The seventh technique used in spiritual abuse is invoking and maintaining male privilege.[i] When a group assigns only males to leadership roles it causes an imbalance of power and serves as a tool to subjugate women. It helps create strict gender roles that negatively affect both the men and the women.
Sacred texts are used, and misused, to place women in a lessor position. For example, in Christian tradition a literal reading of the story of Adam and Eve is used to demonstrate that women are fashioned from Adam’s rib and are therefore his helpmate, made for the sole purpose of reducing his loneliness and assisting him in his work. The text is further complicated by the story of Eve being deceived and eating the fruit. The story gets used to portray women as weaker, gullible, and naive.
When stories are used in this matter, it ignores the story’s context, original language, and purpose. A one sided reading ignores Adam’s culpability, or even the overall theme of how the ancient writer was explaining how humans got here and why there is suffering. The story ends up being used to justify why men are supposed to be the leaders and why women cannot; after all, a women caused the problem, so no women can be trusted. This simple view is reinforced by focusing on stories of other Biblical characters like Lot’s wife, Jezebel, Delilah, or Salome.
This kind of reading ignores many other pieces of the sacred text. Stories that show females in leadership roles are glossed over, are barely mentioned, or are covered up and ignored. For example, the Judge and prophetess Deborah is rarely mentioned. In one case, the female Junia is noted by the Apostle Paul in Romans as “noted among the apostles” has been translated as Junias (male), even though the older manuscripts have the female form of the name Junia.
These few examples are used to illustrate that how the text is used matters. Every person who approaches the text makes choices about what to focus on and what to dismiss. In healthy groups there is a balanced approach. A cautious approach is used to assure that women are not scapegoated. Care is used to acknowledge the nature of the patriarchal world of the ancient near east that was the backdrop in which the writer wrote and told their stories. There is interaction with the text and questions can be asked. One important question is whose point of view is projected in the story and whose voice is missing? How might that person tell the story?
There are consequences when a person or group decides that women are denied leadership by God, and that men are assigned to be the head of the church and family. The consequences include male entitlement, expectations about how men and women should dress and act, and for women, low self-esteem and perfectionism. It leads to very ugly problems like homophobia, rape culture, domestic violence and child abuse. It leads to blaming the victim because she (like Eve) stepped out of her assigned role; she should have been submissive; she should have been modest. It perpetuates the idea that males have a God-ordained birth right, that females are expected to hold up. It is easy to deflect blame to the person with less power.
To heal from this form of spiritual abuse, it takes moral courage. It takes courage to deconstruct and reconstruct one’s understanding and view of Scripture. It takes courage to think through the impact of what Scriptures you focus on and which ones you ignore. It takes hard work to do your own research, and can be difficult to admit past mistakes. Yes, it is painful to change beliefs, and let go of power (or powerlessness), but the reward is great.
When you expel the misogynistic view you were taught it is liberating. You can look at men and women in a new way. You can teach sons to be sensitive and vulnerable, not afraid to ask for help. You can teach your daughters to be strong and confident. Your relationship with your spouse can play off one another’s strengths and no one has to carry the burden of leadership. No one has to suppress or deny their strengths. There can be mutual respect and true cherishing, based on your love for the person and his or her qualities. Your church or sanctuary can benefit and be blessed by having leader of both sexes. Not leaders in name only, but true leaders of both genders who contribute in unique ways for the benefit of all.
[i] The author acknowledges that this topic is controversial. What is written took years of reflection and learning. Much was learned while pursuing a Masters of Divinity degree, where I had the opportunity to learn about the historical context, the biblical languages, ancient manuscripts, early church history, and was deeply immersed in the study of the Book and tradition I love.
The sixth technique used in spiritual abuse is minimizing, blaming, and denying. The leadership creates an atmosphere where it is difficult to hold them accountable for their teachings or their behavior. They deflect and shift responsibility by minimizing their actions, blaming their victims, or denying all wrong doing. In essence they say, “It’ not us. You are responsible for this.” It is impossible to criticize, or to point out inconsistencies and wrongdoing without becoming the focus of intense scrutiny and other forms of spiritual abuse, such as intimidation or isolation.
In healthy spirituality there is accountability and when mistakes are made, the leadership admits them and action is taken to reduce their reoccurrence. They will say, “I am responsible and I am sorry.” When the situation is grievous, there are checks and balances in place to help protect the group and its members. In some cases, permanent removal of leadership is required.
An example of minimizing is when a group speaks badly of someone who has left by implying that the problem is the person. They minimize by saying, “He made that a big deal. He should have let it be and just prayed about it.” “She should have trusted God to take care of it. She lacked humility.” They minimize whatever it was that brought on the crisis, including legitimate concerns like child abuse, financial misappropriation, or immoral behavior.
In some groups domestic violence or child abuse is tolerated and when someone raises a legitimate alarm, they are advised to be obedient or be submissive. This minimizes the danger and the lasting harm that can happens from living in a household where violence is occurring. Leader may say things like, “I can’t help because I do not want to be responsible for breaking up a marriage.” They minimize their own culpability in looking the other way. They minimize the impact of their advice.
An example of blaming is when a group predicts the end of the world or the return of Jesus, and then nothing happens. Rather than saying we were wrong, they often set a new date and then blame those who believed them. They say, “The brothers took it too far. We never told them to sell their houses and quit their jobs.” They also might deny their false prediction all together by saying, “We never said that.” They may shift the blame by saying, “Our enemies lie about us and claim that we falsely predicted the end of the world.” They outright lie and deceive about their own history.
In some faith communities, members are judged if they do not demonstrate charismatic gifts. Faith is held up as the answer to everything. If the person is poor, or sick, or gay, it is because they lack faith. If they do not speak in tongues or otherwise display the “Spirit” it must be because of their lack of faith. They are prompted to show more faith by praying harder, donating more money, or attending healing services, etc. In these same groups there are often frequent reminders of sinfulness. If the person continues to be poor, or sick, or gay, they are blamed; it is presumed that the problem is him or her and not the teaching.
To heal from spiritual abuse, it is important to recognize when minimizing, blaming or denial is happening. If the group has expelled you, expect them to do anything but accept responsibility. They cannot say, “She left because we sided with her abuser.” So they have to say, “She was prideful and had a bad attitude.” They will not say, “We lie about our history.” So they say, “That was the past; it doesn’t matter. You’re the only one who sees it as a problem. You are presumptuous.”
It is important to hold onto your reasons for leaving. Don’t be swayed by pressure to return that lays the blame on you. Do your research. Verify whether or not the group did predict the end of the world. Use their words to demonstrate the truth.
If you are lesbian, transgender, or gay, it can be very healing to look at the reasoning of groups who are LGBT friendly. See how they look at the sacred text. Explore the context and the original language of the text. Your understanding will be expanded and you can make a private decision that works for you.
Reframe the ways the group has personally affected you through their acts of blaming, minimizing, or denying. Just because the group puts a label on you as a way of dodging responsibility (such as calling you apostate), it doesn’t mean you have to accept it. People often leave because their integrity will no longer allow them to stay. It can be healing to recognize that blaming, minimizing, and denying are abusive techniques used to control the group. You no longer have to play by their rules or accept what they say.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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