Paying for School

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

I'm Sorry if You Feel...

Way back in 1991, Johnson and VanVonderen published a book called, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. I hope it’s hard for you to imagine the words “spiritual” and “abuse” going together.  If you’ve been in the church for over a decade, I can’t imagine it is.  Recent events have drawn me back to some of their observations.  Paul said it’s not about people but about Principalities.  In chapter five of their book they nail down some of the symptoms of an abusive system – a principality – that hurts.

First, they identify something they call power-posturing.  “Power-posturing simply means that leaders spend a lot of time focused on their own authority and reminding others of it, as well.” Team leadership ought to be a remedy for this one but experience has shown that the “team” part may only exist on paper.  Or one person on the team will make sure everyone knows that they are the “coach”, setting them apart from and above the team.  Another key word here is, “mine.”

The second brick in their sick system is performance preoccupation.  “Obedience and submission are two important words often used.”  The authors ask an important question, “Do we come to church to be encouraged about trusting Jesus, or to be pressed to try harder?” At a recent event I was able to attend, Stanley Hauerwas said, “Church growth strategies will work for 10 years until the kids grow up. They will recognize manipulation for what it is.”  Sometimes we don’t smell manipulation but we can tell we’re experiencing it by how we are feeling about ourselves and the church.

At number three is one of the most pervasive and deadly aspects of an abusive system: the unspoken rules.  “If you disagree openly or publicly, you would break the silence – and you would quite likely be punished.”  Breaking one of the rules, spoken or unspoken, leads to consequences.  In an abusive system, the authors say, it will either be “neglect (being ignored, overlooked, shunned) or aggressive legalism (questioned, openly censured, asked to leave – in extreme cases cursed).” Or maybe even thrown under the bus.

The fourth characteristic of a spiritually abusive system is either extreme objectivism or extreme subjectivism.  In those that lean towards EO, “authority is based upon the level of education and intellectual capacity alone, rather than on intimacy with God, obedience and sensitivity to his Spirit.”  For those that lean towards ES, “it is more important to act according to the word of a leader who as ‘a word’ for you than to act according to what you know to be true from Scripture, or simply from your spiritual growth-history.”  They write, “In the name of some “higher enlightenment” by the Holy Spirit, you may be withering under a teacher with a limited reality who won’t be taught by anyone else.” 

Often abusive leaders insist you quote the chapter and verse that they have violated when you confront them with pain you are feeling over something they have done.  No chapter or verse that covers what they’ve done?  Then they haven’t really fouled you – but you’ve fouled them by making an unfounded accusation against a leader of the church.  Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.  Alternately, their experience or knowledge of the Holy Spirit trumps your own (ES). The common refrain and misappropriation of Scripture usually goes, “God’s ways are not our ways.” Which, when translated means, “my way is God’s way, not yours.”  The other subjective chestnut, “The new move of God is always opposed by the last move of God.” This, of course really means that what they want is always the new move, what you think can’t possibly be newer than their new and you confirm  it by your opposition to them and their way of thinking.

Can I suggest that love has never been superseded as God’s movement in the world?  Can I suggest that any leader who boasts about throwing people under the bus and who prays that there would be a mountain of bodies behind the bus before they are finished should, well, be finished?  Can I suggest that the moral failure of a pastor is not confined to adultery, chemical addiction or grand theft but ought to include abusing the flock of God they were meant to be shepherding?  Peter seemed to think so.  May healing come to all who are hurting, hope to all who are in despair, and life to all who are living in the valley of the shadow.

(all book quotations are from Johnson, David, and Jeffrey VanVonderen. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House Publishers, 1991. p 63-71)

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