Identifying Systems of Spiritual Abuse

As we prepare for our upcoming Story Workshop for Spiritual Abuse & Healing, Dan and Rachael return to discuss the insidious issue of spiritual abuse and the broken systems that perpetuate this type of harm.

As many systems around us are crumbling, we hear story after story about overt abuse and misuse of power in high-profile churches and ministries. We also know that spiritual abuse can manifest across a spectrum, with some individuals perpetrating harm knowingly, while others may unknowingly be influenced by the systems they are part of, operating with good intentions or lacking awareness of subtle forms of spiritual abuse.

Listen to learn how to recognize some of the subtleties of spiritual abuse – and also consider how to lean in as we personally and collectively seek redemption. Knowing that every system bears some brokenness, the question becomes:  how do we participate? Can we actively seek healing and redemption without giving in to cynicism? 

Join us next week for a follow-up to today’s conversation. If you have experienced spiritual abuse in your own life, we invite you to join us for the upcoming Story Workshop for Spiritual Abuse & Healing.

Episode Transcript:

Dan: I know the year has begun. I know we’ve already said essentially Happy New Year, but as we begin this year, as much as I wish for it to be a happy New Year, we’ve already begun to address. And again, I don’t want to be accused of being a doomsayer, but the reality is we’re living in a heightened complex, bound to harm world at this point with so much heartache and so much divergence of understanding of the cause and ultimately the solution. We’re living in a world in which at least I think we both would argue spiritual abuse has a heightened potential at this juncture. More so this year perhaps than any other year that either of us have known. I’m assuming that you would concur, but what is it that your spirit says about the realities that we’re currently in?

Rachael: Well, we’ve talked on this podcast, we’ve talked in other offerings at the Allender Center on spiritual abuse that so much of, in some ways the tools of spiritual abuse or even the engine so to speak, is really fear-based and an attempt to hold on to some kind of security in the midst of scarcity, in the midst of, well, perceptions of scarcity, in the midst of changing, shifting sands of power and privilege and the way things were. I want us to go back to the way things were and really an attempt to control and to utilize whatever methods of power, theological formation, spiritual formation, biblical imagination to keep people, again, I don’t make the assumption that those perpetrating spiritual abuse are always looking out for the best interest of people. I think that can be on a spectrum of people who genuinely like those positions of power because it gives them access to abuse people and others who are formed within a system that they’re maintaining maybe out of good intentions. I want to keep people safe. I want to help people know the truth. I want to make sure we’re biblically sound, but the methods by which that’s being done are not actually the methods of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and a kind of mutual flourishing. So when you see a lot of chaos, a lot of fear, a lot of trauma, people are going to turn to methods to mitigate that, that are often going to increase potential for spiritual abuse.

Dan: Well, let’s just go back to the reality that it feels like the center, whatever the center is in a system or in systems, it does not feel like the center will hold. Just even over the holidays into the new year, Becky got sick and in that she needed to see a doctor. The only access to our medical care was through a Zoom appointment that lasted a full-fledged five minutes. It’s beyond my comprehension. Her first available appointment is the second week in March. So the reality that our healthcare system start… Pick a system. How we deal with immigration, how we deal with wars in Israel and Palestine and Ukraine, and look, every system feels more broken than ever before. Is that just an old man talking or are we looking at a world that seems to be fraying at the very core, if that is a general sense of, yeah, things are not well, and as we go into a complex year, there’s just a sense of we want to hunker down. We want to cocoon back to that keyword that you brought up more and more and more. We want something that will promise us security based on control. And that to me is the beginning setup for almost all forms of spiritual abuse.

Rachael: In some ways, nothing forms in a vacuum, right? So of course, if in some ways we’ve inherited all these systems that are collapsing, that have worked for many of us, not worked for a lot of people. And I’m thinking, yeah, so that desire to control doesn’t discriminate. I don’t like in the sense of there’s not one end of the spectrum, let’s say politically that is going to get this right if you’re moving toward extremity. I still don’t know if I believe there’s some magical middle ground that… I still think that’s a really privileged place to stand, that there could be a middle ground that you could find. So I think it’s that question of should the center collapse? I dunno, I don’t know. We’ve talked about this. These are very apocalyptic times in the sense of they are unveiling and revealing and exposing and really demanding that we take a clear-eyed, sober look at the world we’re all participants in, and often at the mercy of, and yet still have volition and choice. It makes sense to me in the spiritual world, especially in our context, let’s say in the United States, that so much of, there’s just how many more church leaders have to have huge secrets that get exposed where they’ve been perpetrating, not just kind of a overarching spiritual abuse and misuse of power and control, but perpetrating sexual abuse and emotional abuse and physical abuse. So it’s not just these larger systems. It’s like when we’re talking about our Christians systems in the us, they’re fracturing, they’re exposing massive failure of leaders, but then an exposure of systems as well that in some ways help leaders perpetrate harm, but also kind of keep us all complicit in it to some extent. Well,

Dan: I think that’s a crucial category that there is, even for those who really need to step back and say, I’m in a very unhealthy, dysfunctional, consuming relationship with someone who’s spiritually abusing me. That’s a hard, oh my goodness. One of the hardest things I think for a person to be able to discern, to be able to name, and then to be able to find language and action to begin to disrupt that level of spiritual control. So at least to step back and say, are there examples that you have engaged? I have one from just this Christmas time, a good friend who’s involved in worship at her church. The pastor changed his plans for Christmas service virtually a night before, and it required this work of the Spirit that the pastor felt required virtually everyone on the worship team to be up all night rearranging the music and then prepared for that particular Sunday. And she was like, I have plans, but the pressure, and here’s the key word for control, the pressure, the sense of if you don’t do this, the people of God will suffer. You are violating what the Spirit has shared with me. I know it’s disruptive, I know it’s costly, but isn’t discipleship an opportunity to lay down your life for others again, where you begin to hear things like that and you go, oh, you’re using scripture not a lot differently than what Satan uses with regard to using scripture to create guilt, to distort and ultimately to disempower the reality of the freedom of human dignity to choose. So I mean, as I was hearing the story, this was post the experience just saying the words that was really wrong. That was really, and again, I understand how the word can be used and misused, et cetera, but I said, it’s really abusive and the pushback, it’s like, oh, well, I would never use that word. It was unfortunate. I don’t agree with, but we pulled it off. It was actually a wonderful worship, and I’m sure it was. But the reality of naming where harm occurs with that level of guilt, inducement, pressure, demand, and in many ways a sense of you are letting God down if you don’t comply with my vision of what is true in this moment feels again, like we are in a world where this is happening often.

Rachael: Yeah. Well, I’m also, if the Spirit wanted to move, it didn’t need the music to align with the message. So from the very foundation, it’s like, yeah, you can get a word from God that shifts things and the Spirit’s going to do what the Spirit’s going to do, whether or not the music is on theme or not. So let’s just start with that basic assumption of the freedom of the Spirit to move. However, that’s a whole different church system we’ve set up that we don’t have to talk about. So I mean, yeah, I think that sense of, I mean, it’s hard because how many of us, that sense of control is something we experience in every facet of our lives, the organizations we work in, our family systems, certainly our government systems. So it’s very pervasive that sense of here’s the right way, and if don’t see it this way, and if you don’t change your behavior to comply, then where we get to spiritual abuse, then you are disobedient to God, leveraging God’s love, feelings, emotions, perceptions to pressure people. It has a lot of power. So when I think about some of the more recent experiences I’ve heard from people, a lot of it has to do with growing up in contexts that were maybe more high control spiritual context, where not only is something as simple as, yeah, the message matching the music, it’s like how you dress. Well, here’s that example. Michael and I were just in Oklahoma, this is, I want to be careful, I don’t want to shame anyone, but he’s never really spent much time in the Bible belt. And so he was working in coffee shops all day long and he was like, I have never seen so many people with huge bibles in coffee shops. And we were talking about how, well, yeah, you got to have your quiet time out in public to show that when you’re in a context that is already culturally Christian in many ways, how do you show that you’re a real one? You have your quiet time out of public at a coffee shop with your big Bible, and you also probably have a lot of seminary students. My best friend, I saw her, she was like, yeah, and also I was a New Testament PhD student. I had huge Bibles out the table. I was just laughing. But it’s that sense of there are ways you have to show you’re faithful to God that kind of get in that realm of that spirit of religion. That’s like a lot of clanging noise, but actually produces very little fruit on the ground in the way that you’re meant to. But the feelings you have if you don’t abide by all the kind of rules. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t even gotten into, I think so many of the people I’m talking to are women who were raised in these contexts or are still somewhat bound in these contexts because it’s not just your religious experience, it’s who you choose to marry, what access you might have to work outside of the home, how your body is to be engaged, to raise children and all of the above. So it could be a very pervasive kind of control that is a long form of control. It’s not just, oh, feel this way or think this way. It’s construct your life in this way. And I want to be careful to caveat, it’s not that getting married or having kids or not working out of the home are inherently bad. It’s back to the sense of choice.

Dan: Right. Well, and you’re describing, we’re both describing that which is explicit, like the pastor putting pressure on the team to work within the system of his understanding of the Spirit, changing the direction of the message, therefore of the music. But also you’re talking about the implicit structure as you put it well, which I wish I had had that thought when I interacted with her and I didn’t. But just the notion of the implicit structure itself is defrauding that the Spirit requires a certain set of music to be able to do the work of… It’s back to so often what we have created within our world is performance, not the presence of the living God. But I would go back to these three words I brought to her, and that is so much of what you’re experiencing is pressure. Can you admit you are under pressure? And she couldn’t name the abuse, but she could name the pressure. And then in owning the pressure and the implications of that, she also was able to name, there was a threat. So wherever there is that pressure to perform, to be, to do, and then if you don’t, what will be the consequence? And he had literally said, if this team’s not really up to doing the work of God, maybe there are other teams that would, so the implication of don’t perform and you are out. And so abandonment, exclusion, shame are the threats. But then what I asked, it really opened the door to a richer conversation is you all pulled it off, you did it, you stayed up all night, you were exhausted, you missed certain events, but you pulled it off. How did the pastor, how did the team respond? And the answer is, we felt so special. We felt so… And I said, the word, privileged, you’re a really in. You are in. You are seriously lauded and in, so when I began to put those three words, look, pressure, threat, privilege, when you see those three working so that when you escape the threat, you gain even greater access to another heart, another system into the privilege of being delighted in the reason we often stay in abusive situations isn’t mere cowardice. It’s the fact that the person or the system brilliantly understood implicitly or explicitly what our heart’s most deeply desire. And for her, she couldn’t name abuse because she felt privileged and until she began to name the gain, the substance of the gain of what it was that she received as a result of such sacrifice. That’s where again, we’ve made this connection. I’ll just make it again, this is so tragically similar to sexual abuse. You are groomed, you are violated, but there are certain privileges that you attain that creates a sense of complicity. And so often what seems to be one of the factors for people to not be able to engage is there are benefits of remaining in abusive churches or relationships or situations.

Rachael: Yeah. I just want to pause for a second because I’m just feeling the pain of that. And I think that that’s where when people start to wake up to what they’re experiencing, the shame and contempt they feel for themselves, how could I have been so foolish? How could I have been so desperate? How could I have been, the list goes on, it doesn’t really allow you, I mean, it makes sense to me why we feel that way. It also doesn’t allow us to bless and honor the parts of us that are wired for that. We’re wired for connection, we’re wired for delight, where it’s just in some ways, when we’re in spiritually abusive context or any abusive context, we’re getting those things without honor. We’re getting those things without a capacity for true relationship and repair and mutuality. And so yeah, the cost is so high, but it’s part of the brilliance of evil to keep us really bound and then when we actually realize we’re bound to keep us bound in a different way because of our shame.

Dan: Oh, it just feels, again, as you name that, what I would fear from what I said before is that those who’ve been stuck in abusive, spiritual abusive, worlds would in some way hear, yay, you got to gain here. You need to own up to that. You wanted it. And you go, oh my God, no. That is infinitely far from the bind that someone explicitly or implicitly understood that you were made for delight and honor. And there is something about taking risks, going beyond our perception of what we can do. Again, there’s so much of that that’s really good. And yet, at least in this one simple situation, the presumption that if you don’t change the music to fit my perception of the Spirit’s work, the result will be you are not faithful. That’s where, again, this theological violence of how leaders or others can impose categories of what is righteous and what is good and true and beautiful, that then become the means by which they are taking from others their own glory to enhance. So in one sense, what we have to say is systems, but also persons consume other people’s glory. So it’s not just power over it’s power for and power for the taking, the exploitation, of others where when you won’t participate, there’s a violence ultimately a degradation. So this interplay between lust and anger, lust being consuming or exploiting, anger being where it’s more than just blowing up, there’s a sense of vengeance, a kind of, I will make you pay and I’ll make you pay by making you smaller, by excluding you. So when those two forces meet the violence of lust and anger played out through exploitation and degradation, I just want to say that’s more than pressure, but it’s a good beginning word for folks. Where do you feel pressure in the context of your conversations with spiritual leaders in your church? Where do you feel like if I don’t take on this Bible study, there’s going to be a kind of disappointment that now holds me with a different view? I thought you were with us and your hesitancy to not lead that Bible study that I’m inviting you to engage versus the curiosity of what do you sense that you’re called to? Where are you finding honor and joy? Where do you find the Spirit moving you with regard to? That’s a very… curiosity that is more than interrogation really is where we begin to see the breakdown of that form of pressure.

Rachael: Yeah. Well, I think it’s just helpful to name, you are bringing forth a kind of spiritual abuse that I think a lot of people, like your friend would be like, that’s not spiritual abuse. And you guys are, you’re using this term too liberally and you’re muddying the waters. Because again, we’ve talked about the broad spectrum of spiritual. We’ve talked about people who have been in long sexually abusive, violating clearly explicitly violating relationships by parents or teachers or pastors and spiritual authority who have spiritual power in their lives. And you are naming an aspect of spiritual abuse that a lot of people could say, well, I definitely have experienced that and I got exiled from my faith community. I got kicked out of community, or I got deemed the bad one who maybe wouldn’t put language yet to their experience as being spiritually abusive. I don’t know if I have a question there, just more… I’m probably naming that for some people who are maybe feeling like, well, what I call what I experienced spiritual abuse or religious trauma, or was it just like human beings being human beings? And I think for me, the question I have is, well, how has it impacted your capacity to be in spiritual community, to be in spiritual formation, to be in the presence of other people utilizing scripture or teaching or crafting opportunities for spiritual formation? And if you feel like, oh, it hasn’t impacted me at all and I’m able to just freely move into other communities, then maybe we could say, oh, there was a violation, there was harm, but maybe it wasn’t traumatizing to you, and that’s okay. But if you’re listening to this and you find yourself taking stock of like, yeah, the safest route I’ve had is just to get rid of my faith altogether, or to in some ways, scapegoat the people I came from because I can split them off and that’s easier. But then you’re still leaving behind so many beautiful parts of yourself and probably not dealing with the ways you maybe participated in that community. What did you need? Why? What did it give you? Because again, like you said, none of us are sticking around ‘cause we’re just masochists or cowards. It’s not like we just like being controlled or we like being harmed or pressured or having demands. There’s also good things we’re meant for that are being promised to us. But like you said, with a really high cost attached.

Dan: Yeah. So part of what I would want you Rachael to engage is the question of when it’s this intersection of something often very explicit, like a very controlling, shaming, threatening physical presence, male/female leader. But then you’ve got systems that are set. I just haven’t been in Oklahoma recently to see large Bibles in coffee shops. That likely doesn’t have a specific explicit person shaping that. It’s just the milieu, the water. But also it’s a system set up where I don’t know if it’s good or bad or whatever, but it’s indicative of something that, again, when I think about large bibles, I think about I’m, so… there are very few things I’m grateful for with regard to my iPhone other than I’ve got multiple translations within this small little package. So when I’m at a coffee shop and I’m looking at scripture, I don’t have a big leather bible that I’m opening and closing. So I’m not saying that’s a violation of Matthew 5, when you’re in public, don’t do X, Y, and Z. But there’s a little element of that to underscore, how do you hold the interplay between explicit, implicit, person, face, and systems in terms of how do we begin to even think about the disruption of those faces, but also waters of control.

Rachael: Like, oh, we need deliverance. That’s what we need. We need actual gospel liberation and deliverance. That’s what we need. I mean, I’m just thinking about my own life. It really was through, I don’t know how grace comes to all. For me, that came through education and getting to study. I mean, it came through my calling in some ways, like being called to biblical studies and a Master of Divinity and being invited to ask better questions and then find more questions and be in a community that valued curiosity, but also said, Hey, you’re human. You get to be human and you don’t have to give up Jesus. You can still love Jesus. You can still try to figure out how to follow Jesus with other human beings. But I think for me, it would’ve been too overwhelming in some ways to… it was helpful to understand the system I was in. I felt it. I was in a very patriarchal context. I mean, even my professors were telling me, don’t go to this seminary because you won’t be treated the same way as men. You won’t get the same education, you won’t have access to the same classes. So thankfully, I had people in my midst who were opening doors for me to hold on to parts of myself that actually were very precious to me, but also saying, you need to see more clearly some of the waters you’re swimming in because they aren’t the only waters for you to swim in. It’s not the only option that you have. And so that was one aspect of what I needed in order to begin to look at the interplay of the people and the systems. But I think it actually takes, it’s the bind I’m in that I’m trying to figure out with God how to help people because it actually takes access to new faces and kind faces and getting a taste of what it feels like to be in a relationship that’s not controlling, that’s not demanding such a high cost for you to receive good gifts, to be able to trust yourself, to trust your own body and trust your own perceptions and to be able to trust the choices that you make, right? Because it’s one thing to say, well, you need to restore choice, but what if you don’t actually trust yourself to make good choices? And to me, that’s so much the insidious nature of spiritual abuse is that it’s so fragmenting to our capacity to trust not only how we pursue relationships, but how we even hear from God. And that’s heartbreaking, and I think it’s helpful to know it’s not just one person who has that kind of power, that person is operating within systems that also perpetuate harm, which can feel really overwhelming, but also very clarifying. You feel less crazy.

Dan: Well, for me to begin with this assumption, there is no neutrality to any portion of life. And systems are not neutral, and systems are set up for certain people’s advantage, which is another way of saying all systems are broken. And yet what’s so difficult is once you’re in the water, and especially going back to what I said about Becky’s inability to see a physician, I’m desperate for her to just have somebody put a stethoscope on this woman’s lungs. We don’t know at this instant, bronchitis, pneumonia, other, I can’t make the system work to my advantage or to anyone’s advantage. But there has to be something that begins to say, every system’s broken, and you can give into cynicism or you can give into a kind of radicalism that you think there’s another system that will work. I don’t think either end will ever be helpful to become a advocate for another system, that that system will end up being as broken as the one, but don’t give up to cynicism. Can we step in and know, no, no system is good. Every system bears some brokenness. Now, how do we participate? Knowing that sometimes where we differ or where we ask questions or where we have very different ways of going about living may cost us in terms of no longer really being wanted within that world. And is that a cost? Can you stay in until in many ways it becomes clear it is not well for you or for that system for you to remain. So we’ve got a lot of work to do as we begin to think about how do we invite people to redemption? And part of this, I think is a word, we’ll come back to, containment. We need containment, systems need containment, to keep the center from being as frayed as often it seems to be. So I think we have a lot more to go on in our next conversations.