Church Abuse Activism? Easy Targets and Misused Critiques

Church Abuse Activism? Easy Targets and Misused Critiques

I make no apology for being an advocate against spiritual abuse. So when James writes that “This dynamic [of pathologizing discomfort] is evident throughout the broader Christian subcultures that have embraced a more activist approach to church abuse,” I can only conclude that he is not reading the right advocates.

Samuel D. James has given some additional thoughts on “church abuse activism” generated by books like When Narcissism Comes to Church by Chuck DeGroat. I published a response to James’ prior critique of DeGroat last November, and feel the need to do so again, but with some hesitation. I hesitate, because I believe there are different strands of “abuse activism”, and what I want to defend is probably different than what James wants to critique. His examples come from the milieu of social media. My experience in advocating for abuse survivors comes from flesh and blood experience of witnessing church abuse. If we are careful in distinguishing our dialogue partners, I suspect (or hope, at least) that James and I would have substantial agreement. The danger is in addressing different enemies while arguing as if they are the same. So, caveat lector; or, caveat apologiste: let the apologist beware.

What pushes me past this hesitation is that influential evangelical leaders seem to really like what James has to say about spiritual abuse. Justin Taylor retweeted (twice) James’ initial review and Dane Ortlund praised this second piece.

So, a pastor who as been accused of abusing spiritual authority commends an article on spiritual abuse. Hmmm. That gives me pause. Well, not pause, because I’m taking action by writing. But it’s certainly a red flag for me. Now onto the material itself.

I don’t find a whole lot new in James article. Indeed, it’s strange to me that he hasn’t actually addressed the “pointed pushback” he reports:

“My review of When Narcissism Comes to Church generated some of the more pointed pushback I’ve ever received from those I would consider generally in my theological/political tribe.”

James conveniently passes over the majority of Mike Cosper’s 3,000+ word constructive criticism. For those who like what James has to say, I can only hope that you do the hard work of studying his critics even if he doesn’t. I don’t mean any offense by that. It’s just that Substack is a medium for richer dialogue that social media doesn’t allow, yet James spends more time critiquing social media tweets than he does engaging 3,000+ word responses (including my 3,000+ word response, but that I understand, I don’t realistically expect James to read my writing because I don’t have any kind of online platform). Given the greater potential of long-form writing vs social media, I would welcome some true back-and-forth dialogue with James in a spirit of genuine Christian catholicity.

Given that he presents similar ideas in this second piece, I will be re-using some of my previous responses. Here is how James restates the main point of his first review:

“The decision that DeGroat made to emphasize psycho-therapeutic categories and marginalize concepts like sin and repentance is consistent with the framework he establishes, wherein the definition of a narcissistic, abusive person is highly contextual and depends mostly on how the people around that person feel about him.”

I commend James for softening his critique here. Where he initially said DeGroat “abandoned” theological language of sin (2x in that review), now he says DeGroat “emphasized psychology” and “marginalized Biblical concepts”. Still, emphasizing one domain of discourse does not logically require marginalizing another, and as I pointed out before, DeGroat is quite comfortable and adept at using biblical language and concepts. This means DeGroat does not believe there is an inherent incompatibility between psychology and Scripture. I believe James is reading DeGroat with a presupposition that DeGroat does not share, and charitable reading requires acknowledging those differences.

More to the point, here is how I restated James’ main points from his initial review:

First thesis: Biblical categories are superior to psychological categories, and psychological categories are harmful/heretical.

Second Thesis: Biblical categories allow us to come to true and accurate judgments, whereas experiences and feelings do not.

The rest of James’ article after that quote about emphasis and marginalizing, which was initially behind a paywall, is all about how “we’re seeing a pathologizing of personal discomfort”. But James focuses his attention at “online therapy culture”, whereas my concern is the local church. I am going to skirt that online discussion entirely, except to say that any analysis of cultural influence between social media and church is going to be complex and multifaceted. So, I am wary of any reductionistic assumptions that because “pathologizing of personal discomfort” is happening online, it’s obviously happening in churches.1

This is where I think we are talking about different cultural forces. And I am concerned that pastors will take James’ critique of online spiritual abuse discourse and apply that to their local church in defense of truly abusive behavior. To that I say, anathema.

Theology vs Psychology?

Back to the first thesis. Are Biblical categories really superior to psychological ones? I believe James’ approach suffers from an overworked antithesis principle similar to movements generated by Cornelius Van Til, Jay Adams, and the nouthetic counseling / ACBC movement. That is a big debate, and in a short response I can’t do much better than quote from Eric Johnson:

“In transposition, in order to understand the lower order [e.g. biological, psychological] properly and more comprehensively, the knower interprets the dynamic structures of lower orders from within a higher order of meaning…This process is a hierarchical transposition, by which the meaningfulness of the lower order is redesignated, so that the higher order gives the lower-order information a new depth and significance.”2

This comprehensive perspective, or what Johnson terms “complex theocentrism,” contrasts “simple theocentrism” and “religious dualism.”

“Religious dualists focus on the highest order of human life—the spiritual—and see it as so much more important than the other orders of the creation that the latter are neglected or seen as unworthy of serious attention, or, in the most extreme versions, are interpreted as being antithetical to the spiritual realm…Christian models of counseling that focus exclusively on God and sin and downplay reference to biological and psychosocial influences may have fallen under a gnostic spell.”3

Johnson calls for “a more profoundly theocentric approach” than dualism:

“Upon greater reflection and in light of Scripture, all the created aspects of human life are recognized as important because they are made by God. Therefore, for God’s glory every aspect must be “given its due,” corresponding to its particular significance in relation to God…Contrary to religious dualism, a more thoroughgoing theocentrism understands that God is honored by an appropriate regard for all that he has done and made, including those created strata of lesser significance.”4

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1 This really isn’t my concern, but it’s also worth noting that James (and many other objectors) missed David Dark’s actual wording, which pointed to Keller’s statement as a reflection of “the language of spiritual abuse.” He did not say, “this is spiritual abuse.” As such, the statement merits dialogue, not dismissal as “gross overreaction”.

David Dark’s Inner Psychic Revolution @DavidDark

This is the language of spiritual abuse.

“Nothing more important for a Christian to do than to read right through the whole Bible over and over and over, at the very least once a year. You have to keep checking and refining your beliefs by immersion in the Scripture.”

2Eric L Johnson. Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal. IVP Academic, 2007, p. 366, emphasis original.

3Ibid., p. 357.

4Ibid., p. 359.

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