Spiritual Abuse in the Church – Part 2: Breaking Free
“Then Jesus said…, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”” (John 8:31-32 NIV).
Last week in our message on Spiritual Abuse in the Church – Part 1, we shared a few examples of spiritual abuse in the Church, along with several signs or symptoms that characterize spiritual abuse in the Church and Christian Ministries. In this week’s article, we will discuss the consequences of spiritual abuse, attempt to answer the question on whether God is to blame when you experience spiritual abuse, and share some tips on how to break free from spiritual abuse. We are sharing out of our conviction to warn Christian believers to be on guard against “wolves in sheep clothing” (Matthew 7:15) and encourage you not to fall victim to, but break free from, spiritual abuse. This is a very cunning tool and strategy that Satan is employing in an attempt to cause Christians to lose faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and fall away, especially in these last days (Matthew 24:10-11; 2 Pet 2:1-3; 2 Tim 4:3-4).
Consequences of Spiritual Abuse
The consequences of spiritual abuse, especially after exposure to prolonged spiritual manipulation and control, can be very severe, and in some cases deadly. Below are some results of being spiritually abused:
- Harboring anger and resentment: Once you realize that you have been spiritually abused, you will most likely be angry – very angry at yourself for having allowed yourself to be taken advantage of, and also angry at your abuser(s) for betraying your trust. If you hold on to the anger, this may lead to resentment and hate, and lure you into worse sins.
- Emotional distress: Spiritual abuse leads to anxiety, confusion, discouragement, and restlessess within. Spiritual abuse is a betrayal of trust, and thus can be very painful, especially the more one tries to make sense of it. The breaking down of friendships and relationships, some that might have built over several years, exacerbates the distress.
- Backsliding, apostasy and falling away of children of God (1 Timothy 4:1-5). Spiritual abuse is misuse of God’s grace is demonic scheme to discourage God’s children. Spiritual abuse can lead to a loss of faith in God and struggle to pray peacefully, read the Bible, worship God, share the Gospel, fellowship with other Christian brethren, or do anything Godly. If one continues withdrawing from the Lord and returns into the world of sin and rebellion, he or she will lose your salvation (Matthew 12:43-45). Remember, “… we do not belong to those who shrink back [withdraw, turn back, or turn away from God] and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved” (Hebrews 10:39).
- Harboring unforgiveness: Spiritual abuse leads to deep hurt and wounding that may lead one to harbor anger, resentment and unforgiveness. Most abusers are in denial of how much damage their controlling and manipulative tactics hurt their victims, and often they are too proud and blind to take responsibility for their actions. When confronted, the abuser may attempt to justify his/her actions, blame the victim, or downplay the victim’s concerns. This leaves the victim further hurt, and because the abuser does not humble himself and ask for forgiveness, the victim may find it very difficult to forgive.
- Loss of self-worth or self-esteem: This happens especially when a pastor or ministry leader speaks painful curses or “words of death” over a member, such as “You are being selfish if you leave this ministry and will not be blessed”, etc. Controlling and manipulating pastors will usually try to elevate themselves while looking down upon their members instead of building them up.
- Loss of hope: Spiritual abuse can lead one to feel like they’ve lost their purpose and the meaning of life, which may lead to suicidal thoughts.
- Financial distress: There are many heartbreaking stories of people, especially widows and other vulnerable people, who were fleeced dry by religious leaders who demanded more and more financial contribution from these members, while promising that the Lord would provide or multiply their finances. In other words, these religious leaders shamelessly depend on men while encouraging them to depend on God. Therefore, they don’t really practice what they preach, and this duplicity is meant to exploit their followers. Additionally, controlling and manipulating leaders often live extravagantly and beyond their means, yet expect their members to support their lavish lifestyle.
Is God to Blame When You Experience Spiritual Abuse?
Often, victims of spiritual abuse are angry with God, questioning why He allowed them to be abused. Unbelievers may also mock Christians for tolerating such abuse in the Church and justify their unbelief in God because of such manipulative behaviors and practices in the Church. Is God really to be blamed?
The Bible tells that “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). When Jesus saw the multitudes, “He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd (Matthew 9:36 NKJV). Later, He warned us against religious teachers, who “…bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matthew 23:4 NKJV). When we are burdened with the heavy load of abuse, the Lord Jesus Christ lovingly says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30 NIV). From this, we see that God is our Helper and He helps us when we fall (Psalm 54:4; 37:23-24).
People experience spiritual abuse when they put too much trust on others, contrary to God’s Word that warns against putting trust in man. We should never rely on our fellow human beings in determining God’s plan, will and purpose for our lives. The Lord says: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the Lord. For he shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when good comes, but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land which is not inhabited” (Jeremiah 17:5-6 NKJV). There must be a balance between humbly seeking guidance from a religious or ministry leader, and subjecting yourself to the manipulative practice of spiritual abuse.
In the Bible, we see an example of spiritual abuse, when religious leaders insulted and threw a man out of the Synagogue (John 9: 28, 34). What crime had the man committed? He’s simply shared his testimony how he had been born blind, but the Lord Jesus had healed him (John 9:1-27). The religious leaders tried to control and manipulate the man to lie about the Lord Jesus, but the man stuck to the truth. They also tried to pull him down in a condescending manner, that that the man was born entirely in sin and therefore had no authority to lecture them (John 9:34). In reality, however, the Lord had said that “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (John 9:3 NKJV). The man’s parents, however, were vulnerable to abuse by the religious leaders because they valued their place in the synagogue, and they therefore were not willing to stand up firmly for Christ “for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue” (John 9: 20-23 NKJV). After the man was excommunicated from the synagogue, he met the Lord Jesus and received the true revelation of who Jesus was (John 9:35-38)
In the Old Testament, the Bible warns of bad shepherds of the flock, indicating that they will be judged by the Lord for the way they have wrongfully and willfully dealt with the flock without humbling themselves, allowing God to deliver them, repenting, and turning away from wickedly abusing His flock. The Bible says:
“… ‘Thus says the Lord God to the shepherds: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock. The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill; yes, My flock was scattered over the whole face of the earth, and no one was seeking or searching for them.” ‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: “As I live,” says the Lord God, “surely because My flock became a prey, and My flock became food for every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd, nor did My shepherds search for My flock, but the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock”— therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require My flock at their hand; I will cause them to cease feeding the sheep, and the shepherds shall feed themselves no more; for I will deliver My flock from their mouths, that they may no longer be food for them.” (Ezekiel 34:2-10 NKJV)
In the New Testament, the Lord Jesus also admonishes Christian pastors and ministry leaders against abusing their flock, and warns these leaders of the dire consequences:
“But if that evil servant says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying his coming,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with the drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him and at an hour that he is not aware of, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:48-51).
In the above Scriptures, we can see clearly that God hates religious leaders who abuse His children. We can therefore safely conclude that He is not to blame for the pain and hurt that some pastors cause to their members. We also know that God does not force His will on us, but He gives us choices and consequences. He has placed before us life and death, and He pleads with us to choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19). It is up to us, followers of Christ, to love the Truth and prayerfully chose ways that lead to life that we may escape delusions, abuse, and ways that lead to death (2 Thessalonians 2:10-12). Unfortunately, many of us follow the inclinations of our hearts without checking to see if that truly is God’s will (Genesis 8:21). Some ministries supply numerous false visions, while many Christians lazily demand visions from prophets instead of having faith and praying. Therefore, individuals who have become stubborn followers of men, swallowing their unbiblical teachings and false doctrines, are to blame for allowing themselves and their children to be in situations or environments where they are manipulated, deceived, and abused.
As an example, many times financial exploitation might occur in a family due to lack of agreement by the couple. One person feels that they should give a certain amount of offering to a ministry and the other spouse disagrees and is either not ready or would like to give less. They argue, fight, call each other names about being stingy, and finally one party moves forward alone and gives the money without agreement. This creates more distrust and division in the marriage. The receiving minister may commend the person who gave for their “obedience to God”, while casting down the spouse who was not ready to give as someone who is persecuting the other for doing right. Spiritually abusive pastors usually create or exploit such differences and disunity in marriages for their own selfish gain, without encouraging the couple to give willingly and cheerfully as the Bible commands (2 Corinthians 9:7). In Christian households, we are not called to pressure and overrule each other’s will but to “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
How to Break Free from Spiritual Abuse in the Church or Christian Ministry
As children of God, we are most valuable to Him, “for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The apostle Paul also reminds us,“You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men” (1 Corinthians 7:23 NKJV).
What do you do, when you find yourself fighting to gain the approval, recognition or acceptance of your pastor or ministry leader? What about if your ministry is putting heavy and unreasonable demands on you, with no end in sight, and this is beginning to negatively affect your work, marriage, family, and other aspects of your life? What about if your church or ministry has embraced another gospel that is contrary to what the Bible says? What about if you are not growing spiritually, and after praying and discussing with ministry leaders you still have no peace or rest in your soul with your current church or ministry? We believe these are signs that require you to start examining and evaluating yourself and your church or ministry closely. If you seek the Lord in fasting and prayer and your family is in agreement that it’s time to move on, genuine, godly ministry leader(s) will release you and bless you without any selfish motives, since they have your best interest in mind and you to obey God’s will. Yes, they will be sad to see you go, but will also want you to be a blessing to others, in the same way that you have been a blessing to them. However, if you have been faithfully contributing your time, talents and finances to the ministry, pastors and ministry leaders who were putting trust in you might go into panic mode and try to block you from leaving, using all sorts of tactics – sweet talking, diplomacy, coercion, manipulation, threats, promises of a bigger role in the ministry, concoct false dreams and visions, etc. How do you break free from such a situation?
Below are some steps you can take to gain your freedom from abuse:
- Fear God and obey Him; do not fear man: One of the weapons that Satan uses to keep Christians captive is fear, and certainly this applies to spiritual abuse as well. Satan takes advantage of the inclinations of born-again Christians to obey God and injects himself into the picture to deceive and manipulate them. If you don’t agree with a pastor or teacher regarding their false teachings or visions, and you are standing on Biblical truth, don’t be afraid of these men, even if they threaten you! False teachers will usually try to increase their authority by making you think that opposing them is opposing God. The truth is this: The Pastor is not God, and leaving that church or ministry does not equate with leaving God. As it is, children of God belong to Him and like Peter, we must keep following the Lord (1 John 4:4; John 6:68). We are commanded to follow and obey the Jesus Christ, not man (Luke 9:35; John 21:22). We are also commanded to test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Don’t surrender your soul to man or fear man as if they have authority to determine your present, future, or destiny in Christ! Just like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fear God alone (Daniel 3:1-18), “and do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28 NKJV). When we obey the Lord, He promises us: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
- Forgive: You must pray to forgive, however long it takes, and not harbor feelings of anger, resentment, and hate against the abusers. These kinds of feelings towards anyone may cause our prayers to be hindered and block us from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. For the sake of own salvation, we should forgive and let go as soon as we can, lest we allow sin to multiply in our hearts (Matthew 6:15; Galatians 5:19-21, 26). We should endeavor to resolve the conflict, and if our efforts fail, we should still keep forgiving multiple times while praying for our abusers, until we are totally set free (Matthew 18:21-22; Luke 7:28)
- Pray for discernment and rely on God’s Word (Psalm 119:125; Proverbs 2:3-5): You need to stand Word of God – the Rock, that you may know the truth, which will surely set you free!! (John 8:31-32; Luke 6:46-48). Reading the Bible daily is vitally essential in learning to discern what God’s voice sounds like versus the unbiblical and twisting voice of the Satan. Lean on God and trust Him to heal you from every area where the enemy has taken you captive (Exodus 15:26).
- Be led by the Spirit: The Holy Spirit is faithful in leading us into all truth and we just have to allow Him to lead us so that we will not gratify things of the sinful nature such as believing lies and practicing deceit (Galatians 5:16-17). Sometimes your conscience may be troubled over certain teachings or practices in the Church; don’t simply dismiss these thoughts! As the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, we should test all messages, visions, and dreams against the Word of God.
- Test messages, teachings, dreams, and visions: We should be like the Bereans; they simply didn’t just believe all of Paul’s words, but they were commended for daily searching the Scriptures to check if what he said was really so (Acts 17:11). Test all messages and visions in real time and as soon as you have time. Try not to wait weeks, months, and years before testing, but do it sooner than later. If something is true and helpful, receive it but if something is not in the Bible, reject it (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22)!
- Trust God alone, not man: In these days, many believers in Christ have heaped up numerous teachers to tell them what their itching ears want to hear through TV, DVDs, Books, Social Media, internet websites, and other media (2 Timothy 4:3-4). While it might be beneficial to listen to truthful teachers, we should never put our trust in man. Our foremost and utmost trust should be in the Lord and His Word! The moment you think that you or someone else is a true prophet and can never be deceived, you have just opened a major door to potential deception. Remember, Satan deceived Adam and Eve at the Garden and also deceived Judas and Peter, and the devil even unsuccessfully tried to deceive the Messiah (Matthew 16:21-23; Galatians 2:11-16; Luke 4:1-13). Therefore, let us “Watch and pray so that you [we] will not fall into temptation….” (Matthew 26:41 NIV).
- You will know false teachers by their fruit: If you see bad fruit such as bullying and being shut down when you ask questions or challenge their unbiblical teaching, don’t justify their bad fruit. Bad fruit is bad fruit and if a prophet has bad fruit, perhaps he or she is a false prophet (Matthew 7:15-20). If you have gotten to a point where every time you bring up a question or concern, you get beat down to submission and are now fearful to bring up issues or concerns, then you may have become a muzzled “yes person” and are in an unhealthy spiritual environment where you will most likely be abused! From experience, it helps to separate yourself from such situation so you can think and reason with a clear mind without men’s manipulations or hindrances. The Bible says “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him” (2 John 1:10 NKJV).
- Check personal fruit: In believing a certain message or teaching, are you producing the good fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23; Colossians 3:12; 1 Corinthians 13:4) or are you performing works of the flesh? (Galatians 5:19-21). As an example, I (Janet) was recently delivered from being upset with my children when they interrupt my prayers. They are small and although they know mom is praying, they still come to me during my prayers despite repeated requests not to interrupt me. I finally wondered and prayed for God to deliver me from ill feelings when my children interrupt me. If my phone or doorbell rings while I am praying, I have no ill feelings. If my husband or any other person, email, or text message interrupts me, I have no ill feelings. It’s just when my children interrupt me when I am praying. By God’s grace I realized the reason why I was getting upset when my children interrupt me is because of an unbiblical message I believed that children are not allowed to be present when you are praying, otherwise your prayers won’t reach God and you will have to start your prayers afresh. Once I stood on the Word of God (Matthew 19:14), one of my children interrupted me and I welcomed him to come sit with me through my prayers. He was very happy and content to sit through my prayers quietly and that was a blessing. The false teaching I had believed had made me believe children are not allowed in my prayers and some people may believe from that teaching that children are not allowed in prayer meetings or gatherings with the brethren. Aren’t these beliefs contrary to how the Lord Jesus responded to children in the Bible? He was indignant with the disciple for hindering the children from coming to His presence: “But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). Many people in the midst of large crowds [ including men, women, and children] prayed by faith and Jesus heard, healed, and delivered them (Mark 11:24; Matthew 20:29-34; 9:1-8; Mark 10:46-52). I mean if can you pray while the children are asleep or gone, that is great for uninterrupted prayers, but it they are around and you need to pray, sometimes you might be interrupted especially when they are young and you have no one else to help watch them at the time! Also, in the Bible, King Jehoshaphat prayed for a mighty deliverance with “all Judah, with their little ones, their wives, and their children, stood before the Lord”(2 Chronicle 20:13; 5-13). His prayers were heard and Judah was mightily delivered (2 Chronicle 20:14-30). Praise God for His truth which restores good fruit!
- Examine yourself: Examine yourself to see if you are really in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). It is good for us to pray and ask God to examine our hearts and show us our hidden faults that we may repent (Psalm 139:23-24). Check your heart and see what you really think about certain men and women of God. Have you elevated them to an idolatrous status, where their word or visions are greater than the Word of God? Are their opinions greater than your spouse’s opinion or well-meaning, godly friends? Do you believe this person is so holy that they can never be wrong?
Finally, when the Lord has delivered you from spiritual abuse, encourage and strengthen other brethren (Luke 22:32). Abuse is one of the troubles we may have to endure and overcome as we strive [work hard and make every effort] to enter the narrow road which leads to life (Luke 13:24). The Bible tells us:
“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NKJV).
“In fact, this is love for God: to keep His commands. And His commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4 NIV).
If you would like to have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, we invite you to start with this Prayer of Salvation. For any questions or comments about this article or our ministry, please contact us.
May you be set free by the Truth in Christ.
Abes and Janet.