Recognizing The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse — No matter how hard we try, many of us will struggle at one time or another in coming to terms with 5 realities that impact each and every one of our lives:
- Everything changes and at some point in time comes to an end;
- Things in our life don’t always go according to plan;
- The world we live in isn’t always fair;
- Pain is a normal part of life;
- People are not loving and loyal all the time.
Life is at best, a difficult test of endurance, and if we are going to peel back the layers of truth then we must embrace the reality that life simply isn’t always fair, but then again, neither are the people around us, and at times, neither are we fair to ourselves or others.
If we are to pick ourselves up, and dust ourselves off after falling in life or being beaten down, then understanding the source of injury to our inner spirit is important. Self-injury, or pain caused due to the outcome of our own actions or self-made circumstance can be corrected. Injury to our human spirit caused by the influence of outside circumstance can be understood, but not always corrected. Injury from others becomes a bit more challenging, as we cannot change someone else, we can only remove them from our circle of contact and interaction.
While relational conflict, and relational injury has existed as long as mankind and wildlife has existed, there is one area of conflict which causes a great deal of confusion for many – spiritual abuse.
Recognizing The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse
What is Spiritual Abuse?
Spiritual abuse, in general terms, describes any process by which a religious authority, professional, family member, or peer misuses faith or religious belief as a means to cloak a hidden agenda in an attempt to hold power over, manipulate, or control an individual or group of individuals. It is a form of spiritual manipulation and the exercising of a false spiritual authority within a religious context.
Spiritual abuse can be experienced in a variety of relationships:
- Spiritual abuse from a religious leader;
- Spiritual abuse from a religious church lay-leader;
- Spiritual abuse from a “wanna-be” religious leader;
- Spiritual abuse in a peer to a peer relationship;
- Spiritual abuse in a domestic relationship.
What is Spiritual Abuse in a Church?
First off, to establish a baseline of understanding, not all religious organizations refer to their congregational body or meeting place as a “church”. To simplify matters, the term “church” is used in this article to define any place or collection of persons who are part of a belief system wherein there is some form of loose or well defined organizational structure operating under a clearly recognized religious leadership.
Spiritual Abuse in a church describes any process, be it directly relational or through church government or hierarchy, by which a religious authority misuses their power and the trust of their congregational members individually or collectively in order to meet their own needs or the needs of the system.
Spiritual abuse often refers to, but is not limited to, the abuse administered under the guise of religion, which may include harassment, intimidation, psychological coercion, psychological manipulation, the misuse of spiritual authority to impose social or societal restrictions upon another person, humiliation, all of which possibly results in psychological trauma. Religious abuse may also include misuse of religion, faith, or belief system for selfish, secular, or ideological ends such as the misuse of the powers of a ministerial position.
What is Spiritual Abuse from a Church Lay-Leader?
In many religious organizations, a lay leader is a member of the laity (church government, or an individual assigned some role of responsibility within a religious community) in any congregation who has been chosen as a leader in some capacity. Since lay leadership is not an ordained clerical office, the lay leader’s responsibilities vary according to the particular tradition to which he or she belongs. These positions might include the role of a Sunday School teacher, in the Salvation Army this might include persons who hold the title “Ensign” or “Special Envoy”, a home bible study leader, church counsellor, certainly church elders or board members would fall under this category, as would the church cook, church janitor, or any church volunteer performing a pre-defined task by the church leadership.
Spiritual abuse from a church lay leader occurs when there is a misuse of their powers or trust under the guise of their belief system or religion, for purposes of harassment, intimidation, psychological coercion, psychological manipulation, the misuse of spiritual authority to impose social or societal restrictions upon another person, humiliation, all of which possibly results in some form of psychological trauma which includes emotional trauma.
What is Spiritual Abuse from a “Wanna-be” Religious Leader?
Spiritual abuse from a “Wanna-be” religious leader is a style of relationship where the dynamics change and begin to move away from the traditional definitions of “Spiritual Abuse”.
Every religious organization has within it’s structural design, the same foundational structure of a cult. Certainly the evangelical Christian community is quick to classify the Jehovah’s Witness and Mormon movements as being cults, but few are willing to admit that the Mennonite, and it’s off-shoots of Mennonite Brethren, Amish, Hutterite, Schwarzenau Brethren, Bruderhof, and the Apostolic Christian Church are also cult based movements. Other recognized religious cult groups may include The Church of Scientology, a lesser known group calling themselves The Twelve Tribes, The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity (Unification Church), The International Churches of Christ (Boston Movement), The Family (Children of God), Christian Identity Movement (Aryan Nations, Christian Identity Church, Klu Klux Klan, etc.), The Nation of Islam (Black Muslims), United Pentecostal Church (UPC), and Eckankar, just to name a few.
It’s widely recognized by law enforcement authorities that the vast majority of religious cults are born out of the Baptist (The Mennonite movement was a break-away group “Anabaptist” from the Baptist movement, as was the Rev. Jim Jones’ The People’s Temple), as well as the Pentecostal churches which includes many of the independent Charismatic style of churches.
Certainly any mainline religious organization/denomination could be a cult, but most often, it’s amongst mainline denominations that defacto cults emerge among it’s parishes, and even then, if an individual church/parish which is part of a larger denomination does not become a cult, a defacto cult can emerge among the lay leadership or members of a church. This being said, a Salvation Army Citadel could be a definable defacto cult, or contain members and lay leaders who are definable defacto cult leaders and members operating as a cult completely unawares to the head office of the organization. The same could be said of any religious denomination and not just the Salvation Army.
It’s common place for churches to experience “church splits” due to varying beliefs or dis-agreements with practices from within one church congregation or group of congregations. The Christian and Missionary Alliance was a “para-church split” off of the Presbyterian movement, and in the late 1880’s was seen as a cult movement. The Christian and Missionary Alliance (which is Baptist in organizational and worship style) has been known to experience defacto cult groups hiving themselves off from the denomination. This is a normal evolutionary process within the world of religious government and belief systems. The real question one must ask is, “Is this cult just another religious belief system like any other religious organization/denomination, or is this cult a dangerous cult movement?”
In the early stages of new religious ideologies, be it inside an existing religious organization or not, there can rise to the forefront a “wanna-be” religious leader (cult leader), who refuses to believe they are bound to a pre-existing form of church/religious governance or authority, and begins to formulate and impose their own methodologies and leadership. This is a stage where there is great risk of spiritual abuse, as no clear operational code of conduct has been crafted leaving the door wide open for mis-conduct in the name of a deity.
What is Spiritual Abuse at the Peer-to-Peer Level?
Spiritual abuse at the peer-to-peer level is non-traditional when compared to spiritual abuse experienced from a religious leader, authority figure, or religious organization.
Spiritual abuse at the peer-to-peer level occurs when a peer tries to use religious reasoning to justify their harassment, intimidation, psychological coercion, psychological manipulation, the misuse of spiritual authority to impose social or societal restrictions upon another person, humiliation, all of which could possibly result in psychological trauma. This is a misuse of religious reasoning, faith, or belief system for selfish, secular, or ideological ends, and is a form of psychological abuse.
What is Spiritual Abuse in a Domestic Relationship?
As with spiritual abuse at the peer-to-peer level, spiritual abuse inside a domestic relationship is a non-traditional form of spiritual abuse, and most often is simply a case of using religion to justify physical, emotional, verbal, or psychological abuse. Inside a domestic relationship, spiritual abuse is used to hold power over someone.
Recognizing The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse
Spiritual abuse can be life shattering. Deeply ingrained spiritual beliefs, written and unwritten rules and expectations are used to control, condemn, and wound followers or believers. In the end a person finds themselves enslaved to a religious belief system, leader, or religious upbringing which sucks out of them any remaining remnant of true spirituality.