A Tragically Frequent Situation

Spiritual abuse happens everywhere: in Roman Catholic churches and Jehovah's Witness halls; in Anglican cathedrals and Free Baptist fellowships. And it always harms the Body of Christ.

Rabid Wolves in Clerical Clothes

They do not instruct others to "in all things, follow the Lord" — instead these rabid wolves insist upon unquestioning obedience to their own authority. They blaspheme against our Savior's life and death by alleging that their own poisonous words, temptations and prejudices are a reflection of the message of the Holy One of Galilee.

a wolf in sheep's clothing

Photo of a flower

Spiritual Abuse A Genuine Concern

The Faith They Inspire

Jesus warned his disciples, "Beware of false preachers who appear gentle as lambs, but who are as vicious as a rabid wolf. You will know who they are by what they produce.

Grapes don't grow on thorn bushes; weeds don't produce apples. That's how it is. Peaches grow on peach trees, poison ivy produces poison ivy berries.

A healthy tree will produce healthy fruit, but a sickly tree will not. A sickly tree is only good for firewood.

That's why I say: pay attention to the results of a person's words and deeds. Do they produce hope and joy, or fear and despair? You will recognize My followers by the faith they inspire."

      ~ The Gospel according to Matthew 7:15-20
          as interpreted by Deborah

A Job, Not a Calling

Several years ago, when I was serving at a church which will remain nameless, I got an outraged phone call from one of our younger members. Sean's dear mother-in-law had died, suddenly and unexpectedly, after a brief hospitalization. He and his wife returned from the hospital in stunned shock and grief only to find that the senior pastor, "Reverend Jones," had left a message on their answering machine, "I heard your mother died. When do you want to schedule the funeral?"

That extraordinarily unpastoral response was typical.

Throughout my brief tenure at the church, Rev. Jones' behavior indicated nothing but contempt for the parishioners and the One we worship. He rarely kept office hours, never visited the sick or shut-ins, and made no outreach efforts to the greater community. At one of our Lenten evening services he sat in a pew eating a hamburger and drinking a cola from a Burger King bag. Perhaps this was to be expected, as he described his ministry as "the role" he "played" in the church.

a preacherAt no point did Rev. Jones ever speak of a "calling" or a desire to serve God or God's people. Prior to his ordination he had worked as a hospital orderly, a personal fitness trainer, and a vitamin salesman. Rev. Jones had been removed from three other churches before being assigned to this one, but no one would say why.

Rev. Jones had a special hatred for certain members of the congregation. Objects of his particular venom were a young "mixed marriage" couple, an attractive divorcee, a severely hearing-impaired older woman, and me. After my second sermon Rev. Jones had determined that I was "out to get him," apparently believing that the message had been directed exclusively toward him.

As the weeks wore on, Rev. Jones became increasingly agitated and paranoid. He followed people to restaurants and shopping malls, repeatedly drove past their place of work, and more than once I spotted his van parked across the street from my house (I live in an outlying area of a different city).

Control Through Intimidation

The church elders were well-aware of what was going on, and had discussed the situation at length, but felt helpless to do anything.

a temper fitTheir own efforts to deal with their pastor's behavior had been half-hearted and timid — for good reason. They were terrified of him. Rev. Jones was capable of flying into the most animalistic, "possessed" rage I have ever seen. I personally witnessed him fling a chair several feet, pound his fist on the table, and shout "the F word" during meetings with church members. At one point he had slammed the door to his office with such force that the full-length mirror on the other side shattered. The little old ladies who constituted the majority of the congregation would flutter out of the room whenever he appeared.

In a private meeting, when I attempted to discuss the situation with him, Rev. Jones physically threatened me. At that point I contacted the "management" (I will not use pastoral terms to describe them). The man needed help, and the congregation needed protection.

Sydney GreenstreetI begged them to send someone to do an intervention. Rev. Jones was sick and the people desperately needed to have the Peace of Christ in their midst. In response, the CEO of the region arranged to meet with me and Rev. Jones.

"Mr. Greenstreet" directed his first words to me. He told me I should say four nice things about Rev. Jones. He also informed me that, coming from a Methodist background, I didn't understand the "polity" of their denomination, and that my task, until orders were confirmed on me — IF they were — was to give Rev. Jones my complete, unwavering support. Further, I was told that I was not to speak to any members of the congregation unless Rev. Jones was present.

I was "silenced," belittled, and condemned. The message of the church was "Shut up and support 'the system.' Don't speak out when things are wrong; don't defend the widow, the orphan or the ill."

And Jesus wept.

A Familiar Story

silenced

Sadly, many of you will recognize much of my story as a part of your own.

It's called "spiritual abuse." And it happens everywhere: in Roman Catholic churches and Jehovah's Witness halls; in Anglican cathedrals and Free Baptist fellowships. And it always harms the Body of Christ.

These clergy are truly wicked liars: their ministries a slander against our Lord and Savior.

The messages from their pulpits are often filled with venom, condemnation, and fear. There is no "blessed assurance": no promise of God's grace, no reminder of Christ's victory over sin and death. It is almost as if Jesus had never been here! They do not give to God what is God's — but seek to set themselves above the Holy One; claiming the power to judge, to forgive, to restore and redeem.

They do not instruct others to "in all things, follow the Lord" — instead these rabid wolves insist upon unquestioning obedience to their own authority. They blaspheme against our Savior's life and death by alleging that their own poisonous words, temptations and prejudices are a reflection of the message of the Holy One of Galilee.

No one walks away from their Sunday sermons refreshed, renewed and hopeful.

"Do they produce hope and joy, or fear and despair? You will recognize My followers by the faith they inspire."

the sacred, healing heart of JesusAbusive clergy such as Rev. Jones have driven many souls away from the saving message of the Lord Jesus. Those outside our faith — who take their distorted words as "the gospel truth" — avoid what they understand to be a hateful and harmful way of life. Christians who remain in churches led by such pastors are steadily poisoned: their hopes diminished, their souls despairing — they are afraid to live with the courageous faith and compassion Jesus taught.

The rabid, ravenous wolves in sheep's clothing must be stopped. They are literally tearing away at the Body of Christ. And our world needs the abundant Life and gracious Spirit of our Lord — now, more than ever.

It has taken me nearly eight years to finally speak out about what happened to me and to my friends and family at the hands of those wicked clergy. The wounds remain to this day — painful stigmata that we will carry with us always. Our hearts were hurt, our trust was betrayed, our faith was called into question: after all, it was "the minister" who was doing these things — the one who "stands in" for Jesus at the altar, in the pulpit, in times of prayer and confession.

For some of you my story of abuse will seem mild indeed. Abusive clergy have done far more terrible things than intimidate, threaten, and throw chairs. Yet each action that harms the faithful: every form of silencing, denigrating, and discriminating against anyone is an attack on the One who called us to serve Him.

"Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).

Becoming part of the solution

Speaking up and speaking out

If you have been abused, speak out. Document what happened and when and if there were witnesses (abusers tend to make sure there aren't). Tell your story: to your family, your friends, to law enforcement and lawyers. File formal complaints, write to the newspapers and send emails (RevDeb@inklingscommunity.org). And — literally for God's sake — stop attending worship where these wicked shepherds hold court.

If someone comes to you with a story of abuse, listen. Don't discount or deny what is being said. Be compassionate, kind, and proactive: make sure they get the help and guidance they need. Let them know that, regardless of what is going on in their church, Christ is still present in the world.

Recommended Reading

Unfortunately, after a spate of books and a great deal of well-deserved attention on this subject toward the end of the 20th century, contemporary books which specifically address this this issue are few. Please contact me if you have any recommendations. Christ's healing peace be with you.

Hassen, Steven, Combatting Cult Mind Control, Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press, original printing 1990. Written by a survivor and exit-counselor this book remains among the very best resources for recognizing spiritual abuse and beginning the process of recovery.

Johnson, David and Jeff VanVonderen. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. Minneapolis, MI: Bethany House, 2005 (reprint) Another older text that remains extremely helpful.

Arterburn, Stephen and Jack Felton. Toxic Faith. New York: Shaw Books (Random House), 2001.

The website Spiritual Abuse Recovery Resources provides useful links as well as several short articles by people who have been there.