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The term Spiritual abuse was coined in the late Twentieth century to refer to abusive or aberrational practices identified in the behavior and teachings of some churches, spiritual and religious organizations and groups. The term tends to be used by Christian counselors, apologists in the Christian countercult movement, and former members of those churches or groups that are alleged to be abusive. Secular critics usually use more generic terms such as psychological or emotional abuse.

Characteristics of Spiritual Abuse Edit

Some writers conceptualize a set of discernible characteristics of spiritual abuse. Ronald Enroth in Churches That Abuse identifies five categories:

1. Authority and Power - abusive churches misuse and distort the concept of spiritual authority. Abuse arises when leaders of a church or group arrogate to themselves power and authority that lacks the dynamics of open accountability and the capacity to question or challenge decisions made by leaders. The shift entails moving from general respect for an office bearer to one where members loyally submit without any right to dissent.

2. Manipulation and Control - abusive churches are characterized by social dynamics where fear, guilt, and threats are routinely used to produce unquestioning obedience, group conformity, and stringent tests of loyalty to the leaders are demonstrated before the group. Biblical concepts of the leader-disciple relationship tend to develop into a hierarchy where the leader's decisions control and usurp the disciple's right or capacity to make choices on spiritual matters or even in daily routines of what form of employment, form of diet and clothing are permitted.

3. Elitism and Persecution - abusive churches depict themselves as unique in God's plans and have a strong organizational tendency to be separate from other church bodies and institutions. The social dynamism of the group involves being independent or separate, with diminishing possibilities for internal correction and reflection. Outside criticism and evaluation is dismissed as the disruptive efforts of evil people seeking to hinder or thwart God's plans.

4. Life-style and Experience - abusive churches foster rigidity in behaviour and in belief that requires unswerving conformity to the group's ideals and social mores.

5. Dissent and Discipline - abusive churches tend to suppress any kind of internal challenges and dissent concerning decisions made by leaders. Acts of discipline may involve emotional and physical humiliation, physical violence or deprivation, acute and intense acts of punishment for dissent and disobedience.

Agnes and John Lawless argue in The Drift into Deception that there are eight characteristics of spiritual abuse, and some of these clearly overlap with Enroth's criteria. They list the eight marks of spiritual abuse as comprising: charisma and pride, anger and intimidation, greed and fraud, immorality, enslaving authoritarian structure, exclusivity, demanding loyalty and honor, and new extra-biblical revelation.

Spiritual abuse usually involves control, manipulation and deception by leaders and pastors, but is often supported by members. Spiritual abuse is not necessarily deliberate, but may be the outcome of an over-emphasis on a particular doctrine (e.g. the teaching that everyone outside the group will go to hell) or the genuine belief that the will of God is being followed.

Flavil Yeakley's team of researchers conducted field-tests with members of the Boston Church of Christ (International Churches of Christ) using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. In The Discipling Dilemma Yeakley reports that the members tested "showed a high level of change in psychological type scores", with a "clear pattern of convergence in a single type". [1] The results indicated that those tested had shifted in their personality type with the tendency that all members were evidencing the same personality type.

Yeakley's research was not isolated to the Boston Church. The same tests were conducted on five mainline denominations and with six groups that are popularly labelled as cults or manipulative sects. Yeakley's test results showed that the pattern in the Boston Church "was not found among other churches of Christ or among members of five mainline denominations, but that it was found in studies of six manipulative sects." [2] The research did not show that the Boston Church was "attracting people with a psychological need for high levels of control", but Yeakley concluded that "they are producing conformity in psychological type" which he deemed to be "unnatural, unhealthy, and dangerous." [3]

In Christianity, spiritual abuse is most prevalent in some but not all churches related to fundamentalism, very conservative evangelicalism and in some of the churches in the charismatic movement or Pentecostalism.

Both Enroth and Agnes and John Lawless indicate that spiritual abuse often occurs and goes unquestioned as high respect is vested in the leaders' knowledge and ability to interpret passages in the Bible. Evangelical authorities on cults, like James Sire (Scripture Twisting, InterVarsity Press, 1980) and H. Wayne House (Doctrine Twisting, InterVarsity Press, 2003) indicate that there are a variety of technical errors when Biblical passages are read out of context, misread, and misinterpreted. The sorts of errors in interpretation that Sire and House adduce sometimes occur in groups that are deemed by critics to be spiritually abusive.

Evidence of Abuse - With Spiritual abuse it is often very difficult to find any evidence of abuse as victims often fail to realise what is happening due to peer pressure or the use of guilt feelings in relation to obedience towards the leaders of a church/group/fellowship or cult etc which can be masked as obedience towards God.

Leaving an Abusive Church - Is normally a process which can take a few months or even years. It can also be extremely painful both emotionally and psychologically. Its important to get help such as counselling and support with the effects of Spiritual Abuse.

Important Note... Not all churches are abusive and its important to know and understand the difference between a healthy church and an unhealthy (Spiritually Abusive) church.

References Edit

  1. Flavil Yeakley (ed.), The Discipling Dilemma (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1988), p. 39.
  2. Yeakley, Discipling Dilemma, p. 39.
  3. Yeakley, Discipling Dilemma, pp. 44, 46-47.

See alsoEdit

Publications Related to Spiritual AbuseEdit

  • Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993). ISBN 0-8308-1660-7
  • Ron & Vicki Burks, Damaged Disciples: Casualties of Authoritarian Churches and the Shepherding Movement (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992). ISBN 0-310-57611-3
  • Ronald M. Enroth, Churches That Abuse (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992). ISBN 0-310-53290-6
  • Ronald M. Enroth, Recovering from Churches That Abuse (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994). ISBN 0-310-39877-0
  • David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse(Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1991). ISBN 1-55661-160-9
  • Agnes C. Lawless and John W. Lawless, The Drift into Deception: The Eight Characteristics of Abusive Christianity (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1995). ISBN 0-8254-3163-8
  • Flavil Yeakley (ed.), The Discipling Dilemma (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1988). ISBN 0-89225-311-8

External linksEdit

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