The Bible and Spiritual Abuse

by Ron Henzel

The Problem with the Word "Abuse"

It is safe to say that we live in a culture which frequently (and ironically) abuses the word "abuse." One of the most common ways that this has been done has been by incorrectly locating the meaning of the word "abuse" in "the perception of mistreatment," rather than mistreatment itself. During the 1980s and into the '90s, the notion that subjective perceptions, rather than objective behavior, determine whether something was "abusive" succeeded in infiltrating academia, the media, and even our judicial system to an astonishing degree.

As a society, we have paid a huge price for this. It has led to some rather ironic and even bizarre developments. The word "abuse" came to be regularly resorted to as both a ready weapon of accusation, and a proven shield of defense in our court systems. Lawyers worked hard to absolve their clients for murders committed on the basis of some childhood "abuse" they experienced, even while therapists persuaded young women that the real reason for their depression was that they were abused in a Satanic ritual as children, or perhaps sexually by their fathers. The "abuse fad" made many people a lot of money while ruining more than a few lives.

It also trivialized the real incidents of abuse, and made it less likely that they would be taken seriously in the long run. In any situation where the social pendulum swings too far in one direction, backlash is inevitable, and in this case the backlash was soon underway. The mid-1990s, witnessed scores of media reports telling of the horror of people locked up or otherwise deprived of their rights, sometimes on the flimsiest of so-called "evidence of abuse."

The Problem with Pendulums

But it should also be pointed out that when the social pendulum does swing too far in one direction, it is often because social forces had been holding it at the opposite extreme for too long. If that's the case here, then perhaps there were some actual benefits that came out of this "abuse fad," which need to be remembered so that as the pendulum now begins to swing in the opposite direction we ourselves do not go to the opposite extreme. We need to remember that the denial of real abuse is also incredibly damaging. It causes real abuse victims to remain isolated, confused and afraid for long periods of time, and this is often aggravated when well-meaning but uninformed people mistakenly accuse victims of "wallowing in self-pity" -- when all the victims really want to do is get help in recovering from their trauma and move on with their lives.

Unfortunately, many well-meaning Christians have contributed to this opposite extreme. These people have enthusiastically embraced the backlash to such an extent that anyone who bobs to the surface with a tale of abuse is automatically suspect in their eyes.

In the mid-1990s, nowhere was this backlash trend more evident than in the area of Spiritual Abuse. One reason for this is that Spiritual Abuse did not begin to be taken seriously as a problem until the backlash was already underway. So despite the fact that there were scores upon scores of carefully evaluated and documented cases -- that pastors across the country spent thousands of hours counseling its victims -- that it even had a long and widely-acknowledge history going back many centuries -- and despite the fact that Christians above all other people are called upon to "weep with those who weep" and to show the compassion of Christ, there are those who would dismiss all this talk about "Spiritual Abuse" -- along with all the books written about it -- because to them it sounds too much like the politically-correct, postmodernist-inspired "abuse fad" that they are reacting against.

At times even some Christian counselors write-off true victims of Spiritual Abuse as being more victims of their own thin skin than anything else. They dismiss the horrific accounts of these victims as being "too subjective" to be reliable. In some Christian circles, it has become standard operating procedure to automatically file the claims of Spiritual Abuse under the heading of mere "perception of Spiritual Abuse."

"What Goes Around Comes Around?"

This new shift did not come out of nowhere, nor can it be accounted for solely in terms of a shift in our broader culture, such as the backlash to which I previously referred. There is a unique historical reason for it. In the early 90s, specific evangelical Christian groups were charged with Spiritual Abuse. What made this particularly embarrassing was that the criteria used to define Spiritual Abuse was virtually identical to the sociological and behavioral phenomena that characterized cults. This produced a "circle-the-wagons" mentality among those who have felt the need to defend themselves, and/or their evangelical Christian friends, from charges that they had been Spiritual Abusers.

It is most unfortunate that some have chosen to throw the baby out with the bath water. It is particularly unfortunate to see this among some evangelical "counter-cult" or "apologetics ministries" which, in the past, would have gladly cited Spiritual Abuse as a hallmark of cults. Now many of them are saying that it is too vague, or somehow undefinable, or they seek to discredit it in some other elusive way.

In my opinion, this is a very inappropriate course to take. The Bible itself is very clear on the existence of what the Spiritual Abuse literature has defined as the hallmarks of Spiritual Abuse: legalism, authoritarianism, spiritual intimidation, manipulation, excessive discipline, to name a few -- in short: the abuse of power in the context of Christian fellowship. The Bible does not mince words when it informs us that these signs are clear and identifiable. In addition: both church history and the history of Israel testify abundantly that all of these issues have been perennial problems ever since God began calling people to walk with Him.

Some of those who believe that they have been unfairly accused on this issue have publicly chosen to respond by making a very provocative statement: "Nobody has objectively defined what 'Spiritual Abuse' is," they say, "therefore no one can be guilty of something so ambiguous."

I am not seeking to determine the guilt or innocence of anyone. I am simply seeking to answer the question, "What is Spiritual Abuse?" Is it a sham label designed to be slapped on any Christian brother or sister with whom we have an axe to grind? Or is it a real danger to the Christian church?

The Biblical Evidence

Spiritual Abuse is one of the clearest and most precisely defined teachings to be found in the pages of the Bible, even though it is not presented under that name. When one considers the fact that it is a significant theme in the Old Testament prophets, that our Lord Jesus Christ devoted a considerable portion of His ministry to addressing it, and that every single New Testament author mentions it in some form or in some way, we might sooner question our own Christianity -- or at least our knowledge of Scripture -- than question the objective definability of Spiritual Abuse.

The writings of the Old Testament prophets are filled with examples and denunciations of Spiritual Abuse, but perhaps the clearest words ever uttered by such a prophet on the subject of spiritual abuse are found in Ezekiel chapter 34, where we read:

The word of the Lord came to me: "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them."

[Ezekiel 34:1-6, NIV]

Now we know from the context of this passage that Ezekiel is not speaking of literal shepherds, but rather he is speaking to the spiritual shepherds of Israel. And since Israel was to be a theocratic kingdom, the spiritual shepherds of Israel included all who had a share in the governing of the nation, whether that person was a prophet, or a priest, or a king.

When you think of the rulers of Israel, the people we think of today as "secular leaders" -- people like Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David and Solomon -- you are also thinking of the spiritual leaders of Israel. These people had a share in the writing of sacred Scripture. Some even occupied the office of prophet. There was no distinction between "secular" and "spiritual" in ancient Israel. In 2 Samuel 5:2 we learn that the Lord came to David and said, "You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler." David's role as a shepherd or a spiritual guide was inseparable from his role as a ruler.

The metaphor of the shepherd as spiritual leader has been taken up so completely in the Judeo-Christian tradition that the New Testament simply refers to spiritual leaders as "pastors," which originally meant "shepherds." And based on this passage in Ezekiel, we can see that the problem of abusive shepherds goes back literally thousands of years. Notice especially Ezekiel 34:4:

"You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally."

This was a terrible indictment against the prophets, priests and governing officials of Israel in Ezekiel's day. It was their job to strengthen the spiritually weak, heal the spiritually sick, and bind up the spiritually injured. It was their job to bring back the strays and search for the lost.

Notice also that this prophecy was delivered during an era that was permeated with a sense of God's wrath. They were under the Law, with all its prohibitions and penalties. Even so, theirs was not to be a ministry of condemnation, harshness and brutality, but rather strengthening, healing and binding. For them, refusing to do so alone constituted spiritual abuse, according to Ezekiel.

As if it wasn't enough to merely neglect those spiritual duties, they went even further to oppress their people, for Ezekiel says, "You have ruled them harshly and brutally." These abusers were more interested in what they had to gain from ruling over others, than in being a spiritual benefit to others. For them, it wasn't about actually being shepherd or fulfilling a calling ... according to Ezekiel, it was all about control.

But Ezekiel isn't finished denouncing the fruit of these shepherds' so-called ministry. He wants them to know -- and he wants us to know -- that both the neglect of the sheep, and the abuse of the sheep directly resulted in the wandering of the sheep. Verse 5 says, "So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals." That's what happens in spiritually abusive situations!

Verse 6 tells us: "My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill." Those who cannot bear up under the harsh treatment often simply wander away -- they can't take it anymore. One day they're there, the next day they're gone. And do the leaders care? Are they upset about this fact? Ezekiel says, "They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them."

When people leave spiritually abusive situations, and it is clear that they are not coming back, what do their leaders do? Do they go after them? Interestingly, the answer is usually "Yes!" When a Spiritual Abuse victim finally decides to quit putting up with the abuse and to leave his group, it is very common for him to get a phone call or a visit. And if the visit fails to result in the retention of the departing member, it is nevertheless usually cited as evidence that the group really cared. Now they feel they can say, "We tried."

But this contact is hardly ever to apologize for the abuse, nor is it even an attempt to reconcile differences. It is almost always a last-ditch effort to keep the person from leaving, and usually involves manipulation and threats similar to the type that the victim encountered in the group. People who leave quite literally "know too much." They can tell outsiders what it is really like in that supposedly super-spiritual group or church. So all the efforts to keep a person from leaving are almost always done to protect the spiritual abuser, not the supposedly "straying sheep." And when such efforts fail, then what? Most often in abusive groups that portray themselves as "evangelical," the person's departure is taken as a sign of at least possible (if not probable) reprobation (i.e., that the person is going to Hell), or that the person was "never really a Christian in the first place."

"Spiritual Abuse" does exist, according to the Bible, and in this brief passage we can see some of the characteristics that the current Spiritual Abuse literature ascribes to it. Ezekiel was identifying a form of mistreatment which was spiritual in nature, because it mistreated people by hindering their relationship with God. It was (and is) characterized by oppression and neglect.

The Biblical Criteria

But while this passage is clear in helping us to establish a basic framework, we need more. We need a set of criteria -- an objective standard against which we can compare behaviors we are concerned about, or have questions about, and then answer the question: "Does this behavior or that behavior constitute 'Spiritual Abuse?'"

I feel the need to put what I write here in emphatic terms because Jesus Himself did. In His own time, Jesus confronted people who used their time-honored traditions as a cloak for spiritual abuse, and we see the same phenomenon today. There are groups and churches which claim that some special attribute which they have, or that their unique context or tradition, exempts them and their behavior from being classified as "Spiritual Abuse." Some have even said that the same behavior which might be considered abuse in other churches should not be construed as "abuse" among them! They are somehow different, and the normal criteria of Spiritual Abuse doesn't apply in their situation. What a shocking notion, and how alien to the Scriptures!

The most common claims that spiritually abusive groups make is that they are so special in their spiritual giftedness, or so unique in their level of spiritual commitment, or so unusual in their circumstances, that it's only natural for less-gifted, less-committed people, or people less familiar with their special context, to draw incorrect conclusions, perhaps even out of resentment or jealousy. After all, if you're one of the elite, people will be jealous ... so the reasoning goes ... and will fail to understand our practices.

But Jesus also had to deal with a group of people who thought of themselves as special, as unique, as the elite. In Jesus's day, these people prided themselves on being separated from all the things in the world which could defile them spiritually according to God's Law. In fact, their very name was a continual reminder of this fact. They called themselves by a word which meant "separated ones," because they separated themselves by building a high wall of extracommandments around sin. In order to belong to them, the Bible itself wasn't enough. You had to go beyond the Bible! They were so determined not to get anywhere near sin that they went above and beyond the call! They were the super-dedicated, they were the truly spiritual, they were a cut above, they kept themselves clean by keeping themselves separated from even the potential of sin -- and that little word "separated" in their language was so important to them that they took it as their name. In their language, it was the word "Pharisee."

In Matthew chapter 23, Jesus exposes these Pharisees (and their friends) with a mixture of biting irony and solemn warning.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: "The teachers of the law [literally, scribes] and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach."

[Matthew 23:1-3, NIV]

We would misunderstand Jesus's words in these verses if we took him literally at this point. Because to take Jesus literally here would mean that he was in favor of what the Pharisees preached and taught. However, Jesus did not advocate the teaching of the Pharisees, but instead He opposed it. In fact, just a short while earlier Jesus specifically warned His disciples about the teaching of the Pharisees in Matthew chapter 16, verse 6.

"Be careful," Jesus said to them. "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees."

[Matthew 16:6, NIV]

This statement by Jesus had caused momentary confusion among the disciples. They totally missed the Lord's reference, and thought He was speaking of bread. They started whispering things to each other like, "Oh, man! We forgot to bring any bread!" until Jesus interrupted them to say that He was only speaking figuratively. Then it hit them (verse twelve):

Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

[Matthew 16:12, NIV]

So Jesus was no advocate for the teaching of the Pharisees, and we must remember that the teaching of the Pharisees consisted primarily in what they told people to do. So when we come to the words of Christ in Matthew 23:3, where He says, "So you must obey them and do everything they tell you," again -- we cannot possibly take Him in a literal sense. He must be speaking ironically. Dare I say it? He must be employing sarcasm!

God does that every once in a while, you know. But how do we know that He's doing it in this case? Well, for one thing, what Jesus says in the very next verse would have made the sarcasm obvious to His audience, because He exposed the results of their teaching in verse 4: "They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them." That's what their teaching did. Surely Jesus could not have spoken positively about something that was so inherently oppressive!

Now it's true that the Law of Moses itself was, in the words of the Apostle Peter, "a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear." (Acts 15:10, NIV) But Jesus is not talking specifically about the Law here, but rather about the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees. And He's making a specific reference to the Jewish rabbinical practice of "binding and loosing."

In the time of Christ, Jewish rabbis enjoyed some degree of latitude in determining how stringently to apply the Law of Moses to specific cases. If a rabbi decided that the Law should be applied stringently, it was said that he "bound" the commandment, and the violator would have to pay the maximum penalty. If a rabbi decided that leniency was called for, then the rabbi would "loosen" the commandment. This is probably what happened in the case of the Virgin Mary, when she was found with child out-of-wedlock. The most stringent application of the Law would have called for her to be stoned as an adulteress. But the commandment to stone adulterers was apparently loosened in her case, on the request of her fiancee Joseph.

But the case of the Virgin Mary seems to have been relatively exceptional in ancient Israel. Because Jesus says that the Pharisees were much more inclined to "bind" the commandments, and make them heavier than they already were. "They tie up," Jesus says; or: "They bind" -- it's the same Greek word -- "heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders." And so quickly does Jesus mention this right after saying, "Do as they say, but not as they do," in verse 3, that it would have been obvious to the listener that Christ's words in verse 3 were ironic, designed for shock-value. They already knew very well what Jesus thought of the teaching of the Pharisees, because He had already told people what He thought of it in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. Here He wanted to get their attention.

But there is further evidence that Jesus was using ironic sarcasm in verse 3, because in verse 13 of this chapter Jesus starts delivering seven "woes" to the Pharisees, all of which center on the Pharisees' teaching, either in how the Pharisees themselves do not obey it, or in how absurd it was in the first place. (Verse 16):

"Woe to you, blind guides! You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?"

[Matthew 23:16-17, NIV]

Notice two things about this passage and the verses that follow it:

  • First: Jesus directly attacks the teaching of the Pharisees, and
  • Second: Jesus calls the Pharisees "blind guides." In other words, He attacks their very competence as teachers.

So when Jesus says in verse 3, "you must obey them and do everything they tell you," He is simply using irony to remind His audience about how highly the Pharisees thought of themselves. We see a similar kind of irony in John chapter 3, when Jesus confronts Nicodemus, and in Romans chapter 2, when Paul confronts the teachers of the Law.

This is a very important point, because if Jesus meant for His words in verse 3 to be taken literally, then the case could be made that all Jesus really had against the Pharisees was their hypocrisy, and this would be a grave misunderstanding of Christ's attitude. But many people do make the mistake that the only real problem with the Pharisees was that they didn't practice what they preached. Their preaching was okay, these people think -- their simple problem was that they were hypocrites and didn't practice it.

I hope that I have shown that their preaching was not okay, because their preaching merely taught people how to be legalists like them! Jesus, of course, said it best :

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert ...

[Matthew 23:15a]

A convert to what? -- a convert to their teaching!

"... and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are."

[Matthew 23:15b]

There was no way that Jesus would send anyone to the Pharisees in order to learn how to live their lives. Thus, when Jesus said, in effect, "Do as they say but not as they do" (Matt. 23:1-3), it is clear that He was employing sarcasm. The context makes this clear.

Authoritarianism

Now when we think of Spiritual Abuse, we probably think in terms of practice as opposed to teaching, or doctrine. This is a valid distinction, but we have to be careful -- because Biblical teaching or doctrine does not merely consist of instruction on abstract, intellectual matters, but also on very practical matters -- especially our attitudes toward God, ourselves and others; and also how these attitudes are reflected in our behavior, i.e., how we treat others.

And this is what the Pharisees converted other people to: a doctrinal position regarding attitudes toward God, themselves, and others. This doctrinal position began with an attitude of authoritarianism:

... Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat."

[Matthew 23:1-2, NIV]

Where did they get the idea that they could do this? Was there some Bible verse that told them scribes and Pharisees should sit in the seat of Moses? No! They presumed to call themselves "teachers," and their act of taking on this role was the equivalent of "sitting in Moses' seat."

The scribes and Pharisees were very up-front about this. It was one of the first things you noticed about them -- they grasped for positions of authority. Imagine the arrogance that must have been involved in this presumption when Jesus says that they didn't even understand the things that were in the Law! To sit in the very seat of Moses!

The same is true of Spiritual Abusers today. One of the first things that Spiritual Abusers will tell you about themselves -- or their followers will tell you about them -- is that they have "special insight," "tremendous discernment," "great wisdom," "unique gifts," "spiritual power," or some other credential that gives them authority in what they say. Whenever you hear someone dwelling at length on what makes him -- or his leader -- special, or authoritative, that should be your first clue that you could very well be dealing with a Spiritual Abuser on the order of the Pharisees.

Authoritarianism is something which feeds on itself. The person who assumes an attitude of authoritarianism is addicted to power. He needs continual assurances that he is in control, and to get these assurances he needs to exercise power at greater and greater levels. After a while, it's no longer good enough when people jump on command -- now they have to be sure to ask "How high" on the way up! Left to itself, authoritarianism always snowballs into an environment of totalistic control.

Elitism

Such authoritarianism leads inevitably to elitism, because you can't lay claim to a lofty position without also having a haughty spirit, and you can't follow a haughty person without becoming haughty yourself. Jesus said (in verse 6),

" ... they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them 'Rabbi.'"

[Matthew 23:6-7, NIV]

Today's Spiritual Abusers are often too shrewd to be as obvious as the Pharisees were. They may even outwardly appear very humble and self-effacing. They may actually shun titles and public appearances, and you may only discover the subtle ways they continually keep themselves on center stage after you get sucked in to their little organization. And once you've been sucked in, you may find it difficult to admit to yourself what would be obvious to an outsider.

One method Spiritual Abusers use to keep themselves in the limelight is to make sure that their disciples are always focused on what they have to say. One Spiritually Abusive group had a leader named Roy. Roy seemed to be a very humble person. But the funny thing was, whenever Roy was in the room, his followers never permitted him to be contradicted. So if anyone ever thought they were being mistreated by Roy, they also knew that no one in the room would ever back them up. And whenever Roy was out of the room, his followers would focus all of their conversation on things Roy had said. So Roy got the place of honor, he sat in the important seat, he owned the special title -- even if it wasn't always obvious, or he wasn't in the room, or his title was never actually mentioned. Being the leader, Roy was the elite of the elite!

As it was for the Pharisees of Christ's time, an elitist mentality eventually becomes an all-encompassing world-view within Spiritually Abusive groups today -- even groups which profess to be Christian. Such elitism has led not only to a separatist mentality, but to actual physical separation from friends and families, sometimes over many years. It is probably this behavior more than any other that makes Spiritually Abusive groups with Evangelical statements of faith difficult to distinguish from actual cults. And it should go without saying that such a distinction would be virtually meaningless to anyone who has lost a family member to a Spiritually Abusive group.

Go ahead -- you try to quibble with a parent who has not had contact with his child for several years, and every time he send his kid Christmas and birthday presents they come back to him marked "Return To Sender." You try to explain to him how his child is not really in a "cult," because the group has an evangelical statement of faith. I can just hear him now: "Who cares what their statement of faith is ... I want my son back! ... I want my daughter back!"

Intimidation

Trying to figure out which comes first -- authoritarianism or elitism -- can end up being a question similar to the classic "chicken-or-the-egg" riddle. Both come from inward attitudes, and both express themselves in the outward projection of power. And when power is projected out toward others, its primary vehicle is always intimidation. Power usually means nothing unless it is respected by others, and the primary method Spiritual Abusers utilize for gaining respect is what the world uses: fear.

This is how the Pharisees were able to "tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, [without even] lift[ing] a finger to move them." People were afraid of them. They knew that these scribes and Pharisees had the power to make them the ultimate social outcasts, by having them put out of the synagogue. They knew that the Pharisees could even have a person stoned if they thought it necessary. Today's Spiritual Abusers may not be able to have a member executed, but some of their victims might have preferred physical death to the spiritual torture they have suffered.

Spiritually abusive groups wait for their recruits to become emotionally attached to the group before they employ the heavy-handed tactic of threatening the new member with expulsion. This is because they know such tactics will not work until the prospect of being put out of the group is very painful to the new member. But after the person gets settled in -- and preferably to some extent isolated from the outside world -- it is common experience for he or she to live under any number of disciplinary threats, the ultimate being expulsion.

Manipulation

Intimidation inevitably leads to manipulation. The Pharisees manipulated God's word so that they could manipulate people. And both the Bible and church history demonstrate to us that the simplest and easiest way to manipulate people is through legalism. This is because legalism can be practiced in such a way as to make the Spiritual Abuser look good, and to keep the victims off- balanced, vulnerable and oppressed. Jesus said:

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices -- mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law -- justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel."

[Matthew 23:23-24, NIV]

Outwardly the Pharisees manipulated the Scriptures in order to ensure that they appeared to be the most conscientious and righteous observers of God's Law to be found. But look at the effect that this manipulation had on people: the people were deprived of justice, mercy and faithfulness from their leaders.

Jesus pointed out another form of manipulation that was used among the Gentiles, and He commanded His disciples to never let it in His church. In Luke's account we read:

Jesus said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors."

[Luke 22:25, NIV]

Jesus said, "Notice how the Gentiles -- who gain their authority through conquest and oppression -- twist words and manipulate their conquered subjects into calling them 'Benefactors!'" Even 2,000 years ago people understood that the one who controlled the language enhanced their chances of controlling the people. But nobody was fooled by that -- except perhaps the Herodian sect in Palestine at that time! But most Jews under Caesar did not really think of him as their "Benefactor" -- someone who cared for them and protected them and did good for them! They lived in fear of the iron fist of the Roman Empire. So Jesus said, in verse 26:

"But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves."

[Luke 22:26, NIV]

Self-serving control has no place in a true fellowship of believers! But this brand of "lording it over the flock" is exactly what we see in Spiritually Abusive groups today -- right down to the manipulation of the language. One of the most common tactics that Spiritual Abusers use today is to remind those who are under their control of all the supposed "benefits" they derive from being in their abusive group.

"Where else are you going to go," say the Spiritual Abusers, "to find all this care? -- to find all this love? -- all this spiritual openness? -- all this accountability? -- all this deep fellowship? ... " These are all just alternative ways of calling themselves "Benefactors." The list goes on and on of all the ploys that Spiritual Abusers use to further intimidate their followers by telling them that if they leave this group -- "Gee, we just don't know what will become of you!" -- even while making themselves out to be all-benevolent.

An Accusatory Mentality & Excessive Discipline

But I would be remiss if I did not emphasize that the most effective weapon for intimidation and manipulation in the Spiritual Abuser's arsenal is guilt. We see guilt-tripping used by Spiritual Abusers especially during the ministry of Jesus. When they couldn't find actual sin in Jesus, they resorted to everything from questioning the legitimacy of his birth to accusing Him of being in league with Satan.

The Apostle Paul also faced similar treatment. His opponents tried everything from criticizing his public speaking ability, to accusing him of antinomianism -- "Let us do evil that good may come," was what they accused Paul of teaching.

To "guilt-trip" someone is simply a 20th century way of saying "to attack someone's conscience through accusation." Guilt-tripping goes beyond mere accusation by actively looking for sin where no actual evidence of sin exists. Guilt-tripping is the attitude which constantly looks for the speck in its brother's eye. And because there is rarely any actual evidence to back up the guilt-tripper's accusations, the most effective way to guilt-trip someone is an area in which it is difficult for the accused to produce evidence of innocence.

How could Jesus actually prove that He was not casting out demons by the power of Satan? He could reason with his accusers, and try to expose the fallacy in their thinking. But did He manage to persuade everybody? Obviously not, or they would not have crucified Him!

How could Paul actually prove that his motive for preaching the Gospel wasn't to give people an excuse to live a life of sin? Well, he could give a full exposition of the Gospel in the book of Romans -- but did this persuade his accusers? Obviously not, or they would not have seized him in the temple!

Guilt-trippers accuse us of things which are in the realm of the unseen. No one can actually see whether we have false motives, improper attitudes, some lust in our heart, or some hidden, unconfessed sin. But the guilt-tripper acts as though he does -- he pretends to know what's in our hearts. And by assuming an authoritarian posture, and by claiming elitist powers and abilities, Spiritual Abusers become the ultimate guilt-trippers.

One woman who was the victim of a Spiritually Abusive community said,

"Community adults would decide what my sin was, [and] then just lay into me ... I wasn't allowed to speak to my father when he phoned; they told me it was the Lord's will that I not speak with him. ... The way I was making beds looked 'rebellious' to them, so I was assigned to scrub the bathrooms. Each day I'd get yelled at and forced to scrub them again."

[By Hook or By Crook: How Cults Lure Christians, by Harold Bussell. (New York: McCracken Press, 1993), p. 52. Previously published as Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians, (Zondervan, 1983).]

The Bible says, in 2 Chronicles 6:30, "[God] alone knows the hearts of men." But Spiritual Abusers hardly blink when you quote verses like this to them. Because although what they teach are basically theological errors of practice, they themselves are not actually theologically-minded people. They are control-minded people. They've grown so accustomed to distorting various Biblical teachings, that they usually have an answer for any verse you might quote to them -- which usually turns out to be a distortion of yet another Biblical truth. So when you engage a Spiritual Abuser in a debate even on the passages I am referring to, you'll soon find yourself in a theological maze of rationalization and accusation.

Remember: it's really all about control. That's why they especially like to distort the Bible's teachings on how Christians are supposed to treat other people, because those can be used to produce more guilt, and achieve more control.

So when someone in his group complains of mistreatment, the Spiritual Abuser distorts the Bible's teaching on slander, and accuses his victim of committing it. When someone in his group becomes angry with the abusive treatment, the Spiritual Abuser accuses the victim of being a "spiritual murderer" -- after all: didn't Jesus say that anyone who was angry with his brother was guilty of murder? When someone asks why they are being deprived of the right to see their spouse or their children, the Spiritual Abuser answers, "Don't you realize that the Bible teaches you that you don't have any rights!" When a member dares to disagree with the leader, he is accused of violating the Biblical "unity of the Spirit."

One man's experience demonstrates the creativity of Spiritual Abusers in distorting the teachings of Scripture. He said,

"They pushed me into saying I lusted after my little daughter ... Their idea was that only when you recognize your total depravity can you let Jesus go to work."

[ By Hook or By Crook: How Cults Lure Christians, by Harold Bussell, p. 52.]

At times it seems as if Spiritually Abusive groups find some way to distort almost every doctrine of Scripture in some way -- especially if it can serve the purpose of inflicting guilt. And this leads to one of the biggest doctrinal distortions of all: the requirement that members confess their sins.

Many Spiritual Abusers interpret the words of the Apostle James in James 5:16 to be a universal requirement for all Christians to confess all their sins ... all the time ... sometimes, to all the members of the group. This inevitably leads to group humiliation sessions, which are commonplace in Spiritually Abusive groups. Even if confession in a particular groups isn't practiced openly, the person who hears the confession is almost always someone higher up in the group hierarchy who will use that confession against the person if they ever step out of line. As one victim said:

"... at any future date, the overseer may drag out this dirty laundry to discredit the disciple or make him feel guilty. That happened to me when I was trying to explain my position. My overseer blurted out, 'I hate to bring this up, but ...' And this was done in a room full of people. My immediate reaction was to curl up and shut up. I had nothing on her but she had a lot on me."

[Churches That Abuse, by Ronald M. Enroth, pp. 106-107.]

This practice is unbelievably common. I wish I had more time to expound James 5:16, which reads, "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed." Instead I'll make a few brief points.

  • First, if it was common practice in the New Testament church to make the oral confession of sins in front of other people both a requirement, and a regular practice, you'd think we would have more than simply one verse in this one epistle. Spiritually Abusive groups often become so obsessed with this verse that they center all their activities around it, which is clearly unbiblical.
  • Second, the very presence of the word "therefore" should be a clue to us that James had a specific contextual reason for telling his readers to confess their sins, which limited his purpose to the subject matter he was already discussing -- namely: pastoral care for people with physical illnesses. The context shows that James was not indicating that confession should be a major focus when Christians came together for teaching, fellowship, worship or prayer (Acts 2:42).
  • Third: when Spiritually Abusive groups throw confessed sins back in the face of the person who confesses them, they are actually disobeying this verse. According to James, confession is for the purpose of healing! Guilt-tripping can only hurt people, and can even lead to physical illness!

As we have seen, all of this authoritarian and elitist projection of power through intimidation and manipulation inevitably leads to very tragic consequences. And these consequences go even beyond what I have just described. Jesus foretold the consequences in the Pharisees' case as follows (verse 34):

"Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town."

[Matthew 23:34, NIV]

In our day, the persecution and the martyrdom is rarely physical, but the results are just as tragic. Today's Spiritual Abusers kill people through character assassination. They crucify their victims in public humiliation sessions. They flog the members of their church with false guilt. And they pursue ex-members with malicious gossip, and through the traumatic memories of their experiences in their abusive groups.

The problem of Spiritual Abuse did not simply disappear with the founding of the Christian church. Not very long after the Day of Pentecost, a new generation of abusers rose up to take the seat of Moses. Just like the Pharisees before them, these people began making such special claims of authority for themselves that in 2 Corinthians chapters 11 and 12 the Apostle Paul sarcastically refers to them as "super-apostles." In order to lure people away from the teaching of the true apostles, they did everything from belittling Paul's speaking ability to coercing and intimidating the churches.

Although the problem of these "super-apostles" was all tangled up in an important theological issue -- the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith -- Paul also spent a great deal of time focusing on the negative pastoral aspects of the Spiritual Abuse that these people were practicing. In the process, Paul was even more explicit concerning the motives of these Spiritual Abusers than the Lord Jesus Himself was about the Pharisees. In 2 Corinthians 11:13 he calls them " ... false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ." In verse 20 he says their purpose is to "enslave," to "exploit" and to "take advantage" of Christians. But in his epistle to the Galatians, he drives this point home even harder. There Paul discusses the false gospel that requires circumcision for salvation, and in Galatians 2:4 he writes:

This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.

[Galatians 2:4, NIV]

To Paul, spiritual slavery was more than simply the result of following false teaching, it was also the motive that drove the false teachers. Just like the Pharisees before them, their basic motivation was to gain control over others, to build little spiritual empires with themselves as emperors. And in order to accomplish this they also would resort to intimidation -- sometimes even succeeding in putting fear into the Apostles themselves. Paul writes in Galatians 2:12:

Before certain men came from James, he [i.e., the Apostle Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.

[Galatians 2:12]

Spiritual Abuse, whether it takes the form of overtly false teaching, or whether it subtly masquerades as orthodox doctrine, always depends on fear and intimidation to maintain its hold over people. Today, if you think you stand, take heed lest you fall! The Apostle Peter did. Barnabas did. And so have others with far more spiritual strength and insight than either you or I possess.

Paul's portrayals of these abusers in both 2 Corinthians and Galatians parallels Christ's description of the Pharisees almost point-for-point. In Galatians 6:12-13, Paul clues us in on what these Spiritual Abusers had to gain from drawing Christians under their spell. He gives us three specific things: to impress others, to avoid persecution, and to gain bragging rights on account of the converts they could claim. These three marks of Spiritual Abuse are also much in evidence today.

But lest we think that Spiritual Abuse always has to be connected to some incorrect theological position, the Third Epistle of John should serve as a reminder to us that Spiritual Abuse can take place even when points of orthodoxy are not in question. In 3 John verse 9 we read:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

[3 John 9-10]

A more concise profile of a Spiritual Abuser would be difficult to imagine. Almost everything you might need to know about Spiritual Abusers can be found in these two verses in 3 John!

And yet no particular false doctrine was in view. John does not even say that this person Diotrephes actually taught that he was somehow "first," or pre-eminent -- but simply said that Diotrephes loved to be first. And yet it was obvious that from this "love to be first" sprang all the authoritarianism, elitism, intimidation and excessive church discipline that is found in our current Spiritual Abuse literature. Diotrephes felt so threatened when members of his church wanted to invite Christians from other churches to visit, that he placed whoever sent out such invitations under so-called "church discipline." He kicked them out of the church!

All too many of us have no difficulty imagining the atmosphere of intimidation that is constantly generated by this kind of leader. We've been there. We've experienced it first-hand. It is no mere theory to us.

But others among us stand back, incredulous that anyone would tolerate a Spiritually Abusive environment for very long. If someone remains in such an obviously unscriptural situation for very long, these Christians reason, there must be something defective in their Christian walk -- or maybe they're not really Christians at all! But when people reason this way, they forget the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:20, where he said to the Corinthians:

"In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face."

[2 Corinthians 11:20]

Paul was well-aware that many true believers readily knuckle-under to Spiritual Abusers. It always disturbed him to see this happen. Sometimes it even astonished and mystified him. But he never condemned the victims, he never judged them for being overpowered by smooth-talking, charismatic, elitists, or accused them of not really being Christians. Instead he reasoned with them, he warned them, and he pleaded with them -- and above all: he did not simply let them go ... all of which is a lot more than can be said for Spiritual Abusers.

Long-Term Effects on Victims

We've mentioned the basic categories that have been identified in the current Christian literature on Spiritual Abuse. These categories are Authoritarianism, Elitism, Intimidation, Manipulation and Legalism, and Excessive Discipline. And we have shown how they derive from Scripture. There are so many aspects of these categories that I wish I had time to cover more deeply -- aspects like the double-standards that prevail in abusive groups. There are two broad areas that deserve special attention.

The first area concerns the long-term effects that these groups have upon the people who leave them -- and they do have long-term effects, ranging from spiritual confusion to complete spiritual, emotional and psychological devastation. Fortunately, help is available. There are good books that I recommend and which are listed in the bibliography that I am making available.

But something which is much more helpful in the process of recovering from Spiritual Abuse cannot be found in a book; I'm referring to Christians who have had a similar experience, and have had to recover from it the same way that victims today do. These people are an invaluable resource in the recovery process. I would say that we need more of them, but that would mean that more people would have to suffer through Spiritual Abuse and recover from it in order to be such resource people, and nobody wants that.

But if you are already a Christian who has gone through this process, I would encourage you to make yourself available to other victims. One way to do this would be to advise a local Christian apologetics or counter-cult ministry of your availability, because this is a place where many Spiritual Abuse victims turn for help.

But Are They "Cults?"

And this leads us to the second broad area that deserves our attention. It is the often-asked question, "Should Spiritually Abusive Christian groups be considered 'cults?'" I would answer by making two points: first, it's a controversial issue among those in counter-cult ministries; you will some find Evangelical Christians who answer "Yes," and others who answer "No." But secondly, I would answer the question with a question: "If your child was caught up in a group which was spiritually harmful, coercive, centered around an authoritarian leader, and limited his or her contact with your family -- would it make a lot of difference to you what it was called?" Probably not much. You would simply want your child out! Labels are often helpful, but they're not everything.

Conclusion

In conclusion I would remind you that some of the most damning words that the Lord Jesus Christ ever spoke, He spoke to Spiritual Abusers. In Matthew 23:13, Jesus said:

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to."

[Matthew 23:13, NIV]

To a greater or lesser extent depending on the person, this is what all Spiritual Abusers do: they hinder a person from having a relationship with God even while promising them the best, most godly, most committed relationship possible. You don't think it could happen to you? Perhaps you're right. But you should know that there have been plenty of Spiritual Abusers in every age who would like to give it a try.


Note: This article originally appeared in the REST Ministries website.

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