Of Sheep and Wolves

My experience is my experience. You can take it or leave it, but it did happen to me personally. I watched it happen to others before my experience, and I'm watching it happen to good people after, as well.

What am I talking about?

Spiritual abuse.

This issue is usually tied with negative cult groups. Consider the following explanation from wiki:

Spiritual abuse is a serious form of abuse which occurs when a person in a cult-religious authority or a person with a unique spiritual practice misleads and maltreats another person in the name of a deity or church or in the mystery of any spiritual concept. Spiritual abuse often refers to an abuser using spiritual or cult-religious rank in taking advantage of the victim's spirituality (mentality and passion on spiritual matters) by putting the victim in a state of unquestioning obedience to an abusive authority. Spiritual abuse refers to the use of spiritual knowledge to deprive, torture, degrade, isolate, control, or even kill others. It is used by evil minded spiritualists, sometimes, including cult-religious leaders to gain advantage or exercise control over others. Being an 'action of man', in worst case scenarios, spiritual abuse can otherwise be called 'spiritual terrorism'.

Spiritual abuse is the maltreatment of a person in the name of a god, deity, faith, cult-religion, or church, whether habitual or not, and includes any of the following:

Psychological and emotional abuse

Physical abuse that includes physical injury, deprivation of sustenance

Sexual abuse

Any act by deeds or words that demean, humiliate or shame the natural worth and dignity of a person as a human being

Submission to spiritual authority without any right to disagree; intimidation

Unreasonable control of a person's basic right to make a choice on spiritual matters

False accusation and repeated criticism by negatively labeling a person as disobedient, rebellious, lacking faith, demonized, apostate, enemy of the church or a deity

Prevention from practicing faith or Spiritualism

Isolation or separation from family and friends due to cult-religious or Spiritual affiliation

Exclusivity; dismissal of an outsider's criticism and labeling an outsider as an imaginary demon or devil

Withholding information and giving of information only to a selected few

Conformity to a dangerous or unnatural cult-religious view and practice

Hostility that includes shunning, (relational aggression, parental alienation) and persecution

Despite the comparative frequency of spiritual abuse, those types of behaviour and actions which are today classified as spiritual abuse can be seen to be prohibited in the major texts and scriptures of numerous cult-religious traditions. Indeed, in the Christian Bible, spiritually abusive behaviour is condemned as being one of the worst forms of sin due to its capacity to diminish or even to destroy an individual's relationship with a deity or a god.

Pretty serious, isn't it? As I look at this issue, and not only my own experience but those of others, as well, I see spiritual abuse happening in varying degrees. One doesn't have to be in a 'cult' to be abused spiritually. Even in mainline congregations, both large and small, this type of thing happens. I am not talking about folks simply getting their feelings hurt and leaving the congregation. I'm talking about good people submitting themselves under leadership with the best of intentions, attempting to fulfill the Scriptural edicts, and finding themselves in a situation of being taken advantage of, being bullied, having their character maligned and even being cut-off/isolated from worship and fellowship, both within and outside the congregation. Spiritual death.

I have observed in myself and others the result of this abuse. Feelings of betrayal, rejection, hurt, extreme stress and depression can lead to physical manifestations of deep emotional scarring. Depending upon the duration of the situation, effects can be even more damaging and long-term; fear of relationship and commitment, reluctance to participate in social situations, and clinical depression. But, I think the worst result of spiritual abuse is a complete and total realization that all religion is simply the traditions of man and an unacceptable representation of the Holy One. It is most unfortunate that the children who witness abusive and manipulative behavior by leadership towards their parents come to that conclusion and reject a relationship with G-d altogether.

In my own experience, I didn't even realize it was happening to me; I simply felt astonishment and disbelief at the behavior of my religious leaders. These leaders, for the most part, were held in high regard for their wisdom, knowledge and teaching skills. I even considered them my friends...good friends. As it came to pass, I watched person after person being targeted, mocked and shunned, never thinking it would happen to me. Disagreeing with leadership, on any level, was not allowed. Ever changing definitions of pivotal sins, such as gossip and rebellion, caused confusion and further reliance on leadership for direction in any given situation. Biblical teaching was interlaced with manipulations and personal agendas, as well, targeting individuals (most especially those that had left or had been cut-off) in veiled language inflicting further pain and gently (and sometimes not so gently) encouraging the congregation to do the same. Increasingly legalistic halachah, or accepted behavior, excluded even more, as it demanded conformity to the standards set by leadership and/or those regarded as pious in the congregation - all in the name of following Scripture. Amazingly, (in my case), these leaders desired diminishing numbers, weeding out the people they didn't like or don't 'fit' into their elite group. Sounds like junior high, but spiritual abuse goes beyond immaturity when people's lives are turned upside-down, families are torn apart and faith in G-d and 'His church' is shaken severely. That is, most certainly, an abuse of the position of religious leader.

This type of abuse is especially egregious - a deceptive set-up - due to the fact that anyone choosing to attend a faith-based congregation comes with certain expectations of the leaders and people there, and rightly so. It is not out of the ordinary to expect leaders (especially) and others in the congregation (to a somewhat lesser degree) to be polite, kind and loving, desiring to live a life devoted to their G-d by the standards set in the Bible. When those expectations aren't met, it leads to a growing distrust of religion and those who attend. People are not perfect, and certainly no one expects perfection. However, the problem of spiritual abuse and hypocrisy is far more (and deeper) than the normal push-and-pull of relationship.

David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen in The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse describe the action: "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. When your words and actions tear down another, or attack or weaken a person's standing as a Christian- to gratify you, your position or your beliefs while at the same time weakening or harming another- that is spiritual abuse."

It is often referred to as a 'bad religious experience'. So many have had one - just start asking around and you'll see. I'm not into 'church-bashing', but it is a sad state of affairs when you consider the greatest command for a believer is to love G-d and love your neighbor as yourself. If they are truly living by that command, then there must be a lot of people who want to be judged, have their character assassinated or want to be the subject of gossip.

"I have been abused by the church, been asked to leave a church, and then have listened to Pastors say that there are only 2 reasons people leave a church - 1. To build a church and 2. Because of pride. I've also heard pastors say that to leave a church or to go to another church is "committing spiritual adultery". That too, is so wrong ~ and un-Biblical." ~Janet W., victim
Personally, I have often heard it said that those that leave the congregation are in rebellion, most certainly against leadership, and even against G-d Himself. And, if they are in rebellion, the best thing to do is to cut them off completely, so they feel the isolation and grief of being apart from their friends and fellow believers in the community. That line of teaching, along with overt mocking of those that just drift away, will definitely cement in the minds of listeners a desire to never leave the community, that's for sure.

Hand in hand with spiritual abuse goes judgment. Severe judgment, by either leadership or fellow believers, is something that simply shouldn't be acceptable or allowed in our congregations or religious communities. Somehow, we move from humble confession and acceptance of salvation, to what we define as righteous living, to looking around to make sure everyone else is doing it right in our eyes. (And, don't even get me started on hypocrisy...) It's no wonder the world-at-large has such a poor opinion of the religious, truly.

So, is there any way one can avoid this type of abuse and harsh judgment and still stand in a congregation of worshiping believers? Unfortunately, I have no answer - I'm kind of cynical about it at this point, honestly. I do know this; if we turn our heads and allow abuse to continue, pretend it never happens, or excuse it because of our own personal needs or wants, we may later find ourselves the victim of such abuse.

So many have been hurt. So many have left religious fellowship never to return. Opting for a very personal relationship with G-d, studying on their own or even just trying to be a righteous person and love their neighbor, is so much safer than opening up to judgment, betrayal, harassment - abuse - in such a public arena.

I can't say I blame them.

10 Ways to Spot Spiritual Abuse


Barb said…
I believe G-d wants us in community, not only for the protection it provides us, but for the venue it presents to us for service. But when community's leadership begins abusing it's members, they are not only abusing their office, but the very people they should be shepherding. They leave the community member no choice but to leave the community. Oftentimes it is safer outside the hallowed walls then inside.
Netanya said…
I have fallen to this as well, sadly more than once. I heard someone say once, that the definition of terrorism is "to control by manipulation and fear". That is certainly what is being done. Spiritual abuse, by that definition, is an act of terrorism.
Ari C'rona said…
Wow... yes, that's my experience alright.

I realize I'm still working through what we experienced. I never thought I'd be outside of a congregation and happy about it, but that's exactly where I am right now and beyond thankful that the L-rd took me(us) out.

Excellent post, my friend!
Mama Cache said…
It's enough to make one weep with every mention of the shepherd/sheep metaphor. ;-(