Evangelical Alliance on Spiritual Abuse -Unhelpful and Confusing

The Evangelical Alliance published yesterday (5th February) a report on recent discussions about ‘spiritual abuse’. This Alliance, representing a large number of conservative churches and groups, appears to be extremely sensitive to the possibility that some of its members may be guilty of spiritually harmful behaviour. The Church of England General Synod recently asked the government to outlaw treatments that claim to be able to change sexual orientation. These are practised by some clinics but also by some EA linked church organisations. Strong Christian belief systems can undoubtedly sometimes create harm and it is this that is legitimately referred to by many as spiritual abuse. The EA Report on the other hand wants to suggest that spiritual abuse is a flawed idea and thus should not be used. The main argument to support this view is that, unlike sexual, physical and emotional abuse, spiritual abuse falls outside the definitions offered by our UK legal systems. Were it to obtain a legal definition, the Report believes that it might be used to persecute conservative churches which possess sincerely held beliefs and practices.

There is in the Report a fundamental confusion because it suggests that those who use the term are seeking to create a new category of abuse in criminal law. This would compare it to sexual abuse, physical abuse or the newly coined notion of ‘coercion and control’. This is an argument that does not stand. People like me who blog on the topic of spiritual abuse know perfectly well that most of the behaviour that we would describe in this way is not actually criminal. People may be damaged, hurt and spiritually destroyed but nothing that has been done to them is deemed to be contrary to the law of the country. Nothing that happens even in the most extreme cults is criminal unless it involves money, property or severe coercion. The harmful effects of ‘brainwashing’ are simply not reckoned in law to be important unless the individual is a minor. Harm, tangible harm, nevertheless happens in many of these groups as we all know. Much of such harm can and should be described as spiritual abuse. The individual has surrendered him/herself to the power of a charismatic leader to direct their life in accordance with a holy book or the whims of the guru.

Let me give an example of spiritual abuse which has been shared with me in recent days. A man with a history of childhood sexual abuse goes to a church seeking support and help. The church incidentally was a member of the Evangelical Alliance. Because his original trauma has resulted in him hearing voices, the leaders of that church assume that he has demons. He is thus suitable for exorcism. After several months of being prayed over by enthusiastic ministers, he finds that nothing has changed. He then suffers a complete breakdown and ends up in a psychiatric unit for several months. By my definition he has been spiritually abused but those in his church have done nothing which is of interest to the police or criminal prosecutors.

Another individual decides that she though longer trusts the leadership of her EA church. She decides to leave with her family. In doing this she finds that her entire social life is destroyed because people no longer speak to her. Her children were cut dead by their former friends and she becomes a social leper. The message at her church is that she has deliberately cut herself off from God; she is destined for hell and there is nothing more that can be done to help her. Spiritual abuse?

These two stories can be repeated many times and I attempt to reach out to such individuals. It is not good enough for the EA to put out a Report that appears to suggest that people who use the term ‘spiritual abuse’ are only interested in having this kind of behaviour criminalised. We are simply trying to describe a phenomenon which is all too common in our churches. The EA Report attacks Jayne Ozanne who is concerned about the savage treatment meted out to individuals who admit to same-sex attraction in some churches, including those attached to the EA. She uses the term ‘spiritual abuse’ while readily admitting that it is not yet a legally recognised category. One wants to shout out, so what! Why should we expect the law to pursue all bad behaviour? It does not punish other sins such as adultery even though Christian teaching and conscience consistently deem them as wrong. The law only intervenes when it is compelled to for reasons of public order. The attempt by the Report to suggest that liberal Christians are expecting to have all spiritually abusive behaviour criminalised is wrong. There may be some things, such as Conversion Therapy that are arguably potentially criminal. But there are countless other doubtful behaviours by church leaders which we know we will have to live with for a long time. Realistically they will not be easily criminalised. Meanwhile individuals like me will continue to draw attention to such things as inappropriate exorcisms and shunnings. We do not expect the law of the land to take any interest any time soon. In summary, the question whether the law should be interested in spiritual abuse is quite a separate consideration from whether it exists and can be defined. The Report could well spend its time, not on whether its constituent members obey the law, but whether they commit spiritual abuse. In November 2015 on this blog I wrote an open letter to the EA and its Director, Steve Clifford challenging him to take seriously and publicly the 200,000 word Report by John Langlois on Peniel Church. This contained dozens of examples of individuals being spiritually abused by Michael Reid and his subordinates. The fact that these were not criminal or subject to any existing law does not make them any the less brutal or painful for those who suffered.

Let me reiterate some conclusions from a previous blog about why the category of spiritual abuse is a useful one. In the first place it recognises that individuals who enter a religious institution to become members are often already vulnerable people. They may arrive with issues and problems connected with guilt, shame and earlier mistreatment by others. In other words, many Christians begin their Christian life seeking healing. Some, we hope, will find it with the help of pastorally sensitive treatment. The resources of prayer and patient listening will allow a bruised individual to find their way to wholeness. Sadly, the opposite is also true. The same outward resources of scripture, prayer and pastoral practice can batter a person into a place of despair and utter hopelessness. The law has nothing to say at present to distinguish between these two outcomes. Both are outside the scope or interest of the law. Both processes are exercised in a spiritual context and thus each can be described as ‘spiritual’. For the Evangelical Alliance not to recognise the difference between these two outcomes is profoundly and irresponsibly unhelpful.

In the last few days my attention was drawn to a book called God’s Catalyst by Rosemary Green. This book proposes a model of pastoral counselling based on the nouthetic ideas of Jay Adams. I have discussed these ideas on the blog before. In summary I regard them as highly dangerous and potentially abusive. Anyone who experiences this counselling style is likely to feel battered and bruised by their exposure. One particular text that is used by Green are verses from Hebrews 12 where the Christian is encouraged to regard pain and suffering as the ‘chastisement of the Lord’. Can you imagine a sensitive downtrodden individual receiving such advice from their Christian counsellor? It is horrifying to consider. While it is ‘legal’ behaviour, without a doubt it falls into the category of spiritual abuse.

In summary the Evangelical Alliance’s attempt to discuss spiritual abuse only within a legal framework rather than an ethical one makes this Report of extremely limited value. Those who look to this organisation for advice on this topic will remain confused. The rest of us will continue our own search to identify and attempt to outlaw spiritual abusive practices wherever they occur. Tragically and regretfully they are found in churches of all traditions.


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.

9 thoughts on “Evangelical Alliance on Spiritual Abuse -Unhelpful and Confusing

  1. Seeking a further definition. A Diocese where clergy are encouraged not to provide pastoral care to those coming to them for support, but to pass everyone on to a team of counsellors for whose expertise the supplicant has to pay. What happened to basic pastoral care? You know, just tea and sympathy? Won’t people who are faced with this feel very badly let down? Some are just going to curl up inside and give up. Is this spiritual abuse?

  2. I agree with you Athena. A lot of pastoral care is simple listening and giving time. Most people are not properly heard elsewhere so the effort to hear their story by the minister is therapeutic for the teller. A working knowledge of mental illness is useful so that you do not get caught up in destructive transferences etc. It is also a question of the minister having a good self-knowledge of their own vulnerabilities, preferably with the help of a wise mentor. All too often, as we hear on this blog, these basic requirements are not available – with tragic consequences.

  3. All you have said is very true. It’s good that spiritual abuse is being recognised. Concentrating wholly on Bible based teaching can have a very black and white view of people’s sufferings leaving us short of the empathic pastoral care we need.

  4. Athena, is that really happening? I’m appalled. A lot of people just need to be heard with empathy, without judgement or even much in the way of advice. Stephen is right : the listener – and every pastor – needs a working knowledge of mental health. In my view all clergy should be required to take the Mental Health First Aid course (I think that’s what’s called) as an absolute minimum. Professional supervision, of the kind available to therapists and medics, should be available (and required) too.

    Currently the C of E is much too management-oriented, which may be why that diocese is advocating that clergy pass people on to professional counsellors. But that is abdicating an essential duty of the priest/pastor/shepherd – whatever you want to call the role, it involves caring for the sheep. Or should.

    The EA’s report on spiritual abuse is highly defensive – which suggests they know they have reason to be worried. Personally I welcome the recognition of spiritual abuse, and look forward to improvements in practice. It’s going to get very messy before that happens, though, as it becomes clear just how much spiritual abuse there has been.

    To give just one example: I was at theological college when I was diagnosed with a gallstone. That term a vicar was taking his sabbatical at our college, and decided my diagnosis must have some deeper spiritual significance. So he turned up at my tiny bedroom and offered to pray for me. The man was over 6 ft tall, dark, and gaunt. I was (in those days) quite petite. Having heard his theory that gall bladder problems were caused by a ‘root of bitterness’, I declined his offer of prayer. He ignored me and, backing me towards the bed and towering over me, proceeded to ‘cast out a spirit of bitterness’ with much arm-waving. It was highly intimidating and I was very shaken. That man went on to become warden of a healing/retreat centre somewhere in the south of England. I hate to think how much damage he might have done there.

    1. Hmm. Reminds me of a Team Vicar who went on a Counselling course. As someone said, her style would have been very “directive”! How do people get through these courses? Rhetorical question.
      I think the trained counsellor thing was an effort to provide proper care rather than letting the idiots of whom we speak loose on vulnerable people! But if the clergy are in practice simply refusing all pastoral care if it involves emotional stuff…..? Certainly, one senior cleric said he didn’t think people should talk about abuse. “It’s in the past”! The usual thing, in fact. Well everything’s in the past!! Doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be allowed to talk. But apparently, that’s exactly what it means. There’s a great inability to understand the difference between wanting to talk and picking the scabs!

  5. Wonder what that senior cleric was hiding, that he didn’t want someone to remember? Or possibly he was just very much afraid of emotion and pain. Either way, he shouldn’t have been in a position where he was responsible for other people’s pastoral needs – let alone the welfare of those whose responsibility it was to pastor others.

  6. Reading the EA report, it is clear that there has been a disagreement on this subject between the EA and CCPAS, and the EA has rejected the views of CCPAS. This is sad, because CCPAS has a long and honorable track record, albeit in child protection and not abuse in general.

    At the risk of being cynical, I would note that the EA represents churches, and abusers are frequently church leaders, but CCPAS is on the side of the victims.

    Another cynical observation is that this is a reaction against Jayne Ozanne, who the EA will despise as she is an evangelical advocate for LGBT inclusion. The evangelical establishment does not want someone who they deem “outside the camp” to be driving the conversation.

    My firm belief is that spiritual abuse is an elephant in the room (or in the church). Yes, it needs careful definition, and there are grey areas, but equally there are many things which are clearly abusive (such as the two examples Stephen gave) and the church should not hesitate in saying that they are unacceptable.

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