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Guarding against spiritual abuse

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Posted by Nick Gowers, 25 Jul 2019

Nick Gowers offers some ways in which we can guard ourselves against becoming spiritually abusive in our ministry

Now that spiritual abuse is rightly more out in the open (though, sadly, I suspect we much more of the iceberg will become apparent over the next few months and years), what can we be doing to guard against it? Here are some initial thoughts that I offer:

1. Remember: “Our greatest weaknesses are often our strengths overplayed.”
A wise Christian once told me this and it has stuck with me. We are not talking here about focussing on our strengths to the neglect of other areas. This is how our strengths themselves can be the source and harbour of our weaknesses. Martial Arts are a physical illustration. In many martial arts, one uses an opponent’s own strength and movement against them. It is much easier to push someone a little bit further in a direction they are already moving than to stop them or to change their direction. Sin and the devil are very good at this as well.

Chances are, some of our greatest weaknesses and biggest failings will be caught up in our strengths. This will be the case both individually and corporately. It shouldn’t surprise us.

So it is worth stopping and thinking: if preaching is our strength, what will be associated dangers with that? If personal discipleship is our strength, what will be associated dangers? If leadership is our strength, what will be associated dangers? If a passion for mission and maturity is our strength, what will be associated dangers? If truth is our strength, what will be associated dangers…and so on…

2. Acknowledge unacknowledged power

Power is not in and of itself wrong. After all, Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and earth. But power can be used wrongly. Unacknowledged power and unacknowledged power dynamics are the most dangerous. We often don’t see the imbalances of power. A large number of factors can contribute to power imbalance in any relationship: age, experience, training, knowledge, church position, respect, reputation, information, desire for acceptance, fear of rejection, gender dynamics, personal history and many more.

I was reminded of this when talking with one of my staff. Our meeting was over-running. The staff member needed to be somewhere two minutes previously. Because I was the minister they did not feel able to ask for the meeting to end nor able to interrupt my hobby horse monologue. One person gave me the response “if they have an issue, they should raise it with me” but this response was blind to the power dynamics at play. If we are blind to these we will easily end up being manipulative, controlling or coercive. Or, in the modern terminology, spiritually abusive.

So it is worth stopping and thinking: what causes imbalance of power? What are the imbalances of power in any given context: in a one-to-one relationship, in a small-group, in a congregation, in church meetings, in preaching, and so on…

3. Rejoice: Jesus is the Saviour

It is very easy to develop a “Messiah complex” or an “Elijah complex.” The “Messiah complex” says that the cause of God’s kingdom really needs me or my tribe.  The “Elijah Complex” says that “I (or we) are the only ones left.” Both complexes elevate me and my tribe to a level with the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Both lead to pride (or despair) and to self-justifying behaviour. Such self-justifying behaviour will involve minimising or covering up abuse for the sake of our greater cause.

The reality is that Jesus is the Saviour, and we are all messed up individuals. He doesn’t need us, but he wants us. Profound honesty about sin, genuine deep repentance, faithfulness and committed fellowship are what are required. This must occur at the individual level, church level, organisation level and tribal level. 

So it is worth stopping and thinking: in what ways am I thinking that the cause of God’s kingdom needs me or my tribe? In what ways am I thinking that I/we are the only ones left? In what ways am I thinking a cause is bigger than being open and honest about sin, repentance and grace? In what ways am I putting gospel causes above the gospel?!

4. Beware of lone leadership

If the previous point is about us having an attitude that God and his kingdom really needs us, this point is leaders saying I don’t really need others, or I only need others on my terms.

I have been struck by how many people have recently asked me what support structures church leaders have. I am in a particular denomination, but from my limited second-hand experience of other denominations, my answer to this question is similar to others: I have very little support other than what I choose to put in place. The people who ask are generally shocked by my answer; even secular professional counsellors have to have supervision. My accountability is voluntary, based on good practice I have seen from others. I could choose to have none. Effectively it is lone leadership. By contrast, the New Testament model seems to be plural leadership.  In my denomination that lack of accountability in part enables the freedom to engage in gospel ministry but it is far from healthy, especially since I am still a sinner capable of great evil.

So it is worth stopping and thinking: in what ways are our leaders unaccountable? Who has the right to ask hard questions and demand answers? Are there any aspects of their ministry that are not open to scrutiny or they can keep hidden? How can we make sure it is not lone leadership?

5. Pop the pedestal

Every tribe tends to have people on pedestals, whether it be a pope, a pastor, a prophet, a preacher or a priest. We are made for leadership, we need leadership. But we must beware the priesthood of one person by which our faith, or that of the church ends up relying on just one person (or perhaps two).

If lone leadership is the leader thinking I don’t need supervision, support and accountability (putting themselves on a pedestal) the pedestal is reinforced or built by those who are led saying I (or we) need this particular leader. By contrast there is only one leader: Jesus. It his leadership we need. All others are fallible, temporary under-shepherds with the task of pointing others to him.

So it is worth stopping and thinking: does our church or tribe depend on one particular leader? Does my faith depend on one particular leader? How are we putting this leader on a pedestal?

6. Engage with our emotions

We were made for intimacy with God and with each other. Christian maturity must include emotional maturity. Our emotions are a window into our soul and should be identified, expressed, and developed in all their honest Biblical range of lament, weeping, longing, despair, joy, happiness and so on.

By contrast, it is easy to consider lack of emotion as a virtue. Or it is easy to press on and ignore our emotions, never stopping to ask “why am I feeling this way?” Similarly it is easy to ignore how others are feeling. We can easily end up riding rough shod over our souls and those of others.

So it is worth stopping and thinking: how are we helping people to engage and develop emotionally? Are there emotions we are avoiding or running away from? How is this person / this group / this congregation responding emotionally? What is that saying? If there are no emotions, what does that mean? What does it look like to be close to God emotionally?

These are initial thoughts. No doubt there are other factors to consider. But hopefully one can see that if these things above are neglected, and especially if all are neglected, spiritual abuse can grow unchecked in its multifaceted ugliness of manipulation, guilt, control or coercion.

By contrast, being aware of these things can help us evaluate and put in to place practices that guard against spiritual abuse and help grow mature disciples of Christ.

This post is part of a series examining and reflecting on spiritual abuse in the Bible and in our contemporary church context.
1. Spiritual abuse
2. God’s judgment on spiritual abuse
3. What is spiritual abuse?
4. Guarding against spiritual abuse
5. Spiritual abuse of children and young people

Nick Gowers is the vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Old Hill, a Church Society parish.

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