The nine faces of Christian Abuse

After writing some 175 blog posts, I find it necessary from time to time to refine and clarify my categories of description and definitions. It is very easy, by using a particular word or words, to describe several areas of behaviour and lump them all together in one’s mind, even though they should be distinguished clearly from one another. The words ‘Christian abuse’ gather together a number of quite distinct areas of behaviour and activity and it is important to separate these out for the sake of clarity. It is this task of separating out the strands of Christian abuse that is the aim of this particular blog post. This will help me to think more precisely about what I am describing and also help my readers to see what is the range of abuse when practised in a Christian context. I need of course to repeat the point that I am, in particular, focusing on abuse that takes place within an evangelical context, not because that is the only place where it happens, but because this is the area in which I have done most study and reading

The task defining the different strands of Christian abuse has become more urgent for me since two distinct categories were recently introduced into our blog discussion, neither of which had I discussed or really thought about before. The first was the mention of a South African justifying apartheid from particular texts in the Bible. The second category of Christian abuse was that which occurs in an employment context affecting a Christian organisation. Once again this is an area of abuse which had not really crossed my radar, but equally it deserves the description of Christian abuse.

In setting out various strands of abuse that occur in a Christian context, I am not claiming to have the last word on the subject, but merely to set out nine distinct contexts for abuse which occur to me. The hope is that a generally accepted categorisation may eventually emerge which has a degree of acceptance among those who think about these issues.

• The use of a Christian ideology to further distinctly political ends. I am particularly thinking about Dominionism and the ideas of Rushdoony in the States. These seek to set up a political system which has at its heart the application of Biblical/Old Testament laws to civil society. From this Christianised version of ISIS, the so-called Christian Right draws much of its inspiration and ideas. Their ideas can be summarised as promoting low taxes, minimal governmental interference and allowing the poor to fend for themselves. There is a kind of social ‘natural selection’. These laissez-faire ideas are combined with cruel treatment for those who transgress morality, particularly in areas of sexual sin. The Christian Right finds support for its political ideas in selected passages from Scripture in the same way the the Christian supporters of Apartheid were able (selectively) to quote Scripture. Within this system, there is abuse aimed not only at their political opponents but also all who are poor, disadvantaged and in need of support from Government funds. Such people, in the thought patterns of the Christian Right, have in some way deserved their poverty through some moral failure.
• Similar to these political ideas are the teachings of a group known as the Health and Wealth Gospel, often mediated through media/TV preaching. This is a kind of political message preached to large groups, but many individuals become casualties, even when they have clung on to the hopes aroused by the Television preachers for a considerable length of time. The HW teaching says that God can be relied upon to give success, wealth and long life to those who trust him sufficiently. The teaching of this group naturally ends up with disappointment and despair for many because there is no way than more than a few can achieve the riches and success promised. The rest are left to feel failures both to God and to society, having also spent large sums of money along the way.
• A third category are those who become involved in a Christian group which is effectively a cult. This will be led by a strong leader, a guru, who will entwine the life of the follower with that of the group so that independent thinking and judgement is undermined and eventually destroyed. All through this cultic process, the follower will have thought that they were following God. Once a disillusionment sets it, for whatever reason, not only has the follower lost a lot of self-esteem but the possibility of trusting God has been severely undermined. The cultic dynamic is effectively a scam which is destructive of many things. In some cases, the individual is exploited sexually. This can wreck the ability to form healthy relationships in the future. The post-cult individual is left quite seriously damaged and in need of long-term support.
• There are also many people who are exposed to particular strands of Christian teaching and church life that, over a period, affect their well-being and mental health. These are not cult victims in the sense that they have not been individually groomed for abusive treatment. What they are, are people who come to the church with normal types of neediness, perhaps parental neglect or depression. Sometimes the exposure of this mental fragility and vulnerability to endless sermons about the depravity of human-kind and the likelihood of hell for those who fail, has a catastrophic effect. Chris knows several people who fall into this category.
• Another group of people who are abused through Christian teaching, are members of male-led churches which have a strong patriarchal flavour. This puts all the women in an inferior place. The married women in such churches are told to submit to their men, and these marriages often escalate into a pattern that involves cruelty and even violence. We might call this misogynist abuse.
• The sixth section refers to any workplace bullying in a Christian organisation. This has to be dealt with particular care because Christians are reluctant to complain about other Christians, for fear that they will be responsible for bringing their organisation and the church into the public square. In most cases there will not be any theological aspect to such problems, though Paul’s injunction about not taking your fellow Christian to court may inhibit decisive action in the first instance.
• A seventh category of Christian abuse concerns the activity of some Christians who wish to take over their denomination in the name of a purer expression of the faith than the one they find in the group at present. I have written about this kind of abusive activity in the last post. The pursuit of pure ‘truth’ often seems to run with deceit and underhand methods and it can be categorised as political Calvinism.
• Members of the LGBT tribe receive the message that they are in many places unwelcome in the church. Still worse is it for those who are effectively expelled for ‘coming out’ by Christians who feel that the gay life-style and a Christian path are never compatible.
• Last but not least we must mention the use of demons and devils and the creation of an entire mythology through which leaders sustain a culture of control. Those in authority ‘discern’ the demonic forces and maintain control by naming themselves as the solution to the problem. They are also the exorcists.

I am sure that these categories can be further refined and extended but I wanted to offer them to my readers as an attempt to clarify the distinct ways in which Christian power is from time to time abused. I have named nine distinct areas in which power is sometimes abused in a Christian context. Each of them is different. Sometimes we are talking about the abuse of sectors of the population and other times the abuse is about individuals who find themselves victims of a power-seeking leader. Although I shall refine my terminology over the months that are ahead, I shall refer back to these descriptions to help the reader know what I am talking about.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Cumbria. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

16 thoughts on “The nine faces of Christian Abuse

  1. Dear Stephen,
    Thank you for posting this. You’ve given me considerable food for thought. Just one very quick question: where does sexual abuse fit into your taxonomy?
    When I’ve given due consideration to your post, I’ll get back to you.

  2. Thanks for this, Stephen. You have put a huge amount of work into this, and I thank you for it. No buts! The sixth category of work place bullying, would that include volunteers such as NSMs and Readers? In secular life it seems to me that work place bullying occurs as a result of a highly stratified society. In effect a caste system. This means that the abuser is always more valuable, being high caste, than the victim, who will be below them in the pecking order. So you get situations much like that reported by many involved with Savile. “Don’t say anything, he makes money for the hospital.” “you can’t do anything he’s a Bishop/MP/whatever” I’m sure this will develop in a very interesting way.

  3. Thank you Stephen. I want to think about this. I am also concerned about the abuse of people and process that takes place within the democratic structures of church government. Things like PCCs. In churches where none of the things you’ve described here are outstandingly prominent, where the problems may often be really quite low level compared to the streams of corruption we hear about in secular politics – yet what we are talking about is still the wielding of power in a way that is a failure of love and respect, justice, inclusion, understanding and empowerment towards the vulnerability of others. To consider also whether we should keep the category of “abuse” as it often seems to be meant, to describe really very bad things, or whether it is useful to include within it all those little everyday betrayals of Christ that really we are all guilty of in some way, which suck the joy out of life, curdle trust and relationship and can be much more damaging than many people are willing to suppose.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I am particularly grateful for Anne’s question about sexual abuse. I am interpreting her question to be about the abuse of adults, especially women, rather than children. I can see, after thinking about it, that such abuse can be understood to a working out of various of the categories I have mentioned. I put it into the ‘cultic’ slot, but equally it could be in the ‘misogynist’ group, the place where women are routinely devalued.
      This reflection leads me to see that the categories are defined not actions themselves, but by the cultures in a Christian setting that make abuse possible. Gail from America, who I hope is reading this, spoke of the ‘culture’ of Peniel Church that made the rape event possible. The important but tricky thing is to make sure that any list of things is comparing like with like. My list tries to be a list of ‘Biblical’ values that have been corrupted to gratify the pathological needs of people. The pathology of wanting power over others goes back to the beginning of time. What we see in Christian abuse is the using of Biblical ideas to enhance this process. The basic motivations for power abuse are sex, power and money. We see plenty of examples of the search for these in Christian contexts. Perhaps we come back to one of my original insights which would cover Haiku’s point about PCCs. This stated that unless the church faces up to the incipient narcissism in leaders and led, i.e. a lust for self-importance, then the functioning of these groups will always be faulty. Bullying, EnglishAthena, is also about this unresolved unacknowledged narcissism in those who have power. This has little or nothing to do with faulty understandings of the Bible. I have hitherto focussed on Biblical issues in power abuse, because that is what struck me back in the 90s when I did my research. The linking of Bible teaching to blatant power abuse was something that aroused enormous anger in me and still does.
      The next blog post is about Trinity Brentwood but I then will have another bash at this ‘faces of Christian abuse’ in the light of this discussion.

      1. Thanks Stephen. As well as
        “the incipient narcissism in leaders and led, i.e. a lust for self-importance,”
        which you correctly identify, is the sad fact that many of the led do not lust for self-importance so much as suffer from timidity, unsophistication, lack of self-worth and inability to assert themselves, thus making them easy prey for a culture where the confident few rule and manipulate. Perhaps the mechanics are really not that different in some ways, whether it is a very corrupt cult or merely an everyday situation where a few people with slightly domineering tendencies usually get their own way, the culture disables people from having the information they should have or learning they have permission to challenge, and the outcomes are usually well enough intended so no-one sees anything much wrong. Or they just have a vaguely uneasy feeling inside that maybe things are too much of a stitch up, without really understanding why or how, but they have no idea where to go with that. I’ve already had one person expressing her view of that to me, along with her relief that things might be changing.

  4. Thanks Stephen,
    The question keeps coming to my mind, after all the work you have put in to this subject, why is the organised Church ignoring you?
    Your words on a previous blog about, “Eating the apple of thinking for yourself” are oh so relevant to me ! More soon, Peace, Chris

  5. None of this activity should surprise us, it seems to me, as Jesus warned of wolves in sheep’s clothing, Paul predicted that after he had gone wolves would come in to harry the flock, John spoke of Anti-christs (in the place of Christ), and Paul explained that Satan masquerades as an angel of light. I hope that in time, this website will also address how people can get over abuse they have received and move on. Here’s a suggestion for starters: forgiveness (Matt 6:14-15).

    1. Biblically, it would seem that people have to acknowledge what they have done, and ask for forgiveness. What if the perpetrators have not acknowledged any fault, and indeed have not stopped? Constant forgiveness, every day, in the certain knowledge that the abuse will not stop, is an intolerable burden to place upon the victim. And as Chris says, the problem is forgive and remember. Only a very stupid person forgets that fire burns, or that such and such an individual is a bully, or touches up all the women he can get his hands on.

  6. David,
    “Forgiveness”? I have heard it said many times. I start by saying that I don’t think forgiveness is (Necessarily) the problem.
    Most of the victims that I know are humble passive people who don’t have a problem with forgiveness. Their problem (Like mine) is forgetting!
    Second to this is the state of the abuser/abusers and the (Often times) lack of repentance or awareness of the harm done! We could reapply here the concept of cheap grace in a perverse way back to the abuser?

    I remain very skeptical about those who offer ‘Advice’ here.
    I note that in nearly all my experience, the advisers are usually a million miles away from their advisees.
    As in the case of the disempowered lower working class, the people who advise and govern them are never one of them!

    Peace, Chris

  7. Met someone today who used to run a big parish that was a “place of safety” for clergy who had been hurt. Now that’s an interesting thought. I’m not sure whether I’m pleased it existed, or devastated it was needed.

  8. I just downloaded a book called ‘A guilty Secret’ by Sheila Martin which is about the bullying of clergy. I have no doubt that this happens but would suggest that it is probably commoner in churches where there is no effective oversight on the outside like bishops and superintendents. Whether it is clergy who do the bullying or prominent lay people, the same dynamics seem to be at work. The main issue seems to be the importance of getting Christians to see that they do not always behave as the fantasy Christian is supposed to behave. If unpleasant power struggles arise, the priest/minister does normally have the edge in getting his/her own way. The secret is to teach all clergy the sorts of personality disorders that may arise in them and in their parishioners which make the pathological lust for power happen. It is important that we (the clergy) find ways of dealing with ‘difficult’ parishioners that do not in fact involve potentially abusive techniques to put them in their place.

  9. Hope, real hope is needed now. I see nothing in place to help the victims of the so called 60’s 70’s 80’s ‘Revival’? For them it’s a constant shadow boxing with a god who is the sum and hopes of someone else’s interpretation. Idols have their day and don’t feel, people do!
    If there is an original thought out there,I could use it right now?
    Peace, Chris

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