State of the Church part 5b: Is your church spiritually abusive?

By Elizabeth Prata

Part 1: Introduction, Love growing cold
Part 2: Are you tending your anchor?
Part 3: The numbers aren't good
Part 4: Carnal Carnival, & the greatest sin pastors commit
Part 5a: When carnality leads to spiritual abuse
Conclusion: Spiritual Leaders and Humble Relationships

In Acts 20:29 Paul wrote, "I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock." Not just wolves, but savage wolves. And they will not spare the flock. That is the focus of this part 5b. How will they not spare the flock?

Let's take a look at the Greek meaning of the word used in the Acts verse, savage. We have our own idea in English of what savage wolves means. We form a picture in our head from National Geographic of bloody wolves' muzzles and snarling teeth tearing flesh from undefended sheep. But the Greek paints a bit of a different picture.

Here is the Concordance: savage, or some translations say vicious, is from the Greek word 'barus.' This means heavy. "properly, heavy (weighty); what is grievous (burdensome), pressing down on a person with oppressive force. Such a grievous burden makes a person unable to function (enjoy free movement)."

Jesus died so we would be liberated from bondage: bondage to sin, bondage to men (Luke 4:16-20, Isaiah 61:1). So pastors who do the opposite of what Jesus wants is to heavily oppress us. They will place on us grievous burdens so heavy we are unable to function.

This paints the exact picture of the excessive legalism, worldliness and selfishness that the Pharisees and other New Testament false teachers were promoting (Judaizers, etc). Paul told us that false teachers and leaders would come in laying a weight on us that would be so heavy we would not be able to move. Paul's words match exactly what today's authoritarian pastors are doing to the flock, and let me assure you, the flock is not only 'not spared'. They're targeted.

"Spiritual abuse can take place in the context of doctrinally sound, Bible preaching, fundamental, conservative Christianity. All that is needed for abuse is a pastor accountable to no one and therefore beyond confrontation. Authoritarian leaders are ecclesiastical loners. That is, they do not function well or willingly in the context of systematic checks or balances. They are fiercely independent and refuse to be part of a structure of accountability. To put it crudely, they operate a one-man ... spiritual show." (online source).

Steve Martin of Founder's Journal wrote cogently and excellently on this topic. I recommend his article in its entirety! Also, another article here on diagnosing and treating authoritarianism.

Being above accountability is never a good thing in any system, and churches are no different. The Bible actually calls for a plurality of elders, not one singel pastor in charge of everything and everyone.
In his article, "Authoritarianism in the church," Mr Martin wrote, "A tragic and dangerous trend can be observed in some contemporary evangelical churches. While standing against the lawlessness and anti-authority mood of this generation, some conservative, Bible-believing churches have drifted into deadly authoritarian tendencies. This sad phenomenon is increasingly becoming publicized and well-documented (see suggested reading list at the end of this article). Why is this happening? What kind of attitudes engender authoritarianism in a church? Whose fault is it? What can be done about it? 
Before proceeding any farther, some definition is in order. For the purposes of this article, "authoritarianism" is defined as an abuse of the authority given by Christ through the agency of the Holy Spirit and revealed in God's Word which the office holders of the local churches are to exercise."
"Surely the cause of authoritarianism and idol-worship is sin. But what sins in particular need to be recognized, repented of and mortified by the Holy Spirit's help? Five sins of the shepherds (Idolatry, Praylessness, Unbelief, Lack of love for the sheep, Pride) and three sins of the sheep come to mind (Idol-worship, Fear of man, & Unbelief). Taken together they produce churches with a powerfully sinful pathology which dishonors Christ, smothers the sheep, inflates the shepherds and hinders the work of God."
Of course without even reading the article one will know that pride will be a the root of authoritarian/spiritually abusive shepherds. Martin wrote, "Humble shepherds look to God's sheep with compassion; prideful shepherds look down upon the sheep with scornful contempt for their weaknesses and failings. Humble shepherds remember that even the Great Shepherd of the sheep patiently endured the misunderstanding, scolding and fleshly rebukes of His sheep (cf. Matt. 16:22; Mark 4:38; 1 Peter 2:21-23). Prideful shepherds however react to every real and perceived slight to their "august personage." How unlike their Master! Shepherds must learn that they cannot be conformed to the image of Christ as longsuffering and forgiving unless they are "long bothered" and wronged. Pride, however, responds to the irritations of sinners with anger. An angry leader is a prideful leader."

Now we will look at what authoritarianism, or spiritual abuse, is.

Common Characteristics
"The most distinctive characteristic of a spiritually abusive religious system, or leader, is the over-emphasis on authority. Because a person or persons claim 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. ... 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 ... it is not the questioner’s place to judge or correct the leadership – they are told that God will do it later."

Suppresses Criticism
"Because the religious system is not based on the truth it cannot allow questions, dissent, or open discussions about issues. The person who dissents becomes the problem rather than the issue he raised. The truth about any issue is settled and handed down from the top of the hierarchy. Questioning anything is considered a challenge to authority."

Unspoken Rules
In their book "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse" David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen discuss an abusive church's penchant for instituting unspoken rules. You may never know that these rules exist- until you break one. Then, the common reaction is to instantly whisk away ministries, to shame and humiliate the one who spoke out, among other repercussions.

From the book mentioned above: ‘You know we must never disagree with the pastor on his sermons—and if you do, you will never be trusted and never be allowed to minister in any capacity in this church.’ In this case, the unspoken rule is: Do not disagree with the church authorities —especially the pastor—or your loyalty will be suspect. Rules like this remain unspoken, because examining them in the light of mature dialogue would instantly reveal how illogical, unhealthy and anti-Christian they are. So silence becomes the fortress wall of protection, shielding the pastor’s power position from scrutiny or challenge.” (p.67). This also becomes the 'don't talk-can't talk' unwritten rule.

"If you speak about the problem out loud, you are the problem. The truth is, when people talk about problems out loud, they don't cause them, they simply expose them." (p.68)

Misplaced Loyalty
Spiritually abusive churches are performance based. An unwritten system of rewards and punishments is a common characteristic of an abusive system. This next excerpt is also from the book "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse":

“The next characteristic of spiritually abusive systems is that a misplaced sense of loyalty is fostered and even demanded. We’re not talking about loyalty to Christ, but about loyalty to a given organization, church, or leader.” (p.76)

“A common way this is accomplished is by setting up a system where disloyalty to or disagreement with the leadership is construed as the same thing as disobeying God. Questioning leaders is equal to questioning God. After all, the leader is the authority, and authority is always right. This causes people to misplace their loyalty in a leader, a church or an organization.” (p.76)

It would be impossible to cover in one blog entry or even one series the entire dynamics of how spiritual abuse happens or what it looks like. There are other elements too, that I have not covered, such as Elitism, Legalism, traumatic departure, and sanction oriented systems. The effects are devastating. Ultimately, what all the symptoms add up to is an unhealthy church body, something we are warned will happen in copious amounts in the last days.

 This website is a clearinghouse of information on the topic, such as red flags to watch for, symptoms, recovery, extrication, and more. I also recommend Founder's Journal article by Steve Martin excerpted above, and this website run by one of the books' authors, "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse", Jeff VanVonderen.

The existence of authoritarian pastors and the effects they weigh on the sheep are slow to be seen. New folks or folks not too engaged with the church may never see a problem at all. It is only the inner circle, or those who have been burned, that come to understand something is not right. However, the effects are not invisible, and here are a few things to watch for.

Has there been a quiet exodus from the church in recent months?
Are pews empty looking, attendance dropping?
Is there a palpable feeling of tension or unease?
Do you leave week after week feeling unfed?
Are ministries merely limping along or declining?
Are you afraid to go to the pastor/deacons/leaders with a doctrinal issue?
Does the pastor have a 'bad side' you don't want to get on?
Is there a false call to unity where discussion is called division?
Have you witnessed the head of your church and/or other leaders, use public shaming as a method to gain compliance of congregants?
Does the head of your church and his “fellow elders” appear to be intolerant or consider it persecution when criticized or questioned?
Are you discouraged to associate with former members?
Is questioning condemned as "whispering, back- biting, vicious slander, gossip, nit picking, signs of a proud rebellious spirit, being disaffected and divisive?"
Are those who dissent publicly punished? Are their reputations murdered by veiled, or not so veiled “revelations” of “sins”; past and present, as confidentiality is broken for the benefit of the leaders?
Do the spiritual leaders at your church seem to give you the impression that either covertly or overtly, they have the right to tell you how you should manage your own family; presuming that they know your own family better than you know yourself?

The fact that authoritarianism even exists is heartbreaking. That Jesus is lifted up as our Shepherd, the Head of our body, lovingly installing pastors and leaders and teachers and growing the body is a beautiful thing. But in these last days love grows cold, and even a beautiful Bride can be dragged through the mud, and it hurts to see it happening so frequently in the American church. It just hurts. I hurt on behalf of all of you who have been wounded by those who are supposed to be called by God to feed you, and I hurt for those who have been wounded by those brethren who are called to love each other unconditionally.

I know I haven't done the topic justice, but I hope I've provided enough points to get you thinking, and to share resources for further information.

Pastor Steve Martin ended his article with good words- "May God give His people [shepherds and sheep] grace to see their sins and repent of them. We dare not glory in our current condition and slothfully ignore the deplorable state of much of Christ's Church. We must first judge ourselves that we may not be judged. And we must plead the purposes and promises of our Father in begging Him for the renewal of the Holy Spirit. Portions of the Word of God speaking directly to shepherds should be memorized and regularly meditated upon. A pastor or elder would do well to commit to memory Ezekiel 34:1-16; John 10:1-18; 1 Corinthians 13; Philippians 2:1-11; 1 Thessalonians 2 (whole chapter); 1 Peter 5:1-11."

But the best final word is from the Holy Spirit Himself:

You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. (1 Corinthians 7:23).


  1. I really neededto read this tonight. Thank you!

  2. Great series. Will be sharing this with other.

  3. Thank you for this - so very timely and I will be passing it on to those in such need of this wisdom and confirmation. God bless you for sharing.

  4. The non deemomonital church of Christ i believe is a absusive church just flee from the cold of it and the sheep are so sad! NON emotioal on every level and deeply depressed flock saying they, are the true church and everyone else is lost so the sheep stay because of Fear!Yes the Great Shepherd loves his flock as my dad loved his on the farm i grew up on1 They would be waiting for my Earthly Father at the salt trough and they loved him he did not need a dog to make them come he called them so i know all you have said to be true Gods Love is so beautiful and there so many unhealthy Pastors out there! GBu for this article Sylvia from Australia!

  5. Hi Elizabeth, I know I'm a "Jane come lately" to this particular series, but I did want to thank you for posting it. This segment has been pretty painful. My husband and I have been under not one but two leaderships that were authoritarian/spiritually abusive. Both churches had an "exodus" of concerned saints (us included). It was very heartbreaking in both situations.


    1. Hi carolyn,

      I'm so sorry! I personally know the pain of it, not having left but of having been told I was led by the devil and *kicked out*. It was the worst pain I'd ever experienced, but let me promise you, it does get better. :) Jesus is faithful. I think we will be all the more able to feel the joy of perfect worship in heaven with HIM, after having experienced the worst here on earth.

    2. Thank you for the encouragement. It is immensely painful, especially if you are invested in the church (as we were in both places). It is hard to trust leadership again.

      I'm so sorry you were told such evil things like that you were led by the devil, and then tossed. These men ought to be ashamed of themselves. As the word says, they will be held more highly accountable. Jesus Christ despises when the shepherds do not tend to the sheep, moreso when they abuse them. I'm glad you have been refreshed by our Savior.

      Our first situation we left, under duress. The second we just ran for the hills after recognizing the abusive pattern and giving a good solid, prayerful attempt to speak the truth in love, which went over like a lead balloon.

      Grace and peace to you in Christ

    3. Final thought - 1 Peter 5, referring to what satan does to God's children:
      9 But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world.

      But then:
      10 After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. 11 To Him be dominion forever and ever. Amen.


  6. I have experienced it very unhealthy the list you have mentioned in your article is the biggest confirmation that me leaving a few months back was the right thing to do I feel so free :-)

    I remember looking around thinking where are thenew converts? we do outreach? why are the seats empty, I asked someone when I was visiting I said ''oh they are just starting out'' she said very happily and proudly no we have been her for eight years this was the second month of each Sunday that I had been visiting and when the third month came mostly empty seat.

    Needless to say I became very concerned by this,now that its been 3 months this august being the fourth I feel so at peace and free its great.

    Thanks for this amazing post.


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