Beware of "Spiritual
Craig von Buseck
CBN.com Contributing Writer
-- A discussion of godly counsel must include a caution concerning
the sticky issue of “spiritual abuse.”
Spiritual abuse can be difficult to detect at first if you have never encountered
it. In a manipulative church, the pastor or senior leaders have subtly positioned
themselves to take the place of the Holy Spirit in people's lives. They may
try to put undue influence on the choices that people in their congregation
are making. They might try to sway someone’s decision in a matter to
keep them under their control, or to keep them from leaving the church.
People in a controlling church are often told they cannot leave the church
with God's blessing unless the pastor approves the decision. They are warned
that if they don’t follow the pastor’s guidance, not only will
God not bless them, but they will also bring a curse upon themselves or their
family. Leaving the “covering” of the church and the controlling
pastor will result in some sort of calamity.
When a pastor tells his congregation that those who leave his church or disobey
his authority are in danger of God’s wrath, you can be sure this man
is operating in a spirit of control. He is attempting to sow fear as a carnal
means of keeping people in his church.
“If you leave this church,” he may warn, “the blessing of
God will be lifted from your life, and you will miss God’s will. You
will be in rebellion, and you will open yourself up to all kinds of calamity.
The devil will have freedom to attack you because you have walked away from
God’s protection,” that “protection” being the one
true church that he happens to pastor.
Fear is the motivation behind such comments — not love. You can be sure
that this type of reasoning is not from God. Jesus never motivated people
out of fear. Fear is a form of manipulation, which is sin. Instead of motivating people through love and a call
to serve the body of Christ and reach the lost, a spiritually abusive minister
will try to motivate through manipulation.
The apostle John is called the apostle of love because he wrote so much about
our call as Christians to walk in love. 'There is no fear in love; but perfect
love casts out fear,' he wrote in 1 John 4:18.
By keeping people in fear, controlling spiritual leaders work to get good
Christian people to build their religious kingdoms — by telling them
that they are building the kingdom of God. We see this kind of prophet and
priest in the book of Jeremiah. The controlling leaders are focused on their
own needs being met, and the needs of the people are ignored.
Jesus was more critical of the religious leaders of His day than He was of
the sinners, and for good reason. The Jewish leaders put false religious burdens
on the people for the sake of their own prosperity.
They crush you with impossible religious demands and never lift a finger to
help ease the burden. (Matthew 23:4)
In this case, as it is in controlling churches today, the people were burdened
with rules and regulations that needed to be performed to gain the acceptance
of the religious leaders — in that day the Pharisees. Today, it is the
manipulative spiritual leader. Many Christians today find themselves bearing
the heavy load of the religious baggage in an abusive system. Around the world,
hurting churchgoers struggle to earn the favor and approval of a modern-day
Pharisee, all the while thinking they are earning the favor of God.
The good news is that if you are in Christ, you already have God’s favor!
And no amount of work for a spiritually abusive pastor will give you more
acceptance than you already have.
Jesus recognized the burden that was being placed on sincere believers in
His time, who just wanted to do what is right. He saw them as sheep without
a shepherd, even though they were involved in the religious rituals in the
temple and synagogues.
They were bewildered (harassed and distressed and dejected and helpless),
like sheep without a shepherd.
—Matthew 9:36 AMP
In his book, Exposing Spiritual Abuse, Mike Fehlauer points out
that Jesus saw these dear people as harassed: “This word conveys the
idea of some outside force pressing upon the people, causing them to feel
weary, distressed and downcast. This outside force was the religious system
that placed its emphasis on outward appearances. It was a system that promised
peace based on one's ability to follow the prescribed rules and regulations.
If one failed, then there was judgment.”
“Not having a shepherd didn't mean that the people lacked for those
who told them what to do,” he continues. “There were plenty of
Pharisees willing to do that. It meant they had no one to lead them to spiritual
green pastures. A shepherd doesn't drive his sheep as cattlemen drive their
cattle. A shepherd leads his sheep to a safe place where food is plentiful
and where they can find rest.”
The term shepherd is an Old Testament metaphor as well. Ezekiel 34 contains
an exhortation in which the Lord holds the leaders of Israel responsible for
failing to care for the flock:
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
I wonder if these modern-day Pharisees realize that God considers their congregations
as sheep without shepherds. Perhaps if they recognized how God viewed the
situation, they would change their ways.
The Christian seeking guidance from a spiritual leader must also be on the
lookout for the dangerous trap of spiritual elitism that can produce an "us-and-them,"
or a “fortress” mentality. This is a telltale sign of spiritual
abuse. A church or pastor with an elitist attitude teaches, if ever so subtly,
that no other church or ministry is preaching the pure gospel — or at
least, no one is preaching it the way they should, in other words, the way
that he is preaching it. An elitist leader will discourage members from visiting
other churches or receiving counsel from anyone who doesn't attend their church.
If anyone breaks this rule, he or she is viewed as rebellious.
We see a biblical example of this in 3 John 9–10:
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence
among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind
his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not
content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids
those who wish to, putting them out of the church.
Spiritual elitism is not a new thing in the church, but the apostle John
rightly called it “evil.”
A healthy spiritual leader, on the other hand, respects and encourages the
other churches and ministries in a community, recognizing that there are several
different expressions of the body of Christ. A spiritually free pastor realizes
that no one denomination or local church can represent the love of Jesus to
a city. A healthy church will promote revival in the entire Christian community.
It will not promote the idea that it has some kind of doctrinal or spiritual
In a healthy relationship, a spiritual mentor will provide godly counsel
from selfless motives. He or she will want God’s will for your life.
If that means that you will need to leave the church or ministry, then they
will rejoice that you are being sent out to be a blessing in another place.
A healthy pastoral relationship should produce peace in the life of the believer
— another one of the seven keys of God’s guidance. If the godly
counsel that you receive is not giving you peace or rest in your soul, it
may not be from the Lord.
Remember, godly counsel is only one of the seven keys of God’s guidance.
You should never rely solely on the advice or input from another human being
in determining God’s will for you life — regardless of how long
they have been walking with the Lord.
Because man is a sinner, building healthy spiritual relationships will always
be a challenge. Someone once said, “the perfect church stopped being
perfect the minute I walked in the door.” God's intention all along
has been for the local church to be healthy, life-giving, serving, encouraging,
and Christ-centered. But because He has chosen to use sinful men and women
to lead His church, there will always be the possibility that a local congregation
can fall into deception or unhealthy spiritual patterns.
There must be a balance between humbly seeking guidance from a person of
spiritual authority, and subjecting yourself to the manipulative practice
of spiritual abuse. Finding that balance is an ongoing process in life. But
it is a necessary struggle that will prevent you from becoming weary and worn
on one hand, trying to jump through religious hoops that promise God's acceptance
and love — and on the other hand, from becoming an island unto yourself,
determining what is right in your eyes alone. Both sides of this spiritual
spectrum are dangerous, and should be avoided. Ask God to give you the grace
and guidance to walk in the tension of these truths — opening yourself
to the input of mature Christian leaders, while avoiding spiritual control.
If you find yourself striving to gain the acceptance of spiritual leaders,
or if your church constantly requires more and more of your life with no end
in sight — and little encouragement along the way — then you may
want to re-examine the church you are attending.
We can protect ourselves from spiritual abuse by considering all the keys
of God's guidance in every major decision.
Do you need to pray with someone? Call our CBN Prayer Line at 1-800-759-0700.
Do you want to know Jesus? Find out how!
I go into greater detail in how to hear God's voice through godly counsel
in my book, Seven Keys to Hearing God's Voice. Order
your copy from Shop CBN.
Also order your copy of Exposing Spiritual Abuse, by Mike Fehlauer
Adapted from Seven Keys to Hearing God's Voice. Used with permission.
© Hensley Publishing. More from Hensley Publishing.
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von Buseck is Ministries Director for CBN.com.
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