“Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey–whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” – Romans 6:16
Continuing with The Yeast of the Pharisees: Spiritual Abuse by Pastors and Counselors (part 3)
Elitism. Rather than modeling and encouraging humility, abusive leaders beam with false pride and teach the same to believers. An attitude arises of, “We’re it! We’re special! Everyone else is condemned!,” partially compensating for the shame and worthlessness that believers feel because of other experiences in the abusive church. The leader instills that believers must protect the church’s image at any cost.
Ensnarement. Rather than promoting maturity among believers, abusive leaders inevitably promote self-doubt, guilt, and identity confusion, since believers struggle with the contradiction between what their conscience and reason tell them and what they are being taught. This ambivalence, coupled with fear of condemnation and loss of direction and fellowship, make it difficult and painful for believers to leave abusive churches.
Think about a cult, for at its most severe, a spiritually abusive church is a cult. It has so diverged from solid Biblical teaching and grown so warped in the authoritarian rule of one man, that it has become a place of idolatry where God is no longer worshipped. “Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough… Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees…” (Galatians 5:7-10, Matthew 16:6).
Assessing Religious Abuse
Assessment is simpler when clients already define their religious experiences as abusive. When clients do not recognize their possibly abusive experiences, cautions apply:
Respect adult clients’ religious choices. Labeling religious experiences as abusive may interfere with religious autonomy. However, therapist authenticity, integrity, and responsibility require that possible religious abuse be addressed openly. It may be useful to assist clients in articulating the issues to arrive at their own conclusions about abuse. Remember, not everyone experiences the same events in the same manner; seemingly harsh religious experiences may not traumatize everyone.
Regarding children, utilize an objective standard of abuse. Most authorities agree that religious abuse has definitively occurred when the experience has led to serious and diagnosable behavioral, cognitive, emotional, or mental disorders. Short of this, it is inadvisable to use the word “abuse” to describe religious experiences.
A psychometrically valid and reliable questionnaire may be useful in this assessment, such as the Remuda Spiritual Assessment Questionnaire (www.remudaranch.com), which contains a factor score measuring spiritual abuse. It is short, easy to use, with either paper and pencil or computerized administration, and free of charge to healthcare professionals.
Treating Religious Abuse
It is not possible in this overview to detail treatment for spiritual abuse. Detailed treatment resources appear in the bibliography. However, there are some basics. Common issues arising among clients in recovery from spiritual abuse include betrayal of trust, learning anew whom to trust, fallout with and forgiveness of God and family, grief over lost years, and understanding grace and God’s loving nature. Those who have experienced spiritual abuse often evidence the following additional difficulties:
• Feelings of worthlessness as opposed to dignity and self-respect
• Efforts at control as opposed to an ability to surrender trustingly to God
• Shame vs. self-acceptance
• Guilt about vs. recognition that past sins have been forgiven
• Anxiety about performance and punishment vs. peace
This is the end of part 3 of this article: The Yeast of the Pharisees: Spiritual Abuse by Pastors and Counselors By Edward J. Cumella, Ph. D. Click Here to Continue Part 4
Copyright © 2006 Christian Counseling Today. (Originally Published in Christian Counseling Today 2005 Vol. 13 No. 1:35)