Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse

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,

Wade Burleson


Dori said...

Several years and several churches ago I had occasion to pick up a copy of Jeff VanVonderen's book entitled "When God's People Let You Down." As with the book "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse", this book also has some great wisdom in it that we may all need from time to time. I won't quote from it now as I don't want to distract the comment string from Wade's main post. But I would recommend it as a good resource for any who may be feeling wounded by friendly fire at the moment. said...

Baptist Theologue,

I appreciate you. I know we disagree on the policies, but I want to thank you for the dialogue. Your posts are long, but I have chosen to post them on my blog for the benefit of the discussion.

Now I have a favor.

Who are you?

I believe you wrote at least a portion, if not all, of the rationalization for the new policy on baptism.

I have two guesses who you are and I'll buy you dinner if I'm right! :)

Again, thanks for your civility and willingness to dialogue.

In His Grace,


art rogers said...

You don't think we could get Dr. VanVonderen to lead a weekend retreat with the BOT, do you?

Kidding. I'm not that nieve.

Wade, we are praying for you as the March meetings get closer. I know there will be pressure for you to accept a deal that with allow everyone to save face.

I support your dissent as do so many of your readers. Any deal will come at the expense of your being able to voice that dissent, so you must not let them off the hook.

I know you would like to be gracious to them, you just seem that kind of person to me. Still, grace will not equal a deal this time, as it would wound the Mission - which is to dispense Grace to the Lost, a far greater need for Grace.

Speak the Truth in Love and let the chips fall where they may. No one has anything to hide when the Truth is on their side.

Anonymous said...


Jeff Von... has ensites that makes one think that He has been there.
Sure sounds like it. You could have wrote the book.
BT should let you know who He is. He knows you would never divulge his name without his permission.
Even though I am in the main against anonymous names, I can see the necessity in a general public setting but not to the individual who is being written to especially when he has repeatedly stated he would protect the ID.


Anonymous said...

We saw each one of these signs of spiritual abuse as M's with the IMB from 1996 through 2002. We continue to receive reports of the same ongoing abuse from various parts of the world.

Kevin Bussey said...


I think spiritual abuse and power go together. I had a leader tell me that God had given the "pastor" (him) special insight that the rest of us did not have. That is a dangerous assumption to make. said...

Believe it or not Art I was writing to ask those of us in authority to be careful, not specifically identifying any particular system as abusive.

It is interesting though to read his book, and in the end, helpful to many people. said...


I agree.

It is very hard for servant leaders to abuse people.

Bob Cleveland said...

Relative to the doctrines on baptism: unless I misread scripture, it's an experience for the believer, not a command for the "church". Whether it's the visible, or the "invisible" church, matters not.

Our church had a prospective member who had been saved a few years before coming to our church. He was saved apart from a conventional service in an organized church. From scripture, he knew he needed to be baptized, so he went to an uncle, who was a preacher. He was subsequently baptized.

The uncle was a preacher in a church which believes baptism is necessary for salvation. I don't believe my friend was baptized in their service, but he was baptized by his uncle.

Our (Southern Baptist) Church would not accept his baptism and told him he'd have to be re-baptized. He refused, and knowing the facts, I agree with him.

He never joined our church. He was forever branded as "under watchcare".

If that's not "church-centered faith", I don't know what is. I guess I should not be surprised it exists at higher levels. The local church is, after all, where most of the higher-ups started.

Anonymous said...


Well said. I won't preach today.

All praise, power and honor be to Jesus Christ our Lord.


Kiki Cherry said...

I appreciate your addressing some of these issues. I have experienced my share of "spiritual abuse" while growing up in the SBC.

However, I have also found a wonderful, safe, positive environment since moving up North.

David Phillips commented on Kevin's site that he LOVES being part of the Maryland/Delaware convention. I would have to say the same thing about Pennsylvania/South Jersey.

I have grown more in these past two years than in all the years previously. I've also found healing from a lot of my "missionary kid" baggage.

It is because we have authentic, humble, loving, caring leadership. They create a "safe" ministry environment for us, and allow us freedom to grow and learn. They pray for us, and encourage us regularly. They are also available and approachable.

My point is that spiritual abuse can be devastating, but the opposite--a positive, healthy spiritual environment--can be incredibly productive!!! Leaders who live out what they teach have an incredible impact.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your kind words about our discussions. I choose not to identify myself at the present time. I did not write the IMB position papers on the new policies in whole or in part. The information that I have presented is available in libraries and on web sites, so those folks who wrote the position papers had access to the same information that I have cited. If I were to reveal "inside" information, then my identity would be relevant. I have not, however, presented such information, so my identity is not a factor in the credibility of what I have posted.

Bob Cleveland said...

Oh yes ... in Whose Name ARE we to be baptized?

Unknown said...


This was indeed a great post…

My prayer is that many who are in positions of leadership throughout the Southern Baptist Convention would read it and honestly evaluate their own hearts in this matter… But sadly it has been my experience that those who most need to here this warning are the ones who will refuse to hear.

Your stand is very appreciated Brother,

Anonymous said...

The thing that surprises me is that the actions of current leadership surprises everyone else. Honestly, I see this as an extension of the same type of political maneuvering that took place during the 70's and 80's during the "conservative" takeover.

RSDickson said...

Thanks Wade. As a staff member, I have heard about it, seen it, and experienced it. It is even frightening as I continue my search for another place of service.

I have often said that I don't care how often or loudly you stand and say you believe the Bible from 'cover to cover,' I'm more interested in whether you try to live out the precepts between them.

Richard said...

I don't know. Only had the link of the clips shown on the Arab network.

Anonymous said...

In Dr. Hatley's letter addressed to "Southern Baptist brothers and sisters" he says,

"I have addressed the following letter to pastors because they are the teachers and guardians of the Word for their congregations. Their sacred duty is a calling higher than that of the President of the United States and, as such, I wanted to address them concerning these doctrinal matters. But feel free to look over their shoulders and read this material.

What a paternalistic insult to all the Bible-believing, teaching and practicing Baptists! What a contradiction to to the concept of the priesthood of the believer!

Why not write just one letter to all Southern Baptists? Are non-pastors not "qualified" to consider and speak on these matters? Is accountability of the BoT only to the pastors of the SBC?

Sure, Southern Baptist pastors need to "teach" and "rightly divide the word of truth." But they are not the only believers qualified, gifted and led of the Spirit to do so.

Indeed, this seems to be a sad example of VanVonderen's points #1 and 5:

"Leaders in spiritually abusive systems spend a great deal of time power-posturing by focusing on their "authority" and reminding others of it."


"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."

art rogers said...


I know that you were not comparing the BOT to the taliban, nor did you identify them in any way. All who are reading should note that my words are my own.


Perhaps you misunderstood me. I agree wholeheartedly that Wade's character and forthrightness stands him in good stead and the burden is now on the Board to justify their actions.

However, Wade has already shared that many pleaded with him to resign to avoid embarassment for all. Further, he shared that when he spoke with the Executive Committee, they spent a significant amount of time trying to extract an apology from him - which would have allowed them to place blame on him.

I expect more of this and I think it is short sighted of us to expect otherwise. I fully anticipate that they will move to executive session to keep their wheedling from public view. This is why I have spent so much time blogging about the right to free PUBLIC dissent - and it was the subject of my Open Letter to the IMB BOT, posted yesterday on my blog.

I just want to encourage Wade to stay strong and if they want to get out of the situation without answering their responsibility, that the most gracious thing to do would be to hold them accountable.

I just think Wade is a gracious guy. It is easy for gracious people to forgive - and he should. That does not include letting them off the hook with us, though. said...


I probably need to clarify your recent comment.

I have been assured by members on the Executive Committee that their recommendation for the rescission of the motion to remove is without strings. They are seeking to withdraw it because "it's the right thing to do."

I may have misunderstood about some desiring an apology from me. I don't know that to be a fact, but I do remain clear on one very crucial point.

I can't apologize for things I do not believe I have done wrong.

For instance. Some have asked that I apologize for being arrogant.
Others want me to apologize for being too confrontational. Some think I should apologize for speaking up as a new trustee instead of letting people who have been on the board for a long time set the policy.

I will not apologize for those things because they were never the charges. Frankly, the people who would know whether or not I am arrogant, too confrontational, etc . . . are those who know me best, including my church, my wife, my family, etc . . .

The official charges of some of the trustees against me were "gossip and slander."

Then it was released to the press that I was "resistant to accountability" and there was a "loss of trust."

As I have said repeatedly, when those latter two phrases were released to the press, it became the first time I ever heard them uttuered. They never were part of the debate -- it was always gossip and slander. I have repeatedly asked for evidence of gossip and slander from my blog, and to this day have received nothing.

So . . .

I always want my heart to be soft, but the issue before us is gossip and slander and I will not let people forget that was the basis for removal.

Prove it or remove it.

Anonymous said...


Hang in there.

Some folks just don't like it when someone's version of the truth varies from's that need to control that some folks have.

I know I said I wasn't going to preach today, but I have to say this. The need to control is not of Christ, as your post pointed out. The whole essence of being a Christian is giving Christ control of your life. If I try to take control for myself of, say, my church or others for whom I have the responsibility to represent Christ to (which is pretty much everyone, isn't it?) then Christ is no longer on the throne of my life/church/whatever is He? I then am in sin, and need repentance and prayer.

Pastors and other leaders must lead by example, as Christ did, even to the point of giving themselves for the church. We don't boss or give orders because "I'm the pastor and I said so". People should follow us because they see Christ in us, not because I have special authority. I have none. So if I am to lead the Lord's flock, they must see Christ in me. I must be that suffering, loving servant that He is. To be this, I must die, and He live in me.

Don't they teach that in seminary?

Okay, enough preaching to the choir.
You have done well in all this, Wade. You have many of us that love and support you. Keep the faith, bro.

Anonymous said...


Although probably not your intentions, sadly, for some of us on the field, this post describes the current IMB leadership almost exactly what we have experienced over the past few years.


Anonymous said...

Jeff VanVonderen’s book "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse" describes my brother-in-law’s pastor. Could his schooling be partly to blame for his attitued? He holds the record of getting a Doctor’s Degree in the shortest time at Southwestern Baptist Theology Seminary. A fired staff member quoted him as saying, “I went to school on how to run a church, I know how to run a church and I am going to run this church.” His ‘church runing’ was first reported by
The Fort Worth Star Tellegram reported the story, and tonight it was on TV. Tonight, I wrote the letter below to the Local News Only.
As an outsider, I believe it does not take a prophet to see the inevitable split that will occur at First Baptist Church in Colleyville, Texas. There are three reasons…pride, ego, and anger. The devil uses these as much as he can with all of us.
The new bylaws set the stage for this prediction. Page 11 of 20: “The highest ecclesiastical tribunal of the Church will be the LEADERSHIP BOARD. The Leadership Board shall be the express and final arbiter of ecclesiastical polity, Christian doctrine, MEMBERSHIP DISCIPLINE, questions of Church property, and shall make the final decision with respect to any other matter that shall arise concerning the Church, its internal workings, and its governance in every respect.” Page 13: “Senior Pastor shall be the LEADER of the Church congregation, the Church staff, all Church organizations, all Church ministries, LEADERSHIP BOARD, and all Church Advisory Committees.”
The power and authority as shown above in most Baptist churches is given to the church and not the pastor. There are many Baptist pastors who practice this authority but have the intelligence not to put it in writing. If a pastor can handle this authority without letting pride, ego, and anger take over, he may accomplish much for the Lord.
But Frank Harber has a big problem with pride as his own words reveal on Harber was on the all-star team but when his coach had another player bat for Harber, he quit the team in anger. For revenge against the coach the next year, he would not go out for baseball and he says he has regretted it ever since.
The big question is why did Harber kick four popular members from his church?
1. He wanted to move the church from Colleyville and even got a majority vote in
favor almost a year ago.
2. But now, the church will stay where it is and start another church. This should be a happy ending of the story but Harper was not happy.
3. The efforts of these four interfered with his wishes to move the church. His authority was in jeopardy. They could have reminded him of his coach.

It was easy to remove them since the church was not involved. It only took six other names on a piece of paper. Revenge may be sweet but not Christian and regrets often follow.
Rex Ray said...


Debated not posting your comment. Very, very close to being too personal, but I read the public news releases and feel you are not saying things not already said publicly.


You are right. Those were not my intentions, but I think we all need to be open to reflection regarding the IMB.

Anonymous said...

Since March 10 is my 74th birthday, your printing my post was/is my best present of the day. Thanks! When Christians are run-over for standing up for what the Holy Spirit tells them to do, it helps to know that others are feeling their hurt. But I don’t have to tell you about that do I?
Rex Ray said...

Excellent comments justamoe

Anonymous said...

Isn't God good?

I'm sitting here at my day job taking a break and looking out at a beautiful spring day.

I've been looking at new policies needs at our university about how to deal with groups using civil disobedience to further their causes (like Soulforce and other homosexual groups, for instance) and I came back to your blog for a change of perspective. Some days this is the only forum I have to discuss things with Christian brothers and sisters.

It is easy to draw our swords in our church/denominational squabbles and lose complete perspective on who we serve and why. I know of one Baptist church that split over the color of carpet in their new sanctuary. We say "Man, was that silly" as a monday morning quarterback, but are quite capable of falling into the same errors ourselves. As Jehoshaphat found out, the battle belongs to the Lord. Let's be willing to disengage and let Him fight it. He will work all things to His glory. After all, we've read the end of the Book, haven't we? I don't know the outcome of the current turmoil in our convention, but I know if we give God control, it will work to His glory, and that is what is important.

Is it as beautiful in Enid this morning as it is in Fort Smith?

art rogers said...


Thank you for the clarification. The news that there "are no strings attached" is great, epecially tht they are doing it because "it's the right thing to do."

As to them seeking an apology from you, any misunderstanding of that situation would be reasonable considering all the various statements that have come out prior to that particular phone call. Still, it is gracious of you to give them the benefit of the doubt.


Anonymous said...

A textbook case:

Anonymous said...

New Zealand Baptists! See ! There is a LOT of this going on. Too many people get into positions of power before they have been 'trained in rightwousness' and the flesh is still alive and well. Childish mental 'tricks' brought into adulthood as 'polishes swords'. <><

Unknown said...

I was trapped in a Spiritually Abusive church for over 30 years. God showed me everything in the book without reading the book. After I left, a friend loaned me a copy and I read the entire thing with my mouth hanging open. Seeing it in writing was like reliving the whole thing over again. Several of us that left, have formed our own small fellowship and God has richly blessed us. I highly suggest this book to every Christian I meet.