Spiritual abuse, then, is when a spiritual leader—such as a pastor, elder, or head of a Christian organization—wields his position of spiritual authority in such a way that he manipulates, domineers, bullies, and intimidates those under him, as a means of accomplishing what he takes to be biblical and/or spiritual goals.
But just having a definition doesn’t answer all our questions. After all, there’s a level of subjectivity in applying this definition. Some may think certain behavior is abuse, others may not. And, as we observed in the prior post, our world is often inclined to label any offensive Christian statement as “abuse.”
In many ways, rightly identifying spiritual abuse is not that different than rightly identifying child abuse. Just because a parent disciplines or corrects their child, doesn’t make them abusive. But, there are some parents who clearly cross the line. Discerning which is which is the tricky part.
While there’s not an air-tight, infallible system for identifying genuine abuse, I think there are some key signs of an abusive pastor to look out for. Over the next few posts I will lay out several of these key signs.
Let’s begin with the first sign. And it’s first for a reason. A classic, defining mark of an abusive pastor is a long track record of broken relationships.
Chuck DeGroat, in his book When Narcissism Comes to Church, argues that such pastors often leave a “relational debris field” (3) or a “trail of dead bodies” (143) in their wake. He observes, “Often, before the narcissistic pastor is exposed publicly, there are years of painful smaller encounters that are covered up” (91).
In other words, spiritually abusive pastors have a track record of hurting those they work with and eventually, usually after many years, it catches up with them. It is a sin pattern that can’t be seen at first glance; it only becomes visible over time.
As 1 Tim 5:24 says: “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later.”
But, of course, this is exactly the problem with this first mark of an abusive pastor. Not everyone sees this long-term pattern of broken relationships. They just don’t connect the dots. Let’s explore a few key reasons why. [Read more…]