Cara Dillon Runyan

Bible Verses and Opportunists: What is spiritual abuse?

There’s been a lot in the news lately about Christian leaders. First, there were unsurprising reports of indiscretions from former leader of a Christian university. Yes, this was absolutely an abuse of power, and as a spiritual leader, this meant he was engaging in spiritual abuse–but to be honest, we’ve had plenty of examples of leaders succumbing to sexual sin. It was a different news article that caught my attention and took my breath away.

I didn’t watch either political convention, but a headline about Vice President Pence’s speech at the RNC caught my eye, so I watched the recording and was aghast at what I heard.

Right before his conclusion, Pence alludes to Hebrews 12:1-2, or at least he attempts to. At the DNC, politicians also quoted or alluded to verses of the Bible, so his mention of the verses isn’t the problem. It’s how he changed them.

Here’s what your Bible might say, depending on its version:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. 

Here’s what Pence said:

So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents, fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire …let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom…

Pence replaced Jesus with “Old Glory” a reference to the American flag, a symbol of the United States as emphasized by the second half of his replacement, “and all she represents.” Then again, he replaces Jesus—to whom Hebrews tells us to fix our eyes—with an exhortation to instead fix one’s eyes upon “this land of heroes.”

Pence used his national platform to quote the Bible and replaced Jesus with America–utilizing and manipulating the authority of scripture to tell you how to believe and act. It stopped being about political parties for me when he stepped over the line of obvious spiritual abuse.

How am I certain this is spiritual abuse and not some generous but innocuous rephrasing?

Let’s define it.

Spiritual abuse can be most simply defined as the use of spirituality by an authority to further their agenda with the result of damage to a victim. Most people are familiar with what this might look like in its most extreme cases—cult groups like David Koresh at Waco or groups like Charles Manson’s followers, both controlled by misuse of spirituality and scripture. I think this understanding of spiritual abuse in its most extreme forms can actually keep us from identifying its subtler, but still serious, forms.

There isn’t a single definition that researchers all hold to when it comes to spiritual abuse, so I’ve drawn my definitions from a few different ones.

One of the researchers I found, Barbara Berry, defined spiritual abuse as, “clergy or lay leaders, as persons of authority, distort the truth or use manipulation, intimidation, control, shame, guilt, fear, trickery, or coercion for personal gain at the follower’s expense in order to satisfy their own needs.” Another definition, from the National Center for Post-Qualifying Social Work in England emphasizes that spiritual abuse is often accompanied by “the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position.” This usually looks like a leader decrying any and all criticism by stating that they are “God’s chosen” or that their authority is from God directly. I have seen these statements from spiritual leaders repeatedly over the past few years to justify the unethical behaviors of other leaders and protect them from criticism. 

Two other researchers, Oakley and Kinmond, did anecdotal research to create their definition. This had to be tough for them; it was hard enough for me to tell others what I was studying because, without fail, everyone I spoke to had a story of manipulation and abuse in a religious context. Every. One. Oakley and Kinmond found a number of shared characteristics of spiritual abuse including the twisting of scripture, appeal to divine position, and an emphasis on shame and fear as major themes identified by victims.

From all these definitions, we can define a few major aspects that I want to emphasize:  

Spiritual abuse is an abuse of power and authority

We’ve had to have a reckoning about the misuse of power in the past few years—from the #Metoo movement to the ongoing misuse of police force. In these cases and more, it isn’t always a title or position that gives someone power and authority; sometimes it’s age, money, notoriety, gender, race, education, and all of these factors play into relational power dynamics. Malcolm Gladwell explores this idea in his podcast, Revisionist History, by telling a story about a rape case. It seems cut and dry at the beginning—woman was beaten and raped and the man she accused admitted fault. Then, Gladwell retells the story by adding that this woman was white and the accused was black in Augusta, Georgia in 1959. These facts completely change the power dynamic in the situation and how we perceive and interpret the situation.

Likewise, a spiritual abuser doesn’t need the title of pastor or extensive religious training to abuse someone spiritually. Other aspects of power can have just as significant of an effect on a situation. The utilization of spiritual belief and an unequal power dynamic–older, smarter, richer, and so on–between the abuser and the victim is all one needs to cause spiritual damage. 

So, maybe you’re thinking, in reference to the above definition, “But these politicians are not spiritual leaders, so what harm are they doing on a spiritual level?” Plenty. Not only are they manipulating your understanding of scripture and God’s character to fit their agenda, but their status as powerful–literal and symbolic–leaders increases the validity and depth of their abuse. Even if you can’t see the damage they’ve done with their words, they’ve just normalized this type of manipulation for an entire country—for unhealthy leaders of churches, big and small all over the country, to take advantage of vulnerable victims and push their own agendas. 

Spiritual abuse exists on a spectrum

Maybe you’re thinking, “Sure, Cara, that quote was in bad taste, but is it really abuse?” I believe it is and I don’t think we should lower our language to make people more comfortable with it. Abuse is a strong word—and that’s one reason why I use it. Spiritual authority is a huge responsibility—even the Bible makes that clear. I can give you a litany of ways it’s been misused just in the past year because the big abuses make the news, especially ones with sexual abuse tied in. But what about all the abuses that don’t make the news? It’s not that other actions are not abuse; they’re just lower on the spectrum of severity of abuse. 

For example, a friend once told me a story of a ministry leader warning their staff that if they resigned from their jobs at this particular ministry, they’d be forfeiting their “well done” from God. He was referring to a parable in Matthew 25 in which an owner of a house, symbolic of God, gives his servants, symbols for humans, money to invest and grow the owner’s wealth while he’s away. The whole parable is meant to help us understand our responsibility to God to steward our time and resources during our time on earth. This ministry leader, however, was using it out of context to shame and coerce his staff to continue to work for him. No, there was no physical, sexual, or financial abuse involved, but this still fits the definition of utilizing spirituality and power to further one’s personal agenda over the well-being of the other.

Spiritual abuse can happen to anyone and is harder to leave than you might think

We’d all like to believe ourselves smarter and stronger than to succumb to someone else’s abuse–even though that belief can leave us even more vulnerable. People who are victims of abuse are not ignorant and weak; they’re manipulated. Any of us, especially when we’re in difficult and desperate situations, are at risk of abuse.

When I heard stories about women who stay in abusive relationships, my first thought—maybe yours too—is, “Why don’t they just leave?” I didn’t understand until I was a part of an abusive ministry situation. On the surface, it only seems like the victim would be giving up on a bad relationship. What good is it doing them anyway? But there’s more to it than that.

Whether it’s a relationship, a religious system, or a political party, most victims have so identified themselves within these systems that it would feel like a loss of self. Consciously or not, the victim asks him or herself, “But who am I apart from this?” Even if it’s bad, it’s something. The loss of personal investment is another big factor of keeping people in unhealthy systems, too. The victim looks back on all they have invested—emotionally, spiritually, financially and relationally—into the unhealthy system and grapples with all that time and effort being lost if they leave. This creates a cycle of deeper fear and wounding, keeping people trapped in these unhealthy systems.

Spiritual abuse leaves invisible wounds

I do not believe spiritual abuse is more important that other abuses and traumas that people experience. I do, however, believe it is a unique form of abuse for one reason; as mentioned before, the abuser emphasizes their authority from God to such a degree that the actions and attitudes of the abuser become intertwined with the victims view of God. This abuse distorts a man or woman’s relationship with the divine— what I believe is the most precious relationship any human being can have.

Spiritual abuse is not something to brush off as a mistaken interpretation or an ignorant mistake. Yes, abusers may not know the depth of the damage they are doing, but they are utilizing the power of divine and scriptural authority to push their own agenda. If we care about God, the Bible, and the spiritual wellbeing of those around us, we can’t become desensitized to clear examples of spiritual abuse happening around us.

Now what?

One of the first things I noticed in all my research was that nearly all of the books I found on the topic spoke almost exclusively to identifying and recovering from abuse. It was all meant to address abuse after the fact. The assumption was that abuse had happened and would happen and these resources were the follow up to help individuals heal. But why don’t we show people how to prevent abuse? We do this with other types of abuse–sharing warning signs and steps to protect oneself. Why should we treat spiritual abuse differently?

This is an age when it’s hard to know who to trust and what to believe. I can’t spell out who is and is not worthy of that trust, but I’ve written some more here on what you can do to protect yourself and others from spiritual abuse.

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