There is no reason to doubt the good motives of the book: to help identify spiritual abuse, ‘to seek better response [to it] and prevention [of it]’ (p.39, cf. p.17) and to help us think ‘about what healthy leadership and healthy Christian culture look like’ (p.3).
In large part (but not all) the book is successful, but it has weaknesses.
On the positive side, the book is academically well supported by other writings on abuse and by evidence from those who have reported being abused – many quotes from respondents are included.
Victims can feel well listened to and also that this book is a key stepping-stone in the right direction. It is clearly informative and will help many to empathise and respond better to abuse that has happened – and to create cultures that limit potential for abuse in future.
A very helpful checklist of questions is included that can be used by all in the congregation. These provide an early-warning system to identify cultures that could facilitate abuse, but also lead churches in a better direction.
There is also much-appreciated humility in the book. There is recognition that what the authors are seeking to do could be used as a weapon against the church (p.4, p.7) though an example is given of one such concerned person who ‘now having listened to us … was completely on board’ (p.37).
Biblical rigour needed
Nonetheless, it won’t (yet) have everyone ‘completely on board’. For that to happen, the book needs Biblical rigour. Despite many good points and observations being made (such as descriptions of coercive control and elitism within a church or within wider tribes), there is a real danger that the book could fail to gain the support of wider sections of the Biblical church and so weaken the remedy that the authors (and victims and others) so keenly want to see developed.
The book can, at times, feel like reading a sociology essay or management improvement manual. However, the main weaknesses are its lack of Biblical rigour and its current definition of spiritual abuse. The consequent implications, I believe, are dangerous – though not irreparable – as they seem, on occasion, to collide with Biblical examples to the contrary. For example, the impression given that any behaviour resulting in isolation or exclusion is universally bad (contra 1 Cor. 5:2) or that all expectation to conform must also necessarily be bad (contra Rom. 8:29).
It is important that these things be corrected and that Biblical discipline, when properly applied, should not be called spiritual abuse. The current definition, however, does not guard against this attack on the Bible and, indeed, may actually serve to make Biblical discipline even rarer, which, given the current widespread lack of discipline in the church, is not an insignificant concern. It is not just coercion and control that bring spiritual abuse but, also, a lack of Biblical discipline (including, for example, not dealing with false teachers). Where Biblical discipline is not exercised, this abdication of responsibility is also a form of abuse – though less recognised – in that it does not protect the wider flock (or other members in a youth group, for example) and causes great harm – and potentially eternal harm.
Thankfully, the authors model what they seek to teach in humility, and they recognise that their definition of spiritual abuse is a work in progress and are open to suggestions for improvement.
The authors recognise that there will not be agreement on all points of doctrine (p.45). However, they are less clear that there needs to be a Biblical response of discipline when essential doctrines/behaviour are not held to.
Any future edition of this book would benefit from including scenarios that deal with these matters – whether they relate to a local church or to a whole denomination – though it would be a brave book that did so. We wait and see…
Steven Hanna is minister of Christ Church, Exeter, in the Free Church of England