Emotional abuse, as with any form of abuse, is something to be leery of, though this variation is far more subtle than most, especially in the church. Often times emotional abuse in the local church flies under the radar. Time and time again families who are directly involved leave because of it, but nobody really understands exactly why they broke fellowship.
Still, others may be oblivious to what is happening all together because more often than not, emotional abuse in and out of the church is not easy to spot when you’re the one who is being abused.
Why does the local church ignore emotional abuse? While some churches do ignore emotional abuse, it’s important to remember not every church does. Some churches are oblivious to it, while others do ignore it, and still, others make a conscious effort against it. Though this question is not cut and dry with most scenarios being different, it can be safely stated that the sign of a healthy and safe church is proper accountability. Leadership should always follow the Biblical example of submission to their brothers and sisters as well as elders and other forms of leadership that are held to a set of standards laid out in the Bible.
Whether the abuse is from leadership to a layperson, leadership to leadership, or among non-leadership, emotional abuse takes place all the time and it can be difficult to spot from the outside, so let’s examine some ways to recognize it, and delve into the scripture for Biblical examples on how to deal with it.
Why Leadership Struggles with Emotional Abuse
As with any sin, we owe it to our fallen nature for having inclinations towards thoughts and actions that are against the nature of God. Though of course, this does not by any means excuse a person’s actions, it may perhaps help us to better understand just why the body of Christ struggles with this issue.
If we take a journey back in time we can find a perfect depiction of the nature of man. And this illustration is found in Genesis at the Tower of Babel.
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”Genesis 11:4
Mankind began building a tower to the heavens in honor of themselves, and to quite literally defy God’s command to “fill the earth.” This story shows an innate pride issue in the DNA of humankind’s fallen nature, and this trait can easily be seen being passed down throughout history.
But what does this have to do with anything?
In most cases of emotional abuse, the abuser is seeking control and desiring to push another down in order to keep the abused within their power. And I see this mirrored in the Tower of Babel––a desire to honor oneself above God and others, and it rooted in pride.
So, the bottom line is this, positions of power are never to be taken or given lightly. It is easy to fall into a trap of pride when you gain a spotlight, and this does not mean the spotlight is wrong, rather, you must be extra careful.
Often times leadership (and its not just leadership), get caught up on the details of ministry while forgetting to live in the presence of God on a daily basis, but it is through His presence that we are sanctified and drawn into His likeness.
So, as their eyes turn to external things rather than the presence of God, they no longer walk in the love of Christ but instead turn to self-gain, which often leads to emotional abuse.
How to Recognize Emotional Abuse
Although I strongly urge my brothers and sisters in Christ to be cautious when looking to settle into a new church, I also advise not to walk in with guns loaded. There will be without doubt problems in every church you check out, but this doesn’t mean we throw the baby out with the bathwater.
I have compiled a short list to aid Christians in identifying what emotional/mental abuse looks like so they can both spot it within the laypeople, as well as the leadership. S0, here are a few signs that might point to emotionally abusive people and/or leadership. Keep in mind, this list is not in any specific order, nor is it exhaustive.
Pride and Arrogance
We will start with pride and arrogance, again, the tower of Babel shows us how our fallen nature has a strong inclination to be set up as a God, utterly independent of Him. The Bible teaches us, however, to live wholly contrary to that way of thought, instructing us to submit to one another. So if you see someone who mirrors that of the ancient people we’ve discussed, be very cautious.
Here are just a few of their tendencies that are generally a result of pride and can be classified as emotional abuse.
Refusal to Submit
Whether we are dealing with leadership, friend, or spouse, the same principle applies to all––submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21).
A refusal to submit to elders or your brothers and sisters in Christ, in general, is a sign of a rebellious attitude. It can be a sign of emotional abuse if they willfully choose not to submit to leadership or the body of Christ while simultaneously demanding submission from those around them.
Insulting Through Jokes
A harmless joke never hurt anyone, and I am not encouraging anyone to develop a thin outer shell, however, there is a distinct difference between poking fun at a good friend and consistently putting down said good friend, in a harsh manner.
Some emotional abusers have charming and funny personalities, and by adding a laugh to the end of the insult, others will overlook the degrading remarks that were truly intended for harm.
All of these examples tie together rather closely, but abusive expectations is a pretty good indicator of emotional abuse. I myself have seen this take place in the local church, whether through a friend or a pastor. This looks like someone asking you to do something that is out of your power and then being utterly shamed for not doing it.
Or, perhaps you are able to meet the standard, but the standard is not Biblical or considerate to you or the needs of your family. And perhaps the person tried saying it was too much, but again, were utterly shamed by the pastor or friend for even considering that they could be wrong in their judgment.
Minimizing and Invalidating Concerns or Ideas
Often, people and leadership struggling with this sin will minimize and belittle your concerns or ideas, especially if the concern has to do with any of their actions. They show a constant pattern of making it seem like your ideas or concerns are invalid or foolish.
Watch out for this.
Violent and Quarrelsome Behavior
Sometimes a sign of emotional abuse is displayed in a constant desire to quarrel and undermine who you are. Other forms are found in violent aggressive behavior, whether this is yelling and screaming, blackmailing, or actually physical abuse.
How to Address Emotional Abuse
In my other post on how to resolve conflict in the church, I explained Biblical instructions on how to properly deal with sin and conflict in the church, if you would like a deeper explanation, the link above will give you more on this topic.
But specifically to this point, it’s important to remember that however a situation is handled, the heart must be observed first. First, make sure you are not confronting out of bitterness to get even, but to truly bring resolve to the relationship and hopefully set the abuser back on the right track.
In light of Jesus’ instructions to us in Matthew 15, these are the steps I consider to be best and most closely in line with scripture.
- Go to the abuser alone. Explain to them their actions and how it’s affecting you. (If you have already done this, go on to step two)
- Bring two to three others with you. Sit down with the person who is causing abuse and once again explain with the aid of two others to mediate and witness.
- If they refuse to see their sin and repent, bring it to the church. By this point, the church elders should be stepping in and addressing the issue, especially if it is church leadership that is causing the abuse, as there are specific guidelines laid out in scripture that leadership is to adhere to.
- Now, after the church has confronted the person, if they again refuse to repent, then they are to break fellowship with the body.
The church never excommunicates or breaks fellowship with someone out of anger or revenge, but instead, in the hopes of setting the unrepentant back on track, and even though they are not part of the body, they are still loved and pursued.
Caring for Emotional Abusers
A few other things to consider when dealing with emotional abuse in the church. Speaking from first-hand experience on this topic, people who emotionally abuse others do not all look the same, nor are they all walking around looking for people to harm.
For most, it is a result of their own brokenness, so those who do turn away from their sin and recognize that they have been abusive, need to be walked alongside in love and counseling so that the root cause of this issue is dealt with.
This in no way means that their actions are excused, but by this point, they have acknowledged their sin in humility and thus, the church’s job is to rejoice that they have returned and to walk with them in love and accountability so that they do not keep failing in the same area.
Caring for Victims of Emotional Abuse
Those who have been emotionally abused generally don’t realize it until much further down the road, and will even question whether they were really abused. They need to be validated.
Victims of emotional abuse should be surrounded by other believers who can help bring healing to the areas that were harmed. Being surrounded by people who can help shed light on the areas that lies have been planted is imperative.
Leadership, counseling or friends, whomever, it is important to help you friend, spouse, or child, understand that there is something wrong with the way they were treated and that those actions are not how God thinks of or treats us.
Emotional Abuse is no small thing to be swept under the rug. It is sinful and not only does it cause division in the church, but it severely damages people’s hearts and beliefs.
Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.1 Timothy 3:2-4
In addition to 1 Timothy 3, there are numerous scriptures and passages that provide us with very clear instructions on what qualified leadership looks like and how we as Christians are to treat each other. Therefore, it is our duty to handle this issue with seriousness and in accordance with scripture.
So let’s move forward with love and respect for one another, as well as the word of God.