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.