3 more characteristics of spiritual abuse

[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 Humphreys if you want to learn more about this!]

Let’s continue our deep dive into the good (not good) stuff.  Research has found that the following characteristics are present in cultures where spirituality can be misused to control or coerce.

(3) Enforced accountability 

Accountability can be awesome.  I still remember the first time I shared some dark parts of my life with a dear friend, and what a gift that Gospel moment was.

But healthy accountability includes choice.

When accountability is forced and when people are told that they must share every aspect of their life for scrutiny, this can lead to coercion and pressure.”

Regardless of what you believe about sovereignty, it seems clear from both the Bible and real life, that God lets us make real choices inside of time.  He talks as if He makes space for us to say no.  Even to Him.

From the very start of this wild human experiment, He gave us dominion over ourselves, and perhaps one of the most precious parts of ourselves is our stories.

It’s a basic human dignity – that your inner thoughts and experiences belong to you.  It’s a basic human right – given by God – that our stories are ours to steward as we see fit – for better or for worse.  And we must be careful not to throw our stories around, to use as currency to buy approval or to prove loyalty.  We cannot cast such pearls before those who have not proven themselves to be good stewards.

Accountability can be asked of us, encouraged of us, but never demanded. Enforced accountability can range from a sense of expectation or pressure for you to answer questions to people in power, to an explicit demand for you to disclose deeply personal information in a setting or relationship where that level of vulnerability is inappropriate.  Enforced accountability can even take place without your consent at all – when deeply personal things about you are shared without your permission with some spiritual narrative as the explanation.


More and more I’m convinced that accountability must be a two-way street to breed health. The narrative that leadership in churches cannot disclose their own struggles to anyone except their ‘peers’ on the org chart, (yet are entitled to the stories of those without power), is a myth that leads to an imbalance of vulnerability.  It will likely result in misuse of spirituality at some point.

I look at my Jesus – who asks and invites me to turn myself over to Him time and time again in the Scripture – as if I get to decide if I do that.  And I see Him – naked and vulnerable on the Cross, and it seems to me – that if even the God of the universe chooses to be vulnerable with me – there must be no position of power or authority in this life that is right to demand my vulnerability without reciprocating.

Here’s a thought: if we want to ask a potential missionary we’ve never met about their history with masturbation, maybe we should ask ourselves if we are willing to disclose our history first.  If we want to require an intern coming on our staff to tell us if they’ve ever struggled with same-sex attraction, maybe we should earn the right to ask that question with a pattern of vulnerable shepherding first.

(4) Censorship

Censorship happens when there are social, spiritual, or practical consequences for question asking, disagreement, or raising concerns both individually or collectively.  In episode seven of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, we heard of an Elder who was uncomfortable with some of the governing documents.  He was ostracized (social consequences), fired (practical/financial consequences), and charged with behavior unfitting to an Elder, as if he was causing disunity, division, or sinful in some way (spiritual consequences).

Censorship isn’t always as direct as it is in that episode.  Sometimes the person who asks questions in staff meetings just happens to also be passed over for promotion.  Or, when the name of the woman who wanted to chat with the pastor about gender roles comes up as a potential small group leader, no one really knows why, but they just have the impression she’s not mature enough.

Cultures that misuse spirituality confuse silence with unity.  They point to disagreement – especially public disagreement – as divisive and dangerous, never seeing the true danger lurking in censorship.

(5) Superiority 

“A further issue that makes challenge or speaking out difficult is the idea that this particular church or organization is somehow superior and elite.  It is better than others. It has the real truth.”

We hear this in the Mars Hill podcast, right?  This sense that God was doing something at Mars Hill that was so unique, that to leave or to challenge it was a risk – a risk of missing out on the glory of God.

Here’s the thing: I truly believe that God was doing stuff at Mars Hill.  And I don’t doubt it was unique!  We’re talking about the same God who makes a billion snowflakes each utterly distinct.

But unique and powerful are not the same as superior and elite.  And I think that’s often where we’ve gotten a little tangled.  Proclaiming our culture is ‘unique’ is often like a game of telephone, and by the time it gets back around – we’ve internalized ‘unique’ as ‘better’.

We all want to be a part of something unique.  Of course, we do.  And we get to be.  Every morning we wake up, we are part of something unique.  A day that has never existed in the history of the world, a breath that no creature has ever taken before.

But in western land, when we say “we want to be part of something unique” we often mean – we want to be a part of something ‘better.’

I doubt very much that many of us have experienced a church culture where someone stood on a stage and said: “this local church is better than the others”.  But I wonder how many of us have seen someone stand on a stage and say: “God is doing something unique among us….”  And here’s the thing – that could be a true statement.  It’s just not the full truth.  The full truth is: “God is doing something unique among us, AND He’s also doing something unique at the church across the street.” 

A scarcity mentality around the power of God – a sense that the church or organization we are a part of is somehow has cornered the market on God’s movement – will result in people feeling pressured to stay and to conform.  After all, if you leave you will miss out on the glory of God.  If you cause ‘trouble’ you’re getting in the way of the miracles of God.  And these sorts of narratives are the breeding grounds for spiritual misuses.

[More characteristics coming soon!  

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