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CHRISTIAN VIEWPOINT: Working to overcome ‘spiritual abuse’

By John Dempster

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We’re aware of the scandal of sexual abuse in churches, which should be among the safest places on Earth.

But in recent years Christians have come to recognise through social media, the #ChurchToo campaign, and books like Olivia Jackson’s (Un)Certain that other forms of abuse are prevalent in Christian circles.

Physical and psychological abuse – bullying and controlling behaviours and sexist attitudes – often also involves “spiritual abuse”, defined as anything which interferes with people’s relationship with God, and uses spiritual teaching as a means of coercion rather than liberation.

At all of this – the antithesis of all church represents – God weeps. As Mark Stirling, from Strathpeffer, who directs the Chalmers Institute and teaches at Highland Theological College, says: “We can’t do Jesus’s work in a non-Jesus way.”

Mark is co-editor of an important new book recently launched in Inverness. Not So With You addresses the issue of abuse specifically in evangelical circles by reminding readers of what is entailed in doing Jesus’s work in Jesus’s way. It’s primarily addressed at church leaders, but in fact speaks to us all, for we all have the capacity to wound other people.

I write as someone who has in the past experienced what I can only call “spiritual abuse”, to which my mental health issues (anxiety/depression) have made me particularly prone.

The early chapters are theological, exploring biblical teaching about healthy leadership. The profoundest role model is Jesus who, far from lording it over people poured himself out in serving and nurturing others. All his challenges were issued in a context of love.

The book discusses the prevalence of what Christians call “sin” – our tendency to fall short of Jesus’s call to love God and our neighbours as we love ourselves – and our need of the deep inner change which only God can give us.

The second part of the book contains sensitive, empathic chapters reflecting on how to support people who have been victims of abuse. I would have liked some discussion of the fact that some aspects of Christian faith, or the way in which they are communicated, have the power to traumatise vulnerable people.

This is a much-needed book, focusing not on “how can we fix this embarrassing problem” but “how can deeper encounter with God help us guard against abusive behaviours”.

My response is: “At last! People are speaking out about these issues.” I for one felt the gentle, living presence of Jesus breathing through these pages.

Mark’s co-editor Mark Meynell says that the book is ‘but a small response’ to the sufferings of church-wounded people he has known, offered ‘in the hope that others may not be forced to endure what they did’.

Amen to that!

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