Calling out Spiritual Abuse

Posted by Karen Soole Karen Soole
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Horrific stories of historic abuse within the evangelical community were exposed by Channel 4 news last week and are now being widely reported in the media. I know many who have personally benefitted through the ministry of the organisation involved and I too benefitted vicariously from the teaching of those who grew up through this camp ministry. Some like Giles Fraser and the Bishop of Buckingham have seized on this story as the natural outworking of what they call violent and punitive theology. They are profoundly wrong but spiritual abuse is real, and often closer than we care to admit, I know because I was a victim of it.

In the 1980s I became embroiled in a cult, which was formed in a respectable institution run by a chaplain. It was not physical abuse of the sort being discussed this week but it exercised extreme control and many were damaged through it. Through heavy shepherding and a hierarchical structure linked with privileges it created dependency, conformity and a desire to please. It controlled major decisions on your behalf, such as who you live with, where you work, who you should marry. It controlled all your relationships. It forbade dating and advocated a strict diet (yes it was 1 Timothy 4:3 in practice). It broke me. I reached a point where I felt that God either did not exist or he would not work in my life because there was something deeply wrong with me - I couldn’t live within the rules. When I left the community no one kept in contact with me. I had never been so alone. I was told by leaving the community I was rejecting God and would never have a relationship with him. I crept anonymously into the back of a large city church and through the faithful gentle ministry of Dick Lucas (a beneficiary of Iwerne camps) I began to heal.

Why tell this story now? Because I have been reminded how important it is that we protect the sheep from wolves in sheep clothing, and how vulnerable  young people are in their late teens and early twenties. Anyone that is involved in student ministry should take careful note. I arrived in London as a keen Christian from a Christian home but I was not able to identify the problems with the group I joined until I was totally enmeshed in it. My story is very different from those who spoke out this week but they are my peers. Like them I was in my late teens, like them I had a desire to serve God, and was prepared to except things which my better judgement shouted out against. Is it possible to protect young people from themselves? We are careful to establish good safe guarding practices to protect against physical and sexual abuse but do we take spiritual/emotional abuse seriously? Do we understand the dynamics of the abuse of human power and the vulnerability of others?

Here is my starting list of essentials to think about.


1.Leaders are called to be gentle (1 Timothy 3:3). It is a key qualification for leadership. It matters. We are often more concerned whether someone can teach or has a charismatic personality than whether they are known for their gentleness. A bully with a charismatic personality is dangerous. I know of  churches where a bullying leadership is tolerated and shrugged off as a bit of a character flaw or excused under the ‘alpha’ male mantle. Do we realise the seriousness of having a leader who people describe behind their backs as “a bit of a bully”? It is not healthy for a church to have a bully leading it. It creates subservience not godly submission. It creates fear not joyful service. It creates dependence not maturity. It can hurt people and destroy their faith.

2.Leaders are called to serve sacrificially. In certain circles there is more talk about authority and obedience, headship and submission than sacrificial loving service. If we are not careful we can allow abusers to gain power in our church structures because we misunderstand the nature of true leadership. Jesus challenged his own disciples about their wrong thinking in this area (Mark 10:35-45). Paul modelled giving up his rights for the sake of others and becoming a slave to all for the sake of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:15-19,1 Thessalonians 2:6-12). We are all called to live for the sake of others (Philippians 2:1-8) and husbands in particular are called to love their wives sacrificially (Ephesians 5:25 - 32) which does not mean being the one who makes the decisions! We need a radical re-think of how to model this and teach these things well.

3.Leaders need to be happy to be challenged and foster an atmosphere that encourages questioning. We must help one another to be ‘Berean’ (Acts 17:10). It is never acceptable to say as I heard one minister of a student church say: “ if you disagree with me you are disagreeing with God”. We must point people to God’s word and let them examine it to see if what we are saying is in line with what the bible says. It is God who has the authority , we are servants seeking as faithfully as we can to point people to Him.

4.Leaders like parents are seeking to bring people to maturity. We need to teach so that they can stand firm in Christ, understand scripture, identify error, persevere in the face of suffering, not drift from the gospel, and be presented to Christ on that last day. We must equip people to read the bible for themselves (Hebrews 5:14). We are not seeking to foster dependence but independence for mutual strengthening.

5.We are pointing people to Jesus, not to ourselves or our ministries or our churches. A devotion to your church family is good but we are not seeking disciples of our church but of Christ. If people are staying  because of dependence on a particular ministry it should ring  alarm bells. Our relationship with our church and leaders should not become a substitute for our relationship with Christ. I saw a symptom of this in a church when at an evangelistic event the appeal made was to go to that church rather than pointing people to Jesus. When I asked about this I was told that there was no difference —there is!

6. We must be honest about our historic failures, learn from them and warn of the possibility of spiritual abuse. Silence and denial are not helpful. Young people need to watch out for wolves - Jesus told us all to watch out (Matthew 7:15-20). We must call out spiritual abuse for what it is.

What happened to a group of teenagers and students at the hands of an abuser does not bear thinking about. The damage done to them was terrible. I pray they know the love of others who can support them and that despite all they went through they can know the real love of God.

It is a precious and important task to teach young people — lets make sure we do it well.