'm totally healed but others go through that experience and are so wounded they don't recover. I think the problem is when you don't already have a relationship with God. I did so I just pressed closer to him and in time he healed the hurt.

New believers, however, don't have that relationship and the pastor becomes God to them. As a result, they don't have that relationship to press into when they finally leave.

It's a sad experience. You're fortunate, Nicki, to have never gone through it. You've got a very large heart filled with love. Perhaps, you'll one day have an opportunity to use what you're learning to help someone find their healing.

Katherine, thank you for sharing from your experience. I know how difficult it must be to re-live it but people need to know the truth.


Katherine Gunn said...

You're welcome. But some of this is not reliving - you're getting it as I live it. I'm still in the process of healing and sorting things. It is getting easier, though. And talking about it - not keeping it quiet - is good. ;-)

Aida said...

Katherine, healing is definitely a process that takes a long time. I've been away from that group for over 7 years. In the early years, even though I was out, there was a certain pull to go back. I realized I was healed when I was no longer pining for the group or the pastor.

A couple of years ago, a friend and former member with me commented that she wished they would get their act together so we could go back. That surprised me and I thought to myself, "I don't want to go back!"

The group eventually imploded and ceased to exist. Even though the pastor and his wife continue to try to again start something up, they've not been unsuccessful.

Your courage is speaking out is inspiring. I'll continue to refer people to your website.