Idolatry and Abuse

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I am republishing this article from 2016 in the light of recent challenging news stories

How can we be alert to the risk of abuse, manipulation and control in church life?  Sometime back, I  preached on 1 Corinthians 12:1-3. I talked about how the devil wants us to stop hearing God and instead turn to “dumb idols.”

I suggested that idols don’t just include carved and painted images but also people.

“He (Satan) gets us to put our trust in other people.  People become our gods and idols whether celebrities at a distance that we obsess over or family members, teachers, bosses, even church leaders who we constantly look to for approval.  Sadly, those people can then take advantage seeking to control and abuse.”

What do I mean by this?

People as idols

The things -and people we fear often become our idols. Fear motivates worship as much as love.

We can see someone as the ideal – we want to please them, to live up to their expectations, to get their seal of approval. This may mean wanting to have the same image as a celebrity -leading to dissatisfaction with our body size and shape -one potential cause of eating disorders

We can move beyond healthy respect and obedience of parents -so that even in adulthood we fear their judgement on our decisions and achievements

We can live in fear of our managers at work.  A visible sign of this may be when we need to be seen to arrive at work before them and leave after them.

We can put a church leader onto a pedestal -treating them as infallible.

Now, actually we can do ourselves a lot of harm through this. We look in the wrong places for hope and satisfaction. We place expectations on people that they simply cannot fulfil.

However, sadly, fallen and finite human beings who are idolised end up being tempted to take advantage of the situation. Sin means that they enjoy the “worship” and even come to demand it.  Abuse happens when they use their position, status and relationship to manipulate and control others to do what is wrong and harmful

Some important things to know about abusers

Abusers are acting for their own gratification. They may try to justify their behaviour to others and themselves  that they are acting for good but this is deception and even self-deception.

Abusers love secrecy (men love darkness because their deeds are evil). They will also isolate individuals and groups from wider and long standing friendships and support networks -they’ll encourage distrust of others.

Abusers use blame and shame. They will cause the victim to believe that it is their own fault.  They will tell them that they won’t be believed. They will cause the victim to feel shame, to feel dirty and to believe that this is how others will see them

Abusers will play the victim – especially when the real victim tries to escape. They will feign vulnerability

Abuse may be physical, emotional and/or sexual. When an abuse uses religious authority to manipulate or control and/or where abuse is damaging to a person’s faith then we may term this “Spiritual abuse”

Sadly, abuse can happen in churches.

Churches and abuse -how to protect

Church elders are portrayed as under shepherds with responsibility to guard and protect Christ’s flock form harm as well as to feed it.

Here are some thoughts on how we do that in church life

  1. Healthy churches will have genuine plural leadership. This is not the same as having one true leader surrounded by yes men. Leaders should hold each other to account and be willing to challenge.
  2. Healthy churches will relate to other churches. They will not see themselves as exclusive holders of the truth. They will encourage church members to relate to others
  3. There should be a clear and transparent understanding of the nature of authority that leaders are to exercise.  I firmly believe that elders have teaching authority -it’s derivative from Scripture.  In other words, we lead by teaching what God’s Word says and by setting an example.  We do not have authority to dictate every decision and outcome both for church life corporately and for individuals
  4. Linked to 3, leaders will take time to listen and consult. They’ll also take time to explain their views and decisions.
  5. Leaders will be ready to admit when they get it wrong.
  6. Leadership should be immediately characterised as “servant leadership”
  7. Church leaders will recognise the appropriate authority of civil government (Romans 13). In other words, they won’t try to keep accusations of criminal behaviour (and abuse is criminal) in house but will ensure that where there is suspicion the police have freedom to investigate and if necessary prosecute.
  8. Safe guarding policies both for children and vulnerable adults should be in place and readily available.
  9. The gifts of every believer will be valued and used
  10. Spiritual gifts will not be misused to exercise control.  I would be wary of the person who claims to have a picture, word of knowledge or prophecy for the individual and uses it in private counselling.  This can be a way of stopping the other person from thinking, questioning or challenging.  This is especially so when done in private/secrecy with not place for discernment and evaluation

These points are not exhaustive and not full proof but will hopefully be helpful starting points for further thought and conversation.

Grace for the victims

The wonderful message of the Gospel is that if you have experienced abuse, the story does not have to end there. You do not have to go through life carrying the name “victim.” In the Gospel, God offers true rescue, restoration, hope and a new name.  If you belong to Christ, you are a new creation in him.  A believer is declared clean and righteous.

In Christ, we have a friend, a brother, a shepherd/leader who loves us unconditionally and who does not manipulate or abuse.

In God we have a a true, good and loving Father.

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