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God’s judgment on spiritual abuse

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Posted by Ros Clarke, 18 Jul 2019

Ros Clarke examines three Bible passages containing examples of spiritual abuse and showing God's judgment on those who do it.

Spiritual abuse may be a relatively new term and one that is not always well-defined or well-understood, but it is not a new concept. The Bible gives us multiple examples showing clearly how it is possible for people to manipulate, bully, use, coerce, control and abuse others in a spiritual context. And it leaves us in no doubt about God’s views of those who do such things.

1 Samuel 2
Two kinds of abuse are mentioned here: priests claiming for themselves that which should have been God’s, and the use of shrine prostitutes.

Preventing others from worshipping God
In the first case, the priests are preventing the Israelites from making their offering of meat to the Lord by insisting on claiming their share first. If the Israelites refused, the priests instructed their servants to threaten to take it by force. This is clearly coercive behaviour, using force or threatened force, to compel the Israelites to give up their offering. It is spiritual abuse because it denies the Israelites their freedom to make their offering, and because it is the spiritual authority of the priests which is being abused in order to coerce.

God’s judgment on this specific abuse is given in v17: “This sin of the young men was very great in the Lord’s sight, for they were treating the Lord’s offering with contempt.”

Using spiritual authority to commit other kinds of abuse
In the second case, Eli’s sons are having sex with “the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.” It is hard to know precisely how the women had come to be in this position or what the nature of the transaction was with them: rape, sexual slavery or prostitution. In any case, this is not a situation in which the women could have given free and full consent. This is surely sexual abuse, and since it occurs within a context where the men had authority because of their status as priests, and the women did not, it is also spiritual abuse.

God’s judgment on the sons of Eli is given by the man of God in vv27-36, climaxing in vv 31-33: “The time is coming when I will cut short your strength and the strength of your priestly house, so that no one in it will reach old age, and you will see distress in my dwelling. Although good will be done to Israel, no one in your family line will ever reach old age. Every one of you that I do not cut off from serving at my altar I will spare only to destroy your sight and sap your strength, and all your descendants will die in the prime of life.

Ezekiel 34
In Ezekiel’s prophecy we find a more general indictment of Israel’s priests, those who should have been the shepherds of Israel:
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.’”

Using spiritual status for personal gain
These priests were taking the milk, wool and meat from the flock. That is, as spiritual leaders, they were using their power to exploit the people for their own personal gain. This could be financial or material gain, but it could also include using their spiritual authority as a way of increasing their power, status, influence or reputation at the expense of other people.

Neglecting those for whom they should have cared.
Neglect is recognised as a form of abuse in domestic situations and in this case, it exists within a spiritual situation. The primary way in which these priests have neglected their flock is in their failure to teach, to nurture, to strengthen and to encourage. They have failed to give the appropriate warnings and rebukes needed to stop the flock from straying.

Neglect is not being stretched to capacity and therefore being unable to give all the care we would want to. Neglect is not the appropriate exercise of biblical church discipline.

Neglect is deliberately refusing to care for some or all of the sheep God has entrusted to us. Neglect is refusing to recognise the needs of the sheep or being unwilling to help them. Neglect can be ignoring, excluding, dismissing or demeaning people or groups of people.

Ruling harshly and brutally. 
The priests were not wrong to rule. It was right and proper for priests to exercise their God-given authority to teach and instruct the people. Indeed, part of the criticism levelled at them is that they weren’t doing that. This accusation is about the manner in which they exerted their authority: harshly and brutally. They did not care about the effects of their demands on their sheep, who were scattered and lost, who were left weak, sick and wounded. Harsh and brutal rule can be measured by its effects on the flock. By contrast, gentle and tender shepherds exercise their leadership in a way which strengthens and heals.

God’s judgment on these shepherds comes in v10: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.

1 Peter 5
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.

Serving self rather than others
Peter’s instructions to elders in Christ’s church warns them about two potential kinds of spiritual abuse. The first is similar to one we’ve already seen in Ezekiel: pursuing dishonest gain rather than being eager to serve.

It is abusive to use other people for the sake of one’s own interest. It is particularly abusive to do so dishonestly. Even more so when the people being used are the very ones who should have been served. Again, this dishonest gain might be in terms of power, status, influence or reputation as well as financial or material gain. It is the spiritual status of the elder which is being used to achieve this dishonest gain, so this is spiritual abuse.

Lording over others
Elders were leaders in the church. They had responsibility and authority. But Peter was very clear that this ought not to be abused by an attitude of superiority. Elders were not to use their status as a way of belittling others or demanding greater honour for themselves. Instead they were to be examples to the flock. They ought to behave in the same way they expected others to behave, with respect and humility.

Lording over others can easily lead to manipulation and bullying. It can silence others whose voices should be heard. It can become coercive and controlling. It abuses the spiritual status of the elder to the detriment of the very ones for whom they should be caring.

Not only church leaders
These examples all focus on leaders, but I hope it is clear that abuse of spiritual authority is not limited to our church leaders. Small group leaders, youth and children’s workers, churchwardens and PCC members, diocesan officers, even just those who are older, well-respected members of churches, can all be in a position to exert undue influence, to coerce and control, to manipulate or to bully.
There are many ways in which ordinary members of our churches, just as much as leaders, might lord it over others, be harsh, brutal or neglectful, or use their position for personal gain. Whenever abuse happens within a spiritual context, especially when spiritual status is at play, this is spiritual abuse.

This is by no means an exhaustive analysis of biblical teaching on spiritual abuse but it does demonstrate that this is something which is real and serious. This should not be surprising. We know that God never takes it lightly when people abuse their power, and we should expect him to take it even more seriously when such abuse is done in his name.

This post is part of a series examining and reflecting on spiritual abuse in the Bible and in our contemporary church context.
1. Spiritual abuse
2. God’s judgment on spiritual abuse
3. What is spiritual abuse?
4. Guarding against spiritual abuse
5. Spiritual abuse of children and young people

Ros Clarke is Associate Director of Church Society and Course Leader of the Priscilla Programme

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