“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered. My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill; My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth, and there was no one to search or seek for them.”Ezekiel 34:1–6
Friday’s Bible reading is Ezekiel 31–36. Ezekiel’s prophecies against the nations that began in chapter 25 end in chapter 32. Chapter 33 is the beginning of the last section of Ezekiel and opens with a parable you may be familiar with—the story of the responsibility of the watchman to warn and the responsibility of the people to heed that warning.
In chapter 34 the Lord gives Ezekiel His indictment of the shepherds of Israel and His promise to seek out and care for His scattered sheep. I think every book I’ve ever read on spiritual abuse has quoted Ezekiel 34.
This chapter eloquently describes God’s actions towards those who have harmed His sheep. As God speaks to Ezekiel there is reassurance that He hears and is concerned for His sheep and that He will seek out, heal and restore His hurt and scattered sheep.
Several years ago while living in another area, as I was working on a project I found that communication with one of the church leaders stopped being open and straightforward and became increasingly nuanced and confusing. Tight control and authoritarianism also began to become more obvious. I tried to be cooperative yet I felt I was being treated badly, and the more I tried to clarify and talk things out, the worse things became, until finally blame was placed on me. This murky mess was ongoing for months, and we ultimately left the church because the repentance we saw was mixed, and it was clear that the pattern of control was not going to change. During this time as I was sucked into a vortex of pain and betrayal I scoured the internet for books and information on spiritual abuse.
There are numerous roots and reasons for spiritual abuse that can be and have been analyzed. Whatever the reasons, I think the bottom line is that elders either fall into conceit and pride (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1–7) or excuse themselves from following the commands of Scripture in relationships for all believers, and from following the commands given specifically to them regarding their conduct. They are to pay close attention to themselves—not just their teaching.
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.1 Peter 5:1–4–Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe. Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching. Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery. Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.1 Timothy 4:12–16
In his book, Healing Spiritual Abuse, Ken Blue gives this definition of spiritual abuse:
…spiritual abuse happens when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds.1
He goes on to say:
Spiritual abuse may differ from some other forms of abuse in that it is rarely perpetrated with intent to maim….They [spiritual abusers] are usually so narcissistic or so focused on some great thing they are doing for God they don’t notice the wounds they are inflicting on their followers. So though I maintain that spiritual abuse is evil and dangerous and must be stopped, my definition of it leaves out the term intent to hurt….
…Some very pleasant and socially acceptable behavior is nevertheless calculated to manipulate and so is abusive.2
You may have experienced those who did have intent to hurt you, but I wanted to include his words because I agree that this intent is not always present. I think there can be a subtle drive of self-doubt that evolves into control of others. Whatever the cause his book was valuable in clearing the fog of evasive and dysfunctional communication and authori- tarianism. Blue also has some helpful things to say about when to stay and when to leave.
Why is spiritual abuse so harmful? Blue quotes Juanita and Dale Ryan:
Spiritual abuse is a kind of abuse which damages the central core of who we are. It leaves us spiritually disorganized and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God.3
I can vouch for that. Spiritual abuse has the effect of making you feel your world is upside down—you question yourself, your Christian walk and your understanding of a situation. Church leaders who abuse perpetuate and enforce the idea that something is wrong and very lacking in you as a Christian.
Their withholding of love and compassion is also quite difficult to live through. These experiences are so very, very damaging and the struggle to regain trust in God quite difficult. I think part of it may be that the dissonance between the reality of the relationships experienced and the Bible’s teaching on the church is so sharp that it seems impossible to believe that the reality of who God is will match up with His Word. The closer any relationship was intended by God to be—family, the body of Christ—the deeper the potential for damage because the abuse is so sharply antithetical to His design for those relationships and the love meant to be lived out with those to whom you have opened your heart. A place that should be one of safety and shelter from the world and the troubles of life comes tumbling down, and the devastation rips into our innermost being.
The “no-talk” rule is iron-clad in these kind of situations in churches and ministries even as it is in dysfunctional families, and this increases the sense of isolation and being wrong in your assessment and actions. I was reading a comment on a blog that referenced John Calvin’s commentary on 1 Timothy 5:20 (see 1 Timothy 5:17–21 for context), and Calvin’s words remind me of the “no-talk” rule. In verse 19, Paul has commanded that an accusa- tion against an elder shouldn’t be received unless there are two or three witnesses—a command that protects godly elders from false accusations. In verse 20, Paul shifts gears about those elders who continue in sin.
Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality.1 Timothy 5:20–21
Whenever any measure is taken for the protection of good men, it is immediately seized by bad men to prevent them from being condemned. Accordingly, what Paul had said about repelling unjust accusations he modifies by this statement, so that none may, on this presence, escape the punishment due to sin.4
Notice also that Paul wrote those words as a solemn charge to Timothy, telling him to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality. I have seen this charge disobeyed by elders not only to the devastation of myself and others specifically affected, but also to the harm of the church, and to the harm of the elder who was sinning, because he was not brought to face his sin and be restored from it.
Ingrid Schlueter has an excellent series on toxic people. In May she posted, Toxic People Part 4: Narcissists in Ministry, and I highly recommend it. That week she did a podcast on the subject. In God’s timing, two days before Ezekiel 31–36 was my Bible reading of the day, on July 20, 2011, she wrote:
There is nothing so painful as the wounds inflicted by other professing believers. When the wounds are the result of toxic church leadership, it’s even worse. When those who have been charged with the care of souls abdicate their responsibility or abuse their office, the results can be catastrophic in the lives of members….
No ministry’s image, no leader’s image is more important than any one soul that has limped away from a toxic church or parachurch ministry.5
She also released a two-part podcast: Toxic Churches and Ministries: The Victims Matter Part 1 and Part 2. Listen to it. Near the beginning she has an excellent definition of a toxic church or ministry. She later comments:
I think that the overriding thing that you’re going to notice by a corrupt leadership structure in ministries and in churches, I’m including churches’ ministries in this, you will notice a lack of love.5
A few minutes later Ingrid goes on to say:
I will tell you something after twenty-three years of doing Christian talk radio on every issue imaginable in the church; if there was one crying need in the church today, it’s not a higher standard, it’s not less rock music on the stage—as they call it now—the stages in our churches, it’s not running the board out of the church, I will tell you right now the greatest evil that is going on, and from which everything else flows, is a lack of Holy Spirit-guided love for other people coming from church leadership.5
I have written post after post about the need for Christians to love each other beginning with “The Mark of The Christian”. That post leads off a collection of posts on love that is at the link, “Love One Another,” in the heading. Ingrid’s words are in tandem with what I have seen and experienced.
If you feel increasingly confused and accused in your own circumstances, begin by reading Ezekiel 34, and ask God for help, protection and wisdom.
“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.”John 10:11–16
UPDATE: I added a sentence above to include a link to a collection of posts on love found in the heading: “Love One Another.” I can’t believe I forgot this, and I was reminded of it when a reader went from this post to that collection. Thank you!
UPDATE 2: I mistakenly identified the author of Healing Spiritual Abuse. The author is Ken Blue, not Ron Blue. I’ve corrected the post.
UPDATE 3: January 7, 2013: Ingrid reposted her podcast yesterday, and I’ve fixed the broken link. I’ve also made some minor revisions in the post, and included the text of 1 Timothy 5:20–21.
Isaiah 42 Photograph: ChristianPhotos.net – Free High Resolution Photos for Christian Publication
Picture of a Lamb, Northumberland, FreeFoto.com
1, 2, 3Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse, (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL: 1993) 12, 12–13, 15. I’ve written more about Ken Blue’s book at Matthew 23–25: Spiritual Pretense & Spiritual Reality.
4John Calvin, Commentary on Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.
5Ingrid has taken that post down so I can’t give you a link, but she did put her podcast back up yester- day, January 6, 2013. The transcription is my work, and I have attempted to be accurate, but any mistakes you find are mine.
Original content: Copyright ©2011–2013 Iwana Carpenter