by Becca Ehrlich
In this month’s issue, we learned what spiritual abuse is, and why it’s so damaging. We often overlook spiritual abuse because we either don’t know it exists, or think it’s not as “bad” as other forms of abuse. But all types of abuse are destructive to us and to Jesus’ message of unconditional love for all people.
Spiritual abuse frequently happens at the hands of spiritual or religious leaders, be it a pastor, a deacon, or other leader/leaders in a congregation or faith-based organization. When a leader models abusive behavior, others in the organization often follow suit. Unhealthy and abusive behaviors are then perpetuated for years to come—unless something happens to break the cycle of abuse.
There are many models of leadership in the Bible, but there is one characteristic that comes up again and again: God does not want leaders to spiritually abuse people.
A big part of spiritual abuse is power; specifically, power over others, rather than power for others. Spiritual abusers repeatedly use their power to keep people in line through tactics like intimidation, shame, fearmongering, and censorship—all done in the name of God and faith, or so they say.
We read in the Bible, however, that leaders are not to use their power in this way. In Matthew 20:25-28, Jesus gives us a different model of leadership:
“But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you, but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.”
For Jesus, leadership is not about using one’s power to push people down through abuse. It’s about serving others. As followers of Jesus, we are invited into leadership that raises people up, empowers them, and encourages them to live into their calling from God.
This is even more apparent in Jesus’ speech about the religious leaders of his time, the Pharisees. In Matthew 23:1-33, Jesus offers multiple “woes” to the Pharisees for their spiritually abusive leadership. Jesus lists many of the ways they have abused people: through placing burdens on others that they themselves won’t lift; acting in self-important ways that make people feel less than; for using entry into heaven as a weapon; for putting money and profit above spiritual care of the people; for making a show of their devotion yet not focusing on “justice, mercy, and faith” (v. 23); acting as hypocrites; and rejecting and abusing messengers of God.
In the middle of Jesus’ address about the leaders’ abuse, he again reiterates what non-abusive leadership should look like: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (v. 11-12).
Jesus, then highlights the need for spiritual leaders who will serve out of humility and service, not abuse of power. 1 Peter 5:1-5 further expands how a spiritual leader should act: “Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it, not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock….And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’”
Spiritual leaders are those who lead judiciously and fairly, not through “compulsion” or for their own gain; through a living example rather than “lording it over” others; and in humility. This definition of leadership is the opposite of those who spiritually abuse others.
As followers of Jesus, we are called by God to lift up healthy models of spiritual leadership, and to recognize and stop spiritual abuse so that everyone can feel safe and loved in congregations and religious organizations. We can take action to end spiritual abuse and demonstrate leadership that empowers all people to serve God and others.
1. Describe an example of good leadership that you’ve experienced. What characteristics were the same as some of the Biblical characteristics in this article?
2. How are these models of leadership in the Bible different than what society considers to be a good leader?
3. How can you encourage healthy leadership and stop spiritual abuse in your own context?
Empowering God, you are a God of love and justice. Help us to lift up leaders who lead with humility, acceptance, and love, and to take actions to stop spiritual abuse when we see it happening. When you call us to lead, give us the courage to be healthy leaders that use our power for others and not over others. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Becca Ehrlich is an ELCA pastor. She blogs about minimalism from a Christian perspective at www.christianminimalism.com and her book, Christian Minimalism: Simple Steps for Abundant Living, was released in May 2021. She is passionate about helping folks connect with God and live more simply, in ways that make sense for their own life contexts.