A Theology of Spiritual Abuse

I’m not sure theology is the right term. I’m not sure spiritual abuse is the right term. But there is something big rocking conservative evangelicalism right now, and it centers around the abuse of authority by leaders in the Church. I know there is “nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9), and a cursory look at Church history confirms that to be true, especially on the issue of spiritual abuse. So whatever name we want to give to the abuse/oppression/injustice we see in the 21st century Church carried out by its spiritual leaders, I want to understand the transcendent principles at play according to Scripture. For lack of a better phrase, I’m going to call it a theology of spiritual abuse.

In its most basic sense, abuse simply means to misuse. It’s using something inappropriately. And in the spiritual sense, it is using an authority, role, or task given by God in unrighteous ways. It is mis-using spiritual authority . Can non-authorities in the Church abuse spiritually? I guess so. They certainly can hurt people. But I’m going to leave out of this discussion inappropriate actions by Christians without particular spiritual authority. So if your sister was a legalistic jerk to you, that’s not relevant to this particular discussion because Scripture does not set her up as an authority over you. Parents can certainly spiritually abuse, but I’m going to save them for another day as well. Instead, I want to examine non-familial spiritual authorities – in particular, pastors and elders.

(Edited to note I am NOT talking about issues of sexual or physical abuse by clergy. While that is certainly spiritual abuse, it is also blatantly illegal activity that puts it into an entirely different category in terms of response. For the purposes of this post, I am talking about the misuse of spiritual authority that does not get into illegal behavior.)

What is the appropriate authority given pastors and elders in the life of a believer? What do we do when pastors/elders MIS-use this authority, spiritually abusing those God gave them to lovingly shepherd?

Hebrews 13 gives some insight on the first question.

7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 9 Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. …
 17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

God gives us an important word here. Our spiritual leaders have sober obligations: accurately speaking the Word to us, modeling a life of faith, and shepherding and keeping watch for those under their leadership. And they are ACCOUNTABLE to God. Any leader worth his salt takes this seriously.

God is going to hold them to account as He has tasked them with watching over our very souls. In light of this sober responsibility, I understand why the author of Hebrews urges us to OBEY and SUBMIT to them. In other words, cooperate with them in their God-given obligation to shepherd us. If you have any experience with spiritual abuse, you know that a very real result is a fear of ever trusting a leader with your cooperation again. And yet, God’s design is for a real, accountable relationship between spiritual leader and those they shepherd. This should make us take spiritual abuse that much more seriously, for it threatens one of the most important relationships in the Body of Christ, the one between shepherd and flock.

When do these good, sober responsibilities among our leaders become abuse, or the misuse of their righteous obligations?

1) When they do not accurately speak the Word (sometimes by ignorance, sometimes by a malicious desire to manipulate the sheep)

2) When their manner of life and walk of faith does not model gospel grace and a life of Biblical love – they are rude, unkind, impatient, they have a short fuse, assume the worst of people, seem to delight in the uncovering of evil (I Corinthians 13).

Perhaps the greatest Biblical example of the misuse of spiritual authority is Peter in Galatia. Note that the central element in his abuse was his actions (manner of life) that contradicted the gospel he was teaching. He SAID the gospel, but he lived out its opposite. Note also the very clear, concrete result of this contradiction – he required something of his sheep that God did not require. He OVERSTEPPED his authority. John Stott pointed out in his commentary on Ephesians how in each authority relationship that Paul addressed, he repeatedly urged upon them “not the exercise of their power, but the restraint thereof.” When spiritual authorities start walking away from their God-given obligations, it may sometimes take the form of passivity or inertia, but in my experience it is much more likely to take the form of overreaching the limits of their authority. Beware the authority figure who loves to speak about things which God does not speak. They have an opinion about rock music, movie theaters, facebook, netflix, yoga, and teletubies. And they project onto you shame or self satisfaction based on how your opinions and convictions line up with theirs on things on which Scripture is silent.

In light of ths, what should the average lay person’s response be to spiritual abuse (the mis-use of spiritual authority)?

1) Pursue biblical means of confronting authority (I Timothy 5, Matthew 18). If your church doesn’t have an established means of holding authority accountable, you need to turn around, walk out the door, and don’t look back. DO NOT STAY IN A CHURCH THAT DOES NOT HAVE CLEAR ACCOUNTABILITY AND LIMITS ON ITS AUTHORITY FIGURES. That’s not a church. That’s a group of people pretending to be a church. And personally, I am concerned about non-denominational churches that don’t have a synod or presbytery to hold their leaders accountable. But that’s a longer discussion for another day. It’s taken me a long time after a long history in independent churches to come to that conviction, and I won’t attempt to force it on others who don’t share it yet. Chances are, given enough experience in independent churches, you will one day come to see the wisdom of a presbytery on your own if you don’t already.

2) When authorities continue to abuse with impunity, seek to rescue the powerless from the abuse in righteous ways. In RIGHTEOUS ways. In love. With patience. Being available to those in need. Sometimes, someone in an abusive situation needs simply to know that they have options. It was easy for me to leave a spiritually abusive situation because I had enough experience to know that God was doing WAY more in His Body than what I was witnessing at the abusive church. But I’ve had friends who did not know that, and they were afraid if they left their abusive group, they would lose everything. In those moments, they need to understand the breadth and depth of the Body of Christ and know they have a brother/sister in Christ who will stand with them as they journey away from those who misuse their spiritual authority.

3) Most important of all, do not sell your soul to the devil. I’ve sold my soul to the devil, by which I mean I have given into the very urges I was reacting against. I have stood against abuse with grace at times. But I have also stood against abuse with my own mis-use of power. And I HATE myself in those moments when I have become the very thing I was standing against. I hate their rude, harsh language … using my own harsh language against them. I hate their graceless response to those who oppose them … employing my own graceless strategies to point out their flaws. When you allow yourself to employ the tactics you hate in your abusers, Satan has won the day. There is ONE answer to the ills of spiritual abuse, and it is the same answer to every ill mankind has experienced since the fall of man. It is Christ on the cross, enduring our shame and our spiritual abusers’ shame. And THE THING that separates me from a spiritual abuser is a confidence in this gospel grace to change the ugliest heart of man. I don’t need to abuse my authority or manipulate those I influence. And it’s only when I am confident of who I am in Christ and how I got to be that person through His grace that I can fully arm myself to battle righteously the ills in the church and those who use its authority against others.

This is only a preamble to a topic deserving a long treatise …

***For a more thorough fleshing out of this topic, please check out Tim Challies’ interview with Bob Kellerman.

13 Responses to A Theology of Spiritual Abuse

  1. thepfjournal September 21, 2011 at 10:44 pm #

    As a Pastor myself, I find this a very sobering, and powerful topic. In particular, the most difficult times to be on guard for me are when there are situations when, like Paul in 2 Corinthians chapters 10-13, a Pastor has to point out and correct his flock (or members of it) when they are engaged in inappropriate or sinful behavior is directed at him personally. It can so easily swing into a “spiritually abusive” situation. On the other hand though, it can be perceived as one because when it is not, because on the surface it appears self-serving for him to address the sin in question at all. But Paul didn't shy away for those reasons, and neither should we… it takes TON of wisdom and tact, as well as a heart overflowing with love for the congregation. It's like nitro-glycerin, can be used to heal a heart, but also could explode the entire congregation!

  2. redeeminglife September 22, 2011 at 8:12 am #

    Thank you for this post. It sounds like we have come out of a similar situation to you and I have put this verse from 2 Timothy 2:24-25 on our prayer wall to remind me how to act and what to expect from my new Church leaders:
    'And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.'
    I was most guilty of your last point, repaying wrong with wrong. It is so humbling to remember how far from 'good' I am, yet I thank God for the chance to be humbled and see His goodness as sufficient for me.

  3. Doc. K. September 22, 2011 at 10:11 am #

    Thanks for this post. It is timely. Your readers might be interested in the interview Tim Challies did with me about Spiritual Abuse. It was posted yesterday at: http://www.challies.com/articles/spiritual-abuse

  4. Wendy September 22, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    Dr. Kellerman, thank you for your article with Tim!! I've been hoping for this very kind of thing, and you fleshed out basic ideas that were really helpful. I especially appreciated your definition of spiritual abuse.

    “Spiritual abuse is a spiritual role-reversal where a shepherd, instead of clinging to and emulating the Great Shepherd by shepherding God’s people (Acts 20; 1 Peter 5; 1 Timothy 3; Ephesians 4), subtly demands that members exist to meet the shepherd’s needs (James 4:1-4). Rather than relating as a servant leader, the pastor “pulls rank” and “lords it over others” (Matthew 20:20-28; 1 Peter 5:1-6), not for the benefit of the flock, but for the benefit of the pastor. Rather than speaking the truth in love and rather than ministering grace and truth (Ephesians 4:11-16, 29; Colossians 4:3-6; Titus 2:10-12), the spiritually abusive pastor intimidates, judges, condemns, shames, and blames the sheep without regard for the spiritual wellbeing of the sheep (Jeremiah 23:1-4; Matthew 23:1-39).”

  5. Anonymous September 22, 2011 at 3:25 pm #

    This post brought tears to my eyes. I feel like you could have been writing it directly to me. I've really been struggling with forgiveness toward some people in my history who have behaved exactly as you've described, and your third point was simultaneously so convicting and encouraging. Thank you Wendy.

  6. Annabell September 22, 2011 at 3:52 pm #

    This issue of accountability for church leaders is so important. I wish that all churches did have something as set in stone as a presbytery. I do not know if it is just human nature or if times are making people less inclined to desire true accountability in their lives but I found myself involved in a church ministry a while back in which the leader kept rejecting authority and still requesting that those involved in the ministry continue to follow him. What I have come to wonder is…do people often go into church leadership only so they will not have to be as accountable? Or am I being cynical?

  7. Mary ET September 22, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

    Very good article, Wendy.

  8. Luma September 22, 2011 at 9:51 pm #

    This is good, Wendy.

    I first heard the phrase spiritual abuse a little over a year ago (I believe it was on a blog somewhere). At first, I'm ashamed to say I kind of snorted at it thinking people were just being sensitive or headstrong-rejecting proper church discipline. Well, let's just say I know better now and I feel sincere sorrow for people who have been in that situation. Since last year I've also had deep conversations with people I was not always willing to listen to, and I've come to understand the reality of such a thing. We are so grateful right now for our elders!!

    I wanted to mention that we feel the same way about non-denominational churches. But as you say, we don't beat people up with our opinions, at some point I hope people see how crucial accountability is.

  9. Luma September 22, 2011 at 10:14 pm #

    Wendy, I also wanted to mention spiritual abuse by parents. That was another thing that took me a while to come to grips with. It makes me so sad.

    In all honesty, the word “abuse” is used as a label for all sorts of things in our culture so I started discounting it. But the Lord has been opening our eyes to so many things. Goodness, I feel like we've been slowly waking up and our eyes becoming clearer and clearer over the past year.

  10. Anonymous September 26, 2011 at 9:18 pm #

    Thanks for this, Wendy. I so appreciate your insights on topics like this one. I have been part of a church where the pastor was spiritually abusive & although we are no longer there, I still deeply feel the effects of damage done. Your words make me feel that I am not alone. Thanks!

  11. Anonymous November 22, 2011 at 11:13 pm #

    Thanks for this post Wendy.

    The thing I struggle with is that I feared leaving a denominational church; even with the structures in place, the church can be abusive. (We ended up leaving) A structure of accountability is a good thing, but as Tim Keller would say, don't make it a God thing. And many non denominational churches have accountability built into their own systems. Most of all, accountability needs to come from elder to elder within the local congregation. If these elders are Gospel centered, they will keep each other accountable. Pray for your elders!
    Thanks for letting me post this.

  12. carole December 29, 2011 at 6:21 pm #

    I am interested in hearing how you define “church” given your statement about what it is not.
    “DO NOT STAY IN A CHURCH THAT DOES NOT HAVE CLEAR ACCOUNTABILITY AND LIMITS ON ITS AUTHORITY FIGURES. That's not a church. That's a group of people pretending to be a church.”

  13. Barb Orlowski, D.Min. June 5, 2012 at 5:59 am #

    Hi Wendy,
    Wondering if you are doing very much with your website here? Thought I'd drop in and say Hi. Glad for another voice about this issue.

    You might be interested in my doctoral research on spiritual abuse. My book, Spiritual Abuse Recovery, gives voice to those who have experienced spiritual abuse in their home church and how they recovered from this devastating experience.

    It gives insights into this complex and sensitive church ministry issue. This book considers the issue of church leaving. It is a resource for caring church leaders, instructors, denominational advisors, and those wounded in the church.

    I have book information on my website: http://www.churchexiters.com.

    We have recently launched a new abuse resource website entitled: http://www.AbuseResourceNetwork.com.