There’s something uniquely damaging about spiritual abuse. Permit me to quote two scriptures, from Psalm 55 and Proverbs 25. I don’t claim that they prove something on their own, but I do believe they help describe the aftermath of abusive spiritual leadership.
Destructive forces are at work in the city; threats and lies never leave its streets. If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God, as we walked about among the worshippers.The believer can expect to have troubles in “the world”. But if the place where we seek God together is toxic and destructive, where is one supposed to go?
And the one from Proverbs:
Like a city that is broken into and without walls, is a man who has no control over his spirit.The person who has submitted to abusive and ungodly leadership has invariably been tricked into surrendering the control of his spirit to a leadership hierarchy that does not truly love or respect him. This leaves the heart unguarded and extremely vulnerable to attack. Whoever’s fault that was, the damage is done, and repairing it is often too great a burden to carry without the right kind of help. (Building up others according to their needs, if I may presume to re-use Ephesians 4:29.)
Now, of course, the abused believer needs to forgive in order for this repairing of damage to happen. Thing is… most people who’ve been significantly hurt by leadership have indeed tried very hard to discuss and resolve the issue with the leaders. And the leaders have invariably said, you’re the problem; you sort it out, and if you’re upset about that, well, you’re rebellious and bitter, and you need to sort that out too. In other words, they have demanded forgiveness, such that the victim cannot easily forgive them without feeling that he is, still, being controlled. I claimed above that spiritual abuse is uniquely damaging: here’s why. The ungodly shepherd not only inflicts damage, but poisons the very means God has given to repair that damage. [emphasis added]
To “forgive”, in both English and NT Greek, means to send out or release, and is an act of judgement. Judgement requires authority – the very thing that is stripped from the believer by abusive leadership. Regaining that authority, and seeing the leaders as peers (“a man like myself”, in the verse from Psalm 55 above) whom one actually has the power to forgive, can be a messy process involving a lot of anger on the way. And yes, sometimes bitterness; that’s ungodly, true, but that’s all the more reason not to hide it. And it needs someone to stand alongside those who once were powerless and oppressed, and openly defend them. ...