Do No Harm

My head has been spinning over the last few months with so many issues of the church mishandling abuse. It is so widespread. In churches, in seminaries, in publishing, in teaching. 

Why is this topic so important to me? Why is this a topic I continue to post about and speak about? This has become one of the most common issues I see in therapy. The most significant cases of trauma and Complex-PTSD I see are in clients that have experienced some of the most heinous abuse in their “Christian” marriages or families. For many, when they have reached for help to those who should be the most trustworthy and safe, the abuses they have experienced have been minimized and dismissed, resulting in further abuse, often the abuse of Scripture. The abuse of power. A total misrepresentation of God. 

According to Diane Langberg, a leading expert in the field of trauma and spiritual abuse, “The word abuse comes from the Latin abuti. It means ‘to misuse or use wrongly,’ and encompasses the ideas of exploiting, causing injury, assaulting, and perpetuating violence and offensive language. When a relationship is abusive in any form, the story being written is twisted and damaging.” [1]

To see the words spiritual and abuse together is a dichotomy. God, who came for the broken to heal and deliver; to bind up, to rescue and save, instead has been portrayed as a God who will protect his power at all costs; impossible to please. An abusive God. And we wonder why there is so much deconstruction happening in our Christian culture? Perhaps we’ve portrayed an image of God that is not God (I have so much more to say about this. Perhaps I’ll save it for another time).

As a licensed professional counselor and a licensed marriage and family therapist, I am under two different organizations and their Codes of Ethics. One of the tenants in both organizations is DO NO HARM. This is basic. This is expected. This is our professional responsibility to not misuse the powerful position we have in people’s lives in their places of vulnerability. We have a code of ethics that is set up to keep our clients safe. 

As a therapist, I recognize that my position holds power in the relationship. In stewarding that position, I have to be aware that it is MY responsibility to protect the well-being of my clients. It is NOT my client’s responsibility to protect me in any way, shape or form.  It’s not their responsibility to educate me, to manage my trauma responses, to manage my emotions, to stroke my ego. It is my responsibility to create a safe place for my clients to heal. 

In positions of power, the responsibility of protection always resides on the one that holds the power. The shepherd protects the sheep. It is NOT the responsibility of the sheep to protect the shepherd; that would be absurd. That seems obvious.  And yet…

We find ourselves in an epidemic of abuse in the American Evangelical church. The fever pitch of abuse is screaming loudly. What in the world is happening? From spiritual abuse and cover up, sexual abuse within positions of power, jockeying to protect power, outrageous abuses happening within Christian homes and marriages that have been enabled by various forms of spiritual leadership (including destructive teaching in many Christian books that have indoctrinated an entire generation). There has been a crying out from victims for people within positions of spiritual power to take responsibility for the safety of the sheep. These are the shepherds. And yet instead we are experiencing gross negligence of the welfare of the ones the shepherds have been charged to protect. 

When leaders in positions of power begin to recognize that there is harm being done (even if it was not intentional), there should be an ethical (and moral) obligation to bring correction and repair. It is the responsibility of the one in power to protect safety. It is our ethical and moral duty as leaders to DO NO HARM. 

How much more should we expect our Christian leaders and communities to do no harm? To be safe? To protect the sheep? According Langberg, “Our responses to the vulnerable expose who we are…If those in authority refuse to help others, turn a deaf ear, and harden themselves to the needs of others, then rejection, not care becomes the predominant influence.”[2] When this is the response of Christian leaders, how do these victims experience God?

“Jesus uses his power to protect, expose, and to restore dignity. He calls his people to be in the world using our power under his authority, displaying his character by speaking truth, shedding light, and tending and protecting the vulnerable.”[3] (emphasis added is mine).

In this season in our culture and our faith communities, how will you use your power?

[1] Langberg, D. (2020). Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church. Brazos Press. Grand Rapids, MI. pp. 61-62.

2Langberg, D. (2020). Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church. Brazos Press. Grand Rapids, MI. p. 4-5.

[3] 2Langberg, D. (2020). Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church. Brazos Press. Grand Rapids, MI.

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