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Characteristics #6-9 of Spiritually Abusive Behavior
A series on Spiritual Abuse // PART SEVEN
We’ve been going through some of the traits you might find in communities where spirituality might be misused. We’ve talked about manipulation, or pressure to behave in a certain way, expectations of excessive conformity, enforced accountability, censorship, and cultures of superiority. Today we’re going to get into a few more.
Oh boy. Isn’t this the word of the day?
Gaslighting is a type of coercion that leads people to question their own reality.
What makes it tricky is that sometimes two people see reality differently. And disagreement – even unhealthy disagreement – is not always gaslighting. (see graphic!)
One distinction between disagreement and gaslighting is that in a disagreement, both people approach the conversation with equal validity. Maybe we see things differently, maybe we disagree – even strongly disagree – but we’re peers before God – so each of us is just as likely to be right or wrong. We respect one another’s reality. In Gaslighting, there’s often an explicit or implicit power dynamic, and there’s a sense that one person sees reality and the other does not. There is pressure is to get one person to give up their version of reality to concede to the others.
You can imagine how easily this could happen in spiritual environments! The whole faith concept takes a little bit of surrender of reality. Often, people feel called by God to help others see what they consider to be the truth. Sometimes people claim that God spoke to them in ways that you may be confident aren’t ‘real.’
So, what should you keep an eye out for? Personally, I would run from a space where there is pressure for you to operate as if there are certain people who have some unique ability to determine what’s true, and some who do not.
Is it a culture where a certain group of people have answers?
Are leaders open to hearing your perspective? Not to make you ‘feel heard’ but because they are aware they may have missed something? Are your perspectives valued and treated as equally valid?
Are you encouraged to seek answers from God and form your own conclusions, or are you told what the answers are?
Is there an inconsistency between words and behavior? And how is that gap navigated? (e.g. you’re told you’re loved, but the behavior seems contrary. When you question it, you are told you’re imagining it).
(7) Requirement for obedience + use of fear
It’s not too tricky to assess if you are a part of a culture where there is a use of fear to require obedience: are people afraid to disagree in your spiritual culture? When they do disagree, who do they go to? Is it the kind of culture where the first place someone wants to go when you have really deep questions or really dark failure is to their leaders? And is that conversation scary? Do they anticipate receiving comfort or consequence?
We may think: well, maybe people feel afraid as leaders because they are people pleasers? Or have ‘approval idols’. But – there are spiritual spaces where those who are generally fearful find a safe place to disagree or ask questions. I would argue, that one of the roles of the Church is to help make it easier for those who are afraid to find their voice. Ideally, the first place people want to go when they feel confused or afraid or consider leaving the faith is to their spiritual leaders. And these aren’t just ideals. I’ve seen places like this. They exist. Jesus lived them.
(8) Isolation and rejection
What happens in your culture when someone disagrees or defies? Are they still included? Are they still welcome? Don’t evaluate this by what you want the answer to be or what you’ve been told it is. Ask yourself: how would the person who disagreed answer this? Did disagreeing cost them belonging in any way?
Think through your life. Have friendships and relationships shifted just because they aren’t bought into the specific mission of your organization? The family of God isn’t based on membership at a local church. It’s a family born of the Spirit of God that transcends location and local church affiliation. If that doesn’t happen in your organization, that might be a red flag.
(9) Public shaming and humiliation
As I was listening to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have felt like to be on the receiving end of the kind of public shaming that took place. Imagine a person with an incredibly large microphone telling everyone to break fellowship with you. I get it. This kind of action is often supported with the ‘don’t even eat with such a one’ text. Personally, I have a hard time envisioning an appropriate application of that text in a church context where there are large power dynamics at play.
More characteristics to come!