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Dealing with Spiritual Abuse: An Open Letter to the Church

By worldview
Created 23 Jan 2007 - 19:20

by Allan Weatherall, Tuesday January 23, 2007

A few days ago I was having a discussion with a colleague about the growing problem of spiritual abuse in churches and Christian organisations... and about the difficult topic of conflict resolution in general.
There seems to be an increasing number of people in the Church suffering as a consequence of unfair treatment they have received, and there appears to be very few options open to these people if the mechanisms within those organisations fail to deliver a just outcome for those who have been wrongly treated.
In some cases it has actually been senior leadership of churches or organisations who have been the perpetrators of damaging actions - some of which have left life-long wounds on individuals and whole families. In many cases like this, no avenues of appeal exist because of the entrenched power of those who have caused the injury.
I know of believers who, as a result of being victims of abuse, feel that they can no longer attend church and who have been driven to the edge of desperation and to the brink of suicide. Occasionally such people do manage to find willing mediators to help facilitate discussion, try and work towards reconciliation, and to come to settlement and restitution. But in my experience these positive outcomes are rare, and far too infrequent. Often when disputes arise, many people run for cover wanting to avoid all controversy, or close ranks and fail to talk at all to the victims. In this kind of situation many lies and false accusations go unchallenged and continue their cancerous effects for years.
People who have been seriously damaged by this kind of abuse are often alienated, victims of false or malicious accusations, and are left with their families to contemplate the lonely prospect of not feeling welcome anywhere among their community of faith... and with no avenue of appeal accept perhaps the secular courts. More commonly, these people turn inward through depression and end up feeling forsaken by God too. It is a very dark place to be and the effects can last for years. Some never recover.
It occurs to me that these kind of occurrences, if they are common and widespread, would appear to be one indicator of the true spiritual condition of the Church in any city. The Bible admonishes us to keep our disputes out of the secular courts and to appoint people from within the Church to settle these matters in the community of faith. Afterall, we are supposed to be called upon at some time in the future to judge nations, therefore we ought to be able to judge ourselves (read 1 Corinthian 5:12 - 6:7). Even secular sporting groups manage to setup tribunals to arbitrate disputes between clubs and players, so why can't we, the Church, begin to take these matters seriously as well?
I want to put an idea forward and invite you to discuss it with others and consider approaching Church leaders in your city with the following proposal:
The Proposal
An independent council of elders might be a good mechanism for arbitrating and mediating disputes and for holding organisations accountable for damaging actions done to others. Council members would need to fulfil a particular selection criterior: they should be theologically sound; possess a love for justice and a love for the Church; they should be well respected individuals who have sufficient commitment to listen and examine evidence on both sides of a dispute; and able make recommendations and pronouncements regarding those matters. They should be upright people of good reputation and should not have vested interests or formal associations with the organisations involved in disputes which they are arbitrating. Any person of good reputation could be nominated for appointment to the council. 
If there was a large enough pool of willing and qualified participants in any city, then it could be a formidable force for justice and righteousness. Participation in such a council could be on a rotational basis, with members being free to decline involvement in any cases where they felt too closely connected. Of course such a council or tribunal would not have any legal power to enforce any rulings, but they could get legal advice and issue statements and recommendations in such a way as to bring relief to victims of abuse and injustice. If for example an organisation was found to have acted inappropriately the council could make that determination, and if the party at fault ignored recommendations to issue an apology or to make compensation or restitution in some other way, then that would be on record for all to see.
Dealing with conflict among believers is always an unpleasant business. But given the growing problem of spiritual abuse and disputes in the Church, this is an important area that the Church should not shy away from. I believe that such a body could save many believers from years of grief and despair, as well as serve to facilitate healing and strengthen unity between churches and ministries in any city.
Maybe wiser people than I could decide the finer details and take this cause and advance it further. I invite you to forward this to anyone who you feel may have an interest.
- Allan Weatherall
Publisher, Worldview Interactive magazine

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