What is spiritual abuse?
I said, “It’s an unhelpful extra-biblical phrase.”
Like liberal and legalist, the term spiritual abuse just didn’t sit well with me. When a problem gets a label that isn’t in the Scripture, it’s hard to know whether we’re solving – or even identifying – that problem Biblically. I had a pretty good discussion with some of you on Facebook on this topic.
So we rephrased the question. Is it possible to abuse a position of spiritual authority? If it is possible, then what constitutes abuse? And what happens when I do? Is it an offense against God only, or does that abuse also make me responsible for the hurt that others experience?
Is it possible to abuse spiritual authority?
I normally don’t copy such long passages directly into an article, but I think it’s important to get a couple of different phrases in context. So here it is, Ezekiel 22:24-31, with my emphasis on a couple of statements that stuck out to me:
- Son of man, say unto her, Thou art the land that is not cleansed, nor rained upon in the day of indignation.
- There is a conspiracy of her prophets in the midst thereof, like a roaring lion ravening the prey; they have devoured souls; they have taken the treasure and precious things; they have made her many widows in the midst thereof.
- Her priests have violated my law, and have profaned mine holy things: they have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they shewed difference between the unclean and the clean, and have hid their eyes from my sabbaths, and I am profaned among them.
- Her princes in the midst thereof are like wolves ravening the prey, to shed blood, and to destroy souls, to get dishonest gain.
- And her prophets have daubed them with untempered morter, seeing vanity, and divining lies unto them, saying, Thus saith the Lord God, when the Lord hath not spoken.
- The people of the land have used oppression, and exercised robbery, and have vexed the poor and needy: yea, they have oppressed the stranger wrongfully.
- And I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it: but I found none.
- Therefore have I poured out mine indignation upon them; I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath: their own way have I recompensed upon their heads, saith the Lord God.
Verse 31 shows that God is quite angry with the nation of Israel. Verses 26-29 list who is responsible for His wrath:
What Is Spiritual Abuse?
If we’re going to keep the term (and after conversations with some of you, I now think that maybe we can), then I’d like to use this passage from Ezekiel for a working description of spiritual abuse.
Of those mentioned in those verses from Ezekiel, the priests and prophets are the ones that had spiritual authority they could abuse. In my copy of the passage above, I’ve highlighted the issues God had with the priests and with the prophets.
- The priests “put no difference between the holy and profane.” Numbers 18 outlines the role of the priests, and a major focus was on keeping the holiness of the tabernacle and of the tools and furniture inside it. In Ezekiel, God says they failed to keep the holy separate from the profane. They misrepresented God by corrupting the picture of His holiness.
- The prophets were “divining lies unto them, saying, Thus saith the Lord God, when the Lord hath not spoken.” The prophets had one key job in that role – delivering messages from God. But they mixed in their own messages, and called them God’s messages. They misrepresented God by assigning Him words He did not give.
So – for the sake of this discussion, I’ll try to distill these two concepts down and define spiritual abuse this way:
Spiritual abuse is misrepresenting God through a role that has spiritual influence on others.
That definition actually makes me uncomfortable. It’s a line that’s oh, so easy to cross. I’m a parent; I have spiritual influence on my kids. My co-workers know I’m a Christian; I like to think I have a spiritual influence on them.
I’d much rather invent a definition that deflects the label to the “them” (whoever they are) and doesn’t apply it to me.
But seriously, though. Isn’t it a big deal to misrepresent God? In any way? Even if I’m the only one that’s affected? (But I never am the only one affected.)
Maybe the understanding that I am capable of spiritual abuse should make me uncomfortable.
Whose Fault Is The Hurt?
One of the questions that arose through Facebook discussions was whether those who abuse their spiritual authority are offending God only, or if they are also to be blamed for the hurt felt by those who hear them, or whether each of us is responsible for how we choose to respond to what we hear.
Personally, I’m a firm believer in individual responsibility. I should never blame my own weaknesses or reactions on someone else’s actions.
On the other hand, in Ezekiel 22:25 God does call out those prophets who said “Thus saith the Lord God” when God hadn’t spoken. Through their words, God says “they have devoured souls; they have taken the treasure and precious things; they have made her many widows in the midst thereof.” There does seem to be a burden on those who speak to own the consequences of their words in the lives of others.
One of the verses on my “Daily Meditation” list is Proverbs 18:21.
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue:
and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof”
— Proverbs 18:21
My tongue can have the power of life and death? That’s quite a responsibility.
So, whose fault is the hurt? I think it turns out to be a trick question. There’s plenty of responsibility to go around, and I have to recognize that there’s a part of it that’s mine when I misrepresent God.
In his discussion of the challenges of controlling the tongue, James begins with this warning:
“My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.”
— James 3:1
“Masters” here is the word for doctors, masters, or even teachers. If I’m seeking a position where I intend to instruct or influence others, I need to be extremely careful with what I tell people. With greater influence or authority comes a greater potential for condemnation because of how my words affect others.
So, What Is Spiritual Abuse?
I still think it’s an extra-biblical term. There is a powerful association tied up in that word “abuse” that can drive emotions to cloud the working definition that I gave above. I do hear accounts of some who blatantly misrepresent God for their own gain, often with horrific consequences. “Abuse” seems an appropriate word in those cases. Unfortunately, the phrase seems to have taken on a life of its own, sometimes as a label for any unwanted influence by authority. I’ve seen it applied to organizational or institutional standards of behavior – even when the organization or institution explains that the standards are merely their best-effort interpretation and application of Biblical principles. These uses of the phrase do not fit the definition I offered, but they’re common in today’s discussions.
I believe the phrase itself has been abused, so I still prefer not to use the words “spiritual abuse” in my conversations.
But the study you encouraged me to begin has certainly revealed a very possible danger that I can face in my own life. The sin of misrepresenting God is a serious offense that can have catastrophic consequences.
I’m learning. You’re helping. Thank you.
There are so many different ways that we can end up being guilty of misrepresenting God. I have started thinking through specific applications in my life, but I’ve run out of room to share details in this post. I’ll explore more later, but I’d also really like your input.
In what ways can we misrepresent God if we’re not careful?
Leave a comment below, and let me know what potential you see for spiritual abuse in the areas where you have influence or authority.