Spiritual Abuse, Grassroots Advocacy, and Brainstorming

This could be the next step in blocking out actions and behaviors that harm vulnerable people and crush the Church's witness.

It wasn't until after he died that the public perception about Ravi Zacharias began to shift. Despite the fact that he used lawsuits to silence victims, and the fact that he had a track record of bending the truth (perhaps best seen in a years-long debacle of credential inflation and dishonesty), the oft-repeated refrain of "but, he's such a good apologist and man of God!" would ring spitefully in the ears of those he abused and those who—for personal or professional reasons—are attuned to the cadence of manipulators and frauds. It's taken undeniable proof of cover-ups and the revelations of shady business involving payouts to massage therapists, but Christians across denominational lines now understand the truth.

If you spend any time online, you've run across hot takes, discourse, and reactions concerning Christianity Today's The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast. In it, the dynamics of 2000's-2010's evangelical/Reformed subcultures are explored, centered on the megachurch mega-pastor Mark Driscoll. After scandals of toxic leadership, mishandling of funds to artificially boost his book to the New York Times bestseller list, authoritarian marriage advice, and misogynistic and homophobic statements commented from an anonymous (at the time) online alias, Driscoll left Mars Hill Church. Strangely and surprisingly, he's gone off to start a new congregation, which has grown in both numbers and opportunities for Driscoll to engage in borderline cult-like spiritual abuse.

An interesting dynamic exists between these two cases: many, for years, spoke out against Zacharias and Driscoll. Amidst victims and concerned individuals coming forward, these bad actors were allowed to be platformed by their respective good ol' boys clubs, because sharing a stage with famous apologists and successful church planters would cause more books to sell, more podcasts to be downloaded, and more eyes and visitors on websites and blogs.

It wasn't until uncontrivable evidence came forward that fellow evangelical influencers denounced the actions of both grace-fallen leaders. Not to sound too cynical, but, money talks, and if guilt by association becomes bad for business, then distance gets created.

The dynamics of when big names get platformed or dropped are obvious in these two cases. But we should note that "suspension of disbelief" didn't kick in until after whistleblowers were thrown under the bus and NDAs were signed. Anyone who's read the McCarrick report would recognize similar issues—people knew what was going on, but they needed the donations the former cardinal could bring in; they needed to turn a blind eye until they'd get in trouble for looking away. However, according to many, the red flags were present from the very beginning for "Uncle Ted."

Similar red flags were called out by Dr. Dawn Eden Goldstein in June 2020 about "In Sinu Jesu" and Father Mark Daniel Kirby (the book's author) in Where Peter Is, and this article was met with immediate consternation and unfair accusations. While no "beyond a shadow of a doubt" evidence was presented about potential abuse situations involving Fr. Kirby, these red flags were cast aside.

Hindsight (or perhaps, foresight) is 20/20—on August 17, 2021, The Pillar wrote about alleged spiritual abuse and grooming taking place at the hands of Fr. Kirby, accusations which seem believable given Goldstein's background research. A Fr. Benedict Andersen described this abuse as including "inappropriate personal disclosures, a lack of physical modesty, unwanted hugs, a way of holding the younger man’s arm as they walked through the garden."

The full details of these indictments remain to be explored. But, to those of us who are used to observing the crisis of abuse—psychological, sexual, or spiritual—within the Church, we might be encouraged by the slow shift toward trusting whistleblowers, even if those who they accuse have popular books or platforms.

But perhaps an "x-factor" exists—not everyone can manage to get coverage in The Pillar and Where Peter Is. This x-factor to protect the vulnerable from spiritual abuse just might be psychologically and pastorally informed grassroots and guerrilla lay advocacy.

Here's an encouraging example: in the latest scandal surrounding the Anglican Diocese of the Upper Midwest, it's become obvious that Bishop Stuart Ruch created a system that made him interpersonally and canonically untouchable. It's taken the grassroots and guerilla advocacy of #ACNAToo to shine light on Ruch's mishandling of an abuse crisis within this Anglican bishop's diocese.

Here's my recommendation. Alongside safe environment training, there should also be formal instruction for parishioners and ministry workers (both lay and clerical) to identify harmful and abusive behaviors and tendencies. Can people in the pews identify the "Dark Triad" personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, or psychopathy when it manifests in a priest or bishop? Can they recognize when a spiritual director might use pastoral pressure to manipulate diretcees? Are there systems in place for reporting negative behaviors?

I don't know how "psychologically and pastorally informed grassroots and guerrilla lay advocacy" can become part of a Church culture that's looking to stop spiritual abuse. But I think this could be the next step in blocking out actions and behaviors that harm vulnerable people and crush the Church's witness.

(Header image includes works from James Gordon, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesgordon/512877716)