I want to start out saying that if you have been sexually or physically abused by people in churches, members of church groups, or by spiritual leaders, please report these as crimes to your church leaders and local police. This post is not being offered to discourage the legal actions you may need to take as a victim of a crime to protect yourself and others. Reconciliation and forgiveness are still possible from a jail cell and some careers need to be ruined. Some churches treat their pastors like they need “diplomatic immunity,” but that’s totally unbiblical, and it will damage the body of Christ. Pursue the hard work of community accountability in love and unity.
We have known about hidden horrors of scandal and abuse in churches. This is nothing really new, though it hits the body of Christ hard when things are exposed. Evil should be brought to light. Pastors and churches that cover up these things need to repent and make amends to those they have hurt.
But I want to talk about another trend I see happening that I want to bring into the light. I am hearing this term on almost all Christian podcasts–and some which only pretend to be Christian. While there’s nothing wrong with the term, the implications are dangerous when leveled falsely.
Have you heard the phrase “Spiritual Abuse” yet?
If you have not, you will. I first heard whispers of it almost a year ago on a podcast I generally love. It started off as a nuanced conversation about emotionally manipulating congregations. As a worship leader I totally agree this is an issue that we should address. There is a lot of this that goes on in church programming where leaders aim for a certain response. (“If we play this song after this one it will build into this one and then BOOM! KEY CHANGE and DRUM FILL. Then the Holy Spirit will fall just about…hmmm…here…and then we will quiet back down here in time for the preaching.”) It’s actually idolatry and false worship. It is emotional manipulation. Let’s change that pattern by being led by the Spirit in our worship (maybe even by avoiding over-programming). Point taken.
But then, the guy on the podcast starts explaining how he experienced being “prayed over” in a Pentecostal church service as “spiritually abusive” and “controlling.” And this made me stop and think. This is bordering on dangerous territory. Are we entering a time when I could pray for someone and be called an “abuser”?
Yes we are. And here is why.
Here is a definition of spiritual abuse from a book focused on it.
manipulation and exploitation,
censorship of decision making,
requirements for secrecy and silence,
coercion to conform, [inability to ask questions]
control through the use of sacred texts or teaching,
requirement of obedience to the abuser,
the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position,
isolation as a means of punishment,
and superiority and elitism. (Christianity Today, 2020)
You may be experiencing religious or spiritual abuse if a religious leader has:
- Used scripture or beliefs to humiliate or embarrass [shame] you
- Coerced you into giving money or other resources that you didn’t want to give
- Forced you to be intimate or have sex that you didn’t want
- Made you feel pressured or obligated to do things against your will (WebMD)
We would all agree that taken together, these would constitute someone like a cult leader or morally failed pastor. Indeed, many legitimate churches are being called cults, even at this very moment, because of the moral failings of their leaders (this is another post). But, instead of taking this as a complete profile, some pop-psychologists under the guise of Christian counselors have taken these as points explaining and defining “church hurt.” Technically, the way the term is being thrown around in common use, any of these points on their own could constitute spiritual abuse. For example, social isolation is actually part of the church correction process Jesus gives in Matthew 18 for unrepentant brothers. Another example, if you don’t want to pray and someone encourages you to pray, technically, is that person could be committing spiritual abuse according to part of the definition above? Did a pastor give an altar call or ask for a fundraising offering? It’s embarrassing to go down to an altar; and who wants to part with their hard-earned money? Well, then maybe this pastor is an abusive manipulator and a power-hungry narcissist. Or…maybe not. Maybe they are following biblical principles and people are simply upset.
So, with that said, let’s just all acknowledge for a hot minute that your church leadership is probably not “spiritually abusing” you beyond church programming—not from the pulpit or at the altar or on-on-one. They are probably trying to love you and help you the best they can. The job of a preacher, teacher, and evangelist is to preach the truth from scripture. The job of a pastor is to shepherd you. The job of a prophet is to tell you God’s view.
As the months wore on, I started to hear more and more of the same terminology and quotes from a particular author (cited in references). You can trace the terminology because so many people are drawing from her books and podcasts. Themes she writes on are: “safe” yet brave vulnerability, drawing boundaries, “seat at your table,” loving yourself, believing in self, acceptance and belonging as opposed to moral judgment, toxic people, embrace uncertainty, safety from mental and emotional abuse, and the mental damage done by shame. Sounds great right?
Here’s the real philosophy of her books and talks:
We are meant to be connected to one another. The greatest sin against a person is damaging someone’s true self, their autonomy, forcing them by social pressure to disconnect from their true selves. SO, you need boundaries…lots of them, to protect your right to autonomy and so you can be truly connected with yourself and with the world, which, in this author’s perspective, has a divine spirit connecting everything.
This is nuanced New Ageism guys. It’s self-deification. While we believe in free will, we also believe our will can be submitted to God and that we are most happy when we are submitted to His leadership in our lives and following His commands from a heart of love, being in communion with Him.
But she’s so poetic! There’s so much empathy! She talks about community, vulnerability and connection! She claims to be a Christian!
I know. But she is not promoting real God-centered, Holy-Spirit led, Christian community or true faith. Faith is when you are certain about what you believe, she promotes uncertainty. Jesus heals pain and hurt, but she says, “sitting in the pain and nothing else” (empathy) is the ideal response to someone’s hurt. That is not healing, that is bondage. I didn’t write this as an apologetic against one writer, though. I want to focus on the idea that leads to false accusations of spiritual abuse. Namely, people do not want to take responsibility for their sin and shame and all the baggage they bring.
The Implications of Shame-Centered Theology
Shame-centered theology puts the cart before the horse. It gives false comfort to shame before people actually make a complete repentance. There is just enough truth in all this to be twisted:
- “By maintaining that the Bible says this sin [sexual sin, idolatry, covetousnesss] is sin, you are not accepting this person. All they feel is rejection from you. That’s un-Christian. Real Christians are loving. I can’t belong in community with you” (Note the mixing of truth and lie…we do love the person, but hate the sin, because it’s bondage.)
- “Why are you choosing to continue to point out homosexual sin and shaming the homosexual community…haven’t they been through enough? God loves them too.” (Note the mixing of truth and lie…God loves everyone, including homosexuals…He is offended by homosexual acts, so it is their sin and the law of God that causes shame, not our re-articulation of His commands)
- “Why can’t your community just accept me and be ok with my doubt and uncertainty. Faith is all about the unseen…faith is the embracing of uncertainty.” (Note the mixing of truth and lie…”Faith IS the certainty of the unseen” Hebrews 11)
- “You’ve never been tempted in this area. How can you correct people if you’ve never walked in their shoes. What right do you have to say anything about it. Take the plank out if your own eye. You are giving God a bad name and portraying Him and His people as harsh and judgmental.” (Note the mixing of truth and lie…We do not have to sin to know the danger of sin and warn people to repent (example Jesus))
Here’s what’s at the root of these confusions. The church is not the source of the shame, sin is. The problem is that we are working in a culture who actually sees the truth about sin as harmful. We know that sin is the source of shame from the Garden of Eden story (Genesis 1-3). It is not shame that cause sin, it was the other way around! And before sin came 1) the lies of the enemy, 2) the confusion and hurt they caused, and 3) the appetite of the human. There was no shame before sin.
So repentance is the real solution, not avoiding shame. There’s just enough Christian terminology and terms in these false teachings referenced above to make you think you are listening to a believer, but all of this “anti-shaming, anti-confrontational” rhetoric is made possible by the emphasis on “taking care of” or protecting yourself” and “setting boundaries” for SELF. As Christians, we have NO need to protect our “selves.” Our self is crucified with Christ. Anyone living in obedience to Christ, under His covering of righteousness, can live completely emotionally and spiritually safe, even if people around you, even in your family, are terrible! It’s not about what they say, it is about your relationship with God. No one can damage that without your permission. No one can coerce or force you to do anything. And it is not the nature of God or His people to coerce or force conversions. Hopefully we all know that. But it is the nature of God, the prophets, and evangelist and pastors to try to persuade you to repent and obey God.
The false accusation of “spiritual abuse, manipulation, “forcing,” controlling, is increasingly being leveled at people who are speaking the truth about sin and salvation. After all, the accusers say, “autonomy,” or free will must be left to reign supreme.
This new “spiritual abuse” movement avoids both condemnation and conviction by saying it is ONLY the Holy Spirit’s job to address sin in a person’s life. They forget the role of community in confession and forgiveness of sin (John 20:23), warning and loving discipline (Titus 3:10, Matthew 18:15-20, 2 Thessalonians 3:13-15), covenantal accountability (1 Corinthians 5:11), and the warning and restoration of the repentant brother in gentleness (Galatians 6:1, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11).
The Basic Human Need for Repentance
In a lot of these posts and podcasts, they portray the “correct” view of God as being completely soft-spoken, accepting, and affirmative of every perspective and emotion. But to arrive at such a conclusion ignores of all the wrath of God we see in the Bible from Noah to the Red Sea, to Jesus name-calling the Pharisees, to Revelation. These false teachers dangerously ignore the just aspect of Gods goodness and character. In their view, God is never really upset. In this new narrative, telling people they need to repent is “damaging and shaming.” In their frame of reference, correcting people or warning them is also “spiritual abuse.” It unknowingly teaches against the fear of the Lord and the awesome devastation/salvation in the Day of His Coming. He will execute vengeance one day. We should know this and tell others so we can run into Him as a shelter.
We have a biblically-modeled evangelism approach in John the Baptist and Jesus as well as all the prophets who preached “REPENT…the Kingdom/Day of the Lord is near.” This message, along with miracles and healing (through signs and wonders, counseling, and prayer), and public testimony, should remain our dominant approach to evangelism.
Repentance is one key component to the Christian message damaged by this kind of self-helpism. To really know and follow Jesus, we must repent. We must take responsibility for our actions and their consequences. We cannot change the definition of sin nor can we change what He said in the gospels. Yes, He was remarkably kind and merciful, but Jesus was also actually pretty confrontational when needed and called people OUT into radical obedience often telling them to “stop sinning” without response to the “emotional fallout” of that statement…and sometimes He was pretty worked up while He was doing it (even turning over tables) especially among those who claimed to know God well (Pharisees and Sadducees).
Don’t mistake nice people for good spiritual teachers or leaders; don’t mistake “nice-sounding” theology for correct theology; and don’t mistake passionate preachers for aggressive manipulators. That’s such a false accusation and misunderstanding of their hearts.
The Lost Art of Apologetics and Discussion (by the power of the Spirit) in Convicting the World of Sin (The True Source of Shame)
Not only this, but we know it is becoming increasingly less popular to try convincing or persuading people to follow Christ anymore. In many countries, converting people by reasoning with them is forbidden. We are really not far from that in the US if it becomes legal to sue someone for spiritual abuse or for pastors to get kicked out because they cause someone to feel ashamed.
But Paul reasoned with people all the time. He spoke truth to people who had no moral compass. His background in the law, though he counted it loss, enabled him to teach the Gentiles from scratch, the nature of sin and the law of love and honor/God’s commandments, the nature of God, and the atonement of Jesus. And he taught Romans and Galatians the difference between the terrible condemnation that sin offers and the beautiful conviction that the law of the Spirit of Jesus leads us willingly into.
So don’t mistake conviction with condemnation. Condemnation is the judgment. None of us should judge our brother. But we do judge sin because sin stands condemned by God. So we separate the person from their sin. The person is judged forgiven by Jesus (if they believe) and the sin is put to death by the authority and power of the blood of Jesus as they obey Christ, because sin is a slave-master that keeps us from abundant life.
The difference between healthy conviction and false condemnation is the source of it and the truth of it. Conviction is sourced from the Holy Spirit (in scripture and people). It is based in the truth (of Your sin and of God’s willingness to forgive you because of Jesus) and will lead you to genuine, restorative repentance. Condemnation is connected to sin and Satan. You may be legitimately condemned if you are under the law of sin and death still. Condemnation can only really affect a follower of Christ if they continue in sin (this is a case of false repentance to begin with). Otherwise, condemnation leveled by Satan to a believer is just a false condemnation that lies and says “you’re forever in bondage to this” or “God does not care about you—He only wants your submission.”
Both conviction and condemnation can produce shame, because shame is a result of sin. The truth is, God forgives quickly and is wanting to forgive and be in relationship. He forgives everything (except blaspheming the Spirit, which is saying an evil spirit is operating when the Holy Spirit is operating Matthew 12:28-31).
So whether you view something as conviction or condemnation is actually 100% based on your spiritual identity in Christ and if you actually need to repent. If you have believed Christ for your atonement and have genuinely done nothing wrong according to the Bible, there is no need to repent or feel ashamed. But don’t assume you have done nothing wrong if you are just going by your own emotions, individual logic, and personalized morality. The moral standard for what is sin and what is not has already been established. It’s not up for debate. We should be relieved to understand that God is judge of what is good and evil, not us. He is 100% good and He alone has the knowledge of what is good and evil and He gives it to us in His commands and interprets them even further through Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching.
That’s why we need to know the law of Moses. It instructs us on sin and the heart behind the law. If our definition of sin is not steady and trustworthy, then you have no basis for conviction. This is what Paul meant when He wrote that the law was given to show us our sin and as a guardian until Jesus (Galatians 3). The base truth of God’s moral law gives a grounding for understanding the righteousness that the Spirit is calling us to live by even now by the power of God! Do we have this power only so that we can obey the law? No! the law was given to bring us to repentance SO THAT we could have real LIFE by faith in Christ, pure intimacy with God and one another, obeying Him in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Cross-Centered Theology for a Shame-Free Church Experience
Through the cross and resurrection, the teachings of Jesus and His Spirit, we have what we need to be free from sin and shame by faith and to be able to live FULLY by the law of the Spirit of Christ, which is love for God and one another. The commands of God are there to preserve loving community and walking with God together. Healthy marriages, healthy relationships, healthy social structures…that was always the heart of the law. It was never about condemnation. We were and are only genuinely condemned when we refused to obey, because disobedience means that we have dishonored either God or others.
If you trust in Jesus to cover your sins and you repent and avoid sin, conviction is a welcomed friend. It is a gift to help you see unintentional or blind-spot sin in your life. We are baptized in repentance into self-death and brought to life by the Holy Spirit. This is the law of God—it is pure love.
Love-Driven Obedience to God is the requirement for shame-free Christian relationship with Him and others around us. And if the love-driven part is missing, obedience will lead us back to it. If someone invites you to repent, it’s worth considering whether or not your love has grown cold and if so, do the things you did at first, yield to God, repent, and stop sinning. And a real brother or sister will love you enough to gently point out sin and falseness in order to warn and restore us. They will ask you to repent because they love you, so you can be free.
Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man, as an offering for sin. He thus condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous standard of the law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Romans 7:25-8:4
Implications of False Accusations of Spiritual Abuse
We are going to see false accusations of “spiritual abuse” in the church which will be a new and demonic version of false victimization that so many Christians are jumping into right now, some because they have been genuinely hurt (for which they should seek healing) but many because they do not want to repent and soften their hearts. They have become comfortable and resolute in their hurt and/or sin.
How do we avoid this?
- Forgive a lot and apologize easily. Don’t stay angry. Get back to softness with God and one another. If there has been sexual, physical or emotional abuse in your life, by a spiritual leader or any other person, work all the way through your healing, at your pace, to absolute and complete forgiveness to the point that you could worship with that person if they repented and turned to Jesus. If there has been spiritual manipulation or coercion or embarrassment, you might not like the way your church leadership or pastor is trying to fulfill their role in navigating these things, but surely there is a better way to have these conversations than by calling your church leaders narcissists, leaving the community, and slandering those who may genuinely love you. Does Jesus have a seat at your table? Then so should your brother and sister. If you are guilty of spiritual manipulation and coercion, admit it and apologize publicly.
- Kill pride by staying pure and sober spiritually and stay open before God asking Him to show you any and all hidden motives. It is possible to manipulate people in an effort to help them. Don’t do that. That is witchcraft.
- Go to a church that preaches a biblical definition of sin and whose leadership participates in mutually desired accountability. One pastor I know goes so far as to say “if we are not in unity we are in sin.” And it’s one thing Jesus prayed for us about, that His people would be united. Sin and specifically sexual abuse, coercion, and financial embezzling, must be called out and disciplined SO THAT we can live in unity.
- Don’t listen to pop-psychologists and leadership coaches/podcasts masquerading as Christian self-help, peddling emotionally stimulating but lethal mental junk food about the danger of shame and the spiritual connectivity of all people.
- Know the difference between conviction and condemnation and let them BOTH drive you to the heart of God in prayer and scripture.
- Avoid gossip and dissension like the plague. A dissenter and gossip will help you defend yourself, massaging your hurt feelings and make you feel so safe, but they are leading you away from healing and if you accept this Satanic and false version of hospitality you are risking your relationship with others.
I read about a certain man guilty of slander who went to his Rabbi to ask how he might make amends.
The Rabbi said “Bring me a pillow”
The man came back with a pillow. “Now,” said the Rabbi, “Cut open the pillow.”
With a slice of the gossip’s knife the feathers went flying across the town.
“Now go and pick them all up,” said the Rabbi.
“But that’s impossible!” The man said.
“So it is impossible to undo the damage your slander and false accusations have done.”
If your brother or sister sins against you, Jesus and the apostles say go to them and talk and make every effort to preserve the bond of peace. Bring a person with you if you need to. Gain a brother. Do the hard work of reconciliation. Let’s do real damage to the kingdom of darkness, not one another. Your brother and sister in Christ is not your enemy. And we need to be really praying for and emotionally supporting pastor’s families in the years to come in case this trend gets stronger.
If it continues, we will see a massive public persecution, restraining orders, lawsuits, speech limitations, and restrictions placed on churches and pastors by insurance companies and legal courts. I’m not trying to scare people, but maybe just enough so we don’t fall for it.
Calling something “abuse” is no small thing.
Author referred to is the topic of this article. I find the article reliable, but not the author referenced.