The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Dr Pablo Martinez explains the causes of spiritual abuse from a biblical perspective and recommends steps to take action.
Spiritual abuse is something humanity has faced throughout the history. That is why the prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles denounced it.
The “Pastoral Guide for the prevention of spiritual abuse” has been published by the Spanish Evangelical Alliance (AEE in Spanish). It emphasises the dangers of these abuses within the church, and advocates for a shepherding that follows Jesus.
One of the authors, psychiatrist and well-known international speaker Dr Pablo Martínez, talked to Protestante Digital about spiritual abuse, the profiles of these abusers and the resources the church has to avoid it and heal its wounds.
Question. Is spiritual abuse a problem that the evangelical church has ignored or silenced?
Answer. Where there are human beings, the heart has a tendency to abuse. I think that whre there has been spiritual abuse, it was not consciously and intentionally hidden. As we start knowing about the problem, we realise it really happens around us. It is like depression: now that we know what depression is, we can diagnose it better. The same happens with spiritual abuse.
Q. In the guide, the first characteristic of the abuser mentioned is egotism. In modern Christianity there is an emphasis on the uniqueness of our relationship with God and also on leadership. Have we forgotten to be alert to this issue?
A. Undoubtedly. Egotism is one of the sins that go more unnoticed. Egotism is feeding yourself. That is what abuse means: a detour to one self, to our own benefit.
Egotism has always existed, but Paul described it very well when he talked about men who “love themselves”, and look for their own benefit and interest. It is related to a problem that affects society: individualism. Both things go together.
Q. How is the manipulation made by a spiritual abuser?
A. It not only happens within Christianity, it occurs in any religion which has an authoritative figure (like the gurus of Oriental religions). I summarize with three “Ps”, three things that go together. The abuser manipulates through power, privilege and pressure.
Regarding power, the abuser places himself at a superior level. He does not submit himslef to others, he subdues others. It is a diabolic -but not always conscious- perversion.
Privilege is a consequence of power. Abusers feel free, they do not have to do what they demand from others. Jesus describes it very well when he denounced the scribes and the Pharisees.
The third one is pressure. These people put a difficult yoke, a heavy burden upon people. Rules, obligations, an stifling legalism, which many times generate guilt. This is the way manipulators act.
Q. We can identify a spiritual abuser contrasting it to what the Bible teaches about the characteristics of a good pastor. What are those characteristics?
A. We could choose many different scriptures, but I choose 1 Peter 5:2-4. It mentions three characteristics:
An authentic vocation. Peter says: “not because you must, but because you are willing”. The shepherding cannot be just a job, it is also a vocation. The true calling comes from God, and it is crucial to avoid bad professionalism which could result in abuse.
A correct motivation. Peter says: “not pursuing dishonest gain”. The good pastor does not work for the salary. Of course, he deserves a decent salary, as Paul said. But the motivation is the love of Christ, he loves Christ, he loves Christ's flock. That is the big difference, because the abuser loves himself.
The third characteristic is a servant spirit. Peter says: “not lording it over those entrusted to you”. Humility is the key of a good pastor, he does not take over, but serves. Servant is a synonym of minister, which comes from the Latin term “minus”, which means “less.”
That is what Paul teaches us in Philippians, where we see Christ´s example, who became less to serve us.
Q. In the guide, you mention the opposite side, the “spiritual complaisant”. Today, when discipline is a taboo, how can we avoid this negligence at church?
A. This only takes place in a “low calorie Christianity”. It is important to make clear that, when we talk about denouncing or fighting against abuse, we are not advocating for pastors with a weak personality. The Bible talks about pastors with a strong personality, so we do not stand for weak pastors.
We don’t advocate for a weak discipleship either, without effort and discipline, what we call “a Christian life in Disneyland.” Salvation is free, but discipleship is not on sale.
We did not stand for a “church club”, which is more a “social club” than a community of disciples of Jesus, who was radical in many things.
Q. Despite the dangers mentioned, the church has an answer for the spiritual abuse. Which spiritual resources do we have to avoid, abandon or be healed of abuse?
A. I like to summarise what we have with one word: edification. Church edification is the vaccine against abuse. It makes sense, because abuse brings destruction, and we fight against it with edification.
We see it, for example, in Paul's epistles, when he wrote to the church in Corinth, he mentioned the word “to edify” many times.
Edification leads us to growth, and that growth brings maturity in Christ. That is the goal of any shepherding: grow to be like God, that “Christ is formed in you”, as Paul says.
Therefore, our duty is to make everything to point to Christ, who is the good pastor par excellence. He must be our role model, and the one who qualify us for the work.
The guide is available to download in the Spanish Evangelical Alliance website for free.