When a Shepherd Bites

Though there are many differences, there are some commonalities about all five of the countries that I have lived in. One of the more unsavoury similarities is the presence of spiritual abuse. Recently, I have come across a fresh wave of people who have been victims of spiritual abuse from a local church - but I know this problem sprouts like a choking weed in every country. So what is spiritual abuse and how do you go forward if it has happened to you?

Spiritual abuse is the misuse of spiritual authority through ungodly and unbiblical practices by influential people in your life. The person committing the spiritual abuse may wear a number of titles ranging from ‘accountability partner’ to ‘pastor’ and they may genuinely believe themselves to be doing God’s work while they are abusing. They may adhere to solid evangelical teaching or even participate in great charismatic worship. But heir understanding and practice of authority and submission are unbiblical and unhealthy.

Whatever the title and regardless of the motive, the other person manipulates and controls by taking advantage of sincere spiritual impulses in the other. You become submitted to a human in a way that you should only be submitted to God – and often you think that by submitting yourself to them, that you are submitting yourself to God. You are taught that to question a leader is rebellion or a manifestation of personal trust issues. The result is that your heart is robbed of freedom, your spirit withers and your joy takes flight.

Has this happened to you? If so,

  • Know that God loves you. You may be experiencing confusion right now. Someone who taught you a lot about Jesus – your leader - has not been acting like Jesus. You may feel unsure what to believe. What part of your experience was of God and what was manipulated by man? Know that God has been in your life - even if you were under bad leadership. He is still in your life and he is for you.
  • Get out of the abusive relationship.
  • Know that there are answers. You may have been told that submission to God’s anointed authority is the mark of true godliness. Jesus said that his leaders were not to ‘lord it over’ the church, but rather to lead by gentle example. Unfortunately, by using terms like ‘honour culture’, ‘rebellious spirit’ and others, you have unknowingly let men (or women) ‘Lord it over you’ in a positon that only Jesus should occupy. Study the Bible and talk to others who have been hurt and come out healthy on the other side. Get books by Christian teachers who write on the subject. You will discover when you share your story that others have similar ones.
  • Understand that feelings of anger, hurt and confusion come and go. Seek out a healthy church that manifests a gentle leadership – one that allows God’s people to walk in the freedom they have in Christ. Give yourself time to heal and to forgive.
  • Know you don’t have to always be silent. In Scripture Paul writes to Timothy ‘Do not accept an accusation against an elder except it is brought by two or three witnesses.’ Elders and pastors are not supposed to be untouchable. If your mistreatment is a normal practice in that system, there will be others who have been hurt like you. It is not wrong to group together and seek to bring correction to the system that has been abusive so that true repentance in leadership can occur.

Lastly, seek Christ. In your confusion and hurt seek the Good Shepherd who really knows how to care for your soul. He – and not man – has died for you. His promise remains ‘Seek and you will find’. The good shepherd wants to find and be found by you.


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