One of the books I’ve read twice since January of this year is The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen. This incredibly insightful book keeps me nodding and whispering ‘yes…that’s right’ nearly every page. Of course there is no broad brush that can cover every scenario and system, but this book does an excellent job exposing something that I had no idea existed, was so rampant, or widespread, until I left it.
What is most staggering about this topic is that we become so conditioned to the environment we are in (if you are in an abusive system), we are nearly incapable of realizing we are in a trap! We know of course know the old analogy of the Frog in the pot of water…the temperature of the water rises so slowly that the frog eventually boils to death, become accustomed over time to the temperature. This of course is an analogy and doesn’t actually work, but the principle does.
What is even more telling, is that when you discuss this topic or attempt to expose the system, you are labeled rebellious, or someone who has authority problems, and this of course always comes from those within the system. That alone should be clue #1.
Defining the Spiritually Abusive Trap System
In chapter 17 of the book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse the author talks about escaping the system, which is the most important step to take. However, escaping takes two ingredients; 1) Knowledge that you are in that type of system, and 2) The readiness to leave it.
To empower #1, let’s look at the defined characteristics of this type of system, of which I can personally relate is dead on. I have modified the sub-description to fit my experience.
- Power Posturing
Leaders speak often on submission, visiting leaders pump up submission to the local leader, as if it is tantamount to being submissive to God. Questioning the leader is the same as questioning God. Loyalty is shown by never questioning the divine wisdom of the leader, trusting that if he is wrong, God will deal with it, some how and at some time. Loyalty and submission naturally includes finances. Most people need a leader and this makes the trap set – you have a charismatic promising you blessings if you just do what he says to do – and his ways are of course divinely inspired, and thus, infallible.
- Performance Preoccupation
Highly judgmental on outward appearance and performance. Faith and ‘right standing’ before God is based on their way of worship, ones level of constant action in approved manners, never ending demand on time, finances, etc. Taking a break from the work is never allowed and is a sign of spiritual weakness. This makes the trap like the gerbel wheel, you go and go and go and just keep winding in circles, ever trying to ‘make it’ but you are unable to. Since you need to please the man of God, the trap keeps you spinning.
- Unspoken Rules
‘You just don’t do that around here…’, ‘It may not be preached but its understood’, ‘You don’t tell the pastor No’, etc. This includes cannibalization by the congregation. All answers and solutions come from the leader, so if behavior is observed that breaks a silent rule, that is taken to the Pastor so he can approach the perpetrator. These rules are as simple as tanning, watching a ball game, etc. This enhances the trap because if these rules were written on the outside wall of the building you wouldn’t even approach it. Once inside, it doesn’t seam ‘that bad…’.
- Lack of Balance
High need to control behavior, thoughts and ideology of others. Extreme forms of denial. The pastor controls everything in the Church, from the color of the carpet to the spyware placed on school students laptops and who monitors all behaviors. The balance is tipped to the extreme control side rather than using Scriptural examples of allowing the spirit to guide people of faith. This makes the trap more effective – its hard to climb out of a building slanted sideways.
Persecution complex. Threatened by opinions that differ, suspicious of others. Outsiders are potential threats. Service recordings are turned off when the leaders have something inflammatory to say to reduce the possibility of leaks, or as they say, ‘misunderstanding’. If church leaders or members do something wrong, the reprisal from outsiders (lawsuits, accusations, etc) is considered ‘persecution’ which creates martyrs out of the wrong doers and thus makes those inside the trap defend the trap itself.
- Misplaced Loyalties
Critical of others, narrow minded, more obedient to the ‘leader’ of the trap than to God. Rather than ‘working out your own salvation’, every decision is hinged on the leader. Who you date, where you work, live, play. What clothes you can/can’t wear, it all comes from the Leader, not the Spirit. This creates a sense of dependency in the trap, if your loyalty was solely to God the creator, it wouldn’t matter what building you were in or what pastor was preaching.
- Code of Silence
‘Don’t tell them all we require, let the Holy Ghost do that.’ is a common phrase in my background when guests or new converts enter the church doors. If you tell the people what the church requires, they wouldn’t stick around. Thus, there is a code of silence. Don’t tell women they have to give up all their makeup, hair color, jewelry, clothes. Don’t tell the men they can’t come to church with facial hair. This gives a sense of spirituality to the trap, making it seem like the Holy Ghost really worked in people to convict them of these things.
Religious Toxicity Test
In the book Toxic Faith by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton they provide a bullet list of questions to ask to determine if you are potentially living in a Toxic Faith. This again is a broad brush but is still a very straight forward approach to checking for the signs.
- Has your family complained that you are always going to a church meeting and it is taking away from family time?
- Do you feel extreme guilt (potentially loss of salvation*) for being out of church, just one Sunday?
- Do you sense that God is looking at what you do, and if you don’t do enough He might turn on you, or not bless you?
- Are you giving money to ministry because you believe God will make you wealthy if you give? (Or take your money away for not giving*)
- Have you ever been involved with a minister sexually?
- Is it hard for you to make decisions without consulting your minister? Even small ones? (Or is it required?*)
- Do you ever have thoughts of God wanting you to destroy yourself or others in order to go and live with him?
- Do you believe you are still being punished for something you did as a child?
- Do you feel if you work a little harder, God will finally forgive you?
- Has anyone ever told you a minister was manipulating your thoughts or feelings?
*I have added these subtle notes to help expand the idea as it relates to my past experience in Pentecostalism.
What should you do?
Referring again to the book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, they offer two chapters at the end to guide and direct you if you have to be in this type of spiritual relationship. Fight, or Flight.
In my estimation, Flight is the right approach. There of course is always the opportunity for Grace to step in, for reasoning and sound criticism to have a positive effect. However, these systems/traps generally degrade early on, or become a way of life. After they have become a way of life, the indoctrination is so complete that you’ll likely be excused from the church relationship as a rebellious accuser of the brethren or accused of sowing discord. Let me give you a recent example of how entrenched they can become.
With North Korea so heavily in the news I began looking at some of the more odd ways of life there. The North Korean regime allows women to have 25 hair styles and men to have 10. We of course would think that ridiculous, especially knowing you can be flogged or imprisoned for wearing an out of the rule-set hairstyle. In my recent church the women had 2-5 hairstyles and most men looked the same, and facial hair wasn’t allowed. If your hair got a little ‘worldly’ you’d be spoken to by the Pastor. If your side burns were too long, you’d be spoken to. You shaved daily or twice a day to make sure you didn’t appear to be growing facial hair. When I mentioned the North Korean example to someone still in the trap, their honest reply shows the staggering level of acceptance to dictatorial control. This person said, and I quote, “Well, really, how many hair styles do you need?”.
Let that sink in. There was no questioning the right/wrong of a leader limiting your hairstyles, simply a justification for the behavior because you’ve been indoctrinated that granular control over your life is OK, and if the right being stripped from you isn’t a need, the loss is justified.
Staying and fighting also means that your character, time, efforts and money will continue to go to something you, in your heart wholly disagree with, or even hate.
Flight also comes with its problems. In a very strong trap system, those inside will put up high walls of defense and you’ll be the ‘outcast’. After leaving, you’ll be the deceived, snared and wicked one, in Satan’s control. Thus, in the mind of the indoctrinated, it justifies their position. If you have close family in the trap, they may not break free with you. They will mock your ‘freedom’ because it just represents doing everything you shouldn’t. For instance, people who leave my recent church start wearing T-Shirts. T-Shirts. Again, let that sink in. Wearing a T-Shirt indicates you are in Satan’s snare…
Flight, in a Spiritually Abusive Trap system is difficult. Traps are specifically manufactured to make entrance look promising and exits look painful. You are plagued with the questions, will I lose fellowship with my family members, or friends?, Will I be shamed or will this affect me financially? You will likely also ask, Will God judge me for leaving? What if this is how it is supposed to be…
Let me promise you brother, or sister – God will not judge you for walking in Faith. The Bible is very clear what sin is;
And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin. – Romans 14:23, KJV
If we support a minister, a church, a trap system and our faith isn’t there, we are sinning against God, because without Faith it is impossible to please Him. Our relationship to God is a heart matter, not a building, a denomination, a leader or minister. Ministers are supposed to point us to Christ, make the connection, and get out of the way. They were never meant to be the mediator between man and God. That is Jesus. A minister that stands and declares that you need him specifically to reach God, and without him you’ll be lost, is a liar. I realize the gravity of that statement but sometimes the truth needs to be spoken.
I’ve taken a hybrid approach to the Spiritually Abusive Trap system and the steps open to you, Fight or Flight. In my flight, which has been liberating, I’ve also taken to deeper studies, exploring Faith, knowing God for who He is, not who a Leader says He is, and sharing here on my blog the information necessary for others not to become hares in the trap. I’m fighting the lie of ‘justified abuse’ in the midst of my flight.
If your heart feels that you are in a spiritually abusive system, pray deeply, seek outside council and determine to follow the leading of God. One person asked me, “Why didn’t you work it out with the Pastor before you left?” The answer of course, is that you don’t simply ask a dictator to stop dictating. Their entire goal will be to re-wash your mind with their indoctrination. Seeking outside council allows you to a) get a fresh perspective on what is normal and abnormal, and b) gives you the freedom without judgment to express your thoughts and feelings.
Sometimes, working out your own salvation truly does include fear and trembling, and requires great effort on your part. Philippians 2:12. You’ve likely been convinced of one thing most assuredly in an spiritually abusive trap system, that you can’t do it on your own, you must have a preacher to be saved. While the Word of God does teach us that Faith comes by hearing the Word preached, it does NOT teach that we can only be saved with One Individual Preacher and if we exit that preachers building we are damned.
Paul set a great example of what a minister should be interested in with his flock:
“For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” – I Corinthians 2:2, KJV
If your minster needs to see your tax returns, wants to tour your home to make sure you are living right, has access to your computers, calls your employer, tracks when you pray and for how long, etc, he is asking too much and is not following Scripture.
I prayerfully hope this helps someone gauge their Christian experience.