This series is in the midst of exploring the characteristics of spiritual abusers through the lens of Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23. In this chapter Jesus confronts and challenges the religious leaders on a number of hypocritical and oppressive behaviors. His strong words against spiritual abusers can be an encouragement to victims and a challenge to oppressors. In verses 25 and 26 in particular he challenges the motives behind their behaviors. Spiritual abusers are often characterized by greed and self-indulgence.
Jesus has already noted the spiritual abuser’s obsession with external appearance (v. 5-7). He speaks more forcefully in verses 27-28, where he compares the religious leaders to tombs which are whitewashed but are full of “dead people’s bones and uncleanness.” He notes it again in verses 25-26:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
The religious leaders clean the outside of the cup, but the inside is full of filth. The cup looks so pristine and clean. It looks like the cup you’d want to drink from…so long as you don’t tip it up to your face. Inside it is anything but clean. Having addressed the superficiality already, these verses highlight the motives that drive this hypocrisy: greed and self-indulgence.
Many spiritual abusers are driven by greed. That greed can be purely financial, like so many false teachers who use fear to induce people to give them money, or it can be a greed for favors, power, or influence. Power-hungry abusers manipulate others in order to maintain control over others, to increase their platform and influence. They are greedy for power. Greed actively seeks more. It craves and pursues greater personal gain. In abusive relationships those with all the power will use it in order to maintain their personal gain and advance it, and often at great cost to those under their thumb.
Spiritual abusers will use Scripture or doctrine to justify or promote their greed. In Matthew 23 we have already seen how the religious leaders use spiritual knowledge to exempt themselves from having to give sacrificially or keep their words. They swore, but not by the gold in the temple (v. 16), therefore they don’t have to keep their oath. Greed drives the spiritual abuser to manipulate, control, justify, condemn, and demean. They may be greedy for financial gain or possessions, or they may be greedy for power and influence. Either way, they will appear clean on the outside, but are full of greed on the inside.
Self-indulgence represents a broader exploration of what has already been discussed with greed. Greed is an intense selfish desire for a specific thing, like power, wealth, sex, or food, but self-indulgence is a more general selfish behavior. It is the “excessive or unrestrained gratification” of selfish desires. Abusers never tell themselves “no,” not really. They may temporarily refuse themselves something, but that is used later as a justification for their morality or love or self-sacrifice. Denial, if it ever comes, has an ulterior motive.
Abusers are fundamentally selfish people, and their abusive behavior is used to make everyone else feed that selfishness. So, a spiritually abusive husband will note that the Scriptures call wives to “respect” their husbands and will use this to argue that their preferences matter more than anyone else’s in the family. Respecting your husband means giving into his desires for everything. Wives, therefore, are expected to fix the food their husbands want, support all the recreational activities their husbands want, clean the house they way they want it cleaned, and dress and look the way they want a wife to look. His preferences are of supreme importance in the family and he will use Scripture to insist that his wife feed his selfishness. Some modern Christian teachers today perpetuate these ideas by stating that husbands have a right to expect that their preferences be honored, and wives have a responsibility to honor those preferences. So, Martha Peace argues that wives should submit to their husband’s standards for washed dishes (“Soap Bubble Submission”), Emily Jensen argues that if your husband wants a hot breakfast each morning then a good wife must get up early and fix him breakfast (“Wives Submit to Your Husbands Preferences”). That is not, however, what the text says and does nothing to protect victims of abuse from being controlled and managed by their spouses.
Scriptures calls husbands to “die to themselves” like Christ died for the sake of His bride, the church (Eph. 5:25). A husband’s desires, demands, and expectations need to be sacrificed for the sake of his wife. Marriage is not about serving a husband’s selfish preferences. It is about jointly honoring the Lord. However we talk about submission in marriage – and we should talk about it since it is in the Scriptures – we must never frame it in a way that promotes a husband’s selfishness and self-indulgence.
Spiritual abusers are driven by selfishness and greed. Christ calls husbands to model his self-sacrifice! If a man never denies himself, never sacrifices for the sake of others, always justifies his demands because it’s “best for the family,” then he is revealing motives that Jesus rebukes. The church should rebuke such motives too.