The father is the hammer. The mother is the chisel. The child is the stone (please note changes from email).

I don’t receive theology from a woman. When Eve gave Adam theology, the whole word got damned to hell.

The Bible says man is the head of the wife. The Bible was written by men. God came as a man. The elders in this church are all men. I’m glad I’m a MAN!

So he raped you, that’s awful, just awful . . . Can you tell me what you were wearing? (the undercurrent: The Bible’s pretty clear that women need to dress modestly).

You know why I did that? I just can’t help myself. You’re so beautiful.

If you have sex before your wedding day you will not wear a white dress. And if you do, your mother and I will not come to your wedding.

Have you ever heard pastors or ministry leaders say things like,

I don’t blame him for leaving her. Do you see how huge she’s gotten? (the subtext: women have to be thin to keep their husband).

Serve good meals of meat and potatoes and he won’t be looking for cheap meat somewhere else (the subtext: the wife is responsible for her husband’s promiscuity).

Spiritual Abuse

All abusive statements fail to see others as equally made in God’s image, flouting Genesis 1:26-27. The opening statement treats women as a little less, as the gender that needs direction from the male gender. These words were popularized by Rev. Bill Gothard, a man who led charismatic seminars called “Basic Youth Conflicts” on marriage and family in the 70′s and 80′s, a man who was both single and childless.

My family followed his teachings when I was young. My husband’s family respected those teachings, too. The evangelical world seemed consumed by Gothard for a time, in an attempt to create godly marriages and families.

In my family, my childhood years knew patriarchy, chauvinism, unquestioned authoritarianism. I know when I was around my son’s age (1 year) I was held down in my crib while I screamed and cried. I was overtired and needed to sleep, my dad explained. My sinful will was “broken.” This was meant to teach me that I needed to calm down and I would not just “get what I wanted.”

My fingers still shake to write it. My heart feels cramped and cold when I think of my defenselessness in that system.

Spiritual abuse grows powerful in environments of well-meaning, Bible-reading people who are very hungry to do the right thing. (added 4/17/11 – I know my dad did not mean to harm me. I believe he thought his efforts were the right ones).

In an effort to please God (a God who is often exacting and precise) spiritual abusers set up strict rules and exacting punishments. Grace is more about not going to hell. Mercy is something you get on Christmas morning, when you get gifts even though you weren’t a perfect child.

Once, I asked my dad what it meant to “fear God.” I was reading Proverbs at the time.

“You know how you’re afraid of me?” he asked. I nodded.

“Well, the same thing with God.” Though I know my dad was well-meaning, I learned that God was fearful, frightening, heavy-handed and grace-less.

Spiritual abuse masquerades as godly wisdom. As a teen I learned it from authors as wise (and problematic) as Elizabeth Elliot, I believed that men had to initiate or I was sinning. I failed to break off an emotionally abusive relationship because I was waiting for the man to lead. I worked to submit to all men, even when I knew they were wrong. I defended my father better than anyone else.

Why?

The woman is the glory of man. 1 Cor 11.

The husband is the head of the wife. Eph 5.

The woman was not created first. Gen 2 and 1 Tim 2.

The man was not deceived it was the woman. Therefore, women shall learn in quietness and submission. 1 Tim 2.

Behave like Sarah who called her husband lord and served him. 1 Pet 3:6.

I thought submission was what a godly woman looked like. I memorized these verses. I became good at following them (even without a husband). I practiced on boyfriends. I also learned my own subtle manipulation and spiritual abuse on others. I learned that when you feel dis-empowered you compete, you become passive aggressive to get what you need.

I Had Never Heard

When I met my husband I finally found freedom to delve into these verses to see what they really meant, without fearing I would lose his love or approval.

I had never learned that women taught men (Deborah), proposed to men (Ruth), lead men (Esther). I had not connected the verse that perfect love casts out all fear with those in Proverbs. I didn’t know God showed himself much more concerned about valuing and dignifying me than making me feel guilty. I never parked on Gen 1:26-27. I never realized that women supported Jesus and Jesus leaned on women to fund him. I didn’t know women learned as his disciples (Mary and Martha).

So much I never heard.

I’ve since changed my mind, not on Scripture, but what I thought they so “clearly” meant. Read some of that in Unmuted: the Welcome Colors of a Woman’s Voice. I wrote Ruby Slippers: How the Soul of a Woman Brings Her Home explaining the beginning of that journey.

I know God is for me even when I do wrong. I know my value is as irrefutable as a man’s. I know my strong will is precious in God’s eyes, that my femininity is a gift to this world.

God is not Abusive

One major reason I travel and speak is because I want to free other women from spiritual abuse, women who have come to believe that their womanhood makes them less than men, that their femininity taints them, makes them too seductive for men to engage with, too dangerous to lead anyone other than women and children, too fallen to preach, too wayward to trust.

They believe the lies, believe they’re from God. The verses are there to prove it. right? Right? RIGHT? they ask me.

It’s unfortunate that the prevalent spiritual abuse rarely receives any press because sexual and physical abuse isn’t involved (yet). I regularly get emails from women suffering from spiritual abuse before it turns sexual and physical. I chat with these women on Wednesday nights during our Ask LIVE! I hear how the God we both love has turned into a demon, a Tash (C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle) to condemn and shame them.

The 20/20 special covering Tina Anderson’s forced confession of pregnancy, the shameful smothering of her own feelings in the name of discipline concerns me on several fronts.

First, Jesus gets a bad name, a really bad name.

Second, spiritual abuse is often much more subtle than they make it out to be.

Third, the 20/20 episode points to the Independent Fundamental Baptists (IFB) as a group that takes the Bible literally. Taking the Bible literally is not the problem. Every time we say “Love your neighbor” and take that literally to mean love, we’re taking the Bible literally. No problem there, right?

The problem with the IFB (and Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy) isn’t their devoutness or serious value of Scripture, we’d hope all God-fearers would do this. When the IFB claims to speak for God, claims that their authority is irrefutable, expects that their beliefs and desires ought to usurp each member’s needs, desires and their own conscience, when their reading of the Bible is believed to be the only absolute, irrefutably true interpretation, when they believe they could never be wrong about what they think God says. This is the problem.

IFB lacks humility and mercy. IFB is in trouble because of their practice of spiritual abuse, not because they take the Bible seriously, not because they believe in the fundamentals of the faith, not because they believe in historic Christianity.

Knowing Scripture, it’s easy for me to come up with spiritually abusive slogans. I’ve heard them, I’ve lived them. I’ve believed them.

Remember Carnegie in the movie, The Book of Eli? He wanted the Bible because they know that people will do anything as long as you can find a verse, any verse to bless what you want to do. And the Bible opens itself up to that. God lets people abuse his message.

All. The. Time.

That’s why Dale and I wrote at length on how easy it is to misquote Jesus. If the charge that we shouldn’t take the Bible literally bothers you, but you don’t know what to say, get Coffee Shop Conversations.

If you want to talk about this more, comment here. Feel free to post anonymously. Or even post your question at myfaithhurdle.com, a ministry of Soulation where my husband (another survivor of spiritual abuse) and I and our community will help you. Even jump over there to see the growing discussion (70 comments last time I checked). You can see some spiritual abuse in action going on in the way people are accusing the gay Christian man of being demon possessed.

Yours in the fight for God’s love and freedom,

Jonalyn Grace Fincher

p.s. If you’re wondering what you can do . . .

  • Develop a safe place for your friends find their own emotions, their own beliefs, their own thoughts–the ones God blessed them with, the ones shamed into silence by their abusive leaders. Show them books to help them identify what they’re enduring, what they feel, believe, want. One I love is called Healing Spiritual Abuse and Religious Addiction by a husband, wife and brother team, last name Linn.
  • Help them see that there are other ways to interpret the Bible that still take Scripture seriously and literally. See How the Read the Bible for All its Worth
  • Ask them what they think God by, “Perfect love casts out all fear” means. You can find it in 1 John 4:18
  • Visit myfaithhurdle.com
  • Read others breaking free stories to find God is not abusive. For instance this one from Quiverfull, “No Longer Quivering.”