Johnson and Van Vanvonderen have written a book that should be read by anybody interested in the topic of spiritual abuse. It is truly a topic-defining work.

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse discusses unhealthy spiritual patterns in a constructive and helpful way.

There are many books that attempt to address various unhealthy spiritual patterns, but often with the goal of stigmatizing them and promoting the churches or belief systems of the authors. I have read a number of these type of books and found these more interested in putting down people of different beliefs than anything else. That's nothing new in religious literature-- the "I'm right and you're a heretic" approach has been around for nearly 2000 years, the modern version is "I'm right, you're a cult."

Some of these books may help people identify with some troubling practices and discuss recovery strategies, but the over-generalizing, demonizing, building of composite stories (which make things look much worse) and theological biases get in the way of making the books really helpful towards solving any problems.

But this book by Johnson and Van Vonderen is different. Drawing upon years of ministry experience as pastor and counselor (respectively), they examine the fine line between Biblical leadership and abuse. Without mentioning groups or demonizing those involved, they discuss how well-intentioned leadership can have abusive effects. This "high road" approach is highly helpful in identifying some of the critical factors that have led to harsh and harmful leadership in churches.

Marks of a Spiritually Unhealthy Environment

For example, the authors identify the marks of a spiritually unhealthy system. I'd like to include these here as a sample of how the authors address these issues. (The following consists of verbatim citations of copyrighted material from Chapter 5,6 of "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.")

1. Power-Posturing

Power-posturing simply means leaders spend a lot of time focused on their own authority and reminding others of it, as well. They spend a lot of energy posturing about how much authority they have and how much everyone else is supposed to submit to it. The fact that they are eager to place people under them-- under their word, under their "authority"-- is one easy-to-spot clue that they are operating in their own authority.

2. Performance Preoccupation

In abusive spiritual systems, power is postured and authority is legislated. Therefore, these systems are preoccupied with the performance of their members. Obedience and submission are two important words often used.

The way to tell if someone is doing the right thing for the wrong reason is if they are keeping track of it. Let's say that another way. If obedience and service is flowing out of you as a result of your own dependence on God alone, you won't keep track of it with an eye toward reward, you'll just do it. But if you're preoccupied with whether you've done enough to please God, then you're not looking at Him, you're looking at your own works. And you're also concerned about who else might be looking at you, evaluating you. What would anyone keep track of their godly behavior unless they were trying to earn spiritual points because of it?

For many reasons, followers sometimes obey or follow orders to avoid being shamed, to gain someone's approval, or to keep their spiritual status or position intact. This is not true obedience or submission, it is compliant self-seeking. When behavior is simply legislated from the outside, instead of coming from a heart that loves God, it cannot be called obedience. It is merely weak compliance to some form of external pressure.

3. Unspoken Rules

In abusive spiritual systems, people's lives are controlled from the outside in by rules, spoken and unspoken. Unspoken rules are those that govern unhealthy churches or families but are not said out loud. Because they are not said out loud, you don't find out that they're there until you break them.

The most powerful of all unspoken rules in the abusive system is what we have already termed the "can't talk" rule. The "can't talk" [rule] has this thinking behind it: "The real problem cannot be exposed because then it would have to be dealt with and things would have to change; so it must be protected behind walls of silence (neglect) or by assault (legalistic attack). If you speak about the problem, you are the problem.

4. Lack of Balance

The fourth characteristic of a spiritual abusive system is an unbalanced approach to living out the truth of the Christian life. This shows itself in two extremes.

Extreme Objectivism

The first extreme is an empirical approach to life, which elevates objective truth to the exclusion of valid subjective experience.

This approach to spirituality creates a system in which authority is based upon the level of education and intellectual capacity alone, rather than on intimacy with God, obedience and sensitivity to His Spirit.

Extreme Subjectivism

The other manifestation of lack of balance is seen in an extremely subjective approach to the Christian life. What is true is decided on the basis of feelings and experiences, giving more weight to them than what the Bible declares. In this system, people can't know or understand truths (even if they really do understand or know them) until the leaders "receive them by spiritual revelation from the Lord" and "impart" them to the people.

In such systems, it is more important to act according to the word of a leader who has "a word" for you than to act according to what you know to be true from Scripture, or simply from your spiritual growth-history.

As with the extreme objective approach, Christians who are highly subjective also have a view of education-- most often, that education is bad or unnecessary. There is almost a pride in not being educated, and a disdain for those who are. Everything that is needed is taught through the Holy Spirit. ("After all, Peter and Timothy didn't go to college or seminary...")

5. Paranoia

In the church that is spiritually abusive, there is a sense, spoken or unspoken, that "others will not understand what we're all about, so let's not let them know-- that way they won't be able to ridicule or persecute us." There is an assumption that (1) what we say, know, or do is a result of our being more enlightened that others; (2) others will not understand unless they become one of us; and (3) others will respond negatively.

In a place where authority is grasped and legislated, not simply demonstrated, persecution sensitivity builds a case for keeping everything within the system. Why? Because of the evil, dangerous, or unspiritual people outside of the system who are trying to weaken or destroy "us." This mentality builds a strong wall or bunker around the abusive system, isolates the abusers from scrutiny and accountability, and makes it more difficult for people to leave-- because they will then be outsiders too. While it is true that there is a world of evil outside of the system, there is also good out there. But people are misled into thinking that the only safety is in the system.

Ironically, Jesus and Paul both warned that one of the worst dangers to the flock was from wolves in the house (Matthew 10:16, Acts 20:29-30).

6. Misplaced Loyalty

The next characteristic of spiritually abusive systems is that a misplaced sense of loyalty is fostered and even demanded. We're not talking about loyalty to Christ, but about loyalty to a given organization, church, or leader.

Once again, because authority is assumed or legislated (and therefore not real), following must be legislated as well. A common way this is accomplished is by setting up a system where disloyalty to or disagreement with the leadership is construed as the same thing as disobeying God. Questioning leaders is equal to questioning God.

There are three factors that come into place here, adding up to a misplaced loyalty.

"We Alone Are Right"

First, leadership projects a "we alone are right" mentality, which permeates the system. Members must remain in the system if they want to be "safe," or to stay "on good terms" with God, or not be viewed as wrong or "backslidden."

Scare Tactics

The second factor that brings about misplaced loyalty is the use of "scare tactics." We're already seen this in some of the paranoia described in the last section. Scare tactics are more serious. This is more than just the risk of being polluted by the world.

We have counseled many Christians who, after deciding to leave their church, were told horrifying things. "God is going to withdraw His Spirit from you and your family." "God will destroy your business." "Without our protection, Satan will get your children." "You and your family will come under a curse." This is spiritual blackmail and it's abuse. And it does cause people to stay in abusive places.


The third method of calling forth misplaced loyalty is the threat of humiliation. This is done by publicly shaming, exposing, or threatening to remove people from the group.

Unquestionably, there is a place for appropriate church discipline. In the abusive system, it is the fear of being exposed, humiliated or removed that insures your proper allegiance, and insulates those in authority. You can be "exposed" for asking too many questions, for disobeying the unspoken rules, or for disagreeing with authority. People are made public examples in order to send a message to those who remain. Others have phone campaigns launched against them, to warn their friends and others in the group about how "dangerous" they are.

7. Secretive

When you see people in a religious system being secretive-- watch out. People don't hide what is appropriate; they hide what is inappropriate.

One reason spiritual abusive families and churches are secretive is because they are so image conscious. People in these systems can't even live up to their own performance standards, so they have to hide what is real. Some believe they must do this to protect God's good name. So how things look and what others think becomes more important than what's real. They become God's "public relations agents." The truth is, He's not hiring anyone for this position.

Another reason for secrecy in a church is that the leadership has a condescending, negative view of the laity. This results in conspiracies on the leadership level. They tell themselves, "People are not mature enough to handle truth." This is patronizing at best. Conspiracies also develop among the lay people. Since it is not all right [sic] to notice or talk about problems, people form conspiracies behind closed doors and over the telephone as they try to solve things informally. But since they have no authority, they solve, and solve, and solve-- but nothing really gets solved. And all the while, building God's true kingdom is put on hold.


I hope that what I have cited gets your attention and motivates you to read this book. The subtle patterns of unhealthy characteristics are discussed in a way that actually helps people identify them, resist them, and recover from them.