The #metoo movement started in the secular around with the inappropriate application of male power over women for sexual gain. It turns out, those similar forms of misbehavior extended to the church.
But for churches to limit the scope of the misappropriation of power to sexual misconduct between a man in authority and a woman he works with is to miss a far more important form of misconduct. In fact, if churches focus on sexual abuse, they are no different from secular organizations when they should, instead, be living by a different, more encompassing, Kingdom orientation.
Just as the power centers of the secular world in tech and media have genuine issues of sexual misconduct, churches have a similar one in the form of spiritual misconduct. This misconduct is one which Jesus came, in part, to dismantle: religious leaders applying religion and their positional authority upon others. Jesus called them "brood of vipers" (Matthew 12:34), and while the practices are far more subtle, the impact of this spiritual abuse can be just as, if not more, damaging.
I started to become more aware of it during my interactions over a seven-year period with a pastor from a previous church. As I saw members of the leadership leave to attend other churches and talk in frustrated, yet vague, language about their interaction with him, I realized there is a problem.
I took a different approach than did others who just left. I spoke to him, on several occasions. And those discussions, over time, revealed both how subtle and ugly the face of spiritual abuse can be. Until the #metoo movement, I couldn't really put my finger on the feeling. But as I red about women coming forth, and then researchec "gaslighting" as well as actual spiritual abuse based on the freeing book by David Johnson, the scope and depth of the problem became very real for me.
I gained much clarity on the interactions I had with the pastor, while I always left feeling worse, not better, and saw a church that became both passive in love and aggressive in retribution in very small, imperceptible ways.
What's hard is that on the surface this pastor is the example of "nice." He smiled. He greeted. He was soft spoken. He talked about God often. He used classically emotive language like "heart beat" and "beautiful." But Jesus warned of spiritual leaders who ultimately become more of a burden then a lighter of the yoke for people.
Soon, language included a need for "submission"; that his way was right and asking questions simply meant the best action was to leave the church (and it wasn't questioning him, it was asking questions about content or decisions made); and ultimately his instructing other members of the church to no longer communicate with me.
This is a problem. One that his superiors chose to not address.
The pattern of professional religious authorities to cover is common, widespread, and probably unavoidable without deep change. The Catholic church, for example, repeatedly covers up when they discover a priest has sexually abused congregants.
Even the recent actions by the board of Willow Creek follow this same pattern. When the voices of women who felt that they had been mistreated was raised, rather than stepping in to resolve and see that there might be legitimacy to the concerns, they crushed those to defend their fellow religious professionals.
Jesus was not all about the religious professionals. #NotAFan.
We need to begin to dig into the very subtle, but very deeply ingrained, habits and miguided teachings which result in spiritual abuse.
I am going to continue to flesh out my personal experience to illustrate the ways a failure for religious leaders to incorporate the full depth of Christ's Gospel into their lives lead to this, and also begin to frame what I believe will be the essential solution, I am calling "The Esther Protocol."
"The Esther Protocol" is a way that gives religious leaders who desire to thwart systemic blindspots of spiritual abuse in their church, while also freeing congregants who may have suffered from this mistreatment, to engage together in successful reconciliation and, more importantly, healthy output.
This is perhaps the important, yet most difficult, task that I can imagine churches and their leaders choosing to take. It is the most important because not doing so will result in a church which does more harm than good; it is most difficult because it truly requires leaning into God's word instead of human pride and wisdom.
Yet, without this, I believe a hidden, silent toxin will continue to flow through organized religious at the expense of the Gospel.