I wasn’t even ten years old when I first saw the truth of abuse. One evening a policeman showed up at our door. After talking to my mom and dad I was brought into the dining room. The officer gently explained that our neighbor — who ran a daycare out of her home — was in trouble. He opened a manila envelope and hastily showed me pictures. The pictures were of a boy younger than me covered in bruises. The officer was clearly uncomfortable. He knew he was exposing my ignorance to a harsh reality. He didn’t want me to look but he needed to know if I had heard or seen anything. He knew that to bring light to the situation I needed to see the darkness. In the end, seeing those pictures was more important than not seeing at all.
This is the world we live in. It would be nice if we could close our eyes and leave unseen the sin in, toward, and around us. But that kind of naivety isn’t proper for Christians. It’s not appropriate for people characterized by truth and light in the midst of darkness and falsehood. Being a child of God means we need to be willing to see the things we wish would remain unseen.
As uncomfortable as it is the church needs to open their eyes to the harsh reality of spiritual abuse. Even writing those words — with every key-stroke — is hard. Abuse is one thing but when you add the adjective “spiritual” it becomes something else, something more. To think that spiritual things like the Bible, church, leadership, grace, forgiveness, vulnerability, and even the gospel can be used to wrongly harm and wound others is something one cannot look at long without needing to avert the eyes. But the manila envelope can be opened and one sad picture after another can be pulled out to show the bruises and marks left by those whose message should have been one of binding up the brokenhearted.
What is spiritual abuse? Scot McKnight rightly pointed out that a “diagnosis requires discernment and knowledge.” But we might approach something of an answer from several different angles. For example, definitionally Michael Kruger says:
Spiritual abuse, then, is when a spiritual leader— such as a pastor, elder, or head of a Christian organization — wields his position of spiritual authority in such a way that he manipulates, domineers, bullies, and intimidates those under him, as a means of accomplishing what he takes to be biblical and/or spiritual goals.
Beth Ann Baus defines it:
Spiritual abuse might include: manipulation and exploitation, accountability enforced by threats, censorship of decision-making, coercion to conform, and the inability to ask questions or voice disagreement.
Darby Strickland defines it:
Spiritual abuse occurs when an oppressor establishes control and domination by using Scripture, doctrine or his “leadership role” as a weapon. This form of abuse can be subtle, because it can mask itself as religious practice.
Diane Langberg defines it:
The word spiritual refers to something affecting a human spirit or soul. Abuse means to mistreat another, to deceive or do harm. When we use the word spiritual to describe abuse, we are talking about using that which is sacred—including God’s Word—to control, misuse, deceive, or damage a person created in his image.
With little disagreement the common threads of spiritual abuse are defined as the use of spiritual things to silence, manipulate, coerce, control, or domineer.
However, we might also answer the question by turning to instruction from the law of God. In the structure of the Ten Commandments the first explicit duty of loving our neighbor is the fifth: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). A proper understanding of this commandment includes reciprocal responsibilities. Yes, children are to honor their parents but parents, in the spirit of the law, are to be honorable (see Ephesians 6:4). It’s also a commandment with a broad scope as it extends itself beyond the natural parent and child relationship — it really is a command that regulates many relationships in life.
One of those relationships is that which exists between the spiritual leaders of the church and those to whom they exercise oversight. In the design of Jesus there are to be leaders in the church: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 5:12), and “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17). These leaders stand in the place of spiritual mothers and fathers (see 1 Thessalonians 2:7-12 and 2 Corinthians 11:2).
Asking what this commandment teaches the Westminster Larger Catechism includes the duties of those in leadership toward those under them:
It is required of superiors, according to that power they receive from God, and that relation wherein they stand, to love, pray for, and bless their inferiors; to instruct, counsel, and admonish them; countenancing, commending, and rewarding such as do well; and discountenancing, reproving, and chastising such as do ill; protecting, and providing for them all things necessary for soul and body: and by grave, wise, holy, and exemplary carriage, to procure glory to God, honor to themselves, and so to preserve the authority which God hath put upon them (Q&A 129).
The sins of superiors are, besides the neglect of the duties required of them, an inordinate seeking of themselves, their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure; commanding things unlawful, or not in the power of inferiors to perform; counseling, encouraging, or favoring them in that which is evil; dissuading, discouraging, or discountenancing them in that which is good; correcting them unduly; careless exposing, or leaving them to wrong, temptation, and danger; provoking them to wrath; or any way dishonoring themselves, or lessening their authority, by an unjust, indiscreet, rigorous, or remiss behavior (Q&A 130).
This is a full and wonderful description of the way in which spiritual leaders should, by the command of God, relate to those they care for. But when this position — what the catechism calls a superior position — is used selfishly (i.e. for their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure) and on that account they fail to bless, lead, or protect, that’s a misuse of the power they receive from God. And a misuse of spiritual power is spiritual abuse.
Further still, we could seek an answer to the question by the warnings the Bible gives. Most strongly is the denunciation God gives to Israel’s so-called shepherds in Ezekiel 34:1-4:
The word of the LORD came to me: ‘Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the LORD GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.
In a similar way Peter warned in 1 Peter 5:1-4:
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
The Prophet and the Apostle’s concerns are similar. Self-preservation, self-exaltation, or self-love can lead shepherds to neglect and omit their responsibilities – leading under compulsion, force, harshness, and control. We could add other words of warning in the Bible against the spiritually abusive. They are those who "lord it over" others (Matthew 20:25), have "smooth talk and flattery [to] deceive the hearts of the naive" (Romans 16:18), they seek to "bring us into slavery" (Galatians 2:4), their "god is their belly" (Philippians 3:19), they prey on the weak (2 Timothy 3:6), they "exploit with false words" (2 Peter 2:4), talk "nonsense" (3 John 10), and have "crept in unnoticed" (Jude 4).
Finally, we could answer the question from the example of the Great Shepherd of the sheep. Prophetically, Isaiah foretells the day of Jesus and the manner of his tender care over his fold: “He will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom” (Isaiah 40:11). Jesus carries the lambs. He doesn’t place them at his feet, he doesn’t leave them to graze among other sheep, he doesn’t let them roam in the pastures, he doesn’t put them in harm’s way, and he doesn’t create a field where wolves can walk and prey. He holds them in his arms. It’s the most protective posture a shepherd can give. It says to any who would seek to do harm or do ill to the littlest of the flock, that they must do so over his dead body. It’s the place of invincible protection because "the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). No sheep has ever been abused by the safe hands of Jesus, nor should they by those who shepherd after his heart (see Jeremiah 3:15).
Spiritual abuse is real, and it happens. It doesn’t know demographics or denominations. Sound theology and biblical worship, a plurality of elders or charismatic leadership, and church government with accountability doesn’t fool-proof any church from its possibility and presence. We must be willing. We must look. We must see.