Five Categories of Spiritual Abuse

“At our church, you didn’t disagree with leadership if you knew what was good for you,” says Lenny*, a middle-aged lay leader.  “There was no room for dissent.  When the pastor or elders wanted your opinion, they gave it to you.  Anyone who dared voice another point of view or challenge a decision was ‘insubordinate’ or ‘rebellious.”

“It was, ‘My way or the highway,’” says Hailey* about her former church.  “The pastor viewed the church as his personal fiefdom.  He used ‘spiritual authority’ to treat congregants like ‘serfs,’ and expected us to do his bidding without question.  The pastor didn’t make requests or suggestions; he issued orders and royal edicts.”

These are examples of “abusive groups who misuse and distort the concept of ‘spiritual authority.’”  Expanding on the five hallmarks of spiritually abusive systems identified by The Watchman Fellowship, we’re including the five categories of spiritual abusive systems detailed by Dr. Ronald Enroth In Churches That Abuse. They are:

  1. Authority and Power – abusive groups misuse and distort the concept of spiritual authority. Abuse arises when leaders of a group arrogate to themselves power and authority that lacks the dynamics of open accountability and the capacity to question or challenge decisions made by leaders. The shift entails moving from general respect for an office bearer to one where members loyally submit without any right to dissent.
  2. Manipulation and Control – abusive groups are characterized by social dynamics where fear, guilt, and threats are routinely used to produce unquestioning obedience, group conformity, and stringent tests of loyalty to the leaders are demonstrated before the group. Biblical concepts of the leader-disciple relationship tend to develop into a hierarchy where the leader’s decisions control and usurp the disciple’s right or capacity to make choices on spiritual matters or even in daily routines of what form of employment, form of diet and clothing are permitted.
  3. Elitism and Persecution – abusive groups depict themselves as unique and have a strong organizational tendency to be separate from other bodies and institutions. The social dynamism of the group involves being independent or separate, with diminishing possibilities for internal correction and reflection. Outside criticism and evaluation is dismissed as the disruptive efforts of evil people seeking to hinder or thwart.
  4. Life-style and Experience – abusive groups foster rigidity in behavior and in belief that requires unswerving conformity to the group’s ideals and social mores.
  5. Dissent and Discipline – abusive groups tend to suppress any kind of internal challenges and dissent concerning decisions made by leaders. Acts of discipline may involve emotional and physical humiliation, physical violence or deprivation, acute and intense acts of punishment for dissent and disobedience.

Control and Disrespect

It’s interesting to note that both The Watchman Fellowship and Enroth (and many others) identify similar traits and categories as “abusive.”  Common traits include authoritarianism (translation: “I’m the pastor, that’s why!”, etc.), stifling dissent or criticism, domination and manipulation, and control.  Dr. Ronald Enroth posits that control-oriented leadership is at the core of all such religious groups (Churches That Abuse,).  How does this happen?  What does it look like?  Well, many experts explain that spiritual abusers “misuse their spiritual power” and “beat down your boundaries.”  In essence, you’re not allowed to say “No.” hence, disrespect may be a key element in spiritual abuse.

Referring to churches, Johnson and VanVandoren write that, “… places of shelter and encouragement can become abusive if spiritual leaders begin to use their authority to meet their needs for importance, power, or spiritual gratification.”

Join us next time for “Beaten Down Boundaries”

* Names changed to protect identities.

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