In a video at Dale Fincher’s blog, FreeAtLast entitled “Big Red Flag”, Dale explained, “I think that any time we are caught in a spiritually abusive situation (of humiliation, of being degraded, made small), you see a test come out time and again for me to prove my spirituality. I must prove my submission to the authority over me in order to prove my godliness. When that comes across your radar, it should be the gigantic red flag.”
Spiritually abusive authorities often make the litmus test of a person’s spiritual depth how he is perceived to submit to their authority. Authority figures (Christian school teachers, pastors, elders, deacons) cite verses like:
- 1 Peter 2:13 For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution
- Romans 13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities
- (And, for the married women) 1 Peter 3:1 Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands
These abusive authorities then demand—“based on Scripture”– unquestioning, immediate, and unthinking obedience that resembles an automatic, empty reflex rather than a joyful, mutual submission to one another.
And a lot of wounded, hurting people are believing them.
Recently, an acquaintance shared with me that her difficult marriage got exponentially harder as her husband began repeatedly demanding, in front of their small children,
“Hush your mouth and obey me!”
When she tried to interact with this new demand for instant obedience, he kept cutting her off with,
“You are my wife, and I am your spiritual authority. You must obey me!”
But she’s sure that she is a person, a human, an adult, too, and that this treatment of her—as if she were a stubborn two-year-old and he her parent—is somehow very wrong, though she is so wearied by it she cannot yet articulate why. Her husband believed if only his wife obeyed whatever he said, then every other difficulty, disagreement, and point of tension in their marriage would be resolved.
After attending a church for seven years, we left. We had faced two silent months before my husband and I received a shunning letter telling us that we had two options—
Option A. Return to full fellowship in the church, submit to God and the church authority.
Option B. Resign our membership.
The implication was obvious: by speaking up about problems in the church leadership, we had been labeled unsubmissive to our authority and therefore to God himself.
These stories happen regularly. Early last year, at my friend’s church in Georgia, it became obvious to the deacons and those involved in the church that the manipulative pastor had lied to them, particularly about finances. After trying to confront the pastor, who waved off their accusations, families who had suffered financial loss at his hands quietly left the church instead of taking the deceit to the deacon board or others in the church. Quietly leaving, empowering the abusive authorities and the cycle continues.
But in this Georgia church, my friend, a deacon, promised to do otherwise. He vowed to his fellow congregants that next time the pastor publicly tried to put one over the congregation, he would stand up and call out the pastor. He did. On a Sunday morning, no less. Shortly thereafter, that pastor resigned from that church. Shortly after his resignation, he applied for and was offered a pastoral job at a church in Arkansas, where he shared how “unsubmissive” his former church had been to his “God-given authority.”
How did my friend find this kind of courage to stand up and protect his fellow parishioners? He knew that Peter and Paul themselves taught the limits of submission.
Peter did not submit to the Sanhedrin—a religious institution, a human institution—but instead told them outright, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). Later, Peter repeats himself and does not submit to the high priest. “We must obey God rather than any human authority,” he proclaims in Acts 5:29.
Paul did not submit and leave quietly in order to save the feelings and reputations of the human authorities who wrongly imprisoned him along with Silas. Instead, in Acts 16:37, Paul says, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” By claiming his right as a Roman citizen, Paul refused to be a doormat or a scapegoat, instead giving us a fantastic example of self-respect and thoughtful courage.
So what are the limits of submission?
When do we say, as Peter and Paul did in different situations, “Enough of this!”?
There are two tests I’ve pulled from the Spiritual Formation Bible to answer this important question.
- Am I seeing and sensing humility from this authority?
- Has this authority become destructive?
If we answer no to the first and yes to the second, then we need to remember we submit to God, first and last, and recognize that we have come to the end of submission. With self-respect, thoughtful courage, and obedience to God, we need to explore removing ourselves from that abusive authority.
Susan Lawrence is a full time mother and garden center/nursery entrepreneur with her husband, Glenn. She lives with her four children in northern Ontario, Canada. You can find more of Susan’s thoughts in her regular writing at the Soulation Blog, and BreakfastReading. Be sure to see her complementarian series, her post on Letting Barbie in Our House.
If you know someone suffering from abusive authority who use scripture to silence them, send them to FreedomBuilders where we are forging new wings to take flight.