What Is Spiritual Abuse?
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, spiritual abuse occurs when those in spiritual leadership "twist Scripture to give more authority to the leadership and keep the members under their control. One example is the use of Hebrews 13:17 as a basis for demanding unquestioning loyalty and obedience to the leaders." Johnson and VanVonderen also make the compelling case that those who are being spiritually abused are often unaware of what is happening while the abuse is occurring. Why is this so? I'm not sure why, but if I had to guess, I would say that we sheep can be so desirous of solid teaching, and aware of the value of solid teaching, that we don't recognize spiritual abuse, if it is present or if it develops. Thus, spiritual abuse doesn't occur only among the weak-minded, the undiscerning, or in cults: it can also take place inside of doctrinally solid churches, and oftentimes those experiencing it are not even aware that it is taking place.
This issue is in the spotlight these days, of course, because Mark Driscoll, a high-profile pastor in Seattle, WA, has been charged by a number of former elders and members with spiritually abusive behavior. Driscoll, who was an unknown before he was a keynote speaker for John Piper's 2006 Desiring God Conference, has been hailed by his supporters as being perhaps a tad rough around the edges, but otherwise doctrinally solid. But is doctrine the only criteria for someone to bear in mind when evaluating a church? Keep that question in mind......we'll circle back to that one later.
How Does Spiritual Abuse Manifest?
When you think of spiritual abuse, does your mind conjure up a rigid, stifling environment in which people are expected to dress in an extremely conservative way, and adhere to certain legalistic rules in order to be accepted? While it's true that these are sometimes the marks of a spiritually abusive environment, what about a church whose members are often in true fellowship with each other? Churches where members laugh together, eat meals together, study God's Word together, bowl and bike and hike together, and swap recipes and share coffee while the kids play together? As surprising as it may seem, spiritual abuse can happen in these environments just as much as in the obviously legalistic churches. So it should be noted that a church mustn't be evaluated solely on the basis of whether or not the people are welcoming to newcomers. Many Christians who have been spiritually abused in a church can recall, often with great sadness, how warm and fellowship-filled their early days were at the church where they were abused. Spiritually abusive environments are often described by those who have fled as once having been warm, loving and welcoming to new members. (For more on this, see Jonna Petry's account of her time at Mars Hill as a former elder's wife, and Stephen Martin's online e-book The Heresy of Mind Control.)
By many accounts, Mars Hill was a perfect storm in the making, with its brash young pastor who preached edgy but solid sermons in the largely unchurched Pacific Northwest, and its throngs of young members who felt welcomed and loved and encouraged in this exciting new start-up church. But Driscoll is not the only doctrinally solid, yet spiritually abusive, pastor around: he's just the one who's been in the headlines the most recently. Spiritual abuse can mark any church, anywhere. It can be a part of a church from its outset, or it can grow slowly and insidiously, unchecked over the years until it is full-blown. It can occur in obviously rigid, legalistic churches (like the one described above), but it can also occur in churches where there is a warm, loving atmosphere. Accounts of spiritual abuse can range from the encouraging (a family flees an abusive church and draws closer to God in the process) to the heartbreaking (someone flees the abusive church and ends up walking away from the church, and God, entirely, never to return).
With all this in mind, here is a short checklist you can use when it comes to making an evaluation:
(1) Do you feel comfortable approaching your pastor/elders to ask a question about something?
(2) Are your pastor/elders truly accountable to others, or have they surrounded themselves with only those who agree with them and rubber-stamp their plans? (i.e., family members, men who shy away from confrontation, etc.)
(3) Does your pastor have "two faces"? In other words, does he present himself from the pulpit as humble, gentle, kind, loving, approachable, etc., but behind the scenes is domineering, angry, cold, withdrawn, etc.?
(4) Do your pastor/elders become upset with you if you challenge or question anything they say, no matter how graciously, biblically or kindly you do so?
(5) Do your pastor/elders label anyone who disagrees with them as "rebellious"?
(6) Do your pastor/elders characterize those who have legitimate questions as being "gossips" or as being "divisive"?
(7) More seriously, if you are in a church that practices church discipline, do your pastor/elders threaten church discipline to those who disagree with them over non-doctrinal issues?One or more 'yes' answers to the questions above doesn't automatically mean that you are in an abusive church. BUT, it could mean that, or it could mean that your church is subtly moving in that direction.
No-one is above being challenged, and certainly not our pastors or elders/leaders. Now obviously, we ought to have biblical guidelines in mind when challenging others, such as being respectful and kind and gracious, but questions and challenges, in and of themselves, are not sinful, and if the elders at your church regard them as such, I urge you to tread carefully and keep your eyes open for further abuses of spiritual power. An excerpt from Pastor Mike Fehlauer's article Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse, Part 3)
"In a controlling church, it is impossible to leave on good terms. Because the pastor’s sense of worth is usually based on the control he is able to exert over the congregation, when someone leaves, this insecure leader considers it an affront to his leadership. Therefore he often takes it personally. As a result, when people do leave, they are labeled rebellious, or the rest of the congregation is given the explanation that they left because they had become offended.
In an unhealthy church, there is never a good reason why anyone should leave. Regardless of the situation, the people who leave are always the 'problem.'
This truism present in abusive churches applies not only to members, but to church staff as well. In one particular church, each time a staff member left, the senior person did his best to cast a shadow over that person’s reputation in the hope that it would destroy any chance of that person succeeding without him someplace else."
A "Can't Talk" Rule Is A Marker for Spiritual Abuse
While it is clear from the Bible that gossip, talebearing and idle talk about others are sinful acts, there are certainly circumstances in which legitimate questions and challenges can and should be allowed. Spiritual abuse experts Johnson and VanVonderen have noted that one significant marker for spiritual abuse is when there is a "Can't Talk" rule that is enforced within a church. This occurs when someone with questions is labeled as being "gossipy" or "divisive," and oftentimes, church discipline is even threatened to ensure that questions aren't asked. These tactics are used in order to intimidate those with questions into silence. Thus, a system in which church leaders can state whatever they like from their positions of authority, and expect that it should never be challenged or questioned, is a mark of a spiritually unhealthy church climate. But as a church elder stated to us while in the course of researching this article, "If someone comes to you with a bad account of someone else who you both know, and who is not present, you not only have a right, you have a responsibility to the one not present to go to them and hear their side."
"The first one to plead his cause seems right, until his neighbor comes and examines him." (Proverbs 18:17)
Accountability Is the Key
Whether your church is governed by the Pastor Rule model or the Elder Rule model, the key component for guarding against spiritual abuse, according to most spiritual abuse experts, is accountability. Think about it this way: pride is such a common snare among pastors who govern without accountability because it's far easier for Satan to deceive and confuse and mislead just one person, rather than an entire group of elders or a congregation. Accountability is important for all of us, but it is supremely important for pastors.
It should also be noted that being in a church that is Elder Rule is not a guarantee against abuse. As you can see from some of the questions posted above, it should be obvious that sometimes a pastor can work his way around the Elder Rule model, either through overt means (being domineering, cruel, cold, angry, etc.) or by more subtle means (being "two faced," using charm or manipulation, etc.).
So, what is the biblical remedy for those who have been spiritually abused? The Bible is rich with passages describing God and his mercies. Water was often used as a device for portraying God's mercy in the Old Testament. Doesn't sound very exciting? Perhaps not to the 21st century person who can simply turn on a tap and have fresh, filtered water at his or her disposal. But think about how important a fresh, clean source of water has been in centuries past, and throughout all of history, really. This was especially important for a people who lived in a desert culture, as God's chosen people the Israelites did. The Israelites literally lived, and died, by whether or not there was water available to them.
"God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water." (Psalm 63:1)
"For this is what the high and exalted One says-- he who lives forever, whose name is holy: 'I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.'" (Isaiah 57:15)
"Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert." (Isaiah 35:6)
"The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the LORD will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them." (Isaiah 41:17)
"The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail." (Isaiah 58:11)In a spiritual context, these rich descriptions of God and his mercies being likened to flowing, fresh, clean water means that for those who hold fast to Him in trials, the Lord promises, promises!, spiritual protection and care. God can and will use our past experiences with spiritual abuse to mature us, to sanctify us, and to equip us for encouraging others who have had the same struggles, IF that is, we hold fast to Him and his faithful promises never to leave us or forsake us. Spiritual abuse can be heartbreaking, but we need to remember that it is not the Lord who is abusing us: it is sinful men ensnared in pride or lust for power.
"Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!" (Isaiah 30:18)Jesus is also revealed as the Good Shepherd, who loves his sheep and watches over them,who understands their weaknesses and struggles, even to the point of becoming flesh in order to identify with them. How great is the love of the Shepherd for his flock? Let him be your Good Shepherd today.
A Final Word
A final word: pray for your pastors. Pray that the LORD will protect them from the common snares of "lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life" (1 John 2:16). Pray that they will genuinely desire, and set up, accountability for themselves. Even though they are in spiritual authority, your pastors are frail flesh, and fallible (as we all are), so don't expect perfection. But, if need be, lovingly and kindly bring your concerns to them, in the same manner that you would want someone to bring a concern to you. None of us are above the snare of pride, but pastors especially need our prayers because they are held to a higher standard than the flock, and will one day be judged more strictly.
"Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly." (James 3:1)In closing, if you have been spiritually abused, please avail yourself of the resources below, and let me encourage you that you are not alone and that the Lord knows your struggles. I urge you not to turn away from the LORD, but to cling to Him and pour out your heartbreak and your struggles to Him. He is the One who promises never to leave you or forsake you. He turns darkness into light, and makes the deserts into springs. He is the Almighty, the One who sits high and lifted up, and yet who hears the cries of his people. Run to Him, and be comforted.
"The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 'The Lord is my portion,' says my soul, 'therefore I will hope in him.'" (Lamentations 3:22-24)
photo credit: Barely via photopin cc
photo credit: 55Laney69 via photopin cc
What Is Spiritual Abuse? (Got Questions?)
Mark Driscoll, Spiritual Abuse and Cultish Ministries (Charisma News)
Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse - Part 1 (Pastor Mike Fehlauer)
Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse - Part 2 (Pastor Mike Fehlauer)
Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse - Part 3 (Pastor Mike Fehlauer)
The Cult Church
What Do Some Churches and Cults Have In Common? Spiritually Abusive Systems
Churches That Abuse (Dr. Ronald M. Enroth)
Recovering From Churches That Abuse (Dr. Ronald M. Enroth)
Exposing Spiritual Abuse (Pastor Mike Fehlauer)
The Heresy of Mind Control: Recognizing Con Artists, Tyrants and Spiritual Abusers in Leadership (Stephen Martin)
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church (David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen)
Recovery Grace (former Bill Gothard and IBLP/ATI adherents)
Dear Pastor Mark Driscoll and Mars Hil: We Are Not Anonymous (former Mars Hill elders and members)