The Theology of Abuse (Part One)

Hugo, via Facebook, pointed me to today’s Washington Post story about a new study on clergy sexual abuse from Baylor University’s School of Social Work:

One in every 33 women who attend worship services regularly has been the target of sexual advances by a religious leader, a survey released Wednesday says.

The study, by Baylor University researchers, found that the problem is so pervasive that it almost certainly involves a wide range of denominations, religious traditions and leaders.

“It certainly is prevalent, and clearly the problem is more than simply a few charismatic leaders preying on vulnerable followers,” said Diana Garland, dean of Baylor’s School of Social Work, who co-authored the study.

It found that more than two-thirds of the offenders were married to someone else at the time of the advance….

For its study, Baylor used the 2008 General Social Survey, a nationally representative sample of 3,559 respondents, to estimate the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct. Women older than 18 who attended worship services at least once a month were asked in the survey whether they had received “sexual advances or propositions” from a religious leader.

The study found that close to one in 10 respondents — male and female — reported having known about clergy sexual misconduct occurring in a congregation they had attended.

Researchers say they don’t know whether the incidence of clergy sexual misconduct had changed over the years. Nor do they know whether sexual wrongdoing by clergy is more, or less, frequent than in other well-respected professions.

But, Garland said, “when you put it with a spiritual leader or moral leader, you’ve really added a power that we typically don’t think about in secular society — which is that this person speaks for God and interprets God for people. And that really adds a power.”

All power can be misused, and greater intimacy risks greater pain. In one way or another, the world’s religions aim at making the hard and selfish ego more permeable, creating more opportunities for love but also greater exposure to others’ unsafe emotions.

In the past few years, as I’ve become more deeply involved in Christian fellowship, I’ve also experienced some serious violations of trust. It’s driven me to re-examine my core beliefs through this lens: do some doctrines make the believer more vulnerable to exploitation?

Certainly the reverse has been true for me, earlier in my faith journey. I wouldn’t have valued or trusted myself enough to break free of some abusive family patterns, had I not discovered the loving and forgiving God of the New Testament. (Read Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s Boundaries for details.)

I would hate to be one of those smug secularists who accuse Christians of being immature people with Daddy issues. Nonetheless, lately I’ve dared to wonder whether the traditional emphasis on human insufficiency, dependence, and sinfulness has kept me from outgrowing the need for parental approval, instead merely projecting it onto God. That wouldn’t be so bad if it were just “me and Jesus”, but inevitably, my understanding of God is mediated and influenced by the spiritual leaders in whatever community I join–either clergy or lay people who seem to be more educated and advanced in the faith than I am.

Dr. Edward J. Cumella’s Barnabas Ministry website lists 12 signs of spiritual abuse in their article “The Yeast of the Pharisees”:

Authoritarianism. Rather than modeling and teaching obedience to God, abusive leaders expect believers to obey them. Councils of elders, deacons, etc., are expected to rubber stamp leaders’ intentions rather than provide accountability.

Coercion. Rather than respecting freedom and conscience, as God does, and offering messages that persuade based on scriptural integrity and reason, abusive leaders use strong-arm tactics to coerce believers into overruling better judgment and following their demands.

Intimidation. Rather than building up the Body in the bonds of love, abusive leaders use threats of punishment, excommunication, and condemnation to force people into submission and continued church membership.

Terrorism. Rather than inviting people to follow Christ with the Gospel of love and forgiveness, abusive leaders intensify believers’ fear, shame, and false guilt, teaching that problems in believers’ lives are due to the believers’ personal sins.

Condemnation. Rather than refraining from judgment lest they be judged, an abusive leader liberally condemns those who leave his church, outsiders, and those whom he defines as sinners. The message is that believers will join the ranks of the condemned should they deviate from the leader’s teachings or leave his church/denomination. Individual members become the scapegoat when something goes awry in the congregation.

Classism. Christ was no respecter of persons. Abusive leaders are preoccupied with power, promoting church hierarchy, referring to and treating people according to their titles and roles. Those lower on the hierarchy are taught that their needs don’t matter.

Conformity. Abusive leaders have the greatest hold over inexperienced, naïve, and dependent individuals who are seeking a strong leader. These individuals suppress their objections to the leaders’ teachings for fear of being shamed or ostracized. Hence, abusive churches often appear unified, but beneath the surface there is discontent, anguish, whispers, rumors, secrets, and a desire among many to leave.

Manipulation. Rather than taking scripture in context, interpreting the Bible with the Bible and according to long-held Christian beliefs, abusive leaders twist scripture to convey their personal opinion rather than God’s intent.

Irrationality. Because scripture is manipulated, one interpretation may contradict another. Interpretations may contradict reason and obvious reality. This requires suspension of critical thinking. Some abusive leaders claim to receive direct messages from God about their church or individual members, but these messages typically deviate from Scripture and reality.

Legalism. Rather than treating others with love, grace, and forgiveness, as Christ commanded, abusive leaders offer little grace. They communicate instead that one’s worth and the amount of love one deserves depend on performance and status in their church. Abusive leaders expect believers to make heroic financial, time, and emotional sacrifices for their church and its members.

Isolation. Rather than respecting family ties, community obligations, and friendships, abusive leaders are concerned that such influences will interfere with their control over believers, so they encourage isolation from family, friends, and the outside world, and wage war against the outside world as a sewer of sin devoid of anything redeeming.

Elitism. Rather than modeling and encouraging humility, abusive leaders beam with false pride and teach the same to believers. An attitude arises of, “We’re it! We’re special! Everyone else is condemned!,” partially compensating for the shame and worthlessness that believers feel because of other experiences in the abusive church. The leader instills that believers must protect the church’s image at any cost.

Ensnarement. Rather than promoting maturity among believers, abusive leaders inevitably promote self-dou
bt, guilt, and identity confusion, since believers struggle with the contradiction between what their conscience and reason tell them and what they are being taught. This ambivalence, coupled with fear of condemnation and loss of direction and fellowship, make it difficult and painful for believers to leave abusive churches.

Before you write this off as only applying to cults, consider how the above attitudes are encouraged by the doctrines of many mainstream churches:

Isolation: If you truly believe that God condemns all people to eternal conscious torment, except for the lucky few who have heard the gospel and been convinced by it, you either (1) are a compassionate person and go mad from the horror of all that suffering, or (2) teach yourself not to care about people outside your tribe. It has become impossible for me to trust Christians who can go through life smiling and making friends with unbelievers while inwardly holding, in fact cherishing, belief in a God who would torture these people forever.

Ensnarement: Isn’t this the experience of GLBT people in conservative churches–forced to choose between loss of fellowship and their own psychological self-understanding? Undermining people’s pleasure and pain signals is a classic technique to prime them for abuse. This happens, for instance, when leaders tell gays that their homosexuality is a delusion, or that their relationships aren’t genuine and loving.

Classism: Churches that exclude women from leadership, for example, send a broader message that inequality is acceptable in the body of Christ. We learn to justify our failures of moral imagination and our natural tendency to see others as less than fully human.

Conformity: Biblical inerrantists are among those who argue that any deviation from tradition will undermine our confidence in our entire relationship with God. In this model, the living always lose out to the dead; the flow of learning only goes in one direction. We are taught to venerate those who will not respond to us. Like the child of an abusive parent, we have only two alternatives: submission or loss of love. We have no way to make our suffering heard.

Terrorism: I am leaning toward the opinion that the Calvinist belief in total depravity is an abuse-enabling doctrine. It’s a “hazing” model of identity destruction and re-formation in which the lay person is convinced to radically mistrust and despise herself, making her so desperate for approval that she falls gratefully at the feet of the “God” who spares her the punishment she thinks she deserves (the “honeymoon phase” in this Cycle of Abuse diagram). Similarly, advocates of predestination speak as if God’s absolute and unquestioned sovereignty would be weakened by requiring His judgment to be leavened by compassion or fairness. This idolization of content-free obedience sets up psychological blocks against defending one’s self from an abusive leader.

The website Under Much Grace provides other resources for conceptualizing and healing from abuse-enabling doctrines. In a 2007 post on “Doctrine Over Person”, author Cindy Kunsman writes:

Members’ personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group. The end ideology of the group must be maintained by any means, even at the personal expense or the personal suffering of the group members. Love for the system or ideology supersedes that of the people, places or lesser causes. This promotes hatred and intolerance of all opposing critics or ideologies (sadly, often including those within the group).

This was my painful experience when I found myself in close fellowship with some Christians who were not affirming of gays and lesbians. At that time a novice in reading the Bible, I hoped that perhaps they had simply not heard a convincing case otherwise. After much study and soul-searching, I was able to make such a case, only to discover that they resisted hearing it. I don’t think my friends felt an animus toward gays so much as a general rigidity such as Cindy describes above. They thought personal emotions about fairness were less trustworthy than a System. These feelings were branded a sign of weakness and partiality, of incomplete submission to God. The irony is that their fear of being wrong is also an unacknowledged emotion, one which a relationship with Jesus is supposed to heal.

I’m struggling to hang onto that relationship myself, even as I see how a person’s love for God can be used as the ultimate weapon of emotional blackmail. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38, NIV)