Jesus’ Rebuke of Spiritual Abusers

Spiritual abuse is one of the most damaging forms of oppression. All abuse is, of course, horrific, but spiritual abuse causes a victim to feel that their oppression is coming not merely from an abusive person, but from God himself. Twisting Scripture and using the Word of God to cause shame, doubt, insecurity, and condemnation in the lives of believers is a horrific practice. It leaves people feeling as though God is the one who is constantly judging and harassing them. Jesus, however, condemns spiritual abuse. Gaining clarity from Jesus on the nature of spiritual abuse, and his response to it, helps us in several key ways.

In her outstanding and clarifying work on abuse, Is It Abuse? (P&R, 2020), counselor Darby Strickland notes that Jesus speaks to issues of spiritual abuse. She identifies Matthew 23 as a primary text where Jesus rebukes the Pharisees who practice all sorts of spiritual control and manipulation on those under them. Jesus’ seven “woes” to these spiritual leaders give us some insights on both the practices of spiritual abuse and our Lord’s response to them. Throughout this mini series we will explore Matthew 23:1-36 to better understand spiritual abuse and God’s rebuke against it. This will be extremely helpful for us for several reasons.

First, identifying the practices of spiritual abuse can bring clarity. Spiritual abuse is hard to detect because it happens under the guise of religious practice. For example, Claire (not her real name) knew that offering advice on financial decisions was not sinful but her husband often rebuked her for it, saying, “God does not permit a woman to teach a man.” She began to feel confused about what was appropriate input and what was a violation of 1 Timothy 2:12 (I offer some further thoughts on this passage here). Over time she began to believe that she had no right to offer feedback or input on any decisions that her husband made in the home. In fact, he was the “decider” and she needed simply to respect his decisions. This did not, however, keep her from feeling discouraged and voiceless in her own life. In time, she began to resent God because this phrase was so often repeated in her home.

Being able to identify types of spiritual abuse allows us to better see it in real time, and to not fall prey to the misrepresentation and excuses for such behavior. Abusers are adept at using God’s Word to justify themselves or misdirect accusations of their own wrong-doing. While many abusers have the “appearance of godliness” they “deny its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). By learning about the types of spiritually abusive practices we can more accurately identify the proper use of Scripture and doctrine from their improper or use. This is important both for counselors and pastors who need clarity in order to be helpful, and for victims who feel the oppression but can’t quite explain why.

Secondly, understanding Jesus’ response to oppression helps to point us towards healing. Spiritual abuse causes victims to be deeply confused about God. They feel as though it is God, not their spouse, who is angry, controlling, and oppressive. After all, it is God’s Word which is being used as a hammer to beat them down. Identifying Jesus’ response to abuse allows us to see more clearly what God thinks about this wicked behavior and the misuse of His Word. This realization can offer real hope and healing to those who feel isolated from God because of spiritual abuse. It opens the door to believing afresh that God really does love and care for victims, that He is actually not an angry and malicious deity. It invites victims to come to Him and to see themselves as beloved children, not “annoying failures.” If we can see and believe that God truly does condemn the abusive behavior, and not the victim, then there is tremendous hope for healing.

In the coming weeks we will work our way through Matthew 23 and look at various manifestations of spiritual abuse therein described, and we will explore then how Jesus responds to these overall practices. This is a study that can benefit all of us, whether you are a counselor, a sufferer, or just a friend. We all need clarity because spiritual oppression deceives everyone and enslaves victims. Only the truth about abuse and Jesus’ response to it can help us; after all, as Jesus teaches, the “truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

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