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Spiritual abuse happens when someone volitionally manipulates another person to accomplish an ungodly agenda. All abuse, including physical and sexual abuse, is spiritual abuse. You cannot physically or sexually abuse someone without harming their inner being or their spiritual selves. I realize your question is not asking about physical or sexual abuse but asking a question about the internal harming of one’s soul, which is what all abuse does.
Humans are two parts (dichotomy), physical and spiritual. The spiritual aspects of a person include the soul, spirit, mind, will, emotions, thoughts, intentions, etc. The physical also has several parts, e.g., internal organs and external body parts. Spiritual abuse happens to the soul, which primarily affects the mind—how a person thinks. Spiritual abuse takes the victim’s thoughts captive by trying to manipulate them to believe lies. If the internal harming of the soul continues unabated, it will exponentially affect the person spiritually, especially how he (she) relates to God, to himself, and to others.
Darkness comes over the soul, leading to depression, despair, despondency, and even suicide. It also leads to erratic behaviors like random anger, fear-motivated withdrawal, or alleviating mechanisms like alcohol and medications. Alleviating abuse happens more than you may think, which makes your question relevant. The most common place where you find spiritual abuse is in contexts where someone has authority over someone else, whether the power is God-given or self-proclaimed.
The two most common places where spiritual abuse happens are marriages and local churches. (It can also occur in work environments.) In these contexts, there are God-given hierarchies. These “biblical structures” will become dangerous when a person makes it so. God pre-wired people to follow others. Paul called Christians to follow other Christians (Ephesians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 4:8). Our culture calls this the herd mentality, which is an unfortunate connotation.
Christians call it biblical wisdom and humility. God did not wire you to be an independent god but to follow God (and others who are servant leaders). You see this throughout the Old and New Testaments. God raised leaders for His people to follow. So far, so good. The problem comes when some of these leaders forget their God-given call and God-illuminated directives for leading others.
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1).
Your question is a dangerous one, but you must ask it. It is dangerous because it can unsettle and even destroy a local church. I know you and thus, I see the carefulness and sobriety in which you are approaching this subject. You would only proceed with caution. There are souls at stake. If there is no spiritual abuse, discretion is paramount, so our Christian brothers and sisters are not discouraged by the discourse. If there is spiritual abuse, caution is paramount because our Christian brothers and sisters are in harm’s way. They need help, you have to warn them, and intervention must happen.
The other people group you want to think about are those who reject our religion. You do not want to give them more ammunition for their arsenals. The most significant concern is God’s fame, of course. You want to make God’s name great in all you do. You cannot ignore potential spiritual abuse, especially when you are made aware that it is happening. To be silent about the abuse makes you culpable in the abuse.
Is there no man with a ready hammer and nail willing to heave his weight and influence into the silence? All of the gospel-hyphenated books may become millstones before all is said and done. What if it was you? Or worse. Your child. —Matt Redmond
I appreciate Matt Redmond’s affection and his courage. I understand his love for humanity as well as for the body of Christ. I admire his courage because he is willing to speak up on a matter that is far more important than some of the things we like to turn into arguments. To answer your question, I’m going to ask you eight questions. These are eight signs of spiritual abuse. I trust these responses will help you. My questions do not represent an exhaustive list or a list in order of importance.
1 – Do You Have to Ask?
If you have to ask whether a person is spiritually abusive, that may be your first sign. Think about Jesus here. Nobody asked that question about Him—nobody with any common sense, that is. If you are sitting under a pastor and you have a general sense of uneasiness about him, you need to explore this—first (1) in your mind, (2) then with God, (3) with your spouse, if you’re married, and (4) possibly a close confidant. Please keep a tight net around your thoughts, at least in the beginning. If you are right, it will become apparent to all, but if you are not, you do not want to damage a person’s reputation or discourage others.
2 – Does He Delegate?
Abusive pastors are usually controllers. They like to micromanage their organization and their people. There is one way to do things, and it is his way. You will not find a lot of biblical liberty that taps into the diversity in Christ’s body. Alternate opinions are not encouraged or celebrated.
3 – Does He Clone Leaders?
Along with his tight control over how the church operates, you will also sense that only those who can do anything are in lockstep with him. Think Hitler here. Hitler believed in a superior way, and he granted promotion only to those who gave allegiance to him. You had to be trusted to carry out his policies, using his methods. The spiritual abuser will “test” his candidates, usually with extra-biblical guidelines—his guidelines. The people promoted within his system will think and act similarly to him. They are pawns who won’t buck the system—his system.
One of the instructive things you’ll find with his underlings is that if you ask them a question they do not know the answer to, they will not be able to answer you. They will have to check with HQ before they can give you an answer. The Spirit of God and His Word are no longer leading the church. The leaders “keep in step” with another kind of spirit.
4 – Does He Clone a Culture?
Because of his heavy-handed control and his clone replication of leaders, you will begin to notice a lack of diversity in your local church. They will create their language, mannerisms, and customs that will be like the leader. When guests visit, they will notice how different it is from the rest of Christ’s body. Those inside the clone factory will take this as a compliment. Those outside the clone factory will think it is a cult. No sensible Christian should walk into any Christian church and believe it is a cult because of the unique language, mannerisms, or customs.
Paul wrote to many churches, teaching them how to think and behave, and you see a consistent pattern throughout church history of local church body life. Within diversity in all the local churches, there is a similarity between those churches around the world. If your church is becoming something other than what anyone would typically expect from a New Testament, local church—while making allowances for pneumatic (Spirit-led) diversity—there may be a danger. This problem will point back to the tight-fisted control of the leader.
5 – How Do You Feel?
If you are not around your pastor, are you less guarded? Are you free to be you? I am not talking about the “fear of pastor syndrome” where insecure people are intimidated by authority figures or people who overly exalt their pastor, thinking he is larger than life. One of the pastor’s greatest strengths is his ability to build up another person while humanizing himself. Do you feel edified and free to be the person God is calling you to be, or are you more cautious about your words and actions when you are around him? Think about Hitler again.
If I were around Hitler, I would guard my words and actions. If I were around Jesus, I would be relaxed and free to be myself. If I were not relaxed, He would lead me to that place (Psalm 23:1-6). I know I can make a mistake around Jesus. I would be nervous about messing up around Hitler. The abusive pastor makes you more self-aware and self-conscious. You feel more constricted and less free, especially when around him.
6 – Are You Free to Speak?
Can you tell him what you are thinking? Let’s go back to Jesus again. Prayer is one of the most beautiful mediums you have as God’s child. You are encouraged to talk to Him. You can tell Him anything and never fear undesirable repercussions. Your pastor is the Lord’s under-shepherd. God called him to emulate the Savior as he provides an example for you to follow. You should be as free to talk to your pastor as you are free to speak to the Lord.
Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3).
7 – Is He Ignorant?
He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit (1 Timothy 3:6).
It is possible for a pastor to be a novice. He may not be a recent convert, but he could act like one. One of the patterns I have noticed in our church culture today is how the process for selecting pastors does not pay attention to the right details. In many cases, the qualifications for a pastor is not 1 Timothy 3:1-7. It is more about (1) a person’s ambition to be in a ministry, (2) possibly his education, (3) his charisma and ability to lead, and (4) the church is looking for a particular guy, but his character is not at the top of the list.
A genuine desire to be a pastor, along with an excellent pastoral education or a leadership gift, does not make you a good leader. Hitler had two out of these three, a strong desire to be great and a pronounced leadership gift, though twisted. He was not an educated man, but he was street smart. The qualifications Paul gave Timothy were mostly about a person’s character. Except for the gift of teaching, the criteria for a pastor is the same for any believer. They are Christlike character traits found in the heart of the person, which take a lot of time to discern.
There have been too many instances where men have been given the reins of a local church, even though they were deficient in character. Premature promotion is a disaster for the church people, the pastor, his family, and God’s fame. It is easier not to put a person in ministry than to put him in ministry and have to remove him later. The fallout can be disastrous and generational.
8 – Is He Humble?
Has he created an environment for personal growth and relationship building? Servant leaders develop environments of grace where those they serve can grow and mature into the unique Christlike people God called them to be. The humility of the leader accomplishes this, not his pride. Your “spiritual abuse question” also applies to you: can your spouse and your friends share their concerns with you, whatever they may be? If they cannot share because of your immaturity, anger, or unwillingness to listen, you need to reconsider how you may be abusing them.
A humble man or woman will want to hear about areas of weakness because he’s never about himself. The humble pastor welcomes grace-motivated, grace-concerned individuals who are seeking his best for God’s glory. That kind of pastor is an active learner because he is willing to change, grow, and mature. He’s a good under-shepherd.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).