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Spiritual Abuse

by J. W. Jepson, D.Min.

Life In Christ Center, 3095 Cherry Heights Road, The Dalles, Oregon 97058

(541) 296-1136

copyright � 2001 by J. W. Jepson

All rights reserved, including the right to grant the following permission and to prohibit the misuse thereof:

The Author hereby grants permission to reproduce the text of this article, without changes or alterations*, as a ministry, but not for commercial or non-ministry purposes.

*Permission is given for publication of excerpts and condensed versions.


(NIV) Scripture quotations from the Holy Bible, New International Version are copyright � 1973, 1978, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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Remember Diotrephes? If not, don't worry. Just be glad he was not your pastor.

But God does want us to learn something from him. He is a "red flag" in the Bible.

John wrote, "I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So, if I come, I will call to attention what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church" (3 John 9,10 NIV).

Diotrephes was one of the early spiritual abusers. He certainly was not the last. In fact, his "offspring" have increased and are with us today.

Jesus told His disciples that true spiritual leaders are servants, not dictators (Mark 10:42-45). Believers are to obey the Scriptural authority of those who watch over their souls (Hebrews 13:17), but that does not give any minister authority to "lord it over your faith" (2 Corinthians 1:24 NIV).

Peter also instructs elders not to lord it over those God has entrusted to them, but to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3).

A person who is arrogant and has a desire to boss others should stay out of the ministry until he or she learns the heart of a true shepherd.

Usually the "chemistry" that produces spiritual abuse includes a strong leader who wants authority over others from either pride and passion or a misplaced desire to make others behave properly, and also an insecure person who wants help living a disciplined life and who feels safe within the structure of a rigid set of rules enforced by a spiritual boss. These two elements attract and bond together like hydrogen and oxygen.

The cycle of spiritual abuse can involve several phases. First, inclusion. People often get "love-bombed" into the group. The experience can be very heady.

Next is domination. It can begin by a subtle trade-off of one's personal spiritual freedom for a sense of security and belonging. It is the unspoken, "I'll give you control over me if you take care of me and protect me."

Then comes regimentation. The member's life becomes increasingly controlled, in some cases eventually even to the details of marriage and family life. The permission of the leader or leaders is required before personal decisions are made. The rules are rigid. The discipline for "disobedience" can be harsh and unloving and sometimes takes the form of temporary exclusion--perhaps outright rejection.

The next phase is isolation. Dependence on "the group" and its leader deepens. Any outsider--another Christian, a family member, even a spouse--becomes "the enemy," to be avoided.

Paul warned about this. "Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them" (Galatians 1:17 NIV).

Often there is exploitation, including inappropriate and unreasonable demands on personal resources--time, energy, finances. Paul was grieved over the way certain false teachers were abusing the church at Corinth, including even physical abuse. "In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face" (2 Corinthians 11:20 NIV).

Who can forget the tragedies that happened at Jonestown, Waco, and other places? Spiritual abuse can become deadly!

Also, there is perversion. Loving disciples are turned into harsh critics. Refering to a friend who had joined an abusive sect, a lady said, "We visited the church with him, at his request, to see what we thought of it. I asked for a Statement Of Faith. They had nothing, and were not happy when I asked. Our friend then accused me of attacking his church. His pastor has told him to stay away from us. I have seen a kind, loving person filled with hate and contempt towards anyone who is not a member of 'his' church. He is angry and bitter all the time."

Often, too, there is devastation. Marriages break up. Families fall apart. Lives are ruined.

Disillusion leads either to despair or to emancipation. Some become bitter and turn against God and the Church. Others find the truth and are set free. Their experience ends in recovery and restoration. Here are three real-life experiences:

"Every Sunday the sermons would 'bind me up in chains' emotionally. I finally ran across the Bible verse: the Lord is Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). This verse made me wake up and leave."

"We have been out about 10 years after spending 11 years of my life in that place. It was indeed rough going for a long time. Fortunately for us, we got right into a good church that helped us through the hard times."

"We left after almost ten years and experienced much hurt, isolation, loss and rejection. I know that the fellowship was (and probably still is) very controlling and extremely legalistic in their doctrine. It is very hard to go on and pick up the pieces of your Christianity after an experience like that. God has shown Himself to be faithful."

Jesus said, "The truth shall make you free" (John 8:32).

Christian liberty is not permission to sin. It is not a license to violate one's conscience. Christian liberty is the freedom all believers in Christ have to walk with God by faith with a pure heart in all the light they have, without being burdened down by a set of rules.

Although rules have their place, it is important to remember that a set of rules never made anybody holy. Biblical principles do. "Learn from me," Jesus said (Matthew 11:29). He is our "wisdom from God--and righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Corinthians 1:30 NKJV).

"Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1 NIV).

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