–A Book Review–
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse:
Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church
by (Pastor) David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen
Much of my work on this blog is dealing with spiritual abuse surrounding infidelity discovery and its aftermath including divorce. The literature for Christian faithful spouses on navigating such times without heaps of shame and guilt is very sparse. So, I continue my quest for solid literature that faithful spouses–plus their supporters–might find supportive and edifying in the healing and grieving process.
Towards such ends, I recently completed reading The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by evangelical, megachurch pastor David Johnson and addictions interventionist Jeff VanVonderen.
My general impressions of this work is as a well-written and truly helpful piece of pastoral literature. The authors do an excellent job identifying the dynamics of spiritual abuse plus highlighting especially misused Biblical texts. For those reasons alone, I would recommend this book for those struggling with separating God from the abuse he or she experienced at the hands of their spiritual family or leadership.
That said, I found one place in the book highly disturbing as an infidelity survivor. They really dropped the ball, in my opinion, in addressing situations of serial adultery, reconciliation, and divorce. The authors fall into some typical evangelical and secular psychological pitfalls when addressing a scenario with serial infidelity.
The authors describe a scenario where a wife was experiencing verbal and physical abuse from her husband (see pp 97-99). They throw in–almost as an aside–that this same husband had engaged in multiple affairs throughout the marriage in addition to the physical and verbal abuse.
The wife takes the marriage situation to her church leaders pleading with them about how she is afraid for her life and considering leaving the marriage. These church leaders then respond by rejecting her consideration of leaving as ungodly husband while subjecting her to an extended “Bible” teaching session to convince her how “right” they are in taking this stance.
The authors’ pastoral conclusion?
Here are the authors’ precise words on how to “properly” handle this situation:
How would an abused Christian do right and submit at the same time? We believe it would be to stay in the relationship with the person–if necessary from a safe, protected distance–and at the same time to hold the accuser accountable to the laws of the land for the abuse (99).
I see several things wrong with this response–
1. The authors fail to Biblically correct the pastors who forbade this woman from considering divorce. This is a function of downplaying the infidelity. The Bible is crystal clear that a spouse in her situation has complete and free permission to leave their unfaithful spouse without shame or Christian censure (e.g. Deut. 22:22, Jer. 3:8, Mt. 1:19, Mt. 5:32, etc.)
2. The authors are applying submission issues to a situation where God has given both genders permission–without shame–to not submit but divorce the unfaithful party. Once again, by missing or downplaying the infidelity, the authors misapplied Scripture to this situation.
3. The authors seem to take the physical and verbal abuse more seriously than a history of repeated infidelity. I am of the opinion that infidelity ought to be taken at least as seriously as physical abuse. Once again, I see these Christian authors follow the secular teachings about taking abuse seriously while failing also to follow the Biblical teachings that take adultery or marital infidelity very seriously.
That said, I am glad that the authors encourage reporting crimes, like domestic abuse, to the proper authorities as well as suggest a physical separation for safety may be in order. However, they miss the boat in talking about the real life issues repeated infidelity may cause.
For example, where is the wise suggestion or encouragement to this wife to get tested for STDs?
Her husband has demonstrated infidelity on multiple occasions, yet the basic regard for her very life–as threatened by potential STDs from the philandering husband–seems absent here.
While I have some strong opinions and convictions about how they handled the infidelity situation on pages 97 through 99, those just happen to be three pages in a generally good 240 page book. It is a starting place for those trying to heal their image of God after spiritual abuse from fellow Christians or Christian leaders in general. For that, I am grateful to these authors.
However, I am discouraged. For being one of the best evangelical resources on the matter of spiritual abuse, these authors really bungled handling a scenario involving repeated marital infidelity.
They apply an “ought”–as in she ought to stay in relationship with her husband–when God Himself does not. This abuse and infidelity victim is free to exercise God’s permission to divorce her unfaithful husband if that gives her peace. That is what Scripture says for even God divorces unfaithful Israel (see Jer. 3:8).
The most discouraging part for me in reviewing this book is how good it is in other places while being so horrible in supporting faithful spouses in that scenario. I guess that just means an opening still remains for my book helping faithful spouses and their supporters navigate the spiritually abusive environment surrounding infidelity and divorce.