Spiritual abuse is similar to emotional abuse and occurs when the leaders of a church or religious organization use their power and position to manipulate, control and/or coerce their congregation/followers/members, whether on purpose or with good intentions. Spiritual abuse often occurs subtly for seemingly the “right” reasons, but it can also be blatant for outright selfish financial, emotional or physical gain. Spiritual abuse includes, but is not limited to mind-control, thought reform, coercion, manipulation, deception, legalism, authoritarianism, guilt trips, judgementalism/”Phariseeism”, holier-than-though attitude, and a “we are right and everyone else is wrong” attitude.
Spiritual abuse is often done in the name of proclaiming the ‘truth’. The trouble with spiritual abuse is that the perpetrator often has been deceived him/herself into thinking that they are helping when in actuality they are doing more harm than good.
Spritual Abuse has turned Christianity into ‘Churchianity’ where the church and it’s particular traditions have become more important than or at least equal to, the Word. ‘Denominationalism’ and ‘traditionalism’ find their way into the teachings and become enmeshed so that no one can tell where Christianity begins and the traditions end.
David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen in The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse describe spiritual abuse well when he said: “It’s possible to become so determined to defend a spiritual place of authority, a doctrine or a way of doing things that you wound and abuse anyone who questions, or disagrees, or doesn’t ‘behave’ spiritually the way you want them to. When your words and actions tear down another, or attack or weaken a person’s standing as a Christian- to gratify you, your position or your beliefs while at the same time weakening or harming another- that is spiritual abuse.”
One of the biggest problems with spiritual abuse is that it is VERY subtle. Think of the abuser as a con artist. Pastors and other spiritual leaders become adept at using spcipture to back up their subtle manipulation and control. Leaders often find ways to control, not only what happens in their churches, but also what happens in Your personal life. For example, leaders in the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination would frequently communicate the need for us to consult with them (or your discipler) before making decisions especially major decisions. Leadership brings guilt on members for going on vacation especially of that person hasn’t paid the correct amount of tithe.
Fratranizing with people who have left the church is strictly forbidden. People who have left the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination are shunned and considered “off limits”. In the church I was in growing up it wasn’t out right taught but the message was clear that if you didn’t go to an Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination you were not only decieved and sinnful, but also your salvation was questionable. The message was that the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination had the monopoly on the gospel message and the only way to be truly saved was to get saved from the message that the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination brings.
Spiritual abuse often leads people to question their spirituality or standing with God. Victims become preoccupied with observing others in the congregation to see who is living up to the rules and who isn’t. In my church, If someone wasn’t living up to the standards set forth by the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination they were considered rebellious and we were not to have any associations with them. One of the rules was that dying one’s hair is considered worldly and therefore a sin. I remember when an older girl who had graduated from our school came back from college and her hair was died. We all stood around in a circle gossiping about how she had backsliden and how she was being influenced by the world since she obviously didn’t go to an Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination affiliated college.
Churches that abuse promote extra-biblical rules and standards and equate them as doctrine or at least as coming from God, with your salvation or spirituality in jeopardy if they aren’t followed. Trivial matters are brought to attention such as the way one dressed or styles his/her hair, the music one listens to, the clothes one wears, etc.
Victims are often depressed about their inability to live up to those rules and standards, worried that they aren’t pleasing the Lord, and frustrated that they keep sinning. Victims often feel that they aren’t good enough and not able to live up to the expectations. The joy of a relationship with God is replaces with a fear of God the “Cosmic Killjoy”.
Churches that abuse often focus on the penalty for sin. They communicate the Lord as a cosmic dictator or harsh taskmaster, eagerly waiting for you to make a mistake so that he can “chasten” you. A friend once told me that God was her “cosmic kill-joy”. Abusive churches are often performance oriented, with an “us verses them” or elitist mentality. Questioning is often discouraged, forbidden, or branded as a sign of rebellion or lack of spirituality. Those who do not follow the rules may be labeled, shunned, shamed, or removed from church positions or even excommunicated.
You may not be allowed to confront or question those in leadership as they are “God’s anointed”. Any form of questioning is considered an act of rebellion and the person is chastised for question the authority of the leaders. This “guilt trip” suppresses the person normal God given intuition that something doesn’t quite feel right about the church. The leaders take advantage of this by preaching a sermon on how the authority of the leaders shouldn’t be questioned and the cycle of abuse continues as the person is reluctant to even consider that their intuition is correct. Thus the person is stuck at the abusive church, ensnared in the web of manipulation and lies. Members are taught that only God is to handle situations in which leadership may have done wrong leaving the leadership unaccountable.
Spiritual abuse is also the misuse of a position of power, leadership, or influence to further the selfish interests of someone other than the individual who needs help. Sometimes abuse arises out of a doctrinal position. At other times it occurs because of legitimate personal needs of a leader that are being met by illegitimate means. Spiritually abusive religious systems are sometimes described as legalistic, mind controlling, religiously addictive, and authoritarian.
Common Characteristics of Spiritual Abuse Among the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination
- Manipulation of Scripture
As with many spiritually abusive organizations, the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination gets the process of studying the Word of God backwards. Instead of learning from the Bible through proper exegesis and interpretation, they develop their beliefs and then find scripture to support those beliefs. This, I would say is the underlying foundation of spiritual abuse. Manipulating the Bible to make it say what you want it to say so that it supports your beliefs is the very foundation of spiritual abuse. This allows the organization to say or do whatever it wants and say/do it all in the name of Scripture. The usual method is to take a verse out of context so that it supports the belief then manipulate people into thinking that is the meaning of that particular verse.
It is of utmost importance that we handle the Bible carefully and accurately. And in order to do that we MUST have the ability to detect and avoid exegetical fallacies. When it comes to the Bible Context is King. Anyone can make the Bible support any belief that they hold. The key is finding what the Bible is really saying about a particular topic. It’s not easy but it’s so worth it.
As an example I would like to share a recent discussion I had with someone who was portraying this mindset. The topic was faith healing and my opponent was arguing that the Lord extends healing to everyone the same way He does salvation. Basically she was saying that just like Salvation is available to all who ask, so is healing of physical illness, all we have to do is ask and have faith. She stated that “God is no respecter of persons so why should we think that he picks and chooses whom he will heal”. Well there are three major flaws in that argument.
- First, common sense will tell you that can’t possibly be true. I have known many people who have asked for healing and had the faith in God to heal them but were not healed.
- Second, the verse she was referring to is Acts 10:34. If you read the context it is Peter talking to Cornelius, and they were talking about spreading the Gospel of Christ to, not only the Jew, but also to the Gentile. Peter stated (to paraphrase) that he is now realizing that God will no longer show favoritism (favoritism in the NIV “respecter of persons” in the KJV) to Israel and will make his Gospel message available to the gentile as well. Son after that you will read that the Holy Spirit is made available to the Gentiles. So we see that that verse has nothing to do with faith healing. My opponent simply took that verse way out of context and falsely used it to support her beliefs.
- Third, if you believe that healing is distributed is a manner paralleling salvation then you must also believe the same is true for wealth, happiness, etc. You can’t just apply that to healing.
Exegesis and proper interpretation of scripture in context should come first. Beliefs should then follow based on that exegesis. It is abusive to take a verse out of context and apply it to a topic in order to support a specific belief.
Probably the most obvious characteristic of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination is it’s legalistic mentality, its focus on the law rather than grace. The Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination blends the ceremonial laws of the OT Israelites with the moral law and the NT covenant. These laws become enmeshed and are confused with God’s design for the New Testament Church. What’s worse yet is that the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination picks and chooses which OT laws it will follow making this characteristic much more confusing and abusive.
For example, the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination chooses to abide by the “Ye shall not… print any marks upon you” (KJV) [“Do not… put tattoo marks on yourselves” (NIV)] Leviticus 19:28, but ignores “neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woolen come upon thee” (KJV) [“Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material,” (NIV)] Leviticus 19:19. For reasons that are never explained, it is wrong to get a tattoo but it is ok to wear a polyester/cotton blend shirt. I grew up thinking that I was doomed for hell if I got a tattoo. (I now have a tattoo by the way 🙂
Performance of the law is a way to gain favor with God and a way to make God like us more. Those who are successful are put on a pedestal and those who can’t measure up are considered rebellious and outcasts. Grace is never spoken of except as it relates to salvation. Rules, laws, and standards are the litmus to gage a “good” Christian. Works and doing things correctly becomes most important and relationship is emphasized very little if at all.
We must remember that God desires a relationship with us. As we draw closer to him in intimate relationship the behavior then falls into place based on our individual convictions.
Another very distinctive characteristic of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination is the emphasis on absolute obedience to church authority. Because the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination believes they have been established by God as the correct church, the leaders claim to be an extension of the authority of God.
To give you an idea of what authoritarian means, picture in your mind a military General. The solders under his/her command are expected to obey him/her and follow his/her orders immediately and without question. To question or to belay an order is the same as disobedience and subject to punishment.
Just like a military General, leaders in the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination exercise complete or almost complete control over the wills of others. My church had a popular saying: “Delayed obedience is disobedience”. This was mainly in reference to children obeying their parents, but it also applied to church attendees and workers obeying the leaders and also Christians obeying God. As far as I know this isn’t in the Bible. I at least couldn’t find any reference to it. Perhaps if an astute reader who knows of a place where this can at least be implied from reading the Bible I would appreciate him/her letting me know.
Many leaders in the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination back up this teaching by using Matthew 23:1-2 “sit in Moses’ seat,” which is interpreted as a position of spiritual authority. The assumption is that God operates among His people through a hierarchy, or “chain of command.” In this abusive system unconditional submission is often called a “covering,” or “umbrella of protection” which will provide some spiritual blessing to those who fully submit. Followers are told that God will bless their submission even if the leadership is wrong. It is not their place to judge or correct the leadership – God will see to that.
This abusive characteristic extends to the family as well with the Father/Husband seen as the authoritarian leader of the family and the wife and children as submissive. The father has an obligation, under threat of punishment from God for not properly leading his family, to rule over his wife and children. Spanking becomes a normal method for punishing children and is justified by using scripture (Click Here to read more on Spanking).
This authoritarian view of leadership is also projected onto God and his authority over us. God is portrayed as a “cosmic-killjoy” just waiting for someone to screw up so that he can exact his punishment. The Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination paints a picture of God also as one who is a military leader, unhappy with all the disobedience happening among his people and patiently waiting for when he can punish us and correct our deviant behavior.
- Image Conscious
The Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination is meticulous to maintain an image of righteousness. The organization’s history is often misrepresented in the effort to demonstrate the organization’s special relationship to God. The mistaken judgments and character flaws of its leaders are denied or covered up in order to validate their authority and project an image of perfection. Impossibly high legalistic standards of thought and behavior are imposed on the congregation. Their failure to live up to these standards signifies rebellion and represents a constant reminder of his/her inferiority to the leaders, and the necessity of submission to them. The leaders exploit this to gain more control of their congregations.
I remember sitting in church one evening listening to a guest speaker. As he started he came to a place in his sermon where it became necessary to make a self disclosure of his past sinfulness. As he started he became really serious and announced with deep regret that he had once told a lie several years ago. He asked the congregation to forgive him and then proceeded with the sermon. I was a little confused by this at the time. I was torn between a desire to bow at his feet and worship him for such holiness and perfection and the desire to find out if that is all he had really done. Now that I know better, I understand how difficult it was for this person to show the congregation that he wasn’t perfect. He acted like that one lie was the worst sin he had ever committed and that if it weren’t for that one lie he would have lived a perfect life. His desire was to paint a picture for the congregation of perfection. Of course I, sitting in my pew, knowing all the things I had done wrong, am wondering how I will even make it home without God smiting me let alone get into heaven.
All blessings, from God as well as the church leaders, come through performance of spiritual requirements. Failure is strongly condemned so there is only one alternative, perfection. What many don’t realize, however, is that the more perfection one displays the more arrogance and pride they develop. But that pride is never questioned or disciplined. Somehow the pride that accompanies increases in perfection, isn’t wrong. Those who fail in their efforts to gain perfection are labeled as weak, rebellious, unfaithful, etc. Not being able to live up to the perfection expectations of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination, many people turn to suicide as a way out. Since perfection is impossible for mere human beings, failure is often inevitable and met with depression (which is also a sin in the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination by the way), heavy guilt, repeat confessions and
I remember feeling like a failure so many times for not being able to live up to the standards set by my Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination church. I remember classmates who’s aspirations included the mission field or church ministry were put up on a pedestal and honored and made examples of what one is supposed to do. Those who had no such aspirations had to make them up in order to get approval and respect from teachers, church leaders and other classmates.
This is an underlying theme for Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination spiritual abuse. People are not allowed to be themselves. They are made to fit into a particular mold and if people don’t conform they are shunned and rejected as outcasts. Association with these “outcasts” in any way signified a waiver in the faithfulness of one’s commitment to the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination. I’m just starting to learn who I am as a person. My healing from this abusive characteristic has lead me on a journey to find out who the real me is. When I learned about this characteristic I realized for the first time that God likes me the way he made me, flaws and all. It’s very freeing actually to be able to approach God knowing that he accepts me for who I am and I don’t have to put on a false image to appear better than I really am. God isn’t fooled by that anyway.
- Black and White Thinking
There was a saying in the church I grew up in, “There are NO gray areas!” Everything is either right or wrong, black or white, good or evil, sinful or not sinful, etc. in the teachings of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination. There is no middle ground. In the counseling world, this is called a cognitive distortion or thinking error and in the philosophy arena its a false dichotomy logical fallacy.
When we fall victim to Black and White Thinking, we have mistakenly reduced an entire spectrum of possibilities down to the two most extreme options, each the polar opposite of the other without any shades of gray in between. Often, those categories are of our own creation, and we are attempting to force the world to conform to our preconceptions about what it should look like.
As an all-too-common example, many people in the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination insist that whoever is not “with” us must therefore be “against” us – and can then justifiably treat those who are “against us” as an enemy. This dichotomy assumes that there are only two possible categories – with us and against us – and that everything and everyone must belong to either the former or the latter. Possible shades of gray, like agreeing with our principles but not our methods, are ignored entirely.
Black-and-white thinking defines two opposites that are opposites in every way, meaning that there is no overlap or potential for compromise. There is no gray zone because the opposites cannot co-exist but must cancel out each other—or so it seems. One opposite is defined as being absolutely good and the other is defined as being absolutely evil, thus setting up an inevitable, to-the-death struggle between them.
The result of this manipulation is that the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination has adopted a very simplistic view of the world. Their teachings are completely true and all others are completely false. There is no room for any nuances in between, which means that people almost inevitably become extremists and fanatics – hence the term “Fundamental” in the very name of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination. This is a very easy approach to life because it really doesn’t require people to think for themselves. They simply accept the definitions created by the leaders without making any personal attempts to question or discern whether they are right according to the truth of the Word of God. They believe what the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination teaches and holds as truth is absolutely right and that God himself would agree with them and them only.
Because of this, it can be extremely difficult for Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination followers to admit that they are wrong. Such people tend to become very defensive and hostile toward anyone who questions the validity of their traditions and doctrine and therefore become unapproachable. This is why the scribes and the Pharisees wanted Jesus dead and why some people in the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination become fanatical in defending their “truth.”
- Confusing Absolutes, Preferences, and Convictions
Similar to Black and white Thinking the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination confused absolutes, preferences, and convictions. Absolutes would be things that would be considered absolutes such as Christ’s death, burial and resurrection and are pretty much universal. Preferences would be considered something that is neither right or wrong but is just a preference such as the Pastor prefers to pray before the sermon starts or I prefer the color blue over the color red. Preferences are highly individualized, however, they are flexible enough to “let go of” for the sake of harmony. Convictions are also highly individualized and are between the individual and the Lord. Convictions should not be compromised and include such things as a conviction that we are admonished to take care of our environment.
The problem with the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination is that, because of their Doctrine of Separation and their Black and White thinking (see above) they enmesh absolutes, preferences, and convictions and make them all absolutes. They take what should be a personal preference or an individual conviction and make it an absolute. The Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination pushed their convictions and preferences on its members and makes them believe that they are absolutes, either right or wrong.
When a preference or conviction becomes a dogmatic must or should, emotional disturbance results. People get confused and lose all sense of their individual relationship with the Lord. That confusion turns into anger and relationship with God is decreased or even lost all together. Albert Ellis, a famous Psychologist who developed the Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy in the Psychology field, coined the term “musterbation” (not to be confused with masturbation) which refers to a kind of irrational belief that something should or must be the way you want it to be. He said that this kind of a belief produces maladaptive anger. I guess it’s no wonder why I’ve been so angry after my abusive experience with the Independent Fundamental Baptist Denomination.