Thursday, August 15, 2013

An Example of the Anatomy and Physiology of Spiritual Abuse: Mahaney, T4G and the Gospel Coalition

In then next few days, I will feature a post written by a university professor who left Evangelicalism because of how poorly the Church responded to his needs. He references the similar plight of a population of people within the Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) network of churches as an example of his frustration with his own matter of concern. Prior to diving into his contribution here, I wanted to focus back on how spiritual abuse works using the example of recent events  and problems concerning SGM. The misuse and abuse of authority through rigid systems allows a fleeting virtuous end to justify ever more questionable and unethical means. Soon, the individual that the system was meant to aid them finds themselves crushed by it instead, and the system blackmails the individual by claiming to govern their eternal fate. 

For many years, several parents and families endeavored to engage their church leaders to adequately and appropriately attend to the needs of all of those who were ill affected what emerged as a pattern of of both physical and sexual abuse that insulated abusers. When these change agents failed, they filed a class action civil lawsuit against SGM leaders for decades of unreported child physical and sexual abuse, attempts to cover up these cases, and for the pain and shame suffered by those who were manipulated to remain silent.

Much of this was accomplished by browbeating parents of the victims (like parents “Noel” and “Grizzly”) with charges of “unforgiveness” because they didn't want their children near their abusers anymore... Or for protesting abusers who were allowed to remain church nursery workers... Or through pressuring parents and victims through various other means including the signing of tediously long “covenant” contracts. (Spiritual Sounding Board and the Wartburg Watch have both done a very good job of following the case, and I also recommend this Religion Dispatches article about the “culture of abuse” for more info and background. Websites such as SGM Survivors also chronicle the years of struggle that these former members continue to endure.)

Though the civil case was amended and is still ongoing, when the judge hearing the case decided that not all of the listed plaintiffs could participate because of the expiration of the criminal statute of limitations for sex abuse in the state where the case was filed, friends of SGM's CJ Mahaney came out with bold statements of support for him. (Note that the civil suit also included residents of States that did allow for prosecution of past child abuse and that the case also concerned the harm suffered due to heavy handed measures used to silence the victims.) From my perspective, it seems that the High Priests of Complementarianism whom some call the “Calvinistas” threw these victims along with the gravity of the problem “under the bus” of “taking dominion,” using the judge's decision as such an opportunity. They also alleged that the matter was moot and resolved when the matter has not been resolved remotely.

One of my first thoughts was that of all people, these educated men should understand well that “Legal does not equal moral.” We hear them contend for this principle constantly, urging for churches to “reform” the Christian people, though such things force us to consider just what kind of reform they're really talking about. It brought to my mind District Attorney Michael Ramsey's strong charge to Michael Pearl on Anderson Cooper's daytime show that Pearl may not be legally responsible for the growing number of child deaths associated with his corporal punishment guidelines, but he most definitely has abandoned his moral duties. How sad to see men like Al Mohler and Don Carson in particular behave more like Michael Pearl supporters, showing what seems to me like blatant disregard for these victims (specific people as opposed to the abstract idea of a group) and for the gravity of the issue of concealed, facilitated and protected pedophilia in Christian churches (run by someone they know). Their response also reminds me of those who doubt the multitudes of consistent reports of abuse with strikingly common features across decades from survivors of the Roloff-style teen homes operated by Independent Fundamental Baptists. But as Mohler has noted well himself in days past, “Christians bear a particular responsibility to be watchful for confirmation bias and its effects.”

Because of great criticism, statements made on the Together for the Gospel site, the Gospel Coalition website, and on their related Facebook pages, the statements of these high priests were first moved to another location online, then altered, and then – they disappeared. On at least one of these sites, if you follow the original link, you'll find yourself at a post explaining why Mahaney has recently withdrawn as a participant from an upcoming conference hosted by the group. (Follow embedded links in this post at Emotional Abuse and Your Faith for more info.)

Like DA Ramsey, another former prosecutor stepped forward to issue a very similar charge to those “circled wagons” in an almost bizarre show of support to attempt to exonerate Mahaney. “Boz” Tchividjian of Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment (GRACE) made a specific public statement about the matter and later advanced a petition against abuse in the Church (which I proudly signed). [If you have not already done so, please link here to learn more about and sign A Public Statement Concerning Sexual Abuse in the Church of Jesus Christ.] What really shocked me recently was the reporting of all this by World Magazine which is heavily funded by Baptists (and likely beholden to defend men like Mohler). ABP News has also faithfully reported on these matters, but tends to advocate more specifically for the abused because of the nature of the different venue.

The Significance of Spiritual Abuse

These developments concerning SGM aren't actually the primary purpose of this posting. I wish to focus on these events and responses as something of an example of unfolding spiritual abuse and how it works.

Sources already sited here have noted the “culture of abuse” and the “culture of silence” that contribute to the problem. I would also like to draw attention to the other powerful influences that Philip Zimbardo notes, specifically the difficulty of exiting these types of situations with ease and grace, as well as the social factors that unduly influence most people when subjected to these social pressures (weapons of influence), tricks of logic/propaganda techniques, and emotional blackmail when caught in the middle of these situations.

I prefer looking at these “cultures” through the lens of Lifton's Criteria to define the heavy handed authoritarian tactics used by these groups, but I believe that David Henke's model condenses things a bit more for the sake of aspiring towards brevity. As a Christian, I think of these traits as the predictable pattern of what the Apostle Paul called the “works of the flesh” as they manifest within a legalistic, high demand religious system – even within doctrinally sound ones. Our actions don't necessarily reflect our aspirations. Theses models endeavor to take the subjectivity of human behavior and qualify it well so as to make it as objective as possible, objectively identifying those common traits that are noted in high demand, closed and isolated religious groups.

Enduring in the sidebar of this site is the short version of what constitutes the characteristics of Spiritual Abuse. Think of these qualities as the anatomy or structure of spiritual abuse for a moment, and then I'd like to look at some examples of how this anatomy “fleshes out” in function: the physiology (how the anatomy works) using this example of the troubles at SGM.

The “Anatomy” of Spiritual Abuse

The reader can explore more on their own at the Watchman Fellowship website, but the basic traits of a spiritually abusive system include
  • Authoritarianism
    • Over-emphasis on authority through a rigid system of hierarchy exemplifies a spiritually abusive system. Leaders are never subject to the same standards, however. Hierarchy provides leaders the means by which they establish themselves as the sole source of truth and restrains individuals from thinking about the veracity of their information and edicts. These systems generally downplay authoritarianism with new members, but one quickly learns about the demanded submission imperative when they violate these often unwritten rules of the group, the “hidden curriculum.” They are required to then suffer the consequences that hierarchy demands.
  • Image Consciousness
    • Preoccupation with maintaining an appearance of righteousness. Unrealistic standards give the illusion that the group is superior than other groups and is therefore more special to God. Paranoia about the public image of the group because of their unrealistic demands as well as secrecy stem from this extraordinary concern with maintaining this perception of superior spiritual status.
  • Suppression of Criticism
    • Control of information and communication, in concert with the punishment of doubt or dissent. Not only are members taught to reject sources of information that challenge group dogma, systems within groups control social interaction to discourage discussion of doubts. Compliance brings reward and dissent brings punishment which begins with negative reinforcement and leads to direct punishment, shunning, and denial of personhood through rejection by God Himself, for group leadership speaks directly for God.
  • Perfectionism
    • Demand of an unrealistically high standard of purity and perfection from followers, but leaders are usually exempt from the same standard. The perfectionism reinforces the sense of elitism and dovetails with image consciousness.
  • Lack of Balance
    • Primary, intense focus on more minor concerns and points of doctrine at the expense of or to the exclusion of other essential doctrines. This special focus also helps distinguish the group from others, feeding elitism and exclusivity. For the Christian, a focus on the message of God's loving kindness towards us through Jesus' atonement and following the Law of Love through the guidance of the Holy Spirit as a central message should supersede pet concerns like prosperity, gender issues, proper submission to authority, etc., or even formulaic or strategic approaches to achieve a particular outcome. A Christian group generally should not become too unbalanced if they hold all people including leaders within the group to the standard of loving enemy and neighbor, treating others in the same manner that individuals would like to be treated themselves. The lack of balance created by “hobby-horse” concerns promotes disregard of the individual in favor of the special cause as well as the special nature of the group and its public image.

The “Physiology” of Spiritual Abuse:
Good Ole' Boy Network Support of Mahaney as an Example

We've reviewed how David Henke qualifies “Spiritual Abuse,” so lets now see how it plays out in some recent writings that emerged from Mahaney's high level support base, those men affiliated with hierarchical complementarianism. They received great criticism for posting their open statement in support of Mahaney. It first appeared on Facebook, was moved to Together for the Gospel, was altered, was removed. . . manifesting the privilege of spiritually abusive authority figures, afforded to them by their office as well as the entitlement that comes with acting as “God's mouthpiece.” I should need to connect very few dots pertaining to what has already been noted here.

h/t to Hannah Thomas

From the first days of hinting that the matter would be significant and public through to this unfolding public relations nightmare over recent months for Mahaney and Company, consider just a few of these articles which have come to my attention. They primarily concern hierarchy (authoritarianism) and image consciousness of these men and the mindsets that they follow.

I could not help but to think of these matters concerning SGM as something of a very obvious playing out of spiritual abuse. I don't intend to go through them point by point, for I think that with just a brief reading, most people can appreciate the statement that they make.

Let me reiterate: I'm troubled that these pastor-leaders' chose to use this matter to express devotion to their friend as opposed to creating an opportunity to address the needs of the most tender of lambs, a common subject here on this site. There is also the other serious problem that Boz Tchividjian addressed well: that of the issue of the physical and sexual abuse of children itself and the facilitation/protection/justification of abusers within Evangelical churches. Within these issues alone, I see how this cadre has manifested every one of Henke's spiritual abuse criteria and characteristics.

Their absurd focus on gender and sex as a non-optional consequence demanded by doctrine creates the milieu that fostered the problem and fed into the paranoia over the nature of the subject itself. When every facet of your religion has been saturated with concerns about sex, and when spiritual matters are likened to the sex act itself, it creates a powder keg for such problems. Religion becomes a sexual preoccupation and encourages prescribed sexuality within a system that entitles men with a God-awarded of sovereignty over women and children.

I have no way of knowing whether the SGM problems directly prompted the writing of the above noted articles that soon followed. Did these men sit back and contemplate what should be done to contain unruly members in their churches because of the complaints and dissent? Did they wish to send such an authoritarian-sounding message to their readers and followers, not realizing how terrible it might seem to a physical abuse victim? I don't know. I do find it troubling, however. For them, the timing proves terrible.

Consistent with the high demand Shepherding Discipleship Movement which birthed Mahaney's church system when it was called “People of Destiny,” these writings establishe several imperatives quite well:
  • church members must submit to mistreatment from a pastor or leadership
  • they are duty bound to endure it as part of their own purification
  • they may not rightfully discuss matters with anyone but those directly involved
  • they cannot leave unless they do so only because of specific doctrinal problems
  • issues of behavior are not justifiable grounds for leaving (including how adequately the church responds to abuse or whether the leadership has abused the member)
  • leaving for reasons other than doctrinal disagreement burdens church members with the presumption that they departed to escape merited consequences

Using some tricks of logic, the group reduces all issues of praxis to the same level, whether one feels slighted over a misunderstanding concerning a social matter or whether one's child has been molested. It doesn't matter if your pastor demands that you put your child into the care of the man who once sexually assaulted them, manipulating you with threats of church discipline for unforgiveness if you don't comply because you're concerned about your child's welfare. It doesn't matter if leaders asked you to break civil laws by failing to report physical abuse or whether you're punished with church discipline and threatened with shunning for going to the civil authorities to report the crime. After all, you probably signed a covenant, and what kind of good church member backpedals on such a commitment? (Read more HERE about pressure to waive legal rights, use so-called “Christian mediation,” programs, and forcing reconciliation when it may be very inappropriate.)

Also from the old Shepherding Movement, we hear the references in these articles that reinforce the idea that leaving a church becomes a form of “spiritual adultery” and/or sinful rebellion of a child against a parent because the leadership believes that they are responsible for governing the sanctification of the member through a misappropriation of Hebrews 13:17. In the Old Testament, the worship of other Gods was likened to a person committing adultery, so this is misused by authoritarian pastors to convince their parishioners that going to a church down the street is tantamount to having sex outside of marriage. Dose this sound like the aberrant teachings of Watchman Nee's group and their rigid rules about where one attends church? Does it sound a bit like the Roman Catholic assignment to a diocese, and the power of the intermediary priest to proffer your connection to God? (The latter may be a poor comparison, for I believe that the RCC has become much more laissez-faire than today's Calvinistas.) Concerning the parent analogy, I personally had 1 Timothy 5:1 thrown at me as a rebuke for choosing to walk away from my church for a host of reasons, even though I was under no discipline, formal or otherwise.

Representing another bundle of logical fallacies used to mislead the reader of the articles above, these writings seem to assume that if one has made a choice to walk away from membership at their local church, those who do so are presumed to be walking away from the Christian faith, becoming apostate. It represents the black and white thinking that is so characteristic of spiritually abusive systems. They indicate the absence of room in their “prescriptive polity” for the person who is still very much a Christian and remains accountable to other believers while between churches. Why the presumption that people could only possibly want to leave because of trying to escape discipline, or perhaps they are too superficial? This redirects us back to the necessity of their paternalistic authority submission structure and the church discipline imperative that has come to the forefront in too many Protestant churches today. The answer to discord within these fellowships seems to never be an issue of the health or effectiveness of the leadership. Church discipline provides the perfect panacea for every cause and concern, emphasizing the hyper-authoritarian approach to maintaining a healthy church and the well-being of its membership.

Perhaps what saddens me most, particularly after establishing the sin of seeking out a new church though these other writings, comes the rebuke that was issued by the Gospel Coalition in “The Church Hurt Me” piece.

On the heels of the cowardly act of hiding their once boldly proclaimed statements, we learn that if you go to your abuser leader and they turn you away without owning up to justice, it is best for all to suck it up and shut up. Pray and pound sand, instead, perhaps. That's definitely something one must do to some extent when working through that element of the grief process, but there is also the duty to talk about wrongdoing to establish justice. Is that not the first step in the process of discipline and a function of justice? Forgiveness never requires us to forgo justice when, as Christians, we have a duty to pursue it. Leaders are held to an even higher standard of accountability than their followers. Why have we seen none of that fact in these writings or in the actions of these minsters? (This previous blog series explores many aspects of these kinds of complexities in the process of forgiveness in much greater depth.)

Whether your church didn't think you were ready to teach a Sunday School class or whether you were grieved and angry over your pastor's reprimand for feeling at odds about having your daughter's molester over for a home Bible study, don't say anything that might “sow discord.” Here we see the hints of that “culture of silence” again, what Henke addresses with several of his characteristics. Undergirding all of it, we again see the demi-gods of the Calvinistas establishing and solidifying their infallibility and their duty/right/privilege to speak ex cathedra like it's a mitzvah. I do wonder, though, if Mr. Anyabwile who wrote the piece was aware of these previous writings concerning the Mohler/Ligonier and 9Marks procedure for finding a new church? He writes, “Do realize that not every church hurt you and people are not “all the same.” Find a local church you can join. Start slow if you need to.” Perhaps he should check in with his old boss. Maybe he missed a memo? I fear for him that his friends might believe that he's encouraging a bit too much antinomianism and that evil autonomy.

The potential of hierarchy to enslave some and enthrone others, in concert with the paranoia concerning public image and pet doctrines, manifests in not only the events surrounding the SGM scandal, but notably in the reactions among Mahaney's friends as well. How sad on so many levels.

Watch for a new post or two, coming soon,
heralding a guest post about nouthetic counseling
by Dr. John Weaver from SUNY Binghamton

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