When “Gentle correction” Turns Into Covert Spiritual Bullying

I recently received a three page document which was written by a man I went to church with a few years ago. I shall henceforth refer to this man as Mr. A. He had taken it upon himself to write this document in response to some articles I had posted on my Facebook page regarding abuse and divorce.

I’ve gone back and forth with myself about this, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m going to share what was said to me. Mr.A’s real name will be kept private to avoid slander and in order to treat him with the dignity I believe we as humans should all be treated with.

But his words need to be brought to light.

Why?

As I was pondering all three pages of this document and wondering what compelled him to create such a beast, it occurred to me that Mr. A is not alone in his thoughts or his actions. Many churchgoers would feel quite justified in doing the same thing that he did.

I’m willing to bet that if you’re a Christian, or if you know Christians, or if you’ve ever encountered a Christian in the dreaded comments section of any article in the history of ever, you’ve run across your own Mr. A.

It’s funny: I’ve noticed that there are many ideas about what spiritual abuse is, but not one clear-cut definition. As I researched it, I found that there just isn’t a lot of information out there, especially when it comes to the specifics of what subtle spiritual abuse looks and sounds like.

Here are two examples of definitions for spiritual abuse that I found:

  • Any act by deeds or words that shame or diminish the dignity of a person.
  • False accusations and repeated criticism by labeling a person as, for example, disobedient, rebellious, lacking faith, demonized, apostate, an enemy of the church or of a deity.

I’m going to do my best to break this topic down, to make some things clear and recognizable. Before I do that, a I have few disclaimers:

I’m not here to put Mr. A down or attack him as a human.

I’m not here in anger or retaliation.

I don’t see Mr. A as a “bad guy.”

I do believe that he is doing what he has been taught to, what he feels entitled to. I do believe he is attempting to direct me to what he sees as the *correct* path.

I do believe that many within evangelical Christianity are taught that it is not only their right, but their responsibility to do what Mr. A did.

Mr. A isn’t the first person to send me a note of “encouragement.” I also doubt he will be the last. However, this example seems to be more clearly and identifiably abusive than some other ones I have received.

When I think of those who are experiencing abuse or going through a divorce – who only hear these types of messages and have no other outside support – it breaks my heart. They need all the voices they can get, declaring that these messages are not ok, and explaining why it’s not ok.

Thankfully, I’m in a place where I feel confident in my relationship with God. When Mr. A’s words brought me to tears, when the shame started creeping in, I was reminded of my freedom. Mr. A’s words didn’t have to stick to me.

What God has made clean, no one can make unclean.

But what if I had received this message while I was in a different place? How much more damage might it have done?

Maybe this has happened to you, or maybe it has happened to someone you know. Maybe someone has said things that felt off to you, but you couldn’t put your finger on why.

My goal here is to shed some light on the WHY part. Why are certain words not ok?

I mean, aren’t we all entitled to our own opinions? Sure we are! Can’t we share them with each other? Absolutely – in an appropriate context.

I have learned and am still learning that the best thing to do with abuse is to expose it.

With all of that said, here the document that Mr. A sent me (some names have been blacked out for privacy reasons):

Maybe you look at this and don’t see any problems with it. Maybe at first glance it seems loving or caring or written with genuine concern. Many within the church might not even take issue with this. Perhaps you have spoken this way yourself.

What’s the problem?

So I’m going to break it down and explain it. Please pay attention to the way it’s worded and see if anything sounds familiar to you.

Background

First, context is key. So let’s start with that.

Since my posts on divorce – rather than abuse itself – seem to be what Mr. A has taken issue with, here is a list of links to what I have posted in the last few months regarding divorce:

I posted THIS VIDEO on four causes of biblical divorce by David Instone-Brewer;

There was THIS ARTICLE by CBE International about 1 Peter;

I wrote THIS FACEBOOK POST in order to clarify my own thoughts; and

I posted THIS ARTICLE from Red Tent Living relating to grief and divorce in the church.

I’m sharing these to show what Mr. A is referring to when he mentions me referencing abuse and divorce. Although he brings up remarriage, it’s not something I recall posting about at all.

Also, to be clear, I do happen to be divorced and remarried. I was remarried back in 2012. Mr. A doesn’t know the details of my previous marriage.

So What Makes Parts of This Document Abusive?

Let’s start from the beginning. I’ve highlighted the more questionable sentences.

This one is super subtle, and isn’t even aimed at me. It does, however, set up the stage for Mr. A’s tone of right-ness. And that’s important when looking at the letter as a whole.

When someone uses a phrase like “no true devout Christian (pastor or person)…” followed by an opinion, it presupposes that the opinion is so correct that anyone who might disagree or point out otherwise might not be as true or devout a Christian as the statement-maker themselves.

Even if we happen to agree on the opinion itself, the wording is problematic.

I don’t have a problem with him disagreeing with me, or even with him believing he is right. However, this sentence makes a dangerous assumption. If Mr. A’s theology is “God’s truth” then what does that mean for any theology that differs from his?

This is similar to adding “true devout Christian” as a precursor. When God-fearing Bible-believing is added as a description, the same assumption is made: in this instance if a pastor (or anyone) gives this divorced person a green light to remarry, they are no longer God-fearing/Bible-believing.

*if you don’t believe the same thing as I do, you are not a God-fearing/Bible-believing Christian*

This next one compounds the same “God-fearing” descriptors from earlier with a new addition. Along with the idea that if they were a *true* Christian is the addition of the word ONLY.

“If they ONLY wanted to get away from the abuse… they would…”

The emphasis on the word “ONLY” seems to imply that someone who experienced abuse and divorces as a result had motives other than getting away from abuse.

This whole statement is a subtle form of spiritual abuse because it not only presumes one *true* Christian way of doing things (the way that Mr. A believes is right); but it also assumes ulterior motives from anyone who gets a divorce – which is contrary to his beliefs.

On another important note, to make the statement that someone is required to live out the cycle of abuse until the abusive spouse either commits ongoing adultery or dies is in and of itself a form of secondary abuse.

In addition to this, condemning someone who is experiencing abuse to a lifetime within a prison-like marriage places control by proxy into the hands of the abuser.

This is often another way of saying “you either believe in the same interpretation of the Bible as I do, or you don’t believe in the Bible at all.”

*agree with me, or you’re not a real Christian*

There are a few verses in the Bible that some Christians have pocketed, ready to pull out and throw at anyone who disagrees with them. 2 Timothy 4:3 is one of these passages.

Basically, if I can hit you with this verse, it proves that I’m right and you’re wrong (needing to be “gently corrected”). See?

You don’t have valid thoughts or opinions. You have itching ears.

The problem with this is, who gets to decide which doctrine is actually the “sound” one?

Well, the BIBLE, of course.

But which interpretation? Of which translation? In which language? In which context?

Did you know that Evangelical Christianity alone has FOUR *accepted* doctrines of Hell? Which one of these is the “sound” one? Are ANY of them?

Does anyone actually have theology that is 100% correct?

When someone decides to pull out the 2 Timothy 4:3 card, it’s usually because they are making the claim that their doctrine is sound, and the other person is clearly just an Itching Isaac with no sensibilities about his way of thinking. Clearly.

This seems to be the part where Mr. A diverts his focus from my beliefs onto my personal life.

Someone who spiritually bullies others will almost always try to pile shame on to their targets. This is often effectively done by pointing out some sort of wrongdoing in one’s life. In this instance, my “sin” was when I married my husband 7 years ago.

By pointing out an “unrepentant” sin (getting remarried), even though he barely knows me and hasn’t spoken with me in years, he is placing himself into an inappropriate position in my life. First, he made the assumption that I had sinned by getting remarried. Then, he made another assumption that if I HAD in fact sinned, that I had not repented for said sin. And finally, he took it on himself to bring it up a whole 7 years after the alleged sin.

This kind of personal discussion is meant to be had with those we have allowed into our lives, to the degree that it would be appropriate. The fact that he is even bringing this up when he barely knows me shows a level of entitlement that often accompanies abusive behaviour.

“God’s truth” is brought up here again, which we have already discussed as meaning “my interpretation of what God thinks.”

What perplexed me the most in the document was actually this:

Although I’ve been speaking about divorce, and also about abuse, I can’t think of one time that I’ve ever posted about the idea of remarriage. It simply hasn’t been a significant part of my thought process.

So why then was remarriage Mr. A’s main focus? And why was he bringing up my own remarriage after 7 years?

It still doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not going to say I know for sure what he was thinking. But here is a theory, based on my understanding of abuse.

Psychological Projection is explained by Everydayhealth.com as “a defense mechanism people subconsciously employ in order to cope with difficult feelings or emotions. Psychological projection involves projecting undesirable feelings or emotions onto someone else, rather than admitting to or dealing with the unwanted feelings.

In other words, there’s a possibility That remarriage IS a large part of Mr. A’s thought process. And because of this, he might have connected my thoughts on divorce to his own on remarriage, then attributed the whole thing to me.

This is important because projection is a tool often used in abusive behaviours. In order to avoid facing facing difficult emotions, the abuser will project those difficult emotions onto their target.

Have you ever felt bewildered because someone is adamantly accusing you of something you didn’t do, say, or believe? It’s possible this person is projecting onto you.

Has anyone ever implied to you that if you didn’t follow what they said, you wouldn’t be forgiven by God?

This is actually a form of abuse.

Why? Because in mainstream evangelical Christianity, “you are not forgiven by God” is another way of saying “you’re going to burn in Hell.”

When one attaches “you’re going to burn in Hell” to “you have to agree with me, or…” it’s a form of coercion.

Even though Mr. A didn’t say “follow me” outright, the inference in the document is quite clear: if I don’t agree with his interpretation of scripture, with (what God says), then I am not forgiven. He is attempting to speak for God.

This just isn’t his job. When we decide to step in and become the Holy Spirit for other humans, it’s generally an overstep.

The phrase “if you want to fight God...” is another way of saying “if you want to fight the interpretation of what I believe about God

How often have you heard someone talk about what the Bible *unquestionably* teaches? followed by “or you can continue to accumulate your *false* teachers…”

“Unquestionable”: in a way that cannot be disputed or doubted; without question.

The problem is that questioning the Bible is often how we learn about it. Every person who has ever translated the Bible into the “unquestionable” book he is referring to had to question what the original authors meant. That’s why we have so many translations that at times say different things in the first place.

I’m curious; which translations of scripture are the unquestionable ones?

The main point I will address here is this:

No one on earth has the right to determine another’s heart. Only God can do that. And one of the most destructive weapons I’ve been seeing Christians use against each other is the “you’re not REALLY a Christian” grenade.

And it’s absolutely a grenade. Often, the outcome of statements like this is shame, frustration, or isolation.

None of these are from God.

Yet again, Mr. A brings up fighting God. What he’s actually saying, however, is that I’m fighting the beliefs that he holds about God. Because that’s the issue here.

Those who spiritually bully others become abusive when someone who they don’t think has the right to a different opinion expresses that opinion.

Has anyone ever said something like “you don’t have a problem with me; you have a problem with God/The Bible,” or something to that effect when you disagree with them? This is actually a form of gaslighting and diversion. It implies that rather than disagreeing with them, you are actually disagreeing with God.

Do you ever get that nagging heavy feeling in your gut when people do this? That’s your body telling you this is not ok; there’s something OFF here. This is because you are being bullied.

The difference between abuse/bullying and a healthy dynamic is that in any healthy discussion, both parties’ beliefs will hold equal weight and value.

What I say matters, and what you say equally matters.

That’s simply not the case in a bullying situation.

Had Mr. A come to me and said “Hey T! I’ve noticed that you have some opinions about (*insert controversial topic*). I have these different opinions and this is why. Let’s talk about it. Or we don’t even have to talk about it. I just wanted to share what I think in hopes that you’ll ponder what I have to say…” then this could have gone in a whole different direction.

EVEN IF he had said “Hey T! I have personal convictions about (*insert controversial topic*). As a fellow Christian, I would like to present my thoughts to you. I believe you are incorrect in areas B and C, and this is why…” this would have simply been a matter of disagreement rather than a form of abuse.

I would also like to add that I attempted to engage Mr. A after he wrote this, but I decided not to take it further after he continued with more of “you’re not REALLY a Christian” (My summation of his words).

Healthy Christian conversations keep God in the middle, with each person’s thoughts having equal importance, and an understanding that both parties sincerely love God. The moment it appears that one party is pulling God over to stand behind only them, there is a power imbalance happening.

The next time you find yourself frustrated or silenced or seemingly talking/thinking in circles, pay attention. The next time your gut gets knotted up, pay attention.

The next time you leave a spiritual conversation feeling more confused and emotionally drained than you started, pay attention.

These things are not from God.

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” ~ James 3:17

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