In anticipation of the Nov 1st release of my new book, Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church, I am making my way through a 5-part blog series on misconceptions and misunderstandings of spiritual abuse. You can read prior installments here and here.
We come now to #3 in the series: “Spiritual abuse is not in the Bible or church history—it’s just a modern psychological construct.”
A number of folks may balk at the idea of spiritual abuse solely on the grounds that the terminology itself is relatively modern. If it does not appear in the Bible (or church history), it is argued, then we can’t affirm it.
While the impetus behind such a concern is fundamentally valid (the Bible is our highest standard and church history an important guide), this objection is guilty of the word-concept fallacy. Sure, the terminology itself may be relatively new, but the concept is not. Indeed, the concept is rooted deep in Scripture and church history.
What is Spiritual Abuse?
If we are going to understand the concept more clearly, then we should begin with a definition of spiritual abuse. In my forthcoming book, I go into the definition issue in more depth, but for our purposes here, we can define spiritual abuse as when
A spiritual leader—such as a pastor, elder, or head of a Christian organization—wields his position of spiritual authority in such a way that he manipulates, domineers, bullies, and intimidates those under him in order to maintain their own power and control.
In other words, spiritual abuse is when a Christian leader rules in a harsh and heavy-handed manner. Others have called this same phenomenon heavy shepherding or authoritarian leadership.
With that definition laid out, it is rather evident that this is not a new problem in the 21st century. Nor is it a problem invented by a modern psychological culture. Rather it is a problem as old as humanity itself.
Spiritual Abuse in the Bible
Of course, there is not space here for a full review of biblical texts that address this question (for more, see my book!). But a few instances are worth noting.
In Ezekiel 34, the bad shepherds fed themselves (v. 2), clothed themselves (v. 3), and ruled the sheep “with force and harshness” (v. 4). This last phrase is typical of abusive shepherds. It’s not just that they failed to care for the sheep, their domineering authoritarian leadership style proactively wounded them.
After James and John make the audacious request for seats of power and authority, Jesus reminds them they are thinking about leadership in a worldly way: “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:42-43).
The key word here is katakurieuo—to “lord it over”—which is the same word Peter uses when he rebukes harsh pastors in 1 Peter 5:3: “Shepherd the flock of God . . . not for shameful gain but eagerly . . . not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”
Apparently Peter, like Jesus, sees harsh and domineering leadership as enough of a danger that he feels compelled to warn his readers against it.
Spiritual Abuse in Church History
But concern over power-hungry and domineering leaders is not just in the Bible, it is also in church history. In my book, I offer examples of such concerns expressed by people ranging from John Chrysostom to Matthew Henry.
But one notable example is James Bannerman in his wonderful book, The Church of Christ (1859), where he argues we should limit the power of church leaders because:
It excludes the possibility of that power becoming an independent despotism or lordship in the hands of the rulers, and of their regarding it as if it were given for their own aggrandizement and exaltation, or to be used for the subjugation, by a spiritual tyranny, of the consciences and understandings of the other members of the church (248).
Here, Bannerman uses his own word for what we call spiritual abuse. He calls it “spiritual tyranny”—a term he uses multiple times.
In sum, we should not get hung up too much on the term “spiritual abuse” itself. There are arguments for and against it (and I cover these in the book). But, in the end, what matters is the idea behind it. And the idea is rooted in both the Bible and church history.
Thus harsh, domineering leadership has been around as long as humans have been around. It is the result of the fall, and the sinful tendency of the human heart to prop up one’s self at the expense of others.
Thankfully, we have a Savior who was the opposite of all these tendencies. Contra to the wicked shepherds of Ezekiel 34, Jesus is the “Good Shepherd.” They saved their own lives at the expense of the sheep, while Jesus will save the sheep at the expense of his own life.