I hope you are in a good situation, I truly do. In my experience, however, many people in Fundamentalism have been in it so long they can’t recognize what’s happening and think it is normal. One of my goals for this blog is to compare and contrast normal, healthy interactions with abusive, unhealthy interactions in the hope that the kind souls still in Fundamentalism can realize just how pathologic much of it is.
Today’s post will be the start of a series on “spiritual abuse”. As I look back at my Fundamentalist experience, the vast majority of church, school, or camp interactions were spiritually abusive. That may sound shockingly extreme, and not so long ago I might have thought the same thing. But the farther away I get from Fundamentalism, the more I realize just how pervasive the spiritual abuse is.
Jeff VanVonderen’s book “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” was an eye-opening read for me, and I highly recommend it. I found the four major signs of spiritual abuse to be appallingly familiar. Unfortunately, I was both victim and perpetrator of this abuse when I was in Fundamentalism.
First warning sign: “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.” – The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, p. 63
If your pastor frequently (maybe even ever?) spends preaching time talking about his authority, his fitness to lead, his power in the church, or demanding respect, alarm bells should be ringing loud and clear. Even the secular world understands that a good leader leads by example and that respect must be earned, not demanded. II Timothy 2:24-25 says, “A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people's hearts, and they will learn the truth.” (NLT)
I remember many if not most Fundamentalist pastors, evangelists, and school administrators being amazingly unkind and quarrelsome in their teaching – and, shockingly, it was seen as a good thing. Unkindness and quarrelsomeness are not Spiritual fruit and should serve as warning signs, not badges of honor.
Second warning sign: “Performance Preoccupation”
”In abusive spiritual systems, power is postured and authority is legislated. Therefore, these systems are preoccupied with the performance of their members. Obedience and submission are two important words often used.” – p. 65
”Are obedience and submission important? Without question.” – p. 66
”To bring balance, however, we must… [c]onsider 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. 66In Fundamentalism, I was taught to obey authority no matter what. If I just obeyed the authority in my life, no matter how much I disagreed with what they said or demanded of me, then God would bless me. I'm sorry to say I often participated in perpetuating that heterodoxy - especially when I was a camp counselor. I am ashamed to think of the number of children and teenagers I helped to beat down when they came to me for help. Fortunately, once God opened my eyes I began to be appropriately appalled at the parental attitudes that this heterodoxy created.
For example: I had more than one parent talk to me about a "wayward" child who wanted to go to a non-Fundamentalist church. In the discussion two points often emerged: 1) they thought it normal and good for them to force their child to go to their Fundamentalist church "as long as he lives in our house", and 2) this child had realized some of the theological problems within Fundamentalism and wanted to follow his conscience in worship.
In Fundamentalism, this heterodox doctrine of "authority" trumped a great deal of clear Scriptural direction about not provoking your children to anger and not violating another's conscience. The mental gymnastics needed for someone to claim Scriptural backing while ignoring Luke 17:2 is both mind-boggling and very disheartening.
”For many reasons, followers sometimes obey or follow orders to avoid being shamed, to gain someone’s approval, or to keep their spiritual status or church position intact. This is not true obedience or submission; it is compliant self-seeking (emphasis mine).” – p. 66
So very sad and so very true. This, unfortunately, enables the abuse. However, it is very difficult to stand up and confront this kind of hypocrisy, because you have everything to lose in a performance-preoccupied system and the authority has everything to gain by putting you "back in line”. You end up being a compliant self-seeking enabler in order to survive.
A performance-preoccupied system is an abusive system. Be honest and look around. If you see that the major spoken or unspoken priority is how you perform or live up to specific arbitrary rules, then please understand it is by no means spiritual or Scriptural. Our performance can *never* measure up. That’s the point. If we could do enough to please God , Christ’s atonement was superfluous. God attributes the performance of Jesus Christ to us, and we live out that truth in our lives in response, not as the source.
More on this topic soon.