Spiritual Abuse Defined and Discussed

Recently, I was moved unexpectedly to tears by a report of a practice by individuals purporting to be “Christian” in regard to what was, as it was described to me, a definite abuse of a Christian sacrament.  When I checked with someone else, who had also observed the danger of religious abuse inherent in the situation, I discovered that it was not entirely as it had been described to me, but it did show how quickly individuals, especially new Christians or poorly instructed Christians, can be misled and end up in a situation where religious abuse can occur.

Mark Fehlauer, a pastor, counselor, and author of “Exposing Spiritual Abuse” writes:
“The idea of spiritual abuse is not a new phenomenon. In the Old Testament, God spoke against those who operated in their own authority while abusing the very people they were to bless. In Jeremiah 5:30-31 we read, “An astonishing and horrible thing has been committed in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule by their own power; and My people love to have it so. But what will you do in the end?”

In these verses God is bringing an indictment against the religious leaders of the Old Testament. We see the Lord’s anger expressed against those who operate in their own authority. Consumed with their own ambition, these leaders have convinced the people that their power is divine. Yet in reality, these false prophets are merely wielding their self-imposed influence for personal gain, claiming they speak for God.

In Jeremiah 6:13-14 we read again of self-absorbed prophets and priests who are so preoccupied with their own needs being met that the needs of the people are being ignored. We read: “From the least of them even to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for gain, and from the prophet even to the priest everyone deals falsely. And they have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ but there is no peace” (NAS).
A common characteristic of an abusive religious system is that the real needs of the people are lost in the never-ending quest by the leaders for personal fulfillment and happiness. ……

In speaking of the Pharisees, Jesus said, “For 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” (Matt. 23:4). The Amplified Bible paints an even clearer picture. It says, “They tie up heavy loads, hard to bear, and place them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves will not lift a finger to help bear them.” Jesus is referring to the people’s being weighted down by rules and regulations that needed to be performed in order to gain the acceptance of the Pharisees. In the same way, many believers today have found themselves crushed beneath the religious baggage of an abusive system. Each day thousands of church members find themselves struggling to earn the favor and approval of a modern-day Pharisee.

Jesus cared deeply about His people and how they were treated. When He saw the multitudes, “He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). The Amplified Version expands on the word weary by saying, “They were bewildered (harassed and distressed and dejected and helpless), like sheep without a shepherd.”
Notice that Jesus saw them as harassed. This word conveys the idea of some outside force pressing upon the people, causing them to feel weary, distressed and downcast.”  
Excerpts from a 2006 article on Spiritual Abuse by a Salvation Army’s Major Scott Nicloy, an addictions counselor.

Spiritual abuse has been defined as “a kind of abuse which damages the central core of who we are. It leaves one spiritually discouraged and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God.” Another definition of spiritual abuse is “the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.”

For the most part, spiritual abuse is committed by those who sincerely love Jesus, who believe the Bible to be the Word of God and who want to win lost souls for Jesus. Hence, spiritual abuse can often be found, as Ronald Enroth points out, in churches that are doctrinally sound, conservatively Christian, thoroughly Biblical, and zealously maintaining the fundamentals of the Faith. There are several reasons why Christian people of good will and a sincere desire to share Jesus can inflict serious harm and injury upon others in the Name of Jesus. Lack of Empathy. Empathy is the ability to perceive, to understand, to sense, to feel what another person is experiencing. Unfortunately, in witnessing for Jesus many evangelicals talk to people, not with people. It is impossible to truly talk with anyone about Jesus, or anything else for that matter, without knowing the other person. Authentic ministry is based upon knowing a person. There is no point in claiming that Jesus is the answer, when you have not heard the question. A physician who prescribes medicine without knowing the patient is likely to injure the patient. In like manner, evangelicals who try to minister without knowing the sheep in an empathic manner will most likely injure it.
Narcissism. The reason that many Christians have a problem with developing empathy skills is because they have a problem with narcissism. Narcissists are not necessarily bad people. Narcissism simply means that, for whatever reason, the person’s only point of reference in life is himself. For the narcissist only his thoughts, his feelings, his perceptions are fully real. For him the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of others are less real. In the religious context, narcissists simply assume that what they think God thinks, and what they believe is Bible-based. They take it for granted that any idea that jumps into their heads is from the Holy Spirit and that they are only following the promptings of the Holy Spirit whenever they decide to do anything. The fact that other people may see their words as being less than holy, their motives as being less than pure, and their actions as being hurtful and injurious never occurs to them. When you believe that you are right and righteous, then all that you say and do is right and righteous. Any thought to the contrary never enters the picture.
Dichotomous Thinking. Abusive Christians in abusive church fellowships generally exhibit dichotomous (either-or) thinking patterns. With them everything is black/white, this/that, either/or, us/them, good/bad, etc. There are never any weeds among the wheat. When something is good it is all good; when something is bad it is all bad. Of course, dichotomous thinking Christians put themselves in the all-good camp, while others who may not agree with them on some minute detail of theology or Bible interpretation are in the all-bad camp.
With abusive Christians there are no ambiguities, no unanswered questions, no gray areas, no doubts. Everything is sorted, classified, and properly labeled. They are right, others are wrong; they are spiritual, others are not; they truly believe the Scriptures, others do not; they are thoroughly committed to Jesus, others are not; etc., etc. To disagree with them is to disagree with God. They are, of course, the final judge and jury of what the Bible says, regardless of subject matter. They have the exact interpretation of any given particular Scripture text; any other nuance or shade of meaning is considered heresy. Dichotomous thinking Christians believe they have everything all figured out (when they do not) and that they have everything properly classified and labeled, which is often not the case. They have the definitive Bible-based answer for every question, even when they have not understood the question. Dichotomous thinking Christians have a one-size-fits-all hammer for every problem, even when what is needed for a particular problem is a screwdriver.
Dissociation. In the lives of abusive Christians the ideal often exceeds the real. Don Quixote in his rusty armor riding headlong on his broken-down horse runs over and injures many people as he hits a windmill in his quest to glorify God, to right wrong, to rid the world of Satan’s influence, and to defend the honor of his lady (who could not care less that he is alive).
One of the reasons why we have a major problem with abuse in Christian churches is because we have Christian people who are dissociated. They are mystified. They do not know what they feel, what motivates them, who they are or what they are about. They are divorced from their sexuality, divorced from their feelings, divorced from their real needs, divorced from their authentic selves. They are strangers unto themselves. Jesus said from the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Disassociated Christians are people who do not know what they are doing. Abraham Maslow wrote, “The great cause of much psychological illness is the fear of knowing of oneself-of one’s emotions, impulses, memories, capacities, potentialities, of one’s destiny.” Disassociated Christians are people who do not know themselves and are afraid to know themselves.
Zealotry. Obviously, we want people to be passionate about their Faith in Jesus. Unfortunately, in evangelism zealotry often sharpens the claws but dulls the senses. In other words, zealots may have a burning desire to win lost souls for Jesus but they do not have much sense. Consequently, our daily prayer needs to be, “Lord, this day deliver us from your saints.”
Zealots often commit much harm in the Name of Jesus because they have tunnel vision. Their zealotry blinds them from being able to see the big picture. They are myopic. They can only see what is close to them and even that is blurry. They do not mean to hurt people but when people go through life with blinders on they tend to run over others.
There was a minister who carried around with him several notebooks containing all the names of people that he had won to the Lord. I went around with him one day on his soul- winning crusade and figured that most his converts accepted Jesus just to get rid of him. Most of his “converts” considered him more of an annoying bombastic pest than an ambassador of salvation. Then there was one zealous minister who used to sneak into hospitals at night to pass out gospels tracts such as “Are You Ready to Meet Your God?” or “Hell is Hot, Hot, Hot!” The hospitals in that city had to cancel numerous operations because of that guy.
Substance Abuse, Addiction, and Abusive Righteousness
It should not be surprising that much of the spiritual abuse that we see often involves people with substance abuse in their past. In reality, the raging drunk that becomes a raging saint is still a raging addict. Naturally, the fact that a saved and sanctified saint of God has not touched a drop of alcohol for five, ten, fifteen or however many years really means nothing in terms of recovery and healing. Exchanging a substance abuse addiction for a religious addiction is not recovery. Often when listening to people testifying to how they have been delivered from addiction “by the mighty moving of God’s Holy Spirit,” I have had to bite my tongue hard to keep from saying, “You are still an addict.”
Abstinence does not mean that a person is recovered. Abstinence does not mean that the person is healed. Abstinence does not mean that the person is delivered from alcoholism. Abstinence may only mean that the person is not drinking alcohol. In every other way he may just as much be an alcoholic as the guy who is passed out on skid row.
We have saints running around testifying to a complete and total deliverance from alcoholism when they are still alcoholics. They think like alcoholics. They act like alcoholics. In fact, some of these dry drunk saints do more harm while sober than they did while being wet drunk sinners. At least, when they were wet drunk sinners everyone knew to stay out of their way. Many times when an alcoholic has “found Jesus” family members deliberately try to get them drinking again, since handling a raging drunk is much easier than handling a raging saint. When it comes to dry drunk saints, cognitively their thinking patterns are dichotomous, emotionally they are disassociated, physically they are in a state of protracted withdrawal, and spiritually they are quixotic.
Obviously, a person who is obsessing on Jesus is still obsessing. The person who is compulsively quoting Scripture is still compulsive. The person who is mood altering by hypnotically singing worship choruses over and over again is still mood altering. The quixotic person fighting the forces of hell is still quixotic. The person with a narcissistic personality disorder is still a narcissist. Changing one’s addiction garb is not recovery.
Because of this, a sober non-drinking alcoholic should not be involved in Christian pastoral counseling ministry for about five years after the last drink. The originators of the Twelve Step program saw that a major component of the treatment for alcoholism was the need to share one’s spiritual awakening and message of healing with other people. Sharing one’s recovery process with others, however, is not the same as counseling others. Sharing one’s life experience with another is based upon the principle of equality-one beggar telling another where to find bread. On the other hand, providing pastoral counsel implies a position of power, influence, and authority in reference to the one being counseled. Addicts tend to be co-dependent, as the development of their relational skills was interrupted when they started using or drinking. Therefore, co-dependency issues often impede their ability to acquire the empathic skills so vital in providing pastoral counseling. People lacking empathic skills may be sincere, but they may be sincerely abusive, spiritually speaking.
In his 2001 book on spiritual abuse, Mark Fehlaur described types of practices that constitute religious abuse:

          A healthy church should produce peace and rest for your soul. Establishing healthy spiritual relationships will always be a challenge, but the process will prevent you from becoming weary and worn, trying to jump through religious hoops that promise God’s acceptance and love. If, in order to gain the acceptance of its leaders, your church constantly requires more and more of your life with no end in sight — and little encouragement along the way — then you may want to re-examine the church you are attending.  

          There is certainly a place for biblical teaching on spiritual authority. But if a pastor preaches on this subject every Sunday, constantly reminding everyone that he is in charge, you can be sure that trouble is around the corner. In an unhealthy church, the pastor actually begins to take the place of Jesus in people’s lives. Commonly, people are told they cannot leave the church with God’s blessing unless the pastor approves the decision. The implication is that unless they receive pastoral permission, not only will God not bless them, but they will also be cursed in some way, resulting in sure failure. Controlling spiritual leaders use this kind of reasoning to manipulate people.

          A healthy church will not allow genuine pastoral concern to cross the line into manipulation or control. A true shepherd will use his influence to draw church members into a close relationship with Jesus, who is the only “head of the church” (Eph. 5:23). A true shepherd realizes that the people in his congregation don’t belong to him — they are God’s flock.

          In an unhealthy church, it is considered rebellion when someone questions decisions that are made or statements that are said from the pulpit. Granted, there are those who constantly question the leadership in any church — but often such constant questioning comes from an individual’s critical attitude. Pastors must learn to deal with such questioning in a compassionate, positive manner. However, in an unhealthy church, any and all questions are considered threats to the pastor’s “God-ordained” authority. Members who do dare to question their leaders or who do not follow their directives often are confronted with severe consequences.

          Pastors operating under a spirit of control are often convinced that they are the only ones who can accurately hear from God. Under the constant exposure to this spirit, members often become convinced that they indeed need their pastor to think for them. In essence, their personal fellowship with the Lord has been abdicated for a relationship with a man. As a result, they lose their confidence in being able to discern the will of God for their lives.

          Secrecy may cloak the area of finances. Pastors may make brazen appeals for money, yet offer no assurance that the finances of the church are handled with accountability and integrity.   I have actually heard pastors tell their congregations that the financial decisions of the church do not become a public matter because “the congregation doesn’t have the spiritual insight or maturity to understand the dynamics of church finances.” Have you heard this line of reasoning?    Some pastors actually preach, “It doesn’t matter what we do with your money. Your responsibility is simply to give.” However, the Bible commands us to be good stewards — and part of good stewardship is making sure that proper systems of accountability are established to handle tithes and offerings. (See 1 Peter 4:10.)   It is very simple — money represents power. Ultimately, control comes down to issues of power. Therefore, it should be no surprise that controlling leaders will use unbiblical means to manipulate people into giving.  As good stewards, when we become aware of financial mismanagement, we are responsible for where we sow our financial seed. I can’t imagine anyone choosing to continue to give money after becoming aware of the misuse of funds. However, if the approval of those in leadership is more important to a person than financial integrity, that person might still feel compelled to give — even if misuse of funds was involved.

          Secrecy may also be used to control people.  Controlling pastors may keep staff members and congregants in the dark about things.   He does so by giving limited information to each individual, carefully monitoring each relationship. As a result, each member is only able to relate to other members based on the information he receives from the leader.  In this way, if the church staff or pastor determines that one of the members has become a “threat,” they have a strategy in place to maintain the control they believe is required. Consequently the church can sever relationships when necessary and keep this process cloaked behind a veil of secrecy.

          The deadly trait of elitism, if allowed to root, produces an “us and them” mentality. A church with an elitist attitude believes “no one else is really preaching the gospel” except that church. Or at least, no one is preaching it as effectively as they are!  An elitist spirit discourages church members from visiting other churches or receiving counsel from anyone who doesn’t attend their church. If anyone visits another church, he is viewed as a dissident.  “Everything you need can be found within the framework of our group,” this spirit says, adding, “Everything you need to know, you will receive from the pastor and his teachings.” Consequently, there is little respect, if any, for other denominations or church groups.   One individual, in speaking about the elitist attitude within his church, said, “Although we didn’t come right out and say it, in our innermost hearts we really felt there was no place like our assembly. We thought the rest of Christianity was out to lunch.”   Another man from the same church said, “When a well-known evangelical speaker was preaching in another church in the area, the leaders would discourage us from attending. Also, if the leaders found out that members were considering visiting another church for any reason, they were called in and chastised. ‘You don’t need to be going to those other churches,’ they would tell us. ‘The ministry here is rich enough. Isn’t the Lord feeding you here?'”   A healthy church respects and celebrates the other expressions of Christ’s many-membered body. A Jesus-centered church realizes that no one denomination or local church can win a city, regardless of how large it is. Christ-centered leaders who are clothed with humility recognize that the small church is as significant as the large church, the Baptists are as vital as the Charismatics, and every racial group has a place at the Lord’s table.  A healthy church will promote other churches in the city, rather than simply promoting its own events and agendas all the time. A healthy church will promote spiritual renewal in all churches rather than further the idea that it has some kind of doctrinal superiority. A healthy church will exude the attitude described in Philippians 2:3-4:    “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also the interests of others.”

          In a controlling church, individual areas of ministry are no longer opportunities to serve. They become necessary in order to prove one’s commitment to the organization. Whether it is faithful attendance to worship services or working in some department, proving one’s loyalty becomes the key.   Obviously church attendance is vital to our spiritual growth. But if we find ourselves attending church so we can win favor with the pastor or to earn his trust, then we have missed the point.   Galatians 2:16 tells us, “A man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.” We cannot earn heaven or God’s love. The message of God’s grace doesn’t cancel the need to serve – it just exposes the “why” of our service.

          When a pastor tells his congregation that those who leave his church or disobey his authority are in danger of God’s wrath, you can be sure this man is operating in a spirit of control. He is attempting to use fear as a carnal means of keeping people in his church. The line usually goes like this: “If you leave our church, the blessing of God will be lifted from your life, and you will miss God’s will.” Another version says, “If you leave our church, you will be in rebellion, and Satan will be free to bring havoc into your life.”   Fear is the motivation behind such comments — not love. You can be sure that this type of reasoning is not from God. Jesus never motivated men out of fear. In a controlling church, fear is a form of manipulation. Instead of motivating people through love and servant hood, a controlling church tries to motivate through manipulation. Motivating people through fear is a direct contradiction to 1 John 4:18, which says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.”

          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.”

–     A controlling leader will discourage you from speaking with anyone else about your concerns. However, the Bible says that “in the multitude of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14). Seek counsel from a mature, objective leader in another church or another mature Christian. It is possible that what you have perceived as a controlling attitude may be genuine concern – so pray for discernment.   If after receiving counsel you are convinced that your church is in the grip of a controlling spirit, then you are free to leave. You are not responsible for anyone else who is still loyal to the church, so don’t try to rescue them. Pray for those people to discern the situation.

–       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.”                         Mark Fehlauer,  “Exposing Spiritual Abuse”, 2001