Breaking the Cycle of Spiritual Abuse

Photo: Unsplash/@nicolaerosu

Spiritual abuse is a part of a cycle of unchallenged and unaccountable sins of Christian leadership. Many Christians are wrongly led to believe that in every single instance of spiritual abuse, it is more “spiritually mature” to leave quietly rather than to stay and speak up.

But the reality is that spiritual abuse feeds off of every instance that people simply leave the church quietly. It is to the exclusive benefit of spiritual abusers to have their victims silently disappear from among the fold so that they can shape the narrative.

Every time spiritual abusers “get away with it,” they feel more emboldened to inflict the same or worse abuse on future victims and live as though they are ecclesiastically invincible. In fact, spiritual abusers often see that the worst thing that can happen to them may be a slap on the wrist behind closed doors, but nothing more. Spiritual abusers are often masters of their own church polity systems because they know every loophole and every church political way to surround themselves with enough clout to fly under the radar with their abuse.

**Victims of spiritual abuse are never to blame** — rather, it is the deficiency of advocacy within the church that causes the cycle of spiritual abuse to continue. Other Christians and other leaders side with silence rather than advocate for victims, leaving them isolated and with no recourse for the abuse they have received. Church leadership across the board is deficient in providing training to their members for spotting spiritual abuse and reporting it, and instead, focus on exclusively submitting to leadership without reservation. Seminaries fail to train future leaders of the church on how to stand up against abusive leadership they may one day find themselves amongst in a church they serve. Denominations fail to create whistleblower policies and mechanisms for laypeople to be able to report spiritual abuse. Instead many denominations tout the biblical nature of their church polity as is as the bulletproof structure against abuse, but the matter of fact is that every polity is susceptible to spiritual abuse. While independent churches and hierarchical churches are susceptible to the tyrannical abuse of one leader, connectional and Presbyterian churches are susceptible to the tyrannical abuse of many who would rather side with power, influence, and reputation than with the victims of abuse.

Too often, I have seen leaders in the church side with spiritual abusers than with those who have been abused. Too often, I have seen these same complicit leaders attempt to make “leave quietly” the exclusive model to deal with spiritual abuse. Too often, I have seen these same complicit leaders place spiritually abusive pastors into another pastoral position elsewhere as their solution to their sin, rather than holding them accountable and publicly denouncing the abuse as a shame on the name of Christ.

Too often have I seen other laypeople remain silent or even get wrapped up in aiding the abuse by ostracizing victims, spreading rumors and gossip about them to slander their reputation, and making the victims out to be the scapegoats for systemic church leadership problems. Too often have I seen these complicit laypeople actually argue that strong-arm leadership was a faithful biblical expression of spiritual leadership, and thereby give justification and license for abusive tactics that their leaders use against often gentle and meek Christians. Too often have I seen people’s faith shipwrecked because no one stood up for them when they went through spiritual abuse, even though so many had positions where they could have done something to advocate for these victims. Too often have I seen people write off the Christian faith entirely because they experienced this spiritual abuse in churches that boasted of being the only perfect church with all the right doctrine and theology — if such horrendous abuse happens unchallenged at the “best” of the church, it’s no wonder why they have left the church in its entirety.

What’s the solution? The solution is for churches and Christians to talk more openly and extensively about the reality of spiritual abuse. It’s to require training on this topic for all church leadership as well as for membership in the church. It’s to require significant coverage of this topic at seminaries and Bible colleges for future leaders.

But beyond the resources and training, the solution requires a posture of standing with victims and empowering them to speak up against the abusers. It’s to give a voice to them and surround them with support, counseling, prayer, and companionship so that they can help stop the cycle of spiritual abuse. It’s to push for congregational and denominational policies, procedures, and mechanisms that protect victims and hold abusive leaders accountable and sees spiritual abuse as something that requires public repentance and removal from positions of authority in the church.

God himself speaks about the abusive leaders during Ezekiel’s time in Ezekiel 34 who were feeding off the sheep and fattening themselves. God did not hesitate to let his people know that he took this spiritual abuse seriously and that he himself would tear these “shepherds” down. Jesus embodied this holy and righteous anger against spiritual abuse when he turned tables in the Temple courts and challenged the religious leaders and stood by the side of those who received the brunt of spiritual abuse. If we are to be more and more like Jesus renewed by the Spirit, that means that we should consider spiritual abuse the same way that he does. We should not tolerate it, excuse it, justify it, or even remain silent about it. We should be courageous enough to “drive a spoke in the wheel” of spiritual abuse and be willing to lose it all and lay our lives down for victims of spiritual abuse.

God knows who are his sheep and he knows who are false shepherds who are simply there for their own gain and glory. Many on that day will say, “Lord, Lord! Did I not pastor theologically conservative churches where the gospel was preached every Sunday, and did I not write so many sound theological books, and did I not host a podcast that brought many people into a deeper theological knowledge, and did I not get trained in the best seminary, and did I not do many other wonderful things for your kingdom?” And he will say, “I never knew you.” But to the sheep who have been beaten, bruised, stomped on, silenced, and marginalized, who experienced years of hard counseling, trauma, ostracization, scapegoating, and wounds for their entire lives yet never let go of the “Love that would not let them go,” Jesus will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your master.”

Associate Editor for Faithfully Magazine and advocate for Christian proactive justice.

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