To Sin By Silence: The danger of enabling spiritual abuse

Cover Eyes“Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” (Ephesians 5:11)

Last month, when I wrote about the massive issue of spiritual abuse and what’s happened with Mark Driscoll, I expected a decent number of people to read the article. Driscoll is a high profile guy, and spiritual abuse and bullying within churches is a really big issue.

It certainly seems like lots of people have read it, and that’s good. If the aim of that piece was to shine light on an often-hidden and widely misunderstood issue, more people reading it can only help.

But there was another, more depressing side to that article – one that, sadly, doesn’t surprise me: the number of people who contacted me privately to say something like, ‘Thanks for your article – I appreciated it, since I’ve experienced spiritual abuse personally’. It seems clear that this issue needs serious attention, and it won’t just go away.

Which brings us to this follow-up article.

A couple of other messages I received encouraged me to follow the original piece by looking at the question of ‘enablers’ – those who don’t perpetrate spiritual abuse themselves, but who (in some way or other) play a part in allowing others to do so.

It makes sense to look at the issue from this perspective. After all, the truth is that most of us are not in serious danger of becoming spiritual abusers or bullies. But given the extent of this problem, it’s far more likely that we could find ourselves in the terrible position of enabling people who are abusing others.

What is ‘enabling’?
What do I mean by enabling? What does it look like? Much like spiritual abuse (but for different reasons), it’s a difficult issue to pin down. It involves wildly differing levels of culpability – everything from willful and deliberate protection of an abuser, right through to those who are caught up in an abuser’s web of deception and are manipulated into unwittingly contributing to an abusive situation.

This is not a technical definition, but in the context of spiritual abuse I would describe an enabler as anyone who plays a role in allowing a spiritually abusive person to continue abusing others by (either wittingly or unwittingly) creating or perpetuating conditions that allow abuse to take place.

That description probably doesn’t help a whole lot, so let me flesh this out with some specific examples and descriptions.

Enabling can happen when one person has their understanding of an abusive relationship controlled by the abuser (or by others), and therefore unknowingly enables an abuser to continue their behaviour. This can be as simple as the ‘It’s Never Happened To Me, So I Can’t Imagine It Happening To Anyone Else’ syndrome, but it can also happen through the deliberate lies and control of the offender. After all, most of us are naturally inclined to believe and trust our spiritual leaders). And spiritual abusers don’t abuse everyone (any more than sexual abusers do), and they will continue to maintain many positive, warm relationships (sometimes deliberately, so they can maintain a cloud of witnesses who will testify to their good character and godliness). These people may then become the enablers. While enablers are sometimes lied to, they can also be more personally culpable, such as when evidence is overlooked or ignored, when both sides of a story are not fully considered, or when allegations of abuse are not treated seriously or properly investigated. (I’m painfully aware that, on this front, I have personally served as an enabler in the past.)

Sometimes a person acts as an enabler because they know what’s happening but, frankly, they’re not being personally affected and they can’t be bothered to help those in need. Depending on your relationship to the abuser, it might be easier to keep your head down and say nothing, lest you too start being mistreated.

There’s also enabling on the level of church or denominational leaders. Tragically, spiritual abusers are often allowed to continue because they’re well liked by peers in ministry or by the denominational leadership. Sins are overlooked because of qualities that are admired: ‘He’s a great preacher’, ‘His church is growing’, or ‘His theology is great’. A public show of contrition (without any real marks of repentance, such as apologising to the people you’ve abused) can buy you some time and good will from other leaders. Most tragically of all, some abusers are protected because they’re seen as ‘one of the boys’ – a ministerial brother in arms who receives special privileges.

And look, ministry leaders should receive a high level of protection and care – from their denominational leaders, from one another, and from the people in their care. Pastors do a very difficult job, and the vast majority do it very well and with godly motives. Moreover, it’s not uncommon for pastors to be falsely accused of sins, or even to be spiritually abused themselves (for example, by power-broking lay members of a church – a friend of mine appears to be experiencing this very thing right now). I want to be cautious here, and I’d hate for false accusations of spiritual abuse to be thrown around because of something I’ve said.

But none of that changes the fact spiritual abuse often continues because other leaders fail to step in and protect those being abused. As Stephen McAlpine writes here, “Perpetrators of sexual and spiritual abuse are never one-man shows (and it is mostly, but not exclusively, a man). In fact many would not get away with what they do if they did not have a system or person of enablement to allow them to do the same thing over and over again. A perpetrator who breached someone’s trust, but who has no system of enablement usually does not last very long.”

Spiritual abuse is a subtle issue, often very hard to pin down. For that reason, church or denominational leaders are wise to move slowly and carefully. But moving slowly and carefully is one thing; not moving at all – or being reluctant to move because polity and structures make action difficult and messy – is something else. And when leaders are called to deal with accusations of spiritual abuse, they should do it with eyes wide open as to the potential seriousness of the situation. “It sounds like a hard situation, but is it really that serious?” If it’s spiritual abuse, then yes, it is that serious. “You can work this out amongst yourselves, can’t you – I mean, everyone experiences conflict!” Yes, conflict is (all too) common – but spiritual abuse belongs in a separate category.

But most simply, and maybe most often, enabling is about doing nothing. If spiritual abuse is (broadly speaking) a sin of commission, enabling is often a sin of omission – failing to speak up, failing to expose sin, failing to take steps to protect those who are vulnerable, failing to trust the Bible’s teaching on disciplining those who continue in unrepentant sin (eg: Matthew 18; 1 Corinthians 5).

I’m reminded of the powerful words of Ella Wheeler Wilcox: “To sin by silence, when we should protest, Makes cowards out of men.” Then there’s the statement attributed to Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

A word of warning
Having said all that, I need to clarify some things. The last thing I want is to be defined by this issue, or to encourage others in that direction. If you’re a Christian – especially a Christian leader – your passion should always be the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, not dealing with spiritual abuse. (It’s just that the gospel makes certain demands of us when it comes to dealing with things like spiritual abuse.)

Caring about an issue doesn’t mean we’ll always do something about it. We’re not required to personally confront and challenge every instance of bullying. And please don’t go around turning over rocks, looking for cases of spiritual abuse and enabling!

I don’t want to create an unhealthy suspicion of pastors. Not everything is spiritual abuse, and many of the problems in churches and other ministries are just genuine ‘conflict’ between people. Like I said above, church leaders can be abused and mistreated as well.

However, this issue is widespread enough that most individuals – and some ministry circles as a whole – need to open their eyes. We should pray that the issue of spiritual abuse would become far less prevalent in evangelical circles today. We should pray that, when it does occur, it will be handled in ways that heed God’s word and adorn the gospel. Those of us who are leaders should pray that God would protect us from misusing our authority in any way. All of us should pray and resolve that, as we have opportunity, we will protect God’s people, care for those who’ve been abused, and have the courage and godliness needed to act.

Burke Quote

One thought on “To Sin By Silence: The danger of enabling spiritual abuse

  1. Well said. Your observations about denominations/institutions being unwilling to do anything is especially true. I imagine plenty of damage would be averted if people were picked up during college/seminary before they entered into a parish context. Or, in Driscoll’s case, they actually went to seminary before they got started!

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