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When Does Conflict Become Spiritual Abuse? Churches Large and Small Face That Question.

spiritual abuse
Mark Driscoll, left, is interviewed by Pastor Andy Wood at Echo Church leadership conference. Video screengrab from conference

(RNS) — Concerns about spiritual abuse have become common in recent years — at churches large and small — following the fall of megachurch pastors like Mark Driscoll, of the now-disbanded Mars Hill Church in Seattle, and Bill Hybels, founder of Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago, both accused of creating toxic cultures ruled by fear and intimidation.

Elders at Saddleback Church, one of the nation’s largest congregations, recently said an investigation found “no pattern of abuse” at a church run by Andy Wood, who has been named successor to Saddleback founder Rick Warren. The elders noted there had been conflict at Echo Church, where Wood and his wife, Stacie, were longtime pastors, but added that “disappointment and hurt are not the same as abuse.”

Elders at Hope Community Church in Austin, a small multiethnic community, came to a similar conclusion after the conflict there led to allegations of spiritual abuse. As a result, half the church left amid calls for an outside investigation.

At the heart of these conflicts is a question: when does a disagreement, an unhealthy culture or the normal challenges of church life turn abusive? The answer is not always clear. But there is a growing consensus that spiritual abuse is real and something to be worried about.

Spiritual abuse, at its core, involves the misuse of spiritual authority. And it goes beyond run-of-the-mill church conflict, said Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer, co-authors of “A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing.”

Instead, there’s a pattern of using spiritual ideas to manipulate or coerce others, they said.

“What is good is used to harm and deceive,” said Barringer.

In their book, McKnight and Barringer describe what they call a “power through fear culture” at unhealthy churches, which often revolve around a powerful pastor or leader. In that kind of culture, even a small disagreement with a pastor could lead to a spiritual war.

The backlash to questions is often disproportionate, said McKnight, and can lead to people being shunned or fired. In response, some people do whatever they can to prove their loyalty, while others will keep their concerns to themselves, putting up with unhealthy behavior out of fear of hurting the church.

Lisa Oakley, associate professor in applied psychology at the University of Chester, describes spiritual abuse in her co-authored book “Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse,” as a “systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context” and sees it as related to emotional and psychological abuse.

“This abuse may include: manipulation and exploitation, enforced accountability, censorship of decision making, requirements for secrecy and silence, coercion to conform, control through the use of sacred texts or teaching, requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position, isolation as a means of punishment, and superiority and elitism,” she wrote.

One of the most widely publicized examples of allegations of spiritual abuse in recent years took place at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, which was retold last year in a popular podcast from Christianity Today.