Abusive spiritual beliefs produce abusive acts

Naturally, the Evangelical Alliance has defended itself against Jayne Ozanne’s critique of its teaching, especially in the light of the recent survey by the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service on the prevalence of spiritual abuse.

But the defence fails. I focus on the EA’s main argument: that the term ‘spiritual abuse’ is inadequate because abuse is about actions, not motives. In this way they seek to insulate their teachings from the actions those teachings sometimes provoke. On the contrary, abusive beliefs lead to abusive actions.

Ozanne’s case

Ozanne distinguishes between individual and group models of spiritual abuse. The individual type is where individuals have achieved

a ‘cult-like’ or ‘guru’ status due to their charismatic personality and strong leadership style. This is most evident in large evangelical churches, particularly those with a Charismatic or Pentecostal background, where leaders exercise ‘gifts of the Holy Spirit’ and are therefore recognised by their congregations as being ‘chosen and anointed by God’. As a result, their word can become infallible and their authority unquestioned.

The group type includes

– pressure to conform

– misuse of scripture or the pulpit to control behaviour

– requirement of obedience to the abuser

– the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position

– isolation from others, especially those external to the abusive context.

This can be driven by a ‘spiritual atmosphere’ where

a group norm is created, where people are led to feel that whatever happens during prayer ministry must be both normal and spiritual.

This can feel like ‘pressure selling’. Dissenters are treated as though they lack faith or spiritual maturity.

Specific targets are baptism in the Holy Spirit, healing ministries and International Prayer Ministries.

She recognises that not every practice of ‘baptism in the Spirit’ or ‘healing ministry’ is abusive. Still, a response by those who promote such activities was only to be expected.

Tank firing biblesThe Evangelical Alliance’s response

This stretches to 18 pages. I confess that Evangelicalese is not my native tongue. Sometimes I get caught out. The very first sentence is:

The Bible confirms that human beings have been abusing one another throughout history.

Don’t be silly. It says nothing about what people have been doing since the second century. The reason is obvious: since then, no new writings have been added to the Bible.

But let us focus on the main argument. This is to challenge the very concept of spiritual abuse:

‘Spiritual Abuse’ is a seriously problematic term partly because of its own inherent ambiguity, and also because attempts by some to embed it within statutory safeguarding discourse and secular law would be unworkable in practice, potentially discriminatory towards religious communities, and damaging to inter-faith relations…

its continued deployment risks collateral damage to fundamental freedoms of religious thought, expression and assembly.

It is not that they deny, or are unconcerned about, abusive actions. The problem is that calling it spiritual abuse implies a spiritual cause. Giving examples of psychological and emotional abuse in other walks of life, they comment:

There seems little appetite for recategorising these diverse but inter-related manifestations of Psychological Abuse specifically according to their context, as if the context should somehow primarily define the abuse being perpetrated. It looks unlikely, for instance, that niche terms such as ‘show-business abuse’, ‘party-political abuse’ or ‘sporting abuse’ will gain purchase.

Instead,

Why not use the well-established categories of Psychological and Emotional Abuse, and existing criminal law, and speak of such abuse as sometimes occurring in ‘spiritual/religious contexts’, as having ‘spiritual/religious aspects’, or, perhaps, as being ‘religiously aggravated’?

To illustrate the point they cite the example of John Smyth and the beatings of the boys at the Iwerne camp gatherings, as revealed last year. The Evangelical Alliance condemned the beatings as abuse.

Yet the attempt by some to infer a direct causal connection between such abuse and the fact that Iwerne itself was associated with the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement long affirmed by many Protestants and Evangelicals, was rejected by the Alliance and others as tendentious.

To this they add the ‘slippery slope’ argument.

While Jayne Ozanne has implied that those upholding classic Christian theology on marriage and sexuality should be prosecuted for homophobic hate crimes, others have gone so far as to parallel adherence to such classic theology with racial discrimination.

‘Classic Christian theology’ means, of course, the theology of the Evangelical Alliance. If these ideas were enforced in law, they think,

the threshold of what might actionable in the existing legal definition of hate speech would be lowered to include even pastorally measured classic Christian preaching on biblical texts such as Genesis 1:26-28, Matthew 19:4-6, Romans 1:26-7 or 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.

This gave me pause for thought. What do these texts have in common with each other? The Genesis text is the one giving Adam ‘dominion’ over fish, birds and other animals. It is the text most often cited to argue that we can do whatever we like to the environment.

The Matthew text is where Jesus forbids divorce. The last two forbid same-sex partnerships.

As far as I can see, the only thing these texts have in common is that these days they are often quoted to defend particular points of view: against environmental concern, divorce and same-sex partnerships.

The Evangelical Alliance’s logic seems to me something like this. They are taking for granted the tradition of citing one-sentence biblical texts as meaningful authorities on present-day debates, without regard for their biblical context. With that assumed, they are arguing that anyone who cites these texts cannot be committing abuse because the texts are in the Bible.

Oh yes they can.

Summary

I think the Evangelical Alliance’s report must have been written by people who see the strength of the criticism.

Gays and lesbians condemned for their activities feel abused. The abusers genuinely, conscientiously believe that God condemns gays and lesbians. It’s what the Evangelical Alliance teaches. Despite the discourse about ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’, what gays and lesbians experience is condemnation for what they are, not for what they choose.

In the same way the beaten Iwerne boys were abused by people who genuinely believed that God punishes the damned in Hell; so their abusing activities were in keeping with God’s character.

To defend their teachings against the rather obvious accusation of encouraging abuse, the Evangelical Alliance appeals to legal considerations. In this they are helped by Ozanne’s desire to change the law.

They argue that prosecutions must be directed to actions, not to the reasons for the actions. Fair point, in a legal context. But it does nothing to justify the Evangelical Alliance’s actual teaching.

Teachings about God have power over people who believe them. Bad teachings easily become abusive. When somebody is told that God condemns them, that’s spiritual abuse. Whatever the reason why God is said to condemn them – for their sexuality, for running away from a physically abusive marrage, for not accepting a preacher’s teaching, or merely for sharing in Adam’s sin by being a human – they are being abused.

If you believe in a cruel, angry god you are likely to end up doing cruel and angry things yourself. As long as this kind of god is being taught in churches, atheism will flourish.

Alternatively, if you believe in a god of love, you are more likely to end up being a loving person yourself. There are better versions of Christianity than the one the Evangelical Alliance is struggling to defend.

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1 Response to Abusive spiritual beliefs produce abusive acts

  1. KC says:

    Perhaps the concept of “spiritual abuse” is illustrated in Jesus’s observation about religious teachers encouraging their followers to support the religious establishment over supporting their parents. It is a form of abuse in so far as it condones the neglect of peopkle in need in the name of spirituality.

    Anyway, the broader lesson here is that spiritual teachers hold a degree of power over their followers, and can choose to use that power for good or bad.

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