The worship song lifted my soul as tears welled up like a dam, ready to be released. I bit my lip. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. It’s been years since the day harsh words pierced my heart and I’m still scared to let anyone see my tears, especially a pastor.
I’m not alone. There are many in church pews each Sunday who feel the same, wincing at certain phrases or words, crying through sermons, or feeling numb to it all. The harmful effects of spiritual abuse run deep and long in the rivers of our hearts. Many victims have anxiety about attending church while others refuse to go at all. Heartbreakingly, some even reject Jesus altogether.
In his book Bully Pulpit, Michael Kruger defines spiritual abuse this way:
“Spiritual abuse 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 maintaining his own power and control, even if he is convinced he is seeking biblical and kingdom-related goals.”
Those who’ve walked through the devastation of spiritual abuse will find ourselves wrestling with many lies. Here are a few we must fight against.
Lie: The hurtful words spoken to you define you.
When a person experiences abuse from a leader in the church, they might become plagued by the words spoken to them. Some leaders have twisted Scripture to manipulate their congregants. These men are often harsh, lacking grace, and drawing conclusions that go beyond the biblical mandates on confronting sin.
Whether we experienced words spoken in a private meeting, words directed at us from the pulpit, or gossip spoken about us, these hurtful comments can become a banner over our life—accusations that reverberate in the walls of our minds. Michael Kruger explains that when a pastor says something derogatory to a congregant it can be particularly crushing: “It can make a person doubt what God thinks of them.”
Our picture of ourselves can be confused with the portrait painted by a fallible shepherd rather than our Good Shepherd. Yet, our identity stands, fixed in Christ. No matter what words are thrown at us like mud, the truth of our new life and new nature remains. We are united with our Savior; no one can change the truth of who we are: beloved, saint, priest, forgiven, redeemed, clean (Col. 3:12; Rom. 1:7; 1 John 1:9; Eph. 1:7; 1 Cor. 6:11).
Lie: God doesn’t care.
When we are wounded by a leader called by God to shepherd us, it can feel like God is ignoring our pain. Maybe he cares more about the success of a man’s ministry as a whole than the individuals he’s harmed. Do the tears we cry and the fears we now hold mean anything to God?
Scripture is clear that leaders of God’s people are not to be domineering (Mark 10:42–45; 1 Pet. 5:3). In Ezekiel 34, God rebukes the shepherds of Israel who were abusing the sheep. He accuses them of ruling with force and harshness and in response declares he is against them, and that he “will rescue [his] sheep from their mouths.” (Ezek. 34:4, 10). God doesn’t turn a blind eye when his children are mistreated. He rescues us from wolves dressed in shepherd’s clothing.
Lie: Healing happens quickly.
We might expect healing to happen fast, but the wounds of spiritual abuse have many layers and it will take many years to mend them.
Common struggles faced after experiencing spiritual abuse are fear, anxiety, undue shame, depression, anger, and even PTSD. We might struggle to trust church leaders. Many feel isolated. Most heartbreaking, some have trouble discerning what is true about God. The wounds are deep, and healing takes time. Our long-suffering God will never leave us. He is with us through every step toward healing—and every step backwards.
Your Good Shepherd goes before you and carries you through every question, fear, and doubt you grapple with. He is ever-near, holding you close (Isa. 40:11). Be patient with yourself as you heal.
Lie: You don’t need God’s church.
There’s been a great exodus from churches in the last few years. Many are walking away from Christ, some due to spiritual abuse. The truth remains, though, that we need the body of Christ. The church is vital to the man or woman who has been spiritually abused.
Some of you have experienced gaping wounds at the hands of those who were called to protect you. I understand what it’s like to sit in a church pew, fighting back hot tears. I know how it feels to pretend everything is okay when your soul is drying up. It might seem easier to forsake gathering with people who have the potential to hurt you, but we must strive to find a church where we can plug in, serve, and be served. We need other believers. God can heal our hearts from spiritual abuse, but we cannot separate the head from the body. We need both (1 Cor. 12:12–37).
We may be scared to believe in the goodness of the local church some days, but we can believe in the goodness of God. He isn’t finished with his bride yet.
When Shepherds are Bad, Jesus is Still Good
Spiritual abuse is a tragedy, sometimes leading people away with millstones as they reject Jesus. May it not be with you. May he sustain your faith through this storm, helping you spot the lies and rest in the truth.Some shepherds are bad, but Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He sees your wounds and comes to your defense. He is a refuge for wounded sheep.
 Michael J. Kruger, Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2023), 24.
 Michael J. Kruger, Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2023), 27.