Jeff VanVonderen, a personal friend and lead interventionist in A&E's critically acclaimed television reality show "Intervention," is the author of several bestselling Christian books. I once asked him which book was his most popular book and I was suprised at his answer. It was not the great family book "Families Where Grace Is In Place" or the wonderful "Tired of Trying to Measure Up," but the book he co-authored with Pastor David Johnson, pastor of The Church of the Open Door in Minneapolis, Minnesota, entitled "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse."
In this book Dr. VanVonderen identifies seven characteristics of spiritually abusive systems:
(1). Leaders in spiritually abusive systems spend a great deal of time power-posturing by focusing on their "authority" and reminding others of it.
It is called posturing because the authority does not flow from genuine, godly character, but rather it is postured. As a result, a great deal of time is spent by these abusive leaders convincing others of their influence, expertise, longevity and how much authority they have and much everyone else is supposed to submit to it. The fact that they are eager to place people "under" them in submission --- under their word, under their "authority" --- is a sign of an abusive system. Jesus taught as one who actually had authority, not as the scribes who postured authority (Matt. 7:28).
(2). In abusive religious systems there is a preoccupation with performance.
The Bible tells us not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 8:1). Conformed means "squeezed from the outside in" while transformed means "changed from the inside out." In a spiritual abusive system there is little focus on relational discipleship, or the heart of the Christian, but rather, there is an emphasis on meeting quotas, obtaining goals, and increasing numbers, and then pretending as if one's performance were the measure of one's spirituality.
(3). In spiritually abusive systems people's lives are controlled from the outside by rules, spoken and unspoken.
One unspoken rule in an abusive system, according to Jeff, is "never disagree with authorities." Rules like this remain unspoken (no official policy) because to examine them in the light of mature dialogue would instantly reveal how illogical, anti-Christian and unhealthy they are. Silence becomes the wall of protectiton, shielding the abusive authoritarian from scrutiny or challenge. The way this unspoken rule of silence is maintained is very simple according to Dr. VanVonderen: the person who speaks about a problem must become the problem. The person becomes the problem by being accused of being arrogant, angry, unloving and other Christian adjectives to attempt to keep the silence maintained and discredit the person who raises the issues that need addressing.
Jeff compares this abusive spiritual system to the "pretend peace" of Jeremiah's day when the prophets cried 'peace, peace' when there is none. A healthy church or organization affirms that all topics are open for discussion, and on some points there will be a determination to agree to disagree. Christians should be able to disagree and still fellowship and cooperate with each other in a spirit of love and humility.
(4). In spiritually abusive religious systems the mundane becomes the essential, the vital becomes trivial, and the real needs of real people are neglected for the sake of "agendas."
Jesus told the Pharisees that in their religion "they neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness" and ended up being "blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!" (Matthew 23:23-24).
(5). In an abusive religious system those in charge believe that "others will not understand what we're all about, so let's not let them know, or else we will be falsely ridiculed or attacked."
This abusive system of religion works on two assumptons: (1). What we say, know, or do is a result of being more entlightened than others; (2). Others will not understand unless they become one of us; and (3). Those who are not one of us are not with us, and therefore, are our enemies. It is an "us" vs. "them" mentality within an abusive religious system.
(6). In a spiritually abusive religious system there is a demand that loyalty be to the organization and not necessarily the Kingdom of God.
The mentality that prevails is "we alone are right." Because of this, anyone who speaks out against the direction of the organization is considered disloyal and is either silenced or removed. Tactics used against the , according to Dr. Jeff VanVonderen, include (1). threats, (2). slander, (3). humiliation, (4). and shame in attempts to get the person who questions authority to "submit" or leave the organization.
(7). In abusive religious systems secrecy is prevalent and openness and transparency are rarely seen.
What is important to these abusive organizations is the maintaining of secrecy. Real problems are never addressed. Real issues are never faced. Some even believe secrecy is necessary to protect "God's good name." So how things look and what others think becomes more important than what is real.
It is secrecy and using "spiritual" code language that makes spiritual abuse "subtle." The subtle power of spiritual abuse would not be subtle if things were in the open or if people spoke in language that got to the point and did not obfuscate the problem with flowery spiritual code words that have no real sense or meaning.
This is good food for thought for any of us in positions of God-given authority such as pastors, administrators, trustees, missionaries, executives and others whom God has given leadership.
We need to ask ourselves, "Are we contributing to creating a spiritually abusive environment in our church, denomination or agency?" If so, how can we move our organization toward health? Friday, I'll tell you what Jeff says about how change occurs in an abusive environment.
To see an example of courageously confronting an overt abusive system of religion, watch this commentary from an Arab woman whose life is now in danger. Her courage is admirable.
In His Grace,