Spiritual abuse is a prolific problem in the church. It is tempting for many of us in the church to distance ourselves from it by suggesting that this is a problem everywhere, or that it is a problem isolated at the individual level. In other words, don’t blame Christianity for the behavior of these abusers. There’s much about that sentiment that I can appreciate. Jesus is, obviously, very different from a spiritual abuser. Yet, we do have a major problem within the Christian community. The reality of spiritual abuse (along with sexual abuse) happens far too frequently for us to simply dismiss it as an isolated issue. We have a systemic problem in Evangelicalism and in the church that we must address. Part of addressing this problem means becoming more aware of the patterns used by abusers. In this series we have been exploring how Jesus rebukes spiritual abusers. Looking particularly at Matthew 23 we have highlighted a number of characteristics of spiritual abusers and we look to that text again in this post to see yet more.
Repeatedly we have pointed out how spiritual abusers use their knowledge of the Scriptures to exempt themselves from responsibility and heap burdens onto others. In Matthew 23 Jesus notes particularly how the Pharisees used their expertise in the law to emphasize trivialities and ignored the more weighty matters which God emphasized. So, Jesus rebukes them, saying:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (v. 23-24)
The Lord had commanded of the Israelites that they were tithe everything that came from the land, “whether a grain from the soil or fruit from the trees” (Leviticus 27:30, NIV). They were to take a portion of everything and dedicate it to the Lord, for it all belonged to Him. Here, the Pharisees are taking that principle and applying it specifically to these very tiny herbs, mint, dill, and cumin. The practice is not itself wrong, in fact it may represent a good understanding of how vast the scope of the Lord’s claim on the earth is and how much indebtedness man has to Him. Yet, Jesus rebukes them because they have obsessed over the minutia and have neglected the larger emphasis of God’s Word. In the language of the hyperbolic statement at the end of the passage, they strain gnats and swallow camels.
God had an overarching concern behind all His laws: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. The religious leaders have obsessed over a small detail but in the process have ignored the major point of God’s law. They emphasize the lesser details and God wants them to emphasize the greater! Yet, if pressed on their faithfulness to the Lord the Pharisees were quick to point to their compliance at the most trivial level as evidence of their faithfulness. “Look, we tithe even dill!” It’s a form of self-justification before others.
This is how spiritual abusers operate. They emphasize trivialities while neglecting the weightier matters of the law. They do this in order to justify themselves but without having to actually worry about matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Sure, they may be selfish and oppressive in the home, but they give more than 10% of their income to the church! Sure, they may demean their wives and children behind closed doors, but they sing in the choir or serve in children’s ministry, or have a daily prayer schedule. Are these matters unimportant? No, but if you are using them as an excuse for other sins they don’t mean anything. If you are using these religious duties as a self-justification against critiques for more weighty failures then they don’t mean anything. If you are using your participation in choir and ministry as an example of faithfulness, while also neglecting to love your wife like Christ loved the church then you are a “hypocrite”!
The Scriptures are authoritative in several different ways. We may, for example, speak of “content authority” – the Bible is true and authoritative in all that it says. We may also speak of “emphatic authority” – the Bible is true and authoritative in the way it says and in the emphasis it contains. Spiritual abusers highlight content authority, often to the smallest degree. But they fail to support the emphasis of Scripture. The Pharisees focused on tithing herbs, but God’s law emphasized justice, mercy, and faithfulness. In one sense, their focus on the smallest detail was a complete failure to support the authority of Scripture. For they may have thought they were supporting the content authority of Scripture, but a refusal to use that content to emphasize what God emphasizes means you don’t really even understand the proper use of the laws about tithing. The same is true for spiritual abusers. An obsession on smaller duties apart from the larger emphasis of Scripture is a failure to read Scripture rightly and a failure to submit to it.
The truth, of course, is that the real emphasis of all of Scripture is Jesus himself. He is at the heart of the Bible. So, earlier in Matthew (chapter 5:17), Jesus tells us that He came to fulfill the law. Any use of the Scriptures that doesn’t direct people to the grace of God in Christ is a fundamental distortion of Scripture. Furthermore, Jesus himself teaches that all the law is directed towards love – love of God and love of others (Mattew 22:34-40). Any use of the Scriptures that doesn’t orient us towards love of God and love of others is a misuse of Scripture. We may evaluate spiritual abusers, then, through these lenses:
- Do they use Scripture to help others see and experience Jesus?
- Do they use Scripture to help others love God?
- Do they use Scripture in order to love others?
- Do they use Scripture to harm, condemn, and oppress others?
- Do they use Scripture to excuse their sin and unfaithfulness in weightier matters?
Spiritual abusers emphasize the lesser things and neglect the weightier matters of God’s Word.