If there are two words that should never be put next to each other they are ‘spiritual’ and ‘abuse’. However, the sad reality is that they are words that sometimes need to be used together to describe the sinful behaviour of some Christians towards other Christians particularly involving the misuse of power. If you follow the Christian press you will probably have read about this already and sadly you may also have read of some high profile cases in the secular press.
Whenever we hear of any behaviour that uses the word ‘abuse’ to describe it we immediately know it is very serious. Spiritual abuse is serious and it is important that we have some understanding of it. Without appropriate support, its effects may last for years if not a lifetime for those who experience it. It may create deep wounds within memories with the effects being similar to those of a physical assault. It may lead to a distorted view of how a Christian thinks of God. It always damages relationships and often suppresses true spiritual life and legitimate freedoms within the body of Christ. Spiritual abuse may twist a gospel church out of its true biblical shape into a place of suspicion and fear. The damage to the witness and reputation of a church in a community may be severe. I hope the message is coming across to you now that spiritual abuse is evil.
The term ‘spiritual abuse’ is currently not a legally recognised term though it is recognised as a concept and a reality by secular authorities who regard it as being covered by the existing legal categories for abuse and not requiring one of its own. Some Christians are cautious about the use of the term ‘spiritual abuse’ for helpful reasons and prefer other terms like ‘pastoral malpractice’ or similar. However, ‘spiritual abuse’ seems to be the accepted term for many and referred to by those who are victims or survivors, as the startling term ‘abuse’ seems to describe correctly the destructive effects they have experienced.
What is spiritual abuse?
It is perhaps best to think of it in terms of an abuse of power between Christians. Church leaders may be guilty of it towards church members or between themselves, but equally, it may be seen in those who are not in leadership. It may happen within the context of church life or outside of it, such as in a marriage or family. Spiritual abuse is always rooted in the abuse and misuse of power.
There is a growing tendency in our society to be suspicious of any expression of power. However, in the church, power is given by God for its good and spiritual wellbeing and there will always be times when the godly exercise of power means challenging people or saying ‘no’ to something. It is important to recognise that this is often not spiritual abuse but a legitimate use of power. However, when God delegates power, he also stresses the responsibility that must go with it. For example, Peter writes to church leaders reminding them to be ‘eager to serve, not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock’ (1 Pet. 5:2b,3).
Where power lies in a church may seem fairly straightforward as we tend to think just of church leaders. At the moment, this is where much of the focus is being placed when thinking of this subject, but in reality, power dynamics are more complex than this. For example, consider the actual power of a recently appointed young pastor compared with several large families who have been embedded in the church for many years, if not generations. The pastor may look on paper to be the one with power but the reality will be far from it. We must not be simplistic or merely structural when we think about where the power lies in a church.
Using power humbly
Probably the most important passage in the Bible for understanding how power is to be used in a healthy way by Christians is in John chapter 13 when Jesus gathered his disciples in the upper room. Following his ascension and the Day of Pentecost, these same men, as apostles, would become the most powerful church leaders the world has ever seen. It is highly significant that before Jesus begins to teach them in that upper room, he first assumes the position of the lowest servant and washes their feet. To drive the point home, John prefixes our Lord’s actions with the words:
Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God (Jn. 13:3).
This statement of absolute authority is then immediately followed by his washing the feet of the disciples. After Jesus has done this, he tells the disciples plainly:
I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him (Jn. 13:15-16).
Power is being given by Christ not to serve self or suppress others but to serve at personal cost. It seems from this that the more power Christ delegates, the greater the call to use it humbly and for the good of others.
That moment in the upper room should be our template for any understanding of what power looks like in church and amongst church leaders in particular. At the same time, church members are called to recognise and work with the power that church leaders have been given. ‘Obey your leaders and submit to their authority’ (Heb. 13:17) is often cited in regard to this but this is carefully regulated by the following words, ‘they keep watch over you as men who must give an account.’ This reminds us that healthy expressions of power in church life will always involve the balance between mutual cooperation and respect. Power is delegated by Christ within his church but it is to be used in the way he wants it to be used and one day those with delegated power must give an account for how they have used it.
Spiritual abuse starts when biblical and reasonable boundaries for how power is to be used are breached, when the principles of John 13, Hebrews 13 and 1 Peter 5 are ignored and when power is misused to control and coerce other Christians. There are many different ways in which this is seen, including times when power is used to serve self at the expense of others, to build or protect a reputation, take away personal agency and enforce unrealistic demands for commitment, shut down questioning or manipulate people into a place they don’t want to go to and ignoring them. In extreme cases, the grace of church discipline can be misused to punish or exclude those regarded as awkward.
It’s really not pleasant to write about this nor, I imagine, to read about it but for the sake of the glory of Christ in the church we need to be aware of this. Churches are called to be attractively different. Paul writes that we are like stars shining in the darkness of our world (Phil. 2:14-16). Now you are a little more aware of the ugliness and evil of spiritual abuse, do pray for those whom God has put in positions of power in the church, that they may be the foot washers that Jesus spoke of, and that those whose feet are to be washed may be willing and embracing of their work.