The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen

Part 1: Spiritual Abuse and Its Victims

Chapters 1-3 attempts to clarify what spiritual abuse is and what it is not. 

The authors say that, “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. (20)”

This of course is a very broad view so we’ll try to narrow it down some more.

“When your words or actions tear down another, or attack or weaken a person’s standing as a Christian–to gratify you, your position or your beliefs while at the same time weakening or harming another–that is spiritual abuse. (23)”

“There are spiritual systems in which what people think, how they feel and what they need or want does not matter. People’s needs go unmet. In these systems, the members are there to meet the needs of the leaders: needs for power, importance, intimacy, value–really, self-related needs. These leaders attempt to find the fulfillment through the religious performance of the very people whom they are there to serve and build. This is an inversion in the body of Christ. It is spiritual abuse. (23)”

“First, there is the neglect of real needs in favor of the “needs” of authority; then legalism replaces rest in God with demands for spiritual performance. Abuse is perpetrated by people in positions of power…Not all Christian leaders are abusive, nor are all spiritual systems abusive. It’s also possible that healthy leaders and spiritual systems can sometimes, unintentionally, treat people in hurtful ways. There is no such thing as a perfect family or church where people don’t ever get hurt. But the difference between an abusive and a non-absuive system is that while hurtful behaviors might happen in both, it is not permissible to talk about problems, hurts and abuses in the abusive system. Hence there is no healing and restoration after the wound has occurred, and the victim is made to feel at fault for questioning or pointing out the problem. (32)”

Chapter 4 details ten characteristics of shame based relationships.

 • Out-loud shaming: This is the “shame on you” that comes from name calling, belittling, put-downs, comparing one person to another or asking, “What’s wrong with you?”

• Focus on performance: How people act is more important than who they are or what is happening to them on the inside.

• Manipulation: Relationships and behaviors are manipulated by very powerful unspoken rules.

• Idolatry: The “god” served by the shame-based system is an impossible-to-please judge, obsessing on people’s behaviors from a distance.

• Preoccupation with fault and blame: Since performance has so much power in these systems, much is brought to bear in order to control it. Reaction is swift and furious toward the one who fails to perform the way the system deems fit.

• Obscured reality: Members of shame bases systems have to deny any thought, opinion or feeling that is different than those of people in authority.

• Unbalanced interrelatedness: Member of shame-based systems are either under-involved or over-involved with each other. 

Chapter 5 describes the relationships between people in spiritually abusive systems. 

• Power-posturing: Where leaders spend a lot of time focused on their own authority and reminding others of it as well.

• Performance preoccupation:  Where power is postured and authority is legislated. Obedience and submission are common used words.

• Unspoken rules: Where people’s lives are controlled from the outside by rules, spoken, and unspoken.

• Lack of balance: The first unbalanced approach is “Extreme Objectivism” which elevates objective truth to the exclusion of valid subjective experience. And “Extreme Subjectivism” where there is an extreme subjective approach to the Christian life.

Chapter 6 explains the characteristics of an abusive spiritual system that’s difficult to escape.

• Paranoia: A persecution sensitivity builds a case for keeping everything within the system.

• Misplaced Loyalty: Members must remain in the system if they want to be safe or stay on good terms with God. Scare tactics and humiliation are used to keep them within the system. 

• Secretive: People don’t hide what is appropriate; they hide what is inappropriate.

Chapters 7 and 8 discuss the way Scripture is used to abuse people or keep people in abusive situations. Pastors can do it from the pulpit when trying to advance their agenda and through proof-texting, the church community can do it when trying to keep truce instead of peace. Abused women often hear the verse that they’re supposed to submit to their husband, or people who are abused that they should turn the other cheek and not defend themselves, or endure the race and forget about the past even if there’s been abuse. 


Our next posts on this book will include:

Part 2: “Abusive Leaders and Why They Are Trapped” read here

Part 3: “Post-Abuse Recovery”

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