Trusting the True Shepherd

You don’t have to spend much time in the Christian blogosphere before you encounter the stories of those who have been hurt by the Church. These first-person narratives are often raw and unsettling—they include details that most of us would rather not know, and ones that once we do, we can’t easily erase from our minds. These stories are unusually transparent and reveal a pain that is clearly lingering. Because of this, it’s easy for some to discount them as exercises in self-absorption and unhealthy introspection. After all, shouldn’t we leave the past in the past? Can’t we just move on?

And we could do that, we could let things lie if spiritual abuse weren’t an ever-present reality, if it didn’t regularly make headline news. We could move on if pastors didn’t tell seventeen-year-old girls that they were “God’s gifts” to fulfill them sexually. If victims of such abuse were not made to feel that they were somehow responsible or that they would hurt “Christ’s cause” to speak about it.

And I guess we could leave well enough alone if spiritual abuse didn’t cut both ways. If ministries didn’t routinely supplement budgets by underpaying staff with the caveat that they’ll be eligible for welfare. If pastors’ wives and children weren’t targeted for the sake of simply existing. If 1,700 pastors didn’t leave ministry every month—many out of despair and discouragement.

But they do.

And so we must talk about spiritual abuse, because we must remember that the danger isn’t in how dramatic it is but in how common it is. The danger of spiritual abuse isn’t simply in the extremes but in how quickly, how easily any of us can use another person’s love of God to pursue our own goals and our own agendas.

I myself don’t have a salacious story to offer—no tragic account of childhood abuse or breaking away from some cult-like congregation. And yet, my husband and I have wrestled through the pain of working in the Church, of rejection and false accusation, of feeling abandoned by those to whom we looked for advice and care. We’ve also watched as friends have walked darker paths and still bear scars from those who wielded power over them. And we’ve watched as they have wandered from church to church—not because they’re troublesome—but because they’re looking for Jesus and He’s simply not as present in most churches as He should be.

So when I speak about spiritual abuse within the Church, I do so from a place of trying to grapple with the brokenness of Christ’s body. It is not about adding fuel to the fire or airing grievances. It’s not about “getting back.” (Although this will be a legitimate temptation for people who have been deeply hurt.) When I write about spiritual abuse, I do so with the express purpose of finding healing, of learning to be whole again.

Because while my husband and I have chosen to stay in the organized church—even to make it central to our lives—the choice didn’t come easily. It came through tears and brokenness and times of angry questioning. It came through feeling abandoned by God and wondering why He thought it was such a good idea to gather a bunch of dysfunctional people together in the first place.

Yet, for all that I don’t understand, I do know this: Jesus is the only answer to the brokenness.

Rejecting the Church will not heal the pain.
Harboring bitterness will not heal the pain.
Denying these stories will not heal the pain.

Only Jesus can.

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across Ezekiel 34 in which God speaks against those who have abused and scattered His flock. He speaks against their greed and self-service and warns that He is coming against them in judgment and vengeance. But to the broken, hurting lambs, He says this:

Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out… I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered… I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.

This is where you find healing. This is where you find wholeness. This is where you learn to love again. You find it in the tears that flood your pillow as you cry out to Him. You find it in the questions that you bring to Him. You find it in His love and you find it in His justice—in arms ready to hold you at the same time that they are ready to fight to protect you. You find it in Jesus, the Good Shepherd (John 10:11).

And when you do, when you find His healing, you may also discover that you can return to His broken, messy flock. Because in returning to His Church, you’re not so much expressing confidence in His people as you are expressing confidence in Him. And in returning to His Church, you may also find that you can point the way for other hurting, broken, dirty sheep as well.

You can point the way to the true Shepherd of their souls (1 Pet. 2:25).

This is what has happened for my husband and me. By committing ourselves to Jesus, we’re learning to open ourselves again to the love and beauty of His people. We’re learning to trust Him enough to walk into the arms of a congregation who loves well. We’re learning to trust Him enough to receive the healing and restoration that only His body can offer. And we’re learning that even though we may walk through dark valleys, He will always come find us, and He will always lead us home.

[node:bio/handerson body]

2639 reads

There are 3 Comments

Wayne Wilson's picture

Lots to think about here.  Spiritual abuse is far, far too common in Bible-believing, Gospel preaching churches.  I suspect there are many reasons for it, but it can come from an individual, a small group of leaders, or be a systemic problem in a denomination or movement.

I would very much like to see some conferences devoted to addressing this topic.  I think we've got the Gospel about right now. It's time to stop abusing the sheep. 

Aaron Blumer's picture


I appreciate the post... and appreciate the acknowledgment there that mistreatment occurs against leaders and not just by them.

I'm not crazy about the term "spiritual abuse." It seems a bit too newfangled... and we have good words--and good biblical words--for this kind of behavior already, don't we? (Then again, "manipulation" isn't exactly a Bible word either).

Cruelty, deceit, lust, greed, taking advantage, enslaving. 2 Cor. 11:20 comes to mind.

I'm not saying the "spiritual abuse" label is necessarily a bad thing, but new-fangled terms carry with them a certain vulnerability to trendiness (and with that, a tendency to become very vague buzzwords). And one thing we need to understand about these problems is that they are not at all new.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

handerson's picture

I first wrestled with the term "spiritual abuse" when we were in the midst of a very difficult church situation. I began to recognize that certain members of the congregation were leveraging other people's spiritual needs as a way to gain power and control. I agree that new terms can be vague and undefined and perhaps I should have more clearly articulated what I meant by it. So to be clear, I define it this way: spiritual abuse happens when someone uses another person's natural spiritual desire in order to benefit themselves. 

This can cover anything from a heavy-handed leadership to ruling boards who abuse a pastor's good will to people who physically or emotionally harm others because of the spiritual power they hold over them. For me, the distinctiveness comes when someone specifically targets spirituality as a weakness and manipulates through it. Highlighting the spiritual nature of this type of abuse also explains why so many people who have endured it either lose their faith or struggle to be a peace even when they are in a healthy church setting. 

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.