One study among unchurched adults shows that nearly four out of every ten non-churchgoing Americans (37%) said they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people . Recent news headlines have detailed the implosion of a certain mega-church that closed its doors after its scandal-plagued pastor stepped down. Notably, his removal wasn’t due to sexual immorality or anything criminal. Rather, it was his attempts to consolidate his power that alienated those under his care.
We might be tempted to think that such behaviour is limited to denominational circles since NT assemblies maintain accountability through the plurality of elders, among other things. But we would be foolish to ignore the legitimate threat of what we will refer to here as spiritual abuse. The potential for spiritual abuse exists in any assembly without godly discernment.
Ironically, the label itself can be abused! In the flesh, we can be tempted to draw the wrong conclusion about every mistake we see our elders commit, perceived or otherwise. That is not the purpose of this article. The only perfect elders – let alone perfect Christians – are in Heaven. I humbly submit to my elders and am grateful for their godly service. The problem is not with biblical elders.
The problem is with elders who have either ceased to be biblical or who were never biblical to begin with. This problem goes as far back as the nascent church, when Peter warned its elders against “being lords over those entrusted to you” (1 Pt. 5:3). For more on biblical eldership, please refer to my previous article Shepherd’s Creed: Feed, Bleed and Lead.
What is Spiritual Abuse?
Spiritual abuse is a relatively new term for a very old problem. Author Ken Blue elaborates on its significance: Spiritual abuse happens when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds. It is inflicted by persons who are accorded respect and honor in our society by virtue of their role as religious leaders and models of spiritual authority.
They base that authority on the Bible, the Word of God, and see themselves as shepherds with a sacred trust. But when they violate that trust, when they abuse their authority and when they misuse ecclesiastical power to control and manipulate the flock, the results can be catastrophic .
While you won’t find the phrase “spiritual abuse” in the Bible, there are so many examples of abusive leadership that it can’t be ignored. Consider three “woes” against the shepherds (leaders) of the nation of Israel from three OT prophets:
- Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture! says the Lord (Jer. 23:1)
- Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? (Ez. 34:2)
- Woe to the worthless shepherd, who leaves the flock! (Zech. 11:17)
Jeremiah’s audience understood what it was like to be driven out of the fold by its cruel leaders, with nowhere to go. Ezekiel’s audience couldn’t meet the unreasonable demands of its leaders, who had been charged by God to nurture and care for them. Finally, Zechariah’s audience was abandoned by its leaders, unprotected from the enemy. Sound familiar? As OT problems often parallel our own, so does the solution.
The Lord’s solution involves judging the shepherds for their abuses toward the flock, raising faithful shepherds, and revealing Himself as their true Shepherd. When we come to the New Testament, it may surprise you to learn that the Lord Jesus reserved His harshest indictment for the Pharisees, His community’s religious leaders: They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men. (Mt. 23:4-5)
Remarkably, it was a Roman centurion – not the Jewish leadership – who found kinship with the Lord Jesus, recognizing he was also a man under authority (Mt. 8:9). Before we can think about assuming leadership, we must make a very clear distinction. True leaders aren’t recognized by God because of any ability to control others. They’re recognized because of their ability to serve others!
Throughout his ministry, John the beloved apostle encountered those seeking to control God’s flock. There was Diotrephes, “who loves to have the preeminence”, opposing John in the process (3 Jn. 9). There was also the Nicolaitans (lit. “conquerors of people”), an influential cult in Asia Minor (Rev. 2:6,15).
Dr. Barb Orlowski, author of Spiritual Abuse Recovery, surveyed Christian adults that had fled churches because of spiritual abuse. It was revealed that two-thirds of respondents had successfully reintegrated into healthy churches after some time. Sadly, the remaining third never went back to attending any church.
If you can relate to the latter figure, I’m living proof that you can be restored into healthy fellowship after much suffering. In my next article, Lord-willing, I will share how my Shepherd rescued me from exile years ago and taught me about grace and forgiveness through my home assembly.
1 The Barna Group, 2010
2 Blue, Ken. Healing Spiritual Abuse. InterVarsity Press, 1993.