Words Matter - Emotional Abuse and The Church  


During 2014 there has been something of a silent legal revolution taking place in the UK. It has been one of this centuries greatest cultural acknowledgements; that our emotions are both significant and liable to harm. In March amendments were tabled to the ‘Cinderella Law’ which would make emotional neglect or emotional cruelty to children a crime. This was followed by similar discussions surrounding UK Domestic Abuse Laws, which the Home Secretary is considering expanding to include ‘psychological and emotional’ abuse.

During my years of pastoral ministry I have worked with a large number of victims of domestic abuse, and I could not be more relieved that these laws are being revised. As terrifying as acts of violence are, many women suffer from years of horrific emotional abuse before the perpetrator ever throws a punch. Bruises on the skin heal over in weeks but bruises on the heart can last a life time.

I remember all too clearly being taught in primary school, ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.’ Words are however the most powerful weapons we will ever weald, breaking hearts and minds, identities and aspirations. When I look back at my life, I cannot remember the pain of a punch or the sting of a kick, but I could tell you exact words spoken to me 25 or even 30 years ago and exactly how they made me feel.

Historically the church has often been the dog wagging the tail of societal change, as was the case in the abolition of slavery (William Wilberforce) or the provision of free schools (Robert Raikes). However on the issue of emotional abuse I am not sure that we have done anything to pioneer change, indeed I worry that many churches are modelling an emotional culture that appears supportive of bullying rather than condemning of it. Words are our business: After all ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling amongst us.’ How we speak to each other and what we say of each other is surely fundamental to our life and witness in Christ.

It seems somewhat paradoxical now to mention names, but it is hard not to be confused by the general church response to the 21 leaders who filed charges of abusive, bullying and intimidating conduct against American church leader Mark Driscoll. I have no desire to pick apart the specific issues here, but to point out that many influential and respected church leaders including John Piper immediately threw their hats into the ring of support for Pastor Mark. Piper tweeted, “I hope Mark Driscoll feels a tidal wave of hope-filled prayer for a new day and a new man in this season.” Jason Maupin said, “Anyone that’s ever served as a pastor should be standing next 2 @PastorMark right now. We need to forgive and restore.”

Accusations of emotional abuse in churches are rarely taken seriously becuse of a common myth that 'church leaders are always the victims of malign accusations' or that this is simply ‘spiritual attack’. It is very rarely accepted that church leaders are emotionally broken individuals who often cause significant emotional damage to others through their words and actions. I am a church leader, I should know!

What I am not suggesting is that we become terrified of ourselves; what I am suggesting is that we all have a responsibility to work for an emotionally healthy culture both within ourselves and within our churches; being fully aware of what makes for emotionally abusive conduct. Rather than ‘rubbishing’ victims and aligning ourselves with leaders who have a track record of abusive conduct we should listen to victims and seek transformation in our churches.

I am so excited to see society is waking up to the malign power of emotional abuse. It is very often the grand precursor to even more grave acts. However, my concern is that the Church will be left behind in all this, hiding behind the idea that ‘the preacher is always right’ or ‘what the elders say goes’. If we aren’t demonstrating emotional health and creating a culture that is emotionally supportive, we are doing a disservice to the gospel and providing a disincentive to society exploring it. Emotional culture matters because words matter. 
Will Van Der Hart, 29/09/2014