A serious epidemic that is permeating the church is the issue of spiritual abuse. It can be done by anyone, but in the context of belonging to a faith, it is normally carried out by an obviously erring leader. So then what exactly is spiritual abuse? When we look at the definitions that applies to the words “spiritual” and “abuse,” Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary says:
Spiritual: of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit: of or relating to sacred matters: ecclesiastical rather than lay or temporal: concerned with religious values: related or joined in spirit: things of a spiritual, ecclesiastical, or religious nature:
Abuse: a deceitful act: deception: a corrupt practice or custom: improper use or treatment: misuse: abusive language: expressing condemnation or disapproval: the most general term, implies the anger of the speaker and stresses the harshness of language: may apply to public denunciation: defaming: consequent shaming and disgracing: revile: to attack in words: to put to a wrong or improper use: to use so as to injure or damage: maltreat
I think that when we combine these two definitions, we can gauge just how detrimental this issue of spiritual abuse really is; not only in connection to one’s faith but also to one’s spiritual, mental and emotional stability. To go a step further, this very issue can determine if those who are on the receiving end of this kind of negative treatment, obtains their life’s destiny.
The interesting thing about leaders who abuse others spiritually is that they usually are blinded to their own twisted behaviors. The word “hamartolos” which is an archers term referring to a traveler leaving a familiar road and taking twisted paths that causes him to lose his way. This denotes one devoted to sin by choice, a transgressor whose thoughts, words and deeds are contrary to the Word of God. Keeping in mind that Proverbs 23:7a describes the connection between our thoughts and our actions. It says, “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he” (NKJV). Giving a more in-depth explanation, “thinks” refers to one’s mind, “heart” refers to one’s emotions and the phrase “so is he” refers to one’s produced behavior. When we apply this principle to “spiritual abuse” it would mean that spiritually abusive thoughts will produce spiritually abusive emotions, both of which ultimately produce spiritually abusive behaviors. During this process, the pit stop along the way is spiritually abusive communication (harmful preaching at someone during the course of a sermon or twisting the Word of God to make it fit what one wants it to say while manipulating, making others feel guilty or bad at the same time). This happens after one’s spiritually abusive thoughts have entered their heart. Matthew 12:34b confirms this which says, “For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (NKJV).
The question then becomes how does a leader arrive in such a twisted state? I would like to believe that one who desires to be a leader who takes on the task of having stewardship over the lives of others does not aspire to be a twisted or bad leader in life just as one aspires to be a pro basketball player one day. I mean who really says, “I want to be a twisted or bad leader and hurt, offend or push away as many people as I can from my church?” So then what happens? What brings about this backwards transformation of, if I can take the liberty to use this concept to describe my point, beautiful butterfly back into a hideous caterpillar so to speak? There may be many reasons that contribute to this negative change but at the top of the list would definitely be lack of “spiritual accountability.” More times than not, there is a leader at the top and in control who has little or no accountability. We know this to be true because if they were surrounded by spiritual accountability they would not be allowed to say and do as they please because they would have a person or a group of people to have to answer to. So ultimately the leader without spiritual accountability (like Nathan provided for David in 2 Samuel Chapter 12) is left to himself to govern and rule as they please with no one to refute or to rebuke them. To add to this, in cases where there is a lot of money involved, with all of the temptation that it brings, their tyrant leadership becomes even worse. Why? Because without spiritual accountability and or a solid personal foundation among many other good character qualities, money has the power to make one wants more, and more and more. In this same process, the temptation to do things that are not Biblical to get more, poses even more of a problem. When this happens, a leader straying from the faith is inevitable and so is spiritually abusing those they shepherd over. Money in and of itself is not evil but in 1 Tim. 6:10 the Bible say, “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (NKJV). Getting back to the lack of accountability issue, the world has an old saying that renders truth that says, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Similar in meaning, the Bible says in Proverbs 14:12:
12. “There is a way that seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death.” (NKJV)
The word “death” in this very same passage, in connection to the straying leader, can mean physical death as a result of sins (Deut. 34:4-5) but also spiritual death in various areas of their lives. To elaborate further, if leaders continue to reject the truth of God’s Word over a period of time, five things are sure to happen in this order:
- Rationalizing sinful behavior in one’s own mind.
- Justified sinful behavior and actions.
- Self-deception where right become wrong and wrong become right in one’s own mind.
- Hardness of heart due to the deceitfulness of sin and the error of one’s way.
- Reprobate mind or severed conscience which constitutes the loss of moral conviction.
- Spiritual abusing those they shepherd over because of who they have become.
In the end, even leaders can become desensitized in the morally sensitive areas of their lives to the point where they do not feel convicted anymore. In other words they do not even feel bad about their non-Biblical and sinful behaviors. They have become “spiritually numb” to the voice and promptings of God and their consciences has now become severed. This is a bad place to be for any leader to be because their hearts have become harden by the deceitfulness of sin which allows them to think, say and ultimately behave in ways contrary to godly living. To go a step further and here is the interesting key: they do not think that there is anything is wrong with their negative, hurtful and harmful behaviors. Not making excuses for them but they really don’t realize their own erring. The sad and unfortunate component in this equation is that innocent people lives that have good hearts and mean well get wounded, fractured and broken in the process.
One of the characteristics of the latter times is people departing from the faith. Upon learning about extremist behavior and personally experiencing spiritual abuse myself, I have learned that a lot of the people departing from the faith are doing so because they have been pushed away by spiritually abusive leaders. What these types of leaders do not seem to understand is that everyone is not going to tolerate their abusive treatment. People are more educated now than ever before. In some cases, people in the congregation have more degrees and are more educated than the Pastor. Along with this, most people know right from wrong so it is not going to be easy for spiritually abusive leaders to pull the wool over people’s eyes without them taking a stand in some way. Even if it means leaving the church or even joining another faith all together people will eventually take a stand. Let’s face it, on a more simplistic level, when people have their own personal pain and problems in their own lives, they are not going to go to and or stick around very long at a church where they are going to be continuously beat up spiritually, mentally, emotionally and verbally even more. Well, at least not the ones who are not blinded themselves. To add to this, surprisingly, some blinded and spiritually abusive leaders have even gotten offended that people left their fellowship and have even twisted the scenario by instead saying that the people who left their church hurt them by leaving. Is being devoted staying at a place where you are constantly being beat down by the very person who is supposed to be in your life to nurture and develop you? Are people supposed to stay at a place where their destiny, gifts, talents and abilities are obviously being crushed by a leader whose twistedness not only involves blindedness but in some cases fueled by jealousy, envy and insecurities. Why? Because they are afraid that one just might become more than they have become? Christianity and ministry are about stepping into one’s destiny so that one can help another step into their destiny, even if it means the protégé going further than the teacher. For example, Moses faith took the children of Israel to the brink of the Promise Land but his student Joshua’s faith took them in. This is the way that it is suppose to be but I have learned that there is a big difference between being Kingdom minded and Church minded. There is a big difference between being Spiritual and Religious. When a leaders mind set is focused on the Kingdom and is spiritual, they are happy to see those whom they have developed go beyond what they have done. On the flip side when a leaders mind set is Church focused and religious, spiritual abuse is bound to happen in the form of pressing control, being held back, hurt and hindered. This is a huge reason why people do not want to go to church now. This is a huge reason why there is a growing lack of respect for Christianity and their leaders. This is a huge reason why people are struggling with the love of God. This is a huge reason why there is a great exodus from the church. This is a huge reason why people are not only leaving churches but starting their own fellowships, ministries and worship services because they want to implement leadership and a format that is in line with the way that the Bible says that it should be: LOVING.
My encouragement to anyone who is in a spiritual abusive situation is to begin to put together an exit plan. Of course you want to leave in a peaceful, decent and orderly way but get out as fast as you can because your God given destiny depends on it. God has more for you than what you are experiencing. You are worth more than this kind of negative and abusive treatment. Go and never look back and achieve all that is in stored for you in life. I must say this because I am going to continue to use my platforms to speak out against all forms of hate, spiritual abuse and any non-Biblical behaviors that do not agree with our faith. In fact I will be making an appearance on a nationally televised show about faith next month to let my voice be heard and made against this very serious issue called “spiritual abuse” so stay tuned.