One of the hallmarks of organizations which are characterized by spiritually abusive leadership/Teachers is to have an assembly of followers which have failed, through many reasons, to develop their independent thinking skills. And certainly when it comes to the world of the “spiritual” those who lack the tools for independent and mature judgment can be subject, rather intensely, to the ambiguous and equivocal language of those who wish to trap them (though they will say otherwise) in their manicured world of spiritual micromanagement and oversight of others.
What has me thinking about this more so than ever is the interaction I have had with many people, both in person and online, in the Neo-Charismatic, Neo-Calvinistic, Neo-Reformed and Neo-Puritan (NeoCCRP) circles as it relates to the errors (both in practice and doctrine) of their icons and most recently the public acknowledgment by CJ Mahaney (a Neo-CCRP and one of the leaders of The Gospel Coalition and T4G which required the prolonged approval and promotion of Reformed Teacher/personalities such as John Piper, John MacArthur, Tim Keller and Al Mohler and makes one wonder how this was missed for so many years right under their noses, working arm in arm with Mahaney but let's save that for another day) of his abuses as head of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) which have become public information, fully detailed online for those who wish to search for them. These are not matters of hearsay but issues both he and the ministry he headed (until his recent temporary stepping down) acknowledge in general with the specific charges to be dealt with, one by one, and adjudicated by other mediating parties. Many are beside themselves upon what they are now learning about SGM and Mahaney and are in full denial/minimization mode when they need not be, but they do not have the independent thinking skills necessary to deal with this disaster hence "Operation Panic".
However, this article is not about that issue specifically but about those who are, at large, subject to this kind of manipulation and control within various ministries. I have watched, in other sects, the very kind of cultish practices that did (and apparently still do) characterize SGM. I recall as an independent Baptist first hearing a man named Jack Hyles who was being adored by a group of young men at the college which I was attending. These young men solicited my opinion regarding the Hyles' sermon to which they were listening (but looking back I think they were more enamored with his theatrical narrative which I believe they were convinced was a critical feature of genuinely Godly preaching). I remember, vaguely, the message had to do with men and women and something about women submitting to men. And the claim by Hyles was that this referred to all women submitting to men. I suspected, simply from spiritual instinct, that this was amiss. I later looked up the passage only to discover it referred only to a wife yielding to her husband and not all men (the Greek word was not anthropos-all men but aner-her husband), the Greek made the difference. Later, when bringing this up to this same fanboy club, it fell on deaf ears. They didn’t want to hear that their icon was wrong and actually, from that day forward, I was somewhat anathema to this little clique. I was amused by their posturing but saddened for their ignorance and enslavement. Nevertheless, I learned a lesson about independent judgment and its cost on a small scale which later, I discovered, does not change on larger scales.
What was the problem? They had not developed capacity to make independent judgments and certainly were not being encouraged to by anyone around them. It did not take me long to realize that this particular ministry was not going to suffice for the long term and eventually its role in my life was ended because such a place was simply a hotbed for spiritual abuse and tyranny. When we do not teach independent thinking skills and spiritual independence, we simply enslave and abuse other believers.
But what I observed I have seen repeated over and over again, everywhere, and it has left a deep impression in me. This phenomenon is not limited to Christians but exists in all of humanity. However, my concern is with Christians where such should be the rare case and not the rule, yet it appears to be so in many quarters which profess to be out in front in modeling mature ministry. Hence, a few of things have come to mind for one to consider when evaluating whether or not they are a candidate for spiritual abuse.
1. Are You Ministry Dependent for Personal and Private Decisions?
Each one of us comes to a point in life where we make decisions regarding our vocation, marital status and partner, the purchase of a home, transportation, clothing and so on. And there are two ends to this, either you are able to make completely independent judgments or you are completely unable.
For the Christian, the place is to make independent judgments but with one major caveat; those judgments must be formed through the application of God’s Word. While you should be making independent judgments they should not be independent of God’s Word, rather yielded to the principles and limits contained therein.
However, in an unhealthy ministry with predatory leadership such subordination to God’s Word is taught as synonymous with being subordinate to “the ministry”. They replace “God’s Word” with “the ministry” and develop this mind frame within their ranks so that when a member comes to make personal decisions that member develops dependency on “the ministry” and not on their own thinking skills and the illumination of God’s Spirit in their life through the application of biblical principles. Instead, they are taught and encouraged to allow some agent in that ministry to do their thinking and deciding for them and of course you have heard the horror stories of those who do not fully acquiesce!
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, it is of no other believer's business what car you decided to buy and drive, what house you decide to purchase, whom you decide to marry, where you go to school, how much you give to a ministry or what clothes you wear and so on. Those are your judgments to make. The call of God is for you to apply as much of His Word as you can so that you may make premium decisions of the greatest benefit to yourself, your family and all those around you. But it is never, never, I repeat never, the business of any ministry to attempt to dictate, manipulate or even interfere mildly with such processes (solicited counsel notwithstanding but even that counsel should have strict limits and seek to enable you to make your own decision without such counsel implying any posture, pro or con, as a social reward or punishment, for doing or failing to do what they might imply you should do). They are teaching you to question yourself and depend on them, not develop spiritual maturity, spiritual self-esteem or spiritual confidence so that you can live your life of faith before God, rather before them.
2. Does the Ministry/Teacher Lead You to Spiritual
or Spiritual Dependence? Independence
One of the fundamental elements a person will find in unhealthy ministries is the Teacher of that body (often called the Pastor, Teaching Elder or Pastor/teacher but essentially the one whom the body recognizes as the head, thus given the primary role of providing indoctrination) failing to teach his people to wean themselves from spiritual milk and spiritually childish needs. Such Teachers keep their members in perpetual spiritual diapers. They do so through intimidation, fear, spiritual self-aggrandizement, mysticism of which they have the clearest interpretation and general posturing where such Teachers speak to their members in patronizing terms and use dependent language, always questioning the determinations of members that might be made without the counsel of some ministry agent.
This is not what is prescribed by the Bible. That is called infancy or at best spiritual childhood. Now if you want to stay in diapers or spiritual pull-ups and claim you are a “big boy now” because you didn’t soil yourself, well have at it but you are inviting spiritual abuse and spiritual tyranny into your life.
God’s plan for your life is to take His Word with you from the worship meeting and apply it by faith all by yourself, not by phone call to some controlling agent of the church nosing into your life. Yes, you might need your hand held as a new convert but a healthy ministry will be doing its best to accelerate your independence and bring you to a point where, for example, when you are having a baby you don’t call the Pastor at three in the morning, instead you go to the hospital and whatever prayers and spiritual exercises need be done you do them because you are more than a “big boy now” you are a spiritual adult and later, when it is appropriate, you can notify friends and ministry support for prayers.
So ask yourself in every way possible with every detail considered, is this what your church and Teacher is doing or are they leaning in some way, even lightly, toward spiritual dependence and not spiritual independence?
3. Do You Really Want to be Spiritually Independent and Able to Make Independent Judgments?
The Bible talks about leaving behind childish things and moving on to mature things. This axiom is true in all facets of life. One of the wonderful things about spiritual childhood is that you have many people holding your hand and either making decisions for you or having a certain oversight to make sure you do not drink from bottles marked "danger". It takes a certain pressure off of a person and protects them in their ignorance. And there is a certain kind of super-purity during this time where the concentrated biblical milk, supercharged with new vitamins causing all kinds of growth and pleasant experiences, is a place we never wish to leave. But we have to because we must mature.
And maturity means scars. It means loss and new gain and more loss and more gain and great loss and great gain and pain and peace and more pain and more peace and great pain and great peace. It means coming to terms with things we once found enlightening that might, actually, no longer be fit for us and in fact, might now be poisonous. While God uses crooked sticks to draw straight lines, in our maturity we must come to grips with the fact that our hands may be grasping those crooked sticks (Gurus and personalities) instead of following that straight line because that straight line keeps on going and that crooked stick has its limits and flaws.
To be spiritually independent and to make independent judgments means many things such as loss of friends who wish to stay dependent or semi-dependent and have some one or some group do part or all of their thinking for them. And certainly it means the scorn of ministry personalities and leadership who have a designed government intended to keep control of your life in so many inappropriate ways. They all will reject you when you begin to exercise your independence and spiritual autonomy. To be mature, to be spiritually independent, may mean coming to a point of disagreement with some of your favorite Teachers and rejecting, possibly, many things about them (in practice and/or doctrine) though in their infancy they were used by God to care for you. It isn’t easy my dear friends.
There is a cost. You act in faith alone. You no longer become an expert at regurgitating John Calvin, Martin Luther or Augustine or any other notable Teacher or any privately esteemed teacher, rather you develop your spiritual capacity and theological perspicacity to the point of knowing when any man is right or wrong and live with confidence by faith in your findings.
But also it means knowing that you do not know everything and you are not finished learning and while epiphanies might occur as to coming to a greater understanding of something, even those are subject to refinement, modification, correction or recantation upon even greater learning. No it isn’t a place of great personal security but spiritual independence is a place of great personal and spiritual peace, confidence, and blessing.
If you have endured spiritual abuse, remove yourself, now, completely. Cry your tears of hurt, that is normal but do not pity yourself or see yourself as a perpetual victim or that will, indeed, be your perpetual lot. Find a ministry that promotes spiritual independence and values independent judgment and teaches its members this so that you may be brought to such strength and spiritual poise and never be in that place again but as well, be in a place to help others as they are drowning. Don't be a candidate for spiritual abuse, develop your spiritual autonomy.