Trauma’s expanding definition applied to the church
In more recent decades, however, the concept of abuse has witnessed “horizontal creep” as new forms of abuse were recognized or studied. For example, “emotional abuse” was added as a new subtype of abuse. Neglect, traditionally a separate category, came to be seen as a type of abuse, too.
Meanwhile, the concept of abuse underwent “vertical creep.” That is, the behavior seen as qualifying for a given kind of abuse became steadily less extreme.
This “vertical” and “horizontal” expansion of definitions of abuse got me thinking about another new-ish trauma term for within church leadership circles: “spiritual abuse.“1
First (like Friedersdorf also recognizes about the examples he provides) there are of course real and terrible examples of church leaders harmfully manipulating others by using their ministry positions or, worse, scripture to do so. My purpose is not to defend a pattern of harmful behavior or sin transferral.
However, the research cited here serves as a reminder that a rebuke — even a painful one, a mismanaged one, or possibly a selfish one — can still have the power to prompt awareness and resilience, if it is received with maturity.2 If, on the other hand, “abuse creep” swallows up all Christian correction into a sweeping notion of “spiritual abuse,” then we have lost much more than we have gained, while being convinced of our own victimhood. In other words, if I’m traumatized by every criticism, then the problem isn’t the reproof; I am. I’ve become the victim alright, not of bullies, but of my own proud sensitivities.
The best, most succinct definition of spiritual abuse that I’ve found is from Tim Chester: “transferring the blame for your sin to [someone else]; imposing a false guilt on [them].” (Closing the Window Kindle loc. 535).
To be clear, I am distinguishing here between this kind of poisonous/destructive transference and a more general criticism/disapproval that can sometimes be misidentified as “spiritual abuse.“↩
Psalm 141:5; Prov. 9:8; 19:25; 25:12; 27:6; Eccles. 7:5↩