Can complementarianism ever be considered spiritual abuse? Before we can discuss this, we need to know what spiritual abuse is. David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen have written a definition in The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.
Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment (pg 20)
Spiritual authority can become spiritual abuse when leadership places a value on a “doctrine” (especially a secondary doctrine) over and above the value of the member of the body of Christ. Johnson and VanVonderen identify how subtle a matter of authority can become spiritual abuse.
It’s possible to become so determined to defend a spiritual place of authority, a doctrine or a way of doing things that you wound and abuse anyone who questions, or disagrees, or doesn’t “behave” spiritually the way you want them to. (pg 23)
David Henke writes in the Watchman Fellowship’s Profile on Spiritual Abuse:
The most distinctive characteristic of a spiritually abusive religious system, or leader, is the over-emphasis on authority. Because a group claims to have been established by God Himself the leaders in this system claim the right to command their followers.
This authority supposedly comes from the position they occupy. In Matthew 23:1-2 Jesus said the Scribes and Pharisees “sit in Moses’ seat,” a position of spiritual authority. Many names are used but in the abusive system this is a position of power, not moral authority. The assumption is that God operates among His people through a hierarchy, or “chain of command.” In this abusive system unconditional submission is often called a “covering,” or “umbrella of protection” which will provide some spiritual blessing to those who fully submit. Followers may be told that God will bless their submission even if the leadship is wrong. It is not their place to judge or correct the leadership – God will see to that.
Does any of this sound familiar? David Henke continues:
Because the religious system is not based on the truth it cannot allow questions, dissent, or open discussions about issues. The person who dissents becomes the problem rather than the issue he raised. The truth about any issue is settled and handed down from the top of the hierarchy. Questioning anything is considered a challenge to authority. Thinking for oneself is suppressed by pointing out that it leads to doubts. This is portrayed as unbelief in God and His anointed leaders. Thus the follower controls his own thoughts by fear of doubting God.
A Biblical system that is set up as a hierarchy with apparently God-ordained men at the top and women set “in their place” underneath the authority and control of men, can be a set up for spiritual abuse.
Henke states that authoritarian leadership can wound so deep that it can rob a person of trust.
Spiritual abuse has a devastating effect on people. A very high level of trust is often placed in spiritual leaders. It is, and ought to be, expected that the trust will be honored and guarded. When such trust is violated the wound is very deep. Sometimes the wound is so deep that the wounded person cannot trust even a legitimate spiritual authority again.
David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen give helpful advice in the final pages of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.
…find relationships in which it is safe to heal from the wounds of the abuse.
Second, listen to God and do what He tells you. If you are a victim of spiritual abuse, this may be very hard. You have been taught to let everyone else speak for God, and you have been punished for trying to hear from God yourself. He may tell you to stay, when all of the evidence of abuse says to leave. He may even tell you to leave, when everything is going great. On the other hand, it may have been Him, not you, telling you to leave the abuse all along. And He will never leave you or forsake you. Listen to God.
We would like to close by referring you to the way the disciples responded to oppression. Acts 4:23 says, “And when they had been released, they went to their own companions, and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them.”
When you experience spiritual abuse, find your own friends who understand and tell them about it. Get some support.
Consider their prayer in Acts 4:29-30:
And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Thy bond-servants may speak Thy word with all confidence, while Thou dost extend Thy hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Thy holy Servant Jesus.
This is our prayer for you, too:
God, please pay attention to how those who have given their lives to serve you are getting intimidated and abused. And even in the middle of that, authorize and empower them to keep telling the truth. And keep moving your hand over your people to bring healing and rest, in the name of Jesus.
This is one reason why this blog is set up – to help men and women alike to see that restricting women from using their God-given gifts and placing them in a position of having to obey either God or man is abusive, and men and women should have a safe place to discuss the gender issue.
For women who have had men “pull rank” on them and hold them down to restrict their ability to serve their only Master, the Lord Jesus, the pain is very real. Hierarchy can bring great harm to a woman inside her very soul and cause her to lose her sense of trust. Sadly a woman may even transfer the actions of these men who are practicing hierarchy, to the nature of God, the very One that they are said to represent. God now can become “like” the men to her, and this can harm her trust in God. The spiritual pain that a woman suffers can take a long time in healing. The body of Christ also suffers when women suffer this way for the body is missing the gifts of these needed members who are being restricted.
Recommended Resources from Watchman Fellowship Inc
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, Bethany House Publishers. Dynamite! Excellent help for recognizing and escaping spiritual manipulation and false spiritual authority within the Church. 235 pages
Faith That Hurts, Faith That Heals, by Stephen Arterburn, and Jack Felton, Thomas Nelson Publishers. Very thorough treatment analyzes beliefs that make harmful faith, religious addiction, etc. as well as treatment and recovery, and the characteristics of healthy faith. 320 pages
Breaking Free, by David R. Miller, Baker Book House. Speaking first-hand from the experiences of his own family, Miller penetrates virtually every nuance of legalism and its insidious effects on individual and family life. 176 pages-
Wisdom Hunter, be Randall Arthur, Multnomah Press. Taut, fast-paced thriller presents a powerful message about the damage caused by Christian legalism. 323 pages
Churches That Abuse, by Ronald Enroth, Zondervan. Providing real-life examples throughout, Enroth probes every corner of the abusive church. He also provides help to find the way out, and back to God’s healing. 253 pages, endnotes.
Youtube clips on Spiritual abuse: