Summary: Spiritually abused Christians and spiritual abusers are more prevalent than you may think. This sermon identifies spiritual abuse and offers some remedies.
I am a victim of spiritual abuse. And, chances are, if you have been a member of a church or religious organization for any length of time, you are too. Spiritual abuse surfaces in an assortment of forms: sometimes in-your-face flagrant; other times behind-your-back subtle. It emerges from the relatively benign to the lethally toxic, but usually it stems from a misuse of ecclesiastical authority by religious leaders toward members within a group or church of perceived lesser status. Regardless of the degree of abuse, it is always harmful.
This type of religious exploitation is most easily identified when accompanied by overt manipulation or coercion. However, it may arise in a less obvious, but no less harmful, fashion when employed by likeable, even lovable, and charismatic individuals. Parents may spiritually abuse children, husbands and wives may abuse each other, pastors abuse members, deacons abuse ministers, televangelists abuse supporters, all done in an attempt to advance their own self-interests over others in a religious context.
I don’t know about you, but I am increasingly alarmed at how pervasive the problem is and how often it is accompanied by egregious forms of legalism, the kind that shackles its victims with oppressively strict standards of performance. This kind of spiritual control, in the hands of an abuser, is often lethal.
At this point, I need to make a confession. I have been an abuser. That is a very difficult admission to make, but it is true, even though I rush to plead ignorance. For many years I was deceived into believing it was my right, as a minister of the gospel to control others. The fact remains that, unwittingly or not, for nearly two decades of pastoral ministry, I pressured, manipulated, persuaded, cajoled, and threatened (always with creatively-wrenched scriptures and "pure" motives) the members of churches I "served," in Herculean efforts to get my way or to impose my will over my subordinate flock. I am ashamed to admit it, but it is true, nevertheless.
B. SOME CASE STUDIES
I am also increasingly concerned at how frequently I meet de-churched Christians, those that have simply dropped-out of church. I have discovered that, contrary to my teaching, there is really such a thing as "unchurched Christians." That phrase is not an oxymoron. There really are spiritually battered Christians who do not go to church and who have no intention of doing so. They are usually former church members who readily cite long lists of grievances. Here are four case studies:
1. Theresa and Bob, both active church members, left their church because they felt too much pressure was put on them to contribute to yet another "unneeded" building project. Receiving offerings, they claimed, consumed too much of both the Sunday worship service and their limited income. Already financially taxed beyond their budget, the strain was becoming oppressive. They questioned the wisdom of launching yet another expansion program and were bluntly informed by their pastor that the building project was, in fact, "ordained by God." The couple was sternly warned that their criticism was "subversive" and to "stop causing trouble." This reprimand was followed by a series of Sunday sermons underscoring members’ spiritual duty of submission to their leaders’ authority. Theresa and Bob left the church more than a year ago and have yet to join another church. Theresa claims that she now feels "closer to the Lord" since leaving the church than she did while there and that she no longer suffers from chronic depression.
2. George was working 48 hours a week on his job and volunteering another 25 at the church. A talented musician, he was recruited by the church orchestra. He was also asked to join the baseball team, the parish committee and the board. In time, his marriage suffered and eventually his wife left. Too late, George tried to free up his day-planner by resigning from some of the church positions he held but was informed by the pastor that he was "needed." He was assured that if he put the "kingdom" first, God would restore his home. Frustrated and fatigued, George eventually dropped out of church altogether. Too late! His mortally wounded marriage died. Today, George is a bitter man and vows never to return to church.
3. Mark, an active church member of a thriving Charismatic church and a bright medical intern, was required to work long hours through the week, including many Sundays. This professional constraint interfered with his volunteer duties at the church. The pastor, expressing concern for Mark’s "spiritual development," brazenly suggested he seek a career change. Mark explained that medicine was his lifelong chosen career and that his internship was temporary. Anyhow, he added, wasn’t his particular career a ministry in itself? The pastor remained uncompromising in his demands and there was no further discussion. Thinking the disagreement was resolved, Mark was humiliated the following Sunday by a public "prophetic word" from a staff member. Of course, the associate affirmed the pastor’s mandate, even predicting dreadful consequences if the "prophecy" was not obeyed. Mark prayed but remained solid in his decision. Within weeks, the young intern was summarily discharged from his duties in the church and his membership placed on "inactive" status. Hurt and angered, Mark left the church. Today, he is a successful M.D. with a flourishing practice, but he has not returned to church.