Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Dark Side of Spiritual Abuse -- Part 3

This is the third installment in a series on spiritual abuse (Part 1 & Part 2). The whole idea of spiritual abuse is a very troubling at best. The church was intended to be a place of redemptive recovery facilitated by the grace of God. When manipulative control moves to the forefront it can have a very harmful effect on the people who gather to worship. It also has to be established that spiritual abuse can take place in a reverse order. It can originate from the congregation in the form of a board of elders or a single influential member who controls the pastor through financial means or sometimes through psychological and physical intimidation. Increasingly one will find the reverse order in churches that once had to deal with a pastor who was spiritually abusive.



Spiritual abuse is defined as “the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support, or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.” It can be defined another way as “destructive and dangerous involvement in a religion that allows the religion, not a relationship with God, to control a person’s life. He also goes on to say, “People broken by various experiences, people from dysfunctional families, people with unrealistic expectations, and people out for their own gain or comfort seem especially prone to it.” Spiritual leaders who resort to this kind of activity may or may not immediately recognize the control they are exerting. The trend usually isn’t immediately recognized but as time passes the cycle of behavior manifests in a manner that has a horrific effect on people’s lives. Even worse is the leader who acclimates himself to a state of denial of his own personal responsibility. To compensate for the increasingly unsettled environment, he may begin to assign all of the spiritual shipwrecks of the past as those who were “wolves” or “rebellious.”

As I filtered through all of the material concerning spiritual abuse, I jotted down a series of questions concerning not just the church but the leader too. They were based more on a rhetorical nature that did not so much require an answer but rather an evaluation of the spiritual health of the place where this activity is taking place.

• What does spiritual abuse do to those who worship there? How does it affect their sense of worship and understanding of God?
• Can God have freedom to transform and can grace really do an adequate work in this atmosphere where fear, intimidation, and manipulation prevail?
• Can true spiritual growth and discipleship take place in this setting?
• What do the actions of the pastor have on his soul in the long term? This was a very troubling question to me personally. What dark things begin to take place in the soul of the pastor who exerts force in such a way that he is never challenged and held to a standard of accountability himself?????
• Are his actions motivated by pride of place or position?
• Has he moved from being an under-shepherd to a lord over God’s heritage? Such spiritual abuse literally takes the place of God in the working of the church.
• Is there a sense of the grace of God reflected in any of the public ministry of the Word?
• Is there an attempt to place heavy weights on the people he is called to shepherd?
• Does he empower people to live in a venue of spiritual growth in a public setting as well as within the private confines of the heart?
• Are implications given that the church one serves in is the only church that has the ability to prepare people for eternity?
• Is there an attitude by the spiritual leader that seems to promote a sense of spiritual elitism and aloofness around the members of the church?
• Is he placed on a pedestal on a spiritual plane and material plane above them?
• What is his standard of living compared to those he pastors?
• Is there a feeling of subtle paranoia expressed by the people of being afraid to associate with other churches that may not be entirely similar in principles but hold the same level of doctrinal commitment to the apostolic message?


A pastor who resorts to spiritual abuse will use shame and manipulation to wield his sense of authority. He will take emotional and traumatic failures and use them in a manner to spiritually blackmail and discredit them. Shame is a very powerful tool to use when it comes to having absolute control over the people. Johnson and Vonderen in their book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse identifies seven distinct characteristics of shame based relationships that pastors will resort to using. Shaming takes place in the course of general church life. It is used such a way to imply that this person may be so weak and defective that they are nothing in comparison to other church members. Through this kind of action the shamed person may feel unloved, unaccepted, an inability to fit in, of no real value, and isolated and alone.

The abuser will begin to quite verbally and publicly shame people. He will use name-calling, belittling put-downs and comparisons to others. A focus on performance that implies how a person behaves is more important than real spiritual change that takes place at the level of the heart.

Another technique that is used will manipulate people into various circles of influence that helps him to control the whole group. It works with a series of unspoken rules that people are afraid to over-step because of their fear of the fallout. There is almost as if they think that some measure of punishment that may come to them and will either hurt them or embarrass them. There may be times that he will even resort to work within a family so that the majority of a family stands with the abuser against a single victim. Now the person who is experiencing the brunt of the abuse has no one to turn to because the pastor and his own family is opposed to him.

The abuser is masterful at using a “grapevine” network instead of meeting them face-to-face to work toward a solution to the problem.
When there is a face-to-face meeting the abuser pours on humiliation and contempt in such a way that the person has no way to respond positively to the correction. It can be very wilting both spiritually and psychologically to the person who experiences this kind of treatment.

The fourth characteristic of shame-based relationships works with a system of idolatry that makes God nothing more than an impossible to please judge who is constantly seeking to destroy. Instead of changing God into a graven image, He is changed into a nit-picking, harsh, and very narrow being who is so concerned with performance at the expense of grace that no person can live up to. The necessary observation to be entertained is this changing of the nature of God breaks the first commandment and encroaches on the change in the nature of God. This is the great mistake that the reprobate man was guilty of in Romans 1. There was the nature of being changed into something that He was not. Spiritual abusers are guilty of this action!

Another characteristic is a preoccupation with fault and blame. The force behind this gives the abuser power because any confession that is given will be an opportunity for him to know who to shame and hold them hostage to their actions. Buried reality is a principle that gives the implication that any thought, opinion, or feeling that is opposed to the one who is in authority must be denied. This dilemma creates angst in the mind of the followers because should they see some principle in operation in their church environment that they do not agree with; instead of dealing with it in a healthy and spiritual way, they are forced to suppress their own thoughts that oppose that of the leader.

Because of this people are unable to work through the challenges of life that life present to them for the fear of having to endure the shame that will be poured out on them if they are not in lockstep with the rest of the group. This is the most dangerous of all of the actions of shame-based relationships because it operates in such a way to induce mental pressures that may lead to a complete collapse of their psychological system. The people who are often under the duress of this kind of dynamic will experience stress-related illnesses. Sometimes it can lead to a total mental shutdown requiring psychiatric care. There are various types of medical conditions that health care professionals immediately recognize to be related to the mental hygiene or lack thereof in the presentation of the patients. The mind is a very powerful device that has much impact on the natural function of the human body. Some spiritual abusers may or may not be aware of this but usually in the cases where the victim finally does breakdown, it is looked upon almost gleefully as an act of God that “took care” of the problem so to speak. What does it say about the abuser who feels this way???

The last characteristic of shame-based relationships has to do with the relationships within the group.
There appears a great disparity that is demonstrated by a strong over-involvement or a complete lack of involvement. This kind of relationship with the group causes people to manifest various traits such as a fear of being deserted, lack of self-discipline, rebelling against the structure, a high need of structure, a sense that if there is a problem the solution comes only through self-reliance, putting up boundaries that keep safe people away, and strong feelings of guilt even when nothing has been violated. As you can see, the enemy of the soul loves to take advantage of these kinds of situations so he can create strongholds in their minds that warps them for future service (2 Cor. 10:1-5).

In the environment where spiritual abuse predominates there are frequent references in the public setting of preaching and in the private times of counseling that commonly brings up subjects like rebellion, accusations of causing dissension, and other methods of emotional intimidation. He will emphasize his own personal “anointing” and calling in an exclusive manner which serves in a way that dictates more than it serves. Frequently he will state that you cannot touch God’s anointed. He will call to mind biblical references of Korah, Dathan, Abiram, Absalom, and even Judas as a measure of control that heaps on guilt and further empowers the leader. He can also even resort to bringing in outside ministers who serve as nothing more than “hired guns” to eviscerate emotionally, spiritually and psychologically a congregation with a so-called sermon. Usually there is some aura about the merchants of Balaam and they are cast in the role of a prophet that is not to be crossed. However my strong contention to this kind of manipulation is that the visiting “prophet” has done nothing more than to merchandize his own calling to a lesser standard motivated by what Peter called “filthy lucre.”

This emphasis on authority will be so much to the effect that the person enduring this malicious behavior of the abuser will soon discover a creeping depression or a spiritual numbness overcoming their mind. The cycle darkens when the accused begins to manufacture feelings that if they were “spiritual” enough then they would not be in the place where they are now. They have a real concern that they are indeed living in open rebellion to the authority of God. Over the course of time, spiritual abuse will damages spiritual development and leads to damaged souls who have no real ability to respond properly to God and the church. In fact, I have witnessed with my own eyes what I call spiritual pygmies who have never overcome the abuse that a spiritually abusive leader heaped on them decades ago.

Spiritually abusive leaders constantly drive home the fact that members are never doing enough. It can be a very simple laundry list of good and disciplined practices that enhance our relationship with God but the demands of performance have such power over the person until it wilts them down. The demands can be: not praying enough, not giving enough, not “spiritual” enough, not praising enough. In doing this the abuser gains even more control by placing the heavy burden of human performance on the congregation until it will never measure up to the spiritual demands that are being made.

Spiritual abusers are usually very tuned into the personal lives of those whom they tower over and will use their knowledge of those details to control them. They will take personal sickness, sick children, financial maladies, nagging wives and abusive husbands, unruly children, and a myriad of other life situations to say that this is the judgment of God because of their lack of submission to authority. There are times that the spiritual abuser will imply that he has come to the information because of direct revelation from God. In actuality the information came to him simply because he fills the role of a pastor. His truth twisting that God has revealed this to him only serves to heighten his control of the people because they may fear his seeming clairvoyance into their lives. The truth is that all people have problems and it simply comes with the territory called life. While the church is confined to the world there always will be constant struggles with the world, the flesh, and the devil. To place a heavier burden on people for these kinds of calamities of life is unconscionable, deceptive, and malicious.

More next week. . .

Thanks for reading. . .

3 comments:

J. R. Ensey said...

Good stuff, Brother Harrelson. It takes intestinal fortitude to speak out against spiritual abuse. It is not unknown in our own ranks. Thanks for making all of us more aware of its subtle dangers.

Lawrence W. Wismer said...

I appreciate this writing that you have shared. The position of the pastor of a church was meant to be an office of servitude, not a tyranny. A tyranny is one trys to compete for greatness and a totoltarian power by powering over his citizens(Nicolatian Spirit). The Pastor is no longer under any covering himself so he is free to rule over by people with force and coecersion. I will just tell it like it is: these pastors have taken on the Image of the Beast(Kingdoms of this world). Yahshua(Jesus) Kingship was not a position of a government leader that we see in the wordly governments. The Kings of this world have set up a system of Corban that consist of Coveting from thy neighbor by stealing their wealth, Property, houses, and even a mans Godly Conciouse instead of the freedom of voluntary giving and sharing. In some Nations, if you did not heed to their commands, they will use public humilition even to the point of threatening death. It starts with a little leaven that makes the whole lump blowup. Then betrayal by scattering you to the welfare system of the world instead of feeding the Sheep. Yahshua came as a King.It was a Kingship of servitude and humbleness. Our Master Lay his life down for the Diciples and teaching them the two greatest commandments-Mat 22:36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
Mat 22:37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
Mat 22:38 This is the first and great commandment.
Mat 22:39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
Mat 22:40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Joh 17:19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.
Joh 17:20 Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;
Joh 17:21 That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.
Joh 17:22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:
Joh 17:23 I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
Joh 17:24 Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.
Joh 17:25 O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee: but I have known thee, and these have known that thou hast sent me.
Joh 17:26 And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.

Pastors and ourselves are not be seeking and trying to build ourselves up for our own glory. We are to build up one onother through the Grace and mercy of Yahweh(God). We are to seek the Kingdom of Yahweh and His rightousness- If we do his will, then the Restoration of all things will be fullfilled. All things will be added. If we are to be the greatest in the Kingdom, we must be a servant to all and I hate to add this, most Christian churches will never see this Revelation. The Revelation of a man is not what position he is in, or the amount of money he has, or even biblical knowledge he has, IT IS HIS FRUITS.
I say all of this because I believe that this is the Fatal Flaw of Mankind consiting of greed and selfishness. I really believe that the spiritual abuse is due to the Lack of Loving Yahweh and His Bride(Messiah).
There is a whole lot more I would like to say. This is only a grain of sand on the beach. Thank you again for sharing and I prey that those that read this will repent and truly put on the mind of Messiah. I truly want to be like Him and obey His Commandments(Torah). Shalom.

Anonymous said...

I love what you've written here... but may I ask what denomination you belong to?? If it is infact UPC as I think I might have read then I think this message primarily needs to be preached within your own denomination. This is where I have witnessed and experienced 90% of any spiritual abuse I've been through.

Other than that I found this greatly insightful... Thanks :)