Despite all the emphasis on their supposed “spirituality,” the truth about abusers is that they are not very spiritual. They may know Scripture and doctrine, but ultimately they refuse to submit to the Word of God. In his final rebuke of the religious leaders in Matthew 23, Jesus highlights the fact that Pharisees do not submit to the Word of God. Spiritual abusers refuse to listen to God’s Word.
In verses 29-36 Jesus highlights yet another example of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Here he indicts them for decorating the tombs of the prophets while refusing to submit to the words of the prophets. We read:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
The Pharisees contended that they were not like their forefathers who murdered the prophets. Those men had so hated the Word fo the Lord that they would rather silence God’s servants than submit to their teachings. The Pharisees, however, point to their honoring of the dead. They built monuments and decorated the tombs of these Prophets. They say, “If we had lived during the days of our fathers we would not have joined in killing the prophets.” But Jesus challenges their assertion. For, they lived during the days of God’s greatest prophet (i.e. Jesus himself) and they were already plotting to kill Him. They would rather silence Christ than submit to God.
What was true of the Pharisees is true of all spiritual abusers: they refuse to submit to God’s Word. The spiritual abuser is challenged by God’s Word in countless ways, as we have seen throughout this series. They are called to greater personal holiness, to justice and mercy. They are called to internal change not just outward performance. They are called to protect and encourage, and to help others grow in their relationship with the Lord. Yet, all these calls and challenges from God’s Word go unheeded. They self-justify and assert that they are not like other sinners. They make excuses for why God’s commands don’t apply to them, but in the end it is ultimately about a refusal to submit to God’s Word.
Godly people, unlike abusers, submit to God’s Word. Abusers may know the Word of God (though in many cases their interpretations are biased and self-focused), but they do not follow that Word. James, Jesus’ own half-brother, warns those who would hear the Word but refuse to do it. He writes:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22-25)
He is more pointed when he says that faith without corresponding works is “dead” (2:14-26). The so-called faith of the spiritual abusers is actually a dead faith. It is hypocrisy. To quote the Word of God against others but to refuse to submit yourself to it is the height of hypocrisy. To misuse the Word of God to oppress, harm, and judge others, but to refuse to allow it to judge you is the height of hypocrisy. Godly people, when they are shown their sin from the Scriptures repent; abusers justify. Godly people, when they read Scripture apply truth to their lives and submit to the authority of God’s teaching; abusers attempt to silence the Word.
By murdering the prophets the forefathers of the Pharisees were not merely killing God’s servants. They were attempting to silence God’s Word and His authority in their lives. They did not want to submit, so they killed. James tells us about that too when he says that anger arises because the desires of our hearts are at war with in us, so we murder (James 4:1-2). We murder because others oppose our heart’s desire. In the case of these forefathers, God’s Word opposed their desires and so they sought to silence it. Likewise, the Pharisees themselves sought to silence God’s Son, because he opposed their desires. Abusers do the same.
When God’s Word challenges, rebukes, or corrects an abuser’s desire they try to silence God’s Word or those who would speak it. So, an abuser who is confronted and challenged may feign submission for a moment, but when they see that they cannot get their way they will become angry, justifying, and isolating. They will find a way to silence those who would deny them their desires. They will find a way to silence God’s Word. Murder may of course arise in some abuse situations – according to Justin and Lindsey Holcomb “75% of all domestic homicides occur” after abuse has been exposed or a victim is trying to leave/has left their situation (Is It My Fault?, 64). But in many cases the silence may be more emotional, psychological. Abusers seek to silence the Word of God against them wherever it is found and however it comes to them.
God’s Word, however, does not return void (Isa. 55:11)! It always accomplishes what it sets out to do. It pierces souls and is living and actively working on those who hear it (Heb. 4:12). It is important then that we speak the Word of truth and allow it to work. When pastors and counselors work with abusers they need to speak God’s Word and show the disparity between a hypocritical life and a repentant life. They need to challenge submission in tangible and holistic ways. Even if they decorate the tombs of the prophets, our call to abusers remains: submit to the Word of the Lord!