The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse

by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen
Reviewed date: 2019 Aug 1
234 pages
Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church
cover art

Why this book?
I sought out this book because I have observed people I know being drawn into spiritually abusive churches and cults. And not just once--when these people leave one abusive church, they seek out another church with the same legalistic, unforgiving, and unloving character. I want to know why.

Why do people stay and get hurt? Why do they seek out abusive churches? How do the leaders maintain power? What makes them attractive? How do people get trapped in spiritually abusive systems when all they have to do is stay home or drive to a different church on Sunday morning? Is it the teaching? The theology? A leader's personality? Or is it something more subtle?

In an effort to learn more I got a copy of the 1991 book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, a book written by two pastors who have experience in spiritually abusive systems themselves, and in counseling those coming out of spiritually abusive churches.

The authors describe the symptoms exhibited by spiritually abused people and explain the characteristics of spiritually abusive systems. They also detail some of the specific methods that authorities in spiritually abusive systems use to control the victims, including misuse of Scripture, abusive church discipline, shame, and secrecy. There is also some practical advice for those who have been spiritually abused by churches.

Definition of spiritual abuse
The authors define spiritual abuse in this way:

Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support, or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person's spiritual empowerment. (p20)

The authors further explain that spiritual abuse wounds the "part of [a person] that is capable of having a relationship with God." (p13) So spiritual abuse can make a person's relationship with God painful or difficult. As the authors point out, "Jesus gives rest to the weary, not more burdens. If your spiritual relationship makes you tired, something is wrong." (p31-32)

Guilt vs. Shame
Because shame is a tool used in spiritually abusive systems, the authors take care to distinguish shame from guilt. "Guilt is an emotional indication about wrong actions of attitudes." (p55). Guilt is a tool we use to help identify and correct our own behavior. In contrast, "shame ... is a destructive signal about you and your worth." (p55). Shame is a tool that abusive authorities use to manipulate and control others. And that brings us to another characteristic of spiritually abusive systems: legalism.

Spiritually abusive churches often replace God's grace with legalism. Righteous performance and an adherence to strict rules is required as a sign of proper Christian behavior. Those deviating from the legalistic standard are shamed for their transgressions, because those transgressions reflect poorly on the leadership. (p37). So you have a system where the people live their lives as a religious performance to satisfy the needs and ego of their pastors and leaders.

Symptoms of abuse
Johnson and Van Vonderen have a list of ten symptoms of a spiritually abused person.

  1. Distorted image of God
  2. Preoccupation with spiritual performance
  3. Distorted self-identity as a Christian
  4. Problems relating to spiritual authority
  5. Hard time with grace
  6. Problems setting personal boundaries and personal rights
  7. Difficulty with personal responsiblity
  8. Lack of living skills
  9. Hard time admitting the abuse
  10. Hard time with trust

The System
The authors also describe a number of hallmarks of the relationship dynamics in a spiritually abusive system.

  1. Power-Posturing: Leaders in a spiritually abusive institution lack real authority from God, so they demand respect by continually remind people of their title and position.
  2. Performance Preoccupation: It's all about the legalism, enforced by shame.
  3. Unspoken Rules: E.g., you can't disagree with the pastor, you can't discuss problems.
  4. Lack of Balance: This can manifest itself by extreme objectivism, where every rule is implacable and there is no room for the spiritual discernment, or extreme subjectivism, where the biblical rules are discarded almost entirely in favor of prophecy and words from the Lord.
  5. Paranoia: There's a fear of outsiders that leads to isolation.
  6. Misplaced Loyalty: Loyalty is demanded to an institution or a person, and disloyalty toward that person or institution is equated to disloyalty toward God.
  7. Secretive: "People don't hide what is appropriate, they hide what is inappropriate."

Misuse of Scripture
The use of Scripture to manipulate and control people is common in spiritually abusive systems. People in such systems often think "they have little or no capacity to discern God's Word themselves" (p82) and so they rely on the leaders to interpret the Bible. The leaders use the Bible as a cudgel, pulling verses out of context (prooftexting) in order to manipulate their flock into behaving a certain way. In particular, Scripture will be misused to:

  • Promote self-denial
  • Demand giving
  • Require unity and peace in the church
  • Impose church discipline
  • Instruct people to never resist abuse
  • Require wives to submit always, even to abusive husbands
  • Demand forgiveness and to ignore abuse
  • Prohibit any appeal to secular authorites
  • Demand that people ignore the past

Things to watch out for
Let me see if I can boil this down. A spiritually abusive system will be legalistic, it will not permit any questioning of authority, it will demand loyalty, it will shame members who dare to step out of line, it will misuse Scripture, and it will be secretive and paranoid. Furthermore, an abusive system will often call "all other churches of Christian groups ... dead." Spiritually abusive systems will take strong stands on little issues (like the evils of music) while ignoring or brushing over matters of real consequence (like sexual assault).

Other thoughts
I can't say I've personally encountered any churches or institutions that are spiritually abusive. (Although I've read about plenty.) One thing the book doesn't make clear (but I've noticed) is that pastors in spiritually abusive churches can often teach solid, orthodox theology. From the outside, as one who merely reads a pastor's books or listens to sermons online, you can be getting the good stuff. But those actually in the church may be experiencing a whole different side. What happens in the secrecy of a spiritually abusive church often remains hidden to outsiders.

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