Five Lessons from The Village Church and Karen Hinkley

Several readers have asked me to comment on the recent situation involving The Village Church in Dallas and how it has placed Karen Hinkley under church discipline.


The Village Church

Karen’s husband, Jordan Root, admitted to viewing child pornography over ten years, most recently as a missionary with SIM. Karen took steps to annul her marriage to Jordan and also publicized Jordan’s sin out of concern for possible child victims after their sending church, The Village Church, refrained from explaining the allegations to members. Karen terminated her membership and the church elders placed her under church discipline for failing to follow the church bylaws.

Normally I wouldn’t write about a specific church or situation, but this incident has gained so much attention—and I’ve seen so much chatter on Facebook threads with dissenting opinions—that it seemed like a public matter at this point with lessons applicable for all of us.

Full disclosure: as a Dallas Seminary student, I was classmates with Jordan Root and friends with Richard and Erin Brindley. I write as a Christian first, in hope that this situation will turn out for some good.

1.) Manmade rules – Large churches operate with layers of manmade laws called bylaws. This may seem necessary for churches which are larger than, say, a village, but it can make dealing with difficult situations like this clunky, complex, and sometimes unbiblical. I read through The Village Church (hereafter TVC) bylaws—all 22 pages—and they seemed similar to those of other organizations I’ve worked for, whether schools, businesses, or Christian nonprofits. Bylaws help organizations run effectively. The trouble comes when the leaders of a church confuse bylaws with scripture. By taking manmade rules—no matter how practical or seemingly wise—and elevating them to the place of scripture, churches are in danger of committing spiritual abuse. TVC, to its credit, in ARTICLE IX 9.1, says that, “Though the various theological statements of the Church reflect succinct summaries of biblical boundaries, it is the Bible itself to which we are in ultimate submission.” In this case I believe TVC has acted unbiblically. See point 2.

2.) Misuse of Church Discipline – The Bible says that church discipline should only be enacted against an unrepentant sinner who is in egregious sin (Matthew 18; 1 Corinthians 5.) The goal is always restoration. In this case, TVC has placed Karen Hinkley under what they describe as “church discipline” because they say she has failed to follow the church bylaws. This is an abuse of church discipline, since Karen has not sinned. For what it’s worth, the TVC bylaws themselves (ARTICLE XIII) say that church discipline can only be enacted against someone who has sinned. I sincerely hope that the elders at TVC will follow scripture first and not just their bylaws in this situation.

3.) Covenant Membership – TVC requires members to sign a covenant in which they agree to submit to the elders in the interpretation of the Bible and in a number of other areas. There are two types of covenants: unilateral and bilateral. Unilateral covenants are one-way. Only one person’s behavior impacts the covenant stipulations. God made a unilateral covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, where it was God’s faithfulness alone that guaranteed the covenant stipulations. In bilateral covenants, the covenant is conditioned on the behavior of both parties. It sounds like TVC is treating Karen’s signing of the Covenant Membership document as a unilateral covenant which Karen must abide by no matter what. I disagree. I would consider it a bilateral covenant in which the church elders must act truthfully and in a trustworthy manner as the Bible requires. If the elders act in a manner apart from God’s truth, or in a way that seems untrustworthy to a member, that member has the right and obligation to consider the covenant voided. TVC states that its elders are held at least to the standard of New Testament elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, which require biblical truth and trustworthiness. Karen Hinkley decided that the men she interacted with were not acting in a trustworthy manner in regard to her well-being and the well-being of potential child victims of Jordan. Her termination of “covenant” membership thus seems perfectly legitimate.

4.) Human Depravity and God’s Grace – I am concerned with how TVC views Jordan Root and also by what that says about the elders’ understanding of human depravity and God’s grace. TVC has taken certain measures to monitor Jordan in light of his addiction to child pornography. Jordan confessed to viewing child porn and to being stimulated by the thought of pre-pubescent girls for the last ten years. Karen says that he has admitted only to things in which he has been caught. She says that Jordan put himself in many situations where he could be alone with children over the last ten years. To warn potential victims, she wanted to publicize Jordan’s sin just as SIM did to the Root supporters. TVC took a different approach and tried to protect Jordan’s reputation while quietly taking measures to limit his contact with children. They have said that Jordan is walking in repentance and is getting counseling. That is good, but anyone who has dealt with pedophiles understands the potential depth, deceit, and damage a pedophile can cause over ten years. It seems simplistic to claim that Jordan has repented of his sin and is on the fast track to recovery. TVC should recognize that Jordan may have committed crimes or sins to which he has not admitted, and should exercise an abundance of caution to protect and notify children and parents. God’s grace covers repented sin, but it does not blind our eyes to human depravity and to the cunning of sinners who have lived a lifestyle of deceit. Anything less is cheap grace.

5.) Where are the Women Leaders? In the documentation about this situation, all of the leaders interacting with Karen from TVC were men. I understand that many churches believe that church elders must be males, but in a church the size of a village there must be some women leaders—call them pastors, directors, whatever—who can interact with a missionary wife whose husband has been caught in child pornography. TVC—and every church—would be wise to empower women leaders and ensure that women who are victimized can interact with other women and not just men.


I believe that Karen Hinkley is a courageous woman who has stood up to protect herself and potential child victims. I believe that The Village Church has unfortunately mishandled this situation and—despite the sincerity of its leaders—in some respects has acted unbiblically by abusing church discipline and revictimizing a victim while taking a simplistic approach to a pedophile. It is my sincere hope that TVC will recognize its error of exalting its bylaws to the place of scripture and will publicly apologize while taking steps to ensure that this never happens again.

Update, 6/11/15: Yesterday, The Wartburg Watch posted an apology from Matt Chandler and the Village Church elders to Karen Hinkley, and a statement of forgiveness from Karen Hinkley. I am so thankful to see how God has worked to bring healing and reconciliation in this matter, and how the TVC elders have humbled themselves and admitted their mistakes, sin, and mistreatment of Karen. Such an apology–and such forgiveness–is so rare in these days of image control, celebrity pastors, and mega churches. It is a beautiful thing to see reconciliation in the body of Christ. This is news that makes me smile.


30 Signs of Legalism: A Checklist

The average legalist does not know that he or she is legalistic. I didn’t. I thought I was just following God’s Word. I didn’t think I was a Pharisee; I thought I was righteous.


“Pharisee.” Emil Nolde, Creative Commons.

Legalism is rightly considered a disease in the church, but most of its sufferers mistake its symptoms for holiness. They think they have the mind of Christ and that everyone else is carnal. Legalism, for all its damage, can actually manifest in very subtle ways.

Is there a practical way to discern if you have legalistic tendencies? If legalism is a type of spiritual disease, is there a way to quickly distinguish its symptoms?

Definitions of Legalism

We can start with a couple of helpful definitions:

“Legalism: Strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious moral code.” – The Tenth Edition of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

“Legalists are people who add personal preference to accepted doctrinal teaching, accept these additions as having equal weight with doctrinal teaching, and apply these additions in the judging of others.” – David Miller, Breaking Free: Rescuing Families from the Clutches of Legalism

“Legalism is the reduction of life to mere technicalities. It substitutes code for conscience, ritual for worship, rectitude for holiness, morality for purity.” – Mark Buchanan, The Rest of God

But I’m No Pharisee

In Matthew 23 and Luke 11 Jesus confronts the legalism and hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Most churchgoers are familiar with both passages—the symptoms appear obvious. Perhaps you, like me, can wonder how the Pharisees overlooked their own legalism. And how did their followers not see them for what they were?

The reason that both the Pharisees and their disciples failed to spot legalism was because their religious practices were a close counterfeit of genuine worship. The same is true for today’s legalists. Few see themselves as modern day Pharisees. Instead, they believe that they are particularly observant Christians.

Checklist of 30 Legalistic Tendencies

Are there modern examples of lifestyle patterns or habits which might indicate that someone has legalistic tendencies? Below are some suggestions.

  1. I am continually scandalized by the driving habits of others. Yes or No.
  2. I believe that God loves me more when I behave. Yes or No.
  3. When I write a check to my church, I tithe to the penny. Yes or No.
  4. I entirely avoid alcohol, makeup, or jewelry out of fear of contamination. Yes or No.
  5. I usually stand out from the crowd because of my formal or conservative attire. Yes or No.
  6. When I encounter another professing Christian, I find myself judging their appearance. Yes or No.
  7. My good friends are all from one church or denomination. Yes or No.
  8. When I miss a Sunday service, I feel guilty. Yes or No.
  9. When I miss any church activity, I feel guilty. Yes or No.
  10. There are only a few Bible teachers who truly teach God’s Word. Yes or No.
  11. When I sin, I feel guilty even after I ask God to forgive me. Yes or No.
  12. I believe that small children should behave like miniature adults. Yes or No.
  13. In a snow-covered parking lot, I feel anxious because I can’t see the parking lines. Yes or No.
  14. When someone gives me a gift or does something kind for me, I feel unsettled until I can reciprocate. Yes or No.
  15. I always clean my house thoroughly before anyone visits—even if they’re just popping by. Yes or No.
  16. I want my children to avoid contact with sinful people. Yes or No.
  17. I prefer to do things myself rather than accept help from people who are sloppy or less conscientious than I am. Yes or No.
  18. There is a right way and a wrong way to do everything. Yes or No.
  19. I believe that God is most glorified through my preferred style of music. Yes or No.
  20. I believe that all scripture is equally applicable to my life. Yes or No.
  21. I have had several conversion experiences but still doubt my salvation. Yes or No.
  22. I have a sneaking suspicion that if Jesus returned while I was sinning, I would go to hell. Yes or No.
  23. I take pleasure in reporting or punishing people who commit minor infractions. Yes or No.
  24. I like to make an example out of wrongdoers. Yes or No.
  25. I feel guilty when I exceed the speed limit by even a few miles per hour. Yes or No.
  26. I avoid certain behaviors primarily because they are wrong, rather than because they are harmful. Yes or No.
  27. I feel morally obligated to finish every book I start. Yes or No.
  28. Others could describe me as bitter and depressed rather than joyful and kind. Yes or No.
  29. I feel unlucky or cursed if I skip Bible reading or prayer. Yes or No.
  30. I believe that God is more like a policeman and less like a fireman. Yes or No.

Some of these are more crucial than others, but if you circled “yes” to a fair number, it’s likely that you struggle with a distorted view of God and his Word. It’s likely that you are legalistic.


Legalists, whatever they may say, are miserable people. Life is a ledger and they are always trying to measure up. They feel better only through their own perceived performance or by judging the bad behavior of others. It is a zero-sum game which never ends; you can never rest.

In Jesus Christ, God has crucified the law and fulfilled its requirements for perfection. If you have placed your faith in Christ, then when God looks at you he sees Jesus. God has saved you to a joyful, abundant life and to obedience lived out of gratitude; not to a cramped, fearful, nit-picky existence that chews lemons and keeps score and measures everyone against an impossible standard.

God, through grace, has something better.


When Your Abusive Pastor Dies

When you hear that your abusive former pastor is dead, the news will not bring you peace and it is unlikely to bring you joy.

I am unhappy to say this but it’s true nevertheless and so there it is. What was broken in life cannot be mended by death. Death has no power to heal, to restore, to resurrect. You cannot unbend your twisted life on another person’s casket. A gravestone is no anvil.

I could take you to the exact spot where I learned that my former pastor was dying. Out walking at a local park, halfway between the pitcher’s mound and home plate, with brick dust rising in slow clouds around my feet and August sun pressing down hot and hard. I flicked through my Facebook newsfeed and there it was: the man was about to die. His son asked for prayers as he made the long journey to the hospital bed in another state, not knowing what he’d find except confusion and pain. His father had remained unrepentant to the end.

I stopped and read the paragraph over and over and then I put my phone in my pocket and looked up at the trees and felt the sun and then looked down and shuffled my feet in the dust.

Four years had passed since my church fell apart and my former pastor was removed from his tarnished office. I’d done a lot of healing in those years. I’d sent a letter of forgiveness to the man and received an unapologetic voicemail in reply. So I set up boundaries to avoid more hurt. I married. I started a blog about spiritual abuse. Had a son. But I was wrong to think that my pastor’s death would bring me peace.

Another’s death will not bring you peace because only one man’s death can bring peace and he died already long, long ago. No other death has that currency or that power and God will not make an exception for the person you most hate or the person who most harmed you. Peace and joy come only through one death. And though your abusive pastor thought he was a type of Messiah he was not, and so his death cannot save you. To think it could only gives him undue power over you and repeats the lies that he taught.

Does that make sense?

I was saddened to learn this with brick dust rising in slow clouds around my sneakers. I had cherished a secret notion that when the man who had abused me for 25 years was dead it would feel like a party and a burden would be lifted and I would put on a dance anthem and buy an ice cream and then push a quarter century of trauma into the nearest 50-gallon trash can.

It was unlike that. Moreover, good people who’d gone through much worse had already told me it couldn’t be like that, but you know we all have to figure these things out for ourselves.

No, your abusive former pastor’s death cannot give you peace and joy. But here’s what it can do for you: it can make you sad with a sincere sadness that wishes no harm on its tormenter.

It can also make you grateful that you were the one wronged and not the wronger.

And it can bring life if you let it. If you have the courage to remember. If you have the courage to die a little bit in order to forgive. Because when you say, “I forgive you” and commit yourself to him who judges justly, you take into yourself a small piece of the death of the One who said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

It’s crazy and it’s not safe. You have only to look at Jesus to see how much it can hurt.

But by partaking in that death, you also participate in a life that mocks the grave. That bares its unflinching flesh to an eternity without sting. That considers every trauma a travel stain on a journey that ends in heaven.

I’d like to say that I had this all worked out in the brick dust on that ball field. But I’m not that good and anyway, I like nursing my grudges as much as anyone. About all I came to that August afternoon was an awkward prayer that someday I’d see my former pastor in heaven and not in hell.

It’s not that much, I know. But then again, maybe it is.


An Update

Dear friends,

For several months I have taken a hiatus from blogging in order to spend concerted effort writing the first draft of a book. The draft is taking shape and I hope to have it done by Christmas. It will then go through several revisions before I send it to an agent (hopefully) next summer. I expect to start blogging again early in the new year. While book writing has its own rewards, it is a lonelier process than I imagined. I look forward to returning to this online community soon.

Grace and peace, Steve


Recovering from Spiritual Abuse: Fearing the Good

“What would you do if you had no fear? Sometimes we think we are driven by our wants — when too often we are driven by our fears.” – Ann Voskamp

I started flossing again.


via Gilbert Dental Care

For the last couple of years it’s been hit or miss, mostly because I had a visceral reaction to the exercise as a result of my former pastor making flossing a cause celebre of the spiritual life. Flossing, he said, was a sign that you were disciplined and spiritually mature. There were demons who would try to keep you from flossing, and if you failed to floss you were giving in to the Devil.

I am not making this up.

He said it so often, and in the context of so much spiritual abuse, that I associated the activity of flossing with my pastor’s voice and his rigid outlook on life. So when my cult fell apart and I suddenly found freedom, regular flossing was one of the first things I jettisoned. I just couldn’t do it.

But after several visits to the dentist and some mild tooth pain, I realized what everyone else already knows: flossing is not a spiritual discipline, it is a healthy habit. My pastor may have twisted the meaning of flossing for his own abusive purposes, but I can’t deny one thing: It’s actually good for me.

Fearing Good Things

Spiritual abuse is subtle because it counterfeits or twists good things and turns them into abusive tools. Because of this, recovering from spiritual abuse can be an exercise in subtlety, too. How can you distinguish between what was truly awful and what was just misunderstood? How can you discern between healthy discipline and abusive legalism?

Tim Keller offers a helpful bit of wisdom: “Legalism is doing something to earn your salvation. Discipline is doing something because it’s good in and of itself.”

As I look over the past four years, I see some major ways I have overcompensated for spiritually abusive practices that occurred when I was part of a Bible cult. Each of these over-reactive behaviors stems from fear that I am making myself vulnerable again to abuse. When I give in to these fear-based reactions, I keep myself from some of the good things that God has for me.

Perhaps you, like me, wrestle with some of these fears:

  1. Fear of Commitment – Because I was trapped in my cult, I fear commitment, which makes me run from relationships and responsibilities which I feel I can’t control.
  2. Fear of Serving – Because I was taken advantage of by my former pastor and forced to serve in exhausting ways, I fear serving in my current church which makes me ignore legitimate needs.
  3. Fear of Rules – Because I was forced to obey endless commands with obsessive devotion, I fear rules and sometimes act like a scofflaw.
  4. Fear of Openness – Because my former pastor used shame to control my behavior, I fear openness and become self-protective.
  5. Fear of Sensitivity – Because my former pastor exploited my vulnerabilities to make me dependent on himself, I fear sensitivity which I redefine as weakness and instead try to make myself tough through weight-lifting, athletics, and hard language.
  6. Fear of Community – Because in my cult we were forced to spend enormous amounts of time with other members, I fear community and often isolate myself.
  7. Fear of Discipline – Because my church practiced legalism, I fear discipline and am often indulgent.
  8. Fear of Authority – Because I was spiritually abused, I fear authority and make many important decisions without consulting spiritual leaders.
  9. Fear of Modesty – Because my church had a dress code, I fear modesty and “crispness” and sometimes dress slovenly or to draw attention to myself.
  10. Fear of Hunger – Because my church practiced asceticism, I fear deprivation and am often impulsive and acquisitive.
  11. Fear of Sacrifice – Because people in my church were dehumanized and forced to sacrifice their dreams and desires, I fear loss of personhood and so throw myself into personal hobbies and self-actualization at the expense of other responsibilities.
  12. Fear of People – Because I was flattered by my pastor, I fear deception and question intentions and therefore distrust most people.
  13. Fear of Structure – Because my former church had unwritten rules and endless expectations for behavior, I fear structure and prefer casual activities.
  14. Fear of Accountability – Because my former pastor meddled in the details of my life while other parishioners spied on me, I fear accountability and dislike making myself vulnerable in front of other people.
  15. Fear of Risk – Because my former pastor considered mistakes catastrophic and because he only rewarded perfect behavior, I fear failure which prevents me from taking risks or trying new things.


Floss is probably not on your list of fears.

But I suspect you have your own triggers which make you avoid certain habits or behaviors which are actually good for you. They are natural pendulum swings which overcompensate for abuse you suffered. Try to identify those over-reactions and see if you can get to the root of them.

God has so much more for us than to be driven by our fears.


12 Things God Doesn’t Do

The most devastating consequence of spiritual abuse is a marred image of God.

If your church or pastor practices spiritual abuse, chances are that your view of God is filtered through twisted scriptures and an untrue characterization of what God is like. In these situations, your view of God probably looks a lot like how your pastor relates to you.


via Richard Taylor, Creative Commons

When I was in my Bible cult, I thought God loved to shame people, to publicly humiliate them, and to steal their joy. That was how my former pastor acted, and since my pastor claimed special wisdom from God and close relationship with him, I assumed that this was how God related to me as well. But it was just my pastor’s sin. It was a broken reflection.

While God is complex and balances justice with mercy, wrath with love, there are certain things he just doesn’t do. With that in mind, here is a list of 12 things that God doesn’t do or isn’t like:

1.) God Doesn’t Control – God is all-powerful but he gives human beings the freedom to make choices which genuinely make them responsible for their own behavior. God doesn’t create robots or zombies, he creates people who can think, choose, love, and believe or refuse to believe. God respects the decisions of his creatures by refusing to coerce them to do what he wants. This is freedom.

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by a need to control?

2.) God Doesn’t Fear – God does not spend his time in heaven chewing his nails about the state of the world or whether or not you’ll follow him. Nor is he hiding under his throne. He is unafraid of the world and entered into it experientially through the person of Christ. Your mistakes, sins, and errors do not catch him off guard. God has a plan of salvation and nothing can thwart it: Everything dark he will either judge or redeem. He does not fear.

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by fear of the world?

3.) God Does Not Promote Uniformity – God loves diversity as evidenced by the fantastic variety of creation, by the diversity of believers in the church, and by the future kingdom which God will fill with people from all peoples, tongues, and nations. At all times and in all places God promotes the beauty of diversity.

Question: Is your church or pastor obsessed with uniformity?

4.) God Is Not Legalistic – While orderly, God is never obsessive. Even in matters of the Old Testament Law, God always had three primary things in mind: justice, mercy, and humble faith. He boils down the entire Old Testament into two commands: Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus affirms this.

Question: Is your church or pastor defined by legalism rather than love?

6.) God Does Not Manipulate – God states his commands clearly and lets people decide whether or not they want to obey. He doesn’t give contradictory commands, and he doesn’t guilt people into following him. He does not deviously influence you to do something for his own gain against your best interest.

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by manipulation?

7.) God Is Not a Workaholic – He needs no rest, yet he ordained an entire day of rest in order to set us an example of balance in life and work. He praises the contemplative life and brings his children into seasons of peace and quiet. He is okay with people saying ‘no’ to good things in order to pursue what is best and lasting (Luke 10:42).

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by frenetic activity, poor boundaries, and excessive demands for commitment and involvement, regardless of your need for rest?

8.) God Does Not Punish His Children – He doesn’t. He disciplines. Punishment has to do with retribution. Since Christ has already taken our punishment upon himself, God never punishes us retributively. He never brings us harm. Instead, God uses the pain or suffering that come into our lives as discipline which effects change, shapes our character, and results in our ultimate blessing.

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by retributive punishment or shunning?

9.) God Is Not Rigid – While God is immutable—which means he can never change in his God-like qualities—he is a model of wise flexibility when it comes to relating to people. Look at the Old Testament and see how many times God dealt with people in surprising ways. Look at the New Testament and see how often Jesus surprised his contemporaries. A study on the surprising flexibility of God will fill you with delight.

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by moralistic or interpersonal rigidity?

10.) God Is Not Proud – If anyone has a right to be proud, it is God. But he makes no claims which cannot be backed up, he draws attention to himself only as is his due as God, and he shows remarkable interest and care in the lives of his creatures. God is not a narcissist. He lovingly engages in the lives of his creatures, loves the lowly, and reaches out to the marginalized and oppressed. These are not the actions of arrogance.

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by pride?

11.) God Is Not a Hypocrite – His character is consistent with his actions. What he says, he does. He asks his children to do nothing that he himself has not already done.

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by hypocrisy?

12.) God Is Not Exclusive – By this, I mean that God has made his salvation available to the whole world and loves the whole world and each individual in it. His kingdom, which is coming and will someday be complete, will contain people from every tongue, race, and nation. While the means of salvation are specific (by grace through faith in Christ), the opportunity extends to all.

Question: Is your church or pastor characterized by exclusivity?


We become like what we worship.

If you are in a spiritually abusive church and find yourself worshiping a God who appears controlling, fearful, uniform, legalistic, manipulative, driven, punishing, rigid, proud, hypocritical, and exclusive, stop.

Just stop.

That being is not God—you are just worshipping a cosmic version of your pastor.

Instead, worship God for who he is in all of his marvelous freedom, confidence, diversity, love, clarity, balance, flexibility, humility, truth, and open-armed welcome.

You can dare to love a God like that.


Seven Signs You’re in a Cult

A June 18 article published in The Atlantic — “The Seven Signs You’re in a Cult” — helps to illustrate symptoms of cult behavior. It is well-written and accurately portrays the codependency and progressive extremism of cults.

Here are eight reasons why I think this article is worth your time:

  1. It portrays well the narcissism and control of cult leaders.
  2. It helps show “what’s in it” for the cult follower: counterfeit significance, security, and love
  3. It explains why it is hard for a member to leave a cult, even when they have doubts and misgivings about the leader.
  4. It highlights the insularity and elitism of cult members.
  5. It exposes the most common demographic of people who first get involved in cults: college-aged and young career adults.
  6. It shows the danger of unbalanced preoccupation with spiritual warfare and prophecy.
  7. It illustrates why fear of “the world” is a trap which leads to legalism, judgmentalism, and paranoia.
  8. It reminds us that no human being can mediate between God and people, except Jesus Christ.

Related Posts:


8 Ways to Distinguish Gossip from Criticism

Recent news reports about Christian leaders have raised an interesting debate: what is gossip, and what is legitimate criticism or concern? Does a Christian leader have the right to fire employees over what he or she considers gossip? And what about all the cult leaders or spiritually abusive leaders who define any criticism of their leadership as gossip? If all criticism is gossip, then no Christian leader can ever be called to account.

Definition of Gossip

As with any other word, gossip has both a dictionary and a biblical definition. It cannot mean whatever we want it to mean. When a church leader redefines healthy criticism as “gossip” and punishes followers who ask questions or raise concerns, that leader has created a parallel universe in which he or she is unimpeachable. Such an environment is toxic and the leader has used a false definition of a biblical term to bully and shame their followers into silence.


via dan_mckay, Creative Commons

So what is the definition of gossip?

Merriam Webster defines gossip as “information about the behavior and personal lives of other people.”

That’s pretty broad and thus unhelpful. Can you see that anything you say about another person could fall under that definition? This is how spiritually abusive leaders define gossip, except, of course, when they are the ones talking about others. Then it becomes “discernment.” Right.

The Oxford Dictionaries define gossip as “Casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.”

This gets us closer to a useful definition, but it is still pretty broad. And we all realize that sometimes gossip involves details that are true but are inappropriate to share, right?

The third time’s a charm. The Free Dictionary defines gossip as “Rumor or talk of a personal, sensational, or intimate nature; a person who habitually spreads intimate or private rumors or facts; trivial, chatty talk or writing; casual and idle chat; a conversation involving malicious chatter or rumors about other people.”

This is the most helpful definition because it is the most precise. Here we see gossip’s content, motive, and character. I think the Bible largely agrees with this definition.

Michael Houdmann over at Got Questions? says, “The Hebrew word translated ‘gossip’ in the Old Testament is defined as ‘one who reveals secrets, one who goes about as a talebearer or scandal-monger.’ A gossiper is a person who has privileged information about people and proceeds to reveal that information to those who have no business knowing it.”

That’s a pretty good definition which I think is backed up by passages such as Leviticus 19:16; Proverbs 11:13; Proverbs 20:19; 26:20-22; Jeremiah 6:28; Romans 1:28-32; 2 Corinthians 12:20; 1 Timothy 3:9-11; 1 Timothy 5:13-14; 2 Timothy 3:1-5; and Titus 2:2-3.

8 Ways to Tell the Difference between Gossip and Criticism

1.) Motive Toward the Other

Gossip’s motive is destructive and malicious: it wants to bring down another person in order to destroy them or make them look worse than they are.

Criticism wants to make someone or something better; it is based on love which always protects, thus it does not unnecessarily expose another person for the sake of sensationalism, but it also does not cover up for a leader when that leader’s actions are hurting other people.

2.) Motive Toward Yourself

Gossip’s motive is to build yourself up as superior to the other, and as a source of information which makes you feel powerful and special.

Criticism comes from a humble heart which is unafraid to stand up for what is right, even if it hurts.

3.) Basis

Gossip is based on cowardice and falsehood.

Criticism is based on courage and truth.

4.) Content

Gossip often states falsehood as fact. Gossip often twists the truth to make it seem worse than it is.

Criticism fact-checks and refuses to use unsubstantiated information. Criticism understands that people and situations are rarely black and white. It refuses to twist facts to better fit its own agenda.

5.) Character

A gossip (the person who gossips) lacks self-control, is undignified, tends toward idleness, combines gossip with slander, is unconcerned about truth, betrays secrets, promotes rumors as facts, is prone to sensationalism, is jealous, lacks contentment; he or she is quarrelsome, stubborn, and rebellious. In other words, a person who gossips tends to have a constellation of negative qualities which brands him or her as untrustworthy and destructive.

A critic, on the other hand, has a reputable character which is full of the fruit of the Spirit.

6.) Medium


via superhua, Creative Commons

Gossip uses inappropriate mediums to convey genuinely private information. It hijacks an audience and splashes information held in confidence far and wide using social media, print, radio, or television.

Criticism understands the power of media and uses it only when appropriate. The more private the matter, the more private the medium; the more public a matter, the more public the medium. Crucially, a critic understands the difference between a public figure and a public matter. Public figures deserve privacy when a matter does not impact their public ministry. But if the matter does impact their public ministry, it may be shared with all those affected. Such sharing is not gossip, it is proportional. Such is the parity of the platform, where teachers enjoy additional prestige and also additional accountability.

7.) Process

Gossips ignore protocols, whether biblical or other, and widely share private information without following biblical due process.

Critics, on the other hand, confront the offending person (if safe to do so) privately (this could include correspondence, phone calls, etc.), then with another trustworthy person, and then with the church. As noted above, a critic shares negative information about another person only insofar as that particular information impacts other people, in other words, as far as another person’s platform and influence warrants.

8.) Effect

Gossip is destructive: it impoverishes the people who listen to it and undermines the people it describes.

Criticism, on the other hand, empowers those who listen to it and either corrects errant leaders by keeping them accountable to biblical standards, or removes them in order to strengthen the organization they previously led and protect the people they were supposed to serve.


When leaders redefine gossip to mean any criticism at all, they evidence unhealthy controlling behavior. When followers redefine criticism in ways which make gossip seem acceptable, they sin.

In a world of Internet virality, Christians should weigh their motives and the content of their claims before criticizing public figures.

Public figures, for their part, should sit quietly when criticism comes and humbly evaluate the claims to see if they are true. Even if the criticism seems to come from an obnoxious source, it should be evaluated. Who knows? It wouldn’t be the first time God restrained a prophet’s madness through the mouth of an ass.

Sometimes critics are the only ones courageous enough to tell us the truth.


Top 12 Blog Posts

Two years ago I started this blog in order to confront spiritual abuse with grace and truth. I wasn’t sure there was anyone outside of my immediate family and a small circle of friends who would read the posts. I wasn’t sure how wide the problem was.

Two years later, I understand better that spiritual abuse comes in all shapes and sizes and has no geographical preference. It is a grievous evil, and yet there is hope for freedom and healing for anyone caught in its tangled web. I have heard from several of you who left cults in the last two years. Praise God! Many others reached out because you have family members or friends in unhealthy groups. God is working to liberate captives. Thanks for sharing your stories and becoming part of the conversation to help others.

While some of my own favorite posts didn’t make the list, here are the 12 posts you shared most often over the past two years. Check them out if you missed them:

  1. The Myth of Biblical Manhood
  2. Does the Church of Wells Teach a False Gospel?
  3. Why We Tolerate Psychotic Pastors
  4. Ten Major Symptoms of Spiritual Abuse
  5. Self-Deprecating Narcissists: Why Some Christian Narcissists Appear Humble
  6. The Death of Faith
  7. Hebrews 13:17: Spiritual Authority’s Most Abused Verse
  8. Christian Leaders and the Don’t Talk Rule
  9. Mind Games of Abusers: When Words Have No Meaning
  10. Why People in Cults Don’t Think They’re in Cults
  11. Grace Based Families vs. Shame Based Families
  12. Religious Brainwashing (Part 1 of 8)

What topics would interest you for future posts? Check out the Topical Index of Blog Posts, ask your friends and family, and then let me know what you’d like to see covered which doesn’t already appear. Tell me in the Comments section below. I’ll do my best to engage those topics over the coming months.

Grace and peace to each of you.


Mind Games of Abusers: When Words Have No Meaning

If you dialogue with a spiritually abusive leader or cult member, prepare to enter a mind warp. The rules of sense, reason, and accepted definitions go out the window and are replaced with jargon, double-speak, and circular logic. You step out of reality and stare into a funhouse mirror.

Cult leaders make pronouncements which they declare to be true, even if those statements are flatly contradicted by actual events, undisputed facts, or reliable witnesses. When you try to reason with a cult leader, he or she calls your words false, your criticism slander, and your motives biased.

Spiritually abusive leaders redefine words like “slander,” “faith,” and “salvation” in ways which keep their followers trapped in dependence upon the leader. Words which the followers previously thought they understood become mysterious, harsh, and confusing. The leader’s weird definitions settle like a spider’s web around the followers. This is part of the abusive strategy of brainwashing cult members by redefining reality for them. Once they are brainwashed, no amount of logical argument will convince them that the cult leader is wrong. Not until God opens their blinded eyes or the leader falls into grievous sin will cult members see cracks in the façade.

Need an example?

My Cow vs. Your Cow

Think for a moment of a cow. Any cow will do. Can you picture it? Good.

Now imagine that you and I have a conversation about this cow. The conversation runs something like this:


via b3d_ Creative Commons

Me: “I bought a cow yesterday.”

You: “Cool. How much did it cost?”

Me: “$6.99.”

You: “$6.99?! I thought cows cost way more than that.”

Me: “Why?”

You: “Because everything I know about cows from movies, books, and farmers says that cows are a pretty expensive investment. I thought cows cost hundreds of dollars.”

Me: “Nope. Mine cost $6.99. I can’t imagine anyone paying more than $15 for one. $20 tops.”

You: “That’s crazy. Where did you get a cow for such a cheap price?”

Me: “The place everyone buys cheap cows, of course: Wal-Mart.”

You: “Wal-Mart?! You can’t buy cows at Wal-Mart!”

Me: “I did.”

You: “Wal-Mart couldn’t possibly sell cows. They do sell hamburger meat, however. Is that what you bought?”

Me: “No, I bought a cow, silly. What does hamburger have to do with that?”

You: “Hamburger comes from cows, of course. You’re not making any sense. I’ve never seen a cow at Wal-Mart.”

Me: “Sure you have. Everyone has. You’re the crazy one. Hamburger from cows? That’s just weird, borderline sinful.”

You: “That’s ridiculous! What aisle are ‘cows’ in?”

Me: “Right next to the hammers.”

You: “Right next to the hammers?”

Me: “Sure.”


via cometstarmoon Creative Commons

You: “Okay, what color cow did you get?”

Me: “Silver and orange.”

You: “Cows aren’t silver and orange.”

Me: “Actually, most are. It’s a pretty common color scheme for a cow. Either that or school bus yellow.”

You: “This is completely ridiculous. You’re insane. Show me this aberrant orange cow! This silver bovine monstrosity! Where is it? Prove yourself.”

Me: “Right here in my back pocket.”

You: “In your back pocket? That’s not a cow! That’s a monkey wrench!”

Me: “No, it’s a cow.”

Words Have Meaning

Words have meaning. A word can’t mean whatever we want it to mean.

In the conversation above, you had a mental image of what a cow looks like. You took the word “cow” and created a mental picture of it. Your mental cow might look slightly different than another person’s mental cow—black and white, say, rather than all brown—but all of the mental cows are still just one thing: cows.

Cows, that is, until I throw a monkey wrench into the conversation.

The only way any of us can have a conversation that obeys the laws of logic and reason (and thus corresponds to reality) is to use words in the way in which they are commonly defined. A word may have a range of meaning (semantic range, which depends on accepted usage), but it can’t mean anything we want it to mean. In other words, I can’t secretly redefine a word so that it means something which would violate its semantic range of meaning. I can’t call a monkey wrench a cow.

Does that make sense?


via Brandon C. Long, Creative Commons

We probably all could agree with this principle when we refer to concrete words like “cow,” “apple,” or “car.” But what about abstract words like “hope,” “faith,” “rebellion,” or “salvation”? Don’t these words mean different things to different people? If a cult leader or spiritually abusive person redefines these words to mean something completely other than what you or I mean, who is to say that they are wrong and we are right? Who is to stop them from calling salvation “damnation” or grace “works”?

The answer is that we have to decide who the authority is. Who gets to determine what an abstract word means: Is it the cult leader? Is it you or me? Or is it some authoritative source outside of ourselves like a dictionary or the Bible?

For Christians, in the case of abstract words like “salvation,” “slander,” and “rebel,” we use biblical usage to determine the meaning of these words. The Bible is our authority, not our own mental gymnastics or cleverness. And while even the Bible is open to interpretation and some words have a range of meaning, you know you are dealing with a cult leader when he or she redefines words in terms of their opposite meaning.

For example, cutting off family members becomes “love.” Performing works in order to get saved becomes “faith.” Agreeing with whatever the leader says becomes “righteousness.” And asking any questions or expressing doubt becomes “rebellion.” In a twisted world like this, even God starts to act like Satan.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. It all started in a far-off garden when someone redefined reality by whispering, “Did God really say?”

Problems and Answers

The problem, of course, is that most cult leaders claim that the Bible is their authority. But they also say that they alone interpret it correctly. They say that everyone else in the world is wrong—all unbelievers, of course, but also most other professing believers—because only he or she, the cult leader, has accurately divided the word of truth. He will claim that his odd definitions are correct because they are “spiritual,” “heavenly wisdom,” “truths expressed by the Spirit,” or some such appeal to biblical language which is actually a smokescreen for his own narcissism and pride.

You can’t win an argument against such a person.

He is insane.

He has stepped outside the boundaries of reality and your use of logic and reason will never reach him. Your cow will never become his monkey wrench.

But you might reach some of his followers. So feel free to restate what the leader has told you and compare it with actual events:

  • When a cult leader calls criticism of his group “slander,” he is only using the word correctly if the statements about his group are untrue and are being said in order to defame the group. If they are true, no one has committed slander. Instead, the cult leader is a liar.
  • When a cult leader calls outrage over his heinous behavior “persecution,” he is mistaken. He is not being persecuted; he is being called to account. This is justice.
  • When a cult leader says that people can only be saved by moving to his church, repenting of all known sin, and doing works of righteousness, he is defining “salvation” in ways that the Bible never does. He can claim anything he wants, but the Bible says something entirely different. He is preaching a false gospel.
  • If a cult leader lets a baby die by withholding medical help, or if he ignores allegations of sexual abuse and then tries to cover it up, and if he then says that he acted in faith and that he is a loving and kind person who can be trusted with other people’s children, he is a liar. His actions do not fit the biblical definition of love, nor any definition of the word used by sane people.


It doesn’t take long to determine when a person is redefining clear terms to make them confusing. He or she is doing so in order to make their bizarre behavior appear acceptable. Stick close to facts and logic. The cult leader will not repent—few (if any) ever do. But at some point the leader’s behavior will fall so far out of agreement with his words that even his followers will see the inconsistency and be troubled in their spirits. It always happens.


So take heart and stick to your cows.


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