Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.
You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
The apostle Paul
A televangelist is tried, convicted and sent to jail for defrauding his followers. A well-known pastor admits to extorting sex from his female staff. The Roman Catholic Church spends millions on out-of-court settlements to those who claim to have been sexually molested by priests. A young woman commits suicide after her pastor says she is demon-possessed and there is no hope for her. A prominent Christian leader writes a book calling for integrity in ministry and then is exposed as an adulterer. A four-year-old boy dies for lack of a lifesaving medical procedure; his parents' pastor insisted they not call a doctor but depend on prayer alone. Several couples in a small rural church divorce because the minister says their marriages are outside God's perfect will. The ministry credentials of a prominent theologian and ethicist are suspended after numerous female coleaders accuse him of sexual misconduct.
These are just a few examples of a contemporary problem people are calling "spiritual abuse." Actually, spiritual abuse has been a problem for the people of God from the start. The term itself, however, is relatively new. Trendy and provocative terms such as spiritual abuse soon lose meaning through overuse or misuse. So let's begin with some careful definitions: What is spiritual abuse? What kind of person abuses spiritually? What effect does this abuse have on its victims?
Abuse of any type occurs when someone has power over another and uses that power to hurt. Physical abuse means that someone exercises physical power over another, causing physical wounds. Sexual abuse means that someone exercises sexual power over another, resulting in sexual wounds. And spiritual abuse happens when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds. Ron Enroth explains further.
Unlike physical abuse that often results in bruised bodies, spiritual and pastoral abuse leaves scars on the psyche and soul. 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.
Spiritual abuse may differ from some other forms of abuse in that it is rarely perpetrated with intent to maim. As we shall see, spiritual abusers are curiously naive about the effects of their exploitation. They rarely intend to hurt their victims. They are usually so narcissistic or so focused on some great thing they are doing for God that they don't notice the wounds they are inflicting on their followers. So though I maintain that spiritual abuse is evil and dangerous and must be stopped, my definition of it leaves out the term intent to hurt.
And the definition needs to be limited even more. Think of spiritual abuse on a vertical continuum: minor, sporadic abuse belongs at the bottom end of the spectrum, with heavy-handed and systematic abuse at the top. Mere thoughtlessness, rudeness and arrogance among those in church leadership are not my concern in this book. If everything church leaders do wrong is called spiritual abuse, the issue is trivialized. I want to discourage the superficial labeling of too many pastors as spiritual abusers. Let's deal responsibly with the real problem and not turn our concern with spiritual abuse into the Salem witch hunt of our time.
Given these cautions, we must still be discerning. Some very pleasant and socially acceptable behavior is nevertheless calculated to manipulate and so is abusive.
Some spiritual leaders gently coerce their congregations through skillful use of the language of intimacy and trust. This same technique of subtle manipulation is evident in upscale restaurants. Servers in these restaurants are well trained in the vocabulary and body language of friendliness and familiarity. By the proper use of key words, touches and gestures, the server gains the customer's trust. He or she then plays on this trust, manipulating the customer into ordering what the restaurant wants to sell rather than what the customer wants to eat. The purpose is to extract the greatest amount of money while making the customer feel loved and cared for.
Many church leaders are skilled in this language of intimacy and trust. With it they gain the support of their followers and are able to run the church as they please. In light of the serious trauma caused by heavy-handed abusers, such subtle manipulation may seem quite minor. It is significant, however, because it is a violation of trust. When a leader pretends to be a friend and uses this illusion to dehumanize and manipulate his followers, he is acting abusively. So I will place such behavior on the continuum of spiritual abuse, toward the bottom.
At the top end of the continuum I place the deliberate exploitation and domination of the weak by a grandiose, authoritarian spiritual dictator. Almost any kind of abusive behavior may be found at this level: threats, intimidation, extortion of money, demands for sex, public humiliation, control over private lives, manipulation of marriages, elaborate spying and similar practices. When psychologically and spiritually weak people fall under the control of a narcissistic demagogue, there is potential for great harm to all. The examples of spiritual abuse I use in this book fall somewhere on the spectrum between significant but minor abuse to extreme abuse.
More than twenty years ago—one week after beginning my first pastoral assignment—I was called to the local hospital One of my parishioners (a twenty-five-year-old woman whom I will call Martha) had attempted suicide and was recovering in intensive care. Our initial conversation was painfully awkward—not just because this was our first meeting, or because I was a "rookie" on a difficult assignment, but because Martha was terrified of me. When I realized this, I asked her why she was afraid. Her reply came in a low, almost menacing voice, "Because you are a minister."
I asked her to explain what she meant, but she turned away without answering. After a long, uncomfortable silence, I asked if I could read some Scriptures to her. Martha was quiet for a moment and then (with her back still turned) said, "Please don't. I'm not strong enough for that."
Thoroughly confused and demoralized, I excused myself and left the room.
In the following months Martha and I became friends, and she told me her story. She was born into a fundamentalist Christian home and raised in a religiously conservative farming community. Her parents used God and the Bible to threaten and control her. God was always pictured as a severe judge who demanded perfection in thought and deed. Since she fell short of this standard, she constantly feared his punishment. When her pet calf died of colic, Martha believed God was punishing her for some sin.
As Martha grew up, she found that she not only was afraid of God hut also feared anything related to him. She became agitated and uncomfortable in the presence of a pastor and couldn't read any part of the Bible without feeling physically ill. After graduating from nursing school in her mid-twenties, Martha became seriously depressed. Seeking comfort in a sexual relationship with a married man, she became pregnant. In despair, feeling that God was now punishing her for her sin, she attempted suicide.
Years after Martha's attempt on her own life, and after many hours of skilled counseling and loving pastoral care, Martha is doing well. Some time ago I asked her how she was and she replied, "Well, I can look you in the face and speak to you without shaking. I can read my Bible without getting sick. And I can come to church without my stomach tying up in knots. I'm doing great!"
People who "survive" spiritual abuse often wander in a kind of limbo; they are confused, hurt and angry. Some victims of pastoral abuse blame themselves for their suffering, thinking that they must have deserved it. Others indulge in self-hate for foolishly submitting themselves and their families to such humiliation. Others focus their hatred on the abuser. They are soon crippled by bitterness and cut off from God's healing. As Juanita and Dale Ryan say, "Spiritual abuse is a kind of abuse which damages the central core of who we are. It leaves us spiritually disorganized and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God."
Most victims of spiritual abuse are loners. However, sometimes they band together with others who share their experience. Fifteen such people descended on a church I once served. They had all spent the previous years together in a congregation associated with the so-called discipleship/shepherding movement. Each of them had wanted to leave this church for some time but were emotionally unable to go it alone. They finally banded together and departed en masse.
During their first year with us, I heard each of their stories. They painted a consistent picture of their former church. It was rigidly hierarchical. Every member was assigned to a personal pastor who ruled over their lives much as a parent supervises preadolescent children. Each personal pastor told his followers what profession to follow, what car to buy, where to go on vacation and the like. The personal pastor decided how many children a couple should have and how they should be raised. Members of this church gave up all significant decision-making and eventually any sense of personal autonomy and identity.
I asked several of them why they willingly participated in their own dehumanization. "After all," I said, "no one held a gun to your head." Their response was uniform. They each said they had believed the way they were being treated was right, and that in the end they would be rewarded for their loyalty and submission.
The hierarchical structure of their group was not only oppressive but also addictive. Most of these people became so habituated to rigid accountability that when they finally left the abusing church they felt utterly lost. Every one of them became depressed, some severely. Years later, many have yet to recover. Some of them turned to alcohol and prescription drugs for relief. Several of the marriages became abusive. Men who had been highly motivated, productive professionals prior to their involvement in the shepherding group couldn't hold a job after they left it.
As I listened to each story, I was struck by how intensely dedicated to Christ they all had been at one time. In the beginning each wanted his or her life to count for the kingdom of God. It was this eagerness to "sell out for Jesus" that made the shepherding church so attractive to them originally. This church held up the call to a higher, nobler, more sacrificial brand of discipleship. Because they were long on enthusiasm and short on wisdom, these eager disciples soon became victims of spiritual abuse.
As we shall see, the most committed believers are often the most vulnerable to abusive religion. But as the Burks say, "The Gospel means life to those who are spiritually dead. The Shepherding movement has increasingly brought spiritual death to those who were once spiritually alive."
In over twenty years of public ministry, I have collected many stories of spiritual abuse. The abundance and prevalence of such experiences gradually led me to believe that the problem of powerful Christians hurting weaker brothers and sisters was more or less inevitable.
Not long ago, however, my pessimistic and passive attitude toward this issue changed radically and almost instantaneously while I was preparing a sermon. I had been preaching from the Gospel of Matthew. As I came to the twenty-third chapter where Jesus publicly confronts the Pharisees about the dereliction of their pastoral duties, I was tempted to skip those verses because they seemed to have little relevance for the pastoral needs of my congregation. Then, as if seeing for the first time what Jesus was saying, I realized that the authoritarian, narcissistic ecclesiastical abusers of our day are the modern equivalent of the Pharisees whom Jesus scolded. Jesus not only exposed and denounced the Pharisees as false shepherds but also offered himself as advocate for their victims. His teaching in Matthew 23 gives hope and instruction to all those hurt by pastoral abuse.
Jesus did not resign himself to spiritual abuse. He stood up to it. He demanded change. Why should we do less?
Once I saw what Jesus was really saying in Matthew 23, I found him saying similar things throughout the Gospels. In fact, Jesus was so focused on the problem of spiritual abuse that it was the only social evil against which he ever developed a platform. It was the only cultural problem that he repeatedly exposed and opposed. This is amazing when we recall that his culture was plagued by a host of serious social ills. Jesus took no public stand against slavery, racism, class warfare, state-sponsored terrorism, military occupation or corruption in government. He spoke not a word against abortion or infanticide, homosexuality or the exploitation of women and children. All of these and more were pressing problems in Jesus' day, but we have no record of his directly addressing them.
The modern church has spoken out against each of these social ills. Surprisingly, however, until recently we have said virtually nothing about spiritual abuse, the one social problem Jesus himself seemed to care about most.
Instead of skipping Matthew 23 as irrelevant, I preached a series of sermons from it. The response to those sermons (and the tape series containing them) was overwhelming! Dozens of people from the congregation brought me not only their stories of previous spiritual abuse but those of their friends and family. The spiritually abused and abusers began to understand their experiences in a fresh light, forgave (or repented) and received the forgiveness of Jesus and his church. Many reported feelings of intense freedom and joy.
Wherever I travel for ministry conferences, I am amazed at the multitude of stories of spiritual abuse which people now seem eager to share. Church of England bishops, rural Romanian peasants, South African politicians—all have told stories of abuse and manipulation. And in all cases and cultures, the principles Jesus taught (as recorded in Matthew 23) hold the key to healing and wholeness today, just they did for the Pharisees and their victims.
The next five chapters of this book are an exposition and application of Matthew 23. In chapter two well see how Jesus exposes the illegitimate means by which the Pharisees initially gained control over the people: they took for themselves the exalted "seat of Moses." They said, in effect, "Because we speak for Moses [who spoke for God], you must obey us." The modern equivalent of this is the church leader who says, "Because I am 'the Lord's anointed,' or the pastor, or the elder, or the bishop, you must do as I say." Jesus and Paul make very clear, however, that no office, position or title automatically carries with it any spiritual authority. The only true authority in the kingdom of God comes through servant leadership.
We find in chapter three that it was not just the Pharisees' false authority that made them dangerous but also their false teaching. They taught a false view of God and a false way of serving him. They pictured God as a legalistic judge, favoring those who kept his religious rules and despising those who did not. Modern preachers who make God's acceptance contingent upon religious performance are the Pharisees of today. Jesus says, in effect, that high-sounding religious lies spoken by respected leaders are ruinous to spiritual Me.
Jesus tells us how to spot false teachers, and this is the subject of chapter four. He says they lay heavy religious burdens on men and women but do not lift a finger to move them. These burdens are laws and regulations that appear to be spiritual but actually paralyze spiritual growth. Evangelical, fundamentalist and Roman Catholic legalisms are today's heavy loads. And those who pile them on people are the same as the Pharisees Jesus denounced in his day. Good shepherds lift these burdens off, setting followers free.
In chapter five we discover that the abusive church leader has an ego problem. Jesus says, "Everything they do is done for men to see" (Mt 23:5). For them, looking good is everything. It's not important to be people of God, but only to appear to be people of God. More important than who they are is what people think of them. For this reason they take for themselves honorific titles such as "Rabbi" (v. 7)—or the modern equivalent, "Senior Pastor," "Reverend" or "Doctor." True shepherds need not feign devotion to God, nor do they need exalted titles. They are known by their fruit.
In chapter six we discover an additional indication of spiritual abusiveness—majoring on minors and neglecting what is truly important. Spiritually abusive leaders and systems take uncompromising stands on items of little importance while neglecting issues of significance. They may possess strong views about styles of dress and wine at dinner, for instance, but care little about justice and love. True shepherds, however, make love of God and love of people their priority.
In chapter seven we will discuss who gets hooked by spiritual abuse and why. We look at the emotional needs of the victims as well as the psychology of the perpetrators.
Chapter eight is devoted to God's cure for spiritual abuse for perpetrators and victims alike. Here we find how the abuser and the abused are delivered from their mutually destructive relationship through God's powerful grace.
The last two chapters describe the healthy servant leader. The non-abusive church leader is not weak or passive but strong and full of authority. Yet this authority arises not from seizing power but from serving. Nonabusive leaders serve well by lifting burdens off shoulders, by promoting others, by opening wide the door of the kingdom of God's grace and by feeding nourishing spiritual food to God's people.
Several of the early reviewers of this book observed that it seems to be addressed to more than one audience. One pastor said,
At first I thought the audience of the book was those who had been spiritually abused. As I read it, however, I found myself looking at the material from different perspectives. At times I was a pastor learning to counsel someone who had been abused, sometimes I was a church leader who needed to guard against the attitudes or actions which could lead to abuse. At other times I asked myself if a past event in my church wasn't in fact spiritual abuse.
In fact, the book does speak to a range of audiences, primarily because the Scripture on which it is based is addressed to different audiences. In Matthew 23 Jesus speaks to at least two groups of people—spiritual abusers and their victims. Scripture is often helpful to different groups for different reasons. It is also often helpful to the same person for different reasons. I hope that the same will be true of this book—but I have tried to make it clear which group I am addressing at each point along the way.
Let me say a final word to readers who are victims of spiritual abuse. This book will most likely heighten your awareness of what you suffered and (for a time at least) intensify the pain. If the pain promotes healing, well and good. But if it incites bitterness toward the abuser or an abusive institution, then you will be worse off than before. As angry as Jesus was toward the spiritual abusers of his day, he stood ready to forgive them in an instant. His own power to forgive resides within us, and we are wise to avail ourselves of it.
Jesus said, "In the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Mt 7:2). He also said, "All who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Mt 26:52). When someone criticizes his own profession (as I have done in this book), he holds that sword of criticism by its sharp blade so that as he wields it the first blood drawn is his own. I am the pastor of a church and therefore a possible spiritual abuser. In writing this book, I became aware of my own potential to abuse and, I hope, have become less likely to do so. I pray that those who read this book will receive the same benefit.