This is a slightly edited re-post of an article I wrote a couple of years ago which is relevant to our discussion of spiritual abuse. I also want to say that my focus in this series is not primarily the spiritual abuses of celebrities that end up on the “front pages,” but rather the largely unnoticed and unreported spiritual abuse that goes on in “ordinary” churches and Christian organizations. However, there is often a connection as the examples of the well-known are copied, and those motivated by the desire to be famous are more likely to resort to spiritual abuse when anyone or anything gets in their way.
In any discussion about spiritual abuse it’s important to distinguish between authority and authoritarianism? Let’s begin with some broad definitions:
Authority is the lawful use of lawful authority: God, the church, the state, or a business has given someone the right to govern and guide your life in a certain area, and that authority is being exercised in the right areas in the right way.
Authoritarianism is the exercise of unlawful authority: It’s someone who has not been given any authority over my life trying to rule and run my life, or someone who has authority in one limited area of my life, trying to rule and run other parts or every part of my life.
Authoritarianism is also the unlawful use of lawful authority: Someone takes the authority they’ve been given and abuses it by exercising it in ways that only benefits them and usually damages me.
Definitions help us to some degree, but illustrations can take us further. So let’s put together some marks of authoritarianism. What does this look like? How do I recognize it? How do I know if I’m being authoritarian or just exercising legitimate authority? How do I know if I’m being a victim of authoritarianism? Let’s see if we can build a description of “Mr. Controller.”
1. Mr. Controller is power hungry. He’s always trying to get more control over your life. He’s never satisfied with knowing what he knows about you, but always want to know more. He’s never content with power in one or two areas, but wants power in every area. He gets his biggest thrills from ordering other people around and making them feel subservient.
2. Mr. Controller never suspects he may be abusing his power. He never says, “Please let me know if I you ever think I’m overstepping my bounds.” He has little or no awareness about his own tendency to misuse power.
3. Mr. Controller gets easily and terribly offended whenever anyone questions his authority. “How dare you speak to me like that!” “Do you know who I am?” Any questioning is viewed as insubordination, rebellion, disrespect, etc.
4. Mr. Controller thinks of himself more as a King than a servant. He rarely thinks or asks “How can I serve you?” Instead, his prevailing attitude is “How can I rule you?” He’s out to gain more control not to give more help. He empowers himself rather than others.
5. Mr. Controller threatens when threatened. Whenever his authority or power is questioned or challenged, even when it’s done humbly and appropriately, he warns of unpleasant consequences for the questioner. He certainly never pauses to ask, “Did I exceed my authority? Did I handle this correctly? Have I made a mistake?”
6. Mr. Controller keeps a long record. His position of power has enabled him to build big memory files on his “victims,” which he does not hesitate to use (or hint at using) when necessary.
7. Mr. Controller tells rather than teaches. He orders people around without explaining why. “Just do it!” He doesn’t take the time or make the effort to explain himself or his “guidance.” He prefers law and sanction to teaching, instruction, and motivation. He’s afraid that if he teaches principles and aims at changing the heart, that people will then work out things for themselves rather than be dependent upon him for everything.
8. Mr. Controller clings to power. Unlike true leaders who love to train other leaders and delegate power to them, he clings to power and refuses to let go. Because, of course, no one is as wise and competent as he is.
9. Mr. Controller hates to be controlled. He’s often resistant to anyone being in authority over him or telling him what he should be or do. He’s often a vociferous critic of other sources of power and authority around him. He figures, “If I can weaken him/her/them, then I strengthen myself.”
10. Mr. Controller lacks self-control. This is his weirdest characteristic. You’d think that such an addiction to control would produce a deeply disciplined person. Not at all. Most controllers have major deficits in the self-control department. Perhaps it’s because they are so busy interfering in other people’s lives that they neglect their own. Maybe it’s because they find it easier to direct and discipline others than themselves. I don’t know, but watch out for this. Behind most authoritarian personalities is usually a lack of biblical authority, often manifested in bad morals or bad temper.
And remember, there are Mrs. Controllers too.
Other posts in this series here.