Controversy has been swirling around the recent term spiritual abuse. It’s about the spiritual harm that comes from misuse of spiritual authority. This may mean using spiritual motivations to manipulate and coerce behaviour. Clearly it is wrong and against Scripture to manipulate. But with such a loose definition, some may perceive spiritual abuse in the plain communication of law and gospel or the biblical exercise of church discipline. If we only identify spiritual harm taking place where an individual has a perception of being abused spiritually, we may also be ignoring the bigger picture. Great spiritual harm comes from the neglect as well as the misuse of authority. Others question whether it is fair to spotlight emotional and psychological coercion and control in a spiritual context more than elsewhere. Even experts on “spiritual abuse” say a separate category is not needed. Whatever we make of the term spiritual abuse, spiritual harm is real. Rather than the framework being set by the secular definition of spiritual abuse we need to think about this issue biblically.
Without minimising the distress of those who have been in situations of coercion, we need a wider view of the subject. No-one includes under spiritual abuse teaching that condones a sinful lifestyle (Jude 1:4) or preaches a false gospel. Yet these cause the greatest spiritual harm. Spiritual relationships can also be misused in many ways. Sometimes there are harmful pressures and unbiblical expectations that congregations use to control their pastors. Or there may be harmful interactions between fellow church members that may or may not lead to extreme situations. If we think that spiritual manipulation couldn’t take place in our own context we only need to look at similar types of churches when it has.
Scripture rejects manipulative teaching (2 Corinthians 4:2). It warns against leaders who impose burdens for their own benefit (Matthew 23:4) and those who use their status for personal gain (Ezekiel 34:1-3) or lust (1 Samuel 2:22). There are harsh words for those who make the church their own empire and abuse their position (3 John 9-10). But spiritual harm is also connected with sheer neglect of duties (Ezekiel 34:4-5; Matthew 9:36). We are not dealing with outward things but the lasting good of souls that will never die and have an eternal destiny. Neglecting to care for souls is the most serious neglect there is.
How do we prevent such patterns marring the life of the church? It is a very large subject. For now, however, we can focus on biblical teaching that sets the right standard for those in positions of spiritual authority. Everyone can learn from these principles and apply them.
The apostle Peter speaks of the duties of those who have the oversight of the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2-3). They are to feed the Lord’s people with His truth and rule them by His discipline. In order to do this, they need to pay diligent close attention to the condition of the people and their way of living. He urges them to take the oversight willingly not as if they were forced to it. Rather it should be from an inward inclination to serve their Master and profit His people not their own personal gain. They should do their work with a ready mind and heart prepared by Christ.
They must not pretend to have any dominion over the Lord’s people. Instead, their whole way of life should provide an example of holy humility. It is a passage that emphasises humble service for Christ and His people’s sake, not serving self by lording it over the flock. This example helps provide a model of how we should relate to one another and so prevent patterns of spiritual harm. Alexander Nisbet draws some practical principles from it in the following updated extract.
1. Feed Christ’s Flock
Every minister of Christ ought to be able to feed His people with His saving truth (Jeremiah 3:15). It needs to be rightly divided and applied (2 Timothy 2:15), to every one of them, according to their varying conditions (Matthew 24:45). This is no less necessary for cherishing and increasing their spiritual life than ordinary food for their bodies at the right time (Job 23:13). They need wisdom, authority and equity for ruling the Lord’s people by the right exercise and application of church discipline. Feeding and ruling are expressed by one word in both Hebrew and Greek, to signify that they are equally required of every minister. Their duty is mainly emphasised here when it is said “feed the flock”.
2. Watch Over Christ’s Flock
It is not enough for the ministers of Christ to declare sound and saving truths to His people in their teaching and rule them by church discipline. They must also pay diligent close attention to how their live and their varying conditions and needs. They do this by frequently conversing with them and visiting them. This is what “oversight” means. They cannot apply either the truth or discipline to the flock of God as they ought without this.
3. Remember it is Christ’s Flock Not Your’s
Ministers should be stirred up to greater faithfulness and diligence in their calling when they consider that the people for whom they are responsible are the flock of God. He will provide for them (Isaiah 40:11) and be fearful to those who neglect or wrong them (Ezekiel 34:2,10 etc)..In order to stir elders to be faithfulness and painstaking in their duty, the apostle describes the people they have responsibility for as “the flock of God”.
4. Serve with Earnest Spiritual Desire
Anyone with a sense of their own weakness and of the weighty responsibility of caring for souls will be reticent in one sense to thrust themselves into that work (Exodus 3:11, Jeremiah 1:6). Yet once they have been called to it and engaged in it, they should not carry out the duties constrained by their fears. They may be fearful of revealing their own weakness, or lest they fall under the censure of others. They may also fear that their own conscience may trouble them for neglect of their duty. The apostle is aware of this danger and seeks to dissuade them from it because it would harm the way in which they go about their duty without a sense of constraint or compulsion.
Every faithful minister should have a strong inclination and inward desire in his spirit towards his duty. There should be so much love to Jesus Christ arising from the sense of his personal obligation to Him (2 Corinthians 5:14) that it produces this. His desire for the salvation of souls (1 Corinthians 10:33) should also be so great that he is not motivated by any outward consideration of gain or glory etc. These desires will keep him in the work and not allow him to neglect it.
6. Do Not Serve for Personal Gain
Christ’s ministers have His authority to receive from the people (according to their ability) a sufficient means of outward subsistence, (1 Corinthians 9:14). Yet for any of the ministers of Christ to make worldly gain their great incentive to undertake that calling, or their primary motive for its duties is a shameful and filthy frame of mind. This is most obvious when they exert themselves to the utmost to please those most from whom they expect most gain (Numbers 23:1). It can also lead them to oppose and discourage others from whom they expect least (Micah 3:5). This evil is abominable to God, detestable to faithful ministers, and something that disables them from doing their duty in the right way. Thus, the apostle warns them against filthy and shameful gain.
7. Be Prepared for Any Duty
A minister of Christ who seeks to carry out his duty in the right way must wait for every opportunity for doing it. He must keep himself in some fitness of spirit for every part of his calling. He should be ready whether or not the opportunity of fulfilling specific duties are immediately available. This is implied by the requirement that they should be of a ready mind, eagerly awaiting opportunities.
8. Do Not Usurp Christ’s Lordship
All faithful ministers should abhor the idea of usurping amy lordship over their fellow-labourers (3 John 9) or over the people under their charge. This is apparent whent they seek to compel rather than persuade the people to be obedient to the gospel. This is contrary to the apostles’ practice (1 Corinthians 4:21,2 Corinthians 12:20). It is also shown when any make use of the Word, or discipline, to pursue their own private revenge or to achieve their purpose through mere force and wearing down those who oppose them (Ezekiel 34:4). This is contrary to the apostle’s commandment (2 Timothy 2:24,25). They are not to be “lords over God’s heritage”.
The church and people of God are His inheritance. He has purchased them to Himself with His blood (Acts 20:28). He is the only Lawgiver within it (Isaiah 33:22). God will never therefore cast off or hand it over (Psalm 94:14). This should make everyone afraid to lord it over His people. Neither should they call themselves alone “God’s heritage” since it is a name given here to all the Lord’s people. [Nisbet refers to the word kleron here which is translated heritage or charge. The word “clergy” was derived from this and applied to ministers alone to distinguish them from the laon – the people or laity. Nisbet and his contemporaries objected to these terms as unbiblical]. This is given as a motive to overseers to be diligent and to avoid usurping dominion over them.
9. Be an Example of Humble Self-denial
Ministers of Jesus Christ are complete when they have an attractive outward life combined with their abilities to teach and rule and other inward qualifications. Such a pattern of living allures the flock to follow them because they see it as worthy of imitation. Their behaviour should demonstrate the graces of God in their heart. These include faith and love (1 Timothy. 4:12) and patiently enduring personal wrongs (1 Corinthians 4:16). They should demonstrate humility and self-denial for the good of others (1 Corinthians 10:33). They are to be examples to the flock and all the rest of the apostle’s counsel to elders depends on this.
Patterns of spiritual harm can be prevented the more that positive examples of doing as much spiritual good as possible are displayed by those with oversight of the flock. The more humble self-denial and focus on the spiritual good of others there will be, the less spiritual harm will take place. The greatest spiritual harm happens when we want ourselves to be heard and obeyed more than Christ and when we refuse to submit to His authority and Word. What spiritual good indeed would be evident if we were content to decrease in order that Christ might increase?
To explore these reflections further, you may find it helpful to read the article Your Role in Preventing Ministry Failure. It shows you how to support your minister through prayer. Surveys suggest that the two main reasons for ministries ending are burnout and moral failure. The two are not unconnected. Sometimes moral failure follows on from burnout but they arise from the same causes. Burnout often occurs due to chasing outward success and the approval of others. Success means focusing on what is visible and attracts attention, even if it means neglecting the inward life and cultivating personal godliness towards others. Moral failure begins with the neglect of the inward life. The origins of such failure are hidden and it may take time before they become more visible. How can you prevent what you cannot see?
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