[This is a part of a series on spiritual abuse. You can see other posts in the series here as they get published. A lot of this content is from the research of Dr. Lisa Oakley from Chester University. I highly recommend her book with Justin Humphrys if you want to learn more about this! In that book, the team outlines the characteristics that are associated with spiritually abusive behavior. This post is my attempt to unpack two of those (with lots more to come!).]
Spiritual abuse characteristics are hard to nail down. They’re complicated – and much like everything else I’ve mentioned – they exist on a spectrum.
Let’s dive into two of the characteristics that are associated with spiritual abuse outlined in Escaping the Maze:
(1) Manipulation or pressure to serve or behave in a certain way
“any act or attitude…which puts undue spiritual, emotional and or mental pressure to behave in a particular way or have a particular attitude…”
Spiritual pressure doesn’t just include pressure to conform to scripture – it often involves using scripture to get people to conform to a specific churches’ commitment and rules. E.g. we take the book of Acts, and we use it to convince people they need to be in our specific small groups or they’re not ‘on mission.’ We talk about being ‘on mission’ with God and use it synonymously with our specific goals for that semester. We find passages that talk about tithing and pass the plate.
Is there a social/spiritual reward or consequence based on how much you serve the local church? Are those who give money treated differently? Are those who sign up to lead all the things rewarded socially? Are they rewarded spiritually, (do you speak about them in a way that celebrates God’s work in their life because of their involvement in your specific needs? Like they’re godlier because they lead every Tuesday)? Are those who take a semester off of serving in your church left behind? Left out? Overlooked for leadership?
These things may feel like natural by-products of involvement in any organization, and while that’s often true, they also create a culture where there is spiritual and social pressure for people to serve their local body in a specific way. Intentional or not, these patterns end up equating serving God with serving a specific church. And those things are not the same.
(2) Expectation of excessive commitment and conformity
“in experiences of spiritual abuse, having the same and believing the same can be seen as measures of people’s faith and used to determine if they really belong.”
In cultures where spirituality is misused, non-conformity often results in non-belonging. Sometimes it even has spiritual consequences. This may show up in the conversation about being ‘worried’ about someone’s wrestling. As if they are in danger, or on a ‘slippery slope’ because they believe differently about non-essentials like gender roles or multi-site or megachurches.
And here’s the deal – that probably doesn’t sound bad. It might even sound like love, care, shepherding.
So here’s the million-dollar question: what is the difference between loving people and calling them to the beliefs we think are true, and controlling or coercing them?
The difference is – a controlling and coercive culture says someone is in spiritual or relational danger if they do not conform to non-essential beliefs.
So often we say – people can disagree! They can wrestle! We say that there are plenty of people who love Jesus and hold different doctrinal positions! If someone doesn’t agree with our non-essentials, they can leave at any time! Why would they feel controlled? Why would they feel coerced? After all, we’re not threatening them if they don’t agree…
But aren’t we?
When we make our hushed request to our small group to pray for that person who is wrestling with God’s sovereignty, when we no longer respect our friend who talks about their female pastor, when we question a persons’ spiritual maturity when they wear spaghetti straps, these things are symptoms and seeds of a pattern where there are spiritual consequences if someone doesn’t conform to our non-essentials.
And the result is a culture where people can feel afraid to disagree. Even inside their own minds, they can become afraid of their questions because of what those questions might mean. It might mean they’re in spiritual danger. It might mean they aren’t mature or godly. It might mean they lose friendships, even spiritual ‘family’.
There will, in any community, be a degree of belonging that happens around shared beliefs. That in itself is sort of natural. But, the culture of Jesus sure is a strange one. The glorious gift of the Gospel is that belonging seems to come first. You watch Jesus invite everyone to the table, treat them as if they’re worth dining with, worth listening to, and He does this – not as a reward for agreeing with Him, but before they agree with Him. In Jesus’s culture, we belong even before we believe.
You can imagine how tricky it is to separate spiritual beliefs from spiritual pressure or expectations of conformity. Isn’t the whole religious thing founded on the idea that there are objectively true things and if you don’t believe them you are in eternal danger? And that if you do believe them, you’re a part of a new family? Sounds like there’s some pressure there. Sounds like there is belonging that comes from believing.
As I’ve been processing, it’s been helpful for me to remember: spiritual abuse is not about a specific position one might hold. It’s about the application of that belief; using it to coerce or control.
It’s possible to hold a belief, and even share that belief, without using that belief to pressure someone to our way of thinking. I know this because I see Jesus do it all the time. He shares life or death statements with people. He shares them as if they are objective facts. And at the same time, He leaves people with the impression they can accept them or not. He loves them whether they accept them or not. He treats them with dignity whether they accept them or not. He breaks bread with them whether they accept them or no.
Jesus has set us free from using truth to control or coerce with the reality that true faith comes from inside out, not outside in.
(P.S. there are more than three characteristics of spiritual abuse. More to come.)