Dealing with Spiritual Abuse – Part 1


In this series I’ll be looking at what spiritual abuse is, how to recognise it, and what to do if you’ve fallen victim to it. While the length of these posts will be longer than a normal blog post, I trust that’s okay, because this subject deserves to be addressed properly.

Sometimes in life you get hurt by other Christians. It happens, even though we wish it didn’t. How do you deal with that, especially if that hurt comes through leaders that are highly gifted, or are strong visionaries and have strong personalities to match? When does strong leadership become spiritual abuse? How do you know if you’ve been subject to spiritual abuse? What do you do about it if you have, and how do you recover from it? These are a lot of questions, but they are very valid ones which I hope to answer for you over this series of posts.

Wrong mindsets and models

Let me say upfront that not all strong leaders are abusive, and even amongst those that are there are very few of them who set out to be abusive. For most of them it happens because they’ve learnt from wrong leadership models, or fallen victim to pride.

Somehow we’ve accepted the idea that the strong decisive alpha male role model is the one that we need for running churches and ministries. It is only one type of leader and it is not a scripturally sound one. Scripture is very clear that leadership is a serving role, it is not about personality or a strong leadership style. Jesus is our ultimate leadership model and He was very clear that He came to serve, not to rule over people (Matthew 20:28). In 1 Timothy 3 we see Paul lay out what leaders should be like and Scripture talks about it in many other places, also. In 1 Peter 5:3 it says that leaders should be “Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”

Scripture doesn’t use the term “spiritual abuse” anywhere, but it alludes to it in several places, and God shows that He is definitely against leaders abusing people. Passages which discuss spiritual abuse include Ezekiel 34:1-10; Matthew 20:25; 23:1-33; Luke 22:24-27; and 1 Peter 5:3. Each of these passages involves God condemning leaders who mistreat the people under their care in order to promote their own welfare or ideology.

Strong leadership or abuse?

When does leadership cross the boundary and become abuse? It doesn’t happen overnight; it happens usually over time. The analogy of the frog in the pot is a very apt one in this case. In that analogy it is said, “To cook a frog you should put it in a pot of cold water and slowly turn up the heat until it is boiling. If you put the frog in boiling water it would react and jump out, but put it in cold water and slowly heat it and it will accept the slow changes and not realise it’s in danger until it is too late.” Spiritual abuse usually happens like that – slowly over time things get worse and few people recognise it. Those that do recognise it and speak up are called dissenters and ostracised; the others don’t want that to happen to them, so they say nothing and then it’s too late.

Most leaders don’t start out as abusive; they start out with good intentions and a call of God on their life. However, many church leaders receive little, if any, biblical training on how to be a good leader; they often get training that favours secular leadership models over biblical ones. If they’ve gone to theological college they may receive some biblical leadership training, but if not, then all they have to learn from are the leaders they’ve seen in action, or books and videos. Most leaders learn on the job as they go, and, sadly much of the decision-making process tends to happen in crisis moments and be reactive, rather than flowing from good training, preparation, and wisdom.

Most leaders don’t start out as abusive; they start out with good intentions and a call of God on their life.

There are different types of bad leaders – strong, pushy ones that rely on personality or gift, insecure, or unconfident ones, and unwise ones. While all these types of leaders may cause problems, they are not necessarily all abusive leaders.

Strong leaders may rely on their personality, strengths, and gifts to lead, usually using these to build their ministry. They often employ secular business and growth models to church life believing that church should be run like a business. They will either believe they know what’s needed and don’t need help or input from others, or they will model themselves after other strong leaders they have seen operating, seeking to emulate their success. Success and reputation can often be very important to them and a person’s success in ministry is often measured on the size of their congregation and their influence over people.

Many leaders, while presenting as confident and strong, are, in fact, insecure and unconfident, and think that they have to present a tough, having-it-all-together image for people to respect them. While that may work to some degree, in the end people respect you more as a leader if you’re accessible, show that you’re human, and admit your faults when you’re wrong. People can truly respect someone like that. A tough, has-it-all-together leader will engender some respect, but people will always be a little fearful and unsure of them in the end.

An immature or untrained leader will often look to other leaders that they see functioning well in the church, and try to model themselves on that leader, forgetting that all they are seeing is the public face, not necessarily the true person. This, of course, presents a distorted view of what a leader is actually like. I have seen many leaders present one way in public and a completely different way off stage; a very simple example is those that yell all the time when preaching yet speak very normally off stage.

An immature leader will think that they have to prove they have a right to lead, and will often do so by taking a firm stand and demanding respect, forgetting that respect is earned. You cannot demand it just because of a title you hold. Someone trying to prove their value through their position will not find it easy to serve, because their perspective of their position will demand that they be seen to be above others. That will cause them to think that they should be the one being served.

While we have many church leaders that are good, and do the best they can, there are some who, while meaning good, are unwise in the way they handle things, and cause a problem in their churches because of it. They are often a mix of immature and untrained. That doesn’t mean that they are abusers; it simply means that they are leaders who need to grow in certain areas. Pray for them! They need the Lord to speak to them and minister into their growth and character at this stage, otherwise, if those things are undealt with, they are prime targets for the enemy to cause them to become leaders that step over the line from simply being unwise leaders to being abusive ones.

In the next post, I’ll look at some signs of spiritual abuse and how to recognise if it’s happening in your church, or to you.

If you’ve found this post helpful then can I ask you to please share it by using the Facebook share button at the bottom of the post. There are so many who need the help to work through the abuse they’ve suffered and if you and I can help them do so, then it’s worth taking that small moment of time to click on the button.

Part 2