Posts Tagged ‘authoritarianism’

Article on Spiritual Abuse

January 22, 2004

Good article on spiritual abuse from the Toronto Sun, October 2002:

Spiritual Abuse

When leaders misuse power at the expense of the faithful

Toronto Sun/October 21, 2002

By Marianne Meed Ward

How does Enron happen? Or the political scandal of the week? Or sexual abuse by religious leaders who get shuffled among congregations?

What all these share – besides people who have the ethics of a goat – are structures that allow unethical or criminal behaviour to flourish unchecked, at least for a time.

What are the common characteristics of those structures? For the answer, it’s instructive to turn to the emerging field of spiritual abuse counselling.

One definition of spiritual abuse is the “misuse of a position of power, leadership, or influence to further the selfish interests of someone other than the individual who needs help.”

That definition could just as easily apply to corporate executives and politicians as religious leaders. One misuses power at the expense of the faithful, while the others misuse power at the expense of shareholders, or employees or voters. Heck, some parent-child relationships would fit the definition.

The Watchman Fellowship, a Texas-based Christian organization that provides resources on cults and new religious movements, has identified five hallmarks of abusive religious systems. Those hallmarks are:

Authoritarian: unconditional submission to leaders is expected.

Averse to criticism: the person who dissents becomes the problem rather than the issue being raised.

Image conscious: protecting the reputation of the leaders or church is more important than truth or justice.

Perfectionistic: individual worth is determined by performance; there is no compassion for weakness or failure.

Unbalanced: they will try to distinguish themselves from other groups by putting excessive emphasis on some minor point of theology.

Steve Cadman-Neu, a Christian counsellor in Cambridge, is something of a local expert on spiritual abuse. He’s personally experienced it in two church settings, and on Saturday led a day-long workshop in Toronto on spiritual abuse, sponsored by the North American Association of Christians in Social Work. Though his workshop focused on abuse in religious settings, the traits he identifies can be found in many other institutional cultures.

The main trait is a hierarchical structure that equates leadership with job title, and demands unquestioning submission and obedience from people lower down the organizational totem pole.

“That whole framework is very abusive,” says Cadman-Neu, who has a BA in psychology from the University of Western Ontario and a masters in social work from Wilfrid Laurier University. “The message is that if you don’t submit and obey, you’re being a rebel, or argumentative, or undermining the organization.”

That’s what he was essentially told both times he tried to raise questionable practices with church leaders. In one case, the pastor sidestepped the issue and offered to point out where Cadman-Neu was wrong and needed to repent. Shortly after that, the pastor began to preach about “wolves in our midst.”

In the second situation, Cadman-Neu became concerned when the pastor told congregants one Sunday, “If you don’t obey me, I’m not your pastor.”

He met with the pastor and, later, the elders but got nowhere. Shortly after that, they told the congregation he was excommunicated and they were to shun him. (We’d probably see the same type of treatment of a corporate whistleblower, or a political non-conformist. They’d be socially ostracized.)

Cadman-Neu left both congregations, but stayed in the same faith tradition (which is proof you don’t have to throw the baby out with the baptismal water). He’s still in the process of trying to get church leaders to deal with the concerns he raised.

Abusive structures tend to attract a particular type of person, adds Cadman-Neu: someone with unresolved hurts in their lives. That’s equally as true of leaders as congregants.

“If they don’t face it, they have to create some overcompensation to drown out the pain, whether that’s hyper-spirituality or another addiction,” he says.

The best defence is to deal with your issues. The next step is to know what a healthy environment looks like. Among other things, it will welcome criticism, forgive weakness, invite participation, build esteem, and foster respect.

All our institutions should be so blessed.

"Sheep is God to a Shepherd, and Shepherd is God to a sheep."

December 3, 2003

“Sheep is God to a Shepherd, and Shepherd is God to a sheep.” This seems to be how some in North American UBF try to mask UBF’s hierarchical authoritarianism, which begins, at its lowest level, with the one-to-one, shepherd-to-sheep relationship. The Hong brothers, the late Daniel Hong and now Paul Hong, seem to espouse this model for the relationship between “shepherds” and “sheep” in UBF. (Interesting that Paul Hong would be preaching this “sheep=God, shepherd=God” message. The stories of former Toledo UBFers would indicate that he most emphasizes the “Shepherd=God” portion, where “Shepherd=himself.”) Their biblical justification for this comes almost entirely from the Old Testament and focuses mainly on Moses “who spoke for God.” Any reputable Christian teacher or student of the Bible would look at a statement like “Sheep is God to a Shepherd, and Shepherd is God to a sheep” and reject it at face value as a dangerous teaching and would probably consider its source to be most likely a cult.

There are other problems. If “Sheep is God to a Shepherd, and Shepherd is God to a sheep,” then by necessity, Sheep must be a “lesser God” than Shepherd in UBF. If Sheep=God wants to do A and Shepherd=God wants Sheep=God to do B, don’t you have quite a conundrum? After all, they are both “God” to each other. It’s even worse if Sheep=God wants to do A and Shepherd=God wants to do not-A, the opposite. Then what happens? We have “God” opposing “God.” Of course, then UBF “spiritual order” takes effect, and “Sheep is god to a Shepherd, but Shepherd is G-O-D to a sheep.” And if Sheep doesn’t meekly accept it, then “Sheep can just leave!” said the Shepherd. Why not just be honest and admit that the equality implied by “Sheep is God to a Shepherd, and Shepherd is God to a sheep” simply does not exist in UBF?

Another point: “Sheep is God to a Shepherd, and Shepherd is God to a sheep” is something that I can’t remember Samuel Lee or Sarah Barry ever saying. In fact, it was more common for Lee to say condescending things like “Sheep are sheep. They only like to eat, graze and mate. They never say thank you.” At least Lee/Barry never gave the illusion that a UBF sheep is “God to a shepherd” or to anyone else. The next generation of UBF leaders like Paul Hong may be even more gifted in the art of doublespeak than Lee/Barry.

See this archived RsqUBF discussion thread for an idea of how the UBF “Shepherd-Sheep” relationship works in reality.

Also see Joachim D.’s account of life in Bonn UBF at, in which we see the “Sheep is God to a Shepherd, and Shepherd is God to a sheep” principle taken to its ugly conclusion:

Once he (Peter Chang, Bonn UBF head) literally said at the announcements at the end of a meeting: “I am God.” He did not say that he was like God, or that he was God’s servant or God’s representative, but he said, he was God. That was not a slip of the tongue or attribute to his poor German, because right after this statement he deliberately paused, after which he let us decide either to accept this or “go out through the open door now”. At that time no one said a word; all was silent and just stared straight ahead, I did too. In my heart I was shocked and at the same time ashamed to be in a fellowship where the leaders magnifies himself so.