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Spiritual abuse

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Posted by John Telford, 18 Jan 2018

John Telford examines the idea of spiritual abuse, what it is and what it isn't, and offers wise advice for churches to acknowledge and avoid it.

Spiritual abuse seems suddenly to be a thing. Up until very recently there have been four recognised types of abuse: sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect – and those four are still the officially recognised categories of abuse. Emotional abuse has traditionally been understood to include any type of abuse caused by withdrawal of affection, name-calling or patterns of control. One of the marks of a cult is that it uses patterns of control to keep its adherents in line.

Over the past few months some peripheral voices on the edge of the Church of England have called for spiritual abuse to be recognised as discrete category. Alongside these calls, the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) published a report stating that ‘Key characteristics of spiritual abuse identified were coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring of individuals, control through the misuse of religious texts and scripture and providing a ‘divine’ rationale for behaviour.’ (Oakley & Humphreys (2018) Understanding Spiritual Abuse in Christian Communities.)

Last week this report received coverage in the mainstream media with claims that 1,000 churchgoers had experienced spiritual abuse. Justin Humphreys of CCPAS, who co-authored the report, told the Telegraph, “We do have to be mindful as to the way we deliver messages that are based on our own theological or doctrinal position. When leaders are delivering what would be seen as a challenging message it’s important to deliver it in a way which says ‘this is what I believe to be the case, however you as individuals should be free to challenge that or reject it entirely’.”

Others have linked
orthodox teaching on marriage and sexuality to spiritual abuse, particularly when there is a call to repentance of living contrary to biblical marriage. It’s claimed that such teaching is an attack on the identity of the individual and their self-worth.

Spiritual abuse, as it’s talked about, is increasingly recognised as a category of abuse. It emerged last week that a clergyman in Oxford Diocese has been found guilty of spiritual abuse in his dealings with a teenage boy. Without making any comment on the case itself, it is significant that ‘spiritual abuse’ was the term used by the diocesan authorities – the first time it’s been used in such an arena.

The lie of the land seems to be changing. As the stakes rise with regard to spiritual abuse so we may feel the pressure in evangelical churches to water down the clear teaching of scripture: ‘preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.’ (2 Tim. 4:2); ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ (Matt. 4:17); ‘… by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.’ (2 Cor. 4:2b).

How do we navigate the new landscape? I want to suggest five things we can do.

Don’t be coercive. This almost goes without saying, but the Apostle Paul says it so that we remember it. 2 Cor. 4:2a says, ‘we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word …’ There is no place for ‘coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring’ in the church.

Preach well. Open up the scriptures, do careful exegesis and teach in such a way that those listening hear the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the scriptures. Justin Humphrey is right when he says that sermons should never be based on the theological or doctrinal position of the preacher, which is another way of saying that a sermon shouldn’t be the preacher’s opinion. Bible studies, one-to-ones, counselling sessions, youth groups, Sunday School classes and so on should be devoid of the leader’s theological opinions. It is the clear and present word of God that must be presented to the listeners. A good exegete will show his working in enough detail that his hearers read the scriptures for themselves and are able to apply them in the sense that they were originally meant. Where that’s the case Christians, enabled by the Spirit, will live lives marked by repentance and faith.

Include spiritual abuse in your Safeguarding Policy
. Surely it’s wise to be open about this. Name spiritual abuse, define it well in order to protect your congregation from false teaching and coercive methods. It is, after all, spiritual abuse to deny anyone access to the faithful preaching and teaching of the gospel. Refer to Article VI and Canon A5 as evidence that the whole counsel of God must be taught openly. Use 2 Cor. 4:2 in your policy.

Call out false gospels as spiritual abuse. Where there is false teaching, name it as spiritual abuse. A gospel without repentance leads to a faith without salvation; it promises everything and delivers nothing. What can be more abusive than telling someone that their eternal destiny is secure when the opposite is in fact the case?

Expect opposition.
Jesus said to the disciples when he first sent them out to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, ‘Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.’ (Matt. 10:17-18). Those who are at the moment on the periphery of the Church of England may in time gain influence and, in time, orthodox believers may find themselves metaphorically flogged by religious leaders. Equality laws may lead to us being dragged in front of the criminal courts. It happened to the apostles, it happened to Jesus, it may happen to us.

Spiritual abuse is a term that’s here to stay. Let’s acknowledge it, let’s define it properly and, while there’s still plenty of opportunity, let’s get on with proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God and seeing lives transformed by the Holy Spirit granting repentance and faith.

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

John Telford is Associate Minister at the Anlaby churches near Hull, and a member of the Church Society Council.

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