Authority Gaps & Attitude Snaps (part 11 of 12)

Spiritual abusers are often “nice” people.  High-profile.  Well-respected within their circles. They’re the last to see or acknowledge the damage their actions and attitudes wreak on others – if ever.  If the mere suggestion of “spiritual abuse” is made in conjunction with their behavior, their hackles will rise like gasoline fumes around a lit match – and you better don Kevlar right quick.  (That’s a clue, by the way.)  But as Johnson and VanVonderen point out:

“Spiritual abuse is a real phenomenon that actually happens in the body of Christ.  It is a subtle trap in which the ones who perpetrate spiritual abuse on others are just as trapped in their unhealthy beliefs and actions as those whom they, knowingly, or unknowingly, abuse.” (p. 16)

We’re firmly convinced from Scripture that ministry and service should be based on God’s calling and gifting, not on gender.  So when nominating ballots came out for church leadership, we submitted the names of several capable men and women.  Not a single name we submitted appeared on the final ballot.  We found out why months later: the pastor tore up our ballots and threw them in the trash.  No dialogue.  No discussion.  Just the round-file.

Is this pastor’s action disrespectful?  Yes.  “Abusive”?  Maybe.  Unless the conduct is criminal – physical or sexual assault, for example – most sources agree that a single, isolated action doesn’t usually constitute “abuse.”  It depends on what recurring attitudes, actions, patterns and trends indicate (see prior posts).

Overlooked Facets

Two often overlooked “trends” that may be “spiritually abusive” concern responsibility without authority and the role of women in the church.  Write Johnson and VanVonderen:

(p. 231):

“A spiritual abusive system is a place where people who have responsibility to do the job don’t have the authority to do it (emphasis in original).  These people are being abused and will eventually burn out.  In this kind of environment, there will be a group of people who posture power and exercise all of the authority to decide what needs to be done and how to do it.  But they have very little responsibility to do anything.  Combine this with a group of people who are responsible to do everything, but have no authority to decide how it gets done.

What happens, then, is that the person with all the responsibility and no authority is used up, burns out, and then is discarded.

In order for people to not burn out, and for the system to not be abusive, authority and responsibility to minister must both rest in the same place.  This means that those who are given responsibility are also given authority.” (Subtle, p. 231)

A “Maddening Attitude” Toward Women?

In Chapter 9 of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Johnson and VanVonderen posit an intriguing observation:

“Using rank, position, status, or title as a sole basis of spiritual authority reminds us of the maddening attitude concerning the role of women in the church, a residue, we believe, of the old Hebrew system of governing.

In Israel, the criteria for leadership and authority was based on three things. The first criterion was age: You had to be old. Second, gender: you had to be male. And third, race: You had to be Hebrew. Obviously, it was a great system for old Hebrew males. In that system, you didn’t have to be right, wise, gentle, discerning, Spirit-directed, or godly. If you were a young Gentile woman, it wouldn’t matter if you were… You didn’t have authority because you didn’t fit the external criteria.

But consider Acts 2. the Holy Spirit came and blew that system to pieces when the prophesy (sic) of Joel was fulfilled at Pentecost: “I will pour forth My spirit upon all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon My bondslaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit” (vv. 17 – 18. Emphasis in original.)

In the new covenant, then we see that Jesus established a new basis of authority. It was no longer age, gender, or race. It is now based on the evidence of the Holy Spirit within you… (p. 113)”

Johnson and VanVonderen’s book is not a treatise on gender theory or gender roles. Isn’t it intriguing, however, that an entire section of a book on “spiritual abuse” discusses the topic in tandem with the role of women in the church?  What questions or issues might this raise regarding how women are perceived and treated in your church?+

Up Next: “When It’s Time to Get the Heck Outta Dodge.”

+ If you’ve followed this blog for long, you know we’ve written extensively on this question elsewhere. 


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