We really need to talk about “spiritual abuse”

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?

Andrew Goddard

Andrew Goddard has been on the Leadership Team of Fulcrum since its launch in 2003. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics based in Cambridge (where he was previously Associate Director). He has taught Christian Ethics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and Trinity College, Bristol and is also an Adjunct Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He is a canon at Winchester Cathedral and Assistant Minister at St James the Less, Pimlico where his wife, Lis, is Vicar. He is author of a number of books, most recently Rowan Williams: His Legacy (Lion, 2013) and co-editor with Andrew Atherstone of Good Disagreeement? Grace and Truth in a Divided Church (Lion, 2015).

1 thought on “We really need to talk about “spiritual abuse”

  1. Spiritual Abuse – should it be named or defined?
    There’s been a bit of debate the past few months as to how to define spiritual abuse, if it should be named, if it’s just a form of distress, stifling theological debate, and the dangers of criminalising it as separate category. What does seem to be agreed, is that a healthy debate as to what it is and what it is not is urgently needed, not just within closed doors of some denominations, but out and proud in the public arena.
    Let’s be clear, denying its existence is not going to help. Sweeping it under the carpet because it is a tricky subject isn’t of help. Seeing it a clear black and white subject isn’t going to help.
    But there are some basic principles that should be clarified, so as not to get distracted in this debate. Spiritual abuse is not being hurt or distressed at a Church’s teachings. Spiritual abuse is when coercion and control is used to forced acceptance.
    It’s not about theology, it’s about control. Any church group or clergy member, with any theology, has the potential to be guilty of spiritual abuse. It’s not the teachings that should be under the spotlight in spiritual abuse discussions (that’s for a theological debate), it’s how they are implemented: using (misinterpretation) of biblical text for fear promotion, shame inducing, the breaking of intra-personal trust especially from supposedly ‘safe’ guardians, cognitive manipulation and withdrawal of relationships, intense isolation (shunning), future-shortening (being indoctrinated one is dammed) through to bodily and social degradation, interference and forcible physical imprisonment. (This list is not exhaustive). It is also important to understand spiritual trauma as a spectrum – any one of these practices constitutes abuse (controlling and coercing is not how God wishes us to be); but a characteristic of spiritual abuse is that often there will be complex combinations of many, if not all, of these elements. And the spiritual prefix is necessary, as it’s about the manipulation of the Bible to ‘justify’ and enable such abuse.
    So if a minister uses biblical verse to preach forgiveness is necessary and insist a person should stay in a physically abusive relationship and forgive the perpetrator – that’s spiritual abuse. To forcibly insist a person agrees with a style of worship, a way of understanding, by threatening ostracising, estrangement or shunning – that’s spiritual abuse. To indoctrinate acceptance of only one way of interpreting the Bible on pain of eternal damnation (future-shortening), or to forcibly insist someone is possessed with the devil and require ritual degradation rather than sensitive pastoral support – that’s spiritual abuse.
    I was asked, what if a church teaches gambling is a sin and a member of the congregation is a Bookmaker. Is it abusive to make such a person feel they are sinful? If that person is still welcomed to share a meal, is given a place to express their understanding and process their own spiritual identity, if they choose to join another denomination that has different teaching but are still welcomed as a child of God, then clearly no. If, however, they are judged as being eternally damned, are shunned, or are subjected to rituals to purify them through humiliation, then clearly yes.
    Debate is healthy. To have theological disputes, over gay marriage for instance, is by its very definition, the opposite of spiritual abuse. Spiritual abusers will not tolerate debate or disagreement AND will engage in actions to forcibly control those who might. In other words, it’s not about disagreeing and causing upset, having distress in response to teachings is not spiritual abuse. To say hostility towards a church’s teaching, or Jesus’ lessons, shows spiritual abuse is a dangerous category, ignores that spiritual abuse is not about theological difference. Rather, it is about fundamentally manipulating a person’s sense of identity in combination with an attack on their sense of safety, relational abilities, perception – cognitive and/or sensory, and emotional regulation.
    The need for the spiritual abuse descriptor is that such a diagnosis influences treatment options. Psychologists recognise spiritual (religious, cult) abuse as a form of trauma. Chronic trauma has documented neurobiological impact (changes) on brain structure and function. The mental health profession recognises spiritual abuse is constituted by key manipulative / indoctrinating trauma inducing elements – eg, chronic, severe, emotional, behavioural, perception, cognitive processing – as a minimum (ie, emotional is just one part). To claim spiritual abuse is one or the other, physical or sexual or emotional is dualistic, and fails to recognise, as the mental health world does, that spiritual abuse is a particular form of complex trauma. This recognition that it is a complex trauma diagnosis is crucial; if treated as an acute stressor or low grade mood, anxiety or depression solely, this has been shown not only to prevent recovery, but could jeopardise through decompensation and re-traumatisation.

    But the key reason that the spiritual prefix is so essential is that healing from within the church is also a necessary adjunct to professional mental health support, to enable full processing and reintegration (the third phase of therapy needed for trauma treatment). So many pastoral support steps are needed from a vicar to help a victim recover a healthy relationship with God– practical, social, spiritual, ethical, educative and emotional ways.
    Spiritual abuse is trauma that affects mind, body and soul. Given recent stats on the internet that, thankfully, churches are heavily involved in supporting trauma victims (from all kinds of abuse) and take seriously their role in pastoral support for mental health, understanding what trauma is within the spiritual domain (where it should be safe to be vulnerable) is vital. There have been recent changes (a few years ago) in how mental health professionals (led by US research) diagnose trauma as a distinctive category from general anxiety and depressive disorders (and have totally cast aside the notion of ‘mood disorders’). It is now recognised that the survival strategies of dissociation, somatoform (bodily) manifestations and affect disorder (emotional) are all involved in chronic abuse cases. It would be detrimental for the church to turn its back on the unity concept of mind, body and soul: soul abuse involves the emotional and physical, but is so much more complex and multi-faceted, affecting all aspects of the mind, body and soul as a whole. God wants us to love him fully with mind, body and soul, to say that abuse victims only should be acknowledged as needing therapy for the mind and body, ignores that all three are one.
    Dangers of denial. The public need to be aware that such a thing as spiritual abuse exists. Otherwise how can victims/survivors understand their own experiences or those around them support and help? It is also a label that shouldn’t be flagrantly applied – it’s a very specific form of trauma. Just as no-one can have PTSD no matter how phobic they are of a big spider, spiritual abuse has a very specific remit. Public education is needed. Recent concerns in the past few months that the label may diminish or limit theological differences, or that because many people feel a particular teaching is too limiting, or is hurtful, actually belittles and dangerously dilutes the impact reality of spiritual abuse. Churches need to be open and talk about spiritual, and, as happened in England, highlight and react to a case when it transpires. Most people accept these days that when victims of child abuse are not listened to, that further damage occurs. Victims of spiritual abuse need support to shake off their squashed, shamed, manipulated, damaged voices and to be heard as fully loved children of God.
    Don’t erase, empower. Discussion about spiritual abuse should not be focusing on the nuances of whether one theological interpretation is abusive or not, it should focus on how those interpretations are enforced and used as forms of coercion and control. We need to be focusing on how to safeguard and empower victims to become survivors. Rejecting the erasure or avoidance of discussing spiritual abuse, can promote what healthy church is, including what healthy theological debate looks and feels like. More light needs to be shed on this area not so that embarrassment can come to the collective Church but so that healing can come and no one again experiences abuse in the name of God.

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