Spiritual abuse is a very real issue in our day. Having experienced spiritual abuse by several Christian leaders who thought they were helping me, I can testify that it is painful. Having come out on the other side and healing from spiritual abuse, I am now in a place where I feel I can speak to this issue.
Spiritual abuse is telling people that they must do something that either opposes God’s Word or is said in such a way that is manipulative, and/or controlling. Some well-intentioned Christians will think that if they just speak the Truth to a person, then, that is enough; but the Bible tells us that we are to speak the truth in love.
Over the years, I’ve been in the sad position to have many people tell me about their experiences with spiritual abuse. I’m thankful that they have shared these experiences with me, but they still make me very sad. The Church is supposed to be a hospital for sinners, not a place where people take their sledgehammer and pummel people. I’m very concerned that people not only know and understand sound doctrine, but that their lives match the doctrine they profess to know and believe.
Having grown up around the Christian church my entire life I can confidently state that there are many good pastors out there. These are men who love Christ, love His Word, His church, and His people. Sadly there are some “Christian” leaders who in my experience don’t have the best intentions for the people of God. Instead of preaching and loving people with the Word of God, they impose their rules and lists upon people. This is when spiritual abuse happens. Pastors and Christian leaders are charged with preaching the whole counsel of God to the people of God. This means preaching and ministering in a way that brings honor and glory to God. This requires dying to self, daily repentance, and growth in the grace of God. When legalism takes the place of grace what inevitably happens is spiritual abuse.
All my life, I have been in the church and sat under various pastors who have had great theology. The problem wasn’t with the theology they possessed—it was agreeable and good!—it was that they didn’t practice what they preached. I was at one church where I served in a variety of roles and the pastor was consistently confrontational in his office with me; it was hard to open up and be honest with him most of the time. In the rare occasions when I was honest and open with him, I would get questioned and ridiculed by him. While I’m no longer at that church, the pastor and I have discussed my experience in his ministry, and I’ve repented of my grievous attitudes, and unfortunate statements about him I made to others; thankfully we’ve reconciled.
Healing from spiritual abuse takes time. I’ve had several friends who have gone to plant a church or been in a position of influence in a local church only to experience a dominating leader take over the church plant or local church ministry. Instead of being a servant-leader, this particular type of leader dominates and tells people what they are going to do—all under the guise of providing “direction” and “vision.” Being a pastor and Christian leader is about loving people with the love of Jesus, serving them with His grace, equipping them in ministry; all for the purpose of seeing them grow in Jesus. When pastors preach good theology but don’t model gracious, godly, and humble lives, they do damage to the gospel. Instead of life-giving and grace-filled ministries, these pastors harm the people of God under the auspice of confronting people with their self-imposed regulations.
I was fortunate when my wife and I left a particular church where I experienced spiritual abuse only to find a new church where we’re at now where the pastors truly love God, have good theology, and good practice. Through the ministry of two of the pastors and a seasoned older man at the church, the Lord has brought me to a place of healing from the experience of spiritual abuse.
Dealing with spiritual abuse is very challenging. Some men leave the ministry altogether, and even more Christians walk away from the Christian church because of it. Rather than running away, I encourage you to stay if you can and at least as nicely as possible state how you are being treated to one of the pastors or elders. I understand this is very difficult. This is one reason why I had to apologize to one of my previous pastors because rather than coming to him in love and sharing how I felt, I told him how I felt in a very ungodly way. Two wrongs, it has been said, doesn’t make a right. We are to love one another as Christians and be known in the world for our love for one another.
You may not be in a position to speak directly to your pastor and I understand completely. If you can’t speak to your pastor, try reaching out to a trusted Christian friend at church, one of the elders, or if you’re in a small group to your small group leader. These men and women will help you walk through the process of healing and dealing with forgiveness and bitterness.
Take it from me—spiritual abuse is incredibly difficult. It is hard to come to a place of forgiveness and reconciliation. The gospel doesn’t call us to be comfortable, though. The gospel is the message of forgiveness of sin(s) and reconciliation with God. The Christian life is one of continual repentance. It’s easy to cast the first stone and judge the other person’s motives and words. It’s hard to repent, forgive, and move forward by the grace of God.
If you’ve experienced spiritual abuse let me be the first to say that you must face it. You must not run away and pretend as if it never happened. If you are truly a Christian, you are precious to your God who redeemed you at the cost of His own blood. He has given you gifts, talents, and abilities that only you possess for the purpose of building up God’s people and expanding the Kingdom of God.
I encourage you to face any spiritual abuse you’ve experienced with the understanding that the gospel is greater than yourself and the abuse that you experienced. Also, be armed with the truth that Jesus Christ is the only One who has never sinned. He died in your place for your sins. Jesus is your Chief Shepherd. He died in your place for your sin so you could be part of the family of God in its local and global expressions. Rather than giving up on Christianity and the Church, I encourage you to pray that the Chief Shepherd would send you to a local church that loves God, His Word, and His people.
Lastly, if you’ve tried reaching out, sharing your experiences with others in leadership at your local church only to experience more of the same, I encourage you to leave the church you are at. You don’t need to make a big deal of leaving, if you can it is preferred that you tell someone, anyone why you are leaving, but if you can’t at the very least send an email or a note letting the pastor know that you are resigning your membership from that church. If he requests to know why and you have a window of opportunity, please share with him your reasoning. If you can’t tell him right then and there, and you need time to be able to process, let him known that you will try to share with him as soon as possible. In all things in the Christian life we are to glorify God through our words and our witness. May that be our aim as Christians: to love one another in word and deed all the glory of the Risen Christ.
Dave Jenkins is happily married to Sarah Jenkins. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon. Dave is a lover of Christ, His people, the Church, and sound theology. He serves as the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, the Host and Producer of Equipping You in Grace Podcast, and is a contributor to and producer of Contending for the Word. He is the author of The Word Explored: The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy and What To Do About It (House to House, 2021) and The Word Matters: Defending Biblical Authority Against the Spirit of the Age (G3 Press, 2022). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, or read his newsletter. Dave loves to spend time with his wife, going to movies, eating at a nice restaurant, or going out for a round of golf with a good friend. He is also a voracious reader, in particular of Reformed theology, and the Puritans. You will often find him when he’s not busy with ministry reading a pile of the latest books from a wide variety of Christian publishers. Dave received his M.A.R. and M.Div through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.