And seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, “We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach.” – Isa. 4:1, ESV
This is one of those obscure verses with lots of different opinions about what it might mean. I think it has application to the dynamics of spiritual abuse. Sometimes, we can be so broken in our soul, and struggling for identity and acceptance in the wrong places, that we allow those who promise those things for our compliance to their wishes, to spiritually abuse us.
Whether it’s literal or prophetic, I think it’s safe to say the image is of a time of such distress that normal cultural behaviors and expectations are upended. In Bible times, a woman was little more than a piece of property. A woman was a “non-person” in social standing until she married, and more specifically, until she had given birth to a son. Her worth, identity, and value was associated with providing a son. It was not uncommon in Mediterranean cultures of antiquity that a woman would be more bonded emotionally to her first-born son than her husband. I would like to make an application to some kingdom/church dynamics in the day in which we live.
The women in this prophetic image are so desperate for a sense of identity that they are willing to forgo normal cultural expectations of their rights for care in a marriage. They are even willing to share sexual intimacy with a man, just for the removal of reproach—just give us a “name” –a sense of identity and place in the societal order of things.
I have dealt with literally hundreds of people who have experienced spiritual abuse in unhealthy church environments. I am very sympathetic to their pain and have my own hair-curling horror stories I could tell of the things that have been done to me, my wife, and my children by “leaders” in the name of Jesus. I GET IT.
However, I’ve noticed a difference between those who are quickly restored to spiritual health, and those who often remain in reactionary woundedness for years or decades. Those who recover quickly admit that there was something broken or unwhole in themselves that was a “hook” for controllers and abusers to play on. They do not just blame the perpetrators of the injustice against them. Healthy, whole, functional, adults–especially fully resourced believers (2 Pet. 1:3)–are not easy to control, and less likely to be victims of spiritual abuse.
As real as the mistreatment we received may have been, somewhere along the way, abused individuals (assuming adults–not children or minors) failed to exercise their God-given abilities to protect themselves. God has given every mentally whole adult the “power of no” to protect ourselves. How much more so believers who have the indwelling Spirit? The trouble is, we are often not whole, and we often ignore the Spirit’s prompting because of the emotional cost of following what He says to us. Saying NO might cost our friends and social networks. Being Spirit-led takes more courage than people normally think, but then again, courage is one of the first evidences of being a regenerated, Spirit-filled, human being (Acts 1-4).
Being courageous in interpersonal human dynamics is often the hardest for many, especially those who by temperament do not like confrontation or who avoid unpleasant interpersonal situations. Remember, the blessing is not promised to “peace-lovers” but peace makers. Peace making, including making peace for one’s own soul, can be a a very relationally bloody process. It takes courage.
Folks could have said “no” to leaders. Why didn’t they? Could be lots of reasons for that. What was the “hook” in the soul that folks could not say “no”? Folks can leave a ministry or church. They don’t. Why? Could be lots of reasons, some very difficult to face. They could have confronted. They didn’t. Abuse does not happen in a psychological vacuum. Spiritual abuse has a pyscho-relational context that makes it possible. It takes two to tango:
The prophets prophesy falsely, And the priests rule on their own authority; And My people love it so! But what will you do at the end of it? – Jer. 5:31, NASB
We cannot control how others treat us. We can control our responses to how others treat us. We are not hapless and helpless victims floating in a cosmos of powers that bop us around like a ping pong ball. That sense of victimhood and helplessness in the cosmos goes against everything the Bible says about God, us, His promises to us, and power in us. It is culturally popular to play the powerless-victim-card and to demand that folks who have hurt us be “punished,” but you will not find that thinking or spirit in the new testament.
In this blog, I’m not going to deal with the controlling, manipulative, abusive leadership side of the relational dynamic. I’ve dealt with that at length in my other writings and books. If you are looking for a “balanced” presentation, read my other works. I want to talk about the codependent victim side in this blog. This is not about “blaming the victims.” This is not about “who is guilty” and “who is not.” Purge that from your thinking. This is about asking self-reflective questions about human dynamics and psychological issues.
If I have been a victim of spiritual abuse, how did it happen? Are there areas in my soul that are unhealed or broken that make me particularly vulnerable to strong, controlling leaders? If so, God has provision to make me whole and to make sure it never happens again. If I don’t deal with this, I will likely just go from abuser to abuser, hoping to not be abused, but experiencing more cycles of spiritual abuse, which is irrational behavior. It’s like looking for a kinder, gentler, better managed, prison camp. You leave one, go to another, just to be hurt again by someone who is more skilled at using the whip on you than the last camp commandant. The question I have to ask, is what is it in me that is attracted to untrustworthy abusers?
Over the years I’ve rhetorically asked, “What could be so powerful, that normally functional, intelligent, sane, adults would allow themselves to be so clearly violated by corrupt spiritual leaders, to go so far as to support them with time, labor, and money–literally PAYING to be violated by them?” What causes their normal faculties of self-protection to go dormant? There has to be a hook in the soul somewhere, some element of “soul damage.” What is the “soul-Velcro” that makes the whole dynamic possible? It is not a matter of volition. It is normally unrecognized at a psychological level.
I believe it is related to the image in the Isaiah verse: an unmet and unresolved need for identity – “take away my reproach, give me a “name,” give me “status.”
People will allow themselves to be violated by controlling leaders in exchange for those leaders giving them a sense of false identity and status with something that has the appearance of success, notoriety, and superiority. By belonging to mighty apostle/prophet/teacher so-and-so’s “world changing,” “miracle producing,” “seventh-heaven,” “doctrinally pure,” “city-taking” “soul winning,” “open portal” “last-day revival,” “overcoming,” “man-child,” “Zadok priesthood,” “Joshua Generation,” of restored Davidic worshiper Ministries International, we can feel just a wee bit superior to others: We have a “name” that others do not.
This phenomenon is particularly strong in new converts or young believers. They often align themselves with a strongly gifted 50-plus-year-old as an authority figure. Since a young person is often not completely formed in their own sense of personhood, and is in the process of learning (if they ever do) that their real identity is in Christ, they can be particularly vulnerable to the ploys, charms, and manipulations of insecure, controlling, “recruiting,” older leaders.
A psychological swap is made: the leader gets sycophantic followers, and the followers get a sense of name, identity, and status from a person or an organization that should come from Christ alone. It’s all an unholy psychological transaction that can be dressed up in all kinds of great sounding Bible-lingo and proof texts.
Imagine I am a mature “father,” 50-years-old or more, with a strong “teaching gift,” a strong personality, charisma, the flow of spiritual manifestations, and decades of experience. Before me are 500+ young people between the ages of 18-30. These young people have various degrees of unhealed psychological issues and identity needs. I preach intensely and passionately for a week to these people about how everyone must submit to a spiritual father/apostle/leader/pastor (whatever) if they are to satisfy God, fulfill their destiny, or be all that God intends for them, and how they will never reach their potential if unconnected to an apostolic father, and how if they align themselves with a father they will be the last day generation that will change the world by their submission and intercession.
What kind of psychological pressure do you think might be on one of these young people (or psychologically fragmented adults) at the end of the week? What “father” happens to be available at the moment? Who is likely to accrue benefit in this scenario by preaching “sonship” to the vulnerable under the guise of revelation? Convenient is it not?
Do you think many of the folks in the crowd, especially a young person, would have the courage to stand on their own and resist the teaching from the 50-year-old father/expert and say firmly and respectfully: “No, thank you”? I highly doubt it.
I propose that to deny this psychological phenomenon of spiritual abuse is to be naïve. To have the lives of others under our power of influence is a sacred thing, not to be presumed upon. If we have a captive audience of immature, psychologically unwhole, and alienated young people older adults, (or lonely “ministers”!), looking for identity and belonging, and we pummel them for a week with the importance of submission and sonship, we are operating in a soulish predatory spirit, and a form of psychological manipulation and abuse, regardless of whatever justifying Bible verse we may believe.
Our only job is to preach Christ, lift up Christ, and make Him known and exalted in the understanding of hearers. We don’t preach “sonship” unto a man. We preach Christ-crucified, sonship unto Him, and let “sonship-type” relationships between believers at difference stages of maturity emerge as the Spirit births and develops them.
The glorious news of the gospel is that the second thing that is supposed to happen to a new convert after believing the good news is the healing of the broken heart, the broken souled (Isa. 61). Upon a real conversion, a new believer should be awakened to their true identity: in Christ and Christ alone. The overcomer in Christ is promised both a new individual name on the forehead, and the name of the city of God as well! We are to have a new sense of personal identity and a new sense of placement in a community (Rev. 3:12). In fact, a “double-new-identity.” Glory to God! The good news just gets better and better!
It is such a painfully sad situation to see so many sell their souls on altars of ambitious and insecure leaders who promise them a name, identity, status, greatness, and fame, all at the price of allowing themselves to be psychically violated.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If you have experienced spiritual abuse in a church situation, I urge you to forgive quickly, take responsibility for your own soul, repent to God for not using the tools he has given you to protect yourself, find people who can love you without agenda, help you find inner healing if you need it, and be restored to a vibrant and healthy kingdom life. There is a good future in God for you.
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