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Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse
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Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse, Part One

By Mike Fehlauer
Pastor, Author, Director of Foundation Ministries -- -- The idea of spiritual abuse is not a new phenomenon. In the Old Testament, God spoke against those who operated in their own authority while abusing the very people they were to bless. In Jeremiah 5:30-31 we read, "An astonishing and horrible thing has been committed in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule by their own power; and My people love to have it so. But what will you do in the end?"

In these verses God is bringing an indictment against the religious leaders of the Old Testament. We see the Lord's anger expressed against those who operate in their own authority. Consumed with their own ambition, these leaders have convinced the people that their power is divine. Yet in reality, these false prophets are merely wielding their self-imposed influence for personal gain, claiming they speak for God.

In Jeremiah 6:13-14 we read again of self-absorbed prophets and priests who are so preoccupied with their own needs being met that the needs of the people are being ignored. We read: "From the least of them even to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for gain, and from the prophet even to the priest everyone deals falsely. And they have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, saying, 'Peace, peace,' but there is no peace" (NAS).

A common characteristic of an abusive religious system is that the real needs of the people are lost in the never-ending quest by the leaders for personal fulfillment and happiness.

The tragic story of Diane, a young woman in her late teens who had recently given her life to Christ, illustrates this point. Diane went on a missions trip with a group from the church she had been attending. One day the missions team was enjoying some recreation time when Diane suffered a tragic accident that caused her leg to be so severely injured that it was necessary to amputate it.

Diane's parents were not Christians, and in the past they had somewhat resented the amount of time Diane had been spending at the church. When the accident occurred, their response was to blame the church for Diane's injury. They also felt the church should do something financially to help Diane.

During the time Diane was recovering in the hospital, her mother happened to hear the senior pastor of Diane's church describing the new, sporty car he intended to purchase. She began to tell people in the community about this preacher who is living high on the church's money. Word got back to the pastor, and needless to say, he was not happy.

After several weeks in the hospital, Diane was transferred to a rehab facility. While she was in rehab the pastor came to see Diane. Diane was still wheelchair bound because she had not yet been fitted with a prosthesis. After the initial greetings and some brief small talk, the pastor bought up to Diane what her mom was saying around town. The pastor advised Diane that her 'assignment' was to talk to her mother and get her to stop gossiping about the pastor. Although Diane was still trying to process the idea of facing the rest of her life without a leg, by the time the pastor left, it was clear to her that her pastor had nothing to say to her to help her face the horrible physical and emotional issues brought on by her accident.

One of the church's staff members made a suggestion that the church buy Diane a prosthesis for her leg. Initially, the pastor vehemently opposed the idea. However, after some time, just to help smooth things over with Diane's mom, the pastor reluctantly consented to the purchase.

Diane's pastor failed to respond to Diane in a way that honored God. In fact, his response was more like that of the Pharisees of the New Testament, whom Jesus openly confronted concerning the way they treated others. As you read the New Testament, it doesn't take a tremendous amount of insight to see that the confrontations Jesus had were not with tax collectors, adulteresses, prostitutes or other 'sinners.' His confrontations were with the religious leaders and the religious system of His day.

In speaking of the Pharisees, Jesus said, "For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers" (Matt. 23:4). The Amplified Bible paints an even clearer picture. It says, "They tie up heavy loads, hard to bear, and place them on men's shoulders, but they themselves will not lift a finger to help bear them." Jesus is referring to the people's being weighted down by rules and regulations that needed to be performed in order to gain the acceptance of the Pharisees. In the same way, many believers today have found themselves crushed beneath the religious baggage of an abusive system. Each day thousands of church members find themselves struggling to earn the favor and approval of a modern-day Pharisee.

Jesus cared deeply about His people and how they were treated. When He saw the multitudes, "He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd" (Matt. 9:36). The Amplified Version expands on the word weary by saying, "They were bewildered (harassed and distressed and dejected and helpless), like sheep without a shepherd."

Notice that Jesus saw them as harassed. This word conveys the idea of some outside force pressing upon the people, causing them to feel weary, distressed and downcast. This outside force was the religious system that placed its emphasis on outward appearances. It was a system that promised peace based on one's ability to follow the prescribed rules and regulations. If one failed, then there was judgment.

Not having a shepherd didn't mean that the people lacked for those who told them what to do. There were plenty of Pharisees willing to do that. It meant they had no one to lead them to spiritual green pastures. A shepherd doesn't drive his sheep as cattlemen drive their cattle. A shepherd leads his sheep to a safe place where food is plentiful and where they can find rests.

Is it any wonder Jesus said:

"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30).

A healthy church should produce peace and rest for your soul. Establishing healthy spiritual relationships will always be a challenge, but the process will prevent you from becoming weary and worn, trying to jump through religious hoops that promise God's acceptance and love. If, in order to gain the acceptance of its leaders, your church constantly requires more and more of your life with no end in sight -- and little encouragement along the way -- then you may want to re-examine the church you are attending.

God's intention all along has been for the local church to be healthy, life giving, and Christ centered. But because He has chosen to use frail, sin-prone individuals to lead His church, there is always the possibility that a local congregation can fall into deception or unhealthy spiritual patterns.

Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse, Part Two

Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse, Part Three

Order your copy of Exposing Spiritual Abuse by Mike Fehlauer

More from Spiritual Life

© 2001 Mike Fehlauer. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Mike Fehlauer's book, Exposing Spiritual Abuse. Mike Fehlauer is pastor of Tree of Life Church in New Braunfels, Texas. He is also the founder and director of Foundation Ministries. He travels extensively throughout the United States and the world, sharing God's message of love, hope and restoration. More from

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