Some of the research on spiritual abuse talks about “spiritual empowerment/disempowerment”.
The Bible talks about these issues using the language of the image of God.
- Everyone is made in the image of God according to Genesis 1:27, and this is foundational for the whole narrative of the Bible
- Spiritual abuse disempowers some by encouraging them to act like they don’t bear the image of God.
- Spiritual abusers behave like they are the image of God in ways that others aren’t, and abuse their image bearing status by taking the name of God in vain.
- There is good Biblical, theological and psychological research that opposes spiritual abuse. It can help us all do better!
Spiritual abuse research addresses spiritual empowerment and disempowerment
There is currently helpful and illuminating research being done on spiritual abuse. Some of this literature uses the language of “spiritual empowerment” to describe a positive goal, and “spiritual disempowerment” to describe the basic issues involved in spiritual abuse. In this research, spiritual abuse is understood as a pattern of disempowerment that enables abusive leaders to exercise harmful domination and control.
This body of research can help all of us understand spiritual abuse, which isn’t confined to any single religion, church, or denomination. Rather, it is something that we are all tempted to fall into, that any of us can engage in to some degree, and that we can all overcome with the help of God and each other.
Is this research Biblically and theologically sound?
While helpful, the language of “spiritual empowerment” might not sound Biblical or traditional to some Christian believers. This can potentially open the door for Christians engaged in systematic spiritual abuse to argue that this literature is actually part of an evil plot to persecute them for being faithful to the Bible or God or the tradition, or even reason.
These claims are wrong morally and factually.
Christians have a responsibility to demonstrate that this is blatantly wrong according to the Bible, according to the heart of the tradition of Christian theology.
To be clear, persecution can and does happen, and our faith provides us with powerful resources that help us bear up under it. However, when these resources are deployed as cover for spiritual abuse, the abusers also abuse the experience of authentically persecuted Christians to help them perpetuate their abuse. This is appalling, and is a profound insult to our faith’s many authentic martyrs.
Yes, spiritual empowerment is central to what the Bible teaches!
When the Bible says that all people bear the image of God, this is some of the most profoundly spiritually empowering language possible. The whole narrative of the Bible builds on this deep and foundational spiritual insight:
So God created humankind (אָדָם /adam) in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them
A little historical context can really help drive the point home. In the Ancient Near East, spiritual and political leaders routinely called themselves the images of God. This was used to legitimate their rule, and especially to explain why other people should be their slaves. In a basic sense, to say that someone is the image of God is to claim that they have rights to govern because they get to speak for God. In ancient Egypt and Babylon, it was a special privilege of an elite few to be spiritually empowered in this way. Genesis strongly objects to that idea when it insists that this is the birthright of all of humanity!
Spiritual abusers take God’s name in vain
Spiritually abusive groups of leaders usually don’t stop by just acting like they, like Pharaoh, are the only real Image of God in the room. They often go on to use this power to manipulate others with spiritual threats and promises that they can’t substantiate. For example, they might proclaim curses over others by suggesting that nothing good will ever come from a marriage that the leaders haven’t approved. Or they might suggest that if someone leaves the group, or fails to make it to every meeting, that God will take away His favor or wisdom or love.
The underlying strategic logic of the abusers is usually transparent once you think about it: the curses are used to frighten people in the group into compliance. When some people break out, they will often encourage people to disconnect from those who leave, so that they can’t see that their curses were false, and so that further shame and stigma attaches to any effort to escape their control. Those still under their spell will continue to feel like the leader is the image of God, specially empowered to speak for God, and that the people who they are cursing are not.
In all of this, abusive leaders show little concern for the reality that they are speaking falsely on behalf of God. Biblically, speaking or acting falsely on behalf of God is called “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” Exodus 20:7 condemns this practice, and it isn’t about using God’s name as a “cuss word.” Rather, taking God’s name in vain involves claiming to act under God’s authority while actually doing something else. Why would someone do that? Because it gives them illegitimate control over people. This is also why it is so significant that Paul, in Romans 12:14, urges us to bless those who persecute us. Even when we face real persecution, we are not supposed to pronounce curses on people in God’s name! How much more inappropriate is it to use God’s name to control and manipulate “disciples” with these sorts of curses?
Can we all bear God’s image responsibly?
Genesis 1:27 responds to these kinds of abuses by insisting that there is not a special group of people who get to speak for God and represent God and God’s will. All of us, regardless of sex, image God equally. Instead of hoarding this among a few, the Bible boldly proclaims that all of humanity has this capacity.
Still, this is a gift that we need to exercise with humility and gentleness, which is why Scripture places such importance on the fruit of the Spirit. We can be confident that we are representing God well when it produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, and when it encourages us to honor everyone. (Galatians 5:22–23), (1 Peter 2:17)
This makes sense! One of the most important things that the Bible teaches is that we are supposed to honor all of God’s image bearers, which means literally all of humanity.
Bearing the image of God is not the special preserve of a spiritually elite community of teachers to represent God, but instead it is something we are all doing all the time just by our nature. Jesus carries this focus on spiritual equality forward to specifically confront this kind of abuse. He even warns us against calling anyone else teacher! (Matthew 23:8–11)
How does this all work together as a whole? When we consider these insights in the context of the narrative of the Bible, it teaches us that we are all supposed to come together as spiritually empowered image bearers of God who all honor and respect everyone. We can do this by learning his way of non-coercive love, care for the vulnerable and poor, and reconciliation. And we learn it together as equals. (Matthew 5–7)
When reading the spiritual abuse literature, which I highly recommend, it is helpful to understand how to express its ideas in Biblical terms, too. When it insists that all of humanity bears the image of God, in its historical context, the Bible is insisting on the importance of spiritually empowering everyone. This sort of behavior is meant to replace patterns of behavior that allow high control leaders to disempower us while temporarily empowering themselves. That isn’t good for anyone, even the abusive leaders who we enable, and who usually end up taking God’s name in vain. We aren’t loving them, either, when we enable their sin.
The Bible calls us to stand up to them and clearly proclaim that all of humanity bears the image of God, not just them. Followers of Jesus use this capacity to bless even our enemies and our real persecutors, instead of cursing them. When spiritually abusive leaders set themselves up as the special “God authority” and then disempower and manipulate people through false curses and false promises, they are violating the most basic teachings of the Bible and especially of Jesus. They are taking God’s name in vain.
Our own Pharaohs are always imagining that they are being persecuted when their ability to degrade and disempower and persecute God’s image-bearers is challenged. The truth is that they are being confronted with Biblical truth. Hopefully they will repent and change course quickly when confronted with the reality!
If they don’t, we should abide with them patiently and lovingly without enabling their abuse or ignoring the devastating damage it causes. We should also assist their spiritual victims in whatever way we can, and work together to learn how to reduce spiritual abuse in our community wherever it occurs. We can all fall into it at times, and we need God’s help and each others’ help to learn and grow out of it together. Stigma encourages hiding. So we should remember that Jesus promises healing, and he wants us to repent as soon as possible so that we can be healed and transformed before we do even more damage to ourselves and others.