We emulate Jesus when we expose abuse. But dividing it into special categories may do more harm than good.

For the first time, the Church of England has formally found one of its leaders guilty of “spiritual abuse.” The bishop’s disciplinary tribunal decided this past week that Timothy Davis, vicar of a large evangelical parish church in the Oxfordshire town of Abingdon, was guilty of “conduct unbecoming to the office and work of a clerk of holy orders through the abuse of spiritual power and authority.”

The same weekend, the Churches Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) in the United Kingdom released a report on spiritual abuse which found that almost two-thirds of churchgoers who took an online survey (1,002 of 1,591) felt that they had personally experienced it.

The report’s findings suggested more training is needed to help people recognize spiritual abuse and to equip churches to deal with disclosures. The research project was led by Lisa Oakley from the National Centre for Post Qualifying Social Work (NCPQSW) at Bournemouth University, and assisted by Justin Humphreys, one of CCPAS’s executive directors.

I must admit to feeling conflicted by the increasing usage of the term spiritual abuse. As an NCPQSW research fellow, I have the utmost respect for my friends and colleagues Lisa and Justin. As a foster carer, I also know how vital it is to protect children and vulnerable adults from all types of abuse, and I greatly value the work of CCPAS in keeping safeguarding a high priority for churches.

But I also have sympathy with critics of the term spiritual abuse, as well as those who fear the negative impact it could have—both internally in the life of the church and externally in the public perception of the church.

Almost every public institution in the UK has had to face up …

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