Weaponising spiritual abuse

I’m encouraged to see that The FIEC are keeping the focus on the problem of abuse with a series of podcasts involving John Stevens and Adrian Reynolds looking at spiritual abuse in particular.  The term “spiritual abuse” has been at times controversial with people debating its definition and even its existence.

I saw one definition offered the other day by Kyle Howard who according to his profile is a

“historical theologian, preacher, & trauma informed soul care provider. Current work emphasizes racial & spiritual trauma. He says:

“Spiritual Abuse is the weaponization of Faith, doctrine, or spiritual practice against another. It is typically done in an effort to consolidate power over another.”


What do you make of the definition?  I want to suggest that it is highly problematic on two counts. The first is that pretty much any passionately argued debate (in fact I’m not sure that it even has to be that passionate) between people who disagree on matters of faith could fall within that category. 

Over the past few weeks I’ve been covering two big meaty topics, a disagreement over Trinitarian theology and a debate about baptism. There are passionate views held on both sides of the debate.  Those views are used in order to disagree with others and yes, those involved in the debates want to win. You could, without looking find elements of power play at work.

And yes, there is a dynamic, especially when us men start to debate that arises out of a competitive spirit.  However, does that make it abusive.  Or is it simply the case that sometimes there are less healthy aspects to our conversation. These are aspects that we want to work on as part of sanctification.

Then, there is the point that the Bible actually weaponises faith, doctrine and spiritual practice. Take a look at Ephesians 6 and you’ll find those very things described as armour for spiritual warfare. There is an enemy out there, battles to fight and as Paul warns on Acts 20, wolves from which to defend the flock.  What do you do when a wolf approaches and seeks to devour the flock? The answer is that you arm up in order to defeat them and keep those in your care safe.

Now, what it might be helpful to say at this point is that it is possible to misuse tools and weapons. If those weapons are turned in on the sheep instead of out on the wolves then you are in trouble.

The second problem is demonstrated by the context in which Howard used the definition. The prompt was an article from Jonathan Leeman about “theological deconstruction.” In the article, Leeman recognised that a lot of people are currently wrestling with their faith as a result of terrible experiences within evangelical culture. He argues that this needs to be understood but also that we should not throw the baby (evangelical theology) out with the bathwater (evangelical culture). In the article he identifies some recent books that he believes to be unhelpful to those wrestling with these issues. He also warns that there are also wolves who will seek to exploit the problem and prey on vulnerable struggling believers.  In effect you might argue that he is identifying an area of potential spiritual abuse.

The article has provoked a strong response and that response has been less about the general argument and more that Leeman was seen to pick on specific people.  Is he accusing those authors of being wolves? Leeman has taken time to respond and engage in conversation with his critics. Most of that conversation seems to involve him saying “no I’m not saying this person or you are wolves. I don’t particularly know you or your motives. I’m saying that this or that book and approach is problematic. I’m saying that there are wolves out there too.”

It’s that context, not just the article that leads to Howard accusing Leeman of Spiritual abuse. And therein lies our second problem.  What Howard has done is to weaponise his own definition of spiritual abuse and his own practice. He relies on things such as the claimed support of his clients for his position to push home his point that Leeman stands accused and condemned. The concept of spiritual abuse is used to bypass an actual debate about whether Leeman is right or wrong. And incidentally it’s very effective. You can come back from being out debated and out reasoned. There’s no coming back from being publicly shamed as an abuser.  There is no atonement for that. Howard attacks the heart, character, personality, calling and ministry of the man.

Does that mean that those piling into Leeman right now are abusers?  I don’t think it does although what he has experienced may feel abusive both for him and also for others watching on.  But in fact, what I think we are seeing is people getting passionate, upset and angry with each other.  The patient who gets frightened and lashes out in fear and pain against the doctor is no abuser. Nor for that matter is the medical team who have to both restrain them and continue the treatment they are resisting.

Indeed, the risk is that we cheapen actual abuse.  That’s why we need a clearer understanding of what we mean by spiritual abuse. One definition of Spiritual abuse cited  by Thirtyone:Eight is

“Coercion and control of one individual by another in a spiritual context. The target experiences spiritual abuse as a deeply emotional personal attack. This abuse may include:-manipulation and exploitation, enforced accountability, censorship of decision making, requirements for secrecy and silence, pressure to conform, misuse of scripture or using the pulpit to control behaviour, requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position, isolation from others, especially those external to the abusive context.”

Oakley, 2013 in Oakley & Kinmond, 2013 p21

This is helpful because it helps us to consider the intent, nature and context of spiritual abuse.  I personally find it helpful to separate the two parts of the phrase out. First of all we need to think about what abuse is.  Abuse is about intent. The abuser’s intent is to cause harm in order to exercise control.  It’s about means, the methods used to obtain control are coercive and manipulative.  Finally it’s about the impact, the other person suffers emotional or physical harm. There can also be spiritual harm if it affects faith.  Note, this means that a person can suffer spiritual harm from domestic and sexual abuse outside of a religious context.

The spiritual dimension to the term is therefore focused on the context.  Spiritual abuse is abuse in a religious/spiritual context and therefore likely to include those who hold religious authority or power.  This means that in the church setting, pastors, elders, youth-workers and deacons can become abusers. Though, especially within churches where there’s a high view of the congregation’s authority built into the polity it is possible that lay members of the congregation may also become spiritual abusers both against other congregation members and even against their leaders.

It is worth adding at this stage that there are a couple more complexities.  It is possible for someone to experience manipulation, control and coercion leading to emotional, physical and spiritual harm when that wasn’t the intent of those involved. Those who have manipulated and coerced may not even be aware that they are doing it.

In such contexts it might be helpful to say that the person affected experienced the situation as abusive. This is not at that stage to lay blame on those causing it. However it is to state that they bear responsibility for what has happened.  There are two reasons for that. First because the problem is in effect a toxic/abusive culture or system and those systems don’t just come about by chance.  Secondly because there is an element of negligence involved in allowing such things to happen.  We might also add that the negligence moves to wilful if those responsible are warned about it and there comes a point when they can no longer claim ignorance. Even if they did not set out intentionally to cause harm, they have wilfully allowed the harm to continue. Spiritual abuse is serious, costly and in fact deadly. We need to take it seriously and that means we need to define it and understand it properly. This is too important to be weaponised in arguments.

Postscript: I’ve been criticised for not going line by line through the accusation against Jonathan Leeman and responding to it. There is a simple reason for that. An accusation against a person of this nature is serious. It should never have been made so lightly on social media but taken up appropriately in a context that would allow due process.

I would remind readers of the definition of libel as

a published false statement that is damaging to a person’s reputation; a written defamation.

Whilst it is something hard to prove and whilst I urge Christians to stay away from the libel courts on the basis of 1 Corinthians 6 I think this does indicate the serious and dangerous water we are getting into when throwing accusations about.

I don’t think it is appropriate therefore to get into the business of detailed defences on such matters as in fact it suggests there is a case to answer. There isn’t. This was vexatious, an appalling bit of point scoring to win power.

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