The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen

Spiritual abuse is a real and serious issue. It is one of the defining characteristics of all cults in which human leaders hold more power and authority over their followers than the Word of God. Unfortunately spiritual abuse is not limited to cults and false religions but can all too often be found in evangelical and fundamental circles. Pastor David Johnson and counselor Jeff Van Vonderen recognize this problem and The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse is their effort at identifying and offering a remedy.

They define spiritual abuse as “the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment” (p. 20). They further qualify this definition by offering several helpful distinctions (p. 24). For example, it is not abusive when a spiritual leader makes a decision that does not agree with our opinion.

In essence, the authors are concerned about spiritual leaders who misuse their authority or turn Christian performance into a means of gaining God’s approval (pp. 17, 32, 35, 36, 57, 155, 206). They rightly affirm that we are saved by grace and we live by grace. Our obedience and efforts do not further endear us to the heart of God. When any authority attempts to manipulate us by teaching that we must perform certain acts (usually prescribed by the authority) in order to be loved by God, it becomes spiritual abuse. The authors offer evidence that such practices are common in the community of Christ. Thus, they are rightly calling us to grace-based living rather than performance-based living.

As good as this intention is, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse is not without serious flaws.

• The authors follow a psychological model of human behavior more than a biblical one (pp. 19, 23). One evidence of this is the weak and uninformed defense of Alcoholics Anonymous (p. 75).

• By their definition and description almost any spiritual or emotional problem can be traced to spiritual abuse (pp. 41-50).

• The evidence given for spiritual abuse is often general and one-sided. While there is unquestionably much truth in the authors’ concerns, there is another side to many of their stories. For example, I could easily see former members of my local church, who have been confronted and/or disciplined because of unrepentant sin, claiming that they have been spiritually abused. This does not mean they were, but sinful people have a way of twisting things to make themselves look good. With this in mind, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse may give such people a license to declare that they have been abused instead of dealing with their sins.

• This is especially true when the authors encourage disgruntled people to find “friends who understand and tell them about it. Get some support” (p. 232, cp. 68). This suggestion is made without any biblical discussion of gossip, slander, divisiveness, or scriptural principles for dealing with conflict. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse may actually exacerbate rather than alleviate the problem in many cases.

• In an effort to properly frame Christianity as grace-based rather than performance-based, the authors tend on occasion to go too far. For example, there is a subtle distortion of true grace into a gospel of unconditional acceptance and self-esteem (e.g. p. 45). Additionally, the authors reject the place of rewards for Christian service without any engagement with texts such a 1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 2 Corinthians 5:9 and Ephesians 2:10 (pp. 43, 210).

• A strong criticism of the book would be its insistence upon extrabiblical communication from God. Readers are told repeatedly to follow what God tells them to do rather than follow abusive leaders (pp. 70-71, 77, 114, 149, 214, 232). Ironically, in cultic abusive situations the very opposite is true: spiritual leaders hold their followers in bondage through their supposed revelations from God.

• The authors are egalitarian and apparently see biblical teaching on the different roles of men and women in the church as abusive (p. 113).

Overall, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse is dealing with a real problem. It has some excellent teachings on things such as the purpose of the Law (p. 84), issues of forgiveness (p. 103) and focusing victims on the truth of God’s Word (pp. 208-209), but the book is so laced with the above mentioned flaws as to render it of limited value.