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The Dynamic of Spiritual Abuse
How can we help survivors of spiritual abuse? I believe it all starts with definitions.
We can only help if we understand what spiritual abuse is. Without understanding, we don’t see clearly, we misdiagnose and we misprescribe. I recently came across a perspective on abuse from Christian therapist Bob Hamp that I believe brings much clarity.
“Inappropriate assignment of responsibility.” I believe this perspective drains the muck from the swamp of spiritual abuse so we can see what is really going on under the surface. To help see this dynamic, let’s look at John 9, the story of Jesus’ healing a blind man. It is a case study in the misassignment of responsibility.
The story opens with Jesus’ disciples assuming someone must be responsible for the man’s blindness. Jesus clears both the man and his parents of any responsibility, but the Pharisees are unconvinced. They aggressively interrogate the man, and when that fails they resort to aggressive accusation and excommunication: “They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out” (John 9:34).
We can understand their excommunication as an act of spiritual abuse. The deeper matter is, why did they cast him out? Reading the story straight through, I imagine these leaders feeling humiliated from their failed attempts to discredit Jesus by trying to discredit this man. Feeling humiliated, they humiliated the man in return when they “reviled him” and “cast him out” (9:28, 34). When a person’s mental/emotional landscape fills with shame and humiliation, it is natural to want to shunt off the shame into another region. And that’s what the Pharisees did. They made the blind man responsible—and not just for their humiliation, but for their anger, fear, and loss of control. They made him a scapegoat so that their rage and shame would “be sent away into the wilderness” (Lev. 16:10). In other words, “inappropriate assignment of responsibility.”
There are many helpful definitions of spiritual abuse, but I really like Bob Hamp’s lens of responsibility. As John 9 illustrates, the dynamic of spiritual abuse is misusing religious power to wrongfully transfer one’s responsibility onto an innocent other.
Survivors of domestic and sexual abuse in Christian contexts consistently report that the harm experienced by the church / Christian community is much greater than the original abuse. This perspective helps explain why. The survivor is seen by the church as being responsible: whether for the initial abuse, or for the public scandal, or the disturbing of the peace, or all of the above. Any kind of abuse—physical, sexual, emotional, domestic—becomes spiritual abuse when the survivor’s faith community wrongfully holds them responsible and makes them bear the shame that rightfully belongs to the abuser.
But Jesus does not condemn spiritual abuse survivors. No, rather than condemn, he searches for and finds them: “Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, so he found the man” (John 9:35a, NET). That is the first way we can heal the damage caused by spiritual abuse and its wrong assignment of responsibility: find survivors. Search for the lost sheep. Notice when they stop showing up. Call and text them even though they don’t answer or respond. Give them belonging rather than blame. Through that re-welcoming—and know that all spiritual abuse is a felt excommunication—pray with them for restored sight so that they see Jesus, and see how he seeks and sees them.
And lastly, we help spiritual abuse survivors by holding abusive leaders responsible like Jesus did the Pharisees. If this feels like a stretch, notice John’s careful narration: “Some of the Pharisees near him [near Jesus and the man who was blind] heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” (John 9:40). This final exchange at the end of John 9 occurred in the presence of the healed man. He heard the Pharisees question, and he heard Jesus’ response. As the ESV textual note observes, Jesus literally says “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:41). Jesus turns the Pharisees’ judgment of the healed man (“you were born in utter sin”) back on themselves. He holds them responsible in the presence of the healed man, so he can witness the guilt be transferred back to where it belongs. Jesus rights the wrongful misassignment of responsibility. We reflect Jesus when we do likewise.
Quote from Diane Langberg
Every time we treat someone with dignity rather than shame, respect rather than disregard, concern rather than exploitation, kindness rather than brutality, and careful attention rather than turning away, we are doing things that are the reverse of trauma and evil.
Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church, by Diane Langberg
The Spiritual Impact of Abuse, by Diane Langberg
Spiritual abuse survivors live in the fallout of betrayal in and by the body of Christ, and they find trusting that body very difficult. How can you help them feel safe? Can you patiently and prayerfully walk beside them when they have trouble trusting you and sometimes even avoid you out of fear?
Praying for and laboring with you,