To “abuse” is to use something or someone to bad effect or for a bad purpose, especially regularly or repeatedly. Spiritual abuse happens when a spiritual authority, such as a cult leader or abusive pastor, seeks to control individuals and ensure obedience. Spiritual abuse is closely associated with spiritual manipulation and is not God’s plan for promoting spiritual growth.
A spiritually abusive group might claim that they are God’s sole channel of communication and that they alone can rightly interpret God’s Word. They might claim that salvation depends upon belonging to their church and that, since God speaks through them alone, there can be no further discussion on what the leaders say. Or the leaders might point to God’s blessing on their work—proved by increased baptisms, perhaps—and push members to contribute more generously to their expansion programs. Pushing for more money, promising that God will repay, and piling on guilt can be signs of covert abuse.
Abusive groups also place great emphasis on performance-related works—attending every meeting; volunteering to help at local, regional, and national events; and devoting required minimum amounts of time to proselytizing. Members are constantly reminded that the end of this wicked system of things is imminent and so there is very little time left to spread the “good news.” Everyone must do more in the advancement of “God’s work.” The dedication of each member is tracked and measured by the amount of time, effort, and money he or she gives to the cause. If an individual’s efforts begin to slip below expectations, it will be noticed.
Spiritual abuse can occur when church or cult leaders misuse Scripture to bolster their own authority and keep their members under their thumb. For example, a spiritual authority may use Hebrews 13:17 (“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority”) to demand blind loyalty and unthinking obedience. A leader might say, “God has given me authority over you; thus, to disobey me is to disobey God.” If members grow uneasy and think about leaving, all the leader has to do is say, “If you leave this group, you will never go to heaven, because only we have the truth.” This type of manipulation is appalling, but it occurs more often than one might think. Our loyalty is due Christ, the Head of the church (Ephesians 1:22), not a particular organization, church, or leader.
Cults and abusive churches pre-emptively insulate members from any information critical of the group. Members are taught early on to be skeptical of any negative report about the group and that the biased media only lies about them. These “lies” are identified as a form of persecution, which “proves” they must be the one true religion. So, for example, if journalists report on leaders who have been found guilty of child abuse, the organization simply tells its members they cannot believe anything the newspapers say about them—it’s all lies and smears. If simple denial doesn’t work, they move on to rationalization and wishful thinking. Spiritually abusive leaders can become so adept at thought and information control that those under their sway will actually defend their new identity over their former identity.
The more committed to the abusive church a person becomes, the more isolated he becomes from non-members, and the more he fears punishment if he tries to leave. Some people, after a lifetime of emotional investment in a religious group, simply do not know how they could survive if they left. They have no friends other than their fellow church members. They may have cut off contact with family members. They probably have no interests (social or intellectual) outside of their group. Such is their fear of being ostracized that many stay put, keeping their misgivings to themselves.
Jonestown survivor Deborah Layton wrote, “When our own thoughts are forbidden, when our questions are not allowed and our doubts are punished, when contacts and friendships outside of the organization are censored, we are being abused for an end that never justifies its means. When our heart aches knowing we have made friendships and secret attachments that will be forever forbidden if we leave, we are in danger. When we consider staying in a group because we cannot bear the loss, disappointment and sorrow our leaving will cause for ourselves and those we have come to love, we are in a cult” (Seductive Poison. New York: Anchor Books, 1998, page 299).
Peter warned us that “there will be false teachers among you” (2 Peter 2:1). As he described these false teachers, Peter points to their propensity to abuse their followers: “In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories” (verse 3), or as the KJV puts it, “They [shall] with feigned words make merchandise of you.” Those who would attempt to use the Word of God to take advantage of the church are greedy liars, and they will bring divine retribution upon themselves: “Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping” (verse 3).
Jesus’ yoke is easy, and His burden is light (Matthew 11:30). Those who claim to speak for Jesus today should not be placing heavier burdens on people than Jesus would.
A pastor is to be a shepherd. Shepherds who abuse the flock can expect severe punishment when the Lord returns: “He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers. . . . From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:46–48). With privilege comes responsibility, and those spiritual wolves who abuse their authority will have to answer to God for the harm they have done.