Spiritual Abuse in the Church

I was doing some research on leadership styles and in particular leadership styles used within the context of church.

I was told by one church pastor that leaders lead and followers follow. Any challenge to the leader is really a sinful act. Obviously, this is not biblical. It is symptomatic of spiritual abuse.

The most distinctive characteristic of a spiritually abusive religious system, or leader, is the over-emphasis on authority. Because a group claims to have been established by God Himself the leaders in this system claim the right to command their followers.

This authority supposedly comes from the position they occupy. In Matthew 23:1-2 Jesus said the Scribes and Pharisees “sit in Moses’ seat,” a position of spiritual authority. Many names are used but in the abusive system this is a position of power, not moral authority. The assumption is that God operates among His people through a hierarchy, or “chain of command.”

In this abusive system unconditional submission is often called a “covering,” or “umbrella of protection” which will provide some spiritual blessing to those who fully submit. Followers may be told that God will bless their submission even if the leadship is wrong. It is not their place to judge or correct the leadership – God will see to that.

Abuse is abuse. This is but one form of spiritual abuse. Churches that rely on top-down hierarchical structures are especially suited to systemic spiritual abuse. And poor leaders can really negatively impact the health of a church.

1 reply
  1. Jeff Richardson
    Jeff Richardson says:

    This post reminded me of a few things. First in Hebrews 13:17 Paul apparenty (in most translations) admonishes the “flock” to obey leaders, although the word use for obey in this context is (if I recall correctly) “peitho” which I’m told is a passive imperative form suggesting that the follower should “be persuaded”. And, in 1Peter leaders are admonished not to “lord over” their charges, but to be examples.

    Lastly, in 2 Cor. Paul uses gentle sarcasm to reprove those who permit others who “makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face”. Sadly, some leaders while publically decrying this sort of treatment, of the faithful, regularly demonstrate it within their own fellowship.


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