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Spiritual Abuse

In the last couple of years, as I’ve read blogs and other web sites, I have often come across the term “spiritual abuse.” It is a term that seems to be gaining a little bit of traction with whole blogs dedicated to it. It describes a clear reality—that where there is spiritual authority in a sinful world, there will at times be abuse of that authority. However, I am also concerned that the term may be used too widely if we do not define it carefully. After all, leaders have to lead and at times leaders have to lead in ways that may not be popular. I’m sure there are times that any leadership, and especially corrective leadership, can feel like abuse.

I wanted to learn more about this topic so turned to Bob Kellemen, Executive Director of the Biblical Counseling Coalition. We had a bit of a dialog that I hope you find helpful.


TC: The term “spiritual abuse” is one I’ve encountered quite often on the Internet in recent days.

BK: As have I, Tim. In fact, in response I crafted a four-part blog mini-series at RPM Ministries (www.rpmministries.org) that I called Spiritual Leadership and Humble Relationships (Part 1: http://bit.ly/oZqqu0Part 2: http://bit.ly/owP2rB , Part 3: http://bit.ly/qZS2yZ, and Part 4: http://bit.ly/pYUfYZ). All the talk in the Christian blogosphere about “spiritually abusive pastors” and “pastors who bully” started me pondering, “How does the Apostle Paul respond to those who disagree with him and criticize him?”

TC: Certainly spiritual abuse is a legitimate concern for Christians; there is a long history of abusive leadership within the church and Christians are right to label this and to react against it.

BK: I agree, Tim—church history, ancient and current, demonstrates the legitimacy of the concern about abusive leadership. Even more important, and I’m sure you agree, there are strong biblical reasons to be concerned about spiritual abuse. Jeremiah pronounces “woe” upon shepherds who do not care for or tend God’s flock and who cause God’s people to live in fear (Jeremiah 23:1-4). Jesus pronounces “seven woes” upon the teachers of the law and the Pharisees for their spiritually abusive leadership (Matthew 23:1-39). In Matthew 20:20-28, Jesus warns his disciples against proud, arrogant, self-centered leadership that reflects more of the world’s “lording it over” than of the Lord’s servant leadership. Peter learned this lesson well, as he exhorts elders to be shepherds of the flock, to eagerly serve, not lording it over, but being examples (1 Peter 5:1-6).

TC: One concern, though, is that this term has to be properly defined. I say this because any kind of loving discipline can seem abusive to the one who is undergoing it or to the one who is watching it from afar. We’ve probably all seen this in the context of other people’s children. This seems in-line with Hebrews 12:11. At the same time, certain leadership styles may seem abusive.

BK: Excellent point…one that “balances” this discussion well. I’ve pastored three churches and I currently provide pro bono ministry to pastors and their families. So I am “pro pastors.” I’m sure we’ve both seen “pastoral abuse”—the abuse of pastors by God’s people. This, of course, runs counter to many passages, including Hebrews 13:7 and 13:17. And sometimes that “pastoral abuse” arises when pastors are sincerely desiring to “speak the truth in love,” but, as you say, people misperceive it as coercive, abusive leadership.

TC: What I’d like to ask you, then, is whether you have a sense of the scope of spiritual abuse within the church and then work toward a definition of it. It would probably be equally helpful to determine what spiritual abuse is not.

So let’s begin there. Do you agree that spiritual abuse is a legitimate concern within the church?

BK: As I’ve indicated, both from church history and from God’s Word, it’s clear that spiritual abuse is a legitimate concern. We can address the scope of that concern by considering the cause of spiritual abuse. We can offer a working definition of spiritual abuse, and we’ll do that in a moment, but I think it helps, first, to offer a broad, biblical description of what is behind all conflict in the church.

James helps us when he asks the diagnostic question, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” (James 4:1a). His answer? “Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:1b-4). We can always trace conflict in the church, whether spiritual abuse by a pastor or pastoral abuse of a pastor, to our adulterous hearts—hearts that worship and desire anything more than they desire God.

Let’s make this practical—and God’s Word is always relevant and practical. A parishioner challenges my leadership. I’m now at a spiritual choice point. I can respond in a humble, godly way like Paul does in 2 Corinthians 6:11-13. And I will respond like that if I have the same attitude Paul displays in 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 where his ultimate concern and desire is to please Christ, not to please others. Paul lives for an audience of One. I will respond in a humble, godly way if my attitude is the same as Christ’s attitude in Philippians 2:1-8—God-glorifying and other-centered.

On the other hand, if I worship and “need” your “approval,” if I cling to the false idol of being seen as a strong leader, if the motive of my heart is self-centered and self-glorifying, then I will respond in an arrogant, ungodly (spiritually abusive) way. I will be living, as the KJV describes it, “with eye-service as men-pleasers” (Ephesians 6:6). The scope of spiritual abuse is as wide and deep as the depth of our heart’s ability to dig cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water, rather than drinking from God the Spring of Living Water (Jeremiah 2:13).

TC: So keeping that in mind, how would you go about defining spiritual abuse?

BK: Since this is a blog post and not a book or an academic paper, let’s consider this a “working definition,” or, as I often tell my students, “my current best attempt…”

Spiritual abuse is a spiritual role-reversal where a shepherd, instead of clinging to and emulating the Great Shepherd by shepherding God’s people (Acts 20; 1 Peter 5; 1 Timothy 3; Ephesians 4), subtly demands that members exist to meet the shepherd’s needs (James 4:1-4). Rather than relating as a servant leader, the pastor “pulls rank” and “lords it over others” (Matthew 20:20-28; 1 Peter 5:1-6), not for the benefit of the flock, but for the benefit of the pastor. Rather than speaking the truth in love and rather than ministering grace and truth (Ephesians 4:11-16, 29; Colossians 4:3-6; Titus 2:10-12), the spiritually abusive pastor intimidates, judges, condemns, shames, and blames the sheep without regard for the spiritual wellbeing of the sheep (Jeremiah 23:1-4; Matthew 23:1-39).

Of course, much of that working definition goes to “motives of the heart.” A parishioner should be very cautious about judging a pastor’s motives. Thus, in many ways the burden is on the pastor, both to know his own heart through a close walk with Christ (Hebrews 4:12-13) and to have others who know him well help him to evaluate his heart (Hebrews 3:12-19; 10:24-25).

There are “symptoms” that we can identify that might point to a heart moving toward spiritual abuse. These might include actions and attitudes such as:

  • Using our spiritual position to control or dominate another person.
  • Overriding the feelings and opinions of others.
  • Using spiritual authority defensively to bolster the position and “needs” of the leader.
  • Considering oneself above questioning.
  • Labeling the person who questions us as wrong and rebellious, thus subtly shifting the focus and blame. Questions are assumed to come from a wrong spirit, not simply from an honest attempt to have give-and-take dialogue. The worst is assumed of the other; the best is assumed of oneself.
  • Labels can include accusations such as, “You’re rebellious.” “You’re disrespectful.” “I detect a pattern of anger and a critical spirit.” “You are unspiritual and emotionally immature.” Such labels heap condemnation on the recipient, rather than offering wise counsel and constructive feedback.
  •  Interpreting our spiritual authority to mean that my thoughts and opinions are supreme.

You also asked, wisely, that we ponder what abuse is not. Here are a couple of introductory comparisons.

  • It is not abusive when a spiritual leader speaks the truth in love and confronts sin in a gracious way. It is abusive, however, if the leader seeks to defend himself, or shame or discredit others.
  • It’s not abusive when a spiritual leader uses his best judgment and chooses to go against your opinion. It is abusive, however, if the leader uses his opposing view to devalue and demean others.

Because of the intricacies of the issues, and because of the complexity of the human heart, if a pastor and parishioner cannot come to agreement on the nature of the relationship, then it is always wise to invite other godly people to help assess what is occurring (Matthew 18:15-17).

There’s much more to say, but this should at least advance the conversation.


In his three pastoral ministries, Dr. Kellemen has equipped hundreds of people as biblical counselors and spiritual friends. He is founder of RPM Ministries, and Executive Director of the Biblical Counseling Coalition.