Clergy Corner – The dangers of spiritual abuse

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Dr. Rick Puls.

■ By Rick Puls – Contributed

I talked to a young man once who had once been a member of a very large church. In everyday life he had difficulty being alone, so he enjoyed spending time with the people that he met in the church and felt secure in their fellowship. He relied on other people for comfort, reassurance, advice, and support. He had difficulty making decisions on his own and looked to the church for precise guidance.
This church fit his need. As he became deeply involved in the congregation, church leaders begin to dictate his behavior both in minor and major aspects of his life. They told him what to wear, how to cut his hair, what to say, where to live, what kind of vehicle to drive, who to have as friends, who to date, and, eventually, who to marry. At first he liked others making these decisions for him. Besides, as he saw it, they were godly men and women whose commands he could trust. However, when they told him who to date and marry, he began to question their motives and was quickly thrown out of the church.
Most of us are familiar with the concepts of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. What this young man experienced was a form of spiritual abuse. David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, co-authors of “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse,” write this description: “Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.”
In spiritually abusive churches, the pastor and senior leaders subtly position themselves to take the place of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives. Unless the pastor gives permission, members cannot leave these churches because of grave warnings that God will remove His blessings from their lives. Leaders coerce members into giving a disproportionate share of their finances, time, and energy to support the leaders and their goals, which are usually very self-serving.
Jesus once said to some of his followers, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you” (Matthew 20:25-26). God does not motivate us to follow Him through shame. He invites us to accept His invitation to a full and vibrant life. The Apostle Paul says in Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
On Friday, Mar. 15, the Hemet Valley Christian Church will host a workshop called, “Restoring Your Soul.” We will identify the 10 main characteristics of spiritual abuse and how to break free from it and find spiritual healing and refreshment.

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