A latent factor of every anomalous fundamentalist group is the issue of religious abuse. In Christianity, the misapplication, misinterpretation, and mishandling of both the Word of God and the people of God produce serious ramifications.
Spiritual abuse has gained widespread awareness as an alarming element within many churches. When pastors and other authorities coerce, manipulate, and control, using God and religion to promote their purposes, ensure desired behavior or performance, and cultivate dependency, this is considered abuse. Here I discussed unfortunate characteristics of spiritual abuse in the family: when fathers and mothers attempt to use the Bible, God, and aspects of religion to secure the obedience, compliance, precise behavior, and control of their offspring.
Today I would like to examine the effects that abuse in the name of God has upon the heart, mind, body, and soul of women.
Before we begin, we must have a preliminary understanding of who we are as women. For the purpose of this article, and to establish what I believe, women are created in the image of God and have value and worth as beings who bear His likeness and possess soul, intellect, emotion, will, and breath. I believe that there is no distinction in Christ between male nor female, and that we as Christian women have a direct relationship with God through our High Priest, Jesus,
who gave Himself as a sacrifice for us so that we might receive salvation and eternal life.
We are image-bearers of the Most High, responsible for seeking truth, maintaining our walk with Him, and working out our own salvation—which He has entrusted to us, for no other human is able to accept Christ on our behalf. This fact has inherent elements we cannot ignore:
- the joy of intimacy with the Creator of our soul—a relationship in which we can know God, who teaches us truth, communicating with Him directly through the priesthood of His Son
- our own proclamation of Jesus to the world around us through our lives, words, choices, and beliefs
- the responsibility to discern what is righteous and true
- the responsibility to actively pursue truth and righteousness
- the upkeep and deepening of faith, for we cannot become apathetic believing that our works or the teachings of others save ourselves, or make us more holy
- reverent fear, knowing that we answer to God alone for the choices we make and the way we live and believe; knowing He will hold us—not our pastor, parents, friends, mentors, teachers, leaders, husband, or children—accountable for our lives
The Aching Within
With an understanding of who we are as women of God, let us review some elements of spiritual abuse in the family, and how it effects us.
- Undue Loyalty to Leaders – The leadership is held to be anointed by God and followers taught they should submit in anything it requires. It is taught that God will bless that submission even if the leader is wrong.
- Authoritarian – The system is characterized by rules and a power structure that is unaccountable to those who follow.
- Appearance is Everything – As Jeff VanVonderen says, “How things look is more important than what is real.” (Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, page 130)
- Perfectionistic – Works are necessary for salvation, to keep one’s salvation, or to keep God’s blessing.
- Unbalanced – There is usually a majoring on minors that makes the group distinctive from others.
Drawing from the book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, Watchman suggests that spiritual abuse is inherently entwined with shame, which is another crippling, common factor within families who exhibit these traits—
In critiquing the ins and outs of spiritual abuse, one often finds that people have been hurt by legalism, authoritarian leadership, manipulation, excessive discipline, spiritual intimidation and much more.
Perhaps one could give a number of characteristics common to the problem and a lot of time given to the definition of “spiritual abuse,” but instead of asking the WHAT questions, maybe a better understanding would come if the WHY questions are asked: Why do some people stay in abusive relationships? Or, why do they get into them in the first place? The authors of the book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, suggest that people learn to be victimized, or are powerless by experiencing relationships that have either prepared them to be abused, or not prepared them to not be abused. Such relationships could be labeled as “shame-based” relationships.
“Shame-based relationships are relationships based on messages of shame: You are so weak and defective that you are nothing without this relationship. Shame becomes the glue that holds things together. It is the force that motivates people to refrain from certain behaviors and to do others” (p. 55).
If families, churches, or groups are shame-based, they are more than likely sending messages to their members that they are: “not loved and accepted; not even lovable or acceptable; only loved and accepted if, when, or because they perform well; not capable, valuable, or worthwhile; very alone, not really belonging anywhere, to anything, or with anyone” (p. 55).
On pages 56-59 of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, the authors list the following seven characteristics of shame-based relationships which will help explain why people are “caught up” in these abusive relationships:
1. OUT-LOUD SHAMING The dynamic: This is the “shame on you” that comes from belittling. It is any message communicated out loud that says, “Something is wrong with you.”
The effects: Negative view of self, even self-hatred.
2. FOCUS ON PERFORMANCE The dynamic: How people act is more important than who they are. Love and acceptance are earned by doing or not doing certain things.
The effects: Perfectionism, or giving up without trying; view of God as more concerned with how you act than who you are; cannot ask for help; high need for the approval of others.
3. MANIPULATION The dynamic: Relationships and behaviors are manipulated by very powerful unspoken rules. Yet the unspoken rules communicate these and other shaming messages.
Coding: Messages are sent through a verbal code that others are supposed to decode. “Don’t you think it would be better this way?” means, “I want you to do it this way.”
Triangling: This means to send a message to someone through another person, instead of delivering it directly.
The effects: Great “radar” – the ability to pick up tension in situations and relationships; ability to decode messages; talking about people instead of to them; difficulty trusting people.
4. IDOLATRY The dynamic: The “god” served by the shame-based relationship system is an impossible-to-please judge. It is a god invented to enforce the performance standard.
The effects: Distorted image of God; high level of anxiety; high need to control thoughts, feelings and behaviors of others.
5. PREOCCUPATION WITH FAULT AND BLAME The dynamic: Reaction is swift and furious toward the one who fails to perform the way the system deems fit. Responsibility and accountability are not the issues here: Fault and blame are the issues.The shame-based system wants a confession in order to know whom to shame.
The effects: The sense that if something is wrong or someone is upset you must have caused it; a high need to be punished for or to pay for mistakes in order to feel good about yourself; difficulty forgiving self.
6. OBSCURED REALITY The dynamic: Members are to deny any thought that is different than those of people in authority. Anything that has the potential to shame those in authority is ignored or denied. Interaction with people and places outside the system threatens the order of things. Consequently, you can’t find out what “normal” is. Problems are denied, and therefore they remain.
The effects: Out-of-touch with feelings, needs, thoughts; ignoring your “radar” because you are being “too critical;” feel like no one else understands you; threatened by opinions that differ from yours; suspicious or afraid of others.
7. UNBALANCED INTERRELATEDNESS The dynamic: Either under involved or over involved with each other. Consequently, rules take the place of people. There is no relationship structure in which to learn about behaviors and consequences. People find out about life alone and by accident.
The effects: Fear of being deserted; high need for structure; a sense that if there is a problem, you have to solve it; feeling selfish for having needs; putting up boundaries that keep safe people away; feelings of guilt when you haven’t done anything wrong.
When evaluating the emotional foundation the shame-based systems create, it is clear that honesty and trust are undermined in the relationship. This can also hinder a person’s maturing in a relationship with God. Codependence, or the dependence upon a person or group, can also grow in this type of shame-based system. Ultimately, a person can lose a correct perception of reality because the only reality that can be identified with is within a shame-based system.
When these components are present within the family structure—an institution that should be a place of spiritual safety, trust, and growth—it becomes morbidly toxic. No Greater Joy magazine recently printed an article describing some of the dangerous manifestations of patriarchal dysfunction (see page 2 of the article). When we compound these facets with spiritual abuse (as well as emotional, intellectual, and physical in many cases), we are left with a dizzying, chaotic, and deadly recipe for destruction.
As a reminder, I do not suggest ever that we do not need wise counsel, godly relationship, and input from those appointed by God to guide us. The ones I address have been abused by the misuse of authority—specifically, familial in nature. Lack of balance and humility, false representation of God and religious matters, and the fallen nature of mankind all gravely contribute to spiritual abuse. It is essential that we are surrounded by wise, balanced, and godly mentors and leaders who can help us to discern between truth and error, so that we can begin to seek healing for the hurts we sustain, and grow as Christians.
Exploitative abuse of authority occurring in groups [families] where these hyper-authoritarian systems of governance are instituted come in various shapes and shades, ranging from members [adult offspring] having to receive the approval (usually referred to as “witness”) of their spiritual leaders [parents] to date and/or marry, to virtual sole dependence upon the supposed superior spirituality of group-gurus [father . . . sometimes described as prophet, priest, and king of the home within patriocentric circles] regarding every detail of their personal financial matters [daily lives, choices, beliefs, and futures] and requiring their leaders’ [parents] approval for virtually every significant expenditure [choice, activity, plan]. Commonly, in these groups there is constant allusion to the members [adult children] as “dumb sheep”[unwise, not smart enough, still learning, easily deceived] who must be “led” [trained, controlled, restricted, guided] by the shepherds, [parents] ad nauseam. The definition of the term “led” in these groups is that the “dumb sheep” cannot trust their own judgment or ability to receive direction from the Lord for the important decisions of their lives, but must rely instead upon the transcendent wisdom and spiritual acumen of their “personal pastors”[fathers].
While it is tempting to argue that there cannot be accurate correlation between religious organizations and the individual family, I humbly submit that many who propagate the elements of this abuse believe—whether in word or in practice—that the institution of family is a complete, independent structure.
This leads us to the daughters of patriarchy.
Women and Spiritual Abuse
Daughters raised with parents who use God and the Bible to secure desired behavior will undoubtedly face myriad struggles until they are healed by the power of God. Everyone will respond differently to these issues; personality, birth order, degrees of influence outside the home, relationship with parents, and many other factors all contribute to the amplitude of obstacles and wounds.
Women brought up with patriocentric, dysfunctional and extra-biblical teachings will almost always encounter spiritual abuse. Moreover, it affects every element of her being. What I address are, in many instances, broad applications; please prayerfully seek the Lord and let His Spirit guide you into truth. If any of these matters impress you with a sting of familiarity or twinge of pain, pause to reflect and see if there is something the Lord wants you to discover. I am convinced that He wishes truth to be known by us so that we are able to heal from our afflictions, become whole, and live fully in Christ. Those of us who have long labored under the weight of our sorrows can come to Him for rest. His ministry is clear:
The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed.
Heart, mind, body, and soul
In an enlightening feature on domestic violence, the United States Department of Justice reveals the US government’s position on abuses:
Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.
* Physical Abuse: Hitting, slapping, shoving, grabbing, pinching, biting, hair-pulling, biting, etc. Physical abuse also includes denying a partner medical care or forcing alcohol and/or drug use.
* Sexual Abuse: Coercing or attempting to coerce any sexual contact or behavior without consent. Sexual abuse includes, but is certainly not limited to marital rape, attacks on sexual parts of the body, forcing sex after physical violence has occurred, or treating one in a sexually demeaning manner.
* Emotional Abuse: Undermining an individual’s sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem. This may include, but is not limited to constant criticism, diminishing one’s abilities, name-calling, or damaging one’s relationship with his or her children.
* Economic Abuse: Making or attempting to make an individual financially dependent by maintaining total control over financial resources, withholding one’s access to money, or forbidding one’s attendance at school or employment.
* Psychological Abuse: Causing fear by intimidation; threatening physical harm to self, partner, children, or partner’s family or friends; destruction of pets and property; and forcing isolation from family, friends, or school and/or work.
As followers of Christ, we should be exemplary in all things. If this is the standard of our government, shouldn’t our own ideals be higher? For women, these devastating experiences inflict deep adverse impressions that can take a lifetime to overcome.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?
If you have been raised within a fundamentalist or extremely conservative home, it is quite likely that you have heard this verse used many times as a biblical way to disparage the expression of feeling and emotion. In this manner, spiritual abuse is inextricably linked to emotional abuse by using and proof-texting biblical passages to support extra-biblical concepts. To suggest that elements inherent to femininity are less spiritual and something to be disdained completely misrepresents Imago Dei.
I have written at some length regarding shame, here and here. Briefly, women with shame-based identities filter everything through a sieve of disgrace. They feel as though they never measure up, are never good enough. Wrought with shame, they see themselves utterly worthless, incapable of producing or being anything of value, beauty, or desire—to others or to God.
Spiritual abuse instills or reinforces these lies. For example, using religious means to accomplish their goals, perpetrators—in our case, parents—appeal to a daughter’s desire to be pleasing and obedient by convincing her that God is only satisfied when she [insert behavior]. Or that she must keep trying and while she will never be perfect, she must never give up the effort.
Over time, those controlled by shaming methods become completely weary . . . often worn before life has truly begun. It takes copious levels of energy to maintain the struggle to fight the good fight while at the same time, endure depression, low-self-esteem, confusion, and every other negative by-product of shame, knowing all the while that God is displeased with the lack of [insert good emotion or practice].
Exhaustion and fatigue are common traits among many of the women I have consulted; spiritual exhaustion often naturally follows service to a demanding god peddled by those with misplaced faith. Remember: the True God is revealed through Jesus:
Matthew 11:25 At that time Jesus answered and said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. 26 Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight. 27 All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. 28 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
It is my contention that years and years of endless trying, labored effort, and the sense of never measuring up to established standards of biblical interpretation, family expectations, or the demanding requirements of a false or misjudged God, can contribute to the following concerns:
- lack of motivation and/or drive
- lethargy, apathy and malaise
- chronic fatigue
- poor follow through—whether with projects or plans, or relationships
Ironically, many women who have exhibited some of these traits are actually core perfectionists. Years of seeking love and approval from parents or God, through spiritual performance, has instilled a deep inner dissatisfaction with anything less than sublime.
Perfectionists are their own worst critics, knowing better than anyone their abhorrent flaws and inadequacies. These things pulse like a deafening roar in the ear, unabated until the savage drive is soothed—either by achieving excellence, which pacifies the unrelenting inner coercion, or through addiction, which numbs the compelling force within.
Addiction often materializes as zealous righteousness. Bible reading, prayer, dedication to church, and other disciplines can become acceptable drugs of choice within imbalanced lifestyles. Furthermore, many religious addicts become legalists and left unguarded, can begin to perpetuate the elements from their childhood home into their own.
As image-bearers of the Most High, we have been created to be in relationship with Him. This principle is within every soul; mankind will always have a need for peace and reconciliation with our heavenly Father, who formed us according to His likeness. When we are presented a false view of God, even unintentionally, I believe that our spirit will rage until we hearken—for the true God is a jealous God, who loves us and yearns that we may know Him fully. Some spend their lives placating this exigence with temporal things; others remain convinced that God does not exist at all. There are seekers who wander, yet never come home, and searchers who never finish their quest. This will continue for every soul who lacks unity with the Almighty.
A natural progression along the way of destruction is the slide into idolatry. An idol is anything from which we derive our source of life, other than God Himself. Just as satiating our inner needs with religious addiction becomes a form of mis-applied worship, so is serving any god who is not the Father of Jesus.
Spiritually abusive families tend to place emphasis on religious works, partiality, appearance, behavior, and the position of father as center. Preeminence is granted to biblical law and authoritarianism, rather than to relationship and grace. Women often bear the harshest brunt of this imbalance, for they are required in the name of godliness and biblical womanhood to assist in fulfilling the vision and worldview of their fathers. That topic is enough for another article, but incongruity is revealed as daughters are trained upon paths that lead not to life, but to death, not to freedom, but to burden, not to God, but to idols, not to grace, but to shame.
Co-dependency and fear
The mishandling of religion within the family fosters extreme enmeshment among individuals. Many patriocentrists frown bitterly upon autonomy, believing (due to rampant biblical proof-texting of verses like this, which promotes self-denial, or this, which teaches to hold others in high esteem) that it cultivates selfishness among one another. In actuality, Scripture teaches that we must be self-controlled; how can we be so, when our personal boundary lines are smudged, blurred, or non-existent?
Lack of boundaries, privacy, and proper training all generate dysfunction. When portions of the Bible are applied with an interpretation that cultivates fear, a child unwittingly becomes forced to depend even further upon her father. It literally becomes a matter of life or death when manipulation of behavior involves the use of God’s name, for a daughter must essentially place her soul upon the line and trust in man. She must somehow trust that he who exerts control with authoritarian fervor is infallible enough to speak the language of eternity.
This may sound far-fetched, but subtle implications are readily apparent within many fundamentalist homes. Fear-based performance has little lasting, positive effect on the heart. Women can manifest extreme distrust of authority figures; worse, they can develop roots of bitterness towards God due to errant teachings. Daughters become convinced that they are not truly loved by their parents when daily messages are underscored with manipulative control tactics—missives designed, antithetically, to appeal to the very nature that is frequently belittled within austere families: the emotional element of womanhood.
Healing for the Aching
The portrait of our gracious Father—His nature, His heart, His will, and His love—defaced through abusive means carries no light sentence. He asks us to trust Him, and bids us to come, that we may have life. Our faith brings Him pleasure. Moreover, as we begin a journey towards grace, out of our pain and into His life, what better company to be in than with Christ, and the fellowship of His sufferings!
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
Take comfort, beloved. He who has come to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, is called Emmanuel—God with us.
“What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”
So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’”
And He said to him,
“You have answered rightly;
do this and you will live.”