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When the Sheep are Preyed Upon

Acknowledging the Tragic Reality of the Church's Spiritual Abuse Problem

A church that follows her Head, the Good and Great Shepherd, is a refuge for the flock, a place of green pastures and clear waters, a place of restoration for wounded sheep and most certainly, a place that fights off the wolves. The secular and religious news media have globally exposed the fact that not only are there wolves in the fold, we have, in the name of our God, protected their place among God’s sheep by complicity, cover-up, and deceit. We have protected the institution of shepherding rather than the sheep. This results in untold damage being done to the body of Christ by those who name his name.

The Evil Reality of Spiritual Abuse

In my work as a Christian psychologist, I have walked alongside victims of many kinds of abuse: child sexual abuse, rape, domestic abuse, and human trafficking. The impact of trauma and abuse on a life is profound and long-lasting. I have also worked with Christian leaders who have used their power to control, manipulate, and silence those entrusted to their care. 

I believe as Christ-followers we are called to wrestle with the issue of abuse in Christian circles, fearlessly facing what is happening and the harm being done to vulnerable and precious people dearly loved by God. 

“Spiritual abuse” should be an oxymoron. 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. I think we can safely say the pairing of those two words is diabolical. 

Leaders engaged in spiritual abuse use their position and words to coerce another by manipulating, deceiving, or humiliating them. They say, “God says . . .” followed by words that do not reflect the character of our God. Our God is Light and Truth, yet an authority in the church tells someone who has been raped by a pastor, “We will never discuss this because this is God’s church, and if you tell you will damage his name.” That is what spiritual abuse looks like.

The claim of spiritual authority is often used by those with power in the church. We assume pastors, elders, parents, teachers, or youth leaders are trustworthy. Their words are believed to be a reflection of the mind of God because of the position they hold. Orthodox theology, accompanied by advanced academic credentials, can be used to demand obedience of those less knowledgeable. But an ability to articulate theological truths does not mean the speaker is an obedient servant of God. 

Serving the System

A church or a denomination is a system. It consists of people standing together under the name of God for the purpose of educating, nurturing, and blessing others spiritually. Systems are meant to benefit and bless. But like individuals, a system can misuse its authority, crushing those in its care. How does a system that claims to be part of the kingdom of God and obedient to God, become toxic? 

A bright, credentialed, charismatic leader arrives to serve a church body. The church is energized, and people assume that this leader, with verbal gifts and theological knowledge, is wise and spiritually mature. They trust him, and the church grows. Sometimes that “servant of God” turns out to be a bully, working the system and its people to feed himself, taking what he thinks he needs or deserves. When this happens, it’s often confusing, and others may excuse the behavior. 

But over time a pattern is revealed as decisions are made and actions taken to benefit or preserve the leader rather than care for the followers. The leader—and others with power—believe that if he fails, the whole system everyone has worked so hard to build will go down. The system is protected rather than the sheep. The “mission” controls leadership rather than the Master.

Leaders and followers in such a system become focused on serving the system rather than serving God. But the system is not the Savior. It’s an easy deception to fall into, but it leads to hiding, ignoring, or denying malignant toxins that then go untreated. Sexual abuse, domestic violence, the abuse of power, arrogance, and many other things take root. The system has the equivalent of untreated cancer. 

Then a child comes forward and says to the pastor that the youth leader molested them. We protect the youth leader and not the child “for the sake of the church.” As one pastor said to me years ago, “We would not want to expose this and destroy such a gifted young man, would we Diane?” A woman comes forward and says her husband is battering her. But this husband, a leader in the church and a successful businessman, gives large monetary gifts, so we send her home to treat him “better” so he will stop. The position and authority of leaders are coupled with scriptures that are twisted to protect the system, rather than keeping the sheep of God’s pasture safe. The damage is devastating, often with lifelong repercussions.

Many of us have confused the church system with Jesus Christ; they are not the same. There are wolves among the sheep, tares among the wheat. Jesus called humans that looked good on the outside white-washed tombs full of stink. My work has taught me that many poor sheep have followed a blind guide, a gifted wolf, and landed in a pit.

Our faith systems have glorious goals, to bring many to Christ, to make disciples. But over time our stated purpose is often no longer our governing purpose. The unstated, but governing purpose becomes attracting more people, raising more money, or achieving greater renown. We end up building systems on a foundation of deception rather than on Jesus. As a result, we practice oppression, silencing, dehumanizing violence, arrogance, and corruption. We deceive ourselves, protecting within our systems the very toxins that will kill it if left untended.

Acknowledging the Truth

No so-called Christian system is truly God’s work unless it fleshes out his character. Toleration of sin, pretense, and crookedness do not reveal the character of God, even if they bear his name. Arrogance is never godly. Covering up sin is never godly. Abuse of power is never godly. Shepherds who feed on sheep are abusive. Leadership that preserves and protects the system, rather than the people, turns the house of God into a safe place for predators. Those who come to feed on God himself find themselves being the main course instead.

We have failed to protect leaders from their own bondage to self-deception and sin. Exposure brings hope, for it brings the cancer to the light. To hide sin by cover-up or silent complicity is spiritual abuse. It is a failure to love the perpetrator. Demise of a system—even a spiritual system—is not the worst that can happen.

Whenever another human being—knit together by God—is abused, we have also abused God himself (Matt. 25:40,45). David said to God, “Against you and you only have I sinned and done evil in your sight.” Sin is an offense to God. When a child is sexually abused, God is stricken. When a woman is sent home to endure an abusive husband “for the sake of the marriage,” then God is misused. To twist God’s words and ignore harm to his children is to grieve him. Arrogance and abuse of power offend our God.

Romans 16:17 warns us to turn against those who cause occasions of stumbling. Leaders who cause people to stumble are slaves, not of our Lord Christ, but of their own appetites. They deceive the unsuspecting with “good” words. They are slaves to power, position, adulation, success, and money and will use the words of our God to deceive people who trust them. Power that uses God’s Word to deceive and harm is spiritual abuse. To abuse those God has called us to protect and guide is to abuse our holy God.

In Jesus’ day, religious leaders seated themselves in high places. They spoke good words, but oppressed others with heavy burdens and loved the honor they received. Jesus’ word for them was, “Woe to you.” He lamented because leaders were shutting the door of his kingdom in the faces of his sheep. His heart was broken over the character exhibited by leaders in the house of God. They brought desolation into his house.

We must acknowledge and tell the truth about these things. Great damage is being done to God’s sheep, in his name. He weeps over such leaders and the sheep they harm. Be watchful. Recognize coercive and manipulative behavior. Call it by its right name when someone in power uses spiritual words and ideas to silence, control, and intimidate. Be discerning about those who hold power—including yourself. Do not be deceived. 

May we, with Daniel, call out to God: “O Lord, hear! O Lord forgive. O Lord listen and act. For your own sake do not delay, because your church and your people are called by your name” (Dan. 9:19).

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