What Is Spiritual Abuse?
Thus, it is important to understand that spiritual abuse can occur in churches where leaders are consistently teaching doctrinal error from the pulpit, but it can also occur in churches where God's word is, for the most part, being rightly divided. This latter circumstance can be the trickier one to navigate for those who have come out of spiritually abusive churches, as it can be difficult to look back and distinguish teaching that was good and helpful and sanctifying from teaching (from the same leaders) that was at times manipulative, oppressive and controlling.
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?
Where Does Spiritual Abuse Take Place?
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 (Mark Driscoll) who preached edgy, but doctrinally solid, sermons in the largely unchurched Pacific Northwest. Within a few years of its first fledging gathering of only a few families, the church had several campuses and many thousands of members. The throngs of young Christians who were there in the early years recount how they felt welcomed and loved and encouraged in this exciting new start-up church. They have shared how thrilling it was for them, having the gospel expounded to them, and having their lives radically transformed by God's saving and sanctifying grace. Yet just 20 years later, Mars Hill went through an explosive and public meltdown. Driscoll resigned in disgrace amid multiple allegations of spiritual abuse, financial mismanagement and plagiarism, and allegedly fled the church discipline process. The church he left behind, once a multi-site church with thousands of members, was now little more than a smoking ruin.
Mark Driscoll, however, is not the only doctrinally solid, but spiritually abusive, pastor out there: 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, but it can also occur in churches where there is often 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. If the gospel writer Luke commended the Bereans for challenging, with scripture in hand, even the Apostle Paul, shouldn't the same model apply to the church today? Now obviously, we ought to have biblical guidelines in mind when challenging our leaders, 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.
Warning Flags: Painful Exits and Smear Campaigns
Spiritually abusive pastors can't just let someone leave.....they have to destroy them. Pastor Mike Fehlauer, author of Exposing Spiritual Abuse, writes:
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.
Driscoll forced (Smith) to resign when he challenged the senior pastor's decision to rewrite the bylaws, change the governing body, and give himself more power nearly seven years ago.
"He slandered my name. He said, 'I will destroy you,'" Smith remembered.
Friends of ours left our church, and at the time of their departure, a statement by the elders was read to the church that made it clear that there was no sin issue or moral failing for this couple, who had faithfully served the church for 10 years as leaders (he was an elder and she led the women's ministry). This couple was very well-loved in our church community, always opening their home for dinners, showers, missionaries on furlough, Bible studies, you name it. My husband and I were extremely sad to hear that this couple had left, but we quickly settled it in our minds to see this as a 'Paul and Barnabas split,' and move on. We didn't see why we shouldn't be able to continue our membership at the church, while maintaining our friendship with them. Yet within six weeks of their departure, the pastor and two of his family members approached me in private and began slandering this couple to me. When I pushed back, and said that what was being said didn't line up with the public statement that was read, it was then that our nightmare began. For the next two years, our pastor used his position of spiritual authority to persuade my husband and me to meet privately with him, meetings in which he tried to persuade us of his position, which was that, in his view, this couple was not fit for leadership and were in sin with how they left the church. We told him there were only 2 options: either he and the elders had all lied, and then colluded to deceive the congregation, in which case they were all in sin and needed to repent and make things right, OR the pastor alone was lying, and he needed to repent, and go make it right with the couple. We repeatedly asked the pastor to stop trying to talk with us about this, but the pressure went on for many months. I look back now and think how crazy we were to stay! But we wanted to believe the best, we loved and trusted him and did not want to think ill of him.
At some point, we went to our friends and asked to hear their side, based on Prov 18:17: 'The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.' We decided by this point that it was only fair to give both sides a hearing, given the pastor's insistence at pleading his case over and over with us over many months. We had already heard the pastor's side.....for two full years we had heard it! He had given argument after argument after argument to plead his case. Now it was time to hear the other side: "He who gives an answer before he hears, It is folly and shame to him." (Prov 18:13).
What an eye-opening meeting that was! This sweet couple slowly and patiently let us ask all our questions, and then they gave us their side, including relevant emails, letters, voicemails, etc. One voicemail in particular that they let us listen to was a message the pastor had left for the husband, in which the pastor stated he would not meet privately to work things out (per Matthew 18). This was in direct conflict with the pastor's account to us, which was that it was the couple who were refusing to meet in order to biblically reconcile. Oh my! He was accusing them of the thing he was himself refusing to do! We also found out later from one of the other elders that the pastor was not telling the truth when he claimed to be speaking on their behalf in saying they all agreed that this couple were in sin. Why was this pastor, this man whom we loved so much, telling these untruths? We were so utterly baffled, and we were also so glad that we had given this dear, precious couple an opportunity to tell their side.
After our meeting with them, my husband and I thought things through, and prayed, and then we settled the matter in our minds. We decided that we could stay at the church if the pastor would agree not to try to talk with us about this couple anymore. Unfortunately, we realized pretty quickly that it was simply untenable for us to stay. The pastor still would not let the matter go (more attempts to discuss the matter!). We realized he would not stop until we agreed with him.....which we were never going to do. Painfully, we came to the conclusion that we needed to leave. So we met one last time with the pastor and another elder to let them know we were leaving. Leaving that church was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Almost all of our friends were there, and we were, in an instant, without a community or church home.
Finally: are you exhausted just from reading this account? Imagine living it. And yet...... I can honestly say that God has grown my faith in unfathomable ways, ways I couldn't have comprehended it would be grown. God allowed these difficult circumstances to "squeeze" out of me things that weren't pretty for me to see, things I realized I needed to repent of, die to, and seek by God's grace to put off. Even though I had always prayed, it was after this trial that my prayer life came alive in a way it never had before. Scriptures I had glossed over were suddenly boots-on-the-ground, live-this-or-die real to me. Forgive as I had been forgiven (Col 3:13, Eph 4:32). Beware the destructive nature of self deception and pride (Isa 2:12, James 4:6,10, Prov 16:18, Psalm 10:4). Be careful not to think I could be "above" certain sins, lest I be ensnared by the very same sin (1 Cor 10:12). Be mindful of the position of authority I myself have as a parent in my own home, and do not be heavy-handed in how I lead (1 Peter 5:3). Such rich, beautiful lessons for my own walk came flooding into my life as a result of this trial. Would I have picked this trial for myself? Never! But as my sister reminds me, we would never pick our own trials! And yet, God in his infinite wisdom and mercy, can and does use the trials He has sovereignly ordained and allowed in our lives in order to sanctify us and conform us more and more to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-29). Oh what a good and loving Father He is! How He loves me, and how He has poured out his blessings on me in this long, strange trial. So....I continue to trust Him, and seek to honor Him, as I press on toward the goal.....
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.
Exposing Spiritual Abuse author Mike Fehlauer shares an encouraging account of a couple who left a church, and endured a smear campaign at the hands of their former pastor:
One couple went through the process of leaving an abusive church. The pastor did everything he could to discredit them and malign their character. Initially, they both were frightened that they would be blacklisted from every church in their community. At first, they wanted to defend their character. It seemed that this pastor continued to have control over their lives even after they left. They wondered if they would ever be able to escape his influence.
Finally, they realized that God was their defense and protection. Instead of defending themselves, they decided to pray for their former pastor. The more they prayed for him, the less threatening he became in their minds. The anger they first had toward the pastor was replaced with compassion. As time passed, they realized that he didn’t have as much influence as they had initially thought. Because they had kept their hearts pure, they were able to find another church and to continue to grow spiritually.
There is life after spiritual abuse. You may be tempted to feel that you will never escape the controlling grasp of an abusive leader. Satan will cause you to think that the controlling leader’s influence is greater than it really is. Don’t give in to Satan’s intimidation. Trust God to be your strength and your defense. Keep your heart tender. Pray for those who have used you, and bless those who have cursed you. If you will do these things, you will discover a sure path that God has prepared for you as well as His destiny for your life.
God has a healthy church for you. The Good Shepherd is fully able to lead you into a green pasture where you can grow in your relationship with Him (Ps. 23:2). As you allow Him to lead you, He will also anoint your head with oil, healing any wounds you encountered in an abusive environment. (online source)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)
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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)
What Do Some Churches and Cults Have In Common? Spiritually Abusive Systems
Confronting Abusive Church Leaders (Apprising Ministries)
Hurt, Betrayal and Spiritual Abuse (Stand Up For The Truth)
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)