Ma Pastoral Theology -- Spiritual Abuse
WHEN THE SYSTEM BECOMES THE PERSECUTOR
Veenhuizen's dissertation explores spiritual abuse, using Relational Theology to understand a healthy spiritual relationship vs. spiritual abuse. In Relational Theology, God offers a bilateral covenant with Him and with others of unreserved love and commitment with the gifts of blessing to anyone accepting His offer. Spiritual abuse sharply contrasts with God's covenant. Spiritual abuse has existed for quite some time; consequently, theological writers such as Veenhuizen and mental health professionals have all addressed the causes, discernment and treatment of spiritual abuse.
Foundation of Relational Theology
Veenhuizen's dissertation correctly shows that there are various definitions of Spiritual Abuse (Veenhuizen, 2011). The most inclusive one found in my research is from Lisa Oakley's "Developing safeguarding policy and practice for Spiritual Abuse" (Oakley & Kinmond, 2014). After studies and interviews with numerous survivors of Spiritual Abuse, Oakley and her team concluded that Spiritual Abuse is "coercion and control of one individual by another in a spiritual context" (Oakley & Kinmond, 2014, p. 89), which can include: manipulation and exploitation, forced answerability, control of decision-making, forced secrecy and muteness, force to conform, exploitation of scripture or the pulpit to control conduct, forced obedience to the persecutor, the idea that the persecutor is somehow "divine," segregation from others, especially outsiders (Oakley & Kinmond, 2014, p. 89). As Veenhuizen points out, Spiritual Abuse is caused by: misuse and distortion of authority and power; manipulation and control; use of elitism and persecution; rigid life-style and experience; and suppression of dissent through discipline (Veenhuizen, 2011, pp. 12-13).
In order to understand and treat spiritual abuse, Veenhuizen explores Relational Theology. According to relational theology, God offers a covenant of unreserved love and commitment with the gifts of blessing to anyone accepting His offer. This is in contrast to its opposite, spiritually abusive relations resulting from individuals pursuing their own needs to the detriment of healthy interdependent relationships. Our covenant with God, ourselves, other people and creation can prevent and thwart spiritually abusive relationships (Veenhuizen, 2011, p. 65). According to Veenhuizen, spiritual abuse can be evaluated as plainly conflicting with the covenant offered by God in scripture and lived faith (Veenhuizen, 2011, p. 19). In sum, anything or anyone that misrepresents or destroys a person's ability to determine his/her life or distinguish and grow toward an interdependent community bond is abusive (Veenhuizen, 2011, p. 75).
2. Spiritual Abuse in the Scriptures
The environments that engender and maintain spiritual abuse have existed for a very long time (Anonymous, 2012). In the Old Testament context, priests, prophets and kings, who possessed power due to the "seat of Moses," mistreated believers through spiritual abuse, directly conflicting with God's covenant (Veenhuizen, 2011, p. 41). In the New Testament context, Jesus explicitly challenges these religious leaders and their mistreatments of the law and believers. He knew that the fulfillment and administration of the law received by Moses from God had been appropriated by legalists, particularly the educators of religious law and the Pharisees, who used for their own advantages, just as many religious leaders did in Old Testament times (Veenhuizen, 2011, p. 48).
3. Spiritual Abuse in Christian History
Veenhuizen warns that a developed system can become the persecutor commanding allegiance and binding even the system's leadership (Veenhuizen, 2011, p. 91). An obvious historical case is that of the Roman Catholic Church, which took the power given to it by virtue of its spiritual leadership and abused that power through measures such selling indulgences and forbidding believers from reading the Bible. This spiritual abuse eventually led to the Protestant Reformation, commenced by Martin Luther in 16th Century Europe. Reformation Protestantism recognizes that Catholicism...
4. The Pathway to Abuse
The pathway to spiritual abuse laid by the personal issues or addictions of leaders. As Veenhuizen states, some individuals have let their faith and church interactions to become toxic because of their personal issues or addictions (Veenhuizen, 2011, p. 95). Barbara Berry speaks of this systemic abuse as "the dark side" of church leadership, manifested in and perpetrated by leaders who are narcissistic, paranoid, passive-aggressive, compulsive and/or codependent (Berry, 2010, pp. 82-94). Berry also speaks of the ways in which their personal issues/addictions play out in "toxic faith systems," complete with persecutors, coconspirators, enablers, victims and outcasts (Berry, 2010, pp. 96-100). Unfortunately, religious sociologists have not sufficiently studied power relationships within religious groups, and the studies they have undertaken are chiefly done to evade the resource give-and-take that happens within religious groups (Gabriel, 1988). The covenant offered by God permits a growing self-discovery in which the believer is strengthened and stimulated to cultivate and use the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the benefit of all in the community (Veenhuizen, 2011, p. 121).
5. Synthesis and Conclusions
People are created in and meant for community. They cannot live isolated from each other and become fulfilled people (Veenhuizen, 2011, p. 121). Their necessary relationship with each other in spiritual community involves a bilateral covenant with God and other people, a mature and vigorous interdependence (Veenhuizen, 2011, p. 123). It also involves grace: when covenant is the fundamental operating principle, the organization and its leaders supervise with grace, assured of their true identity and confident in their essence in Christ (Veenhuizen, 2011, p. 126). The covenant is also empowering, as power is a God-given to build His kingdom, but that power must be used in a method that empowers all community members to use their gifts, mature and be healthfully interdependent (Veenhuizen, 2011, p. 130). Finally, the covenant involves intimacy with God and other people, "knowing and being known" in communication, forgiveness and association. This entails growing toward deep honesty with each other in unqualified commitment and love. This loving, intimacy with God engenders and maintains the same sort of intimacy with people, as God has always wanted (Veenhuizen, 2011, p. 133). Veenhuizen concludes by challenging the Christian community to examine their systems and discern whether those systems empower believers to form the covenant he described through their maturing, interdependent distinctions or whether it perpetuates spiritual abuse through "control, manipulation, greed, legalism, elitism, perfectionism, spiritual pride" and other abusive behaviors (Veenhuizen, 2011, p. 135).
6. Beyond Veenhuizen's Dissertation
While Veenhuizen's dissertation is fascinating, it stops short of discussing the actual healing of spiritual abuse victims. As Melanie Childers points out, chaplains and other spiritual leaders are very often the "first responders" to spiritual abuse, focusing on healing the victim through establishing a sense of safety, remembrance and mourning of the abuse, and reconnection with the loving community (Childers, 2012). Chun An-Wang calls for healing through a healthy and comprehensive pastoral power through the efficacious practices of pastoral care, congregational leadership and institutional management (Wang, 2007, pp. 171-187). Not surprisingly, psychologists have also developed a clinical understanding and treatment of spiritual abuse. Jamie Marich, for example, a clinical psychologist, adds her perspective in assessing spiritual abuse and treating it from the perspective of treating traumas like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related conditions (Marich, 2015). Applying their expertise, clinical psychologists treat spiritual abuse by stabilizing the victim, reprocessing the abusive situation and the patient's reactions to it, reintegrating of the reprocessed abusive incidents into the patient's life and reintegrating the patient into the community (Marich, 2015, Kindle locations 492-514). Despite semantic differences, examination of psychological literature about healing victims of spiritual abuse shows remarkable similarities between Veenhuizen's discussion and mental health professionals' treatment of patients in the aftermath of spiritual abuse.
Veenhuizen's dissertation explores the phenomenon of spiritual abuse, made more difficult by the fact that there are various definitions of spiritual abuse. The most inclusive one found in my research is "coercion and control of one individual by another in a spiritual context," possibly including: manipulation and exploitation, forced answerability, control of decision-making, forced secrecy and muteness, force to conform, exploitation of scripture or the pulpit to control conduct, forced obedience to the persecutor, the idea that the persecutor is somehow "divine," segregation from others, especially outsiders. In order to understand and treat spiritual abuse, Veenhuizen explores Relational Theology, whereby God offers a bilateral covenant with Him and with others of unreserved love and commitment with the gifts of blessing to anyone accepting His offer. Spiritual abuse can be evaluated as plainly conflicting with this covenant offered by God in scripture and lived faith.
Conditions for spiritual abuse have existed for quite some time. In the Old Testament, priests, prophets and kings spiritually abused believers. In the New Testament, Jesus challenged religious leader who spiritually abused believers. In addition, Christian history includes spiritual abuse, one of the most notable instances involving the Catholic Church's sale of indulgences, restriction believers from reading the Bible, and overlay of superfluous and sometimes false doctrines on the articles…
Anonymous, 2012. Spiritual abuse rising in many places, it seems. [Online]
Available at: http://the-end-time.blogspot.com/2012/04/spiritual-abuse-rising-in-many-places.html
[Accessed 19 May 2016].
Berry, B. O., 2010. Spiritual abuse in the Christian community. Orlando, FL: Asbury Theological Seminary.
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