Spiritual abuse is a difficult thing to pin down. People have tried and are still trying to define it for policy purposes but it's like nailing jelly to a wall!
It needs to be defined, and defined well, so that people can be better protected within our faith communities.
It's an emotive term that in itself can be open to abuse and misunderstanding, and I don't want to enter the debate as to whether the phraseology is helpful or not.
From my own experience and understanding in this, like all other forms of abuse, it is a power thing; someone with power using it against another person to hurt, humiliate and crush. Ok, that is somewhat simplified, but it is at the root.
Most spiritual abuse in the news has been awful and shocking. When you hear it described in the cold light of day, it is obvious and glaringly wrong. But I want to look at some of the things that may be overlooked. A few would fit into the policies that are being put into place, but others would be subjective or even dismissed as 'hysteria' or oversensitivity.
As I've been thinking this through, I can see that there is a very fine line between emotional abuse and spiritual abuse. They could be the same thing depending on the setting.
There are many people with stories to tell, but I want to look at one in particular - a brother and sister effectively abandoned by a church whilst still in it.
There was no help given when emotional abuse due to the severe mental health problems of a parent was escalating. This was because of the misguided belief that "Christians don't get depression". It meant that a parent didn't get the medical help they desperately needed, and the children had to live through years of toxic parenting. Is there a case for saying that preventing someone getting medical care by spiritual implication is spiritual abuse?
Help was refused when a children's worker raised this issue with the male only leadership (in line with their belief). She was called a hysterical woman for talking to them about it. Is there a case for saying that missing an opportunity to step in to an abusive situation because of a low opinion of women is spiritually abusive?
Severe bullying of both children was ignored as "childhood stuff that would shape them" even though it was destroying them – because "God would be their all" in it. This, even after a gang of youths set upon the brother in front of the whole congregation after church. Only one person had the courage to step in and help him. Is there a case for saying that ignoring such things as this in the name of character building can be called spiritual abuse?
Then there were abuses ignored because of the wrong belief that when paedophiles become Christians, they are "forgiven and released from their addiction". Is there a case for saying that taking this line from a spiritual belief is also spiritual abuse?
Giftings of both children were ignored and remained undeveloped because their parents were not part of the 'elite' with 'elite' jobs and not in church leadership. This is a little more subjective, but I ask again – is there a case for saying this fits into the category of spiritual abuse?
The siblings were told off for things that children of church leaders had done, and yet when in a rare retaliation from them they pointed this out, they were told, "We didn't ask you to be here." Is this bullying, emotional abuse or spiritual abuse because of the belief that leadership is the only thing to aspire to in a church?
And finally, the brother was held up as an example of "what a Christian should NOT be" in the presence of his peers – and his sister. The crime? He was wearing motorbike gear because he had come to church on his new motorbike. Does this count as spiritual abuse because he didn't conform to the clothing etiquette of the church?
All of these, as I said, can be subjective questions in the eyes of an adult, but in the eyes of a child or youth they were not just soul destroying, but damaging to the heart and mind too.
I acknowledge I've been a bit naughty in this, and I would actually choose the word 'toxic' instead, rather than call it out as spiritual abuse. In all the talk of safeguarding policies, I didn't want us to miss the small and yet significant things for a child or young person.
Toxicity happens when things that are bad but not actually poisonous are put together in the same place. It's then we can end up with a highly dangerous and toxic mess. In the true story I tell above, this is what happened; it was and still is a toxic mess, and it's not right.
When you put a lot of small things together that are borderline abusive, or just plain wrong, you end up with a church that is toxic, even if when can't use the phrase 'spiritually abusive'.
What can we do?
As much as church leaders need to be aware, this is the responsibility of everyone in a church. There needs to be permission and freedom to call out those small semi toxic things and repair damage. Our leaders need to be humble enough to listen when these things are raised, and then act - even if it means facing that difficult conversation we all shy away from.
If we all play our part, we can be part of the antidote.