A legal judgment last month in the Church of England gave renewed prominence to the language of “spiritual abuse” and the terminology is becoming increasingly used, with the Evangelical Alliance now offering a critical analysis of it.
“Spiritual abuse” is something we urgently need to talk about and in two senses. Firstly, the sad reality of abuse in the church and other religious and spiritual contexts is – as in other walks of life – something which must be brought to light. Having personally experienced bullying in a Christian context and heard numerous distressing stories from others – both church members and leaders – I am very aware of the reality increasingly referred to as “spiritual abuse” and the problems and the difficulties that can be faced in addressing these matters.
But, secondly, we also really need to talk about whether the shorthand phrase “spiritual abuse” and the ways in which it is popularly used actually help us in addressing this or whether such language is itself easily abused and even risks becoming abusive.
A major part of the problem is that “spiritual” is rather a slippery and contested term. In addition, the ways in it which it is attached to “abuse” are very varied. The Church of England judgment referred to “spiritual abuse” but formally it found the vicar “guilty of abuse of spiritual power and authority”. There is, in other words, such a thing as spiritual power and authority. It is that power and authority which can be used well or abused. This is how “spiritual abuse” seems to be used in the 2003 Guidelines for Professional Conduct of Clergy which the judgement cites. Interestingly the phrase does not appear in the revised 2015 edition.
Closely related to this definition is that offered in “Forgiveness and Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Abuse” published last year by the church. This spoke of “spiritual abuse” as “where the perpetrator deploys spiritual language as part of the coercion of those abused and the justification for their actions”. The judgment’s use of “spiritual abuse” also drew on a CofE document from 2010. This speaks of “physical, emotional or sexual harm” (the legal categories, other common categories include financial or psychological abuse) that is “caused by the inappropriate use of religious belief or practice” such as “the misuse of the authority of leadership or penitential discipline, oppressive teaching, or intrusive healing and deliverance ministries”.
In these cases we are strictly talking about existing and legally recognised forms of abuse. What is distinctive is that the abuse is happening in a spiritual context, often by those abusing their spiritual authority. That usage has values and parallels such as “domestic abuse”. But usually we don’t distinguish abuse in terms of its context because these sadly are so diverse (the media, Hollywood, sports clubs etc). We certainly don’t see these as additional, distinct conceptual and potentially legal categories of abuse alongside existing categories. Rather, such terms highlight the environment of the abuse. This will of course shape how the abuse is expressed and experienced but the abuse itself is physical, emotional or sexual.
There is, though, a growing tendency to speak as if “spiritual abuse” should become a new distinct, even punishable, category of abuse. Some church documents slip into this sense of it when they speak of people invoking “supposed spiritual authority in order to do real spiritual harm to others” or talk of behaviour which negatively affects someone’s relationship with God as “spiritual abuse”(“Forgiveness and Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Abuse”) . The logic of this is presumably that just as we are physical, emotional and sexual beings so we are spiritual beings and as such we can also be subject to spiritual abuse.
The real difficulty here is that there is no doubt that we are physical, emotional and sexual beings. We have developed a reasonable consensus on many features of what it means to flourish and be healthy as such. As a result, we know what constitutes abuse of another human in relation to these aspects of our being. In contrast, many will question whether we are “spiritual” beings. Among those of us who do speak of people in such terms there is great and often heated disagreement over what it means to flourish as a spiritual being or to be spiritually healthy. That’s one reason why there are so many competing spiritualities, different religions, and even various denominations and traditions within the same religion. Spiritually, what one person or community believes to be good news and spiritually life-giving or embraces as a spiritual discipline to enable spiritual growth may be viewed by another spiritual person or community as spiritually harmful or dangerous. And so we seek to create a context in which there is freedom of religious expression, people are not coerced into particular forms of spiritual life, and the state acknowledges it does not have the capacity or authority to adjudicate between competing visions of spiritual wholeness but should preserve religious liberty.
To define abuse requires a shared vision of the good and an account of the proper use of something. That is precisely what is lacking in relation to us as spiritual beings and our spiritual well-being. However, another current danger in some language of “spiritual abuse” is that it can buy into one of the many views of spirituality. This is particularly concerning when such definitions seek legal authority with the power of criminal sanctions. In contrast to most long-established religious traditions, this viewpoint sees “spirituality” primarily in terms of an individual’s personal quest for a subjective sense of spiritual wholeness, self-fulfilment and spiritual insight. In such a context, when someone fundamentally disagrees with the spiritual teachings or practices being proposed within a religious community and is distressed by them they may allege that there is “spiritual abuse” taking place. They may even say that the very fact they were hurt or felt their own relationship with God was damaged in some way by the articulation of a view or expectation of a certain way of life renders it inherently a form of spiritual abuse. From such a perspective, most religious leaders, including Jesus, would be susceptible to charges of spiritual abuse. An established church whose leaders are committed to ‘banish and drive away all erroneous and strange opinions’ appears set up to institutionalise spiritual abuse if it is defined in this way.
We really need to talk about abuse in spiritual contexts because, like every other place where humans relate to each other, religious communities are places where abuse can occur. Religious communities are also places where authority and power are abused. What is more, when these things happen, the response is often silence.
But we also really need to talk about the wisdom of referring to these situations as “spiritual abuse”. To raise this question is not to distract from the reality of abuse but to ask us to think carefully about how we best discern, describe and bring an end to that reality. Does what is called "spiritual abuse" include behaviours not currently categorised as legally identified forms of abuse? If so, we need to be clear as to what these are, why they are a distinct form of abuse which is best described as “spiritual abuse”, and whether they should (as some argue) be subject to legal action. If, however, the terminology of “spiritual abuse” in reality adds nothing to the current categories then we need to consider the dangers of using the language and treating it as an equivalent to these. In society as a whole, it identifies abuse which is focused on just one sphere of life where abuse occurs - the "spiritual" (currently, particularly the Christian) as opposed to the "secular" - and risks undermining religious freedom by inviting the state to judge between competing spiritualities. Within religious groups, it threatens to become a weapon used to attack one’s religious opponents in theological disagreements over the pattern of spiritual wholeness and growth. Most seriously of all, it could distract us from what we should all agree are the really important questions on which we should be focused: what constitutes abuse of spiritual power and authority and how we can we uncover and bring an end to physical, emotional and sexual abuse in spiritual contexts?