The term “abuse” covers, of course, a multitude of issues and situations. A quick look on Google’s top rankings shows the most common forms of abuse to be physical, psychological, sexual and emotional. The top four are of course followed by others – but interestingly none of them mention spiritual abuse.
Having worked as a Police Officer for 30 years I have seen abuse in all of its ugly forms. But one thing I have still to fully understand in life is why so many people who suffer abuse either refuse to escape their living hell when they can do so or, even when they do, so quickly return to it.
I could spend a long time sharing real life examples of this. I have seen a wife brutally try to murder her sleeping husband – but when she was released from prison they reunited. I could tell of sex slaves being freed from their living nightmare only to return to it days later. I could recount many less dramatic but no less distressing incidents of women remaining with or returning to very abusive partners – or moving from one abusive situation to another.
I know there are psychological and dependency issues at the root of much of the behaviour I have outlined – but nonetheless it is difficult to understand.
The thing is though, and this is even more difficult for me to grasp, I have witnessed the same forces at work in the church. I am not talking at this point of the scandals which have rocked every branch of the church in recent years, terrible although that is – but the insidious abuse we call “spiritual” from which so many seem either incapable or unwilling to escape.
And yet I am reminded at this point of the people of Israel who, so quickly after gaining their freedom from slavery in Egypt, wanted to return to their lives of bondage and drudgery the moment the going got a bit tough.
I have seen people in churches released from the slavery of abusive leadership return within weeks to similar situations – sometimes even to the same abusive leaders from whom they had recently escaped. This very often happens to those who have swallowed the demonic lie, common in so many Charismatic and Pentecostal circles, that they must have a “covering”. Even the men of the Reformation saw through that! But it is not only in such circles that abuse exists. I once, to my great regret, joined a Presbyterian church. Within weeks the minister, who, with hindsight, I now realise was a control freak and a bully, was at my door in and in front of my young children accused me of undermining his ministry him due to the fact I had attended another church one Sunday. He went on to spread false rumours and outright lies about me and undermine me in and way he could.
Religious or spiritual abuse usually starts like any other – with offers of love and support. Yet, in a very short space of time, it becomes manipulation – then control and finally domination. This can be so insidious that it is not detected until too late. With the benefit of experience and indeed, sometimes, a good dose of scepticism, I can very often see this coming these days. In fact at one point during my time as a Church leader I would not invite any leader I did not know, but who wanted to see me, to my home – but to a neutral venue. In the space of a few short years there were at least five people or groups who wanted to “come alongside” to help our new Church. Some were more transparent than others – but ultimately all wanted control! True spiritual fathers are hard to find – but I believe you find them – and not the other way about!
Of course, just as with those who have experienced other forms of abuse – there are Christians who, having escaped spiritual abuse (which is in reality a form of both emotional and psychological abuse) who are truly psychologically damaged and as such require great care, love and understanding. Sadly these are qualities the church is very often not good at dispensing. In fact, just last week, I spoke to a christian lady who had gone to her minister for help and advice regarding her marriage as her husband wanted a divorce – only to be asked – “what do you expect me to do about it?” She went away broken.
So what to say? Well the problem is not a new one – the apostle Paul faced similar issues in the early days of the church. So I’ll leave you with his advice to a group of people who had similarly been led astray –
“There is a heavenly Jerusalem above us, which is our true “mother.” She is the freewoman, birthing children into freedom! It’s now so obvious! We’re not the children of the slave woman; we’re the supernatural sons of the freewoman — sons of grace! Let me be clear, the Anointed One has set us free — not partially, but completely and wonderfully free! We must always cherish this truth and stubbornly refuse to go back into the bondage of our past. Beloved ones, God has called us to live a life of freedom in the Holy Spirit”
(From Paul’s Letter to the Galatians TPT)
Wise words indeed! Some of us reading this today need to take them to heart.