Many resources exist for those who have experienced horrendous spiritual abuse within churches or other religious organizations. I am so grateful for those who have followed their calling to minister to the brokenhearted within Christendom--the ones who have sustained injury within the very sanctuary that was intended to be a place of nourishment, rest, and growth in Christ.
What happens this occurs within our homes? Is it still legitimately called Spiritual Abuse, or should it be named something else for accuracy? What can you do when you are biologically bound to those in leadership; and if there is no evidence of mistreatment to the physical body, mistreatment of the soul and spirit become mere conjecture? How do you answer when you are still a youth, and are told that you are too young to discern what is true; that you need to trust your elders? How do you respond when you are a woman?
We will study these things with more depth in the future, but let us establish a working knowledge of spiritual abuse in the family.
I believe that these issues are both more common and serious than we know. Again, from Jeff VanVonderen:
Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority, the purpose of which is to ‘come underneath’ and serve, build, equip and make God’s people MORE free, misuses that authority placing themselves over God’s people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly Godly purposes which are really their own.
This isn't limited to churches.
In many authoritarian and patriocentric families, it is common to see isolationist mentalities that drive them even further from the world. The notion to "be separate" and "be unworldly" calls many parents to essentially 'hole-up' and become a completely solitary unit, disconnected and independent from the system and society. In many cases, this includes church. To fulfill the need for Biblical study and knowledge, the head of the family becomes the spiritual leader as well. Unchecked and unaccountable, this is where much of the issue becomes apparent. Rachel Ramer has written an amazing article entitled "Christian Families on the Edge" which expounds upon this concept with alarming accuracy.
According to David Henke who founded the Watchman Fellowship, spiritual abuse has five distinct characteristics: authoritarianism, image consciousness, suppression of criticism, perfectionistic standards, and imbalance in belief or practice. I would like to examine these features in relation to the family, and with particular affinity to women.
Authoritarians exercise complete or almost complete control over the will of others, as well as favor complete obedience or subjection to authority as opposed to individual freedom.
When present within the family structure, this gives the parent--in patriarchal ideology, it is always the father--absolute control over his offspring. What they think, what they do, where they go, what they wear, and so forth, constantly lie under his supervision and are governed by his will and what he believes is right. Practically speaking, this may not always get carried out consistently, especially in large families; however this is the intention, the goal, and the epitome of successful authoritarian structure. While the degree of authoritarianism is determined by such facets as personality, relationship with God and others, and personal dogma, typically authoritarian parents:
- react rather than respond
- are excessively demanding
- require instant obedience and conformity, often without explanation or with a "Because I am the dad!"
- are intimidating and become angry, animated, or forceful
- often communicate unreasonable expectations
- though unspoken, the message often becomes: you are loved or accepted by me, only when you perfom the way I command
- disparage and discourage the emotional needs of their children
- are restrictive and intrusive
- do not respect boundaries
What happens when such authoritarians exact these standards upon their family when it comes to religious or spiritual matters? Furthermore, what what happens when they are wrong?
Contrast this with authoritative parenting, where the authority of a parent is inherently established by being who they are, rather than through austere insistence. It is believed that authoritative parents are a healthy balance between authoritarian and permissive styles.
- respond rather than react
- high, although reasonable expectations
- have a healthy balance between discipline and nurturing the emotional and self-esteem side of their children
- sensitive to the needs of their child, including the emotions
- respectful of boundaries, even in their children
- encourage responsible decision-making while still under protection of the home
In families where spiritual abuse is likely present, there will be undue emphasis placed upon how things look. Often this is taken by proof texting a popular KJV verse:
1 Thessalonians 5:22
Abstain from all appearance of evil.
With an effort to manifest both righteousness and holiness, as a light and a witness, and for their own aggrandizement, these families emphasize appearance over heart. Any action is weighed according to how it may seem to someone else, whether that person claims to be a believer or not, and whether the situation itself is true or not. It is my belief that this is counter to God's desire for His people, as evidenced by the fact that Jesus Himself appeared with prostitutes, gluttons, drunkards, and other sinners. He was concerned with heart and truth, not appearance.
Thus does this feature of spiritual abuse counter the gospel.
Suppression of Criticism
Authoritarian parents greatly discourage any questioning of the system. Children, even adult children, are viewed as a threat if they raise issues, inquiries, skepticism, debate, or general challenges regarding beliefs and parenting styles, for this is perceived as a challenge to authority. This may be apparent in unspoken rules, for many austere debators may welcome questions with words, but the hidden message becomes, you are no longer welcome as you are, loved as you are.
It is my belief that the reason for such a view is that due to the degree of influence upon other members of the family --i.e., younger brothers and sisters--it becomes detrimental for the sake of the established structure to challenge, and therefore plant seeds into the minds of others. If everyone was to question, for example, the understood and accepted level of power would henceforth be undermined and weakened. Therefore, the one who questions is often made to be the one with a problem, and perhaps become heralded as the black sheep or prodigal child, held up as the example of the wayward one, and possibly even considered unsaved.
If the one who questions happens to be a daughter, woe is she. We will discuss this in the near future.
In order to "prove" their way is correct, it becomes absolutely vital for parents to have perfectly-adherent children. Again unspoken, the understood message is that failure and mistakes are anathema. There is no grace within this structure, and therefore no example of truth or true godliness. In addition, a lack of compassion drives offspring...inparticular, women...towards depression and other serious maladies of the soul. Parents who demand perfect following to their established dogma attempt to re-create God in their image, and thus lay the foundation for grave theological and relational error in the heart of their children.
Spiritually abusive families create a severe lack of balance within both structure and creed. In addition to subtle condemnation for questioning, challenging, and other understood 'mis-behavior', there exists the silent recognition that the spiritual head alone hears from God and interprets truth. Those within his care are not equipped to aedequately spiritually discern any matter which may contradict the accepted, established belief. Those who do are labeled rebellious, and humiliated.
This counters the gospel, again. 1 Timothy 2 reminds us, "...God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus..."
There are many objections and controversies among religious and conservative groups regarding when does a child become an adult (here is one opinion; scroll down to the end); can 'children' hear God and disern truth, and what happens when what an individual discerns something contrary to what has been established within the family?
These things and more, with relativity to women, will be addressed in the future. For now, let me impart that if you have been brought up within a home exhibiting these characteristics, or varying degrees of them, it is virtually undeniable that you have wounds within your heart that need immediate attendance. It can be overwhelming to face all of the hurts and the darkness of the past, but for your soul to be made well it is necessary to seek the strength of the Lord to walk through the Valley of the Shadow. Do not fear, for He will receive you and lead you to the way everlasting.
Author note: Please note that I do not claim that every family is like this; however it is very sad and true that these things are more frequent than we realize. Because these families are extremely private, it is difficult to provide actual statistics regarding the percentages of those who believe and live this way. I rely on what I know, have seen and heard, as well as the limited numbers that are available, which I will provide as I can. Please do not discount the severity of this problem based on the lack of factual statistical evidence.
For further research on parenting styles: