Sunday, June 28, 2009

Spiritual Abuse

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.


  1. 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).

  2. 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).

  3. 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.

  4. 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).

  5. 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).

  6. 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.

  7. 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).

  8. 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).


Jacque said...

This reminds me of an article I read in a BYU class that listed characteristics of Unrighteous Dominion. It was so helpful in understanding someone. Some people really blur the lines in our Church, but we have to all work together and articles like this can help some of us have a voice in what is appropriate. I don't know that we can really change people's ideology, but feeling grounded and sure of ourselves should at least represent a different perspective for others.

k said...

Thanks Jacque. It is really hard to change someone like you say. I CANNOT spend more energy trying to change my parents. But I have felt more grounded myself and that is incredibly freeing.

Nate and Kristen Millecam said...

Hey K,

Good article, but kind of a downer.. wa wa waahh. We had an interesting lesson relating to this last week in Priesthood for Father's day. Our poor Bishop who doesn't like speaking on topics that are not uplifting in nature at all, felt the Lord really wanted him to talk to the men of our Ward about what it truly means to be a righteous Priesthood Holder or in other terms lead as the Savior would in our families. The core of his message was essentially "the ends do not justify the means." He used examples of good homes that appeared to do everything right on the surface (Church attendance, kids serving missions, well educated, good all around people ect). What was an interesting side note was that on some level the poor tactics did produce some good things. But the means or tactics the some men were using to generate even positive results were innapropriate in the Lord's eye and God would hold us accountable for the use thereof. He relied heavily on section 121 of the D&C which is really be a servant to those you lead not an authoritative dictator. Many of the innapropriate means he called out in his lesson were much the same tactics that Johnson and VanVonden point out in this article. It all seem to come back to the root cause of manipulation. I will point out one key difference of my lesson versus the article is that I left that meeting enriched and actually uplifted even though the topics by their nature are not uplifting. The general feeling in the room was motivation to try harder and be a better Father husband at whatever level we were at. If I have any critcism of the article is it was downer. I think real behavior changes come when people are inspired or moved to be better, not educated on all the wrongs of generally well meaning people. Cynisim and universal critism in itself is a form of manipulation, and if I were to universally apply these generalizations, then what confidence could I put in any well meaning individual who is trying to share spiritual light and truth regardless of the source?

I know its not easy for you to share stuff like this given your history, your background has made you what your are today, and my little family loves you a lot and we're here for you. Maybe a crucial step in moving on and healing is recognizing that the spiritually manipulative people in your life made you who you are today, and that's a pretty cool sophisticated individual who makes some killer Ziti (oh man it was seriously so good). Thanks for sharing your opinion!


k said...

I can see how you read this article with a feeling of it being a downer. However, the nature of spiritual abuse and the tactics perpetrators use is inherently awkward and uncomfortable to read about. It could just be the content itself that leaves a feeling you describe.

Or it could depend on how you read it. I personally feel inspired by the article since it speaks the truth. And the truth cuts through all the manipulation employed by abusers (read: unrighteous dominion).

I am glad that your lesson in Father's Day was uplifting in addressing this issue. I wasn't there, but I hope it was thorough.

All I can say is that my experience with lessons/talks in Church about abuse are incomplete. They leave me wanting. They generally downplay the need for complete honesty or whistle-blowing. They generally downplay the need for therapy. These are two crucial components of healing. Healing from something you did not choose. I would like to see the Church put more support behind victims as their number one priority. As it stands now I think they value the family unit at the expense of individual victims. They are well-meaning but end up putting partial responsibility on the victims. It's a complicated issue, but the truth really does set people free.

Kristi said...

Hey K...

I was intrigued with the article and enjoyed the information. I have been fascinated always by people and why they do what they do and say what they say. I think I would have enjoyed seeking a psychology degree of some kind! (Maybe it's not too late! :/)

I do agree with you that we don't talk enough about abuse, whether it be a spiritual leader, parent/s, a teacher etc. Unrighteous dominion at home or church is WRONG! I agree with you when you stated that abuse is an uncomfortable topic to discuss. That it is!!

I believe that MANY general priesthood meetings have chastised men (I'm sure it applies to many women as well) about being unrighteous leaders in their homes. It must be a problem due to how often the subject is raised. The sad reality is that many do not see their own shortcomings and are prideful, unwilling to change!!!

Abuse is talked about, just not enough!

We as parents and teachers should strive to be like Jesus in our leadership. Jesus Christ is a shepherd; he guides, he teaches, he encourages, he invites all to come unto Him. There is no forcing, no manipulating, etc with Him.

I love you....

PS- I thought that you might find it interesting that John has an aunt who lives in Alpine Utah that formed an organization many years ago to help abused women and children. She has been on a speaking circuit of sorts educating Bishops and I believe Stake Presidents about abuse. One thing that I remember her telling me years ago is that Priesthood leadership are not trained professionals. Which is why she has been invited to speak to them and to teach them.