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Spiritual Abuse Tactics in John’s Gospel
A Personal Essay
My family is approaching the one year anniversary of our functional excommunication from the church where my wife worked as Director of Women’s and Children’s Ministries. As I’ve been anticipating that anniversary I’ve also been working on an idea for a book about spiritual abuse recovery through the doctrine of the Trinity. The Gospel of John has been fertile ground for meditations about triune healing for spiritual abuse, and it all started with seeing the dynamics of spiritual abuse in John 9.
I wrote about those core dynamics in a previous post. As I’ve continued to reflect, I also see a whole host of tactics and characteristics of abusive systems evidenced in John 9. This has proved a fitting (and painful and healing) reflection a year out from our abuse, as I see so much of my own experience in the text. What follows is, I hope, a bit of a hermeneutical spiral between the text of John’s Gospel and the text of my experience in an authoritarian church. I admit that some comments require a stretch of the imagination, but I hope and pray it’s with a sanctified imagination.
We begin where the story of the blind man begins, with the disciples’ question. For the sake of narration, I am going to substitute an actual name for this man and call him Nathan.
John 9:1-2 As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Though this question comes from the disciples of Jesus, it comes from the same religious culture demonstrated by the Jewish leaders in John’s gospel. The question takes a person, a human created in God’s image, and makes him a matter for theological debate. The context for spiritual abuse is situated in the impersonal, and this has many faces. Categories of thought take precedence over the dignity of God’s image bearers; policy and procedure matter more than persons; control of power has higher value than creaturely worth. As soon as a person is defaced in the mind, any amount and manner of marring is justified.
That’s what happened in our church. My wife and I were seen as disturbers of the peace (an idolized value in presbyterianism if there ever was one). We weren’t seen as persons but instead were considered threats to the status quo.
John 9:8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar were saying, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”
In spiritually abusive environments, people are talked about rather than talked to. There is often a hypocritical focus on forbidding gossip. Leaders will use the accusation of gossip to discount and discredit, all the while talking about people behind their back to spin the narrative.
The personal story most in my mind in reading John 9 involves my friendship with Jason (not his real name), an elder and the co-leader of my adult Sunday school class. We had one 1 hour phone call in March of last year. Jason called me (not the other way around), and in response to his questions I expressed concern about how my wife was being treated by the church’s leaders. As we were about to hang up I asked him to follow up with me after he took some time to digest what I shared. However, I didn’t hear from him for 2 months. In the meantime, he was busy talking to all of his fellow elders, making a case that I should be pushed out of leadership.
John 9:9 He kept saying, “I am the man.”
Leaders in toxic systems don’t listen. Consequently, truth tellers don’t just tell the truth, they keep telling the truth. But not because they are nuisances who just won’t let things go. They are forced to keep on repeating themselves because people aren’t listening.
John 9:14-15 Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. So the Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight.
John’s comment that Jesus healed Nathan on a Sabbath hints to the reader that the Pharisees’ question is less than genuine. Jesus has already been criticized for healing on the Sabbath (cf John 5:9-10 and 7:23). As the Pharisees debate this alleged miracle, no care is shown for Nathan. Indeed, his miraculous liberation from physical disability didn’t register an ounce of emotion. As Diane Langberg notes,
“Research on power and compassion/empathy has shown that elevated social power is associated with diminished reciprocal emotional response to another’s sufferings. In other words, the more power a person holds in relation to other people, the less empathy they will have.”1
Cold and unfeeling, the Pharisees are there to debate a point of theology. Why? Because Jesus represented a threat to their position as teachers and leaders of the people. A defensive position is naturally prone to go on the attack, which we will see as the story unfolds.
In my own story, Jason and another former pastor eventually sat me down for another 1.5 hour meeting in which I was told I was wrong to criticize leadership. No explanation. No rationale. Just plain WRONG.
Narcissistic systems see negativity about leaders as a threat to the system itself. Image management kicks in, initiating a scaled protocol starting from soft and indirect control, escalating to the eventual use of verbal and physical violence when other tactics fail.
John 9:18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight.
For abusive, authoritarian leaders, eyewitness testimony is never enough. They are blinded by their presuppositions, especially presuppositions about power and women. At this point, it might look like they are just doing a standard unbiased investigation. They might even have believed that’s what they were doing. Just the facts, please and thank you, and that means talking to witnesses, talking to those who can vouch for those witnesses, and showing every bit of skepticism possible in order to squeeze out the real truth.
I was not believed. I told one elder (not Jason), “Our church has a really serious problem with how it views and treats women.” He responded with dismissive anger, showing that not only did he not believe me, he didn’t believe the women I was advocating for. He said, “There are only 3 concrete complaints from women that I’ve heard and I’ve already looked into those and they were all misunderstandings. If you don’t have other specific examples, I can’t help you, and this isn’t really an issue.”
Abusive systems disbelieve whistleblowers, every time.
John 9:19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”
While the overt abuses of power hurt, the manipulative questions aren’t easy to shake off either. This is an insincere question, and the entire interrogation process in John 9 is one long manipulation bent on discrediting the Truth himself.
John 9:22 (His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.)
Abusive leaders rule by fear. This was public knowledge. Leaders had told people in their congregation that ideological nonconformity would not be tolerated. Most abusive churches I’ve heard of aren’t this overt with the general membership (although I’m sure some do this explicitly). The threats are reserved for people with more influence whom leadership fears may turn the flock against them.
Toward the beginning of my time leading the Sunday school class, a different elder took me out to lunch to talk about my plans for the class. He told some stories about the class’ history, and at the time I was grateful for the context. All of the stories were about how previous leaders had went on from the class to start their own churches and take people away from that church. It wasn’t until I was removed from my position that I realized this elder was signaling that leadership would not tolerate any dissension, any possibility of using the class for personal ambition. They were already prone to see my criticisms as a threat, possible leverage for me to take away their control of the people.
John 9:24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know that this man is a sinner.”
Notice now the three cycles of interrogations. They talk to the man (v. 15-17), and being unsatisfied they talk to his parents (v. 18-23). Then they talk to the man again (v. 24-34). In none of these are they actually after the truth, despite appearances. They have an agenda and will not be dissuaded or diverted. The threat to their power must be eliminated. Now that the parents redirected them back to Nathan, the leaders try to coerce his confession. They do this by appealing to the man’s religious commitment. A modern version of this might be something along the lines of, “You want to obey the Bible, right?” But it’s disingenuous. As Aquinas observes,
“They say one thing but mean another. For they wish to force him to say that his sight was not restored by Christ, or if they are unable to do this, to force him to admit that he was cured by him through sorcery. They do not say this openly, but implicitly, with an appearance of devotion. They attempt this by saying, give the glory to God.”2
In that 1.5 hour meeting I was asked about my commitment to the “peace, purity and unity of the church.” Did I care about those? Then it should be obvious I’m unfit to teach. I criticized church leadership, and that damages the peace and unity of the church (concern for purity seems to always be conveniently neglected).
I was also reminded, quite persistently, of my duty to submit to the elders. Again, they sought to control me by appealing to my personal religious value of obeying God’s Word.
John 9:26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
These look and sound like factual questions. Sometimes people have a gut feeling that they need to be on the defensive, and subsequently feel confused, because the words being used don’t seem to warrant defensiveness. Leaders will even offer reassurance: “We’re not accusing you, we’re just curious and concerned.”
One of the disingenuous questions I was posed was, “Have you spoken with anyone in the class about your criticisms of the pastor and elders?” On the surface, it’s a factual yes or no question. But the question would never have been asked in the first place apart from suspicion that I had been gossiping about my concerns.
Control by disarming questions is insidious, so I’ll share another example, this time from a female leader. She had brought forward a complaint about a different elder to the senior pastor. In the course of their conversation she asked the pastor a question which prompted him to reply with a question of his own: “Surely you’re not implying that I can’t talk to one of my elders whenever I choose?” What he actually meant was that she had no right criticizing him or telling him what to do; he had the power and was in complete control.
John 9:27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”
Aquinas does a nice job of describing Nathan’s awareness of their insincerity:
“This was like saying: “I told you once. Why do you want to hear it again? That is foolish. It looks like you are not paying attention to what I am saying. So, I have nothing further to say to you because your questioning is useless, and you want to cavil rather than learn.” As it is written: “he who tells a story to a fool tells it to a drowsy man; and at the end he will say: what is it?” (Sir 22:8).3
Conversations with manipulative leaders can go on for what seems like hours. Or they keep you talking for literal hours. It’s a game of cat and mouse, and they won’t stop until the’ve trapped you. But when seemingly nice words don’t work, they take a more direct approach, as we see in v. 28.
John 9:28 And they reviled him,
Now the veil is torn back, and Nathan sees clearly what these leaders think of him. When manipulation doesn’t work, and they see their control on him slipping, they shift to tactics with more torque and go on the offensive. The word for “revile” refers to violent verbal insult (cf 1 Peter 2:23, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return.”)
Earlier I mentioned that Jason didn’t speak to me for 2 months after that 1 hour phone call. Because he was ghosting me, despite my attempts to meet and clear the air, I decided to stop teaching Sunday school. I could not in good conscience stand before our class with Jason beside me, pretending that everything was copacetic. Because he refused to meet with me, I was unable to explain the reason for my decision, and told him one Sunday morning that I wouldn’t be teaching. He didn’t respond with anything more than “Okay” and kept walking past me. However, as I was walking to my van after worship, Jason confronted me in the parking lot. He demanded to speak with me then and there about what was going on, and I politely declined. When he insisted, I told him we could schedule a time to meet, I would not get into it there on the spot, and proceeded to walk to my vehicle. As I walked away I heard Jason shout, “You’re being so selfish!”
When polite words can’t control you, they revile you.
John 9:28 saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.
Loyalty, when made into an ultimate value, blinds. Asobserved recently in a different context,
“Loyalty even outweighs the importance of truth and goodness. Specifically, the criticism of a group member is understood to be worse than writing, publishing, and promoting a book that contains aberrant and harmful theology.”
Although Jason was not an elder when we first became friends and co-leaders of our class, once he became an elder his loyalty shifted completely to the session. In our conversations he continued to treat me as his equal, until I criticized his pastor and fellow elders. Then his true loyalties became clear. Only, absolute loyalty obscures clarity. The only constant clarity is the absolute goodness of those within the loyalty group.
John 9:34 They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?”
It doesn’t get much worse than that, does it? While men can certainly be the object of disdain (eg the “you’re so selfish!” comment above), in my experience the worst attacks get leveled against women:
There are many motives behind these verbal abuses, but at root they are attempts to retain or regain control of another. And if leaders are using verbal violence, you can bet there’s a history of prior (failed in their eyes) attempts at control. That is, the extreme violence doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it is merely an escalation of a prideful, controlling heart.4
John 9:34 And they cast him out.
When verbal violence fails, and control must be maintained, abusive leaders escalate to physical violence. Not that they physically harmed Nathan, or that they used physical force to send him out of the synagogue. But casting him out is still an exercise of force, and with physical effects. Whether this was a temporary or permanent excommunication (scholars differ), Nathan was physically excluded from his faith community — which of course meant his entire community.
This is the ultimate means of control: spiritual leaders abusing power to physically banish those whom they have been unable to control by less violent means.
Just weeks after I was removed from being a teacher in my church, my wife was fired by unanimous vote of the elder board. You can read an anonymous version of that story here. Neither of us were formally excommunicated, but casting out has many forms: shunning; avoidance; silence; telling everyone else to avoid us; threatening other staff that they will be fired if they talk. Oh, and we’ll never forget the senior pastor warning people about my wife, “watch her tears.”
We had uprooted our family in the middle of Covid in 2020 and moved across the country for the sole purpose of planting roots in this church community. Less than 2 years later, we lost everything (with the exception of a handful of faithful friends, without whom we would have probably lost our minds as well). All so the men in charge could retain control they feared losing more than anything else.
In authoritarian systems, when they can no longer control you, they cast you out.
Thankfully, Jesus is fulfillment of Ezekiel 34:11:
“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.”
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who searches for snatched and scattered sheep, finds them, and keeps them in his fold. John 9:35 has been my anchor this past year:
“Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and went and found him.” (The Message).
Quote from Wade Mullen
“There is a pattern that accompanies abuse, as if abusers are somehow reading from the same playbook. If we can learn to decode these evil tactics—if we can learn the language of abuse—we can stop the cycle: we can make abusers less effective at accomplishing destruction in our lives. The ability to identify and describe tactics that were previously unidentifiable and indescribable will restore the power that was taken from you.”5
If you haven’t experienced church abuse yourself, have you taken the time to learn the tactics of abuse so you can recognize it when it’s happening? We have so many helpful books and articles on that today, but I wonder if part of God’s intent in giving us stories like John 9 is precisely that, to show us the hidden tactics of abuse that he knew wolves would use on unsuspecting sheep.
Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church, p. 132.
Commentary on John, 1340.
Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse and Freeing Yourself from its Power, p. 4.