What Is Spiritual Abuse And How To Recover From It

Abusive Shepherds Ruling Like Royalty

Over the course of the 33 years I have been a believer in Jesus, I have come across on numerous occasions, people that have been severely wounded by spiritual abuse.

A few times, I unwittingly became involved with ministries and leaders that were spiritually abusive. I thank God that He made me such a unique person that I never fit in those molds well enough to feel comfortable.

However, recently I have run across this issue of spiritual abuse and its effects on other people enough that I can see it is time for me to speak out against it. I cannot stay silent.

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My experience with Spiritual Abuse

8 years ago, someone who was very dear to my heart ended their life.

They were a born again believer in Jesus, had served faithfully in pastoral ministry for 25 years but had gotten caught up in the spiritually abusive word of faith movement that teaches that God rewards perfection. That if you will only believe right, speak right, and follow the right formulas that God will bless you financially and with fame.

After having believed that type of teaching and followed it to the letter, and seeing that it did not happen for them, they could not face the fact that it was the teaching that was flawed and not them and so became suicidal.

16 years ago I witnessed the split of a church in a rural community because one of the board members and elders of an Assembly of God church could not handle the open expression of spiritual gifts within that church.

Now, this is a church that is part of the Pentecostal mainstream of churches doctrinally. Spiritual gifts and their free expression are part of their heritage.

However, this person could not accept this because of some teachings by a very charismatic contemporary leader who has taught thousands of people that spiritual gifts should be only expressed when there are no unbelievers present.

Many people were wounded because of the spiritual abuse and the tactics used by this charismatic leader that was then passed on by one of his followers.

No more than a year ago, I was involved in an attempt to try to deprogram another person who has followed this same charismatic leader.

Unfortunately, it ended again with a lot of pain, and the hearts and souls of precious saints of God were wounded because of spiritually abusive principles that were prioritized over the hearts and souls of individual people.

So today, since I have a platform and pulpit reaching almost 100,000 people per month, I have to speak out against spiritual abuse.

The Definition of Spiritual Abuse.

As many of you know. I am not the type of person that runs around crying abuse all the time.

In fact, most of the time I will tell people to get over it and move on because I do not believe in a victim mentality with Christians. We are more than conquerors, not victims.

However, a very real and tragic problem in our churches is spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse is the misuse of power, authority, leadership, or influence to further the self-centered interests or agenda of the leader rather than to meet the needs of the individual that is following that leader.

This happens sometimes because of a flawed doctrinal position and sometimes it happens because of an unmet emotional or spiritual need within the leader that is being met with illegitimate means.

Those that engage in spiritual abuse can sometimes be described as legalistic, mind-controlling, spiritually addictive, and authoritarian.

Common Characteristics of Spiritually Abusive Leaders and Organizations

They are predominantly authoritarian.

The most prevalent commonality of spiritually abusive systems or leaders is the overemphasis of authority.

Since the leader claims to have a special insight or revelation by God either directly or by the scriptures, this allows them to claim they have a right to exert authority over their followers. They claim a positional seat of power and will even use the scriptures to justify it.

Many times they will call it the Moses model of leadership.

This is what the scribes and Pharisees did in the day of Jesus. (Matt 23:1-2) This assumes that God works through a chain of command or leadership structure rather than in each individual being part of the body of Christ.

These authoritarian leaders will claim usually by innuendo that people who submit to them receive a special blessing by God.

They are very concerned with outward appearances. 

Both the spiritually abusive and those that have suffered from spiritual abuse are concerned with outward appearances.

They will often spin the truth, or even deny facts related to the flaws or mistakes that they or their leaders have made.

Whether it is predictions of the return of Jesus or cover-ups of moral failure within the group, spiritually abusive organizations do not promote transparency and honesty. To do otherwise would undermine their authority and position as the “chosen of God”.

Spiritually abusive leaders may suck you in with a message of grace, but you will find out that only the ones that perform get the rewards, and as such they inflict upon their followers an impossibly high set of standards for thought and behavior.

This reinforced the follower’s need for their leadership and their need to submit to that leadership.

Spiritual abuse at its heart is legalism and why Jesus said to beware of the leaven (teachings) of the Pharisees.

Spiritually abusive leaders suppresses criticism.

Followers of a spiritually abusive leader or organization are not allowed to think for themselves.

Any questions or concerns about what is happening are quickly squelched and are viewed as a challenge to the authority of the leader.

The person questioning the issue becomes the problem rather than the issue that is being questioned.

Issues are handled from the top down and if a person questions the one in authority then they are questioning God.

This leads to a person questioning their relationship with God and eventually leads to a person living in fear and doubt since they cannot think or relate to God themselves.

Spiritually abusive leaders promote perfectionism.

Although they may give lip service to salvation by grace, in their way of thinking it is only natural to work to maintain it or earn the blessings that go along with it. Thus in spiritually abusive organizations, you must work to achieve blessings.

Whether it is by the right thinking, the right confession, or the right lifestyle of holiness as defined by the leader, you must work to achieve any standing within the group and receive the blessings of God.

Those that manage to either achieve these standards or fool themselves into believing they have obtained that perfection that is required, typically will reflect a type of spiritual pride. They will exhibit characteristics of elitism, arrogance, and condescension.

They will look down upon the unwashed masses that need their help to be just like them.

Unfortunately what happens is at some point they will fail and suffer shipwreck, they will become spiritually burned out, and the group will label them as an apostate, weak, or backslidden and cut them loose and go on to their next victim unless the person grovels and promises to try harder next time.

This produces a continual cycle of unhealthy neediness.

Spiritually abusive leaders are always unbalanced biblically.

These leaders must distinguish themselves from the rest uninformed believers and leaders. They need to be “special” or distinctive.

They will do this by becoming strainers of gnats concerning a particular doctrine or issue.

Whether it is the prophetic movement, the King James Only movement, or the movement that says spiritual gifts need to be in a special service for believers only, or the ones that demand that the verse by verse method of bible teaching “must” be taught on Sunday mornings. (This is actually in the agreement charter of a major charismatic organization today) they will become out of balance doctrinally by emphasizing their distinctive so that they can claim that “God is on their side”.

A Biblical Response to Spiritual Abuse

The proper response to spiritual abuse is to model a healthy leadership model.

The model that the church is supposed to use is not the Moses model. That is a model of positional authority.

The model that Jesus gave to the church was one of relational authority. You are given authority because those you are serving recognize God’s calling upon your life.

It is from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Now, this is not to say I believe in voting on leaders. That is not biblical either, however, leaders are those that have people following them because they are servants to the followers.

A servant does not blast people from the pulpit, does not try to fleece them out of their money, and does not try to make the path to a relationship with God one that is burdensome and filled with heartache.

A servant washes the feet of those He serves.

So I call upon the leaders of these groups of unhealthy churches that are spiritually abusing their followers to stop.

Stop promoting your elitism, stop shooting your wounded sheep, and stop promoting your people to need you in unhealthy ways.

Throw away the Moses model of leadership and become the servant leaders God has called you to become!

Walk away from spiritual abuse.

I know that it is hard to walk away from those you have developed unhealthy heart ties to.

I know that you may feel that you are betraying all that you have known and loved and may even feel like you are betraying family or friends if you walk away.

However, God has called you to freedom, not abuse. To health and wholeness, not neediness and abuse.

So I would encourage you, walk away from that abuse.

Find a healthy church with a healthy leader who will help you find your own right standing with God.

Find a leader who will be a servant and help you discover the true nature of God’s love, acceptance, and forgiveness.

Blessings to you

Pastor Duke

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