Jeff VanVonderen is the coauthor of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse and When God’s People Let You Down as well as several other books. He is a longtime participant in and supporter of the NACR. He has also recently accepted a position as the executive director of Spiritual Abuse Recovery Resources, a sister ministry of the NACR (www.spiritualabuse.com).
STEPS: Your book on spiritual abuse was published almost a decade ago. But it’s still in print. I guess the problem hasn’t gone away yet?
Jeff: The response to the book has not really diminished that much. Usually a book will be out there for a couple of years and then go out of print. But people keep finding The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse as if it’s a new book. The stories I hear from people haven’t gotten any nicer over the last decade either. The wounds caused by spiritual abuse are still very deep. And to be honest, I don’t see that much improvement in the system overall. I think it’s pretty clear that spiritual abuse is not some kind of fad.
STEPS: Nor is it something that you and [coauthor] Dave Johnson invented, is it?
Jeff: Not at all. What we did was to stumble across some language that worked for people. It’s a language that matches the feelings and wounds that many people have experienced. We give people a way to talk about this kind of thing. But spiritual abuse is certainly nothing new. Spiritual abuse has been here since biblical times. We just came across a way of talking about it in our time, and put it into a package that made sense to a lot of people.
STEPS: Talk some more about spiritual abuse in the Bible. What did it look like then?
Jeff: It looked essentially the same then as it does now. Spiritual leaders exploited people for their own gain. Authority was misused in order to get things done in the name of God that weren’t really about God at all. Jeremiah talked about those who heal other people’s wounds superficially. Their real wounds were not dealt with; they were just glossed over for the sake of external appearances. That’s part of the dynamics of spiritual abuse. I think that God’s big gripe with the leaders of Israel, if you look at Ezekiel and Isaiah and Jeremiah, was that they were not using the authority they had been given for the benefit of the weak, for those who didn’t have a voice. They were using their authority for their own purposes and for the sake of human kingdoms. The result in people’s lives then was the same as now: spiritual exhaustion rooted in misconceptions about who God is, about what God wants from us and about God’s stance toward us.
The New Testament gives essentially the same picture. There aren’t a lot of times when Jesus is harsh; Jesus is not known for harshness. But about spiritual abuse he was very harsh. For example, in Matthew 23 he not only describes the dynamics that were going on between the Pharisees and the people, but he also warns people about the Pharisees. He urges them to stay away from the Pharisees. He calls the Pharisees names. He paints pictures about them. For example, he talks about the Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs.” That might seem like merely a picture of hypocrisy—being one way on the outside and a different way on the inside. But there is more than that in this picture. People at that time believed that if you touched a tomb you would be defiled. So Jesus is not only calling the Pharisees hypocrites; he is saying that if you fall under their influence you could become defiled—spiritually affected in a negative way. “Ravenous wolves” is another picture Jesus drew of spiritually abusive leaders. He’s talking about leaders who devour instead of build up. It is very clear when the Bible talks about the purpose of authority that it is for building up, for encouraging and for setting people free. The pictures that Jesus drew paint a stark contrast between the abusive use of authority and appropriate uses of authority.
The abuse of authority was also a central concern for Paul. His main adversaries were the people who thought he was being too graceful. They felt a need to correct his teaching and to help people understand that the Good News is not just about what God has done but also about the things we need to do. They were called the circumcision party, because they added that particular religious behavior to Christ’s behavior as a means of securing God’s approval. This theme of “legalistic teachers” comes up all the time in Paul’s letters. He warns the church at Ephesus that the people who try to add to the Good News in this way will not only come from outside the Christian community but from inside the Christian community as well. So they have to be on their guard [Acts 20:29–31].
In the book of Titus, Paul provides a long list of the qualities desirable in a leader. But then he says that leaders need to take a proactive stance in terms of building people up in grace, and a defensive stance in terms of guarding the flock from people who try to destroy it—especially those who try to add some kind of religious requirements or behavioral demands on top of the grace of God. It is the people who say you need Jesus plus something else, that Paul is warning about.
The letter of Galatians is another example. It is a very angry letter. It’s all about the idea that God’s approval comes from Jesus plus something that you do. Paul attacks this view from every possible angle he can think of. Once again he calls the Jesus-Plus people bad names and wishes bad things will happen to them. Very early in the book of Galatians he asks the people to whom he is writing, “Where is the sense of blessing you once had?”
Most of the people I work with, when they first became Christians, it was very clear to them that it was not about performance. It was only about what God did. And this gracefull message gave them a sense of blessing. They felt restful. Even if that feeling didn’t last very long, their spiritual journey started in a very deeply grace-full, rest-full place. They knew they needed a gift and that God had provided just the gift they needed. But then what happens very quickly is that people get taught or led to measure themselves based on themselves instead of measuring themselves based on what Christ did. That leads rapidly to a loss of that sense of blessing, of rest, of grace. What happens is that people start trying to “measure up.” And that, of course, doesn’t work.
STEPS: It seems to me that grace-based faith has always had this kind of Achilles’ heel. Performance orientation sneaks in so easily, even in churches whose formal theology emphasizes grace. And things start to fall apart real quick when that happens.