‘Guard me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked; preserve me from violent men…’ (Psalm 140:4). The torrent of examples of abuse and inappropriate practices or behaviours within and without Christ’s church fills the heart of any observer with shock, compassion for the victims, and anger at cover-ups and institutional failures. There are very many lessons to learn.
One consequence is the proliferation of the language of ‘spiritual abuse’. Indeed, some suggest that ‘spiritual abuse’ should be a designated criminal offence. We should not allow our horror or sadness relating to particular cases to cloud our judgement. To create an offence of spiritual abuse would put in peril our liberty to teach biblical Christianity.
The tortuous history of the abuse perpetrated by football coaches has led to numerous coaches being convicted (Barry Bennell and Bob Higgins in 2019 are recent cases in point), inquiries launched, the culture and governance of clubs criticised. Criminal offences have been committed and poor accountability and practice exposed. Yet, not a single coach has been convicted of ‘sports coach abuse’ and no-one has called for the establishment of ‘sports coach abuse’ as a criminal offence.
Although the term ‘spiritual abuse’ is not new (think of past debates about ‘heavy shepherding’ and ‘The Nine O’Clock Service’), the most recent formulation has originated from the Church of England disciplinary tribunal case against the Reverend Tim Davis, who was the charismatic evangelical vicar of Christ Church, Abingdon. The basis of the 2016 complaint, according to the public transcript of the tribunal, was that Davis had mentored a 15/16 year old boy with such intensity ‘that this amounted to spiritual abuse’ (Tribunal, p1). He was found guilty of ‘abuse of spiritual power and authority’ and hence misconduct (Tribunal, p18).
Protagonists have, of course, grasped the opportunity with open arms. One well known campaigner, Jayne Ozanne, presented a paper to the Royal College of Psychiatrists entitled, ‘Spiritual Abuse – the Next Great Scandal for the Church.’ Ozanne moves quickly from the condemnation of abuse in practice to a critique of Alpha, healing ministries, and conversion therapy ministries. She then extends this to the biblical teaching on homosexual practices and the impact on LGBT+ Christians who may then be subjected to church discipline. The crux of the challenge to liberty stems from this linkage and its implications.
In 2018, the former CCPAS (Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service), now renamed Thirtyone:eight, published some research entitled Understanding Spiritual Abuse in Christian Communities based on an online survey of self-selecting participants who had suffered ‘spiritual abuse’. This research was criticised by the Evangelical Alliance and Thirtyeight:one distanced themselves from the research. The CEO of Thirtyeight:one, Justin Humphreys, together with his colleague, Lisa Oakley, then published in 2019 Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse. The authors state explicitly that ‘holding a theological position is not in itself necessarily spiritually abusive’. I suppose we should be grateful for such reassurance.
What we see here is how language has developed and mission creep set in from which some, but not all, may backtrack. We see how easily some move seamlessly from abuse to church practice to biblical teaching with the implication that all those matters should be caught under the designation of spiritual abuse. The leap from condemning abuse or abusive behaviour to condemning biblical Christian teaching is made with alacrity. Unsurprisingly, the argument then quickly develops into the misrepresentation of classic biblical doctrines such as the substitutionary atonement. Some people distort the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, saying it is essentially an abuse of the Son by the Father. Since abuse is unacceptable, those who teach such a doctrine are guilty of spiritual abuse.
Of course, none of this helps the victims of either abuse or unacceptable practice.
Who would decide the boundaries? What teaching or church practices would fall foul of the definition of any such offence of ‘spiritual abuse’? If the matter is designated a criminal offence, then the answer would be, the state. The suggestion that the state is qualified to determine biblical and theological teaching generates considerable complexities. We should be very wary indeed.
There is a distinction between a church’s internal disciplinary procedures and enshrining offences within a criminal code. In the former, offences normally require proof based on the civil standard of the balance of probabilities, rather than the criminal standard of beyond reasonable doubt. A church may wish to use a wider range of descriptions (psychological abuse, coercion, and controlling behaviour) than within the existing criminal code. It is entirely reasonable for a church to regulate discipline in this area, although specificity of offences is always preferable to the general term spiritual abuse. The fact that a church may wish to discipline does not mean a particular offence should be criminalised. Indeed, the recent cases involving Jonathan Fletcher and Steve Timmis, which, at least on the face of the matter, appear to involve unacceptable practice rather than criminality, would fit well in this category.
The victims of abuse are best served by clarity of criminal proceedings in the case of criminal offences and disciplinary proceedings in the case of unacceptable behaviour which falls short of criminality, together with lessons learned around governance and accountability.
What are the main reasons why we should be wary of creating an offence of spiritual abuse?
All potential criminal acts involved in coercion, control, abuse, and so on are covered by existing criminal offences. Indeed, the offence of misconduct in a public office would also seem to cover abuse which undermines public trust in the office holder. If there is evidence of criminal acts in church settings, as in sports or other contexts, then they should be prosecuted. A new and additional offence is unnecessary. The law acted against Higgins and Bennell in the sports setting and against Bishop Peter Ball in the church context.
It is clearly within the competency of a church to specify disciplinary offences which may not be criminal and which carry the lower standard of proof. Unacceptable practices are unacceptable. Any such offences, however, should be clearly stated and not subsumed within the nebulous category of ‘spiritual abuse’.
To permit the state to define the extent of abuse in theological formulation is beyond both the competence and the remit of the state. Many would be concerned at the state interfering in ecclesiastic and theological matters. Even more so given the gulf between the growing and expansive role of the state in so many areas of life and the traditional teachings of Christianity. Perhaps the recent case involving freedom of speech (Harry Miller v The College of Policing and the Chief Constable of Humberside) should act as a warning. Mr Justice Julian Knowles stated in paragraph 259 of the judgement, ‘the effect of the police turning up at his place of work because of his political opinions must not be underestimated. To do so would be to undervalue a cardinal democratic freedom. In this country we have never had a Cheka, a Gestapo or a Stasi. We have never lived in an Orwellian society.’ Replace political by religious.
There is an imperative in the right of all Christians to expound, teach, and proclaim biblical truth. It is not acceptable in any way for the debates around abuse, whether involving criminal behaviour or not, to be extended to cover long-standing ecclesiastical practices (for example, prayer ministries) or classic biblical theological teaching (for example, the substitutionary atonement). What would come next? What sanctions imposed? The existence of a partial or ill-defined offence would expose biblical Christian teaching to the potential of criminal state sanctions. This is a significant threat to religious liberty.
Ministerial or other failures in these areas of psychological, physical, or emotional abuse, coercion, or control are thus all dealt with in one of three ways: (1) Prosecution, if criminal acts have been committed. (2) Church discipline, if disciplinary requirements have been breached. (3) Professional guidelines for clergy, establishing professional boundaries and codes.
Nothing more is needed, and to extend the legal code of the state to cover spiritual abuse is potentially very dangerous indeed. The possibility that this could occur under the cover of the sufferings of abuse and malpractice simply illustrates the challenge to liberty that such moves entail. We need wise heads and clarity of thinking and language alongside good governance. We also need love and compassion for any who suffer abuse in the Christian setting.
Revd Dr Richard Turnbull is Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics, a trustee of The Christian Institute, and visiting professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.