Posted in jesus, spiritual abuse, who is your covering

Out from under cover: Covering Theology and its impact

Spiritual abuse… it’s real and it is devastating.

I’ve written about the encroachment of the Gnostics into evangelical churches. Also the intrusion of mysticism, ecumenism and seeker friendly liberal theologies. All these attacks on the Bride of Christ, His church, are foretold in many scriptures in the New Testament. (2 Peter 2:1; Matthew 7:15; Gal 2:4; 1 Timothy 4:1 to name a few). Colossians itself was a corrective epistle to the church at Colossae which was falling under the sway of the Gnostics. The Nicolaitans of Revelation 2 are mentioned as a group bringing liberal false teachings, also.

But those are the liberal teachings and heresies. Just as much, we need to be wary of the legalistic, conservative teachings of the end time. These teachings are the ones that the Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees brought in Jesus’s day.

The Pharisees were the original spiritual abusers. As Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun. Their special kind of abuse which brings bondage is coming in again. The legalistic, oppressive teachings are coming into church of today like a tsunami. It has different vocabulary, but the same source. It has a variation of the old methods for oppression, but the same outcome.

The Pharisees were a sect of the Jews who were the strictest of those observing the Mosaic Law, (Acts 26:5). The Pharisees were the most zealous, (Galatians 1:14), the most outwardly moral, (Luke 18:11) but the most inwardly dead (Matthew 23:27). They were oppressive to those who needed grace the most, and bitterly cruel in persecuting those who opposed them. (Matthew 23:4, Acts 9:1-2). They had everything backward- calling Christ’s miracles of the devil (Matthew 12:24) but believing themselves to be of God. (Luke 18:9, Acts 22:3).

How did the Pharisees spiritually abuse their sheep?

“Examples of spiritual abuse are found throughout the Bible. God describes (and condemns) the “shepherds of Israel” who feed themselves rather than the flock, who do not heal those who are hurting, or seek to bring back those who were driven away but rather discard them, ruling with force and cruelty (Ezekiel 34:1-10). Jesus reacted with anger against the thievery of the money changers in the Temple as they misused God’s people for selfish reasons (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-47; John 2:13-16). He was angry at those more concerned with rules and regulations than with human suffering (Mark 3:1-5). In Matthew 23, Jesus describes the abusive spiritual leader in great detail. In John 9 the Pharisees “cast out” the man born blind simply because the truth he told about his healing exposed their own corruption. In Acts 7:51-56, Stephen called the Jewish leaders to account over their spiritual abuse.” (Source)

Others were afraid they would be cast out:  “Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue.” (John 12:42). Threat of dismissal or excommunication is a favorite tactic of abusive leaders. A shepherd’s job is to feed, nurture, care for and keep safe the flock. The abusive leaders of Jesus’s day were more content to simply throw people away.

So authoritarianism, oppression, and legalism was a characteristic of abusive leaders who were more interested in themselves than their flocks.

And so it is today with some.

I am not talking of the difficulty inherent in a proper cycle of church discipline. I am all for that. The bible is followed and Jesus is the invisible but very present overseer of the proceedings. If all is done biblically, prayerfully, and correctly, the best case is to restore a wayward one. For today’s purposes I am not talking of discipline but of abuse that perverts, uses, or simply ignores proper church discipline plan outlined in Matthew 18.

I am also not talking of not behaving well for your pastors, deacons, leaders and teachers. I honor those men highly, and pray for them because they are on the frontlines of satan’s targets for spiritual attack. I esteem  them, pray for them, tithe for them, praise them, encourage them, speak well of them, but I do not follow them. I follow Jesus.

Even though we know there is nothing new under the sun, where did this latest iteration of legalistic abuse come from?

Though we can trace it back to the Pharisees, and indeed, all the way back to the Garden, of this generation we can see a heightening of the authoritarian tendencies emerge in the 1970s. Five Florida pastors in the Charismatic denominations (Bob Mumford, Derek Prince, Charles Simpson, and Don Basham) felt that the Charismatic movement was too loose and that there was not enough accountability. The five created an accountability system of hierarchical structure in the shape of a pyramid. The five pastors, of course, were at the top. They all claimed they had submitted to one another, and they made a national network of followers who formed pyramids of sheep and shepherds below them. Down through the pyramid went the orders, while up the same pyramid went the tithes. This was the beginning of the Shepherding Movement.

But between the Shepherding Movement of the 70s and today’s spiritually abusive pharisee, there is the book called Under Cover: The Promise of Protection Under His Authority, by John Bevere. It came out in 2001, and it is the answer to every Pharisee’s prayer. The book itself is widely held to be error-ridden, if not heretical, but that does not stop every would-be Pharisee from making it his manual.

The book brought a new theology, called “Covering Theology.”

“Covering theology is an erroneous doctrine that claims all Christians must be under the authority (covering) of a church leader to be protected from the warfare of the devil. It also claims this same covering is necessary to receive God’s blessings. However, there is no Scripture foundation for this doctrine. Covering theology is a leftover from the debunked Shepherding Movement that appeared about 40 years ago.” (source)

Lies Under Cover is a segment of a blog series exploring today’s apostasy by Blogos/GotQuestions. This part asks the question:

“Should believers allow pastors to rule over them? This posting is part 2 in an 8 part series about deception in the church addressing the Under Cover book by John Bevere, its teaching, its origination, why it is wrong, and its impact on the church.”

It is a very good essay and the series itself is good too. I recommend it. Here are some excerpts from the essay on the Covering Theology. The essay continues:

“Not too long ago I learned about a new question circulating in the evangelical circle asking “Who is your covering?” Soon thereafter the full meaning of that question became apparent. In the church I attended, its leaders announced they were adopting the Under Cover teaching by John Bevere. The central theme for the teaching is God guarantees protection for believers who submit to pastoral authority. On the flipside of the theme, failure to submit to the pastor places believers outside God’s protection, removing the protective hand of God. In other words, a believer who does not submit to and obey the pastor falls out from under the protective covering of God and that of the church. After researching the teaching, I found it to be pure heresy.”

“John Bevere’s heresy teaches that obedience to the pastor is on the same footing as obedience to God. To disobey the pastor, even when the pastor is wrong, is to disobey God because the pastor is always in authority and God the ultimate authority. In other words, the pastor stands in authority between Jesus and the body of believers, becoming the spiritual covering over his or her church.”

Covering theology emphasizes the following:

  • Sin is disobedience to God’s authority
  • Grace is the power of God to obey him
  • All authority is instituted by God
  • God establishes his rule in the church through people he has delegated to be his authority
  • The 5-fold ministry (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) represents God’s authority on earth
  • Obedience to the Lord requires obedience to God’s delegated authorities (employers, church leaders, civil authorities)
  • Rebellion against God’s delegated authority is rebellion against God
  • Rebellion to authority opens one up to the demonic realm resulting in deception
  • People should live by the principle of obedience rather than reason
  • People should always obey authority [usually the pastor] unless they are clearly instructed to violate scripture [but he is the final interpreter of scripture, so…]
  • Spiritual authority and blessing flows to those who suffer under authority
  • God does not judge people on the fruit of their life but on how faithfully they followed authority
  • Those outside the local church and the covering of its leaders are at serious risk of spiritual attack

The key is submission to an authority figure who presumes to be standing in the stead of Jesus. It is similar to the Pharisees’s presumptions, who thought they were the final decision-maker of interpeting what were really their own rules rather than themselves submitting the Word of God and to Jesus the Messiah when He arrived.

If you are in a church where the pastor has set himself up as the sole or final arbiter of spiritual matters, interpretations, or church or financial decisions, you may be in a spiritually abusive church.

If you have a palpable feeling, or have had an overt threat of excommunication, unless you blindly follow the pastor in all he says and does, with no questions asked, you may be in a spiritually abusive church.

If you have been told that performance/work/submission is the indicator of faith, you may be in a spiritually abusive church.

If you have been told to leave a church or fired from a ministry because you were told you were divisive, critical, a hazard to the brethren etc., but have NOT been through the steps for church discipline outlined in Matt. 18:16-18, you may be in a spiritually abusive church.

If you have been threatened with the phrase “You will be out from under my covering” you ARE in a spiritually abusive church.

R.C. Sproul writes, “The church is called not only to a ministry of reconciliation, but a ministry of nurture to those within her gates. Part of that nurture includes church discipline…” but the key words are nurture and  reconciliation. The man who was healed by Jesus and went to the Pharisees was not nurtured nor reconciled to leadership. They tossed the man out summarily. Read John 9:13-38 and see if you don’t weep at the terrible grilling the abusive Pharisaical authorities put the man under, and their abuse of him who had the Light come into His life but instead who wanted to put him back in the dark!

Across the country, parishioners are now being challenged to legalistically take oaths, perform vows and sign covenants. People who question the legitimacy of these activities or even ask for a biblical foundation for them are attacked, dismissed from ministries, and/or told to leave the church, all without benefit of biblical standards for reconciliation or even proper discipline. It is bewildering, devastating, and causes much harm to the body of Christ.

It happened to me.

Of all that occurred, what captured my attention the most was threat that “you no longer have our support or covering.” Though I was told I was negative, immature, led by the devil, divisive, critical, and more, I knew I was not those things. I was surprised that the bible was not opened, consulted or interpreted for my wayward behalf in pursuit of reconciliation for whatever wrong I had committed. Nor I was corrected in grace and love. I was confused as to what was happening because it didn’t jibe with the outline in Matthew for church discipline. It was simply an attack and a dismissal.

But what intrigued me was the phrase ‘no longer have the covering.’

It immediately rang bells in my spirit, and seemed ‘off.’ What covering? Where was this covering? Why didn’t I know about it before? What will happen if I don’t have this covering? Where is it in the bible? It all seemed so vague and somehow…wrong. Now that I’ve read the theology behind the Bevere book Under Cover, I know why. Things clicked, finally. It is a false theology used and wielded by hyper-authoritarian pastors and leaders and teachers who seek to control rather than share and worship on the same blood-soaked ground that Jesus died on for us all.

I grieve so deeply for churches that do this to the lambs and the sheep. I mourn for people who are withering under leadership that oppresses rather than shepherd rightly. I lament the loss of time and spiritual growth for people who, when threatened with dire events should they be loosed from some artificial pastor “covering”, stay in a church where the vine is withering.

I’m passionate about the Christian life. I am a sinner and not perfect, to be sure, but I strive so hard to live up to what He wants us to be for the lost world’s behalf. I want to do my part in the Spirit’s work of shining the light in me brighter and the church I’m in to be blessed by me and not embarrassed by me. I know a bit of the bible enough to understand some of the standards of what Jesus wants the church to be, and when it isn’t that, it is a grief. When it is deliberately wrested away from His holy ground for abusive purposes it is a woe that cuts my heart in two.

Far from the dire threats that were leveled against me in having some unbiblical covering removed, coming out from ‘under cover’ is a praise to the Lord, who is the Great Shepherd! Finding a good church with leadership one can trust is a heaven-sent gift! However through the praises, I will not diminish the toll. It is a devastating thing to happen. Ask the Petry family, formerly leaders in Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church. Jonna Petry wrote, “Seeing your loved ones abused, their hearts broken, their emotions heavy and dark, and their faith nearly destroyed, is the greatest pain of all.”

I shudder to think of this happening as frequently as it does – and it does. When it happens to families, or employees, or people who are new in the faith, or tossed from a church where they had been for a long time, I absolutely grieve just thinking about them!

Jonna’s story and mine and I am sure, many others, has a redemptive ending. The Lord Jesus is trustworthy and He knits together broken hearts, opens eyes to see, allows for time to heal, and supplies with deeper faith than ever before. I love the Lord even more now that I did before and I never thought my love for Him would have deepened so beautifully, but it did. He is faithful in trials and all you need to do is trust Him.

I wanted to bring you this information for several reasons:

–The watchful who are on guard against liberalism might miss the legalism creeping in,
–You are not crazy, spiritual abuse is real,
–Watch out for talk of ‘the covering‘ !!!!!!!!! It is a huge red flag!
–JESUS IS LORD and He is love. Rest in Him even through trials. He has a reason for all that He does, even if you can’t see it through the tears.



Covering and Authority

Covering: Impact to the Church

Joyful Exiles

Pure Provender

Posted in authoritarianism, mark driscoll, mars hill, paul petry, spiritual abuse

Spiritual abuse rising in many places, it seems

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…

Posted in Humility, spiritual abuse

State of the Church part 6/conclusion: Spiritual Leaders and Humble Relationships

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
Part 5b: Is your church spiritually abusive?

The Lord by His grace and of no merit of mine, saved me from the just punishment I’d deserved as a sinner. Then, He sent the Holy Spirit to dwell inside me, and to grow me in sanctification. He opened my mind to understanding the bible as I grow and study diligently, and He sent me a ministry. I have a mission field, and that mission field is to fellow Christians.

Why do Christians need such, you ask. Because we are told that many people who thought they were Christians on That Day will cry out to the Lord for entry into the Kingdom, falsely believing that their works had saved them. The Lord will refuse. (Matthew 7:22). Many more will fall away from the faith. (1 Timothy 4:1). Others will gain inheritance into the Kingdom but as barely escaping the flames. (1 Cor 3:15). Clearly, the latter times will be dangerous for Christians. This is because there will be false doctrines, false christs, false prophets, false teachers…(2 Peter 2, Mt 24:5, Mt 7:15, Acts 20:29…)

They will come from among us as well as from outside us! “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.” – Paul (Acts 20: 29-31). If Paul warned and cried for three years, day and night, it behooves us to examine ourselves and be wary of those who are seeking to come in to us and destroy the flock.

My biggest sorrow are fellow believers who refuse to accept that some inside the church match the description of the many, MANY verses warning us of the danger. They believe that just because any teacher, evangelist, missionary, pastor, elder, deacon or lay person attaches the word “Christian” in front of their name, that they are safe. The only barometer to testing the pasture for safe grazing is to constantly check it. Some will be worthwhile Christians, loving and humble, cultivating genuinely spiritual relationships inside their church. Some will be weighed in the balances and found wanting.

It is incumbent on all of us to be watchful of the things we are told to watch out for. The Holy Spirit graciously warned us by telling the bible’s writers, and who are we to dismiss the warnings simply because they are inconvenient, or point to a favored teacher, pastor, evangelist? Can we do less than our forefathers, who, by their blood, lived the lives we read about in the Bible and died so the fruits of His tree may continue to be produced? Christian, employ your God-given discernment! These are dangerous times where we are warned that there will be falsity inside our faith.

There is no one person in the church that is higher than another. Jesus is the head. (Matthew 23:8-9) We all are part of a gracious body whose Head is Jesus Himself. Let us warmly love each other unreservedly, and in so doing unite around truth, ALL truth, even the uncomfortable truth. The entire point of our existence is to glorify Jesus by our words, our acts, our lives. We glorify Him by loving well, being mature, and by standing on His truth. My heart cries for purity from the pulpit, I long for good food from the Word. I yearn to worship in truth with my brethren. I fear that as the days pass the prophesies of apostasy, falsity, apathy, and love growing cold coming more nearer to fulfillment, these things are harder to do. But one reason they are harder to do is because many don’t have the discernment to know they are in a hazardous situation. Therefore, here is more information for you about spiritual abuse, or authoritarianism, the most hazardous situation of all. I know that the flock will not be spared, because the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write that they will not be spared. But my hope is that with information, prayers, and tears, that YOU will be spared.

I am reprinting an entire article by Dr. Bob Kellemen by his permission. In his three pastoral ministries, Dr. Kellemen has equipped hundreds of people as biblical counselors and spiritual friends. He is founder of RPM Ministries, and Executive Director of the Biblical Counseling Coalition. In the essay, Dr. Kellemen instructs us from a biblical perspective on how leaders and pastors should react to disagreement and what the body should expect and look for in spiritual relationships. It asks the question if a person is a mature or an immature leader.  Here is Dr. Kellemen:

Spiritual Leaders and Humble Relationships, Part 1: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
“There’s been a great deal in the Christian blogosphere lately about “spiritually abusive pastors” and “pastors who bully.” It started me pondering, “How does the Apostle Paul respond to those who disagree with him and criticize him?”

“I understand that the correlation is not one-to-one: Paul was an apostle, not a pastor. Of course, that’s all the more reason to ponder the question. As pastors and ministry leaders today, we should respond exponentially more humbly than Paul did.”

“I also understand the vital hermeneutic issue of the original intent of the author. In other words, I can’t “cherry pick” a topic or theme and force it onto Paul’s writings, if that theme was not a part of his original purpose. That would be like reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and seeking to apply it to the American political issues of 2011—it’s totally out of context. However, in the Corinthian epistles, Paul is clearly focused on “body life,” “apostolic authority,” “divisions in the church,” and the relationship between shepherds and sheep.”

“As I begin to explore this question, I don’t have any “target” or “agenda” or “end game” I’m trying to prove. I’m simply opening 1 and 2 Corinthians and asking section by section, in a running commentary, “How is Paul relating and responding to the Corinthians who are complaining about him, and what can we apply to our lives today?”

“1. Paul identifies them as holy and sanctified (1:1-2).”

“Wow! How different Paul is from us. As spiritual leaders today, if we’re not careful we can succumb to the temptation to label those who disagree with us: “rebellious, ungodly, arrogant, disrespectful of authority…”

“Later Paul will “call a spade a spade”—he’s not afraid to confront sin. However, he doesn’t label people as sinners, but as saints. He’s both a good theologian and a godly leader.”

“If we’re immature leaders, we are terrified of dissent. We use labels against others as a way to put them down, put them in their place, intimidate them, and shame them. “You questioned me. Obviously you are immature and arrogant.” “I see a pattern of anger and a critical spirit that you must repent of.” Such labels heap shame and condemnation on the recipient, rather than offering wise counsel and constructive feedback.”

“Picture yourself called into a meeting with Paul after you’ve voice some concern or disagreement. You’re expecting to be put down and shut up. He begins, “First, I want you to know that you are sanctified and holy.”

“Instead of pulling rank, Paul ranks his critics above himself (compare Philippians 2:1-5). Instead of choosing condemning labels, Paul chooses grace conversations (compare Ephesians 4:15-16; 4:29; Colossians 4:3-6).”

“2. Paul gives thanks for them (1:3-4).”

“Another wow! Paul’s thanking the Corinthians—yeah, those dudes who could be rude and crude toward him.

When we act as spiritually abusive leaders, we use our spiritual position to control or dominate others. We override the feelings and opinions of others, without regard to what will result in the other person’s life, emotions, or spiritual well-being. Spiritual authority is used defensively and abused to bolster our position and needs, over and above the person who comes to us in need or with a concern.”

“Not Paul. Your jaw is still on the table after Paul said you were a sanctified saint. Now Paul continues. “Second, I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ.” Paul bolsters others up in Christ instead of boasting about himself.”

“3. Paul affirms them (1:5-9).”

“A hallmark of a spiritually abusive and immature leader is the need to demean those who disagree with us. We act defensively—building ourselves up by tearing others down.”

“Not so Paul. Imagine the conversation continuing. You’ve been ripping Paul, and you’re sure he’s ready to rip you, to put you in your place, to put himself above you. Then he says, “Third, you’ve been enriched in Christ in every way—in all your speaking and knowledge. You don’t lack any spiritual gift. Christ will keep you strong and blameless to the end.”

“If we’re immature leaders, we’re terrified of that type of scenario because it tips the balance of the scales of power. We consider ourselves above questioning. We interpret our position of authority to mean that our thoughts are supreme and our perspective is totally unbiased. We then assume that any questions come from a wrong spirit, not simply from an honest attempt to have give-and-take dialogue. The worst is assumed of the other; the best is assumed of oneself.”

“Paul is so confident of who he is in Christ that he affirms who others are in Christ—even those who criticize him! Paul assumes the best of the Corinthians—because he knows who they are in Christ. They are enriched, spiritually gifted, and called into fellowship with Jesus Christ.”

In Part 2, Dr. Kellemen looks ahead in the running commentary to 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 to ask, “Where does Paul find the power and perspective to respond in such a humble way?”

“Join the Conversation: What principles can we apply to our lives from Paul’s humble spiritual leadership?”
End Dr. Kellemen’s article. He ends with a very good question. I think it is a wonderful expression and model of how a pastor or leader or elder, or anyone, really, should handle criticism or disagreement in a mature and biblical way.

Regarding this topic, Dr. Kellemen was interviewed by noted author and Christian book reviewer Tim Challies. In that Q&A, they discussed “symptoms” that we can identify that might point to a leader’s heart moving toward spiritual abuse. These might include actions and attitudes such as:

  • Considering oneself above questioning.
  • Using our spiritual position to control or dominate another person.
  • Overriding the feelings and opinions of others.
  • Using spiritual authority defensively to bolster the position and “needs” of the leader.
  • Labeling the person who questions us as wrong and rebellious, thus subtly shifting the focus and blame. Questions are assumed to come from a wrong spirit, not simply from an honest attempt to have give-and-take dialogue. The worst is assumed of the other; the best is assumed of oneself.
  • Labels can include accusations such as, “You’re rebellious.” “You’re disrespectful.” “I detect a pattern of anger and a critical spirit.” “You are unspiritual and emotionally immature.” Such labels heap condemnation on the recipient, rather than offering wise counsel and constructive feedback.
  • Interpreting our spiritual authority to mean that my thoughts and opinions are supreme.

“Here are a couple of introductory comparisons of what spiritual abuse is not:”

“It is not abusive when a spiritual leader speaks the truth in love and confronts sin in a gracious way. It is abusive, however, if the leader seeks to defend himself, or shame or discredit others.”

“It’s not abusive when a spiritual leader uses his best judgment and chooses to go against your opinion. It is abusive, however, if the leader uses his opposing view to devalue and demean others.” -end interview-

Brother and sister, you are a precious child of the King.  “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1Peter 2:5).

“You are valuable to the Kingdom, holy and sanctified. “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:23).

I can imagine the hurt one would feel in working through whether to stay or leave an abusive church. The church is family to many people, and to still others, their entire actual family of several generations may attend along with you. Walking away would wound deeply, leaving behind friends, family, time, investment, ministries. This article may help you, “Walking away from spiritual abuse.”

The greatest help in a time of trouble is our Lord Jesus Christ. He seeks ALL His sheep and brings them back, not losing even one. He will not forsake you. “For thus saith the Lord God; Behold I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out. As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day.” (Ezekiel 34:10-12).

If you are in a church situation where you are contemplating leaving, or have been forced to leave, count it to the good for those who love Him that in effect, He is gathering you, His true sheep, to another place where it is safer from wolves. He will never abandon you! Rely on Him for comfort, for safety, for recovery. After all, “As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.” John 10:17

Posted in authoritarianism, spiritual abuse, state of the church

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

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

We have been exploring Jesus’ end time prophecy in Matthew 24:12, which says, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold,” and looked at how this prophecy applies to believers. We explored the incremental drifting away from Jesus and how that impacts our selves and our churches in part 2. In part 3 we looked at the numbers of surveyed born-again believers who state they hold to a biblical worldview and found that it was 8-9%. When you have 91-92% of a congregation that has in some part a secular worldview you are in for trouble, and part 4 looked at that trouble: carnality. Part 5a looked at the biblical fact of spiritual abuse as long being a fact of history from the Old Testament to the New. It is prophesied to occur in the last days. 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). Being above accountability is never a good thing in any system, and churches are no different.

Steve Martin of Founder’s Journal wrote cogently and excellently on this topic. I recommend his article in its entirety! Founders Ministries is a ministry of teaching and encouragement promoting both doctrine and devotion expressed in the Doctrines of Grace and their experiential application to the local church, particularly in the areas of worship and witness. Founders Ministries takes as its theological framework the first recognized confession of faith that Southern Baptists produced, The Abstract of Principles. The author is Pastor of Heritage Church, Peachtree City, Georgia.

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.” [emphasis mine]

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.

“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: ‘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 [shepherdsand ;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.