This article is based on a presentation given by the author to the office team of the Trans-European Division in St. Albans, England. Echoes of the oral delivery have been preserved.—Editors.
The Bible encourages us in multiple places to help each other, to be nurturing, to say or do things that are positive and uplifting. That comes easily for most of us, and we can truly help and encourage someone who is struggling. But sometimes in our efforts to help, we do or say something that is hurtful. Our behavior tears that person down, creating a situation that can quickly be unhealthy or even, at times, abusive.
It’s typically not the occasional thoughtless comment—which isn’t right either: it’s the more consistent way of thinking, speaking, and behaving, which is hurtful to others. An unhelpful or unhealthy thing to say could sound like this:
“Why are you not eating the communion bread today?”
“Oh, I’m wheat intolerant. If I eat it, I’ll be sick for six weeks.”
“Well, that shows a complete lack of faith in God. If you believed in God, you would eat the communion bread and He would take care of you.”
RECOGNIZING WHAT SPIRITUAL ABUSE IS
How can we recognize when something we say or do moves from being merely “unhelpful” or “unhealthy” to being spiritually abusive?
Let’s consider a definition. If an unhealthy approach becomes a persistent pattern of coercive controlling behavior, that pattern reflects the definition of psychological abuse with a religious rationale. It can cross the threshold into spiritual abuse. The perpetrators of spiritual abuse are usually people of the same faith, and they’re often in a position of power within the spiritual community or within the family.
In 2013, social scientists L. Oakley and K. Kinmond noted: “Spiritual abuse is coercion and control of one individual by another in a spiritual context. The target, or victim, experiences spiritual abuse as a deeply emotional personal attack.”
The authors continue: “This abuse may include manipulation and exploitation, enforced accountability, censorship of decision making, requirements for secrecy and silence, pressure to conform, misuse of Scripture or the pulpit to control behavior, requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position, and isolation from others, especially those external to the abusive context.”
REASONS TO JUSTIFY SPIRITUAL ABUSE
I’ve encountered some “unhelpful beliefs” held by abusers that are often behind the abuse that happens in spiritual contexts. Here are six reasons I’ve heard.
1. “I’m responsible for my family, for my church, and I must do whatever it takes, even if it hurts them, to help them to be perfect.”
2. “I’m the head of the family, the church, and I need to show that I am in charge.”
3. “It’s right to treat my family/church members and others how I want to treat them.”
4. “I’m responsible and accountable for the salvation of my family members and other church members, so I need to do what I can to make them do the right things.”
5. “I’ve felt very much out of control in my own life, because I was also abused, and now I feel safest when I’m in control.”
6. “My parents brought me up this way and I’m still in the church, so I know that harsh discipline is good for people.”
AN EXAMPLE OF SPIRITUAL ABUSE
Let’s consider an example about tithing and stewardship and see how it could progress from a healthy approach to an abusive one.
A healthy approach would be to say something like, “We all have different abilities to give. Some of us have severe financial challenges. God understands. There’s no coercion. You just give what you believe in your own heart you feel ready to give, and what’s right for you to give. And if you can’t give, that’s okay too. God understands.”
An unhelpful approach to the same moment could sound like, “Well, if only you managed your finances better, then you’d be able to give more to the church. If you didn’t spend so much on clothes, if you didn’t buy such fancy food and just were content with simple things, then you could give more to the church.”
Unhealthy behavior occurs when people are pressuring individuals or groups into giving money to the church or a church-related project, saying, “God will only bless those who give this much,” or treating people differently based on their ability to donate to a cause. It’s also manifest when someone speaks in ways that are defensive and critical with people who can’t give what’s expected and desired—putting them down, judging them, being rude to them, and shaming them, perhaps even in public.
When this becomes spiritual abuse, there might be consistent, intrusive, coercive requests for giving, often supported by Scripture. It might include regularly messaging people, emailing them, confronting them frequently, requesting more money, or suggesting that your trust in God is shown by how much you give. And if you don’t give very much, it shows you don’t really trust in God. Sometimes it may result in making frightening threats of spiritual consequences, trying to use fear to coerce people to give.
If this behavior is regularly repeated and causes distress, this is spiritual abuse. It’s not consistent with the key values of a healthy spiritual community, which is about loving God and loving others. If the victim of this behavior is a child or a vulnerable adult, this is a serious breach of safeguarding practice. Incidents of these kinds should be reported through the correct channels within your church community. It’s dangerous when a child is bullied to bring money for a good cause or a vulnerable adult is preyed upon to put all their savings into a cause because the project is the mission of God.
HELPING THOSE WHO ARE EXPERIENCING SPIRITUAL ABUSE
The effects of spiritual abuse are devastating, and can distort or even shatter a person’s image of God. It doesn’t depict a healthy picture of God, whom Scripture reveals as loving, kind and caring. When someone is experiencing spiritual abuse, their faith and trust in God and in the spiritual community suffers. They grow discouraged and may just want to give up on God.
“In fact, rates of abuse perpetration within church are about the same as rates in the general population. It’s just that it’s often brushed under the carpet, overlooked, or smoothed away. People put their ‘church faces’ on and pretend that all is well. Churches ought to be safe places for people who are abused to come and find solace, help and restoration. Sadly, the situation is often the exact opposite, because the abuse of scripture to manipulate a woman into tolerating harm is not confined to abusers. Perhaps with the best of intentions and often in entirely well-meaning ways, churches sometimes use the Bible to make the situation worse for the woman, when she plucks up the courage finally to disclose her situation.”
It’s important for us to recognize the situations that may be occurring around us and to search for ways to bring healing. If we aren’t part of the healing, we may be part of the hurting. One place to look is at how Jesus lived His earthly life. In the Gospels, we see Him always reaching out to look for the oppressed, the marginalized, the abused, the rejected, the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well.
In Psalm 103:8-14, it says, “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever. He does not treat us as we deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. And as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him, for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.”
God has compassion because He is compassion. He knows how He made us. He knows He made us out of dust and dirt, and that we get muddy and are fragile, and the dust drops off, and we crack and break. And He says, I love you anyway. I made you. You are my precious daughter, my precious son. Nothing will stop me loving you. I want to do everything I can to protect you, to lift you up, to bring you joy, to bless you, because I love you.
That’s the kind of love that God has for us. He wants to fill our hearts with that love, so that it will flow out to those around us and chase away all the abuse—to fill that painful space with love and grace and laughter and joy and compassion and hugs and songs and wonderful things.
One way we can be part of the healing is by empowering others, by encouraging people in these painful spiritual contexts to develop autonomy, not allowing themselves to be pushed down and browbeaten by other people’s pressures and manipulations. We can help them recognize, “This is abuse. I’m not going to tolerate this. I want to find a healthy, spiritual experience.”
We want to encourage them to develop as individuals who can think for themselves, who can express disagreement or concern. This is the kind of community that creates healthy relationships. We can have differences, and we can disagree, and yet keep on loving others. We don’t have to force people to believe our way or do it our way. Coercing or forcing other people to conform to us and to obey us isn’t part of any healthy Christian community.
We listen to each other. We show empathy. We mutually care for each other. We keep each other safe, and we protect each other. Most of all, we try to show God's love to each other in every way we can. Survivors may need to seek out churches and church leaders who have a good understanding of spiritual abuse, domestic abuse, or any other form of abuse they may be experiencing.
We also need to be careful that our words are words that bless, that build others up--words that are gifts to those we speak to. Sometimes we will say things without thinking, conveying burdens to people, causing them to feel they have to be perfect and behave in a certain way or do a certain thing in order to be loved by God or to be forgiven. We should watch that our words don’t have subtle undertones that could be abusive a vulnerable person, or understood as if the hearer wasn’t good enough, perfect enough, loved enough, or can’t be forgiven.
I love the way Paul puts it in Ephesians 4:29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
Our daily question should be: Does what I do and say push people away from God and cause them to fear me and fear God? And then in response: Does what I do and say bring people closer to God and help them to experience His love and mine?
What kind of people do we truly want to be? How can we bring good news, peace, and love to the hurting, healing to the broken, and comfort to the distressed?
Karen Holford is a certified family therapist and director of family ministries for the Trans-European Division of Seventh-day Adventists.