“Knowledge is power” – so said Sir Francis Bacon the English Philosopher back in 1597. Then in a letter to an Anglican Bishop much later Sir John Dalberg-Acton wrote – ”Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
This week I have been following a thread on social media in relation to spiritual abuse – and have been amazed at the response to the article. That such abuse exists is undeniable. I have known many who have experienced it – and looking back over my life in the church I can only conclude that I also have suffered to some degree from the insidious ways of the spiritual abuser. I could relate many incidents both personal and of which I have knowledge – but that is not my point here.
Of course the big question is why does such a thing even exist among those who profess to serve a God of mercy, love and grace? We can blame the humanity, the weakness, the propensity to control and many other things in the life of the leader or leaders who become the perpetrators of spiritual abuse. However, I have believed for many years, and still believe, that one of the main roots of the problem is far more endemic than many will admit. It will not be admitted because in fact the real god of many denominations and religious institutions, as well as their Pastors, Ministers, Priests and leaders – is the pursuit and elevation of knowledge for its own sake.
The late Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi and Jewish Philosopher wrote – “The Greeks learned in order to comprehend. The Hebrews learned in order to revere.”
I strongly suspect that the motivation and purpose of most seminaries and establishments of religious education is aligned with the former. As a younger man I regularly questioned the root cause of my aversion to seeing the educational attainments of the “Minister” emblazoned on the church notice board. I have got many things wrong in life – but I don’t think this was one of them. Intellectual attainment – a Greek style knowledge is God is placed above everything else in most of our churches. And intellectual arrogance breeds abuse – plain and simple. Of course that is not to say that everyone who has attained intellectually will be arrogant – but the danger is ever present.
In a recent lecture Jordan Peterson the Canadian Psychologist said this –
“There is no straight line between intelligence and wisdom. If the intellectual world would drop intellectual superiority, and fat chance there is of that, then the divide between the working class and the elite would dissolve.”
We could apply this equally to the church. The problem is, even in the evangelical church, which is my tradition, we say we believe in the equality of all [1 Peter 2:9] – but in truth we have a priestly class just as much as in the catholic church which many narrow and equally controlling protestant denominations disparage. And until we drop our intellectual arrogance spiritual abuse will continue. Abraham Joshua Heschel whom we have already quoted said, as an older man – “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” The truth is the church in general is immature – still impressed by the clever – the intellect – the titled leader – giving scant, if any, attention to the those who, in the earlier words of Heschel – “revere”. Even last week I saw a deplorable example of this.
Of course in the final analysis the Apostle Paul, a man who counted his educational and theological attainments as – “Worthless for Christ” [Philippians 3:7] not only puts it in a nutshell but gives us the universal antidote at the same time –
“Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds them up.”
Corinthians 8:1 [GWT]
In Charismatic/Pentecostal circles spiritual abuse ,when it occurs, is based very often not so much on intellectual knowledge but on a claimed knowledge of God’s mind and will for others. Such spiritual superiority and arrogance can have catastrophic consequences within churches, families and in the life of the individual. Again I have personally witnessed this and still grieve for friends whose lives have been devastated as a result.