Dr. Jeff VanVonderen closes his book "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse" by identifying two different approaches for the person who finds himself/herself in an abusive religious framework.
I am posting this article in response to two emails I received from people in a church where the pastor seems to be, according to the members, very abusive verbally, going so far as to publicly shame dissenters, and even slandering deacons and lay leaders in an attempt to establish his authority and silence all opposition. If you find yourself in such a situation, how do you respond?
First, VanVonderen says you can take flight and leave. For many people trying to decide whether to leave or stay in an abusive religious system is a question just too close to home. Dr. VanVonderen gives several objective questions that you need to ask yourself before choosing to flee the system:
(1). Can you stay and stay healthy both at the same time?
(2). Does grace really have a chance in this system?
(3). Is it possible the system might need to die?
(4). Are you trying to help the system, even though you are exhausted?
(5). Are you able to listen to the voice of reason?
(6). Do you really know where to sow?
(7). If you came today for the first time, knowing what you now know about the system, would you stay?
The second response to abusive religious systems is to stay and seek change, what VanVonderen calls "stay and fight." VanVonderen says Christians should not like to "fight," but he says too many Christians are naive. Telling the truth will mean a fight. Truth telling leads to change, but a person who tells the truth must be absolutely sure God is telling him to stay, and that he is not staying for the wrong reasons.If a person decides to seek change within an abusive system, there are several reminders that will help that Christian be a gracious agent of change.
(1). Decide whom you serve.
The issue is not whether we will serve someone, it is who. "Let a man regard us in this manner," says Paul in I Corinthians 4:1, "as servants of Christ." If your perspective is that you are here to serve people, you may please people, but you may not serve them. But if your perspective is that you are here to serve Christ, you will serve people, but you might not please them.
(2). Keep telling the truth.
Peter and John said in Acts 4:19: "Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking of what we have seen and heard."
(3). Know who your enemy is.
It is never people. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the forces of this darkness, against spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12). While people are sometimes used as pawns, they are not the enemy.
(4). Hang on to the Shepherd.
"And he has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you'" (II Cor. 12:10). Fighting the fight of faith for the gospel of grace takes dependence upon God, says Dr. VanVonderen, not education, status, power, fame, but pure dependence on the Shepherd. Hang on to God and tell the truth.
(5). Messes are not bad.
Dr. VanVonderen says in unhealthy religious systems the person who exposes problems becomes the problem. But the truth never causes the mess, it just exposes it. In fact, says VanVonderen, messes aren't bad.
In I Corinthians 11:18-19 Paul says to a very contentious church in Corinth "I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part, I believe it. For there must also be factions amont you." There must be factions? What about peace at all costs? What good thing can come from division? Paul answers, "In order that those who are approved may have become evident among you" (v. 19). Only in the midst of division will you be able to tell who genuinely cares about God and His ways from the heart. Messes can be good.
(6). Confront the leaven.
If a little leaven leavens the whole lump, where there is leaven in an abusive religious system, there must be attempts to remove it in order that the entire organization is not destroyed.
(7). Know how a healthy spiritual religious system funtions.
Transparency, servanthood, unselfishness, focus on the Kingdom, humility, grace, cooperation, affirmation, and other adjectives can describe a healthy system. Dr. VanVoderen closes his book by drawing a diagram of a healthy spiritual organization.
Our staff at Emmanuel constantly evaluates our service as servant/leaders to our church to insure that we are not falling into "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse" trap. We tell our people constantly that we are there for them, and they are not there for us. I think we all would do well to create safe environments in our churches and agencies where people really sense the power and presence of Jesus Christ through dynamic leadership that values every person for who he/she is, not for what he/she does.
In His Grace,