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COMMENT: A dangerous new buzz phrase

April 2018 | by Mike Judge

‘Spiritual abuse’ is a new buzz phrase that is gaining momentum, and I believe it is a dangerous idea. It will become another stick to hit evangelicals with.

I first came across this phrase when I heard about the case of Timothy Davis, an Anglican clergyman who was convicted by a church tribunal for the ‘spiritual abuse’ of a teenager in his congregation.

Specific case

In what is believed to be the first case of its kind, the tribunal held that Rev. Davis had acted inappropriately by, among other things, holding one-to-one Bible studies with the youth over a period of 18 months.

Did Rev. David go too far? I don’t know the ins and outs of this specific case, so I pass no further comment on it. However, the phrase itself — ‘spiritual abuse’ — got my attention. What does it mean? How do you define it? Instinctively, I thought the phrase had great capacity for making mischief, especially if it becomes embedded in our liberal and secular institutions.

Around about the same time that the Timothy Davis case hit the headlines, the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) published a report on the same issue, in which it claimed spiritual abuse was rife among churches.

One of the authors of the report, Lisa Oakley, says insisting upon obedience to Scripture, or the belief that a church minister has authority because he has received a ‘calling’, or warnings of negative spiritual consequences for disobedience, could all be considered forms of spiritual abuse.

Another person pushing the idea of ‘spiritual abuse’ is Jayne Ozanne, an Anglican gay rights campaigner. A year earlier she presented a paper to the Royal College of Psychiatrists which implied that teaching a biblical view of sexual ethics was a form of ‘spiritual abuse’, which should be criminalised.

Evangelical Alliance

The Evangelical Alliance has responded by urging caution over use of the phrase ‘spiritual abuse’. They say they are ‘increasingly uneasy’ about the expression.

Rev. Dr David Hilborn, chairman of the theology advisory group of the EA, said, ‘Creating a special category of “spiritual abuse” just for religious people potentially singles them out for criminalisation’.

The general director of Evangelical Alliance UK, Steve Clifford, said that spiritual abuse ‘is a seriously problematic term partly because of its own inherent ambiguity’. He added: ‘Attempts by some to embed it within statutory safeguarding discourse and secular law would be unworkable in practice, potentially discriminatory towards religious communities, and damaging to interfaith relations’.

Imagine this scenario. A church member is sleeping with his girlfriend before they are married. His church minister holds some personal Bible studies with him, showing him that this action is sinful. Is that spiritual abuse?

The man refuses to accept what his minister is saying, so his minister uses the authority of his calling to insist that the man must stop sleeping with his girlfriend before he marries them. Is that spiritual abuse?

Still the man refuses to repent, so his minister warns him about the spiritual consequences of continuing to live a life of sin without any true repentance. Is that spiritual abuse?

There are those who would say a resounding ‘yes’. Although, I suspect, if the man was committing a different sin — say stealing — they would not consider it spiritual abuse for his church minister to urge him to cease. Make no mistake, the phrase ‘spiritual abuse’ has the touchstone issues of our day in its sights: sexual ethics, gender identity, exclusivity of Christ.

Faithful ministry

Of course, there is such a thing as ‘heavy shepherding’, and there are some church leaders who use their position to bully and intimidate people in their churches. No one is defending that.

Those who hold positions of leadership within churches should serve the flock by caring for it, feeding it and protecting it with meekness and humility. But they are also charged with teaching correct doctrine and combatting error, which requires some steadfastness and resolve.

Sadly, there is also a tendency among church members to fail to respect their leaders, to feel aggrieved when their minister/elder/pastor challenges them about some aspect of their lives.

People get very upset when a raw nerve is touched, and they are often indignant about it. If you give people a phrase like ‘spiritual abuse’ to hang on to, they will do so and it could become a destructive phrase to the peace of a church or a man’s ministry.

Part of the role of the Evangelical Times is to alert our readers to issues like this, to stimulate further thought and reflection. So please be aware of this new phrase. It’s dangerous — and I don’t think we have heard the last of it.

Mike Judge is pastor of Chorlton Evangelical Church. He is a director and co-editor of Evangelical Times.