Cultic Studies Journal

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse

Psychological Manipulation and Society

Cultic Studies Journal
Psychological Manipulation and Society

Vol. 10, No. 1,  1993

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The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.
David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen. Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, MN, 1991, 234 pages.
Reviewer: Maxine Pinson

In the book's introduction, David Johnson states, "Though some will balk at the very term spiritual abuse, I believe this illness is more widespread than we think and deeply ingrained in our contemporary Christian culture." Jeff VanVonderen continues, "Today we see that the bulk of our time and energy has been spent helping to heal wounds caused by spiritual abuse . . . an abuse which occurs when someone is treated in a way that damages them spiritually."

According to coauthors Johnson and VanVonderen, spiritual abuse is a very real phenomenon, occurring more and more in mainline churches; it is not isolated to cultic groups or off-beat religious sects. To authenticate their claim, the authors refer to the Bible's presentation of two opposing spiritual systems: "One that is under the reign of God, intending to bring life and freedom to people; one that is a false spiritual system under the rule of man, attempting to drive people so that they perform in religious or pseudospiritual ways." References are provided from both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible in which specific forms of abusive spiritual systems are examined.

A well-written book on the dynamics perpetuating a spiritually abusive system, it is punctuated with a variety of real-life experiences, easy-to-understand analogies, and powerful relevant messages from the Bible. Providing comprehensive examination and exposure of the dilemma, the book is divided into three integral parts: "Spiritual Abuse and Its Victims," "Abusive Leaders and Why They Are Trapped," and "Post-Abuse Recovery." Within these sections, the various issues are dissected into understandable components, and victims are given insight into the psyche and modus operandi of an abusive leader.

Once the factors involved in spiritual abuse are presented and discussed, along with possible explanations, guidelines are provided for avoiding future spiritual traps. The importance of refocusing on the truth about God and His "good news" is emphasized. The book concludes with a discussion of the "fight/flight" syndrome for those currently in a spiritually abusive situation who are trying to determine what action to take.

As one who has personally experienced the trauma of spiritual abuse, I applaud Johnson and VanVonderen for their outstanding presentation of a topic about which too little has been written. The authors reveal an obvious understanding of the problem; and, more important, they are attempting to do something about it by making others aware of its reality and shocking prevalence.

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse offers a Biblical perspective for Christians who have been hurt, and provides critical understanding for secular helping professionals (and laypersons) who might otherwise have difficulty understanding the plight of a victim of spiritual abuse.

Maxine Pinson
Publisher, Editor, Savannah Parent
Savannah, Georgia

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