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The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (Book Review) January 1, 2000

Posted by roopster in Bible, Bible Study, Christianity, Church, Church leadership, Religion, Spiritual Abuse.
The Subtle Power of Spiritual AbuseRecognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False-Spiritual Authority Within the Church.by David Johnson & Jeff Van Vonderen

What follows is a summary of a small part of the book. If you find this at all helpful, you may purchase your own copy of this book.

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse is:

to the weary and heavy laden,
deeply loved by God,
but because of spiritual abuse,
find that the Good News
has somehow become
the bad news.

The book is structured according to the following plan.Part I: Spiritual Abuse and its Victims


1. “Help Me…”
2. Spiritual Abuse is Not New
3. Abused Christians
4. The Pre-Abuse Set-up
5. Identifying the Abusive System
6. When You Cannot Leave
7. Abuse and Scripture
8. Revictimizing Victims

Part II: Abusive Leaders and Why They Are Trapped


9. “Because I’m the Pastor, That’s Why!”
10. “You Can Trust Me”
11. Image is Everything
12. Straining Gnats, Swallowing Camels
13. The Weight of Religion
14. “No Admittance”
15. Spreading “the Gospel”
16. The People Get Devoured

Part III: Post-Abuse Recovery


17. How to Escape a Spiritual Trap
18. Renewing the Mind
19. Recovering Right Focus
20. One Response: Flight
21. A Second Response: Fight

Message to Perpetrators of Spiritual Abuse

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery (Gal. 5:1).

What is Spiritual Abuse?

“Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person.” (p.20)

“Spiritual abuse can also occur when spirituality is used to make others live up to a ‘spiritual standard’.” (p.21)

Spiritual abuse occurs when shame is “used in an attempt to get someone to support a belief, or…to fend off legitimate questions”. (p.22)

“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.” (p.23)

“There are spiritual systems in which…the members are there to meet the needs of the leaders… These leaders attempt to find fulfillment through the religious performance of the very people whom they are there to serve and build. This is an inversion of the body of Christ. It is spiritual abuse.” (p.23)

The Christian life begins with freedom from dead works, from religious sytems and from all human attempts to ‘please God’. It’s time for many of us to shake off the religious sytems and expectations we’ve created, and return to that joyful freedom in Christ.” (p.26)

You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men (1 Cor. 7:23).

Identifying The Abusive System

1. Power Posturing

“Power-posturing simply means that leaders spend a lot of time focused on their own authority and reminding others of it, as well. This is necessary because their spiritual authority isn’t real—based on genuine godly character—it is postured.” (p.63)

“Those who are in positions of true leadership demonstrate authority, spiritual power, and credibility by their lives and message.” (p.64)

“As Romans 13:1 says, There is no authority except from God. Being hired or elected to a spiritual position, talking the loudest, or giving the most does not give someone authority.” (p.64)

“Among my people are wicked men who lie in wait like men who snare birds… their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful… Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not plead the cause of the fatherless… they do not defend the rights of the poor” (Jer. 5:26-28).


2. Performance Preoccupation

“If obedience and service is flowing out of you as a result of your dependence on God alone, you won’t keep track of it with an eye toward reward, you’ll just do it. But if you’re preoccupied with whether you’ve done enough to please God, then you’re not looking at Him, you’re looking at your own works. And you’re also concerned about who else might be looking at you, evaluating you. Why would anyone keep track of their ‘godly’ behaviour unless they were trying to earn spiritual points because of it?” (p.65)

“Are obedience and submission important? Without question. This can be seen in Romans 13:1…1 Peter 5:5…and Hebrews 13:17. To bring balance, however, we must add to these verses an equally important passage. Consider the words of Peter and the other apostles in Acts 5:29: ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ Notice that Peter is saying this to the religious leaders he was disobeying. Out of context, obedience to leaders looks like good theology. Add the larger context, and you will see that it is only appropriate to obey and submit to leadership when their authority is from God and their stance is consistent with His.” (p.66)

“In Romans 12:2 Paul says, ‘Do not be conformed… but be transformed… ’. In a performance-based church or family, that verse might be applied like this: ‘Our church or leader is right; we have a truer, purer ‘word’ from God than others. Therefore, we must adhere to our formula or brand of Christianity as hard and fast as possible—so we won’t become like those out there who don’t think as we do. If I do not live up to all I’ve been taught here, I will be letting God down.’ This orientation squeezes people from the outside in. They are not transformed, they are conformed.” (p.66)

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widow’s houses, even while for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you shall receive greater condemnation” (Matt. 23:14).


3. Unspoken Rules

“‘You know we must never disagree with the pastor on his sermons—and if you do, you will never be trusted and never be allowed to minister in any capacity in this church.’ In this case, the unspoken rule is: Do not disagree with the church authorities —especially the pastor—or your loyalty will be suspect. Rules like this remain unspoken, because examining them in the light of mature dialogue would instantly reveal how illogical, unhealthy and anti-Christian they are. So silence becomes the fortress wall of protection, shielding the pastor’s power position from scrutiny or challenge.” (p.67)

In some churches there is “an unwritten and unspoken rule that said, ‘It is better to be nice than honest’.”

“If you speak about the problem out loud, you are the problem.”

“The truth is, when people talk about problems out loud, they don’t cause them, they simply expose them.” (p.68)

“Too many churches communicate this kind of shaming message: ‘The problem is not that your boundaries were crossed and violated, the problem is that you talked. If you would not have made such a big deal, everything would still be fine.’ If a person accepts that message, they will stop talking.

The real problem, however, is that if a Christian who feels violated stops talking, then the perpetrator will never be held accountable for his behaviour.” (p.69)

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light” (Matt. 11:28).

4. Lack of Balance

Johnson and VanVonderen identify two extremes, both of which produce an unbalanced approach to living out the Christian life—Extreme Objectivism and Extreme Subjectivism.

“The first extreme is an empirical approach to life, which elevates objective truth to the exclusion of valid subjective experience.” (p.69)

“This approach to spirituality creates a system in which authority is based upon the level of education and intellectual capacity alone, rather than on intimacy with God, obedience and sensitivity to his Spirit.” (p.70)

“The other manifestation of lack of balance is seen in an extremely subjective approach to Christian life. What is true is decided on the basis of feelings and experiences, giving more weight to them than what the Bible declares.” (p.70)

“Even further, we believe it is dishonest—even dangerous—simply to receive and act upon a spiritual directive because you are ‘supposed to be submissive’, or because someone is ‘in authority’. In the end, God is the One before whom we must all stand, the one to whom we must answer.” (p.71)

They tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger (Matt. 23:4).

5. Paranoia

“In a place where authority is grasped and legislated, not simply demonstrated, persecution sensitivity builds a case for keeping everything within the system. Why? Because of the evil, dangerous, or unspiritual people outside of the system who are trying to weaken or destroy ‘us’. This mentality builds a strong wall or bunker around the abusive system, isolates the abusers from scrutiny and accountability, and makes it more difficult for people to leave—because they will be outsiders, too.” (p.73)

“Ironically, Jesus and Paul both warned that one of the worst dangers to the flock was from wolves in the house (Matthew 10:16; Acts 20:29-30).” (p.74)

6. Misplaced Loyalty

“The next characteristic of spiritually abusive systems is that a misplaced sense of loyalty is fostered and even demanded. We’re not talking about loyalty to Christ, but about loyalty to a given organization, church, or leader.” (p.76)

“A common way this is accomplished is by setting up a system where disloyalty to or disagreement with the leadership is construed as the same thing as disobeying God. Questioning leaders is equal to questioning God. After all, the leader is the authority, and authority is always right. This causes people to misplace their loyalty in a leader, a church or an organization.” (p.76)

“There are three factors that come into play here, adding up to misplaced loyalty. First, leadership projects a ‘we alone are right’ mentality, which permeates the system. Members must remain in the system if they want to be ‘safe,’ or to stay ‘on good terms’ with God, or not to be viewed as wrong or ‘backslidden.’

The second factor that brings about misplaced loyalty is the use of ‘scare tactics.’ For example:
God is going to withdraw His Spirit from you and your family.
God will destroy your business.
Without our protection, Satan will get your children.
You and your family will come under a curse.

The third method of calling forth misplaced loyalty is the threat of humiliation. This is done by publicly shaming, exposing, or threatening to remove people from the group.

In the abusive system, it is the fear of being exposed, humiliated or removed that insures your proper allegiance, and insulates those in authority. You can be ‘exposed’ for asking too many questions, for disobeying the unspoken rules, or for disagreeing with authority. People are made public examples in order to send a message to those who remain. Others have phone campaigns launched against them, to warn their friends and others in the group about how ‘dangerous’ they are.” (p.76,77)

7. Secretive

“When you see people in a religious system being secretive —watch out. People don’t hide what is appropriate; they hide what is inappropriate.” (p.78)

“One reason spiritually abusive families and churches are secretive is because they are so image conscious. People in these systems can’t even live up to their own performance standards, so they have to hide what is real. Some believe they must do this in order to protect God’s good name. So how things look and what others think becomes more important than what’s real. They become God’s ‘public relations agents.’ The truth is, He’s not hiring anyone for this position.” (p.78)

Johnson and VanVonderen believe it is imperative to refocus victims of spiritual abuse on the truth about God and His “good news”. For this reason, they offer a list of “reminders,” from the heart of God as follows:

God loves us a great deal:
“See how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are”
(1 John 3:1).

He is extravagant with His grace:
“To the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved…according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us” (Ephesians 1:6-8).

He makes us stand:
“Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God, who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22).

He can be trusted:
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).

We have been made entirely new:
“Knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him…” (Romans 6:6).
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

We have been handpicked:
“Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world…” (Ephesians 1:4).

We are blameless in His sight:
“…that we should be holy and blameless before Him”

What is His is ours already:
“We have obtained an inheritance” (Ephesians 1:11), because “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17).

God is not keeping track:
“And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Hebrews 10:17).

He doesn’t have a problem with our struggles and pain:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in our affliction…” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

We don’t need to improve on what He’s done:
“In Him you have been made complete” (Colossians 2:10), and “Hence, also, He is able to save completely those who draw nigh to God through Him” (Hebrews 7:25).

When we fail, Jesus defends us:
“Since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25), and “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).

Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourself with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:1-5).

Visit Jeff’s websites at http://www.spiritualabuse.com or http://www.innervention.com


1. Anonymous - November 5, 2007


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