Spiritual Abuse-A New Catch-Phrase

“Spiritual Abuse”

It is a phrase that I heard about 5 years ago from a man who left our church. The accusation came to me in this fashion and was a term I had never heard before.

Also, in recent days, the phrase has come up again, and this time not to myself but to others. Again, I stop and think about that term: “spiritual abuse.”

And, as I think about it, I go back to the Bible and wonder what it has to say about it if anything.

Here is what I found:

Ezekiel 34:1–4

1 Then the word of the Lord came to me saying,

2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock?

3 “You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock.

4 “Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them.

There are further scathing statements scattered throughout the OT, too many to number, but listen to the extent of the “abuse” of the rulers of Israel in the days of Micah the prophet:

Micah 3:1–3

1 And I said,

“Hear now, heads of Jacob

And rulers of the house of Israel.

Is it not for you to know justice?

2 “You who hate good and love evil,

Who tear off their skin from them

And their flesh from their bones,

3 Who eat the flesh of my people,

Strip off their skin from them,

Break their bones

And chop them up as for the pot

And as meat in a kettle.”

(see also Jer 23:1; Ezek 22:25; 34:8–10)

Then, go to the NT and see Matthew 23 and John 10 for indications of what an abusive leader looks like.

Overall, what I see is that a spiritual abuser:

  1. Teaches error.
  2. Destroys true believers
  3. Imposes religion with drastic consequences.
  4. Enjoys the spoils of his abuse at the expense of the harm of the followers of God.


…what I hear as “spiritual abuse” from others does not reflect this in fact, but in opinion. It seems to come often from people who are already filled with incurable independence and self-authenticating authority. Doctrinally, they are aberrant at best and often have a pet doctrine that allows for a relaxed discipleship-one without commitments. That is, although the accusation is hurled, the facts are very different. This is called a lie. In the OT, there were serious consequences for bearing false witness:

Deuteronomy 19:15–21

15 “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.

16 “If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing,

17 then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who will be in office in those days.

18 “The judges shall investigate thoroughly, and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely,

19 then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you.

20 “The rest will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such an evil thing among you.

21 “Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

In general, pastoral leadership comes with the ongoing potential for accusations. Anyone who understands the Word of God will admit that pastors and elders bear authority in the church (1 Thessalonians 5:12). They have charge over the saints of God and they lead by hard work. They have the right to command the commands of Christ (1 Timothy 4:11). They have an obligation to expect obedience to Christ’s commands from God’s people (Hebrews 13:17).

Given the difficulty that people have with authority in general, it is no surprise that there is a real suspicion towards leaders in the church. In order to alleviate and dispel those suspicions, the lives of leaders:

  1. Must meet high standards: 1 Timothy 3:1ff
  2. Must be examined by others: Hebrews 13:7

The openness of the lives of leaders must allow for scrutiny and examination. Otherwise, suspicion will ensue. Men are mere men. But we do not preach a mere Word. The power of what is accomplished in those who believe in Christ is from the Word itself so that God is displayed and glorified by that process (2 Corinthians 4:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:13). That process must be evident in the leaders primarily (1 Timothy 4:15).

Why? So that as leaders command and exhort God’s people, the accusation of ulterior motives can be dismissed when people see their work and their godliness, unless the accusers themselves have hidden agendas. Once an accuser is given a platform, it is very hard to return to normalcy. The destruction that comes from false charges is lasting, and sometimes can bring down and entire ministry.

In conclusion, “spiritual abuse” does not equate with commanding God’s people to obedience to the Words of Christ. If it did, Jesus was the supreme example of a “spiritual abuser” who ever lived: He physically attacked people (John 2:14-16). He expected people to hate their parents and families if they were going to be allowed to follow Him (Luke 14:25-27). He repeated disdain and accusations towards the rulers of the people (Matthew 23). He questioned the salvation of people (Matthew 15:12-14). And, He promised to condemn people who did not follow Him to eternal hell (Matthew 25:41). It is no surprise, then, that His disciples, those who merely repeat what He said, are called the same.