As a historian, I have always been fascinated by the way individuals exercise power. It is certainly true that for some, power does have a corrupting effect and in the most extreme cases, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’.
While historians concentrate on researching and studying the exercise of power in the political milieu, the exercise and abuse of power can be observed in all human activity from the family, to business, education and even in the church.
However, most right thinking people in the end will either act, or sanction others including the state to act on their behalf when there is evidence of the abuse of power. Wars have been fought to bring about regime change and remove dictators such as Hitler and Saddam Hussein. The criminal law code enforced by the courts and law enforcement agencies is there to deal with abuse of power in the family and business. In education, the law does not stop at the school gates when abuse of power such as bullying takes place.
So what happens when there is blatant and harmful abuse of power in the church......usually nothing. The major recent exception has been the media led expose of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church which is slowly leading to a more vigilant and robust approach to the issue within that particular denomination.
However, hidden from the public gaze and media exposure lurks another equally insidious phenomenon: spiritual abuse. This is a destructive and extremely harmful abuse of power which has taken hold in some independent and mainstream institutional evangelical churches in Scotland.
A definition of spiritual abuse can be found in the introduction to researcher and author Jeff VanVonderen’s website:
“Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority, the purpose of which is to ‘come underneath’ and serve, build, equip and make God’s people more free, misuses that authority placing themselves over God’s people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly godly purposes which are really their own.”
Since the 1980s a detailed body of high level academic research on spiritual abuse has grown to the point that the existence of such abuse can no longer be ignored.
In his article, "Dysfunctional Churches" Christian Professor and author Ronald Enroth writes:
"If truth in advertising standards could be applied to religion, some churches would be required to display a sign reading: ‘Warning: this church could be harmful to your spiritual and psychological health.’...... What are the hallmarks of unhealthy, aberrant churches? The key indicator is control‑oriented leadership, ministers who have a need to “lord it over the flock.” Abusive leaders demand submission and unquestioning loyalty. The person who raises uncomfortable questions or does not “get with the program” is cast aside. Guilt, fear, and intimidation are used to manipulate and control vulnerable members, especially those who have been taught to believe that questioning their pastor is comparable to questioning God.
Why does a pastor or priest sometimes turn into a spiritual tyrant? I believe it is because of the human desire to control others and to exercise power over people. Each of us has been exposed to the temptation of power, whether in the role of spouse, teacher, or parent. An excessive will to power, coupled with sincere religious motives, can lead to the misuse of spiritual authority.
How can we recognize a healthy church? In addition to matters of appropriate doctrine, a healthy church is reconciling and restorative, not adversarial and elitist. Members of healthy churches seek to deepen and strengthen their family commitments. Legitimate leaders will welcome dissent and hard questions from members without threat of reprisal. Trustworthy leaders will encourage accountability, and they will establish checks and balances."
Choose a church carefully and prayerfully. Remember, not all religion is benign, and not all church experience is beneficial."
Professor Enroth is absolutely correct. To all spiritually abusive leaders, their fellow travellers and supporters, the message from scripture is clear........repent, be reconciled to God and produce spiritual fruit in keeping with repentance. This ‘fruit’ should be clearly observable actions aimed at putting right all of the harm done to their victims.
In the end God always has the last word, because all will have to account for their actions and attitudes. Jesus had a stern warning for unrepentant religious leaders:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’