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The A Word

An Analysis of Spiritual Abuse

Ideal for those well acquainted with our thought process at Ammi Ruhama Community and with other Christian Communities.

Questions that Need Answering

A few questions arise in my mind every time significant spiritual abuse hits the news. Why has spiritual abuse become the accepted norm? What are we doing so wrong that we keep coming back to this, again and again and again? Is spiritual abuse somehow an accepted equal and potentially opposite result of something else we have allowed ourselves to believe in? Are we accepting this as normal, or is this something we should just get used to?   Alternatively, could there be something that we are possibly missing?  A possible rediscovered truth that could bring this horrific, regular occurrence to a decisive end? I will endeavour to answer these questions in the subsequent paragraphs.

Spiritual abuse is either the collateral damage of faithfully following Jesus, or the result of the faithless co-opting of the Christian faith for cultural, financial, and political gain. The nature of an abuser would have us believe the former. “This is Christianity–deal with it”. Spiritual abuse can come from any direction and is often accompanied by every other evil deed known and unknown. Combined with a natural or nominal mindset and their organisation and practice, they deny believers their new birthrights as the people of God who have received mercy. While asserting their will and purpose on their community, they deny the power of the Holy Spirit to make plain the scriptures to anyone and everyone who would diligently seek after the Eternally Powerful Divine One. They deny the priesthood of the believer and thereby the High Priesthood of Christ. According to the Word these are the ones who declare Christ with their lips and deny Him by their works.

“They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” 

Titus 1:16 English Standard Version

The Narrator

Control of the narrative is what gives spiritual abusers their power. They are the unquestionable authority on the Word of God. Because they have long done away with the Holy Spirit’s influence in their organisations, they need not worry that their acolytes should happen upon Him in a rash of reading the Word. They teach exegetically through the whole of the Old and New Testament every year, teaching them exactly what to think. The marginal notes in their Bibles as well as the carefully selected authors in the church library do the job of reminding them of what they have been taught and are supposed to think when they read this or that particular passage. Their acolytes have been conditioned to believe that everything that comes from the mouth of their pastor and elders has first come to them from the mouth of God. So, when spiritual abuse does happen, it is quickly adapted to as normal. The historical, biblical doctrines they cite for their behaviour start to make sense to the initiated and so the occasional harsh sentence towards those who dissent is justified and the narrative re-established. Anyone who comes against them with another understanding is anathema. 

“They obviously don’t want to follow the real Jesus, because that’s who we follow and they look, sound and believe very little of what we believe; they have made God in their own image.” 

This appeal to historicity, or an original Jesus is an attempt to head off potential deconstructors at the pass. Because, of course, if we have a New Testament Church and believe in the Original Jesus then they have nowhere to deconstruct but away from Jesus and the New Testament Church. What’s worse is that many, many believers are under the impression that their movement is as close to the New Testament Church as any have achieved thus far. They believe that their concept of Jesus is the closest to the original Jesus. Sadly these symbiotic organisations all look quite different from one  another, apart from the pervasive spiritual abuse.

But let’s say that we’ve come out the other side. We recognise that the spiritually abusive symbiotic organisation was not all it was cracked up to be, but what do we do with the historical doctrines that all of this abuse hinged on? Do we throw out the baby with the bathwater and deny key doctrines of the Christian faith? Do we, by agreeing in principle with our former abusers on key areas of doctrine, condone their sin? This is the well I am digging today. So, how did we get here?

Point A to Point B

Spiritual abuse starts with the assertion of a symbiotic organisation’s will and purpose over the lives of the everyday believer. Their organisation and practice enable them to emotionally, spiritually, and systematically coerce the believer into attributing their safety, legitimacy and provision to the symbiotic organisation via the taking of oaths and signing of legal agreements. These normalised practices strip them of their spiritual rights as the people of God who have received mercy. This gradual  stripping of their rights leaves the people of God open to all kinds of abusive behaviour from the organisation including but not limited to sexual power dynamics, theft, public shaming, and undue excommunication. 

The reality is that anyone who has been raised in the body of Christ has either lived experience or knows someone with lived experience of spiritual abuse. Perhaps an aged beloved saint has passed and been replaced by a younger fresher face. This new guy then takes what we have come to call a “healthy,” body and tailors it for his own will and purpose which happen to be a life lived in the flesh. Some might say the blame lies entirely with the young, fresh face; replace the face and rejuvenate the body. In fact, this is exactly the advice John Maxwell was given by an associate.

In John Maxwell’s book, 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, Maxwell lists the number 1 law of leadership as The Law of the Lid  which  says that an organisation cannot grow beyond the leader’s maturity. The associate in question was a man whose business it was to acquire failing businesses in the hospitality industry and rejuvenate them. Maxwell writes that the first thing this man would do is to re-educate the employees and to fire the boss. “Really?” Maxwell asked incredulously, “you don’t get to know the guy to find out if he is a good leader?” The associate replied, “If he had been a good leader, I wouldn’t be acquiring his business.”

This is how we have come to think of the Pastor or head elder as the CEO of the body of Christ. If the church is failing, replace the pastor and the church will thrive…at least until he retires. This paradigm of church leadership is amazingly totalitarian, and widespread. The authoritarian sits upon his throne and makes weekly diktats to his subjects taking the advice of his privy council into consideration. He appoints governors over each area and gives them the right to lord over the people of God. A distinctly unbiblical stance, and yet, the dominant and largely unchallenged stance. One may say, “how can you say it’s unchallenged”? Every time an abusive leader is deposed we put a man of God in his place, make a few constitutional and practical changes and it’s all good!” I can say that it is unchallenged because even though we have deposed one man, we have enthroned another on the same throne. Benevolent as they may be, the system remains in place. We continue to cycle through dictators both benevolent and malevolent. Let’s take a deeper look at the concept of abuse.

Going Deeper

Inherent in the word abuse is to “use wrongly”. This is not an innocent, divergent use, nor  a clever alternative use. We see the prefix in words like ab-normal, ab-horrent, ab-ject. The prefix is latin for, away, apart from, separation etc. Having this etymology, the other words come handy in defining each other. Abuse can be understood to be,  “abnormal, abhorrent use; the beyond-usual use of people, places, things or ideas that causes us to shudder away in horror,”  unless it doesn’t.

Abuse comes in many forms and is not always connected to the life of the believer but our response to that abuse is analogous.

Fatal Coercion & Comparative Ambiguity 

For instance, the right to bear arms, distilled, is the right to mount an equal, opposite and fatal assertion of one’s will and purpose on our general sphere of influence. In brief, it is the right to fatal coercion. It is not merely the right to display the nuclear option but to take action on it.

In this way, a drug bust and a school shooting are equally protected and ensured outcomes, both being fatal assertions of will and purpose. While one might look at a drug bust where 20 people die as a good thing, the majority look at a school shooting where 20 people die as a bad thing even though the sum of people who died is exactly the same.

“Gun violence,” as a term, is an overspecification in this instance and could be better defined as, “fatal coercion”. When defined as such, there is no distinction between officer and offender, both have a right to life that trumps their right to fatal coercion. A body count doesn’t begin to come into it, because even one life lost in the assertion of one’s will and purpose is a travesty. The comparative ambiguity that would seem to glorify one coercer over another is striking.

The small-time abuser enjoys this game of comparative ambiguity. While there are school shootings where fatalities reach the 20’s, their non-fatal coercion looks as innocent as petting a puppy in the park on a bright sunshiny day even though it is psychologically and physically damaging to their fewer victims. This is the sum of all abuse. The priest who is indicted for the rape of an innumerable amount of children makes the small town minister who beats his wife look like a saint and the system remains the same protecting and ensuring both outcomes. Will we say, “this is America,” in the same way that we say, “This is Christianity,”? If so, then we call evil good and good evil.

But I say, “this is abuse”.

Posited Answers

The answer? Some would say that a good strong, vetted, natural leader is what we need to tackle abuse; in short, strengthen the SO. However, innate leadership ability is not an indication of moral standing with God. We can be, and often are attracted to people as thought leaders because they value the same things that we value. Those values may or may not have anything to do with Jesus and the faithful Christian life and everything to do with our cultural moment.

A roughshod preacher man who cusses, talks freely about sex and is hyper masculine may well teach exegetically from Genesis to Revelation every year and claim that “real men love Jesus”. However, it is apparent that they are far more concerned with being seen as real men than they are about loving Jesus. To this one, a woman in an equal role to himself is an insult to his internal metric of what it means to be a real man and to love Jesus. To him, real men become preachers and real women become their submissive wives; nevermind that there is no distinction in Christ.

But a quiet soul can be just as damaging as a loud one. They facilitate the rise of roughshod preacher men who further abuse the system for their own means. Keep in mind that in both situations the people of God have forfeited their spiritual rights to question leadership or be who God has made them to be because of the norms around symbiotic organisational structures .No one is forcing people to sign away their spiritual rights, they will just say, “maybe this isn’t the right fit for you, why don’t you try the church down the road.” Because it starts out as the will of everyone who decides to partake, it is not seen as abusive. However, spiritual abuse abounds whether it breaks the surface as a Driscoll or almost never sees the light of day like a Zacharias. Both high profile cases ought to have had the church questioning what could facilitate such sin among the people of God. But, it only fed the parasite that is feeding on the body of Christ. We are not blind to it in others but only in ourselves, we end up judging other symbiotic organisations for doing the same things we are! It causes us to become blind to our own sin. Those who would turn their nose up at health and wealth prosperity gospel teaching, the likes of which make fundamentalists, “shudder in horror,” would do well to remember that we exist in the same exact systems of abuse as those who attend Benny Hinn’s church and give seed offerings. This brings us to the crux of the issue.

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.

Romans 2:1 English Standard Version

The Pot Calling the Kettle Black

The truth about God never changes; whether we truly understand Him or not is what’s up for debate. Let’s examine a situation where one SO is decried by another and see the sum result of both of their sin.

It doesn’t matter what tradition we come from, life is not lived in a vacuum. Whether good or bad, by our estimations, there are real promises in the Word of safety, legitimacy and provision for those who follow God that are either true or they are false. Whole movements of Christianity claim faith based health and wealth which is decried by whole other movements as abusive and declaring another gospel. But, can it be equally true that those who truly follow Christ are more safe, legitimate and provided for than those who don’t and that we can expect trials, and tribulations; to be wounded and perhaps even killed for our faith in this life? Our definition of safety, legitimacy and provision may well be a worldly definition. Are these two realities diametrically opposed or even held in the dreaded, ‘holy tension,’ with one another or is there a more nuanced answer?

Both systems  make provision for the abuse of the people of God who have received mercy by requiring their members in good standing to give regularly to any organisation in the full knowledge that they are, by their system, bankrolling their abuser’s life in the flesh. The game of comparative ambiguity comes into play here. Those who require of their people a statutory offering and use the funds to fulfil the desires of the flesh love those who would inspire others by their life in the flesh to give a seed offering and use the funds to further fulfil the flesh. The former is made, in the eyes of their acolytes, to be comparatively more righteous by the behaviour of the latter even though both systems are rife with spiritual abuse seemingly backed up by the Word of God. 

James 1 Lit Test

 There are many other examples I could write to illustrate the degree that Symbiotic Organisations have rotted away the core and practice of our faith but I’ll leave that up to the reader to contemplate. For my part I have put together a list of common abuses of the people of God into the Christian’s Bill of Rights. This document was the start of Ammi Ruhama Community’s formation and will be continually revised in an effort to safeguard those rights.

It seems like I am forever writing about SOs and the troubles between them and the body of Christ, but it is a point worth returning to when the likes of the SBC abuse report has just been published and the general conversation is highlighted within the Church. As I’ve mentioned above, rarely is sin in an SO met with returning the people of God’s rights to them. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers for every derivation of  SO but I think a good start would be to take a model of biblical rights like the one we have created and reinforce those spiritual rights into the SO. It will act as a mirror to the organisation and cut back the vines that are choking the body of Christ. At ARC our vision of unity in love, faith and hope does not permit us to create the kind of hierarchies that result in conventional spiritual abuse. But, that doesn’t mean that it will never happen, that what is written on paper will never pass out of practice. This is why it is always important for us to return to the Word via the Spirit as He reminds us of everything Jesus has taught us and hopefully by reinforcing individual spiritual rights we will see a decline in spiritual abuse and the resulting unity of love, faith and hope that Jesus prays for in our lifetime.

Finally, it is  necessary to continue this conversation in confessional prayer and the earnest seeking after the Kingdom and His righteousness. It is only by His power that our eyes and hearts will be open to praying as King David prayed,

“Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!”

Psalm 139:23-24 English Standard Version

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