Beating the Sheep

By David Henke

For anyone living in America during the last quarter century, the concept of abuse at the hands of those in positions of power, is quite familiar. There is child abuse, spousal abuse, workplace discrimination, mistreatment of the elderly in nursing homes, and many other examples. The reality of abusive behavior is as real as man's sin nature.

During the last ten years, Christian authors have published numerous books on the subject of spiritual abuse. Is this happening because our society is very conscious of abuse, now, and the Christian community is simply applying that consciousness introspectively? Or, is it a response to a growing problem. Perhaps both causes are true.

In the last quarter-century, there has been an explosion of independent religious groups. That, in itself, is not a problem. But, a problem may arise where there is a deficient polity coupled with a leader who fails to understand the necessity of two-way accountability. When such a situation occurs and there is no authority higher than the local leadership it can leave the membership without a means for correcting the abuse. The authors of the recent books on spiritual abuse found the vast majority of their examples among these groups.

Spiritual Abuse Defined

Spiritual abuse could be defined as the injury of a person's spiritual health. The cause could arise from a doctrinal error, or, it could be the result of a person trying to meet a legitimate need by an illegitimate means that weakens another person's spiritual health.

Inclination toward abuse in the spiritual arena is a human condition that can find expression wherever you find people engaged in spiritual activities. Cults are expert at achieving their ends using this method. The Bible talks a lot about this practice.

God's Attitude

One of the most dramatic condemnations of spiritual abuse in scripture is found in Ezekiel 34.

"And the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks?

"Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.

"And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered.

"My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them."

This description of the "shepherds of Israel" is the antithesis of the ministry of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. He strengthened the weak, bound up the broken, sought the lost sheep of Israel, and was a servant leader.

What must be the attitude of Jesus to those who would be spiritual shepherds but devour the spiritual health of their people? We get a glimpse of it in His reaction to the moneychangers in the Temple. The people of God were coming to the Temple to make their appropriate sacrifices in obedience to God. The moneychangers and others were fraudulently making profits at their expense. Jesus reaction was violent anger.

Another example is found in Jesus' description of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. He called them hypocrites to their faces and in front of the people. The Pharisees were willing to enforce their traditions on the people but not willing to care for them as would a shepherd. See The News & Views, Vol. 3, #5 for a discussion of this passage.

We can see in such passages that the abuser does not care for the welfare of those he leads as much as he cares for himself or the ideas he has. Aberrant groups tend to be established around some "wind of doctrine" or persuasive personality. When you examine the founding of the major cults of today you will find this to be the model.

What Spiritual Abuse Looks Like

The first sign of an abusive group is that it is authoritarian. When it comes right down to it, control is more important than personal spiritual welfare. Leaders in an authoritarian system are not teachable. The attitude, like that of the Pharisees, is that they are the teachers and rulers of God's people, not their servants.

They may say they are teachable, but then set up rules which you must follow to approach them. Then they interpret those rules to rule you out of order. The former members of one particular group described to the author how their leader used this method to avoid accountability. He kept pointing out how their "heart is not right" in the way they brought issues to him.

It seems there is an innate consciousness on the part of false leadership that what is real is different than what is shown. Hence, two other characteristics, image consciousness and suppression of criticism, are necessary to keep the system intact.

Even the Soviet Union acted this way. They jammed the Voice of America, used their domestic press for propaganda, and sent dissidents to the Gulag. If what is preached is true, and is followed by those holding power, then accountability is nothing to fear.

Another sign of an abusive system is perfectionism. This can arise out of a theology that requires works for salvation, or to keep one's salvation. All cults practice this idea, which leads to spiritual exhaustion. It also leads to disillusionment or self-condemnation because perfection cannot be achieved.

A performance-based relationship with God is a useful tool for accumulating power and wealth in the group's leaders. This will generally be evident in the lifestyle of cult leaders compared to that of the membership.

Finally, you will almost always find an area of significant imbalance in the teachings, or practice, of abusive groups. The imbalance may show up as an unreasonable prohibition or an excessive burden. Commitment to this imbalance is a test of loyalty for the members, whether they realize it or not.


It must be our individual responsibility to be aware of the modern manifestations of Pharisaism. We must be ready to speak out, like Jesus, on behalf of others.

We need to be prepared to help those who have been spiritually injured by modern Pharisees, and a performance-based theology of salvation. What do these people need? First, and foremost, your unconditional friendship, willingness to listen to their horror stories without judgment, and reflection of the model of Jesus to them.

They also need time, probably a lot of time, to let the wound heal. But healing can only begin when the injury ceases for them AND the healing environment described above is present. Most spiritual abuse victims carry their injury with them all their lives. They can be healed and the good news is, when they are they usually become zealous to help others who have been likewise affected.

The man born blind was "cast out" of the Temple by the Pharisees because he said Jesus healed him. They were valuing their power and prestige more than they valued the man, or the truth. Being "cast out" of the Temple was a form of ex-communication, or disfellowshipping.

When Jesus heard the man had been cast out of the Temple He sought him out to minister to his spiritual need (John 9). This is our model as followers of Christ.

Books on Spiritual Abuse

Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse By Jeff VanVonderen

Healing Spiritual Abuse By Ken Blue

Toxic Faith By Arterburn and Felton

Churches That Abuse By Ron Enroth

Recovering From Churches That Abuse By Ron Enroth

Wisdom Hunter By Randall Arthur (fiction)

Betrayal By Randall Arthur (fiction)

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Spiritual Abuse in the Bible?

By David Henke

"Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. With force and with cruelty have ye ruled them" (Ezekiel 34:2-4).

Spiritual abuse has a very prominent place in the Bible, though that terminology has not been used until recently. In the scripture it is called bondage to men and the traditions of men. It is a by-product and outgrowth of legalism, which is bondage to the letter of the law.

Mark 3 describes the scene as Jesus enters a synagogue on the Sabbath and encounters a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees watched to see what Jesus would do. They must have been threatened, or offended, by this man's regard for the needy at the expense of their rules, because Jesus saw and knew they would try to accuse Him of "working" on the Sabbath. He also knew that He was going to heal the man, so He used a question to set up the Pharisees to be seen as the hypocrites they were. He asked, "Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath days, or to do evil? To save life, or to kill?"

The potential answers to this question for the Pharisees presented unacceptable dilemmas. It is like the question, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" It is certainly not lawful to do evil, or kill, on the Sabbath, which left the Pharisees with just one other choice. And that choice pitted the Pharisees against their own traditions and interpretation of the Law. Jesus also knew they wanted to kill Him when he included the reference to killing in His question. That is exactly what the Pharisees began to do when they left.

There is a lesson in this passage for anyone dealing with an abusive religious system. If you challenge, disagree, oppose, or in any way offend, you cannot leave with your reputation intact. In the most severely dysfunctional groups you may even lose your life, as Jesus did.

What Is Spiritual Abuse?

Spiritual abuse, as we are addressing it here, could be defined as the injury of a person's spiritual health. It is the use of religion and spiritual concepts to gain or maintain undue power over another. The cause could arise from a doctrinal error that puts a person into a performance-based relationship with God. Or, it could be the result of a person trying to meet their legitimate need by an illegitimate means that weakens their own or another person's spiritual health.

Typically an abusive religious system will have the following characteristics:

Undue Loyalty to Leaders - The leadership is held to be anointed by God and followers taught they should submit in anything it requires. It is taught that God will bless that submission even if the leader is wrong.

Authoritarian - The system is characterized by rules and a power structure that is unaccountable to those who follow.

Appearance is Everything - As Jeff VanVonderen says, "How things look is more important than what is real." (Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, page 130)

Perfectionistic - Works are necessary for salvation, to keep one's salvation, or to keep God's blessing.

Unbalanced - There is usually a majoring on minors that makes the group distinctive from others.

Another "Victimization" Cause?

With all the publicity about people being victimized by this or that activity, or group, there is an inevitable backlash. Some "victims" milk the public's sympathy for the weak being abused by the strong.

There is more to this problem, however, than people "who need to "get a life", find some backbone, become more self-reliant, etc. Spiritual abuse is one of the defining characteristics of all cults, and because it is a human failing, it can occur anywhere there are people gathered around a religious purpose.

Scriptural Precedent

Spiritual abuse is prominently discussed in scripture. The strongest, most emotional and even violent responses Jesus displayed came against spiritual abusers. From the above-described encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees in the synagogue to the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus confronted those who misused their spiritual authority at the expense of those who followed them. Let's look at some passages.

Jeremiah 5:26-31 describes a perversion of justice in Israel where those in authority, the prophets and priests, were adding to their own wealth, power, and prestige at the expense of the needy. This angered God Who asked, "Shall I not visit for these things?" This same perversion of justice is described again in Jeremiah 6:13-14 where the false leaders give lip service to healing, saying, "Peace, peace; when there is no peace." Needy people left these spiritual authorities with no real help and God was angry for that. An authoritarian leader will seek to be unaccountable for his actions, or inactions, this side of heaven.

Luke 15:1, 2 tells the attitude of the Pharisees about Jesus' relationship with Publicans and sinners. Jesus dares to share a meal with them. The Pharisees conclude that Jesus must not care about his own spiritual purity if He associates with people of such low moral character. The attitude of the Pharisees illustrates a chasm that really did exist between the lowly sinner, who knew he was a sinner, and the self-righteous Pharisee. The religious leaders were saying by their attitude that you must rise to a level of acceptability before we will accept you. This is perfectionism and it is a denial of grace. God's attitude, however, is that He will come to you and meet you where you are.

Matthew 23 is a long description by Jesus of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He says they have seated themselves in "Moses seat," the position of authority, and they command things that they themselves will not do. They bind heavy burdens on people but they will not carry the loads. Jesus then goes on to utter seven "Woes" on the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. The meek and mild Jesus resorts to words like "hypocrites!" "whited sepulchers," "serpents," and more. Talk about name-calling! I would hate to be on the receiving end of that when it is coming from God. But the humble sinners, who knew they were sinners, were attracted to this caring, straight-talking man. Jesus was real and the Pharisees were all appearance.

Again, in Matthew 23 Jesus tells the Pharisees to their face, and before the public, that they are unbalanced in their weighting of issues. Judgment, mercy and faith are given insufficient weight but a tithe on the produce from their garden plots is paid with precise measure (vss. 23-24). Jesus said they strain out the gnat but swallow whole camels. Where was their judgment and mercy in verse 14 where Jesus said they devour widows' houses? But, they did pay tithes! They were skilled at applying the letter of the Law to every life situation but had lost the spirit of the Law along the way. This was why the people were alienated from them, and fearful. And, it is why Jesus found a ready reception of His ministry among the public. Jesus illustrated the balance between the spirit and the letter when dealing with the woman taken in adultery.

God's Attitude Toward Abuse

The damage done by spiritual abuse is very deep, much deeper than most would ever imagine unless it had been experienced. The damage is deep because of the vulnerability of the victim.

Think for a moment; when a believer enters a church is he going to put his guard up, or down? Does he not consider himself to be among those most interested in his welfare? The church is seen as a refuge.

With the idea that one is among those who are there to help and not hurt, a person is much more vulnerable to the damage that can come from someone who gives him a burden, or a rule, or a judgment based upon the traditions of men (Matthew 15:9b).

When a believer acts, believing what they are told to be from God, but it turns out to be false, he can experience disappointment and disillusionment not only with the person who led him in the counsel, but toward God Himself. That is why spiritual abuse is so serious in God's eyes.

Jeff VanVonderen observes that the symptoms exhibited by one who suffers spiritual abuse are point by point the same as a victim of incest. Each is a case of a trusted caregiver violating that trust in one of the most intimate parts of our human nature.

The heart of God toward the weak, and those who follow the strong, is illustrated in the familiar statement by Jesus regarding children. "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea."

In verse three Jesus equates a new convert to this little child. The lesson is that we must use our influence carefully, wisely, and consistent with the Law of Love.

James makes this point in chapter 3, verse 1, when he says, " My brethren, be not many masters (Greek, didaskaloi - teachers), knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation." There are damaging spiritual consequences to followers when a spiritual leader misleads, therefore there are more severe consequences from God for that leader.

Perhaps the longest lasting damage from spiritual abuse is loss of ability to trust. Mark Twain said that a cat that walked on a hot stove would never walk on a hot stove again. But then, it would not walk on a cold stove either.

Many abuse victims never again darken the door of a church. To them it represents too much danger.


How does a person recover from spiritual abuse? And, how fully can be that recovery?

Recovery can be a long process. It's rather like recovery from the amputation of a limb, or removal of a diseased organ. You will never be the same again but you can learn to function in a healthy way.

However, recovery seldom happens without help from someone who understands that the injury is real and deep. It is useless and unwise to tell a spiritual abuse victim to "just get over it," or "put it behind you." They can't. It is a big elephant in the middle of their life.

Recovery begins with the truth of John 8:32. "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." Knowing the truth about what happened, and grasping the Truth of God's Word, is the starting point for recovery. Just knowing the injury has a name and identifying traits, can be liberating.

Next it is important to know how spiritual abuse impacted that particular individual. What made him vulnerable? How was his trust cultivated and then violated?

Emotions must be allowed to be expressed. There is anger, grief, hurt, and loss. Just as in the loss of a loved one in death, a person needs time to reconcile his emotions with reality. Here is where a loving and gracious Christian can give the greatest help. A caring heart, a quiet mouth and a listening ear are the important resources.

It is very important for a victim to know that he is not alone. Many others have experienced what he is going through.

Most victims go through a stage of self doubt. They may wonder if this is a judgment of God that came about because of something wrong with themselves. It is important for these who suffer to know the wrong and hurt came about when they were led to believe a lie. They need the consensual validation of hearing from others who went through similar experiences.

Finally healing comes when the individual is able to give help to others out of his own experience. The ideal setting for this is a support group.

This writer has felt for many years that there needs to be a bridge between the abusive experience in their past and a grace oriented church to which they will eventually go, or maybe are now trying to re-learn to trust.

That bridge needs to be their "Church In Between" a place of refuge that will function as a church, with understanding of their responses. Because, they are still like the cat that walked on that hot stove.

I recommend the following books for those of you who wish to learn more about this subject.

Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Jeff VanVonderen.

Toxic Faith by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton