By Craig von Buseck CBN.com Ministries Director
Spiritual abuse can be difficult to detect at first if you have never encountered it. In a manipulative church, the pastor or senior leaders have subtly positioned themselves to take the place of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives. They may try to put undue influence on the choices that people in their congregation are making. They might try to sway someone’s decision in a matter to keep them under their control, or to keep them from leaving the church.
People in a controlling church are often told they cannot leave the church with God’s blessing unless the pastor approves the decision. They are warned that if they don’t follow the pastor’s guidance, not only will God not bless them, but they will also bring a curse upon themselves or their family. Leaving the “covering” of the church and the controlling pastor will result in some sort of calamity.
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 sow fear as a carnal means of keeping people in his church.
“If you leave this church,” he may warn, “the blessing of God will be lifted from your life, and you will miss God’s will. You will be in rebellion, and you will open yourself up to all kinds of calamity. The devil will have freedom to attack you because you have walked away from God’s protection,” that “protection” being the one true church that he happens to pastor.
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 people out of fear. Fear is a form of manipulation, which the Bible calls witchcraft. Manipulation is sin. Instead of motivating people through love and a call to serve the body of Christ and reach the lost, a spiritually abusive minister will try to motivate through manipulation.
The apostle John is called the apostle of love because he wrote so much about our call as Christians to walk in love. ‘There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear,’ he wrote in 1 John 4:18.
By keeping people in fear, controlling spiritual leaders work to get good Christian people to build their religious kingdoms — by telling them that they are building the kingdom of God. We see this kind of prophet and priest in the book of Jeremiah. The controlling leaders are focused on their own needs being met, and the needs of the people are ignored.
Jesus was more critical of the religious leaders of His day than He was of the sinners, and for good reason. The Jewish leaders put false religious burdens on the people for the sake of their own prosperity.
They crush you with impossible religious demands and never lift a finger to help ease the burden. (Matthew 23:4)
In this case, as it is in controlling churches today, the people were burdened with rules and regulations that needed to be performed to gain the acceptance of the religious leaders — in that day the Pharisees. Today, it is the manipulative spiritual leader. Many Christians today find themselves bearing the heavy load of the religious baggage in an abusive system. Around the world, hurting churchgoers struggle to earn the favor and approval of a modern-day Pharisee, all the while thinking they are earning the favor of God.
The good news is that if you are in Christ, you already have God’s favor! And no amount of work for a spiritually abusive pastor will give you more acceptance than you already have.
Jesus recognized the burden that was being placed on sincere believers in His time, who just wanted to do what is right. He saw them as sheep without a shepherd, even though they were involved in the religious rituals in the temple and synagogues.
They were bewildered (harassed and distressed and dejected and helpless), like sheep without a shepherd. —Matthew 9:36 AMP
In his book, “Exposing Spiritual Abuse”, Mike Fehlauer points out that Jesus saw these dear people as harassed: “This word conveys the idea of some outside force pressing upon the people, causing them to feel weary, distressed and downcast. This outside force was the religious system that placed its emphasis on outward appearances. It was a system that promised peace based on one’s ability to follow the prescribed rules and regulations. If one failed, then there was judgment.”
“Not having a shepherd didn’t mean that the people lacked for those who told them what to do,” he continues. “There were plenty of Pharisees willing to do that. It meant they had no one to lead them to spiritual green pastures. A shepherd doesn’t drive his sheep as cattlemen drive their cattle. A shepherd leads his sheep to a safe place where food is plentiful and where they can find rest.”
The term shepherd is an Old Testament metaphor as well. Ezekiel 34 contains an exhortation in which the Lord holds the leaders of Israel responsible for failing to care for the flock:
Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy and say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD to the shepherds: ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock. The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd.’” —Ezekiel 34:2–5
I wonder if these modern-day Pharisees realize that God considers their congregations as sheep without shepherds. Perhaps if they recognized how God viewed the situation, they would change their ways.
The Christian seeking guidance from a spiritual leader must also be on the lookout for the dangerous trap of spiritual elitism that can produce an “us-and-them,” or a “fortress” mentality. This is a telltale sign of spiritual abuse. A church or pastor with an elitist attitude teaches, if ever so subtly, that no other church or ministry is preaching the pure gospel — or at least, no one is preaching it the way they should, in other words, the way that he is preaching it. An elitist leader will discourage members from visiting other churches or receiving counsel from anyone who doesn’t attend their church. If anyone breaks this rule, he or she is viewed as rebellious.
We see a biblical example of this in 3 John 9–10:
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church.
Spiritual elitism is not a new thing in the church, but the apostle John rightly called it “evil.”
A healthy spiritual leader, on the other hand, respects and encourages the other churches and ministries in a community, recognizing that there are several different expressions of the body of Christ. A spiritually free pastor realizes that no one denomination or local church can represent the love of Jesus to a city. A healthy church will promote revival in the entire Christian community. It will not promote the idea that it has some kind of doctrinal or spiritual superiority.
In a healthy relationship, a spiritual mentor will provide godly counsel from selfless motives. He or she will want God’s will for your life. If that means that you will need to leave the church or ministry, then they will rejoice that you are being sent out to be a blessing in another place.
A healthy pastoral relationship should produce peace in the life of the believer — another one of the seven keys of God’s guidance. If the godly counsel that you receive is not giving you peace or rest in your soul, it may not be from the Lord. Remember, godly counsel is only one of the seven keys of God’s guidance. You should never rely solely on the advice or input from another human being in determining God’s will for you life — regardless of how long they have been walking with the Lord.
Because man is a sinner, building healthy spiritual relationships will always be a challenge. Someone once said, “the perfect church stopped being perfect the minute I walked in the door.” God’s intention all along has been for the local church to be healthy, life-giving, serving, encouraging, and Christ-centered. But because He has chosen to use sinful men and women to lead His church, there will always be the possibility that a local congregation can fall into deception or unhealthy spiritual patterns.
There must be a balance between humbly seeking guidance from a person of spiritual authority, and subjecting yourself to the manipulative practice of spiritual abuse. Finding that balance is an ongoing process in life. But it is a necessary struggle that will prevent you from becoming weary and worn on one hand, trying to jump through religious hoops that promise God’s acceptance and love — and on the other hand, from becoming an island unto yourself, determining what is right in your eyes alone. Both sides of this spiritual spectrum are dangerous, and should be avoided. Ask God to give you the grace and guidance to walk in the tension of these truths — opening yourself to the input of mature Christian leaders, while avoiding spiritual control.
If you find yourself striving to gain the acceptance of spiritual leaders, or if 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.
We can protect ourselves from spiritual abuse by considering all the keys of God’s guidance in every major decision