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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

An Ill-Advised Shortcut

I dislike buzzphrases, I really do. I dislike them especially in the spiritual realm.

When we employ the words of scripture, understanding what they mean and using them in their appropriate context, we are safeguarded by the Holy Spirit who carried along each human author as he wrote. If the Lord himself could say “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished”, we can confidently affirm that, in this fallen world, we are as safe as it is possible to be in sticking close to the language that God himself has used to communicate his thoughts to mankind.

There are still plenty of ways to err in trying to pass on truth, of course, but we are that much closer to authorial intent in preserving the Author’s language.

Jargon terms and trendy attempts to encapsulate scriptural concepts, on the other hand, are horribly prone to misapplication.

The term “spiritual abuse” is one such buzzphrase.

Spiritual Abuse

The term “spiritual abuse” is extra-scriptural. Even the word “abuse” occurs only twice in the New Testament, and only in the KJV as far as I can see. Both are mistranslations that are rendered much more clearly by modern Bible versions.

Now of course using an extra-scriptural term is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is always a shortcut. It’s a way of saying something briefly, assuming your audience understands what you mean, and without going down a rabbit trail that derails you from the more important point you are trying to make. The word “trinity” reflects spiritual truth, though it is not found in scripture. With an audience that already correctly grasps the concept of the Trinity, use of the term enables one to discuss subjects like the assumption of roles within the Godhead without constantly getting off track.

But some shortcuts are ill-advised.

When a Shortcut is a Bad Idea

The term “spiritual abuse” seems to me to be one of these bad shortcuts, primarily because it’s an accusation of misconduct, and serious accusations against fellow believers ought to be spelled out clearly, not couched in generalities.

Further, the word “abuse” has morphed into a loaded term within society at large. Like “harassment” and “racism”, it means different things to different people, all of them bad, but also increasingly amorphous. To refer to someone an “abuser” may convey significantly more than you intend by it, depending on the maturity and perceptiveness of your audience.

Generalizations have a nasty way of making questionable behavior sound more pervasive or damning than it may actually be. Saying “he made me wash his car” is an accusation in which we are allowed to see the extent of the alleged crime. Recasting the accusation as “he abused me” would be technically true, but you can see that the first version preserves for us some limitations on the alleged perfidy of the abuser. We get a realistic sense of the scope of the “crime” and how much damage was actually done. With the latter accusation we are left to our imaginations. This is almost invariably a bad thing. When I have to resort to making an unspecific accusation it is generally because I know my case is weak.

The first version is honest and clear. The second version resorts to a subjective characterization to extract sympathy from the audience. Such an opinion may be reasonable or unreasonable, but I prefer the first version. I think the accused “abuser” might too.

When a shortcut is simultaneously inflammatory, defamatory and open to frequent misunderstanding, that seems reason enough to try to make your point in other language. I wish people would.

Back to the Beginning

The earliest references I can find to the term “spiritual abuse” come from Jeff VanVonderen (The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, 1991) and Mike Fehlauer (Exposing Spiritual Abuse, 2001). Fehlauer in particular restricts his use of the term to some seriously monomaniacal behavior on the part of pastors he has known or about whom he has heard stories.

Such accounts include a pastor who required members of the flock to ask him for approval before booking a family vacation, a pastor who included shoveling his driveway and picking up his dry cleaning among the responsibilities of his junior pastors and assistants, and a pastor who deliberately kept others in his church in the dark about matters that concerned them, misrepresented facts and pitted his underlings against one another.

Such demands and manipulative behavior seem like overreach at best and possible evidence of something far worse. When leadership of a church behaves in such a way, we are reminded of the Lord’s words about the Pharisees and religious leaders of his own day:
“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”
Self-indulgence and authoritarianism in church leaders also contrast unfavorably with the example of the Chief Shepherd, who washed the feet of his disciples and instructed them to do likewise. This relates to all believers, of course, but is especially important in leadership.

Assuming Fehlauer and VanVonderen have done their due diligence and not simply repeated the grumblings of unreasonable or immature believers without hearing both sides first, using the term “spiritual abuse” to characterize the sorts of examples they relate does not seem like a stretch. But the term has spread throughout evangelicism, and those who use it today are far less careful than Fehlauer and VanVonderen. This is quite unfortunate.

What Do We Mean By “Abuse”

The word “abuse” was originally used and may still be used generally to describe any improper treatment of an entity by anyone. If the word is understood by your audience as merely being used in this vague and general sense, I have no real issue with it.

But this is not how we usually use it. Let me explain.

When one person accuses another of abuse today, most people understand the accused abuser to have some kind of a natural or awarded advantage over the person being abused that is open to improper use. That’s a logical assumption: if there is no advantage and the parties are on absolutely equal terms, there is really nothing to misuse. There may be disagreement. There may be hard words exchanged. But the word “abuse”, except in its most diffuse sense, is not really applicable.

Thus we speak of “abuse of discretion”, “abuse of information”, “abuse of authority”, “abuse of process”, “abuse of rank” or “abuse of trust”, all of which imply an advantage unreasonably exploited to oppress or injure another or to advance one’s own cause at their expense.

This is the way we think about abuse, consciously or otherwise. We talk about parents that abuse children, but rarely about children that abuse parents. Children misbehave or rebel, but we don’t generally call it abuse. In doing so, we reveal that we don’t think of a child as having any natural advantage that may be misused. There is also the implicit connotation that a parent who would let themselves be abused by a child is not up to the job. We talk about husbands that abuse their wives, but not the other way around. Perhaps in doing so, we reveal that we don’t think the average woman’s intelligence a weapon sufficient to overcome the natural physical advantage held by the male. We see the man as having an advantage in the relationship that is open to abuse, but not so much the woman.

You can see from the way we use it that the term is both potentially unreasonably broad and quite destructive as an accusation.

What Do We Mean By “Spiritual Abuse”?

I note that Mike Fehlauer uses the “spiritual abuse” concept this way. He seems to consistently employ it to describe situations in which one party has an advantage over the other. Since his subject is bad church leadership, this is unsurprising.

But the term has caught on, and is now used all over the place to describe all kinds of church situations and disagreements that having nothing whatsoever to do with leadership or with the misuse of authority. Some examples include:

·         deeming an action sinful based on church standards rather than biblical principle;

·         using Christian clichés and scripture texts with a person who is grieving (in this case the grieving person was the pastor); 

·         shaming people into throwing away music thought to be “evil”; or 


These and many other things are cited as instances of “spiritual abuse”, though they don’t necessarily have anything to do with leadership or an advantage of any sort.

Generalizations, Oversensitivity and Real Abuse

We are wise to avoid taking a position when we don’t have direct knowledge of the circumstances in which an offense was taken or given. But it seems to me that while each one of these listed actions may demonstrate poor judgment on the part of the speaker and may have been hurtful to those involved, calling them “spiritual abuse” without further evidence — instead of immaturity, awkwardness, legalism or simply being a busybody — overdramatizes the injury caused and suggests that the problem may be a hypersensitivity, a misunderstanding of scripture or even an unwillingness to be called to account rather than cases of genuine abuse.

For instance, the “evil” music our injured party was shamed into tossing out may actually have been better off in the bin, depending on the maturity and suggestibility of the listener (full disclosure: it was a Lionel Richie album; I have trouble mustering sympathy). The Christian critic involved may well have been simply expressing a legitimate spiritual concern that her friend was being unduly influenced by worldly sentiments. We don’t know, since we weren’t there and didn’t hear how it was done, and the “shamed” person was free to accept or reject the advice, after all.

The accusation of “haranguing other denominations” comes from a person who declares in the same article that in her opinion, “Christianity is not a debate and we don’t win the argument by poking holes in the false”. This is simply untrue. We may not always “win the argument” as it is really the Holy Spirit who convinces men of sin. But John the Baptist, the Lord and the apostles all frequently start their discourses about truth by knocking down false teaching first, and on more than one occasion, Paul names the culprit publicly as he does it. Once we understand that the complainant holds an view of negative ministry inconsistent with the New Testament, her use of “haranguing” as a characterization becomes a little suspect, since by it she may intend to refer to statements that fall well within the scope of apostolic practice.

Then there is the accusation of “deeming an action sinful based on church standards rather than biblical principle”. Depending on circumstances, this may not be abusive at all. Of course all church standards should be based on biblical principles. That ought to go without saying. What isn’t always recognized (until one has been in a position of responsibility) is that a person being called on the carpet by leadership is frequently conveniently “unable to understand” the scriptural basis on which they are being disciplined. And regardless, Hebrews reminds us
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”
It should be clear that submission is not required when we agree with a decision. That’s called “agreement”. Submission is necessary only when we don’t. And since leaders are fallible and their consciences and understanding of scripture may differ from yours or mine, we are bound to occasionally come into conflict. This is most often a case for humility and obedience, not a situation best resolved by accusations of “spiritual abuse”. A church standard, especially if it existed before you started to attend, had better be pretty onerous to be publicly labelled “abuse”.

If I cannot in good conscience before God obey my leaders, there is always the option of quietly relocating under some leaders I can obey. And if I can’t find any leaders anywhere who are not “spiritual abusers” in one way or another, is that more likely to say something about church leaders … or something about me?

Finally, the insensitive clod who uses spiritual clichés with a grieving friend is so common that if we are going to cite him or her as examples of “spiritual abuse”, we are not only going to dilute whatever limited legitimacy the phrase may still possess, but we are going to end up citing half of Christendom. Many such offences are given unintentionally by people who themselves take great comfort in shockingly platitudinous drivel. Look at the cards in Christian bookstores sometime if you don’t believe me. Most of these folks would be surprised to find they had given offence.

Living in the Body

The church is a body, made up of many different parts. “Different” means we vary in age, experience, background, maturity, wisdom, personality, sex, race, worldview, politics and numerous other ways.

As we interact in the Body of Christ, there are bound to be moments when we disagree. There will be times when I feel hurt by something you said and vice versa. Casting ourselves in the role of perpetual victims is endlessly trendy … in the world. But unlike the social justice crusader, my job is not to catch out everyone who has hurt my feelings and serve them up to church leadership on a platter, to add to dissension in the church by going after my leadership for actually leading, or to take sides in every argument that arises. There is no prize in the church of God for having the thinnest skin. In fact, each of these occasions for disagreement is an opportunity to humbly work out our differences and grow to understand one another better, not paste labels on each other and begin hurling accusations.

When we disagree it is best done clearly by spelling out scripturally where we believe the other party has gone wrong. Is it insensitivity, legalism, lack of charity, manipulation, bullying or something else? Surely the scriptures specifically address the offence and enable us to see it for what it is and deal with it biblically. And if we can’t explain from the word of God exactly what it is that has offended us without resorting to an over-utilized generality, is it not possible that we are simply being oversensitive?

Name-calling helps nobody, even if the name in question is currently in vogue throughout Christendom. “Spiritual abuse” is a term better consigned to the dumpster.

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