And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy and say to them, '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."
'For thus says the Lord God: "Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and will bring them to their own land; I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, in the valleys and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them in good pasture, and their fold shall be on the high mountains of Israel. There they shall lie down in a good fold and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock, and I will make them lie down," says the Lord God. "I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong, and feed them in judgment."
And as for you, O My flock, this says the Lord God: "Behold, I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats, Is it too little for you to have eaten up the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the residue of your pasture - and to have drunk of the clear waters, that you must foul the residue with your feet? And as for my flock, they eat what you have trampled with your feet, and they drink what you have fouled with your feet."
Therefore thus says the Lord God to them: "Behold, I Myself will judge between the fat and the lean sheep. Because you have pushed with side and shoulder, butted all the weak ones with your horns, and scattered them abroad, therefore I will save My flock, and they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them - My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and My servant David a prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken."
-- Ezekiel 34: 1-24
What comes to mind when you think of a shepherd? I used to think of someone who lived, and if need be, died for his flock. The example that Jesus gave us is the portrait of the perfect shepherd - someone who feeds and cares for his sheep no matter what is required, to keep his flock content and healthy.
But what happens when a shepherd uses his rod and staff not to protect his flock, but to beat them into submission? Sadly this happens every day in churches across America and around the world. As with many forms of abuse, spiritual abuse is usually spoken of in hushed tones and whispers, its victims so broken they are too ashamed to admit what they have endured. They are usually convinced that they are alone in their suffering. It is time to bring this problem out of the shadows and into God's glorious light.
I would first like to make it very clear that what I am speaking of is not limited to any one denomination. Also, the terms “spiritually abusive” and “cultic” could be interchangeable as many spiritually abusive churches have tendencies toward exclusiveness as do cults, as we will soon see. Let's start by looking at some common attributes of spiritually abusive churches.
The following checklist of cultic tendencies by Charles Lesser was published in the October, 1991, Spiritual Counterfeits Project Newsletter and is reproduced here by permission. Its original title - Is Your Church Free from Cultic Tendencies, A checklist for Responsible Christians. They are typical of a number of aberrational cultic groups and churches on the scene today.
1. Is your pastor fully accountable to a board of elders, presbyters, etc?
2. Is loyalty to Jesus and to one's own calling placed before loyalty to pastor and church?
3. Does your pastor encourage questions and suggestions? Is he approachable?
4. Does your pastor give equal attention to all kinds of people in his congregation?
5. Does your pastor readily admit his errors?
6. Does your pastor avoid boasting or hinting at a “special anointing”?
7. Is your pastor truly humble?
8. Are the sermons based on clear Biblical truths, not on “original revelations” or ax-grinding?
9. Does your church interact with other churches?
10. Does your church staff avoid secrecy?
11. Is power shared in your church (rather than preempted by a hierarchy)?
12. Does your church see itself as just one organ of the Body of Christ, and not the main one?
13. Is your church truly friendly?
14. Does your church emphasize ministry to people rather than church programs?
15. Are especially needy people cared for lovingly in your church?
16. Are church members encouraged and loved even when they leave?
17. Are relationships with former members encouraged or allowed?
18. Do the pastor and congregation avoid attacking and using as object lessons, former members or those who disagree?
19. Are families encouraged to stay together and spend time together?
20. Does your family worship Sunday service include children, at least for part of the service?
21. Are you encouraged in your own calling?
22. Are pleas for money rare and unemotional?
23. Are your children happy to attend church?
24. Are you happy to bring unsaved friends to your church?
25. Is there a diversity of classes, races, dress styles, ages, and occupations in your church?
26. Are people encouraged to hear from God for themselves?
27. Is there a single behavior standard for all people in the church?
28. Are all types of people considered welcome at your church?
29. Is the joy of the Lord present in your church?
30. Are you free from fear in your church?
31. Do you think more about God and Jesus than you do about your pastor and church?
32. Does your pastor include himself in any calls for repentance and forgiveness?
33. Are you clear that the pastors and elders never exaggerate or lie to make themselves look good?
34. Is your group encouraging of each other and free from gossip and rumoring?
35. Is there a humility of doctrine that points to the grace of God and His mercy for sinners?
36. Are you encouraged to serve in ministries or missions outside the local body?
37. Is there ever any pressure put upon members to give or lend money to leaders for their personal or business use (exclusive of church business or projects)?
(Spiritual Counterfeits Project is a California-based cult/occult/New Age research ministry. Website: http://www.scp-inc.org/)
Before we go any further I must add a word of caution. This checklist is not meant to be used as an excuse to find fault with your church or as justification for disobedience or rebellion. It is, however, a useful tool to help those who feel that they might be in a less-than-healthy church situation. It should be used prayerfully and with patience and humility. That said, let's move forward to see how some of these points can, and have, manifest themselves in ministries.
Several years ago my husband and I found ourselves in an increasingly uncomfortable situation. The church we had been members of for some four years seemed to have taken over our lives. (The location and denomination of the church are irrelevant as this can happen in any church.) I had been working in the church office and led praise and worship. Dan and I led several small groups. We had been accepted into the leadership of the church - until we started voicing concerns over things that we saw happening that just didn't sit right with us. Because of my position in the church office I was exposed to much more than an average member of the church would have been, and for that I am grateful as well as sorrowful. While it helped me see and understand what was really going on, it was a very hurt-filled time.
Elders of the church would spend literally hours on the phone with the pastor gossiping about church members. If a person was not deemed someone of stature in the community or someone who could help the church with substantial financial gifts they were either ignored or “prayed out” of the church. The majority of the pastor's focus was on ways to generate income for the church - not to further the gospel, but to pay for his personal expenses and extravagances. The pastor was not accountable to anyone and he made sure that everyone knew that's just the way he liked it.
On two separate occasions members had questioned the pastor's apparent abuse of church funds. In each instance the members were thrown out of the church and made examples of to the rest of us, held up as enemies of the pastor. We were reminded that you do not touch “God's anointed” and reminded of what happened to Miriam when she spoke out against her brother Moses (she was struck with leprosy). Members were encouraged to break fellowship with the ex-members as they were in error and out of God's will. Until I saw with my own eyes what was going on behind the scenes I believed the portraits that were painted for us by the pastor and the elders of the church.
If anyone was ever invited to visit another church by a co-worker or friend and the pastor found out about it, the person was warned not to let their guard down because they were probably going to be persuaded to leave our church. And of course our church was one of a select few who really knew what was going on.
It seemed to become our church's mission to inform other churches of their shortcomings and errors. Even when people wanted to become members of our church, the classes that were required for membership were filled with teachings about the faults of other denominations and ways that they could be shown the error of their ways.
Also, during my time working in the church office I was witness to several instances where the pastor brought members of the church to tears with venomous words and accusations. I was also on the receiving end of one of his tirades, but by God's grace alone I was able to remain calm and keep my mouth shut. This only further enraged the pastor.
Over the four years of our membership in this church our circle of friends changed dramatically. There usually is a change in social circles to a certain degree when a person gives their life to the Lord. For example, if you used to spend all your time in bars getting drunk before becoming a follower of Christ, you probably wouldn't continue doing that after your conversion. But in our case, over the course of our membership, the only people we socialized with were other members of the church. There is nothing wrong with socializing with other church members, but this was to the exclusion of everyone else - and it was encouraged. When Dan and I began talking of moving to a different part of town, we found ourselves the objects of a fierce campaign to find us a house near several other church members. And when we spoke of our desire to adopt a baby we were shocked to find out that the pastor had taken the liberty of contacting someone to help us find a baby we could indeed adopt. For the first time we were put in the position of opposing the pastor, but we both felt that we had no other choice since he didn't seem to want to take no for an answer. We thanked him for his concern in our efforts to adopt, but told him that we were not comfortable with his spearheading the effort.
It was this that finally broke the silence Dan and I had been keeping with each other about our concerns over the church. (I had also been instructed several times to purposefully keep things secret from my husband “for his own good.” That is a mistake I will never make again.) We were both relieved when we realized that we shared the same concerns about the situation. Both of us had come to dread going to services. And because of our over-involvement in the church we had both been pushed to our physical limits. On numerous occasions we had been assured by the church elders that if we ever needed a break from our leadership duties all we needed to do was let them know and they'd be more than happy to take care of things for us. Imagine our shock when we were reprimanded and belittled like children for wanting to take a break from our small group leadership. The elders said that they were highly disappointed in us and that we were letting everyone down. It didn't seem to matter that Dan and I were both burned out beyond imagination. This was the beginning of the end for us at this church.
A few weeks later Dan had a nice long talk with one of the elders. He was encouraged to speak freely as the conversation would be held in the strictest confidence. Dan went over our concerns with the elder and said that after everything we had experienced and witnessed we simply could not return. Dan was reassured time and again that we were right in sharing these things with the elder and that the elder completely understood our position. We were both saddened and relieved that it was over.
In the days following this conversation Dan and I realized that we not only left the church, but in doing so we had also lost every friend we had. Then the letter came. It was like salt in our open wounds. It was from the pastor and he addressed nearly every point that Dan had brought up in his “confidential” conversation with the elder. But rather than try to explain anything at all, we were told in no uncertain terms that we were spiritually blind, we were being removed from the church and that we were to have no further contact with members of the church.
I suppose that at that moment the devil thought he had us right where he wanted us - crushed in despair, full of anger and resentment. And for a short while he would have been right. We are human, after all. But by God's grace we didn't stay there for long.
We soon agreed that we needed to find a good, healthy church. And we needed to focus our hatred where it belonged - at the devil and not at the people he deceived and used for his purposes. It wasn't easy, but with God's help that's what we did.
How did we know it was the devil behind all this? Well, first of all, he wants to cause division and dissention in the body of Christ. And secondly, if you read about spiritual abuse cases you will be dumbstruck by their similarities. Not long after we joined our new church, a national Christian publication had an article on spiritual abuse and what to look for. A chill ran down my spine as I read it. They could have been talking about the church Dan and I left. It seems that when the devil finds a plan that works he sticks with it.
Time and again since our bad church experience we have hard first hand accounts from others that are frighteningly similar to ours. Their lives and spirits have been devastated. But if we stop there and wallow in our pain, allowing the anger to take root and fester, and hold unforgiveness toward our abusers then we will never break through to the victory that Christ has already won for us. How do we move forward? I'm glad you asked.
One thing you must not do is sever your relationship with God. Reach out through all the pain and grasp the hand of the only One who can heal the hurt and get you through.
We must also remember who our real enemy is. “For our fight is not against flesh and blood, but against authorities and powers, against the world-rulers of this dark night, against the spirits of evil in the heavens.” Here in Ephesians 6:12, the apostle Paul is plainly stating that it is supernatural forces of darkness that we are engaged in battle with and not people. Yes, the enemy of our souls will use people, and even our own flesh, against us. But rather then focus our anger at them, we must forgive the people who have caused us harm, pray for them, and leave them in God's hands.
Another vital step victims of spiritual abuse must take is to find a healthy, Bible-based church. This can be quite difficult, but it is necessary for our spiritual growth. Be up front with the pastor of the church you are considering. There is no need to share names or details of your abusive experience with them, but do ask about their accountability system, how their finances are handled, etc. If they balk, you walk! By asking these questions you are being a responsible Christian and you should not feel that you're being too forward. Christians must learn to stand up for themselves and be proactive. We must be good stewards of our spiritual lives, our families and our finances. We must learn to ask questions and expect satisfactory answers. And we must learn to walk away from a bad situation before it's too late.
Arise from the depression and prostration in which circumstances have kept you - rise to a new life! Shine (be radiant with the glory of the Lord), for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you! - Isaiah 60:1
Rise up and live the victorious life that Jesus died to give you!