Recognizing Spiritual Domination and Abuse
Jesus’ gift of the Spirit of Truth lights the way and guides us to spiritual independence. (John 16:13) Consequently, no one who is led by spirit can be made a victim of spiritual domination or abuse. Those days are long gone:
“Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
– 2 Corinthians 3:15-18
Unfortunately, abuse is an insidious practice. We call it insidious because many victims of abuse are not even aware of it! They know something is not right, but they cannot put their finger on it. Abusers convince their victims that all will be better if they will only listen and obey the abuser. We see this in physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, child abuse, spousal abuse, elder abuse, and yes, spiritual abuse. Abusers want control and unquestioned obedience so they can more easily take advantage of their victims. Sadly, in many cases, the victim has a complete blind spot and simply cannot see that they are being abused, misused and controlled.
Ask yourself: How would you describe spiritual abuse? Do you know the signs? How would you know if a friend was a victim of spiritual abuse? How would you help that friend? Then turn it inward: Are you objective enough to take a personal inventory to see if there is any spiritual abuse within your own group? If you find abuse, what will you do? Is your love for truth stronger than your need to belong to the group? Is your love for God stronger than your need to please man? If we are to benefit from Jesus’ declaration of our spiritual independence, we must be honest and open, at least with ourselves.
There are several books written about spiritual, religious and authoritarian abuse which itemize various ways churches and religious authorities abuse their members. Not all of the factors apply to all abusive organizations, but here are a few that seem to apply across the board:
- Absolute authority of the leadership. Apotheosis or exaltation of the primary leader or leaders to a God-like status over the group that has the effect of making the group believe they must strictly obey the leaders in order to please God. ‘Setting themselves up as Gods.’ (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4)
- Elitism. Leaders view themselves, their understanding and their counsel as superior to all others. They separate themselves from other groups, and openly judge the other groups as inferior. (Luke 18:9-14)
- Image Conscious. Spiritual abusers give inordinate attention to maintaining their public image at the expense of taking corrective measures. (Matthew 23:25-28)
- Fear of Dissent. The group must go beyond respecting the positions held by leaders. They must loyally submit to the leaders without any right to disagree, question or challenge the decisions made by the leaders. (Acts 7:51-60)
- Isolationism of Thought. The group cannot read or accept any spiritual information or instruction that does not originate from the group’s leaders. (John 7:45-52)
- Doctrinal Terrorism. Frequent teachings creating a fear of disobeying or leaving the group. Presenting the group as the only means of salvation. (John 14:6)
- Erosion of Personal Autonomy. Unreasonable control of a person's basic right to make their own decisions on spiritual or natural matters. (Matthew 23:4)
- Isolationism. Separation, disenfranchisement, or parental alienation and estrangement from family and friends outside the group. (John 9:20-23)
- No Honorable Exit. No member can decide they no longer want to be a part of the group without being labeled as disobedient, rebellious, lacking faith, demonized, apostate, enemy of the church or enemy of God. (John 16:1-4)
Do any of these characteristics sound familiar? For example: Are you required to give unquestioned obedience to those taking the lead in your group? What would happen if you openly questioned or expressed disagreement with the teachings? Would your question be viewed as fair criticism or would you be viewed as a troublemaker or an apostate? What would happen if you read material that criticized the teachings of your group? Would you have to do it in secret? If others knew, would you be chastised or disciplined? What would happen if you decided you no longer wanted to be a part of the group? Would they say to you ‘go in peace’ or would you be called names, labeled an apostate, shunned? Do you have the freedom to follow Paul’s counsel:
“Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?”
– 2 Corinthians 13:5
If you cannot freely examine, question and test ‘whether you are in the faith,’ you are being unduly controlled, you are not experiencing spiritual freedom and you are not enjoying the spiritual independence Jesus gave his life for.
From the outside it is easy to see spiritual abuse. But it is not always easy for those in an abusive relationship to see it. But questions such as those presented above will significantly help in testing whether a certain religious association is in harmony with Jesus’ teachings or still under the veil of the ‘old wine’ of religious authority. (2 Corinthians 3:15-17)
If you discover that the group you are associated with has oppressive and/or abusive practices, what should you do? If you were able to be in direct conference with Jesus, what do you think he would tell you to do? Clearly, it is time to emancipate yourself! It is time to accept your spiritual freedom from man-rule or clergy-rule, and declare your spiritual independence. Let it be known to all that you ‘obey God rather than human beings’ (Acts 5:29) and then be about the Father’s business!