"Will you continue to stand by and let your church drown financially?"¹
So began an ad for "Financial Empowerment Seminars." The target audience: church members wanting to invest profitably, while also benefitting their churches and communities. The seminars were led by a man who now faces federal prosecution by the SEC for defrauding investors of more than $11 million in a Ponzi scheme. Meanwhile, these "investors" need to rebuild not only their financial security, but also their emotional security, especially after being betrayed by "spiritual leaders" who were found to be spiritual abusers.
This new term "spiritual abuse" may not be something you're familiar with, but you may have heard about it or seen its effects in the life of someone you know … or you may be recovering from it yourself. (It is possible to be in a spiritually abusive relationship … and not even know it.)
Spiritual abuse is an umbrella term primarily describing three different kinds of harmful acts: (1) mistreatment: a person in spiritual authority mistreating another person; (2) manipulation: the use of religious words or acts to manipulate someone for personal gain or control; and (3) Scripture twisting: any intentional misuse of Scripture in order to twist the truth. Works of a spiritual nature can look noble, virtuous and inspiring, however, as the old saying goes, "Looks can be deceiving." Or, to quote Proverbs 16:2 (NIV): "All a person's ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the LORD."
Although spiritual abuse is a relatively new term, its practice has persisted ever since the serpent in the Garden of Eden distorted and outright lied about God's words to Adam and Eve. In doing so, he managed to create doubt in their minds regarding the character of God and His relationship to those He had created.
The result, of course, was that they found the thought of becoming like God more appealing than remaining dependent on God. That thought led them to trust Satan's words rather than God's words, and their descendants have struggled with this same problem ever since. The serpent said to Eve, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden?' … 'You will not certainly die …. For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil'" (Genesis 3:1, 4-5 NIV).
The serpent skewed God's words and seduced the first couple into taking the fatal bite!
At the core of spiritual abuse is excessive control of others. Spiritual abuse is acting "spiritual" to benefit oneself by using self-centered efforts to control others. Some common examples of spiritually abusive relationships include:
• Church leaders who use guilt or greed to compel attendance, financial giving or service
• Spiritual leaders who take emotional or sexual advantage of others in the name of "comfort or compassion"
• Religious people who accuse those who disagree with them of being rebellious against God
• Ministry leaders who demand absolute, unquestioned obedience no matter what … whether reasonable or not … whether biblical or not
Jesus taught about domineering, spiritual leaders who wield their authority and "lord it over" the people.
"Instead," He added, "whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:42-45 NIV). Spiritual leaders are called to be servants, not dictators – to be sacrificial toward their followers, not to be exploitive of their followers.
How well I remember a recent caller on Hope In the Night who said she had donated all of her assets – $70,000 from her home – to help build a church. Later, she learned the spiritual leader had used the money to buy a comfortable home … for herself. Then the caller somehow became the scapegoat for problems at the ministry, even being blamed for the unrelated deaths of the leader's two relatives.
Illegalities aside, such spiritual abuse is blatant manipulation. No wonder this naïve, new Christian vowed to never darken the door of a church again!
If you are trying to determine whether or not a particular group may be spiritually abusive, consider the following questions:
___ Do they exalt someone as an irrefutable authority in the group?
___ Do they demand your absolute allegiance?
___ Do they discourage your questions?
___ Do they shame people publicly?
___ Do they insist on making major decisions in your life?
___ Do they have a long list of rules related to dress, hairstyle, diet or activities?
___ Do they judge those who do not keep their list of rules?
___ Do they consider themselves the "only true church"?
___ Do they consider those who leave their group "apostates," "backsliders" or "doomed"?
___ Do they teach that godly people should give more financially so that they will receive more?
Notice Paul's words of warning: "If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ … he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing." [And who is teaching these different doctrines? Those who are … ] "… imagining that godliness is a means of gain. … But as for you, O man of God, flee these things" (1 Timothy 6:3-5, 11 ESV).
Yes, flee! Having assisted others to leave, I can assure you that separating from a spiritually abusive group can be grueling because the leaders use fear, false guilt and shame to keep members from leaving. If you are in such a group, daily pray the following prayer: "For you are my rock and my fortress … lead me and guide me; you take me out from the net they have hidden for me, for you are my refuge" (Psalm 31:3-4 ESV).
Regardless of the difficulty, you must leave. Your spiritual life depends on it!