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.