What is Spiritual Abuse?
Uzma Mazhar

Johnson & VanVonderen use the following 7 criteria to identify the abusive system. These criteria can be used in a wide range of systems, from families and groups to organizations, to see if they are abusive:

* Power-Posturing
* Performance Preoccupation
* Unspoken Rules
* Lack of Balance
* Paranoia
* Misplaced Loyalty
* Secretive

Spiritual (religious) abuse occurs when a leader uses his or her spiritual (religious) position to control or dominate another person.

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

When your words and actions tear down another, or attack or weaken a person's standing to gratify you, your position or your beliefs, while at the same time weakening or harming another — that is spiritual abuse.

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. Those who are in positions of true leadership demonstrate authority, spiritual power, and credibility by their lives and message.

There are spiritual systems in which the members are there to meet the needs of the leader. These leaders attempt to find fulfillment through the religious performance of the very people whom they are there to serve and build. It is spiritual abuse.

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’ behavior unless they were trying to earn spiritual points because of it?

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.

Some of the unspoken rules that leaders use to exercise control are:

* Do not disagree with the authorities or your loyalty will be suspect.
* 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. Rules like this remain unspoken, because examining them in the light of mature dialogue would instantly reveal how illogical, unhealthy and unethical they are. So silence becomes the fortress wall of protection, shielding the leader’s power position from scrutiny or challenge. The real problem, however, is that if a person who feels violated stops talking, then the perpetrator will never be held accountable for his behavior.

A characteristic of spiritually abusive systems is that a misplaced sense of loyalty is fostered and even demanded. We’re not talking about loyalty to God, but about loyalty to a given organization or leader.

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 or an organization.

There are three factors that come into play here, adding up to misplaced loyalty.

1. 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 ‘strayed.’

2. The second factor that brings about misplaced loyalty is the use of ‘scare tactics.’ For example conveying the impression that:
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.

3. 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.

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

One reason spiritually abusive families and *mosques* 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!

Adapted and excerpts from:
"The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse" by David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen

Spiritual Abuse