Spiritual Abuse in the Bible?

David Henke

"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.. With force and with cruelty have ye ruled them" (Ezekiel 34:2-4).

Spiritual abuse has a very prominent place in the Bible, though that terminology has not been used until recently. In the scripture it is called bondage to men and the traditions of men. It is a by-product and outgrowth of legalism, which is bondage to the letter of the law.

Mark 3 describes the scene as Jesus enters a synagogue on the Sabbath and encounters a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees watched to see what Jesus would do. They must have been threatened, or offended, by this man's regard for the needy at the expense of their rules, because Jesus saw and knew they would try to accuse Him of "working" on the Sabbath. He also knew that He was going to heal the man, so He used a question to set up the Pharisees to be seen as the hypocrites they were. He asked, "Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath days, or to do evil? To save life, or to kill?"

The potential answers to this question for the Pharisees presented unacceptable dilemmas. It is like the question, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" It is certainly not lawful to do evil, or kill, on the Sabbath, which left the Pharisees with just one other choice. And that choice pitted the Pharisees against their own traditions and interpretation of the Law. Jesus also knew they wanted to kill Him when he included the reference to killing in His question. That is exactly what the Pharisees began to do when they left.

There is a lesson in this passage for anyone dealing with an abusive religious system. If you challenge, disagree, oppose, or in any way offend, you cannot leave with your reputation intact. In the most severely dysfunctional groups you may even lose your life, as Jesus did.

What Is Spiritual Abuse?

Spiritual abuse, as we are addressing it here, could be defined as the injury of a person's spiritual health. It is the use of religion and spiritual concepts to gain or maintain undue power over another. The cause could arise from a doctrinal error that puts a person into a performance-based relationship with God. Or, it could be the result of a person trying to meet their legitimate need by an illegitimate means that weakens their own or another person's spiritual health.

Typically an abusive religious system will have the following characteristics:

Undue Loyalty to Leaders - The leadership is held to be anointed by God and followers taught they should submit in anything it requires. It is taught that God will bless that submission even if the leader is wrong.
Authoritarian - The system is characterized by rules and a power structure that is unaccountable to those who follow.
Appearance is Everything - As Jeff VanVonderen says, "How things look is more important than what is real." (Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, page 130)
Perfectionistic - Works are necessary for salvation, to keep one's salvation, or to keep God's blessing.
Unbalanced - There is usually a majoring on minors that makes the group distinctive from others.

Another "Victimization" Cause?

With all the publicity about people being victimized by this or that activity, or group, there is an inevitable backlash. Some "victims" milk the public's sympathy for the weak being abused by the strong.

There is more to this problem, however, than people "who need to "get a life", find some backbone, become more self-reliant, etc. Spiritual abuse is one of the defining characteristics of all cults, and because it is a human failing, it can occur anywhere there are people gathered around a religious purpose.

Scriptural Precedent

Spiritual abuse is prominently discussed in scripture. The strongest, most emotional and even violent responses Jesus displayed came against spiritual abusers. From the above-described encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees in the synagogue to the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus confronted those who misused their spiritual authority at the expense of those who followed them. Let's look at some passages.

Jeremiah 5:26-31 describes a perversion of justice in Israel where those in authority, the prophets and priests, were adding to their own wealth, power, and prestige at the expense of the needy. This angered God Who asked, "Shall I not visit for these things?" This same perversion of justice is described again in Jeremiah 6:13-14 where the false leaders give lip service to healing, saying, "Peace, peace; when there is no peace." Needy people left these spiritual authorities with no real help and God was angry for that. An authoritarian leader will seek to be unaccountable for his actions, or inactions, this side of heaven.

Luke 15:1, 2 tells the attitude of the Pharisees about Jesus' relationship with Publicans and sinners. Jesus dares to share a meal with them. The Pharisees conclude that Jesus must not care about his own spiritual purity if He associates with people of such low moral character. The attitude of the Pharisees illustrates a chasm that really did exist between the lowly sinner, who knew he was a sinner, and the self-righteous Pharisee. The religious leaders were saying by their attitude that you must rise to a level of acceptability before we will accept you. This is perfectionism and it is a denial of grace. God's attitude, however, is that He will come to you and meet you where you are.

Matthew 23 is a long description by Jesus of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He says they have seated themselves in "Moses seat," the position of authority, and they command things that they themselves will not do. They bind heavy burdens on people but they will not carry the loads. Jesus then goes on to utter seven "Woes" on the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. The meek and mild Jesus resorts to words like "hypocrites!" "whited sepulchers," "serpents," and more. Talk about name-calling! I would hate to be on the receiving end of that when it is coming from God. But the humble sinners, who knew they were sinners, were attracted to this caring, straight-talking man. Jesus was real and the Pharisees were all appearance.

Again, in Matthew 23 Jesus tells the Pharisees to their face, and before the public, that they are unbalanced in their weighting of issues. Judgment, mercy and faith are given insufficient weight but a tithe on the produce from their garden plots is paid with precise measure (vss. 23-24). Jesus said they strain out the gnat but swallow whole camels. Where was their judgment and mercy in verse 14 where Jesus said they devour widows' houses? But, they did pay tithes! They were skilled at applying the letter of the Law to every life situation but had lost the spirit of the Law along the way. This was why the people were alienated from them, and fearful. And, it is why Jesus found a ready reception of His ministry among the public. Jesus illustrated the balance between the spirit and the letter when dealing with the woman taken in adultery.

God's Attitude Toward Abuse

The damage done by spiritual abuse is very deep, much deeper than most would ever imagine unless it had been experienced. The damage is deep because of the vulnerability of the victim.

Think for a moment; when a believer enters a church is he going to put his guard up, or down? Does he not consider himself to be among those most interested in his welfare? The church is seen as a refuge.

With the idea that one is among those who are there to help and not hurt, a person is much more vulnerable to the damage that can come from someone who gives him a burden, or a rule, or a judgment based upon the traditions of men (Matthew 15:9b).

When a believer acts, believing what they are told to be from God, but it turns out to be false, he can experience disappointment and disillusionment not only with the person who led him in the counsel, but toward God Himself. That is why spiritual abuse is so serious in God's eyes.

Jeff VanVonderen observes that the symptoms exhibited by one who suffers spiritual abuse are point by point the same as a victim of incest. Each is a case of a trusted caregiver violating that trust in one of the most intimate parts of our human nature.

The heart of God toward the weak, and those who follow the strong, is illustrated in the familiar statement by Jesus regarding children. "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea."

In verse three Jesus equates a new convert to this little child. The lesson is that we must use our influence carefully, wisely, and consistent with the Law of Love.

James makes this point in chapter 3, verse 1, when he says, " My brethren, be not many masters (Greek, didaskaloi - teachers), knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation." There are damaging spiritual consequences to followers when a spiritual leader misleads, therefore there are more severe consequences from God for that leader.

Perhaps the longest lasting damage from spiritual abuse is loss of ability to trust. Mark Twain said that a cat that walked on a hot stove would never walk on a hot stove again. But then, it would not walk on a cold stove either.

Many abuse victims never again darken the door of a church. To them it represents too much danger.


How does a person recover from spiritual abuse? And, how fully can that recovery be?

Recovery can be a long process. It's rather like recovery from the amputation of a limb, or removal of a diseased organ. You will never be the same again but you can learn to function in a healthy way.

However, recovery seldom happens without help from someone who understands that the injury is real and deep. It is useless and unwise to tell a spiritual abuse victim to "just get over it," or "put it behind you." They can't. It is a big elephant in the middle of their life.

Recovery begins with the truth of John 8:32. "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." Knowing the truth about what happened, and grasping the Truth of God's Word, is the starting point for recovery. Just knowing the injury has a name and identifying traits, can be liberating.

Next it is important to know how spiritual abuse impacted that particular individual. What made him vulnerable? How was his trust cultivated and then violated?

Emotions must be allowed to be expressed. There is anger, grief, hurt, and loss. Just as in the loss of a loved one in death, a person needs time to reconcile his emotions with reality. Here is where a loving and gracious Christian can give the greatest help. A caring heart, a quiet mouth and a listening ear are the important resources.

It is very important for a victim to know that he is not alone. Many others have experienced what he is going through.

Most victims go through a stage of self doubt. They may wonder if this is a judgment of God that came about because of something wrong with themselves. It is important for these who suffer to know the wrong and hurt came about when they were led to believe a lie. They need the consensual validation of hearing from others who went through similar experiences.

Finally healing comes when the individual is able to give help to others out of his own experience. The ideal setting for this is a support group.

This writer has felt for many years that there needs to be a bridge between the abusive experience in their past and a grace oriented church to which they will eventually go, or maybe are now trying to re-learn to trust.

That bridge needs to be their "Church In Between" a place of refuge that will function as a church, with understanding of their responses. Because, they are still like the cat that walked on that hot stove.

I recommend the following books for those of you who wish to learn more about this subject.

Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Jeff VanVonderen.

Toxic Faith by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton

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