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More on Spiritual Abuse

Last week I spoke to Bob Kellemen about the difficult subject of spiritual abuse. We worked toward a definition of the term and looked also at what shouldn’t rightly be classified as abuse. I had more questions and Bob was kind enough to answer them (and, in my opinion, to answer well). Here’s the rest of our discussion. I hope this helps people who are suffering spiritual abuse or who are wondering if that is what’s going on at their local church.

TC: How are we to react to genuine spiritual abuse? Is this a time to begin a web site to expose abuse? Is this the time to leave a church?

BK: I want to address that question in a two-fold way: how do we respond to spiritual abuse internally—in our own hearts, and how do we respond to spiritual abuse “externally”—in our relationship to the person hurting us, in relationship to the church, and in relationship to the wider Christian community. 

Internally, I always encourage the person who is experiencing spiritual abuse to step back and seek the help of a trusted, objective third party. We discussed in our first post the fact that the term “spiritual abuse” can be misused or misapplied so we don’t have to respond to loving confrontation from a spiritual authority. As a counselor, I try to raise this possibility to the person in a loving, kind, supportive way. The last thing they need is to sense that the “victim is being victimized.” Still, it’s vital to have someone help you to assess what is actually occurring. 

Let’s assume that the outside assessment concurs (that sounds more clinical than it is in real life): spiritual abuse is occurring. I then encourage the person who is experiencing spiritual abuse to avoid two extremes. One extreme is denial and minimizing. In God’s Healing for Life’s Losses: How to Find Hope When You’re Hurting, I build a biblical case for candor and lament—honesty with self and with God about life’s losses. It is a very painful loss to have someone you trust as a shepherd use that shepherding role to harm rather than to help. 

While I understand that people don’t like “victim language,” there is a “victim” in spiritual abuse. Choose another word if you need to—sinned against, sufferer, whatever—but don’t minimize the damage done. I shared in our first blog post the biblical basis for the concept of spiritual abuse—it is not a “victimless crime” and Christ demonstrates great compassion on those who are harmed by their shepherd. 

The other extreme to avoid is going into “victimization mode.” This is where I define my entire identity by the spiritual abuse I have suffered. I revolve everything in my life around this “victim identity.” Our core identity is who we are in Christ, and in Christ we are more than conquerors. Though victimized, we are victors in Christ. A “victimization mentality” leads to a root of bitterness which leads to a vengeful spirit of retaliation. 

When we avoid these two extremes, then we can take our pain and suffering to Christ and we can find His healing hope. Again, that sounds quick and easy in print, but it’s neither quick nor easy in real life. But it is possible to hope even through the hurt of spiritual abuse. 

TC: That’s a helpful clarification, Bob—the internal response and the external response. Assuming the person is working on their internal response, now, how are they to react to spiritual abuse—externally? Begin a web site or blog? Leave the church?

BK: That’s the key that makes all the difference in the world—that we are working with Christ and the Body of Christ on our internal response. James 3:13-18 paints a powerful portrait using colors that contrast how we respond out of a hard, bitter heart compared to how we respond out of a soft, godly heart. 

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”

If we start a discernment ministry, does that ministry reflect the first half of this passage or the second half? If we leave the church, do we leave in a way that reflects James 3:13-16, or James 3:17-18? If we stay in the church and start the Matthew 18 process, do we do so in a bitter, arrogant, divisive manner, or in a humble, peace-loving, submissive, pure manner?

No blog post can provide the one “right” response. There is no one right response. But clearly there is a response that comes out of a heart right with Christ

Let’s assume someone starts a “discernment website.” What feeds the goals of that site? What motivates the energy behind that site? If it is a place where people (from around the world) who have suffered similar hurt can go to encourage one another to grow in Christ, then I’m all for it. If it is a place that becomes a repository of godly information, of wise counsel, and of suggestions for a biblical path in and through spiritual abuse, then I’m all for it. 

But if it is a place that models more of James 3:13-16 than of James 3:17-18, then I’m not for it. I’m not for it because it is not Christlike. I’m also not for it because it is not helpful to anyone—including the person who has suffered spiritual abuse. 

TC: How should proper polity work against this kind of abuse by providing a system of authority or accountability?

BK: That’s an important question, Tim. I think we might want to raise a preliminary question before we answer that question: “What do we do if our polity lacks accountability and inhibits a fair exploration of spiritual abuse?” People who have suffered spiritual abuse and who just read my paragraph above about discernment websites might well be thinking something like: 

“That’s easy to say, Bob. But the problem is ‘systemic.’ We tried the Matthew 18 process. In a healthy church with proper polity and accountability, Matthew 18 works. But in a church where one leader or a small group of leaders dominate everything and defensively response to any feedback, Matthew 18 hits a major roadblock. This is especially true in non-denominational churches and in mega-churches with ‘super-star leaders.’ So, our only hope for changing the systemic, entrenched culture of sinful, abusive leadership is public exposure.”

It’s a point worth pondering, and one we surely can’t answer definitively in one blog post. You and I, Tim, in our book reviews on our sites, offer “public discernment” and at times public “exposure.” Where is the fine line between appropriate, humble, caring public exposure of public error (either doctrinal error or relational error), and inappropriate, arrogant, divisive public exposure of public error? That’s the million dollar question. 

Public exposure, it seems to me, can be godly or ungodly, wise or unwise, peace-loving or divisive. It moves one direction or the other dependent upon our heart attitude, our inner motivation, and our specific methods/means. Passages that we all need to consider and ponder about public exposure would include: Matthew 18:15-20; Philippians 2:1-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 with 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; 2 Corinthians 6:11-13; 2 Corinthians 7:8-13; James 3:13-19; James 4:1-12. 

TC: Again, Bob, that’s a helpful clarification before we address the specific question. Let’s assume the better case scenario of godly people following biblical policy and return to the earlier question. How should proper polity work against this kind of abuse by providing a system of authority or accountability?

The readers of your blog come from a wide diversity of church polity situations, so we can’t prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach. We can suggest some biblical principles. 

  • First, I recommend that every church not only have a church discipline/restoration policy, but that they have a policy/position statement on how conflicts are to be resolved. 
  • Second, of course, I recommend that the process follows the Matthew 18 pattern—moving from the smallest circle to larger circles of involvement if necessary to resolve the conflict. 
  • Third, if the process reaches the full church leadership and there is still no resolution, then I encourage church leaders either to go to denominational leadership if such exists in their situation, or to call in outside consultants (such as a Peacemakers’ team). 
  • Fourth, and this point should flow through points one to three, every pastor, every pastoral/elder/leadership team, must engage in ongoing accountability and iron-sharpening-iron. Any pastor or pastoral leadership team that sees itself as beyond the need for feedback, accountability, and mutual challenge, is primed for a fall. 
  • Fifth, and this also must flow through the preceding points, whether pastor, elder, or member, we all need to apply Matthew 7:1-5. We need to ask God to reveal the plank in our own eye. I’m not sure I’ve seen too many “discernment websites” that spend much or any time saying, “Here are all the ways we have sinned against our pastor and our leadership team. Here are all the ways we have mishandled this process.” And I’m not sure I’ve seen too many church leadership teams typically respond with, “We confess that we have been arrogant. We acknowledge that we mishandled this by trying to manhandle God’s people.”
  • Sixth, and once again flowing through all the preceding principles, we need to pray that God would give us a heart to be ambassadors of reconciliation. Is our main goal to expose error, or is our main goal to encourage mutual humble repentance that leads to reconciliation with God and one another? The test sometimes comes when one “side” repents. Is the response from the other party one of humble forgiveness, or an attitude of, “I told you so! Gotcha!” 

Tim, I really appreciate you using your blogging platform to explore this issue. Your questions have stretched me and I’m thankful for this opportunity to think out loud with your readers. While there are no easy answers, there are biblical, relational principles we can follow to avoid, wherever possible, and to address, wherever necessary, “spiritual abuse.”