By Bob Dixon and AMD
Spiritual abuse can be hard to talk about because it is so subtle. Abusers aren’t typically brandishing actual weapons and causing visible harm, but they often wield invisible weapons to intimidate their followers. Calvinism is one doctrine that has been effectively weaponized in a number of denominations and used to perpetuate spiritual abuse.
This is not to say that all Calvinist churches are spiritually abusive, or that all spiritually abusive churches are Calvinist. It is not even to say that these churches are correctly interpreting and applying Calvinist theology. But the fact remains that many churches preaching Calvinist doctrines have developed a culture of spiritual abuse.
How has this doctrine been used by leaders against the members of their churches? Two ways stand out. The primary way seems to be in the application of the doctrine of “Total Depravity” — the “T” in Calvin’s “TULIP” (an acronym representing the five fundamental tenets of Calvinism).
Leaders drive home this point to their congregations: Your heart is deceitfully wicked and cannot be trusted. Calvinist teaching says that total depravity renders us incapable of choosing God, therefore God chooses us. The application of this theology preached primarily to Christians, especially in a spiritually abusive church, can be an emphasis on our innate propensity to fall prey to the perils of sin — a watered-down version of total depravity that exists post-conversion, if you will.
These churches might say that you began as a totally depraved individual, and even after Christ’s redeeming work of salvation, you remain “shot full of sin.” They emphasize the residual effects of being totally depraved, i.e. wicked heart, corrupt thoughts, suspect motives, rather than the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit. In spiritually abusive Calvinist churches, Christians are always grappling with the morally inferior state of needing continual sanctification, being marked by vestiges of Adam’s sin rather than the mind and righteousness of Christ.
Next, and it usually isn’t even subtle, comes the message from the pulpit: because of this crippling depravity, you are a helpless flock in need of a shepherd. And of course, they don’t mean the Good Shepherd. You need God’s appointed human leadership in your life to steer you away from making your own harmful, corrupt decisions.
(I explore the connection between spiritual abuse and the Shepherding Movement in chapter four of The Uriah Syndrome, and in chapter nine, I unpack Scriptures like Hebrews 13 and 1 Peter 5 commonly misinterpreted and used to justify removing authority from the church body and placing it in the hands of a few self-appointed leaders.)
In chapter five, I explain, “Victims of spiritual abuse also typically experience disillusionment and confusion regarding how they perceive God, as well as how God perceives them. These debilitating feelings are exacerbated by the barrage of copious Bible passages cited by abusive leaders to justify their behavior and keep their members in line” (p. 82). As you might guess, these churches gloss over doctrines like the “Priesthood of All Believers” and the “Authority of the Church.”
In fact, as Leighton Flowers explains, many who subscribe to a Calvinist theology often equate Calvinism with the very gospel itself. Thus it feels like heresy to question the doctrine of depravity or even the way it is being applied. In a spiritually abusive church, you are perceived by leadership as a wayward sheep, divisive — and in need of repentance. You are prone to being deceived because of your residual sin nature, and the leaders have a special anointing to guide you and protect you from the effects of this precarious condition.
Unfortunately, we don’t have to look beyond today’s headlines to find examples of churches that have used Calvinism to browbeat members into submission. Joshua Harris has been in the news lately for his separation from his wife and pending divorce, acceptance of LGBT morality, and apparent rejection of his faith. While the situation is complex, his wife Shannon (now Shannon Bonne) explained her spiritual journey — and freedom from spiritual abuse — on Instagram. She says she found damaging “the message that my heart was deceitful above all else and therefore someone else knows better what’s best for me,” and said, “There was a real culture of authority figures knowing more.”
In her video caption, Shannon wrote, “My fundamentalist conservative Christianity experience taught me to ignore my inner voice. It’s not possible to unpack this in one post, using one scripture or angle. But early on, I learned to distrust and override myself out of fear in an environment where those in authority held tremendous control over leaders and members.” This perspective likely finds its roots in the tenets of Calvinism, particularly the notion of total depravity.
Joshua and Shannon had spent years in Sovereign Grace Ministries, a denomination I mention in The Uriah Syndrome quite a bit for some of their spiritually abusive practices. That denomination was my spiritual home for decades, and I listened to countless sermons unpacking the points of Calvinism and sermons explaining the pastors’ role as Shepherds who have spiritual authority over individuals and by extension, the entire congregation.
A second, more subtle way that Calvinism (particularly hyper-Calvinism) can be used in spiritually abusive churches has to do with its tendency toward determinism. With a strong emphasis on God’s sovereignty and divine will, many Calvinists take their belief in God’s predetermination of salvation and apply it to many (or all) of a Christian’s moral choices. This can produce a fatalistic view that says whatever happens was inevitable; it was God’s will that it should happen, so the idea of choice is irrelevant.
When that perspective permeates a church, the congregation can become passive. In cases of a leader’s questionable conduct or a cover-up, the questions passed around focus less on “what can we do?” and more on “are we trusting what God is doing?” This is not to say that trusting God is wrong or that is a bad question, of course, but abusive leaders steer conversation toward the latter and encourage passivity among the members of the church.
A key question that can expose this subtle warped thinking is this: Do individuals have a choice that matters? When Calvinist churches say “no” theologically, that often gets translated practically: In the church, individuals do not have a choice that matters. They cede their God-given authority, and abuse is too often quick to follow.
The wielding of these doctrines and vesting of spiritual authority in only a few leads to serious harm, sometimes not exposed until later down the line. As I put it in The Uriah Syndrome, “Likewise, a spiritual abuser uses his spiritual authority to ‘coerce, control, or exploit a follower,’ and this produces spiritual wounds” (p. 81).
We’ve probably all seen a documentary or two on extreme cults and wondered how it could ever have gotten that far. How could the members have given over so much authority to the leader? Why could they not seem to think for themselves? Yet many believers are leaving spiritually abusive churches with stories of asking pastors for guidance on everything from sending kids away to college (or not), buying a new house, getting a new job, or having more children. The pastors’ advice guided not only church affairs, but even the personal decisions of the members.
How could they have ceded so much authority to the leaders? One answer is that the spiritual abusers have wielded the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity like a weapon to undermine the authority of the church and have thus convinced its members that they do not possess the spiritual aptitude or maturity to exercise their own volition responsibly – because they continue to be held captive by the repercussions of total depravity. Along with that, there can be an undercurrent of fatalistic determinism, undercutting individual choice as meaningless, and leaving the congregation passive and subject to authoritarian leaders. Once the church’s biblical authority is taken and placed in the hands of these leaders, further abuse is sure to follow.