A hallmark of spiritual abuse is treating the person who dares to point out a problem as the problem.
There are multiple forms of abuse and all forms of abuse are painful. Just ask someone who has experienced physical or sexual abuse. But, I believe there is an abuse that is equally horrific and can be one of the most devastating to experience. This abuse is well hidden and is at large in the spiritual arena. It is deep, pervasive and very difficult to unravel. Spiritual abuse brings forth immense damage in the form of spiritual wounds.
Spiritual abuse is an irrefutable and unholy use of power. Spiritual abuse is the exact opposite of love. Spiritual abuse can occur when a spiritual leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often engages the feelings and thoughts of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of emotions or spiritual well being. Spiritual abuse often refers to an abuser using spiritual or religious rank in taking advantage of the victim’s spirituality by putting the victim in a state of unquestioning obedience to an abusive authority. Power is used to reinforce the position or needs of a leader above one who comes to them in need. Spiritual abuse can also occur when spirituality is used to make others live up to a spiritual standard. This promotes external spiritual performance, or is used as means of proving a person’s spirituality.
When religious systems are not based on the truth, they cannot allow questions, dissent, or open discussions about issues. The person who dissents becomes the problem rather than the issue they raised. The truth about any issue is settled and handed down from the top of the hierarchy. Questioning anything is considered a challenge to authority. In a controlling and spiritually abusive environment, leaders suppress those who want to think for themselves by explaining that they doubt God and His anointed leaders. Thus, the follower controls his own thoughts out of fear of doubting God.
The Church has labeled any individuals who have experienced the tragedy of spiritual abuse, and have dared to speak out about it, as disloyal, unspiritual, judgmental, and even disobedient.
Illustrations of Spiritual Abuse
When John was a new believer, his spiritual leaders told him that he needed to give money to the church and that they needed to monitor his personal finances. As John communicated that he did not agree with this, he was labeled as disobedient. And eventually he and his family left the church.
Mike and Joni’s experience is another example of spiritual abuse. This couple went to their senior pastor to talk about possibly leaving the church due to an unhealthy spiritual climate. As they were talking with the pastor, he told them that if they decided to leave the church the Devil would haunt them and overrun their lives. He further communicated to them that they should stay at the church to avoid the attacks of the Enemy. When they left the church, they were labeled as disloyal and un-spiritual.
How Spiritual Abuse Operates
A “bounded-set” mentality does breed spiritual abuse. In this atmosphere, leaders communicate to their followers that in order to be accepted into their fellowship they need to do everything leaders tell them to do, speak the same way leaders speak, embrace what the leaders embrace, and avoid what the leaders avoid. If a person in this type of atmosphere does not conform to these rules, they are never fully accepted into the fellowship. They may not be literally kicked out (although this may happen), but they will never occupy a place of authority themselves or carry any influence in the congregation.
Some religious arenas advocate that the needs of the people—what they think, feel, or want—do not matter, and believe that the people are to meet the needs of the leadership.
When spiritual leaders use their authority to manipulate or shame people into meeting their needs it amounts to abuse. This is extremely wounding to the victim, and a place that God designed to be safe—a church—becomes unsafe.
Spiritual Abuse in the Gospels
Spiritual abuse is certainly nothing new to the twenty-first century church. Spiritual abuse was alive and well in Jesus’ day. Perhaps the most obvious use of spiritual abuse is found in Matthew’s gospel.
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 (Matthew 23:4 NIV).
It is interesting to note what Jesus says about spiritual abuse.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30 NIV).
The religious leaders of the day were placing weighty yokes on their followers. The word “yoke” comes from the Greek word zugos and it is used in a variety of contexts. It can refer to balances or scales, such as those used by merchants or those that symbolize justice. In this context, the word zugos refers to a heavy crossbeam, which is a metaphor for being bound in slavery to a heavy load.
Christ tells us that His yoke is easy. Great significance and meaning is packed into the Greek word for “easy,” which is chrestos This word is used to refer to something that has a good or excellent purpose, or pleasant requirements. Jesus says He offers something more excellent, something more superior.
The Greek word chrestos can also refer to loving-kindness and mercy. When Christ says that His yoke is easy, He is telling us that it is suitable to bind us to His everlasting kindness and mercy. Christ’s way of living is easier, less of a burden, than false traditions and a much lighter burden than the oppressive, extreme beliefs created by man.
Spiritual Abuse in the Epistles
Paul addresses the church in Galatia, who was gloriously saved by Jesus through His grace alone. Throughout the book of Galatians, Paul catalogs the damage that religious leaders were introducing into the church in Galatia. Paul actually calls this spiritual abuse “persecution” (see Gal. 4:29).
After Paul left the churches that were established in Galatia, many people followed Paul’s example but also began to spread a teaching about circumcision. In Galatians 6:13 Paul responds to this: “Not even those who are circumcised obey the Law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh” (NIV).In other words, if the church in Galatia agreed with this teaching, it would make them look good externally, but they would have a false sense of self-worth. Their sense of worth and value would be wrapped up in religious performance. This is completely opposite to the true kingdom of God.
Paul immediately writes to the church in Galatia addressing this very issue.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:6-9 NIV).
My friends, there is a severe movement of spiritual abuse in the church today, yes, even in the American church. I have had the opportunity to travel throughout the earth to speak, train, and teach, and spiritual abuse while possibly not moving in your church, is rampant in churches wherever I go.
The very nature of abuse is designed to destroy and keep individuals from enjoying life. All abuse is about manipulation and control and sadly spiritual abuse is no different. This form of abuse certainly keeps us from the life that God has given each one of us.