The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse — Part 3

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

Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here

Part 3: Post-Abuse Recovery

Chapter 17: How to Escape a Spiritual Trap

• It’s easy to get into a spiritually abusive system, but it’s very hard to get out. The further we move away from normal the more trapped we are in our thinking. We can become delusional about the situation and at some point even addicted to religion.

Chapter 18: Renewing the Mind & Chapter 19: Recovering the Right Focus

• To begin seeing the abusive system clearly and not through the unhealthy lens that the abusive system wants you to look through you must return to the true gospel, not the performance gospel an abusive system can preach, but a gospel where there is freedom in Christ, where there is rest and hope and love.

Chapter 20: One Response: Flight

• Here are some questions the authors ask when thinking about whether or not to leave or to stay: Does grace really have a chance? Are you supporting what you hate? Do you need to be right? Can you stay, and stay healthy, both at the same time? Can you decide your own limits and stick with them? Do you believe God cares more about the church than you do? Is it possible the system might need to die? Are you trying to help the system even though you are exhausted? Are you able to listen to the voice of sanity? Do you really know where to sow? If you came today for the first time, knowing what you know now about the system, would you stay?

Chapter 19: One Response: Fight

• The authors give some helpful advice for those who choose to fight the spiritually abusive system. Decide whom you serve, whether Christ or yourself. Be ready for resistance. Keep telling the truth. Know who your enemy is. Satan is the enemy, our battle is not against flesh and blood. Hang on to the Shepherd. Know how a healthy spiritual system functions. 

The book ends with a message to perpetrators of spiritual abuse.

An interview with one of the authors here.

Another review here.

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse — Part 2

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

Read summary of Part 1 here

Part 2: Abusive Leaders and Why They Are Trapped

CHAPTER 9 — “Because I’m the Pastor That’s Why”

• “Leadership that demands authority because it’s in an authorial position rests upon a false basis of authority.”

• “Anyone who suggests that something is wrong quickly becomes ‘the problem.'”

“Instead of ones authority being based on the fact that they are wise, discerning and true. It’s based on the fact that one is solely in charge.”

• “Authority is in the truth one speaks, not the position one holds. Whenever or wherever we see a system or a person posturing or assuming a position of authority based solely on role, office, or position, we are dealing with a false basis of authority. If a person’s spiritual authority rests on the sole fact that “I am the pastor,” there is a good chance they have taken that posture because they have no real authority.”

CHAPTER 10 — “You Can Trust Me”

• Leaders can often lead double lives gaining trust by acting one way and then spiritually abusing after they’ve gained the trust. Acting in a way opposite of what they preach can also happen as well as double-talk where straight answers are never given.

CHAPTER 11 — “Image is Everything”

• How things look is more important than what is real.

• False leaders turn to people’s opinions and outward appearance as the sources of their validation and real needs are not met.

• If a spiritually abusive leader is not given a place of honor–is not publicly acknowledged–he or she will be sure that no one else is either. What prevails is jealousy and competition.

• The way you can spot an abusive system is that the leaders require the place of honor.

CHAPTER 12 — “Straining Gnats, Swallowing Camels”

• “You’re out of order!” declared the elder leading the meeting. The church’s young pastor had just told the assembly that he and his family were spiritually starving and financially dying. “We have important business to deal with here. You’re not on the agenda.”

• When ministry becomes more important than people, when following rules and laws are more important than people’s hurts and pains there is an inverted spirituality that is abusive and unhealthy. “The insignificant is made significant and the significant is made insignificant.” “The real needs of people are neglected for the agenda.”

CHAPTER 13 — “The Weight of Religion”

• When religion gives a set of rules to follow we immediately are burdened by the weight of never living up to the standard, of always falling short. But God’s grace isn’t about being burdened, it’s about freedom and living through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not a list of dos and don’ts.

CHAPTER 14 — “No Admittance”

• Where there is no life-giving reign of God, only a substitute God who suddenly demands a great deal of activity from us to “prove” we are “worthy servants.”

• “There are people longing for God, and they hope that the logical place to discover the truth about God is in a place that claims to have it–the church. But when they go, all too often what they discover is a system that gives them more work to do in order to be “close” to God.

CHAPTER 15 — Spreading “the Gospel”

• If the message does not lift weights off people, set them free, and reconnect the people to their true source of life then it is not the authentic good news but something that is harmful.

CHAPTER 16 — The People Get Devoured

• “It is the unsatisfied hungers–mentally, egotistically, emotionally–that cause a shepherd to devour his own. You follow, you trust, and you think it is completely safe.”

• “Abusive systems don’t serve and equip people, they use people. Worse, they use people up.”

• “Unless I stay rightly connected with God, my entire sense of value as a person will come from how I perform as a person and how others reward and applaud my behavior.”

• “I may encourage you to come and serve and give to the glory of God, but the real reason I’m encouraging you to do that is because I will look like a success if you do. I will use you to make me look good. At this point, my ego has begun to feed upon you.” (emphasis mine)

Next we’ll look at Part 3: Post Abuse Recovery

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”