There are some out there who deny the existence of spiritual abuse. I’ve mentioned it before and received quizzical looks and heard replies of “that’s not a thing”. Sadly, I’ve personally experienced it at a very deep level over the course of many years and I know many others who have experienced it as well, so I know all too well that it is a thing.
Does it mean that abuses in the church exist on a grand scale? I sure hope not. But just because you’ve not personally witnessed it or experienced it, doesn’t mean it’s not a thing.
In some cases, I’ve had people respond that they believe it does exist, but that it is something that should stay within the walls of the Church and not be exposed publicly (like how the actions of Mark Driscol and other church leaders at Mars Hill Church have been getting uncovered in the podcast “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”). For many, they feel this would fall under the verse that “love covers a multitude of sin” or other similar verses.
I’m not sure I totally agree with that.
Too often it’s the “silence” about an issue that has allowed it to go on without consequence, or has done a great deal of damage to people to the point they have been nearly irreparably scarred regarding the Church and Church leadership–and potentially even God.
Sure, there is a fine line between simply capitalizing on a situation because it will get you more readers or listeners, or being vindictive in your approach to exposing what is going on because you have a personal agenda to get revenge for what’s been done to you. But there is, I believe, a time and place to publicly expose abuses that are happening against those in the Church body.
What is Spiritual Abuse?
You may be asking: What is spiritual abuse?
Spiritual abuse is when a person uses spirituality, the church, religion, or their spiritual leadership position to abuse, use, or manipulate others for personal gain.
The Bible says to do “nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit”, but rather “in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4).
I would argue that spiritual abuses don’t always have to take the form of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
Sometimes it’s a church leader who coerces people within the church body to make a decision to end a relationship with someone (or several someone’s) because this relationship is viewed as a threat to the leader. This coercion isn’t necessarily in your face direct, but is often times carried out through the leader painting a picture from the pulpit or in private conversations of what they believe “loyalty” looks like and how that loyalty can be broken–all without mentioning a single name.
Sometimes it’s a church leader creating a scapegoat out of someone in the church (be they a church member or another staff person) when things aren’t going right for the church.
Sometimes it’s a church leader using another person (or persons) to coerce a group of people into doing something they might not otherwise do all while painting the picture that this person was the one making this decision (not the church leader), and all while keeping their hands clean of the situation so as to appear innocent.
My point is, spiritual abuse doesn’t always look like, from the onset, as spiritual abuse. But after digging into it (be it through counseling or other means), it suddenly becomes apparent just how abusive the situation really was.
Often times, the one suffering the abuse doesn’t even realize they are being abused. It is not that unlike a person who is being abused by their spouse, and everyone around them is saying “Why are you letting them abuse you like that?” all while this person is excusing their spouses behavior or coming up with reasons for why it’s not abuse but simply others not understanding the situation correctly.
Unfortunately, we have seen a lot of spiritual abuse (including, but not limited to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse) being exposed in the news over the last few years. If the news were all we had to go on, we would assume that this is simply a mega-church problem. But I can assure you, from personal experience, that this is not the case. The size of the church does not dictate whether or not spiritual abuses are taking place, though, I do think the environment does play heavily into how that spiritual abuse may be manifested and maintained.
Truth-be-told, the spiritual abuser doesn’t usually begin as a spiritual abuser much like a physical, sexual, or emotional abuser doesn’t begin as one. Motivations are usually sincere at first but the lure of how they might benefit from others coupled with abuses that they may have personally endured at the hands of others soon overrides their sincerity, sending them deep in to a downward spiral of abuse.
The old addage goes something like, “Hurt people hurt people”, and this is no different in the Church…because the Church is comprised of…surprise surprise…people.
But, the abuser having been hurt doesn’t justify their hurting of others. As the church, while we should love these people, we shouldn’t be okay with their abuse of others and we shouldn’t remain silent about it when it happens.
How Should We ResponD to Spiritual (and Other) Abuses?
You see, there comes a point where hiding abuses carried out by Church leaders or non-church leaders in the Church (be they spiritual, emotional, physical, or sexual) behind the Bible verse “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8) becomes a severe form of negligence and a type of abuse of its own that can create more harm in it’s wake to not only the ones who have been abused, but future victims as well.
At that point the Church is no longer being protected (or the leaders of the church) and people being loved unconditionally despite their flaws, but instead victims are being overlooked and their abuses and concerns are being ignored, and the abusers are being allowed to continue on with their abuses.
This is not OK nor do I think this is what Peter had in mind when he wrote “love covers a multitude of sin”.
When abuses are being carried out, silence should not even be on the table as an option. The abuses should be uncovered, and the abuser should be confronted. In some instances, simply firing a pastor or staff person, or asking a leader to step down is not enough. If the abuses are egregious enough, then legal action may need to be taken.
Either way – abuses should not be handled lightly without serious consideration, prayer and counsel (and preferably counsel from outside of that church body from someone who does not benefit from a situation remaining silent).
I realize this is an uncomfortable thought. But just imagine how differently the various instances of abuses that we have seen in the news regarding pastors and church leaders sexually and emotionally abusing members of their church or staff may have played out had they been handled appropriately. In many cases, the abuses we’ve seen in the news were going on for years, and in some cases with the knowledge of other church leaders who either wrote the abuses off (or simply excused them) or attempted to handle serious abuses internally in order to keep the ordeal quiet and not tarnish the pastor or the churches reputation.
When it comes to serious abuses in the church, the reputation of a church leader, or the church itself should be the last thing you should be concerned about. It is not OK when people are victims, and you’re trying to keep things quiet so as not to disrupt “Church life” or reputations.
Remaining silent concerning serious abuses in the church isn’t biblical nor is it handling the situation with character. We do no one any favors this way. And in the long run, we create more harm.
NOT EVERY SITUATION SHOULD BE HANDLED THE SAME
This also doesn’t mean that every sin against you is something that must be publicly exposed. This is where discernment comes into play. We must be able to discern between what requires public exposure because it poses a serious threat to others and because as Christians we believe that injustice must be repaid by justice, and what is simply a personal offense that can and should be worked out between two parties.
For example: a pastor or church leader who says something from the pulpit or to someone privately that offends another person is not an instance to go public or take to writing blogs or creating podcasts putting this person on blast. Instead, this would be a moment where you go to the person directly and explain the offense and see if it can be worked out privately.
Conversely, a pastor or church leader who continuously and egregiously assaults someone verbally, makes threats to another persons well being, or engages in any other behavior that poses a real threat to another human being in the Church body may require public exposure or a third party to be brought in for help. Especially if concerns have been raised to other leaders within the church and no action is being taken, or attempts to sweep it under the rug are made instead of confronting the issue and handling it appropriately.
Whether we like it or not, abuses do happen in the church. Abuses of all shapes and sizes and levels of seriousness. And each situation must be addressed uniquely because not all situations are created equal.
Knowing the difference between a situation that can be worked out privately and a situation that requires public exposure is the difference between love covering a multitude of sins and a heap of victims being swept under the rug behind an abusers unchecked behavior.