Healing Spiritual Abuse: How to
Break Free from Bad Church Experiences
Ken Blue (Intervarsity
Press, Downers Grove, IL. 1993.) 166 pages.
In Healing Spiritual Abuse, Ken Blue offers a
well-researched and insightful analysis of the dynamics of spiritual
abuse. Books of this genre often focus on practical, behavioral aspects of
abuse, and Blue definitely addresses this. For example, Blue offers this
list of characteristics of an abusive
1. Abusive leaders base their
spiritual authority on their position or office rather than on their
service to the group. Their style of leadership is authoritarian.
Leaders in abusive churches often say one thing but do another. Their
words and deeds do not match.
3. They manipulate people by making them
feel guilty for not measuring up spiritually. They lay heavy religious
loads on people and make no effort to lift those loads. You know you are
in an abusive church if the loads just keep getting heavier.
Abusive leaders are preoccupied with looking good. They labor to keep up
appearance. They stifle any criticism that puts them in a bad light.
5. They seek honorific titles and special privileges that elevate them
above the group. They promote a class system with themselves at the top.
6. Their communication is not straight. Their speech becomes
especially vague and confusing when they are defending themselves.
They major on minor issues to the neglect of the truly important ones.
They are conscientious about religious details but neglect God's larger
If your church rates high on
these negative indicators, it is significantly spiritually abusive. Now
something must be done. You may choose to stay and fight for change. Bear
in mind, however, that most abusive religious systems are very well
rationalized and well-defended. Abusive leaders are unlikely to respond
well to your rational objections and constructive criticisms. Spiritual
abuse is never the result of confused thinking. It is caused by a lust for
power (p. 135).
However, Blue excels at discussing the phenomenon of spiritual
abuse from a theological and Scriptural point of view. The book is loaded
with pastoral insights that are well founded and well expressed. A few
excerpts illustrate this clearly:
In Luke 12:42 Jesus gives a picture of
true spiritual authority in the form of a parable. He asks, "Who then is
the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his
servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time?" True
leaders are not necessarily profoundly gifted or conspicuously talented;
they need no exalted office; they need no titles to validate their words;
they need no seat of Moses to support their effectiveness. All they need
to do is be faithful and wise, serving food to their followers as it is
needed (p. 32).
Both Ezekiel and Jesus condemned one
fundamental error in the shepherds: they used the sheep rather than than
served them. They acted as if the sheep existed to meet their needs rather
than the other way around. When shepherds today look out over their
congregations and see their people as church growth statistics, tithing
units and workers in their programs, they follow the pastoral style that
Jesus and Ezekiel prophesied against (p. 41).
The modern "yeast of the Pharisees"
is what we call legalism. The term legalism covers any variation on
the notion that if we do the proper Christian disciplines well enough and
long enough, God will be pleased with us and will reward us. It is the
idea that if we do more and try harder, we can make a claim on God's favor
so that we need not rely totally upon his mercy and grace.
the great weapon of spiritual abuse. Multiplying religious rules to gain
control over followers is authoritarianism' s primary tool. Legalism is an
expression of leaders' compulsion to seek security and predictability. If
they can enforce an exhaustive list of dos and don'ts, they think, they
will gain that security and predictability they crave (p. 44).
Jesus promises rest for all who are
weary of trying to please religious leaders. He offers an easy yoke to all
those laboring under a load of spiritual performance. If your religion is
wearisome and burdensome, God's answer is not a longer quiet time, a
firmer commitment, attendance at one more conference or one more trip to
the altar. God's solution for spiritual tiredness is rest-- rest in the
loving acceptance of Jesus and his perfect load-carrying work for you (p.
False shepherds will always give lip
service to this mercy and grace, but will then undermine it in the body of
their teaching and in their actions (p. 60).
A more common version of the same
story is the pastor who berates the church, blaming them for low
attendance at services or poor support for the church programs. Rather
than look at the defects in his or her own leadership, the pastor focused
attention on the flaws of the congregation. Such a person is more
interested in keeping up appearances than in discovering what is actually
wrong (p. 71)..
To sum up, I would say that if abuse
is minor and rare, we should probably shrug it off. If it is significant,
we should confront the perpetrator. If it is systemic, ongoing,
unrelenting and well defended, we probably need to leave (p. 96).
So when we assess the integrity of a
Christian leader or group, we do not look first at its motives, its aims
or its moments of kindness. We look first and last at its fruit. If
leaders constantly root their authority in an office rather than in
servanthood, if they do everything for show, if they demand special
privilege or titles, if they use words deceitfully, if they major on
minors to the neglect of real pastoral needs, and if this behavior tears
people down rather than builds them up, then such leaders must be
confronted and changed-- or abandoned (p. 99).
We have to be clear that if we are to
have anything like Christian fellowship with those who have hurt us, they
must at some point acknowledge their sin and repent of it. No true
relationship between Christians can exist without this cleansing. We can
forgive without their repenting, and this will free us from the bondage of
ongoing bitterness, but we will not have a reconciled relationship with
them until they repent (p. 100-101).
He (a former spiritual abuser)
explained how in his first church he quickly gathered about him those
parishioners who met his needs, those who supported him uncritically. "In
time," he said, "I established a class system, with my supporters at the
top and those who posed a threat to my leadership at the bottom. This
system aided me in the delusion that I was doing the right things (p.
The second classic type of spiritual
abuser is the heroic, grandiose or messianic narcissist who is obsessed by
a desire to be someone great or to do something unprecedented for God.
Carrying out this fantasy requires the cooperation of others and access to
their money. Like the first type, this leader may not consciously wish to
hurt anyone; but other are hurt as they are used for the leader's
and God's "higher purposes (p. 111)."
In order to achieve the public support
he needs, these leaders make extraordinary claims for themselves or have
others make them in their behalf. Such claims may include a special
anointing, unusual personal sacrifice, unprecedented encounters with God,
unique training, a singular teaching or leadership gift, a revelation of
truth that is not available to others, or secret knowledge of God's
end-times purposes. These and other claims imply that God has a special
calling on this leader, and so it is the "unspecial" people's duty to
admire and follow him, which they often do in droves (p. 113).
A most effective means of control
for a messianic leader is to convince his followers that they are on an
extraordinary mission with him. If a leader successfully convinces his
followers that he is the unique instrument of God, that makes them
unique by virtue of their support of him. This group may say or imply such
things as "We are a special move of God," "We are the only group
proclaiming truth," "We are the faithful remnant," "We are God's cutting
edge for this generation," or "We are in training for God's end-times
Once this attitude is rooted in a group, the combination of
pride and fear keeps followers in formation. Everyone wants to feel
special, and some get hooked on the exhilaration of being part of an
elite. Others fear leaving lest they miss God's will and be accused of
deserting his special calling (p. 114).
Many Christians say they have heard,
understood and believed the gospel. But when they continue to subject
themselves to the legalistic manipulation of spiritual abusers, we must
assume that the Good News has not yet sunk in fully. For some this takes
time. So we must continually reinforce the truth that we have in fact died
to the law and are no longer obligated to it. Meditating on biblical
passages which assure us of the radical nature of our acceptance by God
through Jesus can be helpful (p. 127).
Healing Spiritual Abuse is recommended as an insightful
and helpful resource in understanding and breaking free from unhealthy
The book is available at
Amazon.com but not at Amazon.ca
love to all,