Revisiting Spiritual Abuse

We recently re-released the recording of the Confronting Spiritual Abuse webinar led by Rachael Clinton Chen, so we’re also revisiting the topic of spiritual abuse here on the podcast. This week, Dan Allender interviews Rachael Clinton Chen about her experiences with spiritual abuse, how she started teaching on this topic, and how people can identify spiritually abusive people and systems that they encounter.

We invite you to stay tuned for the second part of this conversation next week. If you’d like to go deeper into this topic, consider enrolling in the Confronting Spiritual Abuse Re-Release. This is a full day of teaching from Rachael Clinton Chen that you may go through at your own pace. 

We offer this information not only to expose the harm but also because we believe that healing is possible. By doing this work, you can begin to reclaim spiritual beliefs and practices and reconnect with God and others in a deeper way.

Additional Resources:

  • Confronting Spiritual Abuse Re-Release – This self-paced online learning opportunity led by Rachael Clinton Chen is available for purchase now through June 30, 2022. You’ll spend time understanding spiritual abuse in context: the systems, processes, and people who perpetrate it. You’ll learn to identify and name the abuse and learn ways in which you can start to heal.
  • Defining Spiritual Abuse – In this podcast episode from 2021, you’ll hear more from Dan and Rachael about how to define spiritual abuse in Christian contexts, tools used by spiritually abusive leaders to maintain power and control, and the insidious nature of spiritual abuse.

Episode Transcript:

Dan: Rachael, the topic we’re going to address today, uh, is, uh, one with a lot of grief, but so important to engage. And we’re gonna be talking about spiritual abuse before we do so let me just say, uh, such an important topic, but, uh, in a different since, I’m so excited about this, because I get to interview you. So. Obviously most of the time, as we talk, there is no question. You are a beloved and preeminent co-host, but today you get to be interviewed. How’s that feel?

Rachael: You know, it’s always exciting being interviewed by you. So… keeps me on my toes. So it feels both deeply honoring and a little bit scary. So it’s fine. Let’s just, let’s just jump in.

Dan: Before we step into the particulars of spiritual abuse. Uh, I just wanna ask if you’d take a little bit of time to say, how did you get into this? We really do look to you as one of the preeminent voices, certainly in the Allender Center and far beyond addressing such a deep concern.

Rachael: Uh, that’s a great question. And one I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, like almost like how did I get here? Uh, um, and I, you know, something I’d say is we have actually talked a lot about spiritual abuse on the podcast over the past few years. And I had a, an incredible opportunity, a very privileged opportunity to host a one-day webinar earlier this year in June on confronting spiritual abuse. Um, but for me, this all started–It all came together when you asked me, I think it was four years ago, but it might have been three. I lost track of time. If I wanted to join you on a podcast on spiritual abuse. Um, this was long before I started co-hosting with you. And I remember thinking what an interesting topic. I haven’t really thought much about that, but I do love working with people who have been harmed by the church. And I kind of honestly like most things in my life, like all the healing paths I’ve come to, uh, as a, as a good two on the Enneagram and recovering codependent, have mostly come to them because I’m here to help other people. And I feel really drawn and compelled to help people. So I knew in my work with stories in my work with trauma, that I was really drawn to working with people who had experienced harm specifically in church context. And that I had a real passion. I mean, I have an M.Div., I would say I’m a pastor by orientation. So I kind of chalked it up who like, well, I’m a, I’m a, I like pastoring people. So of course I’m drawn to helping people like reconnect with God. And, you know, this had been things I think a lot of people would name about me, however…

Dan: Yes, very important. I, I, so far I’m in full compliment agreement, but nonetheless.

Rachael: However, like in true fashion, one of those situations where, um, as we were talking about spiritual abuse and leaning into this podcast, I do, you know, I know people have lots of different experiences of the Holy Spirit. I think for me, it was a moment of like the veil being lifted, things coming together in a way in a very real moment, recording a podcast live, of like, I am talking about something that one I have convictions about and they have not been formed in a vacuum. I am talking about something that is actually deeply connected to my own story. And I could have said so many things about like my journey with the church. It wasn’t like I was in denial that there had been painful experiences or harmful experiences that had deeply shaped me. I’d been open to talking about them. I had just not connected them to this category of spiritual abuse. And in some ways it’s like not wanting to give them that much power or weight as something that could be abusive, even though as someone who works in trauma and abuse, it’s like the writing was so clearly on the wall. So it was a very, I think for me, so much of my vocational journey, so much of my story has led me to these waters, but ultimately it was realizing it was, it was my story and something… I think anytime you’ve experienced profound healing, um, from harm from abuse, like you can’t help, but wanna give back. Um, so, but I never, I did not set out to be like an expert on spiritual abuse or for this to be like a primary place that I feel really convicted and called to, to kind of keep creating community and resource around.

Dan: And on so many levels, I find that so helpful, but let me put it to, I think a key part of that is things that seem clear after the spirit has revealed, just, weren’t that clear before and the fact that there are realities of spiritual abuse in your own life and the ferocity of commitment to redemption and restoration that you have on behalf of others, all that makes sense. And it’s, it is easy to kind of go well, of course, and yet I think for all of us to come to a sense of our “hell no.” Clarity at some point does not presume that there was indeed a clear path that got you there, one to two, two to three, et cetera, et cetera. So I think, I hope that’s really helpful to people that, as you engage your story on and on and on, there will be moments where the spirit simply opens the door to a greater clarity as to what that might mean in the larger work of moving from healing to leading. And that, that is so core to what you have invited our whole audience to. So it may seem a little too academic, but let’s live with that. And that is, let’s make sure that people have a sense of what is spiritual abuse.

Rachael: Sure. Yeah. I mean, again, I know this is a similar to trauma. It’s a topic that’s trending right now. And I think part of that is because we are in these very apocalyptic times, just meaning apocalyptic. Like it’s very basic definition of revelatory. We’ve talked about that on the podcast. So a lot of corrupt power structures are being exposed and it’s not the first time in history and it won’t be the last. So, you know, we’re in the realm of power and it can be tricky to talk about ’cause power in and of itself is not, it’s not neutral. So it’s not that power is inherently bad. There is spiritual power, the power of God, which is typically turning the powers of this world on its head. So when I think about like, what is spiritual abuse in a most basic sense, it is it’s always a distortion and exploitation and weaponizing of God’s power and authority used usually to manipulate, to control or harm people, their personhood, their bodies, their relationships, their autonomy, um, and primarily through like the tools of shame and fear. So it’s, again, we’re in this, we’re in this tricky realm of what’s meant to be for good and for blessing is twisted and distorted and weaponized, but also done in God’s name.

Dan: And, uh, let me just remind you just for a quick second, like I’m interviewing you. Remember that? So talk with us a little bit about distortion. An example would be great.

Rachael: Uh, I mean, ultimately so many examples I could give, but for me, probably when scripture is weaponized, like certain scripture is used to distort what is most true. So for me, a very classic example of this when I found myself set up in a relationship with a youth intern when I was a teenager. So someone who had power and authority over me, long story short, um, and that I’ve shared about it on the podcast before, the way love and the definition of love and what God intends by love was weaponized against me to keep me in a very abusive relationship by spiritual leaders, like the pastor of my church, as I’m saying, I don’t want to be in this relationship or something’s wrong. I don’t feel, you know, like this is working, well, love never gives up love. Doesn’t have fear. So it’s saying things that are true, but using them in a way that I actually don’t think… I wasn’t in a covenant relationship. I was 16 years old. So this notion of love was being used to really keep me bound and to make me feel shame, like I was failing at something and I really wanted to be faithful to who God was calling me to be. So it’s when these really good things get twisted and used against us in a way that we actually are functioning way more out of fear and shame than we are the kind of freedom of the spirit that we’re most meant for.

Dan: What, can I just ask it in this way? It seems often, we’ll take a fundamentally biblical truth, something that has a clear biblical statement or warrant, and then not see it in context and not seeing it in a way that is held with the breadth of scripture, rather than perhaps only with what those few words seem to mean and you know, I, one of the realms I would say, I have seen, so much distortion, exploitation and you put it weaponization is in the area of forgiveness.

Rachael: Yeah. Oh yeah.

Dan: So working with a domestically violated woman, who’s been told by her church, she just needs to trust Jesus. She needs to submit herself to her husband and she needs to forgive. Nothing thought about context of where the scriptures are coming from, simply giving her two or three essentially orders. And if she doesn’t fulfill that, then actually the abuse, even though it’s not directly said at some level is implied, it’s kind of your fault because you are not doing what you as a biblical wife need to be doing. So instead of thinking through, you know, what does it mean to deal with something that not only illegal, but deeply violating of human dignity, uh, in the body, heart, soul, and spirit, it’s a quick cover over using the Bible in some ways to silence, to justify and to prolong if not perpetuate, um, something viciously cruel.

Rachael: Oh, and we see that play out in individual and personal situations. And we see it play out in collective spaces. I mean, this is a lot of what you’re hearing people say, as race as more racism is getting exposed, especially where it’s bound up in theological concepts in biblical interpretation, we just need to forgive and that, and that’s, and then we just reconcile and we move on and, uh, and forgiveness gets collapsed into repair reconciliation. Like all these things that it’s actually like one step of… and we know, we know actually in the context, forgiveness is more for your own heart than often it is for the other person.

Dan: So can it be put and just asking, uh, spiritual abuse in some ways always begins with bad theology.

Rachael: Yeah. Bad theology. And sometimes, I don’t wanna always let people off the hook that easily, cause sometimes I think it’s like taking good theology and twisting it towards your own efforts. So I think it, it can fall somewhere on that spectrum.

Dan: Yeah. Well, and when, in one case it taking good theology and perverting it makes it bad theology. But really bad, bad, like having a view of forgiveness that is a pretense that the harm didn’t occur and you’re merely to forget it and pretend that things are as they should be. That I think we both say is bad reading of scripture.

Rachael: Well, and I mean and very satanic, like it’s, you know, this is how we see the evil one, you knowing as an angel of light. So even with Jesus in the desert and, and the temptation there’s partial truth being named, it’s just not the full truth. So there’s a, there is a seduction to it because it’s close enough to what you’ve been told, what you’ve heard. You want to be faithful, you know, and again, this is kind of a side note, but it’s like very few of us who have experienced spiritual abuse. Like most of us, I’ll not speak in the negative. Most of us have also probably perpetrated some of this spiritual harm because so often it’s playing out in systems that in order to remain and be a part of, you have to be a participant. So it’s such a tricky place. ‘Cause I know for myself, when I first started, actually this was coming together where I actually first went is, oh my gosh, I have perpetrated this harm. Like against others, the more clear it came to me, this abusive power. Then I had to see like so many of the places in my life where I had been given spiritual authority that I had misused, um, again in a larger system and that can be really painful. Um, and I think that’s, what’s so hard about stepping into this is, is we both might hold stories in our body of, of this harm becoming more clear. And then what comes often right behind that is like the places where we know we may have, we have participated in that. So.

Dan: Yeah. And does anything come to mind as when you put words to your own perpetuation?

Rachael: Oh yeah. I mean, I think about like working at summer camps, uh, in very, I would say very fundamentalist, like evangelical, rigid context and in some ways being, you know, part of the culture is you you’ve, it’s very kind of moralistic behavior control, shame, using shame with teenagers to call out bad behavior. And again, I always have leaned more towards the compassionate, but yeah, I just, I like memories come to mind of probably heaping heavy burdens on burdened, young people. Um, again maybe out of some good intentions on my part or at least what felt like good intentions, but the more I understand what happens when we don’t understand the full context, we’re not making space for full humanity, um, how it can, it starts to put God in the, and one’s imagination of God, in really narrow, rigid, binary constraints. And you know, it’s back to that–like so often the ways we experience God is through our relationships with others and especially those who claim to be; have authority from God to be in these leadership roles. Um, so I think that’s, you know, that’s some of the, there’s certainly more, but those are some of the places that come to mind.

Dan: So in, in the broader sense is spiritual abuse just confined to the church.

Rachael: No, wouldn’t that be nice if it was, and we could just contain it and deal with it? Um, no, because there’s spiritual power and spiritual authority in lots of different contexts. And again, I’m often speaking primarily in a Christian context, um, a Christian framework, but one it’s not bound to any one religion. And I actually don’t think it’s bound to religion ’cause you can have spiritual power. It’s playing out politically, that’s playing out, but you know, this can spiritual abuse can play out in family systems. Um, we see that a lot, like very spiritually abusive families that use God and God’s authority to bring a lot of control and manipulation. I mean we see that with certain families that have like had reality TV shows that showcased their lives in front of everyone, um, can, it can happen in school systems. It can happen in nonprofits. It can happen in government systems. Again it’s it’s it’s how is power that is assumed or perceived to be granted by God being used being exploited. And so unfortunately I think it can play out in many different contexts.

Dan: And let me keep coming back to this. Is it fair to say that in some ways the, the goal though, there are many goals of spiritual abuse, but at least one goal is to silence and almost all work spiritually with others that simply shuts down people’s voices, questions, doubts. There’s almost always something in that that is spiritually abusive.

Rachael: Yeah. And I think even more than silence, I would say control ’cause if you are like fiercely loyal and bringing your adoration, your voice might actually be welcomed. If you’re joining the chorus of whatever, you know, the drumbeat is, um, your voice will be welcomed. So yes it is that there’s not space for questions, there’s not space for human complexity. There’s a lot of reduction of truth as you’ve named. Um, the truth becomes very narrow, becomes very rigid and really becomes very dogmatic to determine who’s in, who’s out, who belongs, who is an outcast, who’s good, who’s bad. Um, and so yes, to silence, to isolate, um, and to like control.

Dan: So how would you talk about different levels? I don’t know if that’s a fair form or different ways spiritual abuse or spiritual abusers end up functioning.

Rachael: Yeah. I mean, well, first of all, let’s just talk a little bit about the spectrum, because I think you can have really well-intentioned people who have been formed in a system and have their own ignorance. So they’re perpetuating something that they perceive to be, this is how you do it. They don’t wanna be cast out, so they’re perpetuating something. And again, that doesn’t make it any less harmful, but typically those people again, might have really good intentions. Then I think you have spiritual abusers who are dangerous because they are bullies. And really, I see this as being those who really lack character. They don’t have integrity, they don’t have maturity, they don’t have wisdom. So in many ways, just what I would say, like bad leaders who shouldn’t be given spiritual authority. And so they wield power in very immature ways. Um, you know, they, they, they can’t, they don’t have ego strength. They can’t tolerate people, questioning decisions they’ve made, they, they can’t tolerate, like everyone kind of becomes probably very narcissistic kind of becomes a reflection of them. So, you know, that’s where that we gotta control the community. People’s gotta get in, we gotta get people in line. Um, this will reflect badly on me. I think of that as like spiritually abusive bullies. Like they just, when you encounter that person, you’re just like, how did you come to be this… granted this kind of power, um, which we could, we don’t have time today, but of course they did because we live in a culture and a system that values certain charisma, certain identities as being more spiritually authoritative. Um, and then I think you definitely have like wicked abusers, like people who capitalize on a platform and a place of power so that they have access to abuse people because unfortunately spiritual abuse is one of those abusive frameworks that becomes an umbrella for multiple forms of abuse. I mean, we are seeing that. I mean, it feels almost like every week, another major Christian church system is being exposed that the leaders at the top, have either, one, been perpetrating, horrible abuse, sexual, emotional, physical, financial, whatever, you know, during their tenure, or they’ve been covering up like abuse that they’ve known. And that’s not just happening in the Catholic church. We see it happening in major denominations and church movements and institutions. So you, you know, you have that place where it’s just like, maybe someone didn’t start out that way, but at some point they gave their heart over to something wicked and they’re using that platform and power. Um, and I may have gotten off track of your like original questions, so I might need to…

Dan: But it feels really important again, to come back to this question of there’s gradations of abuse. That there’s, I, I never want to say that in a way that minimizes in any form, the level of harm, and we’ve often said on this program that sometimes the subtle is satanic in part because it’s so hard to discern. So having somebody, for example, who, every time you share something that you’re struggling with, they look at you and say, oh, I just want you to know God is good. And, whatever form of sort of spiritualizing, uh, it can become so oppressive that, um, your heart has been well, the failure of attunement, the failure to be able to hold on your own behalf, the level of what you’re in the middle of. And so when Bible verses get plastered, almost struck against the human heart, in the middle of all that a person may be going through. I, do wanna call that spiritual abuse, but it may be a smaller a. Yet if you’re in a relationship who can do almost nothing but spiritually neglect to you by giving you these smacks in the face with a Bible verse, I, I would say it begins to be the death of a thousand cuts. So, you know, when you think about the spectrum of, of spiritual abuse, does that begin where your mind goes as to how would we actually sort of chronolog some of the other forms of abuse?

Rachael: Yeah, I mean, again, I’ll just say this in the, in the most basic sense, like to me, I start to, I start to look for the tools and like culture of spiritual abuse, right? Like where it feels really thick, because again, it, there can be spiritually abusive people. There can be spiritually abusive processes, there can be spiritually abusive systems and cultures and communities. And then sometimes you see like all of that together. And those are, I think the hardest places ’cause it’s so the water you’re swimming in and then you start to wake up to it and it’s so overwhelming. And you feel like you’re gonna lose so much if you step outside of that system. So I, you know, where is dogma or fear, like where is fear and terror being used to fragment people in a way that then the, the good, rigid dogma you bring, is kind of what brings cohesion. Like, “you can trust me because I know the truth, so we’ll be safe from all these horrible things happening in the world. But I’m actually like telling you all these terrible, horrible things that are happening so that you’ll be afraid so that you’ll stay close.” Right. And where there is scapegoating of people, groups of certain types of believers, of certain types of biblical interpretation. And I don’t just mean, you know, good, honest disagreement and coming together and, and having good discourse. I mean, you know, these people are evil and they will lead you astray. They’re terrible. They’re awful. So again, scapegoating, like, you know, putting things on them. And then again, that demand for loyalty, like where they are, the only leaders, this is the only system. This is the only way of interpreting the Bible that can possibly be trusted. Everything else will lead you astray. So again, it’s that very rigid, kind of very narrow fear-based, shame-based, like when people deviate from the very narrow place, there’s a lot of shaming. They might actually start being gossiped about. They might start being maligned. Like when you are in that kind of thickness of spiritual abuse, it can feel so clear. Like once you see it, it can feel so clear. Like this is not, this can’t possibly be who God is or how God wants to relate to me. But again, there’s that distortion of what faith is. This sense of blind belief, you know, blind loyalty without question, because question is somehow doubt and questions mean you’re faithless, you are lacking faith. It, it means putting your hope actually in people and structures and systems instead of the kingdom of God. It can mean love being demanded and actually not being mutual at all, but being very much, a one way. And that complete failure to repair, you know, in spiritually abusive contexts with spiritually abusive people, there is not, you will never get the repair you’re meant for, if anything, like you said, you will leave feeling like somehow you are the perpetrator and there’s something you need to repair, when you’ve been harmed. And you’re asking someone to own that they’ve harmed.

Dan: Well, and to take this maybe to a point where we can begin to create a bridge to where we’re going to go. Uh, there, there seems to be something in the human heart that’s drawn into abusive settings. Because to the degree we have the truth. There’s a sense of we’re part of the elite. We’re special. There’s a kind of comfort of knowing that the gray has been resolved with clarity that this is good. This is bad. And the rewards, oh my goodness. Of remaining the faithful and the loyal, um, like bondage that doesn’t, at least in most occasions feel like bondage. Many of the people I’ve worked with who have been in spiritually abusive context, look back to the origins of their involvement with that leader or with that system with a kind of, this was, I was lost. And now I am found, and there is a relief, a joy, a kind of return to back to the words that we’ve been using to a dignity, to a power, and yet the person or system or the process over time seems to steal. And we’re back to the word kill and destroy, what often is viewed as the John 10:10 passage that appropriately looks at the nature of evil. And I think those categories clearly can be used about the nature of evil, but in the passage, it’s primarily Jesus comparing himself with “bad leaders”. So you can begin to look at those categories of how, how is a person stealing? Like you’re, if you feel guilty that you’re not doing more in the church right off the bat, at least it’s a little bit of an indication, something of your own body and hearts being stolen. And then when you face violence, verbally, just eyes raised or far stronger, a kind of you’ll be exiled. Yeah. And you’ll be left without food and drink in the desert. That’s a form of killing. And that fundamental stance of I am marred. I am judged. And there is a kind of mark on my face that says, I’m not of this tribe any longer. And to me, those are the categories that, um, I know we want to do more work on, but I, I, I think it’s so important to say what’s the impact. What’s the impact of all that on, uh, our lives. Yeah. And given whether it’s been small a spiritual abuse or capital A, we’ve got to engage, what’s the impact.