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Reflecting on spiritual abuse

Karen Soole tells of her own experience and reminds us of some needed lessons

Karen Soole

Figure Image
Karen Soole

Horrific stories of historic abuse within the evangelical community were recently exposed by Channel 4 News.

They have been widely reported, including in this newspaper. I know many who have personally benefited through the ministry of the organisation involved and I too benefited vicariously from the teaching of those who grew up through this camp ministry.

Some, like Giles Fraser and the Bishop of Buckingham, have seized on this story as the natural outworking of what they call violent and punitive theology. They are profoundly wrong, but spiritual abuse is real, and often closer than we care to admit: I know, because I was a victim of it.

Caught in a cult

In the 1980s I became embroiled in a cult, which was formed in a respectable institution run by a chaplain. It was not physical abuse of the sort being discussed recently, but it exercised extreme control and many were damaged through it.

Through heavy shepherding and a hierarchical structure linked with privileges it created dependency, conformity and a desire to please. It controlled major decisions on your behalf, such as who you live with, where you work, who you should marry. It controlled all your relationships. It forbade dating and advocated a strict diet (yes, it was 1 Timothy 4.3 in practice).

It broke me. I reached a point where I felt that God either did not exist or that he would not work in my life because there was something deeply wrong with me – I couldn’t live within the rules.

When I left the community no one kept in contact with me. I had never been so alone. I was told that by leaving the community I was rejecting God and would never have a relationship with him. I crept anonymously into the back of a large city church and, through the faithful gentle ministry of Dick Lucas (a beneficiary of Iwerne camps), I began to heal.

Protect the sheep

Why tell this story now? Because I have been reminded how important it is that we protect the sheep from wolves in sheep’s clothing, and how vulnerable young people are in their late teens and early 20s. Anyone who is involved in student ministry should take careful note.

I arrived in London as a keen Christian from a Christian home, but I was not able to identify the problems with the group I joined until I was totally enmeshed in it. My story is very different from those who spoke out recently, but they are my peers. Like them I was in my late teens, like them I had a desire to serve God, and I was prepared to accept things which my better judgment shouted out against.

Is it possible to protect young people from themselves? We are careful to establish good safeguarding practices to protect against physical and sexual abuse, but do we take spiritual/emotional abuse seriously? Do we understand the dynamics of the abuse of human power and the vulnerability of others? How can we prevent spiritual abuse?

Lessons about leadership

Leaders are called to be gentle (1 Timothy 3.3). It is a qualification of leadership. It matters. We are often more concerned whether someone can teach or has a charismatic personality than whether they are known for their gentleness. A bully with a charismatic personality is dangerous. I know of a few churches where a bullying leadership is tolerated and shrugged off as a bit of a character flaw or excused under the ‘alpha male’ mantle. Do we realise the seriousness of having a leader who people describe behind their backs as ‘a bit of a bully’? It is not healthy for a church to have a bully leading it. It creates subservience, not godly submission. It creates fear, not joyful service. It creates dependence, not maturity. It can hurt people and destroy their faith.

Leaders are called to serve sacrificially. In certain circles there is more talk about authority and obedience, headship and submission than sacrificial loving service. If we are not careful we can allow abusers to gain power in our church structures because we misunderstand the nature of true leadership. Jesus challenged his own disciples about their wrong thinking in this area (Mark 10.35-45). Paul modelled giving up his rights for the sake of others and becoming a slave to all for the sake of the gospel (1 Corinthians 9.15-19, 1 Thessalonians 2.6-12). We are all called to live for the sake of others (Philippians 2.1-8) and husbands in particular are called to love their wives sacri-ficially (Ephesians 5.25-32), which does not mean being the one who makes the decisions – it is much richer than that! We need a radical rethink of how to model this and teach these things well.

Leaders need to be prepared to be chal- lenged and foster an atmosphere that encourages questioning. We must help one another to be ‘Berean’ (Acts 17.10). It is never acceptable to say, as I heard one minister of a student church state: ‘if you disagree with me, you are disagreeing with God’. We must point people to God’s Word and let them examine it to see if what we are saying is in line with what the Bible says. It is God who has the authority. We are servants seeking as faithfully as we can to point people to him.

Leaders, like parents, are seeking to bring people to maturity. We need to teach people so that they can stand firm in Christ, understand Scripture, identify error, persevere in the face of suffering, not drift from the gospel, and be presented to Christ on that last day. We must equip people to read the Bible for themselves (Hebrews 5.14). We are not seeking to foster dependence, but independence and mutual strengthening.

Leaders should point people to Jesus, not to themselves or their ministries or their churches. A devotion to your church family is good. However, we are not seeking disciples of our church, but of Christ. If people are staying because of dependence on a particular ministry we should hear alarm bells. Our relationship with our church and leaders should not become a substitute for a relationship with Christ. I saw a symptom of this in a church when, at an evangelistic event, the appeal made was to go to that church rather than pointing people to Jesus. When I asked about this I was told that there was no difference – there is!

Out in the open

We must be open about our historic failures, learn from them and warn of the possibility of spiritual abuse. Silence and denial are not helpful. Young people need to watch out for ‘wolves’ – Jesus told us all to beware such ‘false prophets’ (Matthew 7.15-20). We must call out spiritual abuse for what it is and care for those who have been victims of it.

It is a precious and important task to teach young people – let’s make sure we do it well.

What happened to a group of teenagers and students at the hands of an abuser in the late 1970s and early 1980s does not bear thinking about. The damage done to them was terrible. I pray that they will know the love of others who can support them and that, despite all they went through, they can know the real love of God.

Karen Soole is chair of the Northern Women’s Convention and is part of Trinity Church Lancaster.