This post has been stewing in my mind for well over a week, and I am planning on writing many more on this topic, including some historical fiction. But, for now, I wanted to go over the research of and experience I have had with wolves in sheep’s clothing.
There are many different ways to approach this, but I wanted to start with a simple checklist for people to look at and see if their current religious and spiritual fellowship is doing more harm than good. Not one of these items is proof positive that you are in an abusive spiritual relationship, but if you find yourself saying “aha!” and “yep!” more often than not, there is likely something rotten in Denmark and I highly advise you find mature individuals you trust (think of your friends you no longer see) or professional counselors outside your current sphere of influence and tell them about your situation.
- Isolation More Than Fellowship – Fellowship between believers is an essential part of spiritual growth. Whether it is church on Sunday (or Saturday, or Friday), or having the freedom to discuss spiritual issues outside of your church, fellowship is a healthy spiritual discipline. If you current spiritual situation discourages and limits interactions with outside believers, this is one symptom.
- Unhealthy Grooming for Leadership- Healthy grooming is when a leader (presumably) selects another person for special favors and education in order to prepare them for a place of similar leadership. In healthy situations, this process is open and submitted to others outside the leader/follower pair. Unhealthy grooming hides aspects of the preparation, does not define boundaries, has no clear goals, and does not submit to others outside the relationship.
- Grooming for Unknown Reasons – Anytime someone grooms another without specific intentions and goals in mind, this is a huge symptom of an abusive situation. Grooming facilitates isolation and creates emotional and spiritual bonds between the groomer and the target.
- Slander – Slander is telling negative things about another person to someone who has no capability or responsibility to change the situation. In congregationally governed institutions, this can be hard to determine because the congregation has tremendous power. For the purpose of this checklist, the question to ask is: does the subject of this conversation have any reason outside the general servant heart of God to respond to our conversation? In other words, is this an employee or volunteer who must submit to the congregation? If not, then it is obviously slander. If so, what is the proposed solution? If there is no solution to the conversation, it is slander.
- Sanctioned Slander – Leaders in a church should never speak negatively about their congregants to another congregant. Slander should not be participated in by leadership or actively/passively encouraged by them.
- Blatant Sins – If someone blatantly sins in a spiritual position of leadership (adultery, murder and abusive angry violence, etc.), this is a significant symptom of abuse.
- False Repentance – If they are repentant, how do you know? If a divorcee is in a spiritual relationship with you, what are their reasons for the divorce? If it is all the other person’s fault, how do you know? If a man addicted to power attempts to gain a new position in a church, has he demonstrated the repentance that shows he understands and abhors the results of his previous actions?
- Smooth Tongues – Spiritually abusive people make their life more important than God’s life in you, than the tenets of your faith, or the love of people around you. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, and yet, I see people listening to his speech and leaving him in droves. He purposefully selected powerful statements that did not draw people in and focus on Him, (even though He is worthy of worship), but on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the principles of love that Jesus is.
- Cliques – Cliques are not healthy in high school or junior high, why would they be healthy when accompanied with a “This is what Christians do.” sticker?
- Obsession With Secret Knowledge – Christianity has been around for two millennia, people who claim to have the real truth are most likely lying. If you think they are not, then I propose you follow the reasoning of Gameliel in the 1st Century: if their knowledge is true, it will stick around. If not, it will disappear.
These are some of the symptoms of spiritually abusive relationships I have seen in my 31 years as a pastor’s son, principle’s son, member of multiple churches, and leader in them as well.
What symptoms have you seen? How do you deal with spiritually abusive situations?