Spiritual Abuse: Truth, Lies, and Manipulation

In spiritually abusive environments, some form of truth is present. And some good things might be happening. This makes it harder to identify what is off. The Bible is quoted. God might be moving in some powerful ways. So what exactly is wrong? As I have tried to mentally untangle my own experience of spiritual abuse at my former church, I have sought clarity about two things:

1. What problematic theology was overtly communicated?
2. What faulty beliefs were implicitly present though never overtly taught?

Over the past four years I have wrestled, reflected, and processed in conversation with many people, books, podcasts, seminarians, pastors, therapists, and of course, with God. There is always more to process, but in this post I will explore four areas where problematic theology was overtly communicated and/or where unhealthy beliefs were silently at play at my previous church.

Note: This post might be a heavy read, especially for those who have personally experienced spiritual abuse, so I invite you to pace yourself and be kind to yourself as you read. And if it’s just too heavy for today, that’s okay too. There is a time for investigating, articulating, and exposing the wrongs in the world, and there is a time for simply resting and knowing that God is big enough to fight for us.

***

“This, then, is how you ought to regard us:
as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. 
It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”
1 Corinthians 4:1-2

***

Problem Area #1: Submission to Spiritual Authority

My former church greatly emphasized the importance of honoring church leaders and respecting spiritual authority. One of the church’s core values was: “Anointing flows from the top down.” Another commonly repeated phrase was: “Blessing flows from honor.” We were taught that our spiritual health and our faithfulness to God hinged on how we honored and obeyed our church leaders. While respecting leaders can honor God to a certain degree, all human beings are fallible and liable to corruption. Spiritual leaders already have quite a bit of power by virtue of their positions, so emphasizing submission to pastors can create a power dynamic ripe for abuse.

For this reason, Jesus taught his disciples not to focus on hierarchy, but to rather focus on serving one another. “You are not to be called ‘Rabbi,'” he says in Matthew 23:8, “for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers . . . The greatest among you will be your servant.” It is human nature to seek power and control. Most societies operate by competition. People see going higher up the ladder of position and power as success. Jesus taught the opposite. Leading means serving. Greatness is about humbling yourself. He modeled servant leadership by washing the disciples’ feet. Unfortunately, many pastors seem to forget this.

Rather than seeking to humbly shepherd our congregation, my former pastors used the spiritual language of anointing and appointment by God to portray themselves as morally and spiritually superior to the rest of the church. While they never outright said this, the lead pastors acted as if they were above reproof (and this worsened over time). The reality is that even with the anointing of God, spiritual leaders are imperfect human beings. Aaron, the first-ever anointed priest, was the very person who led the Israelites into idolatry (of the golden calf). King David, the man after God’s heart who worshipped with such abandon that his clothes fell off, committed adultery (likely rape, because of the vast power differential) and murder. The Old Testament prophets repeatedly rebuked priests and other spiritual leaders for abusing their positions (see Malachi 2:1-3, 7-9; Jeremiah 5:31; Micah 3:5-7; Ezekiel 22:26; Hosea 5:1; Zephaniah 3:4). Being anointed or appointed by God does not make you a superior human being, it means that you have been given a trust.

In my former church, while the leaders claimed to want to empower us (more on this below), this emphasis on submission to authority fostered a culture of unhealthy dependency. When people are trained to see themselves as inferior to their leaders, they become dependent on those leaders. Rather than seeking God’s will directly, they begin to seek the approval of their leaders. They may come to doubt their own judgment, discernment, and conscience in favor of whatever the pastor says is right. If the goal is for pastors to maintain strict control of their church, this is a great strategy. My former pastor believed he was “raising up leaders,” but knowingly or unknowingly, what he created was a bunch of yes men (or rather “yes people”) who would comply with whatever he said.

In my observation, many spiritual leaders seem comfortable bypassing humility and servanthood when they are convinced they carry a “special” revelation from God or “correct” doctrine that is superior to what the majority believes. Because they are convinced there is an urgency to their message, because they believe it’s from God, they feel comfortable shutting down opposition, closing their ears to other perspectives, and bulldozing whoever gets in their way, claiming those people are either “from the enemy” or are simply getting in the way of God’s mission. They begin to act as if they are the head of the church rather than Christ.

Looking back, one of the biggest red flags at my old church was that disagreement was not tolerated. This was an unspoken rule, never directly stated. But when people disagreed, they were punished. We all witnessed the consequences, and it kept the rest of us in line (until some of us, praise God, reached a breaking point). That does not make for a healthy, vibrant church culture. Unfortunately many pastors are more interested in maintaining control than in personal growth or the true growth of their church members.

***

“Do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.”
Matthew 23:9

***

Problem Area #2: The Use of Family Rhetoric

Another dangerous practice at my former church was the use of family rhetoric to describe church relationships. While the church as loving family is good ideal to strive for, this language can easily be used in manipulative ways.

My former lead pastors called themselves our spiritual father and mother. It stemmed from Paul’s use of the term in 1 Corinthians 4:15: “Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me.” A few verses later, Paul asks whether the Corinthians would prefer he come with gentleness or a rod, basically trying persuade them to modify their behavior now so he doesn’t have to chastise them when he visits. This language does sound very much like how a father might talk to his children.

Despite this analogy being “biblical,” however, the way it played out in my former church was quite harmful (which is why we need to hold such verses in tension with verses like Matthew 23:9, where Jesus commands us not to call anyone on earth “father”). Yet again, this terminology set the pastors above us in a permanent way. They were the adults, we were the children. In addition, the language set a tone of extreme loyalty in our church. Leaving the church wasn’t just moving on from a community, but was equivalent to abandoning your family. Disagreeing with leadership wasn’t just holding a different conviction, it was dishonoring your spiritual parents by not trusting them or submitting to them. The personal, intimate nature of the family metaphor raised the stakes of the belonging to the community in a way that ultimately made many of us feel trapped.

The language of family was also used to justify intrusive monitoring. Our church attendance was tracked because we were valued members of the family. (“If someone doesn’t show up to family dinner, aren’t you going to ask where they were?”) Our tithes were tracked because it was a loving way of keeping us “children” accountable. In order to date any female in the “house,” a guy had to ask the pastor’s permission and then obey whatever the pastor said, because as our “spiritual father,” the pastor needed to protect us. The rhetoric sounded good, loving, even biblical, so most of us went along with these intense rules.

The language of family was used to secure loyalty, obedience, and acquiescence. It was used to pressure people to serve (“Be a good son of the house!”) or to accept poor treatment, such as not getting paid a livable wage for their job at the church (“But we’re family, it shouldn’t be about money!” as well as the ever-available: “But it’s for God’s glory!”). It was used to pressure us to forgive leaders for their mistakes––or even better, to ignore their mistakes completely (“Cover the nakedness of your leaders like Noah’s good sons covered his nakedness when he got drunk and uncovered himself. Good sons cover their fathers nakedness”). It was used to manipulate.

“You are no longer slaves, but sons,”* church leaders would proclaim. All the while, our belonging to the “family” was conditional on our unquestioning obedience. When certain lines were crossed, people were publicly shamed or cast out, revealing that we had all been slaves all along.

[*We were all called “sons,” because sons were supposedly better than daughters as they got an inheritance in biblical times. Rather than redeeming what it means to be a daughter (as happens at the end of the book of Job, the end of the book of Ruth, and with the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27), they called us all “sons.” While the leadership believed women should be given equal voice from the pulpit and be honored as pastors alongside men, there were many subtle practices like this one that were not very affirming for women.]

Problem Area #3: The Measure of “Fruitfulness”

In Matthew 7:15-20, Jesus warns his disciples about false prophets who come in sheep’s clothing but are actually ravenous wolves. “You shall know them by their fruits,” he says. “Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.” My former pastor often alluded to this passage when defending himself and our ministry in the face of naysayers. “Just look at the fruit of our ministry!” he would say. “So many people’s lives are transformed here! We’re planting churches and they’re growing! You know a tree by its fruit!”

Many pastors seem to equate “fruitfulness” with numbers. More is better, no different than the business world. More leaders. More members. More money. More church plants. More glory to God. Interestingly, Jesus never uses the metaphor this way.

This metaphor of “bearing good fruit” is used throughout the gospels in various contexts. In Matthew 12:33-36, Jesus uses “fruit” to as an analogy for words, which overflow out of one’s heart. He warns, “On the day of judgment, you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter” (Matthew 12:36). In other places, such as in the parable of the sower, the meaning of “fruit” is not specified, but numerical output is mentioned––the one who hears the word and understands it “bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matthew 13:23). Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t say one amount is better than another. The people all yield different numerical amounts of fruit, and they all glorify God.

Jesus never portrayed faithfulness as measurable by popularity. Many of his teachings (especially the one about eating his flesh and drinking his blood) caused people to stop following him, and he wasn’t the least bit worried about how that reflected on him. While numerical growth isn’t necessarily bad and can be a sign that God is at work, I think it makes more sense to view the “fruits” as character traits, such as the fruits of the Spirit Paul lists in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Good trees produce righteous, joyful, good lives.

Life transformation and character development are difficult to measure, though. And even by that measure, our church did seem to pass the test. Many people were healed and empowered at our church, including me. Many of us experienced great joy and freedom (at least at first). I was activated in spiritual gifts I hadn’t had before. I grew in confidence and clarity in many ways. But in the end, the church wounded me even worse than I had been when I came in.

This leads me to the conclusion that time is an important factor in judging fruit. A ministry’s fruit can seem great at first, but it takes time to be able to measure the true quality of fruit. Is it fruit that lasts (John 15:16)? In addition, I think we often overlook Jesus’ use of “fruit” in Matthew 12:33-36––it isn’t just feelings, experiences, numerical growth, or even character growth that matters, words matter too. Words and rhetoric are not just means to an end, they reveal what is in the heart. Words themselves should be examined, not just the “results” of the ministry. Are there careless words being uttered?

I wish I had taken more seriously my instinctual aversion to many careless words I heard from the pulpit (or heard were being said by pastors in private) over the course of my seven years at that church. Derisive words. Shaming words. Untrue words. Presumptuous words. We will be judged partially by our words, and we should feel comfortable evaluating churches and pastors by their words as well.

Problem Area #4: The Empowerment of the Spirit

At our church we often boasted that while other Christians might get “spiritual highs,” we didn’t. We were permanently, consistently, and fully filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit. While I understand the leadership’s desire to empower us, and I did feel a level of empowerment in God that I hadn’t felt before, ultimately the leadership’s understanding of empowerment was rather simplistic and presumptuous. Which made it quite damaging.

When you first came to the church, your struggles were embraced and compassionately addressed. This was a church where you could heal and be safe! This was a place where you could be delivered from all your past sins, demons, and traumas! But once you had your Healing and Deliverance session, once you crossed certain thresholds of “maturity” (like being promoted to a certain rank of leadership––and yes, the words “promotion” and “rank” were literally used), all those struggles were supposed to be behind you. Once you were filled with the Spirit by the laying on of hands, you could do anything! There was no such thing as human limits (only a lack of faith). There was no such thing as longterm struggles (only laziness, i.e. failing to “walk out” your healing). If you said no to serving in a certain role, it meant you weren’t trusting God enough. If you struggled with a sin pattern or weakness long-term, then you weren’t doing a good job stepping into the authority God had given you. Leaders who struggled, or people who simply didn’t want to serve, were shown little compassion.

It’s discouraging enough to go through struggles in life. It’s ten times harder, however, when you feel guilty or “wrong” for going through them. I do think there was a measure of truth in some of what the church taught. We don’t need to be defined by our past, by our sins, or by our struggles. But sometimes struggles are ongoing and can’t just be prayed away. (My trauma from this church certainly couldn’t just be prayed away!) And sometimes we just don’t have the capacity to serve or want to serve at church. (I was stunned one day about five years into life with this church when I had the epiphany that nowhere in the Bible did it say I had to be a small group leader in order to please God. My pastors at the church could have fooled me.)

At the church, the result of these presumptions about empowerment was a workaholic culture. Those who overlooked their own needs and spent every waking hour at the church were commended. People who asked for breaks from serving were sometimes even outright denied. “Just rely on the Holy Spirit,” was a mantra that was used to literally abuse us. We were pushed to overlook our own health and natural limits to serve the church (which was equated with serving God, as if faithfulness to God is a one-size-fits-all). We were expected to perform outstandingly when we were sometimes given little to no training for a role (because how could someone operating in the power of the Holy Spirit not do an amazing job?). If we struggled, we were met with bewilderment or condemnation. If we said no, we were guilt-tripped.

I still believe in the empowering of the Spirit, and I believe that prayer, the laying on of hands, speaking in tongues, gifts of the Spirit, etc, can be quite powerful (although they unfortunately can also be misused in manipulative ways). However, this theology of empowerment needs to be balanced with an understanding of human limits, God-given freedom, and the diverse expression of what it can look like to live a life of faithfulness to God. Yes, the Spirit of God dwells inside of us, but at the same time, we are not God. Yes, God works through the church, but God also works in other places.

While we were told from the pulpit (sometimes) that God loved us, the culture of the church reinforced every message we had heard throughout our lives that our performance was what really mattered. What we could produce was what really mattered. How we could be used was what mattered. And used we were. Until some of us were used up.

Conclusion

It can be overwhelming to face the brokenness of the church, to face our own brokenness. And yet it’s important. To name what is wrong so it can be addressed. To identify what was off, so we can make different choices. I am still processing the theological disarray of my previous church, but if I had to summarize the dysfunction, I would say: fear and control. The leaders might have thought they were promoting love, but what they taught us was fear. They preached often about freedom, but what they created was a culture of control.

I have found relief and empowerment in reclaiming the truth from the lies. However, theological untangling has only been one part of my healing journey. In the next and final post of this series, I will share more about the other parts of my continuing journey toward wholeness. Theological/mental clarity is one thing. Feeling safe, navigating triggers in your body, dealing with persistent emotional heaviness, and struggling to build a new life are another thing. Fortunately, God cares not only about our minds, but also our emotions, bodies, imaginations, and every intricate part of our lives. God doesn’t just care about us getting it right or believing correct doctrine or even doing right things. God cares about us.

May God have mercy on those of us who have been used and those of us who have used others. May God teach us a better way. And may God hold all of us close to His heart.

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Teacher, preacher, musician, and writer. Follower of Jesus. Half-Korean, half-white American. A perpetual learner. A deep feeler. In awe of God's persistent love.

4 thoughts on “Spiritual Abuse: Truth, Lies, and Manipulation

  1. Thank you for sharing your story, Elizabeth. Especially loved these sentences at the end: “Fortunately, God cares not only about our minds, but also our emotions, bodies, imaginations, and every intricate part of our lives. God doesn’t just care about us getting it right or believing correct doctrine or even doing right things. God cares about us.” — Those last two, so true and so hard to accept fully as truth all too often!

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