Spiritual abuse: what is it?

‘Spiritual abuse’ What is it?  What isn’t it?  How can we tell the difference?  It’s a huge issue that we need to think not just clearly about but biblically about.  There are lots of helpful, and unhelpful things, flying around all adding to a sense of confusion among church members, pastors, elders and other leaders.

And there is no easy blanket answer.  Cases and accusations are complex and all those involved need care and support.  They need helping to assess what has happened, why, as well as their and others motives and perceptions.  They need help in discerning what has been going on at a heart level, as well as hearing how others have perceived their actions and reaction.  We need to help discern what was accidental but hurtful, what was deliberate and deceitful and what was right care but received wrongly.

There are times when pastoral care is hard to receive.  Even when we are rightly and lovingly rebuked for sin, or asked probing questions about our hearts, our loves, our idols, we don’t automatically welcome it with joy, it is only as we weigh it that we see the prayer, care and concern that has gone into those words.   My worry is that in a culture where we have been too slow to recognise abuse, where we have not cared for those wounded by it and where we have allowed abusive leaders to go unchecked and unquestioned and challenged we are not clear on what spiritual abuse is and how to create healthy cultures that protect and care.

But my other worry is that because of those failings, because of current uncertainty, we knee jerk react to that by going to the opposite extreme and calling everything abuse, driving pastors who are not abusers but faithful shepherds out of the ministry because of a wrong understanding of abuse.

But how do we begin to feel our way towards a more biblical definition of these things?

Ezekiel 34 is one among a number of helpful biblical passages in diagnosing spiritual abuse.  It doesn’t say everything but it does provide some helpful diagnostic tools.

It is spiritual abuse when those who should be caring for others only care for themselves(v2).  God rebukes these abusive leaders of Israel because when they should be caring for the flock they are caring for themselves at the expense of the flock.  They eat the curds, clothe themselves in the wool, slaughter the choice animals, in short failing to care for the flock because they are out for themselves.

That’s a helpful diagnostic.  Abuse is when the abuser feeds themselves at the expense of others.  It is when they fleece the flock not feed it.

It is spiritual abuse, and God won’t hold leaders guiltless, when they fail to strengthen the weak(4), heal the ill, bind up the injured, bring back the strays or search for the lost(5).  Abusive leadership is as much about hard pastoral work left undone, as it is offenses committed.  We might use the term neglect, except there seem to be something more nefarious at play in this situation, it is not that the religious leaders are unaware of the injured, sick and lost, more than they just don’t want to do the work.

Maybe this category of deliberate neglect is particular helpful for us to think through.  It’s been seen in Blokes Worth Watching culture, where time is invested in the able and gifted and whole, those who can contribute now and have potential in the future.   At the expense of the care and time given to the weak and needy and marginalised.  But this care for the weak, wounded, lost and ill is what God calls leaders to.

Spiritual abuse rules harshly and brutally(5-6).  It scatters God’s people it doesn’t gather them.   Abusive leadership creates division.  It divides one person from another.  It creates barriers.  It isolates people from others and from fellowship.  It makes people feel alone.  It is graceless and loveless.  

Ezekiel 34 has lots more to say as God openly denounces spiritually abusive leadership and talks about ideal leadership and the deal leader that will come.  It’s not the only passage with something to say about the issue.  But it is a helpful starting point for those of us in leadership teams to examine what we do and why and how we create a church culture where those things don’t happen.  It’s a helpful touchstone for the church to understand what good leadership looks like and how to recognise abusive leadership.  It doesn’t say everything but it is a helpful biblical foundation.

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