The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen

You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. ~ 1 Corinthians 7:23

A friend recommended that I read The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen.  This book is written primarily for churches, but is just as applicable to missions or any other institution or relationship where someone is wielding spiritual manipulation or false authority over another.

A broad definition of spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.  Here are some situations where spiritual abuse can occur:

  • A leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person.
  • Spirituality is used to make others live up to a spiritual standard.  (And the others are spiritually degraded or shamed if they fail to do so) 

Part One of this book is about identifying spiritually abusive systems.  It talks about the fact that spiritual abuse has occurred since Bible times.  Jesus himself confronted abusive systems of the Pharisees and the Temple many times.  Jesus said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.”  Abusive spiritual systems and relationships have the opposite effect.  They place a heavier burden upon their victims, who work harder and harder to meet the standards, becoming more and more tired as they work to the point of exhaustion.

One of the weights placed on people by an abusive system is legalism.  This is a form of religious perfectionism where spiritual acceptance is based on performance, rather than on the gift of Christ. 

The book talks about some of the characteristics of abused Christians, how they get into abusive relationships in the first place and why they stay in them.  It tells how to identify spiritually abusive religious systems.  One of the “rules” of a spiritually abusive system is the “can’t talk” rule.  A person who speaks out loud about a problem becomes the problem. An abusive system is closed and paranoid toward the outside, and secretive about what goes on inside.

The heavy burden of a spiritually abused person, and the fact that they are not allowed to talk about it, makes it very difficult for them to leave the system.  When the system suppresses the truth, and often enforces that suppression by misusing scripture and questioning the victims spirituality, they are revictimizing the victim.

Part Two of the book focuses on the central power figures in the abusive system, the leaders.  Without strong, authoritative leaders a system will not attract followers who are hungry for a relationship with God.  Both the followers and the leaders can be trapped within this system.

Part Three talks about how to escape from a spiritual trap, and recovery.  In a spiritual trap, you have moved so far away from normal that you stop remembering what normal really is.  You invest so much into the relationship that you don’t want to leave it, you keep feeling you can somehow “make it right” or get back what you put in. Spiritual victims need to refocus on the heart of God, the truth about God and his good news.  The book leads you through a list of “reminders” about God’s character and his promises. 

A person who wants to get out of a spiritually abusive system has two options – fight or flight.  Sometimes the right decision is to try to work within the system to change it, and sometimes it is better to leave the system altogether.  The last two chapters of the book are devoted to talking about how to make this decision, and if you decide to fight the system, how to prepare yourself for this. 

A quote from the book that really speaks to me:  “Fighting the fight of faith does not mean getting aggressive.  It does not take money, status, an education, or the ability to speak.  It takes dependence upon God.  Just hang on to God and tell the truth.  This is God’s fight.”

This book talks about the story in Matthew 21 where Jesus violently drove the money lenders out of the temple.  After he was finished turning over tables, no doubt yelling angrily at the people, an amazing thing happened.  The blind and lame who were in the temple came to him to be healed.  While others in the temple were afraid of Jesus and scattered away from him, the people who were wounded knew that he was a safe person who would help them.  The book says “We believe the word to the church today is this.  When the Jesus of the Bible is clearly heard in the church, trivialities will be revealed, “tables” will be turned over, and religious pretenders will run for cover.  But in the end, the “blind” and the “lame” will be strangely drawn and wonderfully healed by the grace of Jesus, who fights for them.”

I highly recommend this book to those of you who have grown up in spiritually abusive systems, are in one right now, or just want to know more about the topic.


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