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 Recognizing Spiritual Abuse:
The nurturing community vs. the abusive community.

"The LORD appeared to me from afar:

I have loved you ever and ever

therefore I have drawn you to me out of sheer kindness."

(Jeremiah 31:3)

If we are to address the issue of spiritual abuse, we must first understand what a nurturing church is, and I invite you to define it with me:


A conducive, healthy and encouraging church is a meeting place for like-minded believers that is not closed to the outside world, that is, to other churches, but is in exchange.

The church itself is not the centre of faith, an end in itself, but the place where followers of Jesus meet, share, are nurtured and experience a mutually supportive community. It is open to new members and has a low threshold, meaning that people are welcomed as they are.

At the heart of all its endeavours is the ever-deepening and intimate relationship of the individual believer with God, as well as fellowship and relationships with one another.




What does this mean in concrete terms for the daily life of the church?

Well, the leadership of the church keeps away from additional doctrines, has the Bible as its guide and foundation, and trusts firmly in the sovereignty and responsiveness of God, in the finished work of redemption of Christ, and in His actual return. It acknowledges the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts without extremely seeking or "possessing" them. The gaze is fixed on Jesus, who is the measure of all development and the model of action and activity, not only in the church but especially in everyday life. This means that being a Christian permeates all areas of life and does not stop at the door of the church.

A healthy church encourages the growth of individual members. The focus is on what is valuable about the individual, not on their faults and character flaws. A church is people- and life-friendly! There is an opportunity for transparency and authenticity, without fear of exclusion and internal pressure. The church leadership offers a variety of growth projects - the teaching is not one-sided, but complex and biblical.
The context is taken into account and both the cross and grace are preached. However, at the heart of all teaching is the individual's personal relationship with God and the saving work of Christ.

If you are a regular visitor or member, you will be encouraged to seek God for yourself, to read the Bible for yourself, to study for yourself, with the aim of becoming more and more independent and stable, and to find your identity more and more in Christ. Doubts, different opinions, open discourse are welcome, you are allowed to have them and to seek discussion - and this is counted as personal growth.

Personal encouragement and appreciation far outweigh admonition.

Conflicts that arise are clarified at eye level and brought before God in prayer. Problems and hurts are taken seriously and not trivialised.You can approach church leaders with confidence, without fear of rejection or ridicule. They will try to find solutions with you.

A healthy church does not interfere with an individual's privacy.

What style of clothing one prefers (in private), what music one listens to, what books one reads or does not read, what one's circle of friends is, who one associates with, yes, even one's choice of partner, are personal rights that are accepted, no matter what one's personal attitude to them may be. Similarly, it keeps out of favoured friendships. It endures members' crises and does not classify them as demonic or undesirable. It welcomes everyone, including the sick, including the weak, including the disabled - and ideally including even those which are obviously have to deal with sin issues. There is no prestige of person, nor an elitist attitude of being further, higher, wiser than the rest.

Healthy congregational leadership therefore offers fellowship on an equal basis, regardless of the length and intensity of one's relationship with Jesus. It offers equal opportunities to serve in the church, to live out and contribute gifts, and seeks to use you according to your gifts. It does not control you, but is available for questions so that you are not left in a vacuum.
In addition, it has a charitable and missionary spirit, and even when community members meet unbelievers, they meet them with warmth, compassion and genuine interest in the other person. They engage, open opportunities and support in a positive way. The church leadership takes interpersonal conflicts seriously and seeks to mediate and resolve them.

Critical thinking and questioning are encouraged and welcomed.

Participation in the Congregation is in principle voluntary, honorary and, in the case of accepted sub-areas, also obligatory in the sense of reliability. Mistakes are acceptable and not a catastrophe. If a lot of time is invested by individuals in the church, and if this work is necessary and beneficial (pastoral care team, prayer team, soup kitchen, etc.), appropriate mini-jobs or part-time contracts are offered and discussed in the church.

A healthy church has minimum standards for house groups, with appreciation, mutual respect and esteem at the top of the list.

It works to make house groups trusting places and small groups where God can be sought together and hearts can be shared without moral coercion, accusation or the pressure of compulsory self-revelation.
A healthy church offers pastoral care and encourages pastoral care, with the proviso that those who receive pastoral care are not made "lineal" again, but are brought back to their truth in Christ. It demands absolute confidentiality on the part of pastoral workers and takes firm action against breaches of confidentiality towards third parties. Under no circumstances will the church leadership inquire about the content of pastoral conversations or exchange information with pastoral workers about individual members in order to gain control and knowledge not entrusted to them.
Similarly, the Church leadership will keep informed of networks such as social services, psychotherapists and charities in order to be able to offer help where it is unable to do so itself. It provides practical support for its members and encourages community life.

In a healthy church, there is a request for donations, but no manipulation or strings attached in the sense of compulsory tithing "if you want to be involved here". There are certainly no manipulative prayers to open the wallets of those "who are not yet ready".

 
Healthy churches do not promote a prosperity gospel, gnosis, or fear-based and demon-promoting beliefs.

 


In summary, this means:



A healthy church allows its members to be free, self-determined and individual.

The common foundation stone is Jesus Christ, not a particular way of behaving, dressing or praying. There is no over-emphasis on sin, nor is there an over-emphasis on cheap grace. Their decisions are transparent, their finances are transparent, and there are accountability reports.

In a healthy church, "you are allowed to be". It encourages faith, not regulates it. The atmosphere is fundamentally one of respect and appreciation.

Boundary violations are not welcome. It is clear in its rules, but even in the case of removal or expulsion from membership as a last resort to maintain the congregation and the vision, this is not done as a punishment, but is clearly stated in dialogue. In no way is such a decision accompanied by an instruction to the remaining members to "avoid" the person in question in the future, nor is the person in question wanted in worship services in the future. There is a clear distinction between the wrongdoing and the person.

A healthy church will have internalised, understood and embraced one thing:

 


"Human dignity is inviolable".

 

Sounds good, doesn't it? Sounds relaxed, free, joyful and like a place to come to.

But unfortunately, everyday life in the community is often quite different....

This is because for many, many years, overstepping boundaries and interfering has been declared a good Christian duty in churches. This is based on a corrective and admonishing culture that has got completely out of hand and largely undermines the emergence of genuine encounters and relationships of trust. But how does an abusive church define itself?



"The church is your God, its ideology and image of God is the standard for your whole life. Leadership is infallible and uncritical. Service to the church is your service to God".

 

If the basic freedom that describes the healthy church is not given (and surely this is an absolute ideal state of a Christian church!), then the church is either on the way out or already an abusive church at its core. From experience, three phenomena of spiritual abuse are most striking:

 

 

  • The assumed authoritarian infallibility of the leader/leadership couple/leadership circle.

 

  • Congregational ideology and group pressure in the church replacing a personal relationship with God.
     

  • The equation of love for God with unconditional obedience to the church's ideal of Christian living. Equating submissive obedience with God's favour rather than relationship.


 

When the focus of a church becomes the church itself rather than Jesus and personal relationship, all emphasis shifts to narrowness and legalism:


Church law, role and identity take the place of identity in Jesus and being allowed to grow in the Holy Spirit. The leadership sets the direction to which all others must submit. Depending on how much you agree with the leadership, you feel well cared for or excluded.
Structures of dependency on leaders and power imbalances are encouraged and a cult of personality is created.

The leadership proclaims a claim to infallibility, which it mercilessly imposes on the members.

It does not allow the members of the community to be on an equal footing and makes itself the final authority in matters of faith. You will notice this in a vague feeling that something is going wrong.  You feel small and dependent and begin to distrust your own perceptions. Criticism of leadership is equated with rebellion against God and falling into sin. When problems arise, the one who has the problem is the problem. You are the problem, never them, never the church structure - YOU. Members in abusive and transgressive churches are encouraged to admonish one another regardless of their personal relationship.

 

This includes and especially applies to areas of personal life. Personal relationships of trust are replaced by camaraderie. One's own personality or personal experience plays no role. Genuine interest in the person is irrelevant. "It's all about Jesus, you are nothing" is the subliminal message you receive.

 

You must give yourself up.

In abusive churches, the leadership is deeply involved in shaping personal lives:


It dictates which relationships are desirable and which are not, calls for separation, forbids contact, and makes, for example, illegitimate relationships a reason for exclusion not from ministry but from church attendance in general. Often this goes hand in hand with expressed 'critical concerns' about visiting other churches or having contact outside the church, or even secularly, the church member is kept away from other environments as a 'harmful influence'.

The congregation's code of dress, appearance, relationship building, understanding of sin is applied like a template or cookie cutter to all areas of a person's personality. The majority opinion applies, not one's own. Non-conformity and dissent are met with fear and accusation, the church is elevated to the position of absolute corrector: If you oppose the teaching, you are told, you are living in sin and forfeiting grace. Complete absorption into the congregation is expected: Adopting styles of dress, musical tastes, ways of praying, aligning personal space with congregational appointments, decisions become dependent on congregational leadership and its approval. The church demands to become the believer's life purpose and top priority.

 

If this does not happen, it is again classified as rebellion and being a "carnal Christian". The rules of the church must be obeyed at all costs and "there must be nothing that does not fit in here". Other opinions or theological concepts (e.g. homosexuality, understanding grace, experiencing God) are not accepted, but classified as false doctrine. So don't contradict if you don't want to get lost!


The "world", everyday life, one's own interests and views, the body and even one's own family must be subordinated to the church. The church sees itself as an expression of Christ himself. This creates a sense of confinement and heteronomy that can lead to deep inner conflict and even burnout.
Such churches either completely exclude the work of the Holy Spirit or overemphasise Christian mysticism. Stereotypes and mirror pedagogy are used and what does not fit in is demonic. What cannot be explained is also demonic. In fact, one is constantly fighting against one's own demons and the demons that attack.

Biblical passages are used to underline one's own positions, not to reflect on them in order to find one's own point of view. The Bible is taught out of context and in a completely one-sided way, with certain passages being preached over and over again and others never being preached. This creates a distorted image of God, the meaning is reinterpreted and adapted to one's own doctrine.

One's own image of God is the only true one in the abusive church, all others are false.

Often this image of God is characterised by a kind of leader status and militant cadre obedience rather than relationship, love, grace and voluntary discipleship, or on the other hand, all authority rests with the believer and he is "to blame" (word/faith) for lack of blessing.

 God as sovereign, perfect Father plays no part, nor does mercy.

Fear of people of other faiths and of one's own feelings and perceptions is fuelled by demonisation. Psychological conflicts are seen exclusively as demonic attacks, sickness is often classified as demonic possession or remaining in sin. The redemptive work of Christ is relativised and replaced by works righteousness. What does not fit into the church's concept is declared to be sin. What the church leadership rejects is expected to be adopted uncritically into one's own life; church members are not seen as equally able to relate to God and are robbed of their maturity.

 

The experiences of church leaders are holier, broader, more mature, more valid than those of ordinary members (claim of  exclusive chosenness). Because they consider themselves to be exalted high, the church leadership will find out about your circumstances, current problems and situations through third parties, and will not refrain from confidential counselling. They control and dictate how you should be. They do not separate the wrongdoing from the person, but talk about curses, demonic possession and false spirits.

Your own faith, your own relationship with God is clearly questioned. Manipulative techniques are used:

"Don't you think the problem lies more with you? God is telling you to be more humble. I can clearly see that you have a submission problem here! You can't know that yet, you're not there spiritually!" "You need to do this and that right now!" "God told me that you..." "You don't believe enough!" "You're only in trouble because you're so rebellious!" "You are really full in your ego, you lack surrender!" "Don't deceive the Holy Spirit!"

 

Punishment is used and added. Withdrawal of love, failure to greet, exclusion, prohibition of contact. Withdrawal of privileges. Ignorance, devaluation, gaslighting. Dismissive looks, public innuendo, ridicule to make "rebellious church members" compliant again. In addition, humiliating activities are used as "correction", public confession of sins is demanded, awareness of sins is demanded, public one-sided apologies are instrumentalized.

Here, acceptance by the church is equated with the basic acceptance and assurance of salvation by Jesus - you are "
treated like a godless person in order to make you right".

As this behaviour is prescribed and modelled, a group dynamic of intrusiveness and judgement develops. The emphasis is on enforcing the community's direction/ideology in all circumstances, even beyond personal injury and all limits of good taste, to psychological pressure and torment to live up to the ideal in all circumstances in order to continue to be accepted.

 
In summary, all methods and ways that declare the church as the body of Christ to be Christ Himself, that expect the member to hide and deny your own personality for the sake of the church goal, that restrict and manipulate your own maturity and personal freedom of choice, in short violate the inner, very own personality and dignity are  spiritual abuse.

 

The next article will deal with how to free yourself from abusive patterns, to step out of role fulfilling into your true identity in Christ

 

God bless you and may hold your heart.

Spiritual abuse has the same emotional impact on a person as experienced rape and domestic violence. Spiritual Abuse traumatizes!

 

"The dignity of man is inviolable."

"He is a God who sees you"

You are seen and loved, chosen and wonderful.

Sources
In gratitude and respect for the respective projects and enlightenment works:


https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/spiritueller-missbrauch-ich-passte-ins-beuteschema-100.html

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gruppenzwang#:~:text=Groupcoercion%20%28also%20conformity%C3%A4ts%20-%20or%20grouppressure%2C%20engl.%20under,which%20applies%C3%B6rigkeit%20and%20the%20group%20is%20limited.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oI9Xkp5_YEI
With thanks to Prof. Dr. Samuel Pfeifer for a really good lecture.
https://geistlicher-missbrauch.de/links
"The Wave"- Morton Rhue.
As well as plenty of personal experience and research.



 

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