Common Unspoken Rules in Shame-Based Systems

The following information is from the book "the subtle power of spiritual abuse" by david johnson and jeff vanvonderen

Unspoken rules are rules that are there, but you don't find out what they are until you break them.

For example, no one at a church gathering would ever say out loud, "You know we must never disagree with the pastor -- and if you do you will never be trusted and never be allowed to minister in any capacity in the church." In this case, the unspoken rule is: Do not disagree with the church authorities -- especially the pastor -- or your loyalty will be suspect. Rules like this remain unspoken because examining them in the light of mature dialogue would instantly reveal how illogical, unhealthy and anti-Christian they are. So silence becomes the fortress wall of protection, shielding the pastor's power position from scrutiny or challenge.

If you have come from shame-based relationships in which you were spiritually abused, you may hold to these or other unspoken rules: 

  • God rewards spirituality with material goods. 
  • "If I am spiritual enough, things won't affect me emotionally."
  • "I can never say no to those in religious authority." 
  • "I have to earn salvation and everything in life." - You may not realize this is an unspoken rule you have, but look at your actions. 
  • Everyone in the ministry is called by God, is appropriate, and must be trusted. 
  • "God needs me to do ministry." 
  • "The existence of trouble in my life indicates a lack of faith."
  • "I will never measure up or be good enough, no matter what I attain or achieve."
  • "My 'good' standing with God is determined by what I do." See: How many prophetic songs I can sing or words I can give, how well I emotionally pray for or with someone (or make a declaration to the church, give an offering, etc), how many ministries I am involved in, how many situations I am able to prevent from becoming a "hit" on the ministry and Pastors Stephen & Mary, etc.
  • "Talking about problems will make God 'look bad'". Lucy note: Or is a bad representation of Pastors Stephen & Mary, therefore God. 
  • Unity means agreeing about everything. 

Shame-based relationships build on an emotional foundation that undermines relational honesty, hinders a maturing individual relationship with God, and fosters dependence upon another, who then grows in power as a false leader, building an unhealthy system in which appearance is more important than reality.

The "Can't-Talk" Rule

 The most powerful of all unspoken rules in the abusive system is the "can't-talk" rule. The "can't-talk" rule has this thinking behind it:

"The real problem cannot be exposed because then it would have to be dealt with and things would have to change; so it must be protected behind walls of silence (neglect) or by assault (legalistic attack). If you speak about the problem out loud, you are the problem. In some way you must be silenced or eliminated."

Those who do speak out are most often told, "we didn't have all these problems until you started shooting your mouth off. Everything was fine before you started stirring things up." Or else, to make it sound really spiritual, "You were angry -- you didn't confront the matter in a 'loving' way. So it proves you weren't handling the matter in a mature, Christian manner."

In either case, the real problem remains. 

The truth is, when people talk about problems out loud they don't cause them, they simply expose them.

In abusive spiritual systems, there exists a "pretend peace" -- what Jeremiah decried, saying, "the prophets say 'peace, peace' when there is none." If what unites us is our pretending to agree, even though we don't agree, then we have nothing more than pretend peace and unity, with undercurrents of tension and backbiting. This is far from "preserving unity and peace in the Holy Spirit," which is to be the hallmark of healthy Christian churches. 

When the Bible and Un-Spoken Rules Are at Odds

Did you come from a religious background where it was taught that the written rule, the Bible, has the final say?

"The Bible is the final authority" was the spoken rule. In that church or family was there also an unwritten and unspoken rule that said, "It is better to be nice (or obedient) than to to be honest."? Now, the written rule -- The Bible -- says in Ephesians 4:25: "Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth, each one of you, with his neighbor, for we are members of one another" 

Now we have a conflict. The written rule says one thing, the unwritten rule says another. Now here is the test. For those who came from a system where both rules were in operation, which rule won most often? Was honesty suppressed, repressed, or even oppressed?

In spiritually abusive families and churches, where people insist that they stand on the authority of Scripture, not even Scripture is as powerful as the unwritten rules. 

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When these characteristics exist in a church or Christian family system, the result will be spiritual abuse. It will be a closed system with rigid boundaries that prevent people from leaving. There will be the perception that there is a lot of evil on the outside (which keeps people in) and there will be a lot of power postured on the inside to compel you to perform. There will also be tired, wounded people who feel that they are either unspiritual or crazy.