“Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed,
2 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight (F)not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness;
3nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.”
1 Peter 5:1-5
What happens when the leaders of our churches choose to abuse their authority? When we are part of a body of believers, we are taught to submit to authority regardless of whether they are right or wrong. My question has become whether or not this is biblical. In order to answer my question I had to do some serious exploring and soul searching.
Spiritual abuse is easily explained as power with little or no restraint. It is a result of pride. Those in authority often fail to recognize they are not the mouthpiece of God and can be wrong. They tend to forget the true reasons why they have been given authority and the purpose that it serves. Instead it is often used it to control or manipulate those who follow and trust them for guidance.
The most dangerous are those who abuse their authority through a subtle form of pride. This form of pride comes disguised as humility, but the second this person is challenged or questioned, the monster within appears. This particular form of abuse uses guilt to demand obedience and threatens those not willing to comply with dis-fellowship. These actions are often in an attempt to protect a certain “image” of a leader, or of the church itself.
Many pastors or leaders believe that their authority comes directly from God and nowhere else. These people then elevate themselves to the same level of God, leaving them with no accountability, and the power to micromanage their followers. None of those actions follow the example of Jesus, thus making this belief wrong and sinful.
Here is a typical scenario: A follower either questions the authority of their leader or raises something unpleasant that this leader has done, leaving the leader offended and his ego bruised. The leader will then address the issue in such a way as to make the follower feel as if the issue is not real or it is misguided. The follower is then questioned about possible sin in their life. Surely, there has to be sin if the follower would question the leader who is in authority under God. From there, church discipline may be evoked and the person turned out. Other followers in the church are told that the person is running away from God and in sin. Scary, isn’t it? What is even scarier is that it is happening every day—and it happened to me.
The effects of this type of abuse are horrific to the one experiencing spiritual abuse. We put great trust in our leadership and expect that our trust will be guarded, but when that trust is violated, it is devastating. And the loss of trust affects all areas; home life, friendships, church life, and yes, trust in God. Those around you begin to believe the lies being spoken by the leadership. They believe you are “in sin” and are running away from God. Even worse are those who tell others to stay away from you so as not to be pulled into “your whirlpool of sin.” Sad but it is all true. This then leaves the affected party abandoned, alone, and betrayed. For me, it led me into deep depression. I no longer trusted anyone. I withdrew into myself. I no longer trusted God.
There is no greater darkness than depression. It is a complete feeling of utter hopelessness and of being totally alone. Here is where I found hope. This behavior of spiritual abuse angers God.
“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
8 “As I live,” declares the Lord GOD, “surely because My flock has become a prey, My flock has even become food for all the beasts of the field for lack of a shepherd, and My shepherds did not search for My flock, but rather the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock;
9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
10 ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand My sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver My flock from their mouth, so that they will not be food for them.”‘”
God condemns the “shepherds of Israel” who ruled over their flock with force and cruelty. Jesus was angry with those who found rules more important than the concern for those suffering around them.
“He entered again into a synagogue; and a man was there whose hand was withered.
2 They were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him.
3 He said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and come forward!”
4 And He said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” But they kept silent.
5 After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored.”
One of my personal favorites is when Jesus heals the blind man using mud. (John 9) The Pharisees chose to “cast out” the man who was blind because he spoke truth and exposed their hypocrisy. You see Jesus never used His spiritual authority in order to gain more power. He did not use His power to control those around Him who would disagree or question.
Jesus followed the high standards of His Father but always placed the needs and sufferings of the people before rules. He did this because scripture was clear that people would always have sin in their lives. “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” 1 John 1:8
It becomes clear to me that there are those leaders out there who are spiritually abusive and have an unbalanced idea of what matters most to God.
There is so much more to this topic and much more to be explored over time. The point for now is that NO man is the sole mouthpiece of God and NO individual has all the authority directly from God to direct and decide all affairs of the church. God’s desire is that our acts of authority be a reflection of His grace and not rules. When this does not happen, God is robbed of His glory and distorted before the world.
It has taken me a very long time to reach a place of understanding and peace on the topic of church leadership abusing their power. It has taken even longer to be able to speak about it and share. I have felt so strongly for so long the need to address this issue so that others experiencing this issue would have hope. My prayer is that if you are here because you are searching for hope in an abusive situation, you will know that you are not alone. Know that God loves you more than you could ever fathom and that He did not approve of what took place. God is a just God and will right the wrong committed. For now, find rest, peace, love in His arms, and be confident that if your life belongs to Him, He will protect His child.