Paul Coughlin Christian Blog and Commentary

Attributes of the Spiritually Abusive

Spiritual abuse can be hard to clearly recognize and decipher.  We need reliable guidance, and we need to get a good read on this problem if we want to take our thumos seriously.  The following are some of the characteristics of an abusive leader and an abusive belief system.  This list isn't exhaustive; it's designed to help us see common expressions of spiritual abuse as they relate to depleting us of courageous boldness and courageous love.


~The leader is usually the hero of his own stories.

~The leader assumes power and authority that the New Testament does not give.

~The leader cares more for polemics than people.  Specifically, he will spend much more time and energy on sermons that espouse a particular theological nuance than in seeking to nourish and nurture those in his care.  Perhaps he also will take denominational distinctions to the extreme.

~The leader places heavy burdens on others that he himself does not lift.  For example, he will reprimand his flock for not volunteering more time at church, yet he himself volunteers nowhere.

~The leader is big on making a solid religious impression on others, specifically in terms of personal piety.  As Jesus said of the Pharisees, the spiritual abusers of his day, "Everything they do is done for men to see."

~The leader goes to great lengths to ensure that people call him or refer to him by his religious title: Senior Pastor, Bishop, Reverend, etc.

~The leader's thumos rarely goes toward or is applied to life's weightier matters.  Also, some spiritually abusive leaders believe that all thumos heat, which they mistake for raw anger, is sinful, so they're careful never to express it—in public.  (One abusive pastor of mine praised his father from the pulpit numerous times for never, ever expressing anger.  I thought, This man grew up during World War II.  He was alive during the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin, Jim Crow, Pol Pot, and apartheid.  None of this unthinkable destruction made him angry?  Not even once?)

~The leader believes he is above correction by an "average," non-religiously titled person.

~The leader probably will adhere to the belief that he is part of your "spiritual covering."

~The leader expects others to clean up their act when in his presence.

~The leader carries and displays a worn-out Bible (usually black) to imply his spiritual maturity and also as a weapon that warns, "Don't question me."

~The leader sometimes will abuse prophetic portions of Scripture, ultimately to the benefit of his own popularity and to compel the growth of his church.

~The leader is arrogant, and the rules don't apply to him the way they apply to other people.  (A roommate of mine once saw our legalistic pastor leaving a Denny's restaurant.  Turns out he was short on cash; to help pay his bill, he pulled quarters out of a donation display by the register, one that was designed to raise money for kids in need of life-saving surgeries.)

~The leader might have a "dark curmudgeon" side to his personality, but more often than not he's very smiley.  He's almost always "up," never unhappy like you and me.  And he doesn't acknowledge having the same weaknesses others have—he may admit to getting grumpy with his kids or doing 30 mph in a 25, but that's about it.

~The leader frequently surrounds himself with earnest but low-thumos people.  This way he can ram his agendas through with very little resistance.  The rare person with thumos, the one who objects, soon finds himself on the outs.

~The leader has lost perspective on what really matters in life.  He makes moral and theological mountains out of molehills.

~The leader's attitudes and actions make him, and Christianity, look mighty irrelevant to the real lives of other people—he truly doesn't seem to care that much.  Some prefer "church" to be this way because it effectively keeps them in power.  Their big molehills form a sort of mountain range around them.

~The leader extols the feminine at the expense of (instead of the completion of) the masculine.  That is, he crushes thumos.  I've talked with numerous men who have been commanded, from the pulpit, during a service to "go home and apologize to your wife for being such a poor husband."

~The leader creates and delivers fine-tuned messages about not questioning authority. 

~The leader has an unhealthy preoccupation with purity, which makes him an odd duck around others' he knows this and takes it as a positive demarcation of his spiritual growth and superiority.  He actually thinks his lack of engagement with and investment in others will eventually convert them to his way of thinking.

~The leader (usually unintentionally) assassinates spiritual wonder, mystery, and "weirdness"—essential sources of spiritual growth and thumos health.


The most spiritually abusive people in turn-of-the-era Israel were the Pharisees.  By looking at how Jesus dealt with them, we get to see not only what God thinks of such people but how he lived and acted among them.  Seeing and embracing that reality is a huge factor in rescuing and salvaging our thumos.


And that's especially important, because people with wounded low thumos are drawn toward abusive institutions.  They usually came from homes where approval was rare, so they're prone to attend churches that emphasize religious performance and where pleasing the pastor is paramount.  They have yet to discern the difference between real guilt and false guilt.  If such people are young, bright, and idealistic, they're often drawn to charismatic leaders who express grand-scale and heroic plans for God but who spiritually abuse people along the way.


What did Jesus do when he witnessed such abuse?  He said nothing about playing nice or putting a cork in it or "Can't we all just get along?"  Rather, he confronted the abusers powerfully, aggressively, and courageously.  In fact, I think Matthew 23 should be renamed The Great Diatribe.  Writes minister Ken Blue:


Jesus was so focused on the problem of spiritual abuse that it was the only social evil against which he ever developed a platform.  It was the only cultural problem that he repeatedly exposed and opposed.  This is amazing when we recall that his culture was plagued by a host of serious social ills.  Jesus took no public stand against slavery, racism, class warfare, state-sponsored terrorism, military occupation or corruption in government.


Christ's thumotic anger toward spiritual abusers was unleashed without apology and in public, which gave those who were being spiritually abused permission to get out from under a crushing grip.  It gave them permission to affirm what they must have been pondering for a long time:  These guys aren't as good as they say they are, and somehow they're damaging me; I don't know how to describe it, and I don't really understand it, but it's messing me up and it's got me down.  Even after the cells have been opened and the razor wire has been cut down, those who've been imprisoned by spiritual abuse usually need someone to give them permission to leave; they require a rescuer.  Can you name one rescuer who did not possess an inner heat and martial spirit?


Indignation toward spiritual abuse—or lack thereof—says a lot about whether or not someone is capable of true ministry.  Writes David Seamands:


A person who cannot feel anger at evil is a person who lacks enthusiasm for good.  If you cannot hate the wrong, it is very questionable whether you really love righteousness.


And it's obvious that person does not possess a functioning courageous spirit; furthermore, he's probably hiding this fact behind a counterfeit gentleness.


A truly gentle person doesn't just lie down and let life happen to him and to others.  Gentleness means, even requires, that you use force—justly, yes, but you use it.  A truly gentle person is a truly virtuous person, and it's worth repeating here that part of the definition of virtue is the word force.


But what we often describe as a "gentle spirit" can be a mere disguise for timidity, passivity, even indifference.  This makes me think again of the smashed-down pastors' sons who've disguised their timidity as a gentle spirit; it's almost always their wife or ex-wife who points out the damage that's been done and is still being done, and by then it's often too late for their marriage.


Though we certainly need more of this virtue, our current gentleness-at-any-price policy is unbiblical.  (If we're always required to be gentle, then Jesus sinned.)  Here's what this fallacy often leads to in real life: One pastor's son who asked me to help him overcome passivity in marriage told me how his mother's "gentle spirit" made her the perfect Christian woman.


"She was always so gentle," he said warmly.  "She never got angry about anything.  She was perfect!" he gushed.


My inner Dr. Phil came to the forefront.  "Perfect?!" I exclaimed.  "In more than twenty-five years of ministry, she had to have seen wickedness and evil tearing people apart.  She had to have seen divorce, adultery, child abuse, drug addiction, homicide, and even suicide.  And she never became indignant, the way Jesus did, when she saw that kind of destruction?!"


As healers and rescuers, our proper expression of anger should be part of affirming to the abused that what happened to them was real and that it was wrong.  Our anger, rightly deployed, can serve as a beacon, a lighthouse, a lamp unto their feet.  Have you noticed that abusive people lie to their victims in some way or another?  That's not a coincidence.  Victims need thumos people to point this out for them and to shine light on the truth with thumotic power and conviction when appropriate.


There is much to grieve in this life, and responding to destructive forces without thumos power may well make us accomplices.  For many, gentleness is a disguise for being dispassionate spectators.


Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous FaithNo More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying. 

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