From lifeline to noose: nine healthy habits that leave a Christian wide open to abuse

What is it about the patterns of being Christians together, that lays us open to spiritual abuse – both as perpetrators and victims?

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On August 3, 1973, Jan-Erik Olsson continued his criminal career of armed violence by breaking into Kreditbanken,  one of the largest banks in Sweden. The robbery failed, but he held four bank employees as hostages, using them as bargaining counters to get the serial criminal, and his former cellmate,  Clark Olofsson, out of prison, and join him to negotiate with the police. They spent six days with those hostages, at the end of which a curious phenomenon occurred: none of the hostages was willing to testify against their captors.  In fact, they began to raise money for the criminals’ legal defence.

The bank was in Norrmalmstorg square in central Stockholm, and the weird symbiosis between captor and victim has become known as ‘The Stockholm Syndrome.’

It’s a loose but useful shorthand for a phenomenon that has happened throughout history, and throughout Christian history. There were extreme groups at the Radical Reformation, just as much as Waco Texas, and they have similar patterns: one strong leader persuades a group of otherwise rational people act against their best interests, and in a way that – to the outside world – is at best, bizarre, and occasionally suicidal or murderous.

In recent times we’ve come to call this phenomenon, in Christian circles, ‘spiritual abuse’.  Now, we can debate the term and its usefulness on other time, but there seems to me to be such a frequency of incidence coming out that we can use the term as a shorthand, and start to ask some useful questions:

  • What is it about the patterns of being Christians together, that lays us open to spiritual abuse (both as perpetrators and victims)? Note, I’m not saying that this is only a Christian phenomenon – but what is it about our patterns that might be complicit?
  • What is it about the patterns of being Evangelicals together, that lays us open to spiritual abuse? Again, I’m not saying that this is only an Evangelical phenomenon – but we ought to look in the mirror. Others will look in their own mirrors and reach their conclusions.
  • What are the very local phenomena?  Now, this is where it gets really hard to ask, and answer.  Americans and Brits, for instance, may have very different sets of answers – and that’s not wrong.  The English may have different ones to the Scots. Upper class to middle class. And the closer to home the questions come, the more awkward it becomes to answer them.  In two recent stories that have broken, I have known people involved.  Is talking about them gossip? Is not talking about them closing ranks, and defending the abuser? If we talk, will other victims be forced into the spotlight, when they might wish to remain anonymous? What happens when one of the key elements in one story (class, status, snobbery, privilege) is completely absent in another? Do we pretend they don’t matter after all? 

These threads are nine good traits which – when distorted – turn from vital spiritual lifelines into deadly spiritual nooses, and start to destroy the very Christians they are supposed to help grow.

As I’ve mulled it over, I’ve started to sketch out some common threads.  This is just a first go, and you’ll need to add stuff and fill in your blanks, and my blind spots. These threads are nine good traits which – when distorted – turn from vital spiritual lifelines into deadly spiritual nooses, and start to destroy the very Christians they are supposed to help grow. They lock us into our evangelical Stockholm syndrome.

We need and want to respect people of knowledge

We need our pastors to be those who know and teach us the scriptures.  Their primary qualification is to hold the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience (1 Tim. 3:9) They’re to be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:24).

And so we sit in a right attitude of dependance and trust.  Good under-shepherds are there to feed the sheep.

So the risk is that we park our own knowledge of the scriptures, and assume an uncritical position of a learner.  This makes us hugely vulnerable.  Intellectual predators see this and pounce.  Their frequent way of working is to adopt an attitude of superior knowledge, sometimes rediscovering a ‘lost’ old truth, sometimes a remarkable ‘new’ insight that’s never been seen before. With hindsight, those positions are often seen to be contradictory and confusing, but in the hands of a word dazzler that is their power – they understand and you don’t.  So you either submit, and let them teach you, or – on their diagnosis – you are so stupid you cannot see the obvious, or a knowing liar who needs to be isolated and rejected.

Who wants to be called ‘stupid’ by a clever teacher?  Who wants to be called deliberately wicked?  So you give in.

We need and want to respect people of vision

Every human grouping wants to point in a direction, and achieve something.  Churches are no different.  If there is a spiritual gift of leadership, and I’m convinced there is (Romans 12:8), then those with it are supposed to exercise it zealously. 

They take us from ‘here’ to ‘there’.  That’s their God-given role in the body.

And so we follow, muting our questions.  Don’t they know best, after all?  They have the insight, the plan, they know the way.  And so we are persuaded to postpone, change, our plans for theirs.  Because to do otherwise is to refuse to follow their God-given lead.

We need and want to respect people of conviction

We are ‘believers’, and that’s what connects us to one another.  More than that, if I’m weak or struggling, I need a sister or brother who has been there before me, knows the way and can calm my fears and doubts.

I want to be firm in the faith (1 Cor. 16:13).  I am predisposed to admire and follow those who are stronger in the faith than I. That’s God’s good design.

And so when I’m faced with bold, zealous, ambitious faith, I admire, wonder, and aspire.  Who wouldn’t want to grow up to be that fearless, that faith-filled? He doesn’t have my doubts.  She is a model of faith-filled confidence. I could be like that.  I want to be like that.

Like the stage magician who cleverly makes us look at this, while the tricksy stuff happens out of our eye line, the abuser makes us look at the big stuff at the front, and not notice that other people are also asking questions, raising eyebrows, reading the spreadsheets.

Like a spiritual Ponzi scheme, we need to believe it.

We need and want to respect people of effectiveness

Let’s face it, for the overwhelming majority of Christians and churches, these are days of small things, getting smaller. It’s unusual for a church even to be static in membership these days, and if one is growing, it’s usually growing slowly.  Painfully slowly.

And yet, don’t we believe that God wins?  Didn’t Jesus tell parables of growth and not of decline? Isn’t the gospel supposed to go to all the world, and reach people of every race, nation tribe and tongue?

So when we hear of someone who is bucking the trend, we pay attention.  In a secular world, they are getting through.  Not boring.  Not ineffective.  Maybe as an individual, they have access and status – their Twitter feed show them getting to meet famous people, signing book contracts, hitting the big stages.  Maybe they meet soccer stars and rappers.  Or maybe they are at home in the House of Lords.

They have some star-dust.

So we tune out our inner sceptic.  We stop asking whether that story is true, really.  I heard only yesterday of a church which has grown from 15 to 600 in just a few years (in the UK, that is stunning); but the man who told me, who knows the inside, said that there are hardly any converts in that.  Just disaffected Christians drawn from other churches by a better band.

We’re desperate to find the person who is succeeding.

We need and want to respect people with high standards 

God is glorious and excellent, to whom we owe our full devotion. In every aspect, all he time. He deserves our best.

And we discipline ourselves to point in that direction. Why have a Quiet Time in the morning?  Because that’s when we are at our freshest.  Why set up our giving on the first of the month?  Because that’s when the salary goes in, and God deserves the first fruits, not the leftovers.

With a call-and-response, the leader who repeats that message, but with themselves in the picture as well, has found the way to make us put his or her priorities first, or to feel extremely guilty.

Note that: the guilt and shame we should feel at disobeying God, we are made to feel at ‘disobeying’ a human.

We need and want to respect people with fresh insights

We are people on mission to reach a lost world, and lead the nations in praise.  And we will bring every thought, every cultural artefact, to bear to make that happen. With frequent changes, to each a fast-moving culture.  That’s good missionary thinking.

Which means that while we are drawn to the new and fresh, we are vulnerable to swallowing the message which dismisses the old, with condescension and maybe a sneer. Once again, we are drawn into the ‘in’ group.

When someone who’s ‘in’ comes our way, we get a cue to cheer, and when someone who’s ‘out’ comes our way, we get a cue to boo.  Silently, of course. Cheer, boo, cheer, boo.  Why be silent when everyone else is cheering?  They must be right, right?

It’s called ‘gaslighting’ – making one person doubt the reality of their judgement, because they’re the only one noticing anything strange an everyone else is acting normally.

We need and want to respect people of decisiveness 

Dreaming big and casting vision takes bold decisions.  Raising millions for a project takes a brave stand.  Imagining what the world would be like if every language had an indigenous church, an indigenous bible – that’s God-honouring, heart-captivatingly wonderful.

Where would we be if Christ had not resolutely set out for Jerusalem (Luke 9:31)?  If he hadn’t ‘endured the cross, scorning its shame (Heb. 12:2)? If Paul hadn’t made it his ambition… (Rom. 15:20)

So the question is, what to do with my caution, my indecision, my being ‘in two minds’.  And the answer is, Park it.  Because there’s someone up front with a plan, and their plan MUST be better than my lack of a plan.  Something must be done.  This is Something. Let’s do it. Now.

We need and want to respect people of restoration

The gospel teaches us to repent.  Daily.  Continually.  I must put my sin to death.  I must crucify my flesh. And it offers wonderful, infinite, eternal forgiveness. And the power and life of the Holy Spirit to live for my Lord forever.  The Gospel is a wonderful thing.

But then someone comes along to offers to help me with that.  To help me identify the sins I cannot see, and hold me accountable in the face of my weakness. To put me in a place of straight-talking honesty and fellowship.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Over time, I don’t notice that the way of identifying my sins, actually humiliates me in the process.  I don’t notice, because the need is so serious (sin is sin, after all) and the end so precious (forgiveness), that I don’t notice that I’m being taken into dark detour to get there. I don’t notice that the one who offers to help is causing pain, and enjoying it.  I learn to associate their gentle mocking, their superior teasing, their expectations, with the prize I so desire. 

I learn to associate their disapproval with the disapproval of my Lord.  Who would want to be cold shouldered by Jesus?

A quick note: some of our liberal critics are quick to make an association with the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement here, and say it sets us up to be abusers, and complicit in abuse. Let’s be honest, and admit that in all probability some people have done that. But does that mean that the doctrine correctly taught leads in that direction? No it does not.  I can’t defend this here, but I firmly believe Penal Substitutionary Atonement to be the epicentre of the gospel, and how the cross of Christ deals with our sin.  It is no mere image, one among many to be chosen or discarded according to taste.  To call it, as some do ‘cosmic child abuse’, is theologically illiterate. Nothing in this doctrine, properly and traditionally formulated, leads in that direction. That some people who hold to the doctrine were or are also abusers, does not mean the two are connected.  That needs to be shown, not alleged.

We need and want to respect people of wisdom

As a Christian, I never reach the point where I don’t need ‘elders’, people who are older, wiser, more mature than I.  I need to learn and to grow.  Always.

So I will seek them out, and gently defer to them.  Why else have I looked for them after all?

Which means I am predisposed to give them the benefit of the doubt.  And all the stories you’ve been thinking about as you’ve read this post become true.  ‘Well if she says it’s OK to sign, I suppose it is.’  Well if he says he didn’t do it, I guess he didn’t.’  If they say it’s all innocent fun, it must be OK.’  

And then when the realisation begins to dawn about how odd things really are, we’re reluctant to speak because of how stupid we look, how weak we have been, how complicit, how…

Thank you for reading – this post has been unusually long, and I’m quite certain it’s only the start.  We need to start a conversation – do pile in with other aspects I may have missed.  If you’d rather do it anonymously, email me and I’ll post them for you.

7 comments on “From lifeline to noose: nine healthy habits that leave a Christian wide open to abuse”

  1. For me, this is very much a post for those who look up in each of these situations.
    I do hope that those further up the food chain also reflect on your excellent blog.

    James 3 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

  2. Thanks Chris – A really helpful reflection on what it is that leaves us open to abuse.
    Perhaps one other – a cultural disposition to be anti-authoritarian which has led us to be suspicious of structures and institutions, whilst enamoured of mavericks, dissidents and entrepreneurs whom we regard as courageous and brave but who have no proper accountability.
    Arguably the failure of bishops to exercise clear godly and biblical oversight has lead bible people to seek oversight elsewhere, particularly from those with influence and charisma. At the same time, we/they denigrate proper episcopacy with reductionist theological arguments in order to legitimatise ignoring proper obligations and accountability within the structures,

  3. The use of shaming methods in restoration is massive. I think it is more about the need of the supposed restorer including the need to be seen to do something. I also think it is a sign that despite teaching penal substitution they don’t really get it or believe it. Otherwise why they to put shame and punishment on people who have already had their shame and punishment taken by Christ?

  4. “Why have a Quiet Time in the morning? Because that’s when we are at our freshest.”

    I really would like to challenge that harmful stereotype. Not everyone is at his or her freshest in the morning – and I’m someone who isn’t. This has nothing to do with will-power or spirituality, but a natural variability in physiological functioning – known as ‘chronotype’. It varies between people, with a normal distribution, just as physical height does, and has been shown to be genetically heritable. I am more awake at 11 o’clock at night than I am at 11 o’clock in the morning, so why should I have to give to spending time with God what is (for me) the grottiest part of the day?

    The Wikipedia article seems to me to be reasonably accurate: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronotype
    and more information can be found at: https://www.b-society.org/chronobiology/
    I suggest that it would be far more loving for people who have the fortune to have an early-cycle chronotype (‘larks’) to accept this natural variability among people than to show what I have sometimes encountered in Christian circles as a super-spiritual snobbish disparagement of late-cycle chronotype people (‘night-owls’) as being defective, or substandard in not having a morning ‘quiet time’.

    1. Thanks, Angus – I wasn’t actually pushing that line! Rather, I was trying to describe a common piece of Evangelical spirituality and how it shapes us. I certainly wasn’t judging the owls!

      1. Thank you for your gracious response. I realised afterwards that I might have been too easily provoked and have come across as rather touchy – to adapt a very old saying: ‘Comment in haste, regret at leisure’. Perhaps the writer of the Book of Proverbs had some understanding of this matter when he wrote: (27:14) “Whoever blesses his neighbour with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing.” (ESV)

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