Beating the Sheep

By David Henke

For anyone living in America during the last quarter century the concept of abuse at the hands of those in positions of power, is quite familiar. There is child abuse, spousal abuse, workplace discrimination, mistreatment of the elderly in nursing homes, and many other examples. The reality of abusive behavior is as real as man's sin nature.

During the last ten years Christian authors have published numerous books on the subject of spiritual abuse (see a partial list on page 2). Is this happening because our society is very conscious of abuse, now, and the Christian community is simply applying that consciousness introspectively? Or, is it a response to a growing problem. Perhaps both causes are true.

In the last quarter-century there has been an explosion of independent religious groups. That, in itself, is not a problem. But, a problem may arise where there is a deficient polity coupled with a leader who fails to understand the necessity of two-way accountability. When such a situation occurs and there is no authority higher than the local leadership it can leave the membership without a means for correcting the abuse. The authors of the recent books on spiritual abuse found the vast majority of their examples among these groups

Spiritual Abuse Defined

Spiritual abuse could be defined as the injury of a person's spiritual health. The cause could arise from a doctrinal error, or, it could be the result of a person trying to meet a legitimate need by an illegitimate means that weakens another person's spiritual health.

Inclination toward abuse in the spiritual arena is a human condition that can find expression wherever you find people engaged in spiritual activities. Cults are expert at achieving their ends using this method. The Bible talks a lot about this practice.

God's Attitude

One of the most dramatic condemnations of spiritual abuse in scripture is found in Ezekiel 34.

"And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks?

Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.

And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered.

My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them."

This description of the "shepherds of Israel" is the antithesis of the ministry of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. He strengthened the weak, bound up the broken, sought the lost sheep of Israel, and was a servant leader.

What must be the attitude of Jesus to those who would be spiritual shepherds but devour the spiritual health of their people? We get a glimpse of it in His reaction to the moneychangers in the Temple. The people of God were coming to the Temple to make their appropriate sacrifices in obedience to God. The moneychangers and others were fraudulently making profits at their expense. Jesus reaction was violent anger.

Another example is found in Jesus' description of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. He called them hypocrites to their faces and in front of the people. The Pharisees were willing to enforce their traditions on the people but not willing to care for them as would a shepherd. See The News & Views, Vol. 3, #5 for a discussion of this passage.

We can see in such passages that the abuser does not care for the welfare of those he leads as much as he cares for himself or the ideas he has. Aberrant groups tend to be established around some "wind of doctrine" or persuasive personality. When you examine the founding of the major cults of today you will find this to be the model.

What Spiritual Abuse Looks Like

The first sign of an abusive group is that it is authoritarian. When it comes right down to it, control is more important than personal spiritual welfare. Leaders in an authoritarian system are not teachable. The attitude, like that of the Pharisees, is that they are the teachers and rulers of God's people, not their servants.

They may say they are teachable, but then set up rules which you must follow to approach them. Then they interpret those rules to rule you out of order. The former members of one particular group described to the author how their leader used this method to avoid accountability. He kept pointing out how their "heart is not right" in the way they brought issues to him.

It seems there is an innate consciousness on the part of false leadership that what is real is different than what is shown. Hence, two other characteristics, image consciousness and suppression of criticism, are necessary to keep the system intact.

Even the Soviet Union acted this way. They jammed the Voice of America, used their domestic press for propaganda, and sent dissidents to the Gulag. If what is preached is true, and is followed by those holding power, then accountability is nothing to fear.

Another sign of an abusive system is perfectionism. This can arise out of a theology that requires works for salvation, or to keep one's salvation. All cults practice this idea, which leads to spiritual exhaustion. It also leads to disillusionment or self-condemnation because perfection cannot be achieved.

A performance-based relationship with God is a useful tool for accumulating power and wealth in the group's leaders. This will generally be evident in the lifestyle of cult leaders compared to that of the membership.

Finally, you will almost always find an area of significant imbalance in the teachings, or practice, of abusive groups. The imbalance may show up as an unreasonable prohibition or an excessive burden. Commitment to this imbalance is a test of loyalty for the members, whether they realize it or not.


It must be our individual responsibility to be aware of the modern manifestations of Pharisaism. We must be ready to speak out, like Jesus, on behalf of others.

We need to be prepared to help those who have been spiritually injured by modern Pharisees, and a performance-based theology of salvation. What do these people need? First, and foremost, your unconditional friendship, willingness to listen to their horror stories without judgment, and reflection of the model of Jesus to them.

They also need time, probably a lot of time, to let the wound heal. But healing can only begin when the injury ceases for them AND the healing environment described above is present. Most spiritual abuse victims carry their injury with them all their lives. They can be healed and the good news is, when they are they usually become zealous to help others who have been likewise affected.

The man born blind was "cast out" of the Temple by the Pharisees because he said Jesus healed him. They were valuing their power and prestige more than they valued the man, or the truth. Being "cast out" of the Temple was a form of ex-communication, or disfellowshipping.

When Jesus heard the man had been cast out of the Temple He sought him out to minister to his spiritual need (John 9). This is our model as followers of Christ.

Books on Spiritual Abuse

Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse By Jeff VanVonderen

Healing Spiritual Abuse By Ken Blue

Toxic Faith By Arterburn and Felton

Churches That Abuse By Ron Enroth

Recovering From Churches That Abuse By Ron Enroth

Wisdom Hunter By Randall Arthur (fiction)

Betrayal By Randall Arthur (fiction)

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