If you are aware of pretty much anything in the church these days, you will be aware that the church of today has many problems. There are carnal people who are not saved but think they are, people living as if Jesus is a cherry on their man-made sundae, worship songs that are more like rock concerts, seeker sensitive, word-faith, prosperity gospel imitations of true faith. We know from all this, and from the 7 Letters to the Churches contained in the first three chapters of Revelation that the church was in trouble and will be in trouble.
One of the troubles that is rising fast in these days is "authoritarianism" or "spiritual abuse." More bloggers and pastor-teachers are writing about it. That is because it is a problem that has burst onto the Christian horizon as suddenly as a tornado or a lighting bolt. But that is not to say that the conditions laid out for its emergence as a problem have been as sudden. The conditions that support spiritual abuse have long been laid.
The conditions that allow spiritual abuse to thrive are like mushrooms on manure. I wrote about how and why spiritual abuse happens here: When carnality leads to spiritual abuse. Part of the reason it occurs is that congregations have silently abdicated their command to test these things for themselves, (1Thess 5:21) and to seek truth from the scriptures like good Bereans. (Acts 17:11). They are only too willing to submit instead to a person who tells them what to do, and that person is not Christ. Alone and unlearned, and seeing a chink in armor, pastors who are wolves come in, not sparing the flock. (Acts 20:29).
I wrote about the signs that a church may be becoming spiritually abusive, here:
Is your church spiritually abusive?
Here is a definition of spiritual abuse, though not an exclusive one, certainly:
"Certain signatures define spiritual abuse: authoritarian leadership, claims that the group or leaders have a special calling or gifts, inability of leaders to handle criticism, harsh treatment of those who question or try to leave. These are just a few. Though the manifestation of abuse differs in externals, underneath are similar traits, repeated in abusive groups. Become familiar with spiritual abuse in a variety of churches and you will soon see how these leaders manipulate and control."
A couple of years ago, rumblings started to emerge from one of the nation's largest "evangelical" churches, Mars Hill in Seattle, pastored by Mark Driscoll. Some talk of authoritarianism came out and then later some rumors of spiritual abuse. Matthew Paul Turner was one, Bent Meyer was another.
Then, another Mars Hill elder and his wife came forward several weeks ago: Paul Petry and his wife Jonna. Paul put up a blog containing documents clearly showing in the pastor and elders' own words just how permeating the pastoral abuse at Mars Hill had gone. Paul's wife Jonna put up a gripping narrative that re-tells their abusive treatment done in the name of Christ by Mars Hill Pastor Mark Driscoll and others. Though the abuse occurred over a period that concluded 5 years ago, the couple had sought reconciliation for several years after, then went on to healing, and then through prayer finally felt led to open the lid to the can of worms and explain what had happened. They did so gently and sensitively, which is why their blog and the documents hit the Christian world like a bomb.
Here is their blog: Joyful Exiles. In it, Mark Petry said,
"Four and half years ago, I was fired from Mars Hill Church because I refused to resign under pressure. I was a pastor on staff, an elder, and an officer of the corporation along with a group of other men. I spent months seeking formal reconciliation and years hoping for a better course. I have not spoken about these matters publicly until now. With the mounting stories and “histories” coming out regarding Mars Hill Church, it no longer seems right or beneficial to remain silent."
If you care to read Jonna Petry's narrative, it is here. I recommend it as a lesson not only in how spiritual abuse works and its devastating effects, but as a lesson in grace bestowed by the Holy Spirit and a treatise in forgiveness. Jesus surely is great and the Holy Spirit a comforter in times of trouble.
A couple of years ago when the problem was not as widely known, when people would leave or be exiled from their abusive church and come forward with their story, they were painted as cranks, malcontents, and witch bloggers. Part of the problem of authoritarianism is that the authority that has clutched onto the church leadership has as a regular ammunition in their arsenal no compunction to excoriate their accusers. Ad hominem attacks by the abusive are a standard marker of abuse, and it was often hard to sort out who was telling the truth on what. Many didn't even try, the entire issue being so negative and sordid. But as this problem grew, and more and more people came forward the issue began to sink in that it is a real and present problem. It seems that a critical mass has been reached as to the breadth and the legitimacy of the problem.
Tim Challies wrote about it here. And then he wrote about it again here.
I sought and received permission to re-publish Christian Counselor Bob Kellemen's essay on spiritual abuse here.
This week Wade Burleson wrote about it here.
I don't have a lot more to say about the issue of authoritarianism, or spiritual abuse, than I've said already. But I welcome the chorus of solid Christians who are speaking out about it. Like any abuse, there is shame and humiliation associated with it felt by the abused, and there is also a real battle to know whether to legitimately speak up or to remain silent.
To that end, this article may help from Christian Research Institute Journal, Christians Chriticizing Christians: Can It Be Biblical?.
Here is a website that offers information on the topic, starting with this article, "The Bible and Spiritual Abuse"
Provender has the best archive of helpful articles on the topic that I have yet seen. It includes information on spotting it, dealing with it, talking about it, and recovering from it.
One of the early, and seminal, books on the topic is now completely online in a .pdf. Recovering from Churches that Abuse by Ronald Enroth.
I am personally heartbroken whenever I read of a church that engages in spiritual abuse. It is a glorious thing for Jesus to raise up a humble pastor to guide the people the Spirit has sent to his church. It is a special blessing to receive preaching that is solid and true. Pastors who counsel kindly and who are themselves an example of Godly love are a triumph of the Holy Spirit's work in the world. Therefore I am especially heartbroken when I read of one who has gone wayward. I know they will be judged more strictly (James 3:1). I have cried many tears over one in particular.
I think to myself, what a waste! What a torment to abuse Jesus's pulpit for personal gain or glory! What a heartbreak for the people who are stuck there!
But I do caution against excessive sentimentality on the cycle of abuse in that it is not all the pastor's fault. Authoritarian churches only exist if there is not only an abusive pastor or elder but if there are those who remain to be abused. No one is stuck there. In that, Paul Washer has a good thought--
"False teachers are God’s judgment on people who don’t want God, but in the name of religion plan on getting everything their carnal heart desires. That’s why a Joel Osteen is raised up. Those people who sit under him are not victims of him but he is the judgment of God upon them. And they want exactly what he wants, and it’s not God." ~ Paul Washer
I pray for the reconciliation of these abusers to a Holy and Righteous and loving Jesus. I pray for congregations' eyes to be opened and for their ears to hear what the Spirit says to the churches. If you have been in an abusive church then bless you, and I hope that in just knowing you are not alone by seeing these links and reading these stories that you will allow the Spirit to begin the healing process in you. You have a comforter, given to you by God himself:
"And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;" (John 14:16).
"In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;' (Romans 8:26).
No matter what your trial, dear one, Jesus is sufficient for all our needs, even amid the heartbreak of abuse. For those who have been spiritually abused, you know the deep sense of betrayal that splits apart the heart. Yet for all that, Jesus is mighty. He endured an even greater betrayal by the very people He had come to serve and save:
"Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Hebrews 4:14-16).
He knows how you feel. He knows. Praise our God who feels our pain and who intercedes for us, approach His throne in your pain and leave it there for Him.
Peace be with you...