On June 19th, I shared some screenshots from a website with church officers in my denomination and other Reformed denominations, comparing the behavior revealed there to the biblical qualifications of an elder. The screenshots were from the Genevan Commons Facebook group (GC). Since then, I have received numerous encouraging messages and notes of support. Officers in my denomination wrote an open letter . I have also received numerous messages from women who have suffered under spiritual abuse. It’s overwhelming. The question is, where do we go from here?
I’m thankful to have some church officers advising me and asking some good, critical questions about what I hope will come out of all this. It’s caused me to do a lot of reflection. I’m thinking deeply about the role of social media, responsibility in how we use it, the distinctions between the weight and value of informal and formal ecclesial processes, and the complexities of how they may work together in this case.
I am listening and feel the weight myself of what the formal process can and cannot accomplish. I am grateful for the open letter signed by ninety plus officers in my denomination. This was an informal act, yet I believe carries an important weight. The public abusive behavior of church officers in our denomination was rebuked publicly. Finally.
But it continues.
A month after the Genevan Commons website exposed the behavior of these church officers, the Presbytery of the Southeast (PSE) of the OPC passed a motion to investigate the behaviors from officers in their presbytery in this Genevan Commons group, as some of the worst offenders leading the way were in their presbytery. However, one of the members they appointed to this committee is/was a Genevan Commons member who has written critical articles of both Rachel Miller’s work and my own. This is a conflict of interest to the investigation, especially when no signers of the Open Letter were appointed to the committee. It also made no sense to me that no one from the committee had contacted the victims with any questions. They seemed more concerned about investigating the signers of the Open Letter than caring for victims of harassment from their own church officers. This is curious, as they are not only gathering information here—real people in their denomination are still under spiritual abuse from church officers in their presbytery. You’d think you’d want to hear from them. Instead, my session was contacted by a member of this committee, asking that they silence me. This is re-traumatization 101. Silence the victims as they work on image control rather than protecting and ministering to the hurting sheep.
My Australian friend and theologian, Mike Bird, and I decided to have some fun recording a Zoom conversation and posting it on YouTube. No introductions. No music. Mike has a bit of a flickering light issue that will need ironing out should we do it again. Just Bird to Byrd. We opened with a little fun, a bit of a “What’s the deal?” segment, and then the common thread among topics that came up in our conversation, such as biblical manhood & womanhood, wokeness, and the election, seems to be the anger brewing among evangelicals and the lack of love for our neighbors. Here is the link to Bird’s article we discuss: The Fundamentalist War on Wokeness is a War on Christian Love. If you are interested, here’s the YouTube link:
Recently, in reviewing A Church Called Tov, I said that spiritual abuse can be like living in a bad dream—not only because you can’t believe this is happening, but because none of the people you are going to for help are functioning as they should. The whole setting is off and you are trying to make any sense of it. Tov was excellent in introducing spiritual abuse, identifying the culture behind it, and helping the church build a culture that nurtures goodness. Wade Mullen wrote the Foreword. Mullen’s book Something’s Not Right focuses more on helping you decode what’s going on in this bad dream. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried dream interpretation, but Mullen is an expert in spiritual abuse interpretation. He wants to help those under spiritual abuse decode the hidden tactics behind it that are meant to disorient and manipulate so that you can free yourself from its power. He says,
Freedom comes first by understanding, and understanding means having the language to identify and talk about your situation.
I can attest to how true this is. You can’t navigate through abuse if you can’t name it and articulate what is actually going on. And you don’t really know what’s going on when you first encounter it. Most of us don’t think like abusers, and so we wonder, “What is wrong with me?” As we try to grasp what is true, the whole experience is crazy-making. And abuse is such a strong word. We know how to identify physical abuse and sexual abuse, but what is spiritual abuse, and is it really that damaging? Mullen says,
Recently, at a conference where I was speaking, some women called me over to their table asking for some book recommendations. And as usual, I said, “Well, that depends on what you want to read about.” Immediately, one woman blurted out, “Sex over 50!” Not what I was expecting. But it just so happened that Dorothy Greco’s Marriage in the Middle had recently arrived in my mailbox. It was that day at the mailbox that I had to realize that, although I am not over 50, I am considered “in the middle” (between 40 & 65). This isn’t a book about sex, but since sex is a big part of marriage and is affected in this next stage of life, Greco has two whole chapters on it. And, let’s face it, all the other chapters on marriage in the middle also affect our sex lives. If she’s asking about sex after 50, she’s probably also asking about a host of other issues that can affect intimacy. Since my husband and I had already read the first several chapters together, and I am familiar with Greco’s writing, I was happy to recommend it. That was a pretty proud moment to be able to laugh with this woman and then actually have a recommendation for her.
But it isn’t a woman’s book by any means. Like I said, Matt and I are reading it together. He is digging it as well. And we aren’t big marriage book readers. (Or parenting, but I digress…) This is a very practical book. Greco gets right to the issues that surprisingly creep into marriage in the middle stages—middle ages? Well, she calls it Embracing Midlife Surprises, Challenges, and Joys. Surprise, your child did not launch the way you were planning and now you’re raising grandkids. Surprise, your hormones are freaking out and you are not comfortable in your own body anymore. Surprise, you just moved your last child into college and your dad had a fall. Surprise, you are not where you thought you would be at this stage of your life and you’re not sure how to process or maybe even admit this disappointment. The thing is, you think that you put the grit into those building years and should be able to coast through marriage in the middle. But every stage of life presents challenges and Greco is really good at speaking frankly with us, bringing in many testimonials and interviews, and offering encouragement and guidance while setting us in the direction of our Christian telos.
What if the very people accountable to God to shepherd your soul are the ones crushing it? What if, behind the curtain of that Christian community that you have grown with and loved, you find that you really aren’t safe? What if you find a more traumatizing truth than your original abuse—a whole culture in church leadership in which abusers can thrive? Sadly, far too many have encountered this devastation. Three books on abuse in the church are being released around the same time that I’ve been looking forward to reading. They will all offer a needed contribution. Today I want to talk about the first one I got my hands on, A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing, by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer.
What I love about this book is that the authors frame it around the culture that enables abuse and how to nurture a culture of goodness that a church should be. Abusers abuse because they can, and it’s time for pastors and elders to stop evading responsibility for their own participation in this destructiveness in God’s household. I’m using strong words here. I’ve used softer words before: the hardest thing to make sense of for many is the role of the community. The community themselves may not be abusive people. We could be talking about the friends of the abuser, the leadership in the church of the abuser, or the organization and alliances they are a part of. They are even harder to confront because it’s hard to take responsibility for being complicit in abuse when you yourself hate abuse. It’s hard to see you’ve been manipulated, you’ve enabled, or that you’ve misaligned your priorities at the cost of others. But there has to be a community that “cooperates with the abuser to maintain the performance needed to keep the structure intact.”
It’s never just a few bad apples; it’s a system that nurtures them. We need to talk about the culture in our churches. And McKnight and Barringer help us see that it starts with the leaders:
“Typology is an interpretive method rooted in exegesis. Now why would I say such a crazy thing?”
I’m currently reading through Mitchell Chase’s 40 Questions about Typology and Allegory. Since I am doing some serious diving into the Song of Songs for my next book, I have invested interest in Chase’s topic.
I thought it would be fun to address the above quote from page 71. Why? Because, often I’ve found that when I start talking typology—and that really excites me—I notice my conversation partners, often faithful theologians, do not know what to do with it. I get the crickets. And then a change in topic. One time I got a response that typology isn’t reliable exegesis, it’s more like fun speculation. That kind of crushed me because my reading of Scripture, and even my own understanding as a woman, has been enhanced by typological exegesis.
So, to start, let me give Chase’s definition of typology:
A biblical type is a person, office, place, institution, event, or thing in salvation history that anticipates, shares correspondences with, escalates toward, and resolves in its antitype.
What does it mean to read Scripture as the church? What’s going on when we read the Bible? And do our tidy hermeneutical systems box in Scripture so that God’s voice never judges us, never surprises us, and we miss what the Holy Spirit is saying to the churches now?
In his book Reading Scripture as the Church, Derek Taylor addresses the heart of the issue concerning biblical interpretation. Of course, with our questions above we need to talk about methods of interpretation. We also need to talk about how we encounter meaning in the text, and even how that affects our own understanding of human existence. But the heart of the issue is how this all harmonizes under the framework of the church’s relationship with the risen Christ. So, Taylor distinguishes between the practice of tackling the text to interpret its linguistic sense and actually “’hearing it correctly’ as the concrete word of the present Christ” (10). He states:
I’m currently doing a deeper dive into Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Even as I have some significant differences with Roman Catholic doctrine and one of his foundational premises of marriage as sacrament, it is still a breath of fresh air from what is being taught about men and women in many Protestant circles because he highlights personhood and gift. The common thread that I have combatted recently from several parachurch organizations and not so secret Facebook groups is a subordinate ontology of woman and male ontological authority. I spoke to that a bit more specifically here. I then introduced a bigger picture and a need for a sexual revolution in the church here. Then I went back and wrote some on power dynamics and trust here. Now I want to go a little more big picture again, and show how this unbiblical ontological view among many in the Biblical Manhood and Womanhood movement is a rejection of the feminine gift and a rejection of the personhood of women.
Our bodies are theological. They are visible signs that tell us something about our God.
Often, I find that our goals in talking about sexuality in the church are way too small. And it reveals how we are letting the culture guide us, define the terms, and dictate the conversation. We have classes and curriculums about sexuality focusing on the sin of homosexuality, the distortion of transgenderism, and saying don’t have sex before marriage, abortion is wrong…
It is right to care about these issues, but we need to look at what is behind them. Why are they so weighty? Why are these the issues in our culture? Is what it means to be a man or woman image bearer of God reduced to these issues? We know this is not so.
I have listened to this video of Wade Mullen on How to Spot Spiritual Abuse over a handful of times since last fall. It has helped keep me sane, helped me remember what is real and true and right. I wanted to share it because I think it will help many others. Mullen talks about the crazy-making questions those under spiritual abuse are asking themselves:
Is something wrong with Me?
Am I the only one who sees this?
How do I get out of this?
“There are times in our lives when abusers take hold of the pen of our story, and when that happens you fear turning another page because you don’t know what the next paragraph or the next chapter might hold. You’ve lost control of your own narrative and it is now in the hands of others.”