In a spiritually abusive system, "the most important thing is how things look" (Johnson and VanVonderen 31). Johnson and VanVonderen tell of a pastoral ministries course offered at a Bible college where a young pastor-to-be was taught that his wife and children should address him in public as "Pastor." To maintain "pastoral dignity," he should always appear in his suit in public, even if it meant changing out of work clothes to run to the auto parts store. He should route the church telephone to his home and answer it "First Christian Church" to create the impression that he was constantly at church. When sitting on the platform at church, he must always wear proper socks and never cross his legs in a way that revealed the soles of his shoes. "Reveal your soul," he was told, "never your soles." Another instruction was about his voice: "When you ascend the platform, remember—you are the voice of God. Sound like it" (131).
Another characteristic of a spiritually abusive system is that its leaders require the place of honor. "Unhealthy, authoritarian leadership encourages people to place their pastors on pedestals" (Enroth 81). "It is our belief," write Johnson and VanVonderen, "that the less secure a leader is, the more important titles will be to him or her." Such leaders project the image of spirituality, require the recognition of people, and "point to themselves as the primary source of knowledge, direction, authority, and life" (134, 136).
Not only will spiritually abusive leaders demand honor, claim Johnson and VanVonderen, they may actually insist that others deny reality to maintain their authority: "Members have to deny any thought, opinion or feeling that is different than those of people in authority. Anything that has the potential to shame those in authority is ignored or denied"; in other words, "The system defines reality" (58).
Spiritually abusive leaders invoke their position to enforce their decisions. "Because I’m the pastor, that’s why!" "Are you questioning my authority?" "Don’t be a troublemaker." "Submit to your elder." Such phrases are symptomatic of "false authority" (112). Johnson and VanVonderen identify two characteristics of false authority: first, the leaders take authority rather than receiving it from God. And second, their authority rests not upon wisdom, discernment, or truth, but solely upon their position or rank—they are to be obeyed because they are in charge.
Spiritually abusive systems encourage "misplaced loyalty": loyalty to Christ is transformed into loyalty to a leader or a church. Conversely, "disloyalty to or disagreement with the leadership is equated with disobeying God. Questioning leaders is equal to questioning God. After all, the leader is the authority, and authority is always right" (76). Enroth asserts that abusive leaders "consciously foster an unhealthy form of dependency, spiritually and interpersonally, by focusing on themes of submission, loyalty, and obedience to those in authority" (103).
This misplaced loyalty is cultivated by three methods. First, "leadership projects a ‘we alone are right’ mentality, which permeates the system." Second, leaders use "scare tactics" to bolster misplaced loyalty, perhaps telling departing members that "God is going to withdraw His Spirit from you and your family" or "God will destroy your business." And third, "you can be ‘exposed’ for asking too many questions, for disobeying unspoken rules, or for disagreeing with authority. People are made public examples to send a message to those who remain" (Johnson and VanVonderen 76-78).
An extremely important characteristic of spiritually abusive systems is legalism. Legalism focuses on achieving righteousness through the performance of required behaviors and the avoidance of proscribed ones. People earn salvation through their human works. Johnson and VanVonderen warn against any spiritual system "in which the leaders or teachers add the performance of religious behaviors to the performance of Jesus on the cross as the means to find God’s approval" (36). In such a system, members must earn love and acceptance by obeying rules.
Johnson and VanVonderen tell of a Christian conference in which the attenders were given formulas for achieving "a nice, packaged, orderly Christian life." Those who successfully completed the course—mostly the naturally disciplined, strong-willed people—were permitted to attend an "advanced seminar." And the others? The speaker told the audience, "If you follow these principles and they don’t work, call me and tell me about it. You need to know, though, that you’ll be the first one for whom they didn’t" (44). Thus, anyone who questions the system runs an enormous risk of being labeled "unrighteous."
Legalism spawns a preoccupation with fault and blame. In the New Testament the purpose of confession is to receive forgiveness and cleansing; the spiritually abusive system demands confession "to know whom to shame—that is, whom to make feel so defective and humiliated that they won’t act that way anymore" (Johnson and VanVonderen 58).
Christians who trust the grace of Christ for salvation threaten a legalistic structure, since "living with Jesus as your only source of life and acceptance is a confrontation to those who seek God’s approval on the basis of their own religious behavior" (Johnson and VanVonderen 37).
Abusive leaders favor legalism for a number of reasons: busy and apparently righteous adherents make them look good; a legalistic system allows them to examine others instead of themselves; and they gain a sense of validation from the good works of their followers (Johnson and VanVonderen 37). Of course, despite such self-interested motives, these leaders’ demands are "cloaked in the language of being holy and helping others to live holy lives" (ibid).
Spiritually abusive systems are characterized by deception, or what Johnson and VanVonderen call "double-talk." People are told "they are not spiritual enough to understand teachings or decisions of the leaders. The leaders sound pious enough, even spiritual. But we are left with the vague sense that something is missing. They will give you the ‘right’ answer, but rarely will you get the ‘real’ answer. Everything has a double meaning" (126). In conversation, receiving a straight answer requires a precisely phrased question.
Manipulation is the life-blood of abusive systems. The most powerful of the manipulative techniques is enforced silence, or what Johnson and VanVonderen call the "can’t-talk" rule: "If you speak about the problem out loud, you are the problem" (68). Those who speak out may be accused of being unloving, unspiritual, or un-Christian (ibid.). Enroth described one sect that, when confronted with its own wrong teachings, will "attack the character and life of the questioner by claiming that he has ‘sin in his life.’ Such terms as ‘prideful,’ ‘independent spirit,’ and ‘rebellious’ are used in answer to the inquirer" (117).
Scripture may even be invoked in the service of such abusive tactics. Thus, Hebrews 13:17, which counsels to "obey your leaders, and submit to them," is "stripped of its spirit and translated legalistically to mean, ‘Don’t think, don’t discern, don’t question, and don’t notice problems.’ If you do, you will be labeled as unsubmissive, unspiritual, and divisive" (Johnson and VanVonderen 171). Another frequently used scripture is Matthew 18:21-22, where the Lord tells Peter he must forgive "up to seventy times seven." This verse may be turned against an abuse victim with the courage to speak up. Instead of addressing the problem, the leader makes the member the problem: "What’s wrong with you that you can’t forgive?" (Johnson and VanVonderen 100). Thus, "truth is suppressed in the name of spirituality" and "the code of silence is enforced with God’s own Word" (Johnson and VanVonderen 94).
Another manipulative technique is the existence of unspoken rules. Johnson and VanVonderen observe that no one would ever say out loud, "You know we must never disagree with the pastor on his sermons—and if you do you will never be trusted and never be allowed to minister in any capacity in this church" (67). This is because "examining [the statement] in the light of mature dialogue would instantly reveal how illogical, unhealthy and anti-Christian [it is]" (ibid.). Yet the rule is subtly enforced.
Another manipulative technique is coding, the use of circuitous or euphemistic verbal formulations to avoid uncomfortable realities. Another is triangulation (they call it "triangling"), the use of intermediaries to deliver messages or directives to insulate the leader from the member’s response (Johnson and VanVonderen 57).
Finally, spiritually abusive systems are secretive. "When you see people in a religious system being secretive—watch out. People don’t hide what is appropriate; they hide what is inappropriate" (Johnson and VanVonderen 78). Johnson and VanVonderen report the following comment from a "wounded" Christian: "Quite a number of us wanted more information about how church finances were being spent. We wanted to know if more money could go into direct ministries, benevolences, things like that. When I asked some questions at an elders’ meeting—boy did the room get icy. Later I was told to stop trying to create a faction in the church" (21). There are two reasons for the secrecy: Leaders feel that they must protect the image of the organization so outsiders will think well of it, thus making themselves "God’s ‘public relations’ agents"; and leaders condescend to members: They tell themselves, "People are not mature enough to handle truth" (78).
As a result, abusive systems abhor outside news media. According to Enroth, "Criticism, whether its source is Christian or secular, sincere or superficial, is always viewed by fringe churches as an ‘attack’" (164).
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Thanks to a friend for sending me to the Mormon Alliance website where I found this helpful description of spiritual abuse. I want to be specific: I am thinking of my home life in particular when I read this. Parsing out how this happens in wards is not something I want to tackle right now.