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.


My Pastor Can Beat Up Your Pastor: Alpha Dogs and the Cult of Christian Personality

Let me introduce you to four men who want to lead you to God.


Leandro stood big and rangy in the hallway, a couple inches over six feet with sweet tats, huge biceps, and slicked-back hair. Because of this, I and the guys around me nodded when he said, “Hey, let’s make our own version of Fight Club. It’ll be a great way to bond as men.” Sure, we said, let’s beat the crap out of each other. That will make us more like Christ.


via lee poppet

It made a lot of sense – if you were Leandro. He’d boxed on the amateur circuit and grew up in the ring. He also had a flattened nose and the reach of a gorilla. For him, beating down an opponent was part of the bond of brotherhood. It didn’t hurt that he’d rarely lost. No one on our small Christian college campus could possibly beat him. We – or at least I – saw him as someone to follow. I wanted an untouchable leader. If he hurt someone, that was just part of the cost, right?

I think Leandro’s motivation was good. How do you galvanize young men who have grown up in a culture of affluence and who have mostly avoided physical suffering? How do you make them feel part of a community when they are far from home? How do you give them a sense of love, security, and significance, all while following Jesus? If Leandro was going to turn our suburban velvet into Christian leather, late-night beat-downs seemed an appropriate means.

Touch gloves, lads, and wait for the bell.

Heaven tasted like blood, or did it taste more like hell?


Three times in my four years at college I watched Christian leaders walk onto the stage at chapel and mesmerize the student body with a combative, cutting, alpha-dog talk. Each time, the man walked off the stage to a knot of adoring students. At lunchtime in the Dining Commons, students ringed the speaker’s table three deep, waiting for his next utterance.


via Scotsman in Hawaii

The first man, Rob, is now a household name in Christendom. He came to our dorm the evening before he spoke in chapel, to give a talk to 30 guys. Rob wore black-rimmed glasses, dark skinny jeans, and had the most intense eyes I’d ever seen. He told the story of David bringing Philistine foreskins to Saul as a bridal price. Saul asked for 100 foreskins and David brought 200. Rob leaned forward in his chair and searched our faces. “I want to be a 200 foreskin Christian!” he shouted, and slapped his chair.

I snorted goop out my nose and sprayed spit. I couldn’t help it. Was he serious?

Rob looked straight at me. “Do you think I’m joking?”

The other guys looked at me.

Yes, I thought. But I shook my head.

Then we laid hands on him to bless his ministry.

The next day, Rob gave a chapel message which built to a tremendous emotional pitch. The only problem was that he was wrong. Dead wrong. His interpretation of a clear passage from Matthew was confusing and conjectured. Even the professors looked uncomfortable. Rob waited for the adulation he expected but students stared back in confusion. He looked out at the students with anger. “If I ordered 400 free pizzas and brought them through that door right now, you would all jump up and celebrate!” he shouted.

I noticed that Rob did a lot of shouting.

“I want you to think how awesome God is from what I just explained and celebrate as if I’d brought you free pizza!”

The chapel erupted with cheers.

Rob went on to pastor an enormous church and wrote a book that many Christians view as heretical. But really, who wants to quibble about such things?


The second man was James, a well-known Christian speaker and radio personality.

James gave a week-long series of talks on the Book of Jonah. Students loved his witty sermons and dead-pan delivery. They flocked to him after chapel and throughout the day. James really was top-notch. I can still remember much of what he said. But he also had a short temper and could be cutting when someone asked a question he thought was ignorant or which didn’t fit his agenda. He bullied students into accepting his viewpoint.


via Caroline, Creative Commons

During one talk, after finishing Jonah chapter 1, James asked the chapel crowd what Jonah did next.

“He prayed!” a student said.

“Nooooo! He didn’t pray,” James shouted, cutting the student down to size. “That’s stupid. Haven’t you listened to anything I’ve said?”

The student cowered in his seat.

But when I looked in my Bible, Jonah 2:1 read, “From the belly of the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.”

James went on to tell us what Jonah really did, which he said was to get angry at God and complain. It fit the rest of his talk and he made it sound so funny, he had us in stitches. That old Jonah, what a card.

But really, James was quite good and students lined up to buy his books and discuss his talks into the wee hours of the morning.

Years later, it was discovered that James had a problem with authority. He didn’t really have anyone he cared to listen to. No one could hold him accountable. He also had a small problem with gambling and led his organization into a debt of $70 million. But those were just details, right? They didn’t really matter.


Finally, there was Mark.

Not that Mark, the other one. Big, tall Mark. A former basketball player, he had written a book about evangelism and gripped the chapel audience with a riveting delivery and generous helpings of guilt. All of us had plenty of latent guilt to tap into – we were Christians, after all, on a Christian campus in the middle of Indiana cornfields, without many evangelizing opportunities – and dozens of zealous students tailed Mark around campus after his trademark talk where he snapped his fingers every two seconds to simulate the world’s death rate.

I worked at the Dining Commons with two sweet and simple lunch ladies. No one would ever confuse them as theologians. They had childlike faith.



Mark came through our line trailing a group of students. He towered over us. All of a sudden he leaned across the sneeze guard, pushed a thick pointing index finger toward one of the lunch ladies, and in a loud voice said, “Ma’am, if you died tonight, do you know where you’d go?”

Everyone froze.

We all affected the brittle smiles that nice people assume when they hope something uncomfortable will just go away. We’d all known Monica for years. She gave extra helpings to big guys, because, as she said, “I’m their momma away from home, and my boys gotta grow.” We loved her for it.

But Monica looked confused by Mark’s question, by his – let’s call it what it was – verbal assault.

Mark repeated himself: “I said, ‘Do you know where you’d go tonight if you died?’”

Monica brightened. “I reckon I’d go to heaven,” she said. Then she smiled.

Mark continued to stare. “And how do you know that?”

She dropped her ladle of beef stroganoff into the vat. Then she put her hand up to her chest—everyone was watching, probably a dozen students and staff—and said in a clear but quiet voice, “I know it in my heart.” Or maybe she said, “I know he’s in my heart.” It was hard to hear through the blood pounding in my ears.

Mark lowered his finger. “That’s good, ma’am. You can never be too sure. I’ve been on Christian campuses where staff members were unsaved.” Then he slid his red plastic tray along the counter and walked out the door. “I’m going to the salad bar anyway.”

Mark had written a bestseller – top of the charts in the Christian market – but in person he was an assaultive jerk. Really, though, do things like that matter?


Cults of personality don’t just afflict college students. Each of the men I’ve described came to speak in chapel because he had already enjoyed substantial success in greater Christendom. They were the strong men of Christianity. The A-listers. The alpha dogs.

We excuse their assaultive personalities and call them “assertive.”

We ignore their unwise financial decisions and call them “visionary.”

We rationalize ethical breaches by calling them “industry standards.”

And we ignore the people they’ve hurt by calling them whiners or women.

Does it matter that my pastor can beat up your pastor?

Does it matter if he hurts people as he shares his gospel?

Does it matter?

Does it?

It does.


Check out these articles on the problem of cults of personality in Christendom:




Checklist: 55 Attributes of a Spiritually Abusive Leader


via Faith on Campus

To recognize a spiritually abusive leader, first we have to define spiritual abuse.

Jeff VanVonderen, co-author of the classic book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, defines spiritual abuse like this:

“Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority–the purpose of which is to ‘come underneath’ and serve, build, equip and make God’s people more free–misuses that authority by placing themselves over God’s people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly godly purposes which are really their own.”

VanVonderen adds:

“Nothing about spiritual abuse is simple. Those who have experienced it know it is powerful enough to cause them to question their relationship with God, indeed, the very existence of God. And it is subtle too! The perpetrators of spiritual abuse are rarely ‘Snidely Whiplash’ sorts of characters who announce that they are going to drain your spiritual energy. They may be people who seem like they are seeking to guide you to the deepest levels of spiritual maturity.”

Biblical evidence: Though the term “spiritual abuse” does not occur in the Bible (nor does the word “Trinity,” for that matter), the concept is clearly alluded to. Primary biblical citations which discuss spiritual abuse include Ezekiel 34:1-10; Matthew 20:25; 23:1-33; Luke 22:24-27; and 1 Peter 5:3. Each of these passages involves God condemning leaders who mistreat the people under their care in order to promote their own welfare or ideology.

While not every spiritually abusive leader has all of the following characteristics, most will have a surprisingly large percentage of them. And just because I use the pronoun “he” does not mean all spiritual abusers are men. Spiritual abuse enjoys gender parity.

A spiritually abusive leader:

  1. Is a perfectionist
  2. Uses “church discipline” to punish dissent
  3. Regularly promotes sacrificial or transactional giving (giving beyond your means, or in order to get something from God)
  4. Says his words are God’s words
  5. Creates division in order to isolate followers from friends and family
  6. Focuses on attitudinal sins such as pride and selfishness, which he seems unerringly able to produce in others
  7. Makes himself indispensable for his followers’ salvation
  8. Labels questioners “rebels”
  9. Demands unquestioning obedience
  10. Acts narcissistically
  11. Often criticizes other church leaders
  12. Equates salvation with his or her own church
  13. Claims special, unique understanding of the Bible
  14. Claims special, unique relationship with God
  15. Applies a double-standard of behavior for himself versus everyone else
  16. Demonstrates questionable behavior financially or sexually
  17. Disrespects relational boundaries
  18. Mandates attendance at all church functions
  19. Disempowers other leaders
  20. Can’t take a joke played at his expense
  21. Is often severe, serious, or gloomy
  22. Has an obsessive preoccupation with personal salvation
  23. Judges outsiders as unsaved
  24. Attributes malevolent motives to outsiders
  25. Dehumanizes outsiders
  26. Reinterprets clear events in confusing ways
  27. Confuses sanctification with justification
  28. Is followed by a trail of negative media reports
  29. Focuses on behavior (works righteousness) rather than on salvation by grace through faith
  30. Tries to break people down with exceedingly long sermons or talks
  31. Is unable to dialogue – has to control conversations
  32. Makes unreasonable demands to test followers’ loyalty
  33. Forces followers to relocate
  34. Talks humbly but acts proud (false humility)
  35. Constantly declares how spiritual/godly/humble/wise he is
  36. Declares followers saved or unsaved
  37. Makes an unbiblical distinction between sacred and secular work
  38. Eschews internal or external accountability
  39. Refuses to dialogue with outsiders who demonstrate disagreement or concern
  40. Labels criticism as “slander” or “persecution”
  41. Shifts blame to cover heinous behavior
  42. Loudly proclaims his devotion to God/Bible reading/prayer
  43. Quotes Bible out of context to justify his behavior and condemn outsiders
  44. Treats scripture as a magic talisman to wield power over others
  45. Creates dress codes for followers
  46. Makes leaving the group extremely painful
  47. Exhibits black and white thinking
  48. Stifles creativity
  49. Confuses uniformity with unity
  50. Showers newcomers with time and attention, then makes heavy demands when they become followers
  51. Shows inconsistency between words and behavior
  52. Promotes unreasonable fear and anxiety about the “world”
  53. Focuses on Satan’s power rather than on Jesus
  54. Shames followers through forced confession and public humiliation
  55. Uses confidential information to blackmail followers into silence


Alas, a spiritually abusive person will also take a list like the one above and do three things with it:

  1. Explain item by item why it does not apply to him.
  2. Explain that many of these items are actually biblical and therefore not evidence of spiritual abuse.
  3. Explain how most of these criteria somehow apply to Jesus.

Does any of this sound familiar? Perhaps you have additional criteria to add in the comments section below.


Frankenstein Faith: Misuse of the Old Testament (Part 5 of 10)


Nate Parker, via Creative Commons

In the late 1990s I attended a running camp for two summers in the mountains of New Hampshire. The camp had a lake, cabins, and was surrounded by thick piney woods. Built into a natural plateau was a field. We used it for ice breakers, cabin competitions, and Ultimate Frisbee. Trees ringed the field. The sides plunged down into natural gullies full of pucker brush and thistles. I learned one important lesson playing sports there: if you wanted to stay safe, you remained on the field and out of the tangled underbrush.

The Old Testament is like that: it’s a big field for pastors to play in. When handled well within interpretive limits, it is glorious. When mishandled, it forces people into thick jungle which can really hurt them.

The Problem

Every Bible cult misuses the Old Testament and spiritually abuses people because of it. This is because the cult leader has read 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that the person of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The cult leader misinterprets this to mean that all scripture is equally valuable and equally applicable to the Christian. This assumption is false and is not what the text says.

Instead, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says that every word of scripture is equally inspired by God and is useful. But not all scripture is equally valuable or applicable to the Christian life. Is it scandalous to say that? For example, the genealogies in 1 Chronicles 1-9 are inspired by God and serve a purpose, but they are not particularly useful for understanding the gospel message, handling conflict with your in-laws, managing money, or relating to a bully at school. Similarly, regulations concerning ceremonial cleanliness have little practical relevance to Christians who are no longer under the Mosaic Law.

But cult leaders or spiritually abusive pastors mishandle the Old Testament out of ignorance or obsessiveness. They may take random Old Testament verses out of context and quote them to their congregation as if they should be obeyed without question or context. Or the leader compares himself to Old Testament leaders like Moses or David and then demands absolute allegiance from church members.

Four Boundary Lines  

Thick books have been written for Christians about the proper interpretation of the Old Testament. This post does not pretend to answer all of the possible questions of interpretation and application. Instead, I’d like to form some commonsense boundaries which can help you discern whether a church leader has mishandled the Old Testament text.

Think of these four guidelines as four sides of a field which is surrounded by gullies and pucker brush. Inside the lines is a wide pasture of diverse interpretation and application of the Old Testament. Good Christian scholars and church leaders may disagree with each other within these boundaries, but they are all within the pale of permitted Christian orthodox belief.

But outside of these lines is the realm of heterodox belief. Any church leader who uses the Old Testament in ways which fall outside these boundaries is in grave danger of hurting their followers.

1.) Pastors should avoid comparing church leaders with Old Testament theocratic leaders.


via Dave Webster, Creative Commons

Israel was a theocratic nation which was led first by Moses as a prophet-priest-king (a type for Jesus Christ), then by Joshua as a military leader, then by a series of judges, and finally by a series of kings. None of these roles bears any relation to the New Testament roles of pastor, elder, overseer, or deacon. Because there is a difference between the nation of Israel and the church, there is a corresponding difference in leadership. If your pastor compares his authority to that of Moses, run for the exits (see related post here).

The New Testament provides strict qualifications for church leaders, chief of which are trustworthiness (life experience and good character) and truth (proper handling of God’s Word and wise interpretation). Church members may evaluate their leadership on these criteria. No leader is unimpeachable simply because he or she holds a particular office or wears a particular title. And no church leader compares in any way to the leader of a nation-state or a divinely-appointed monarch.

2.) Pastors should avoid mistaking the church for Israel, especially in prophecies.

If you look carefully at the prophecies related to Israel in the Old Testament, you begin to see that God has a purpose for the nation of Israel which sometimes corresponds with the church but more usually is distinct. Different streams of Christian tradition differ on this, but one thing is certain: if your pastor takes a one-to-one correlation between Israel and the church, you will encounter some pretty weird Old Testament prophecies which your church will have to believe relates directly to you. For example, try reading the book of Zechariah as if it all applies directly to the church – to your church – rather than to Israel. While a responsible pastor can extract certain principles about God’s character and how he relates to his people, there is not a one-to-one correlation between Israel and the church. You can usually tell when a pastor mistakes his or her church in the prophecies about Israel because the church starts to have an apocalyptic, polarized, judgmental feel to it.

Helpfully, Paul makes a distinction between Israel and the church. For example, in Romans 9-11 he says that God still has a purpose for the nation of Israel in his program. The oft-quoted “remnant” concept refers to Israel, not to the church. Sorry.

3.) Pastors should not demand adherence to the law in order to be saved.

I wish I didn’t have to include this guideline. But there are still many pastors who believe that because the Law of Moses remains in their Bibles, they are obligated to obey it. They argue that Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). Listen: the early Church already handled this matter for us. In Acts 15, an authoritative council of the Church – which included the apostles James, Peter, and Paul – declared that Gentile believers don’t have to obey the Law of Moses. And in the book of Galatians – the first epistle Paul wrote – he flatly opposes the idea that Christians must obey the Law. Anyone who says otherwise is a modern day Judaizer who fails to understand the gospel of grace. They are still in bondage to the idea of works righteousness and they figuratively re-crucify Christ. Yikes.

4.) Pastors should not mistake descriptive narrative material for prescriptive decrees.


via Savio Sebastian, Creative Commons

This is not difficult. The Bible is literature and there are sections which are descriptive (think Genesis, Judges, Jonah, and Esther) while other sections are prescriptive (think Jesus’ sermons or the Pauline Epistles). Descriptive material includes both positive and negative behavior and doesn’t always comment on which is which. It takes wisdom to extract helpful principles, recognize God’s character, and properly apply narrative material. When a pastor takes a descriptive passage and interprets it as prescriptive (Prayer of Jabez, anyone?), folks can get misled or hurt.

5.) And here’s a bonus fifth guideline: Pastors should not confuse their own extra-biblical filler material with authoritative scripture.

Gene Edwards has written a bestselling book called A Tale of Three Kings which remains popular in many Christian circles. Unfortunately, the book freely combines Edwards’ loose paraphrases of scripture related to Saul, David, and Solomon, with his own historical fiction. He then draws life principles both from his paraphrase and from his fiction. Unfortunately, because his premises are flawed his principles are skewed. I have heard from a number of people whose churches used this book as a study and it resulted in spiritual abuse. So don’t do that.


To interpret the Old Testament using any of the five errors cited above makes a church vulnerable to abuse. Yes the Old Testament is rich with God’s working in history, with guidelines for wise living, with prophetic anticipation, and with examples of faithful men and women. But it is also full of anticipation for the redemption of God’s people through the cross of Jesus Christ and the coming of God’s Kingdom to earth.

Christians should read the Old Testament through the lens of the cross, understanding that church leaders are to imitate Christ, not Moses, and that we are not under law but under grace.

Posts in this Series:

Fixing a Frankenstein Faith: Ten Distortions of Scripture and How to Correct Them

Distortion #1: Love Thy Neighbor But Hate Thy Parent

Distortion #2: “Because I’m Your Pastor/Elder/Spiritual Leader, that’s Why!”

Distortion #3: Vestigial Organs in the Body? Natural Family vs. Spiritual Family

Distortion #4: Brother’s Keeper: Surveillance in Spiritually Abusive Churches

Distortion #5: “It Says in Deuteronomy…”: Misuse of the Old Testament

Distortion #6: God or Mammon: Logical Fallacy of the Excluded Middle

Distortion #7: I Committed Adultery Watching the Smurfs: James 4:4 Unpacked

Distortion #8: You Shall Be Holy Unto Me (So Ditch the Budweiser)

Distortion #9: “We Alone are the ‘Remnant,’ all 75 of Us!”

Distortion #10: Fun in the Shun? Confessions of an Excommunicator

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Review of “Girl at the End of the World”

girl_at_the_end_of_the_worldGirl at the End of the World by Elisabeth Esther. Convergent Books, 2014. 224 pp.

Elisabeth has written a poignant memoir, one that will likely ring true with many other survivors of fundamentalist cults.

Elisabeth’s grandfather started a group called “The Assembly,” and her parents served as leaders.The book title comes from The Assembly’s focus on eschatology and the imminent end of the world. Members constantly prepared themselves for an apocalyptic event; separated themselves from mainstream cultural practices, clothing, and entertainment; and practiced communal living and evangelistic zeal. Elisabeth herself lived in a torment of anxiety that she would be left behind.

I found the second half of the book more helpful than the first. While Elisabeth’s childhood in the cult was poignant and heartbreaking, I felt she tended to editorialize with her modern-day level of awareness and a snappy sarcasm which for me created a disconnect. She wasn’t wrong to do so, I just found it harder to connect with her character in the first half of the book. Sarcasm is fun to read, but it can hold feelings at arms’ length.


Elisabeth and Matt, via Elisabeth Esther

I noticed a shift in tone halfway through the book. Less humor, more depth of feeling and dawning awareness of the evils of her cult. Her description of meeting her husband, Matt, and their early life in The Assembly was for me very powerful. Elisabeth is candid and does not sugarcoat the mistakes she and Matt made as they struggled to fit into The Assembly and eventually struggled to leave. And it was a struggle. This is so helpful to see, because by definition cults are hard to leave. It is encouraging to hear of a couple who courageously chose to leave, even as we see what that decision cost them.

There is always a cost to leaving a cult. Sure, you gain freedom, but freedom comes with a price when you leave a group like The Assembly where you’ve spent a lifetime surrounded by friends and family, without learning the normal common sense and coping mechanisms that help navigate a complex culture.

Elisabeth’s struggle with PTSD is very real and brave. Her journey of healing is ongoing, even ten years after leaving. In this, many ex-cult members can relate. I can.

Some evangelical readers may find Elisabeth’s entry into the Catholic Church troubling. I find it honest and hopeful, though I struggle to understand Elisabeth’s reverence of Mary as sympathetic mediatrix. Psychologically, I get it. Theologically, I can’t go there. But no one is asking me to.

Overall, an honest look at a life with more than its share of pain, yet a courageous journey to freedom, reconciliation, and healing. I pray for every blessing on Elisabeth, Matt, and their family as they continue their journey with Jesus.