Definition of Spiritual Abuse Debated by British Christians

Last month, the board of Acts 29 voted to remove Steve Timmis as CEO of the global church planting network, following an investigation into his “abusive leadership.” Timmis then resigned as elder of The Crowded House, Sheffield, where he was also accused of spiritual abuse.

The allegations and subsequent fallout highlight an ongoing debate over the nature and extent of “spiritual abuse” in evangelical churches in the United Kingdom. At issue is how to define the controversial phrase, how to determine its limits and scope, and how to appropriately prevent and address it.

In 2017, more than 1,000 British Christians reported being victims or survivors of spiritual abuse in a study by CCPAS (Churches Child Protection Advisory Service), a UK Christian safeguarding charity now known as ThirtyOne:Eight.

Even so, the co-authors of the report—Lisa Oakley, associate professor at the University of Chester, and Justin Humphreys, CEO at ThirtyOne:Eight—acknowledged “the term ‘spiritual abuse’ is currently contentious.”

“In some areas, the use of this term is generally accepted,” said Humphreys. “In others, it is questioned, and in yet others it has raised anxiety and concerns.”

While there remains no legal definition of spiritual abuse, in 2018 a Church of England vicar was the first to be found guilty of it for his inappropriate actions against a teenage boy in Abingdon. This case, and that of Timmis, have caused consternation over where to draw the line between exhortation and coercion—between a challenging message and a toxic culture of control.

Oakley and Humphreys—who recently publishedEscaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating Healthy Christian Cultures—define spiritual abuse as “a form of emotional and psychological abuse … characterized by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behavior in a religious context.”

For the authors, spiritual abuse adds an additional layer to an abusive experience “when it is grounded and justified with a level of spirituality,” said Humphreys.

However, critics of the term argue that there is no need to add “subsections” to the already accepted categories of abuse: sexual, physical, emotional, and neglect. Lee Gatiss, director of the Church Society, wrote that the accuracy of the term is “debatable” and that perhaps it can serve as an umbrella term for other forms of abuse, but it is not its own distinct form of abuse.

To be fair, Oakley said that while she initially argued for spiritual abuse to be a separate category, she has now come to a point where she believes “the evidence suggests it is a form of psychological and emotional abuse being evidenced by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behavior.”

There is also a fear that such specific terminology “might spiritualize criminal offenses” that are considered inappropriate in every context, not only within the confines of a religious community, said David Hilborn, chair of the Theological Advisory Group of the UK Evangelical Alliance.

In a 2018 report, Hilborn wrote that the term was too ambivalent and that there is nothing “substantively or categorically distinct about ‘spiritual abuse’ when compared to legal understandings of emotional and psychological abuse.”

While emphasizing that the Evangelical Alliance takes all forms of abuse in the church seriously, he said, “we don’t want offenses committed specifically by pastors, or elders to be ghettoized by a language, which can only apply to those who are spiritual, however spiritual is defined.” For Hilborn, this raises the specter of attacks on religious freedom.

Giving spiritual abuse a status as “a criminal offense could specifically target religious people on the basis of their faith,” said Hilborn, “and that is deeply problematic.”

Although Oakley and Humphreys are not wed to the terminology, they both affirmed that “spiritual abuse is an appropriate term” because it identifies the particularities of abuse used “with direct reference to sacred texts or operating on behalf of a divine entity.”

Referencing the specificity of domestic abuse as “a clear example of coercive, controlling, and manipulative behavior in an intimate or family relationship,” Humphreys said that the concept of spiritual abuse “speaks directly to one’s soul and one’s being in a way that we just don’t see in any other context.”

Despite the debate, the term has cultural purchase. On various websites, social media platforms, and online forums, victims and survivors share their stories using the language of “spiritual abuse.”

Individuals like Jodie Stanley, whose father abused multiple members of his church and family, found that the term spoke to her own trauma. She said that the church’s lack of discernment on issues like spiritual abuse, and disdain for acknowledging them, creates a “noxious” environment where suffering like hers can readily occur.

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Source: Christianity Today