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The Unfolding War Against Spiritual Abuse

For over two decades, American Christians have been concerned about dangerous cults. Even though it seemed sufficient in times past to name specific cults, this solution proved inadequate. Not only did cults explode in numbers and power, affecting millions of people in the United States, but spiritually abusive (false) 'Christian' leaders multiplied, drawing away and entrapping many people into their rather strange and destructive groups, leaving untold millions of Christians wounded and disillusioned in their aftermath.

One problem has been with definition. The definition of "cults" has often been a highly subjective or vague one. The word "cult" is used to describe, in essence, a group insanity of "follow the leader" regardless of what that leader preaches or teaches or demands.  In the broadest sense, any group that drove its members to criminal or self-destructive acts, or was in some other way harmful to individualized self-expression, self-will, and self-thinking (i.e. people were 'brainwashed' or 'programmed' into a 'group-think'), has been thought of as a cult or cult-like.

Some cults are entirely secular or atheistic. By and large though, Christians were more concerned by the psuedo-Christian cults. Therefore they gave their own definition to a cult, which in my opinion, was amiss. They focused less on the relationship between leader and follower, and more on whether or not a 'cult' could claim it was 'Christian' or not. They defined a "cult" as any group that veered far enough off of mainstream Christian doctrines to be considered 'heretical', such as whether the group believed Jesus was the Son of God or not.

This was fine for exposing 'heretical' groups, but did nothing for solving the problem of spiritual abuse in particular or cults in general. Most groups who are 'heretical' in an extreme way know full well that their beliefs are different than mainstream Christianity, and they are proud of it. In contrast, most groups or fellowships who have a serious spiritual abuse problem have little or no clue as to the problem itself or the destructiveness of the problem. This is because those members who do not 'fit in' are often ejected from the group and many times this process is either entirely unofficial or secretive.

What most Christians missed along the way were some very important issues. Avoiding these issues made it far easier for cult leaders or spiritual abusers to 'pick off' the naive from around the edges of the flock. Christians knew of Jesus' warnings about the coming of false leaders and 'Christs', yet missed his descriptions of the character of these false leaders. They missed the fact that we are His disciples above all others, and that He exhorted us all to follow Him alone. They missed His instruction to reject the kind of titles that make it so easy for titled people to "lord it over" other men and women. They even missed preparing parents or young people with strategies on how to avoid being easily swayed by peer-pressure. These are just a few of the controversial issues that many Christians in America, at the time, not simply ignored but almost completely avoided.

What caused so many American Christians to miss these things? I believe in large part, they held to a false sense of security. They truly believed that certain 'core' doctrines such as those found in most Creeds or Statements of Faith, would save them from a spiritually abusive or cult-like church or fellowship.

Doctrine and Sin

Most Christians have equated truth and error with doctrine. Yet, how many divisions have we perpetuated and how many new denominations have we started over doctrine?  How many people have been tortured and killed over doctrine alone throughout the centuries? And what do we mean by "doctrine" anyhow? Do we mean a set of beliefs that is full of truth and yet devoid of love? Isn't that a contradiction in terms, when it comes to Christianity? Therefore, how much good can a near obsession over 'right' and 'wrong' doctrine be, when we forget love?

While doctrine and basic Christian beliefs are hardly something to ignore, a doctrine without love was not at all what the New Testament presented. Indeed, the apostles spent a lot of time speaking of what is 'Christian' and 'nonChristian' -- in other words, what is sin and what is not sin, what is Christian love and what is not, and what is Christian behavior and what is not.

I say that if we have no genuine love we also have no genuine doctrine.  When we are devoid of love, we become as good as the leaders Jesus rebuked during His day. You know, the ones he called "children of the devil" since they acted according to the devil's character, instead of God's (John 8:44). In such cases, fighting over who or what or how a person is water-baptized seems to pale in comparison to the importance of considering how a true Christian behaves. As Jesus said, we end up straining for a gnat while swallowing the camel whole.

When love, or decent Christian conduct and integrity, is not part of our 'basic tenets' then I believe that overall, we have missed the point. We desperately need to 'inject' decent Christian conduct as an expectation, a 'product, or a 'fruit' of the true Christian life. Jesus said good fruit comes from the good tree, and bad fruit comes from the bad.  What use is it if we never define that, especially in conjunction with what we can expect of leadership?

But Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name?

I'm sure that many of us have witnessed the scene where a group of believers become so proud of their "correct" doctrine that they have managed to puff themselves up into the stratosphere. They are simply better off than anyone else or any other group, and most newcomers sense their sectarian pride in short order. Such groups have totally missed the point, and they are probably already very cult-like.

Likewise, some people claim to speak under the inspiration of God, or work miracles or deliverances, and yet sin rules in their private lives. They too have missed the point. They are still responsible for being able to tell that there is some sort of evil or some sort of wrong attitude in their hearts, yet they often do not realize just how far off the mark they are.  They either truly believe that they can do what they do and be okay with God, or they never really believed in God in the first place! Is it any wonder then, that those with an apparently correct "doctrine" (at least on the surface of it) can also be the most devious of false pastors, prophets, or teachers?  How can they not be, with such duplicity and self-deception in their hearts and minds?

The fact is, leaders can wrap themselves in the "but I preach the Gospel" clause in the same way that the "evildoers" wrapped themselves in it as they met the Lord in Matt. 7:22-23. In other words, just as the false prophets in Matt. 7:22-23 used the things they did 'in His name' as their cry of innocence, the preaching of some basic tenets of Christianity (doctrine) can be used for justification for many things by the false leader. After all, the ends justify the means, right? Not according to Christ! If such "leaders" used this rationalization in Matt. 7:22-23, don't you think Jesus used this example for a reason? Don't you think He was trying to tell us something important?

Jesus told us to beware of them, but how do we deal with "wolves in sheep's clothing" (Matt. 7:15) and "hirelings" ( John 10:11-13)? These leaders have duplistic souls who always seem to skid past the boundaries of hard honesty on their way to "success" in the religious world. These leaders tend to multiply followers who share this same bizarre duplicity and contradictory behaviors. What can we do about it, if anything?

Coming To Terms With The Times

The apostles had a difficult time with many heresies trying to infiltrate the early church in the form of gnostic writings. They must have been very concerned about the fate of the Church, and they must have prayed, because sometimes they directed their writings to cover the spiritual issues of their day, and sometimes they were inspired to give emotional, direct warnings (Acts 20:28-31). 

One interesting fact for the end times is that the apostles prophesied that false Christians would do the most damage to other Christians in the future (see 2 Timothy 2:15-3:14 as an example). Certainly these many centuries later, we cannot honestly say that we are not in those very times the apostles predicted.

In a time when false Christianity abounds, real people suffer real hurts, mentally, spiritually, financially, and even physically. Christian psychologists and counselors are kept busy writing books about the subject because of the many desperate, hurting, people they are seeing as a result of the damage to people's lives.

It was clear that many mainstream Christian "leaders" of the day were either too ignorant to help or too intimidated to help. No one wanted to step into the mire of 'critiqueing' a public ministry, and many I believe, sincerely hoped that if they did not say anything,  leaders in error would repent on their own.

None of this worked. Repentence for the spiritual abuser just does not fit into his busy schedule of building his (the leader's) kingdom and his church.  Driving his Mercedes around and putting the gold fixtures in his bathroom was just too much the good life. It was just too easy to take advantage of people in a vacuum of unaccountability.

We have to come to terms with the fact that when people are drunk on power, they really are drunk! They become senseless, driven by the flesh, "brute beasts" (see 2 Peter 2). Unspoken hopes for repentence and restoration go unsatisfied when spiritual abusers continue to wax worse (2 Tim. 3:13), doing much damage to the reputation of the Gospel and Christianity as a whole.

To Be Effective or Ineffective: That Is the Question

Christ often presented truth, and he often opposed error too. Sometimes He did both at the same time, and sometimes at different times. He did not present one without also doing the other.   His whole life showed the truth as well as the Life in a variety of ways. At the same time, He opposed the work of the devil as well as warned that sin leads to spiritual death. His apostles ended up doing the same. They were, just as He was, as direct or blunt as necessary for the occasion.

In contrast, our teachings and actions regarding spiritual abuse have been so indirect, so vague, and so generalized, that we have been largely ineffectual. We have failed to take on the problem as completely as we could.  As a result, since false leaders never had to be concerned with exposure or embarrassment by their actions, they could continue to victimize people. Their false fronts, false promises, lies, and cover-ups continued without any real accountability or consequences from the general Christian community at all. In the end, after over two decades of hollering about cults and warning people to check their doctrine, we still had a huge problem on our hands that is not exactly diminishing at all.

Quite simply, the "war" on cults and spiritual abuse failed in the 1970's through 1990's, and miserably so, because Christians were willing to go only so far and no farther. What then, is the solution? Write more books and pass them around? Perhaps. Is this God's ideal? No way. I believe God's ideal is much more grassroots. Or do we really want innocent Christians to pay for books and/or pay for the Christian therapists and counselors after their lives have been destroyed or disrupted, and always after-the-fact? Should we pick the fruit, cut off branches, or fell the tree at the trunk? I believe we can often make more of a difference than we realize!

God's Leading and Personal Considerations

There is no Biblical edict at all that says we should never ever name a false leader or dangerous group. Yes, we need to avoid occasions that would tempt us to sinfully respond, yet we also need to avoid the sin of apathy. Really, if some of us were honest with ourselves and others, we would have to admit that silence is sometimes for the sake of being "politically correct" rather than being "Biblically correct". 

But what about self-preservation? Is that so wrong?

We all have concerns over loss of friends and over further spiritual abuse when abusive leaders and their followers react to our questions or challenges. We may even fear financial loss, possible legal harrassment or physical endangerment. In other words, often we are just plain intimidated.

I am not trying to shame those who have been led to stay quiet -- even for their own sakes (Prov. 27:12). God sometimes leads people to be quiet or passive for reasons of wisdom, even for the sake of our own family. He has done this with me.  Instead, I am saying that the practice of keeping silent as a whole and as a general practice is inadequate to the overall problem on a grand scale basis.

Silence in the face of evil or error should never be adopted as the best wisdom for the day, or for every day and every situation (Prov. 29:25).  God may lead us into the similiar bravery or boldness He has taken Himself (e.g. specific, sometimes public or semi-public, rebukes). Still, this boldness is a place of difficulty and this I well understand too, for I have taken this road myself, too.

All in all, people faced with the knowledge of specific spiritual abuse or sin in their midst must come to terms with their own personal spiritual maturity and ethics as they determine how best to deal with it.  When they are the only ones willing to do anything or say anything, it becomes a source of great personal strain and soul searching. They must "count the cost" and consider the wisdom of staying silent, and they must also "count the cost" of other people's hurt should they stay silent. At the same time, they often feel burdened for the soul they have discovered in sin and error!  These things are all are very difficult to weigh. They are the things that the Lord Himself, and the wisdom of the Scriptures, must guide us all through.

'Radical' responses to anemic solutions

Our measures have been inadequate and incomplete in the past, and they do not cover the entire range of Biblical possibilities for responses to abuse by any means. What we have thus far in our religious communities is quite amazing. We live in a country where there is a civil right to free speech, and yet we do not practice it! We have as many Bibles as we would like to own, and yet we have the perfect social/religious atmosphere to make those Bibles of no effect! How ironic! The silent consent of the people allows spiritual abuse to go virtually unchecked. It's like a neighborhood that is afflicted with robberies every night, yet no one bothers to set up a 'neighborhood watch' or call the police. In fact they oppose any action that would be too "stern"-- as defined by the robbers themselves!

Robbers and conmen do not need to dictate to us what are the appropriate responses to their thievery and deception. The Body of Christ is not supposed to be bleeding and wounded, with broken bones unmended and infections rampant. It is therefore high time for some serious medicine -- and that 'medicine' does not have to be through secular newspaper reports as Christianity is dragged through the mud yet again in yet another scandal.

Clearly our apathetic, anemic responses have not been enough.

Assuming that we are all praying and listening to the Spirit's leading, the following active strategies are taken directly from the Scripture.

Option 1: Speak up/Speak out/Do

It has been my observation that when spiritual abusers are in our midst, other Christians encourage us to expect God to come down from heaven (metaphorically speaking) and right all wrongs. There can even be prophecies that are spread about, promising that the Lord is angry at those false Christians, those pretenders, and He is going to make things right.

Well, we may have a long wait for some of those prophecies to come true, because the Bible is fairly clear that the Day Of The Lord is the time when the Lord Jesus comes down from heaven and makes all things right. Other than that, there is a wait for the Judgement Seat, when the dead, great and small, are judged before the Throne of God. Other than that, we have the example of the house of Saul, who after the prophecy of its demise by the prophet Samuel, continued on for about forty years. That's a long time!

In the meantime, what about the present day? What about the hurting and disillusioned of today? What about the unbelievers who, I assure you, are unimpressed with the hypocrisy of religous people, and with the gullibity of their naive, fanatically loyal, followers?

There is only one good Scriptural justification that I know of for doing nothing. This is when Jesus said to His disciples (of the Pharisees), "Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch (Matt.15:14 KJV) Yet, Jesus was speaking to disciples who were not yet baptised with power from the Holy Spirit on high. Also, Jesus Himself was the One who conflicted with those leaders, later on in His ministry. So it is not like the Pharisees were entirely left alone to do or teach what they'd like, without any challenge at all. Quite the opposite! 

Jesus also spoke of the time when these same disciples would become witnesses to the faith and would have their own conflicts with religious rulers (such as in Matt. 10:16-20). At the time though, these disciples were certainly not prepared or anointed for any such task. Jesus was prepared by the Spirit though, and He leaves us many examples of his conflicts with the "blind" leaders of His day. We all know of his overturning the tables of money changers. We all know that "zeal for thine" house consumed the Lord (John 2:17). So if such zeal consumed the Lord, what about those of us who are instructed to abide IN the Lord Himself (John 15:4)? Could we have such zeal too?

We often forget that we are His hands and voice here on earth. If we search the Scriptures, we will find Love is not letting someone die in sin and it is not letting sin and harm remain unchecked or unchallenged. As long as our zeal remains IN HIM, it also remains ethical, and our actions will fall within the reasonable boundaries of the varied Biblical examples -- examples of passionate opposition to sin and error as the Scripture shows.

What kind of Christianity would we have if people spoke up? What would happen if most of the time, Christians spoke up on the behalf of others when they noticed abuse, instead of leaving the wounded alone and isolated, and further endangered spiritually and emotionally? (Proverbs 24:8-12) What if they supported ministers who helped restore the spiritually abused, and by doing so, we were all our brother's keepers? (Gen. 9:4) What would happen then?

I dare say that Christianity would survive its own self-correction, and its own concern for believers who were taken advantage of.

Option 2: Provide General Appropriate Teachings-- and Get Them Into The Right Hands

In a way, secular people had it right when they concerned themselves over criminal or destructive behavior and excessive control (brainwashing) in cults or cult-like groups. By doing this, they were showing concern over the same things the Good Shepherd showed concern over. Sinful behavior is not excused by a holy God, and excessive control over our lives is not what our Lord meant when He spoke of leadership (Luke 22:25-27). Only He is the Christ and Shepherd over all.

As I have indicated, many Christian preachers focus on basic doctrine to the exclusion of everything else. This is definitely to our peril. "Whoa! Back up!" you might say. "What about the gospel? Aren't the "basics" of the gospel important?" Yes they are, but if we look at just a few Scriptures, we will find an astonishing fact about the importance of progression and maturity.

According to the apostles, the ability to distinguish good from evil is not solved by the basic Gospel ("milk" Hebrews 5:13-6:3). The attraction to false leaders and the almost worshipful hero-identification of this leader -- or any leader, good or bad, can only be solved by solid food. This "solid food" can not be assimilated well while we are still yet spiritually immature. And what is spiritual immaturity? Well, if we are still functioning from our fleshly desires, having foolish ambition, malice, pride, lust, insincerity, jealousy, and loyalty to mere men, we are definitely spiritually immature (1 Peter 2:1-5; 1 Corinth 2:3-5). Yes, we need milk as infants, but we need to graduate from there to solid food. If we don't, then Scripture says we are unprepared for discerning good from evil.

How can this be useful for us today?  Like many other people, I have found that spiritual abusers usually use the same old tricks on everyone, and usually conduct themselves in a very similar manner. This ministry has already started to develop constructive general teachings for such occasions and we hope to continue to do so.

Option 3: Specific Exposure

This is the most controversial of all options, and many do not believe it should be done at all. Indeed, you can bet that every spiritual abuser will spend a great deal of his or her time avoiding the option of exposure to their hidden works, and they will include teachings to that effect too. They will also do what they can to avoid questions or confrontation over their leadership activities too.

Scripture though, indicates that it is acceptable Christian behavior to expose or directly confront. The apostles did so in many different instances. The apostle John did when he named Diotrephes as a false leader (3 John 1:9-10), and the apostle Paul exposed the fact that there were false apostles in the Corinth Church, even while he listed their many attributes. Some say that Paul did not actually name the false apostles he conflicted with in 1 and 2 Corinthians, but we do not actually know this. Paul not only wrote those two letters, but visited the fellowship himself during this controversy as many as three times. What happened while he was there? We do not know. There was also another letter to the Corinth church, now lost (these facts taken from the introduction to 1 Corinthians of the New American Standard Bible). We do know though that Paul was not in a 'polite' mood at the end of his last known epistle (2 Corinthians). However, we will never know all that transpired between Paul and the Corinthian church, so we cannot say whether or not he named the "super-apostles" he dealt with (2 Corinth. 11:5)

Many people are taught that since they are not 'apostles' (as in, not officially recognized or sanctioned by an organization) they therefore have 'no right' to say anything or expose anything. This maintains the artificial divide between 'laity' and 'priesthood' (but we are all priests! 1 Peter 2:9) and also maintains the status quo. Prophets though are notorious for listening only to the Lord's direction and obeying the Spirit, and so they are rightly perceived as the greatest threat to the status quo of all.

We don't have to be anything special to simply speak the truth, but many are discouraged from even doing that. So even though Paul urges the average believer to have passion, to reprove, and to bring things to the light (Eph. 4:25-27; 5:11-13), in a dysfunctional fellowship such passion or desire for truth is wholly unappreciated. Even though Paul himself listened to rumors (1 Corinth. 5:1), we are often told not to believe anything except what the resident Leader tells us.

It is true that the words of a general Christian (laity) will most often be wholly discounted, even scoffed at. When it comes to a he said/she said scenario, we all know that the person of the lower social status most often will be totally disbelieved. This happens often, throughout America, on an every day basis. So let's be realistic -- many pastors or other leaders have told blatant lies, and yet most people will believe the Pastor. Some fellowships have a 'scapegoat' as often as every month or so, on whom the Pastor blames the problems of the fellowship and accuses of all manner of things. Sometimes he gets his information from another false accuser, and sometimes he seems to make things up out of thin air, in a state of paranoia and deception from the enemy.

It is my observation that by the time there are scapegoats in a fellowship, those who are not blindly loyal to a paranoid leader have already left. Some have even tried to minister to him before they left. Therefore the social structure within the fellowship is severely dysfunctional and one-sided. Loyalists to the status quo can be found everywhere, and true discerners usually nowhere.

If we know this, then we will save ourselves a lot of grief or disappointment. We will know that we should realistically not expect exposure of the truth to change much of anything. People will believe what they want to believe, and that is that.

Public records, quotes from books, and public recordings of public teachings can be substantiated. These are more safely and ethically challenged, because the words or teachings often are not only to the entire local fellowship or even the entire Body of Christ, but they are appropriately credited. One really should not be quoting from a book or publication WITHOUT credit. However, private reports of private meetings are too often disbelieved, even if there are more than two witnesses to it! This is because the social structure of the abusive fellowship is simply designed to foster complete favoritism toward the abusers. This is why, frankly, I have told many people to avoid all private meetings with an abusive pastor (and I do mean abusive, such as rages and verbal abuse, or religious condemnation) -- I tell them not to subject themselves to additional abuse, especially if they are a woman whom the pastor tries to meet or talk to on the phone without the presence of her husband. I have been thanked for this advice, especially after the lies and slanders against the concerned party begins.

I would prefer that people leave an abusive situation or 'set-up' before it gets that ugly, and this is Scriptural (Paul is being very sarcastic in 2 Corinth 11:19-20), but I find that most will not leave until it is proven to them beyond a shadow of a doubt that their beloved leader really is the way he or she is, and that their fellowship is entirely dysfunctional. It is my experience that when a person becomes realistic about the dynamic they are dealing with and the real issues at hand, they can make better choices than they might make otherwise. Still, none of this is easy!

Many people do not understand how a person can be entirely aware of how deeply a situation is entrenched, and yet still 'give it a try' and do or say the things they do, just in case there might be genuine repentance. This is because they believe they must do the right thing, and their conscience won't let them rest otherwise. Too often, people think in terms of earthly results or success anyway, rather than heavenly results. On the other hand, other people are so entirely concerned with giving warning to the wicked (Ezek. 33) and with warning people away from the false teacher or prophet, that their lives are inappropriately consumed by the activity. For those, we need to remember that even the apostles themselves did many activities on behalf of the Church, and not just one activity, forever. Sometimes, "letting go and letting God" is absolutely the best thing to do, once we have done the best that we can, even if we have made mistakes (There is no condemnation! Rom. 8:1).  

Regardless, when it comes to those who are perpetuating falsehoods, with those in sin, and with those who trick people into joining or supporting a fellowship or ministry under false pretenses, what should we do? What should we do when we witness money given to the rich and deceitful instead of to the poor and needy? I say that according to my studies of both scriptural precedent and practical application, it is much better to be passionate with concern than it is to be apathetic. If we remember that there is plenty of error everywhere and that no one particular false teacher or false prophet is the center of the whole Universe, and yet that exposure will be veryhelpful to some yet not for others, we can be more realistic with our expectations. If one spiritual abuser is gone, it is likely that another will take his or her place under the right circumstances, and again attain followers. One thing is for certain, the "war on spiritual abuse" is not going away, because spiritual abuse itself is not going away either. Nevertheless we should not grow weary and lose heart (Heb. 12:2-3) May we all be at peace God and use our experiences or knowledge as constructively as possible. And may we be effective indeed!

Here are a few good articles that are challenging to read:


All below are outside links External link:

Students warned about "cult" church

Speak What God Gives You
(an interesting account of how one person was forced to confront a teacher in their group with his habit of plagiarizing) at

Why not just forgive them and forget about it?
From the "Recovering from Spiritual Abuse" web site, which takes to task the Australian AOG.

  -Teri Lee Earl
(June 26, 2005)

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