“Blind guides.” That’s what Jesus calls the religious leaders in Matthew 23. They are giving directions to others, without knowing where they themselves are going. It is a fitting description of all spiritual abusers. They counsel and guide without any real knowledge or orientation towards the truth. Spiritual abusers use spiritual concepts in foolish ways in order to support themselves.
In Matthew 23 Jesus rebukes the religious leaders because they give spiritual-sounding counsel but which is pure foolishness. We read:
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. (v. 16-22)
The religious leaders were making also sorts of silly exceptions to their oaths. They had made commitments but those commitments, they said, weren’t binding. So, if you swear by the temple, it is nothing. It’s swearing by the gold of the temple that really matters. Swearing by the altar, that’s excusable, but swearing by a gift on the alter is binding. Jesus points out, however, the stupidity of this concept. “Which is greater,” he asks. Your oath is really an oath made to God, that’s the ultimate point.
This foolish spirituality reveals a commonplace trend, however, among spiritual abusers. They have all sorts of silly spiritual notions that, on the surface, sound right, but which are distortions of God’s Word, distortions of truth, and which arise from both foolishness and selfishness. Often spiritual abusers will take concepts from the actual Scriptures and stretch them to unbiblical applications. Take, for example the Biblical description of the husband as the “head” of his household (Eph. 5:22-24). Many abusive spouses will stretch this concept to mean that they are “Lord” over their wives and they, therefore, have a right to demand their “compliance” on all matters. Add the support of various Christian authors to these distorted ideas and you have the makings of a real problem. One such author has suggested, for example, that if you wife fails to do the dishes and resists your expectation that she get them done, then you need to call the elders of the church to intervene. He says:
The first time the dishes are not done, he must sit down with his wife immediately and gently remind her that this is something which has to be done…If she complies he must move up one step, now requiring that another of her duties be done. If she continues to rebel after patient effort, he should at some point call the elders of the church and ask them for a pastoral visit. (Federal Husband, 27)
There are so many things wrong with this quote that it is hard to know where to begin. Failure to do the dishes is not a sin. Dishes are not a Biblically ordained wifely duty. Furthermore, why would a godly husband think the best response to dirty dishes is to correct his wife instead of doing dishes and helping around the house. Why would a godly husband not inquire about his wife’s day and ask how she is feeling and seek to ease anything that is overwhelming her or discouraging her? Why would a godly church think that the elders need to get involved at this kind of level? Yet, many men will operate this way and will trend more toward parenting their wives than living as a partner with them.
Spiritual abuse thrives on sounding spiritual but delivering up nonsense that is not grounded in Biblical truth. Rather, such notions are grounded in certain cultural ideas of homemaking and family dynamics. Jesus, teaches the disciples about the proper model of leadership when he contrasts the disciples and the Gentile rulers saying:
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. Butwhoever would be great among you must be your servant (Matt. 20:25-26)
What is the leadership model that Jesus desires for his followers? Jesus desires a model of servant-leadership. Spiritual abusers, however, will fashion spiritual-sounding concepts together to remove themselves from this obligation. What they devise is nonsense and foolishness, but it is foolishness ultimately designed to alleviate their responsibility.
The religious leaders in this text are seeking a way out of their commitments. They’ve sworn an oath but they’ve come up with a religious concept that allows them to break that oath, all without appearing irreligious. They swore by the temple, yes, but not by the gold of the temple, which is binding. Abusive spouses do this too. They make up religious and spiritual sounding rules which exempt them from their actual responsibilities. And often, because they control the spiritual counsel of the home their word is authoritative and final. Wives and children may often feel ill equipped to challenge a man’s interpretation of Scripture, even if it doesn’t sound accurate. They may feel afraid to challenge it even if they know the truth. Spiritual abuse thrives on sounding spiritual, but devising foolishness for selfish ends.
Jesus rebukes these men by pointing out the actual truth: they are accountable to God. Whatever religious nonsense they devise it won’t make them any less accountable to the Lord. Counselors, churches, and even spouses need to know the Scriptures well in order to combat this nonsense. Counselors and churches need to know it well so that they can assist victims in abusive relationships. Helping an abused spouses understand what the Word of God actually says can give her clarity and relief from her circumstances. Knowing the Scriptures well also provides opportunity, when appropriate, to confront and challenge abusers, to show them how their interpretations serve themselves but do not reflect the truth of Scripture. Spiritual abusers may come up with religious nonsense that supports their agenda and behavior, but they can never escape accountability before the Lord. Those who know the Scriptures want to hold them accountable to this truth too.