The other day I was in the process of doing a little research for a book I am writing about domestic abuse. I was specifically looking up spiritual abuse, mostly as it pertains to church teaching and doctrine justifying and overlooking the many cases of domestic abuse sitting in pews every Sunday. By definition spiritual abuse includes the misinterpretation of the Bible for selfish gain, encouraging ritual not included in the Bible, or opinions that are represented as fact, to name a few. If we look at the broadest definition, spiritual abuse would include every church and religion in the world, and I don’t agree with that.
Interpretation of the Bible seems to be at the root of most church-related definitions of spiritual abuse. Don’t we all interpret the Bible? I try to use the original text and keep everything in context as much as possible, but even then we can’t be 100% assured we are correct. In my prayer time I ask God to guide what I say and write so as not to mislead anyone. I surely would never mislead on purpose, and I am certain there are many in the pulpit who feel the same.
We have all heard the stories of church leaders who have exploited their congregations for personal gain or sexual favor; we also know the stories of cult leaders who have led their flocks into mass suicide. These are the extremes, the media sensations that make it onto the five o’clock news. But what of the more subtle abuses?
One source states that spiritual abuse occurs when others are held to a spiritual standard of acceptance or behavior, in other words, how we perform as “Christians”. Whoa…….that is concerning! How many of us have been in churches where the teaching from the pulpit involves climbing the ladder of spiritual perfection? Do this, don’t do that, memorize scriptures, wear a certain style of clothing, avoid or even condemn certain types of people, learn the handshakes, pass the snakes…. Ok, now I’m getting a little ridiculous, but you get the picture.
Abuse is an umbrella term for the many types of abuse; the goal and end result of any kind of abuse is control and domination of others. The scariest type of spiritual abuse is the subtle, insidious indoctrination of a group of people. It is happening in churches all across the nation, their brand of abuse even permeating the homes of the congregants. Ever had a friend who “got saved” and your whole relationship changed, or worse, ended because of their “salvation”? You may even have noticed an aire of superiority since the salvation moment. What about the people who see or suspect demonic activity behind every negative event, misstep, or “unsaved” person?
I was part of all that nonsense for years, but I never felt that I fit in; something did not resonate well within. We should never rely on another for our understanding of anything. We are intelligent beings, capable of deciding for ourselves, and yet many churches attempt to strip us of our God-given ability to reason and decide for ourselves. I realize deciding for themselves is what got Adam and Eve in trouble, but God still let them do it, didn’t He? And, the story most of us get on that event has been colored a bit, too, by man, if we only read and accept the Biblical version or interpretation without the advantage of digging into the Greek and Hebrew texts.
So where does that leave us? Through prayer, study, more study, and more prayer, I have decided that our journey with God is individual, and it was designed to be that way. I keep coming back to the life and death of Yeshua (Jesus), believing His purpose, clothed in the flesh of humanity, was to open the door, once and for all, to all who would seek relationship with God. The relationship is what Adam and Eve had lost, not the amenities of living in the Garden. Yeshua restored what had been forfeited.
Do we have boundaries within that relationship even though we are not bound by Jewish Law? I believe we do. God, and Yeshua while He was on the earth, taught, with the familiar; those things common to man. Parenting is one such example. Do most of us parent by setting boundaries to prevent our children from experiencing life, to stifle them? No, but we do want our children to be safe, and to learn how to accept and love others, ultimately to live peacefully with all in the world at large. We journey with our children. We take them by the hand and teach as they grow. No one holds their child for the first time, looking lovingly into their unfocused eyes, and says, “ Do not run into the street, talk back to me, take drugs, hit others, disrespect your elders, do not steal, kill, or destroy, and whatever you do don’t drink, smoke or get tattoos!” That last part is obviously tongue in cheek!! I couldn’t resist, given the many “Christians” who believe any who drink, smoke, or get tattoos have boarded the fast train to hell! We haven’t. Boundaries are good, however.
Our journey with God is the learning process, much like the journey with our children. God meets us where we are in our lives at the moment we reach out to Him. He doesn’t back up the spiritual-do’s-and-don’ts dump truck and unload on us; many times the church believes it their duty to do so.
I have journeyed with God for many years, and I have also been in several different churches during my life. Each had their own set of standards that makes one acceptable to God, as determined by their interpretation of the Bible, and their particular doctrinal tenets and beliefs. Some aligned with scripture, many did not. As humans we desire to congregate with others of like mind, thus one of the reasons people gravitate to churches when seeking to journey with God. I don’t blame them; it’s human nature. We do, however, need to read, study and question for ourselves and not lean on the understanding of others. There is a scripture in Proverbs addressing that very thing. “Trust in ADONAI (God) with all your heart; do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him; then he will level your paths. Don’t be conceited about your own wisdom; but fear (as in respect) ADONAI, (God) and turn from evil.” (Proverbs 3:5-7 The Complete Jewish Bible)
Having the advantage of years in the church I believe that many put their trust in their pastor’s interpretation while paying lip service to trusting in God to guide and teach. This scripture tells us that we are to let God level all our paths; in other words teach us as we journey with Him. Alone, we do not possess wisdom; we may have street smarts, but that is not wisdom. Pastors are on a journey as well, so do not have the only and correct interpretation. Accepting their interpretations as gospel is treading dangerous ground.
Am I suggesting people leave the church? No, of course not. I would like for us to consider what is taught; search out our own understanding as it applies to our journey with God. Accept what resonates, set aside that which does not for a later time. We needn’t reject what does not make sense since we are all at different places in our journey; that which does not make sense or apply today, may tomorrow.
I have been asked on many occasions to start a church. If I were to consider that, it would need to be different from all else out there, otherwise the purpose would be defeated. So the question becomes how to do that? At the moment I don’t have the answer, yet I believe many would gravitate toward something different from the standard fare. I don’t agree with everything I hear, or read, nor do I expect others to readily ingest everything I say. The lesson is in the discussion; how scriptures, and the Bible as a whole speaks to each of us. In so doing, we learn from one another’s journey…..