Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse, Part
By Mike Fehlauer
Pastor, Author, Director of Foundation Ministries
CBN.com -- Crosswalk.com
-- The idea of spiritual abuse is not a new phenomenon. In the Old
Testament, God spoke against those who operated in their own authority while
abusing the very people they were to bless. In Jeremiah 5:30-31 we read,
"An astonishing and horrible thing has been committed in the land:
the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule by their own power;
and My people love to have it so. But what will you do in the end?"
In these verses God is bringing an indictment against the religious
leaders of the Old Testament. We see the Lord's anger expressed against
those who operate in their own authority. Consumed with their own
ambition, these leaders have convinced the people that their power
is divine. Yet in reality, these false prophets are merely wielding
their self-imposed influence for personal gain, claiming they speak
In Jeremiah 6:13-14 we read again of self-absorbed prophets and priests
who are so preoccupied with their own needs being met that the needs
of the people are being ignored. We read: "From the least of
them even to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for gain, and
from the prophet even to the priest everyone deals falsely. And they
have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, saying, 'Peace,
peace,' but there is no peace" (NAS).
A common characteristic of an abusive religious system is that the
real needs of the people are lost in the never-ending quest by the
leaders for personal fulfillment and happiness.
The tragic story of Diane, a young woman in her late teens who had
recently given her life to Christ, illustrates this point. Diane went
on a missions trip with a group from the church she had been attending.
One day the missions team was enjoying some recreation time when Diane
suffered a tragic accident that caused her leg to be so severely injured
that it was necessary to amputate it.
Diane's parents were not Christians, and in the past they had somewhat
resented the amount of time Diane had been spending at the church.
When the accident occurred, their response was to blame the church
for Diane's injury. They also felt the church should do something
financially to help Diane.
During the time Diane was recovering in the hospital, her mother
happened to hear the senior pastor of Diane's church describing the
new, sporty car he intended to purchase. She began to tell people
in the community about this preacher who is living high on the church's
money. Word got back to the pastor, and needless to say, he was not
After several weeks in the hospital, Diane was transferred to a rehab
facility. While she was in rehab the pastor came to see Diane. Diane
was still wheelchair bound because she had not yet been fitted with
a prosthesis. After the initial greetings and some brief small talk,
the pastor bought up to Diane what her mom was saying around town.
The pastor advised Diane that her 'assignment' was to talk to her
mother and get her to stop gossiping about the pastor. Although Diane
was still trying to process the idea of facing the rest of her life
without a leg, by the time the pastor left, it was clear to her that
her pastor had nothing to say to her to help her face the horrible
physical and emotional issues brought on by her accident.
One of the church's staff members made a suggestion that the church
buy Diane a prosthesis for her leg. Initially, the pastor vehemently
opposed the idea. However, after some time, just to help smooth things
over with Diane's mom, the pastor reluctantly consented to the purchase.
Diane's pastor failed to respond to Diane in a way that honored God.
In fact, his response was more like that of the Pharisees of the New
Testament, whom Jesus openly confronted concerning the way they treated
others. As you read the New Testament, it doesn't take a tremendous
amount of insight to see that the confrontations Jesus had were not
with tax collectors, adulteresses, prostitutes or other 'sinners.'
His confrontations were with the religious leaders and the religious
system of His day.
In speaking of the Pharisees, Jesus said, "For they bind heavy
burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves
will not move them with one of their fingers" (Matt. 23:4). The
Amplified Bible paints an even clearer picture. It says, "They
tie up heavy loads, hard to bear, and place them on men's shoulders,
but they themselves will not lift a finger to help bear them."
Jesus is referring to the people's being weighted down by rules and
regulations that needed to be performed in order to gain the acceptance
of the Pharisees. In the same way, many believers today have found
themselves crushed beneath the religious baggage of an abusive system.
Each day thousands of church members find themselves struggling to
earn the favor and approval of a modern-day Pharisee.
Jesus cared deeply about His people and how they were treated. When
He saw the multitudes, "He was moved with compassion for them,
because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd"
(Matt. 9:36). The Amplified Version expands on the word weary by saying,
"They were bewildered (harassed and distressed and dejected and
helpless), like sheep without a shepherd."
Notice that Jesus saw them 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. 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 rests.
Is it any wonder Jesus said:
"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will
give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle
and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My
yoke is easy and My burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30).
A healthy church should produce peace and rest for your soul. Establishing
healthy spiritual relationships will always be a challenge, but the
process will prevent you from becoming weary and worn, trying to jump
through religious hoops that promise God's acceptance and love. If,
in order to gain the acceptance of its leaders, 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.
God's intention all along has been for the local church to be healthy,
life giving, and Christ centered. But because He has chosen to use
frail, sin-prone individuals to lead His church, there is always the
possibility that a local congregation can fall into deception or unhealthy
Signs of Spiritual Abuse, Part Two
Signs of Spiritual Abuse, Part Three
Order your copy of "Exposing Spiritual Abuse" by Mike Fehlauer.
© Mike Fehlauer. All rights reserved.
Used with permission.
Excerpted from "Exposing
Spiritual Abuse" by Mike Fehlauer. Mike Fehlauer
is pastor of Tree of Life Church in New Braunfels, Texas.
He is also the founder and director of Foundation Ministries.
He travels extensively throughout the United States and the
world, sharing God's message of love, hope and restoration.
He and his wife, Bonnie, also hold marriage and family life
conferences. They have two grown children.
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