Nine faces of abuse – further thoughts

After writing my nine faces of Christian abuse and reading the comments, I began to see further configurations on the way I could set out my material. Before exploring these ideas, I want to share again the thought that Christian abuse is an aspect of church life that many Christians have never encountered. There are also some who would deny that such abuse exists. The argument might go along these lines. ‘Christians are people who believe in God’s love, so they cannot possibly be among those who cause harm to others, least of all their fellow Christians.’ Given the fact that not a few Christians would prefer that Christian abuse, even as a theoretical possibility, remained suppressed and denied, it is, I would claim, not helpful to talk about forgiving such abuse when it is not yet owned up to and acknowledged. For a genuine process of forgiveness and healing to begin, there has to be a realistic facing up to the evil that has been perpetrated. That is the process that we hope is going to happen at Trinity Brentwood. Acknowledgement of past hurt has to take place before forgiveness can be shared and the process of reconciliation and healing begun. I shall more to say on this in the next post.

My new configuration of an understanding of Christian abuse is to suggest that it operates at one of three levels. The first is at the institutional level. Some Christians, who believe that they have the monopoly of truth, will sometimes agitate to show how this truth functions at every level, including the political. They thus believe themselves required to be activists at a political level. The classic examples of this kind of thinking are, as we have seen, in the ideas of Rounas Rushdoony, the Calvinist thinker, whose ideas set out a way of claiming the whole of society for Christ, a method of rule we would describe as theocracy. Thankfully, his ideas have not succeeded, but they form an inspiration for the Christian Right in America. Other expressions of the way that institutional power is claimed, have been seen in the process that saw the entire Southern Baptist Convention taken over by a fundamentalist clique in the 80s. A similar movement exists today within Anglicanism, attempting to control the whole institution, but so far it has not met with success.

As far as individuals are concerned, little personal damage is caused by an institutional takeover like that of the SBC in the States. They will of course be grieved to see their beloved denomination change direction away from its historical roots, but individually the members will not be damaged psychologically. They will have the freedom, if they so wish, to move to find more congenial surroundings that suit them.

A second level of Christian abuse is through the fact that, when churches begin to teach with particular emphases, individuals can get hurt. The particular damage caused to these individuals is not the aim or intention of these styles of preaching and teaching, but people are sometimes harmed in a kind of ‘collateral damage’. There has always existed in Christian theology a tension between a teaching about a loving generous God who receives all to himself, and another version which puts a greater emphasis on sin and the possibility of eternal punishment. In addition there is a version of the Christian faith that seems to humiliate women, alongside certain minorities who cannot aspire to the standards of the preacher. People who hear messages which evoke fear and contain aspects of threat, may find themselves deeply affected as they absorb over a period the negative elements in a so-called ‘good news’. Not a few people will become completely demoralised and depressed by the constant teaching of certain strands of Calvinist rhetoric, for example. One writer described the psychological state of constantly agonising about one’s eternal soul as like suffering an ‘evangelical anorexia nervosa’. Also the group of churches, which teach a form of Christianity with a strong patriarchal emphasis, can lead women feeling devalued and sometimes accepting ill-treatment from their husbands. To repeat, these types of churches do not set out to abuse individuals, but they can create collateral victims through what we would describe as an, arguably, abusive teaching style. Further expressions of potentially harmful churches are those that teach Health and Wealth ideas, Shepherding or present everything in terms of a binary universe. This will populate the world with demons and devils who are constantly around, trying to defeat and destroy the unwary Christian. These kinds of teachings create many victims through control, fear or terror.

The third level where a church can cause harm, is where individuals are targeted in a deliberate and calculated way by another Christian, often the minister or leader. A member of a church becomes a target for exploitation, whether financially, sexually or simply as a pawn in a complicated power game played by powerful dominating personalities. There are two broad settings for this kind of individual exploitation. One is the ordinary parish or congregational set-up where leadership or power has been surrendered to a personality (not necessarily the official leader) who may have an undiagnosed personality disorder. Such a person has successfully convinced the congregation that their position of influence is appropriate and necessary. They will use charm and skilful manoeuvring to retain their position. Only an outsider would be in a position to spot the dynamics of such a church and how charisma, charm and occasionally outright threats of anger are used to keep everyone in their place. The extreme form of this kind of exploitative church process is the cultic variety. Here the malignant charisma of the leader is fairly clear. In such a cultic church there will likely be an attachment on the part of the leader, not only to power for its own sake but also possibly to sex and to money. Money will have the habit of disappearing into ‘projects’ under the leader’s control. Sexual exploitation of the women in the congregation will also be common in the cultic church, alongside a unnatural devotion and loyalty to the leader on the part of all the members. There will often also be a deliberate use of rumour and innuendo as a means of keeping control. A lot more could be said about the dynamics of such a cultic church, but suffice to say it is a dangerous place to be for the members, in terms of their financial, spiritual and psychological health.

In this summary, we have set out our nine categories in a somewhat different way. The main issue to address in this categorisation is to ask whether the Christian abuse is being aimed at institutions or individuals. In the case of the latter, we ask whether they are deliberately targeted or just ‘collateral damage’ in a broadly abusive situation. Our first category, the abuse attempted by large bodies to take over or control other institutions, while of historical moment, will affect the individual least. The third category, the targeted individual in the dysfunctional or cultic parish run by, or giving freedom to a narcissistic personality, is in most danger for their personal safety and well-being.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. 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.

One thought on “Nine faces of abuse – further thoughts

  1. Interesting. I’ll need to think about this a bit more, I think. I picked up on your comment about the threat of loss of temper. I do know a situation where the next tier down from the head lad are indeed afraid of his temper. He certainly likes his own way, but I don’t think this particular individual is deliberately and consciously using his irascibility as a means of control. He may not even realise he is so bad that people are afraid of him. He’s actually the archetypal weak man who flies off the handle when he’s had enough because he doesn’t know how to deal with non-confrontational disagreements. I mean, when people don’t happen to agree with him. We’re a pretty funny lot, Homo sapiens! I have a very musical friend who commented on the carol with the phrase “He chose a poor and humble lot”, that we are the poor and humble lot!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.