Spiritual abuse is so devious because it does not merely oppress individuals but it misrepresents God to them. Many victims of a spiritually abusive spouse have struggled to understand God apart from the strict and inconsistent judgments of their abuser. Spiritual abusers so misrepresent God that they represent a different religion altogether. In fact, spiritual abusers “convert” their victims to a false religion.
In Matthew 23 Jesus lays out a series of “woes” to the religious leaders. In the first two “Woes” he cries out against the Pharisees for failing to lead people to God. Jesus says:
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
Jesus notes here, in two different phrases, that these religious leaders are creating converts of a different religion. He notes first that they are “shutting the Kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. Spiritual abusers have a way of actually keeping people from experiencing the grace, compassion, and welcome of God. They so distort the teaching of Scripture and the character of God that those “who would enter to go” into the Kingdom are prevented. Secondly, Jesus notes that these individuals make “proselytes” or converts who are “twice as much a child of hell” as the Pharisees. Those who are “converted” to this way of living and thinking relate to God in terms of their performance, not Christ’s death for their sins. So they become consumed with behavior, legalism, perfection, and religiosity. They live out a false religion of works, instead of the religion of saving grace.
Now, does this mean that all victims of spiritual abuse are false converts? No. Jesus’ point is to emphasize the false teaching and discipleship of the Pharisees not the actual state of their victims. The reality is that many victims of spiritual abuse deeply love the Lord and believe the gospel, but their minds are clouded by their abuser’s words and actions. Between the constant criticism and the twisting of Scripture victims struggle to see rightly, they struggle to believe rightly. That is why I put convert in quotes. They are not necessarily true converts of a false religion based on works, but rather are discipled in destructive ways that challenge their true faith. They are victims and while some of these victims may not be true believers, many are and it is the tension between what they know to be true and what they hear from their abusive spouse that creates so much trouble for them.
The false religion of these abusers is not the example of Christ. Their constant critical attitude towards imperfection, or even sin, does not reflect the compassion of Christ who came to save sinners, not to condemn them (John 3:17). Even in this text Jesus demonstrates his approach to sinners quite differently from the approach of the Pharisees. He even offers grace and compassion to the Pharisees themselves if they will but repent of their wickedness. At the end of the chapter we read Jesus saying:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (v. 37)
Those who kill prophets and stone those who are sent are the very ones whom Jesus would gather. Jesus displays grace, compassion, and forgiveness. Yes, he speaks of judgment and punishment for sin too, but the contrast here is telling. Jesus is showing us the difference between his gospel and the false religion of the Pharisees.
Spiritual abusers disciple people to live like them, with a focus on performance and religiosity and with a bent towards condemnation. But their religion is false and it “shuts the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.” Thankfully, Jesus opens that Kingdom to all who come to Him, especially abuse victims.