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Spiritual authority or spiritual abuse?

“I didn’t grow up in the church at all and my very first experience of a mentor relationship was a youth pastor who wanted to be my spiritual father etc. I didn’t know what that meant, but sounded good to me… Long story short, I got burnt pretty bad by him, he said a lot of pretty hateful thi…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
“I didn’t grow up in the church at all and my very first experience of a mentor relationship was a youth pastor who wanted to be my spiritual father etc. I didn’t know what that meant, but sounded good to me… Long story short, I got burnt pretty bad by him, he said a lot of pretty hateful things to me in the end, and walked away from the relationship.” -Mike
Yesterday’s blog fostered some good dialogue. Raise the subject of spiritual authority and people immediately have flashbacks to a pastor or group leader that in some way abused their position in their church or ministry. Maybe they were controlling, maybe they “beat the sheep,” or maybe it was something worse and they can still feel the hurt when they think about it.
Kari summarized the undercurrent to this issue of spiritual authority with this comment: “I hear what you’re saying. My first reaction, as a 44 year old, is that I have seen authority in a church misused. So, I have developed a jaded sense of authority, because I’ve seen it used inappropriately.”
Another commenter, Kathy, asked the question about authority that a lot of people seem to have: “How do you address this subject in an age of a faulty church structure and for those who are called out of it?”
I was just at a World Race training camp. Over 200 20-somethings in attendance. And what’s remarkable is how many of them have suffered from some kind of abuse: sexual, emotional, and yes, spiritual abuse. 
The good news is that there is a clear standard – the Bible gives us a detailed description of what a person who wields spiritual authority should look like (see 1 Timothy 3). The bad news is that too many religious leaders use their position in illegitimate ways.
Rather than equipping “God’s people to do his work and build up the
church” (Eph. 4:11-12), they use their position for some kind of personal gain.
I have been victimized by what felt like spiritually abusive leaders who rather than helping me grow, used their power in ways that hurt badly. It happened three times and in each instance I went through a time of depression. And I drew the conclusion that it might be better to just not trust myself to people like that ever again.
Positional and religious authority has little to do with actual spiritual authority. Many of you reading this are stuck in your spiritual growth because of the illegitimate use of religious authority by someone in your past. And as a result, perhaps you’ve gotten tangled up just wondering who you can really trust in ministry. It stinks. And it’s normal for victims to wind up in spiritually dark places.
Frankly, I’ve got no easy answers except that it’s worth the struggle to find a way to trust again. The members of the body of Christ don’t get connected and don’t begin to operate in a coordinated way that moves toward unity unless we work at wielding spiritual authority correctly.
And I’ve learned this truth the hard way: You and I have been targeted for destruction by a personal evil. I needed to learn how to wield authority in combating those attacks. It’s made a huge difference in my life and I believe it will for you as well. A big part of discipleship involves training others in how to properly wield spiritual authority. Jesus did it with his disciples and asked that we do the same (Matthew 10:1).
It’s worth learning from one another if we can. It’s worth further discussion and prayer. If we’re kind of stuck because of our inability to fully trust those who wield positional authority, it may well impact our growth spiritually.

Comments (14)

  • **mArC** The Schifano Tribe

    Positional and religious authority has little to do with actual spiritual authority.

    “Actual” That word hit home with me. I consider the ways,(the fruit produced in one’s life) of my leaders and see who I want to emulate and who’s coat tails I want to grab a hold of. I see you, and say, “Okay Jesus, I’m all in!” Love you bro.

  • Loved this related post on the Wrecked for the Ordinary site – http://church.wrecked.org/?filename=my-epistle-to-the-church-from-bitterness-to-forgiveness – i think it’s a great place to finally arrive. God doesn’t waste any of these hurts, be they deep or even slight.

    I’ve heard some say we should even EXPECT to be betrayed/hurt by someone in spiritual leadership at some point – because we have to be prepared, trained in this way to depend on and hear the Lord ourselves. Seems odd, but perhaps that’s so. And I guess it’s up to us whether we will let it make us better disciples … or bitter ones.

  • Seth this was great for me to read this morning. Thank you.

    If you get a chance I’ve got one question. How do you support the statement that “Positional and religious authority has little to do with actual spiritual authority.” That idea really resonates with me. It’s a statement I’ve been trying to express but unsure if it was actually ok to say.

  • A huge struggle for me when it comes to this matter is moving forward. For the last few months I have been trying to locate a new church home away from the abusive one that I was at before. I have found a wonderful church that is spirit led instead of fleshly led and I find it so hard to look at them through red goggles… and know that someday yes I might be hurt by people at this church, God never told us that we would be free from pain, but remembering that my debt is pretty large!

  • Brent,

    good prodding and question. I look at Jesus’ relationship with the religious authorities of the day for starters. John 5:38-40 is good: “nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. 39You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, 40yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

    And Paul talked about the source of his authority in 1 Cor. 2:3-5: “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 4My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”

    So – we see that relationship with Jesus gives life and a demonstration of power produces trust (and therefore confers authority).

    Much good material to delve into with this subject.

  • Yes…I would like you to reveal your revelation of spiritual authority. I think we all recognize religious authority… but how does one keep submitted as unto the Lord…under this kind of authority. I know God did not make man to rule over any man. But lets face it …sometimes you are in a place where this happens. Even in a marriage. God is relationship..and because of our relationship with Him…we all desire the outward evidence of that relationship.
    How do we connect in this place of koinonia in the body of Christ in the midst of all the things the church is settling for? Have you ever thought of having a conference? People want to connect in the area they live…but we need spiritual wisdom. We need the accountability of relationship in the day to day relationship…that’s where things come to the light. Just…some thoughts.

  • Marg,

    Thanks for all the questions. As to a conference, if you’re able to get here next week, we’re offering the following free: http://www.adventures.org/stirred/?ppc=wr&campaign=stirred

    And as to the questions about koinonia – that’s something I think those of us who are still looking for it may need to encourage one another in thru such online forums as this.

    Where do you live? Perhaps I know of some people in the area who are meeting together.

  • A note to the people out there who I may be ignorant about: If I or any of my proxies have ever abused you in any way, please get in touch with me and give me a chance to try and make it right. In life, there are things that we mess up and know about, and there are the things that escape our notice. I vowed when I was a younger man to always try and treat others like I would want to be treated myself.

    And even so, I know we don’t get it right. But I believe in a God of second chances, so please contact me if there’s anything I can do about something that happened to you.

  • Have you ever considered a difference between Spiritual Authority and Religious Authority? Considering that one is human centered and the other though it’s human that weilds it, it’s influence and jurisdiction is both in the natural and the supernatural.

    • Yes, Tolu. It is the misuse of religious authority that, under the guise of legitimacy, leads to abuse.

  • Rosella dela Paz Gord

    BULL’S EYE for me personally, Seth. But you know what? When we get to heaven, we will not have to account for what anyone, including those CALLED to HIGHER STANDARDS did to us.
    We will EACH be accountable for how we THOUGHT, TALKED and ACTED our WALK with GOD on EARTH.
    I have been so BETRAYED in public, inside the CHURCH sanctuary by the leadership of one church that has PROBABLY been the ONE that benefited from my GENEROSITY and LOVE for the LORD most.
    My idea of giving has been honed in my CATHOLIC upbrining of SELF-SACRIFICING CHRISTLIKE LOVE;
    “not what you GIVE” but “how much of what you have, you give.”
    ***After becoming a BIBLICAL CHRISTIAN, I realized JESUS, put emphasis on the WIDOW’s mite, Mary at HIS FEET, the PERFUME LADY, and all other men and women whose FAITH and LOVE for the LORD makes them TRANSCEND human frailties, errors and VICTIM producing SINS. They would always emerge VICTORIOUSLY endeared to our TRIUNE GOD. FATHER, SON & HOLY SPIRIT.
    Looking at how GOD has made “GOOD” what the IGNORANCE, ARROGANCE, INCOMPETENCE, PRIDE and POWER TRIPPING relinuts have done in my business, marriage and family life, I cannot help but have compassion on them for the day of RECKONING with our ULTIMATE AUTHORITY and JUDGE.
    It is of VITAL IMPORTANCE that EACH of us remember that we are ACCOUNTABLE individually to our LORD CREATOR, SAVIOR and HOLY SPIRIT of GOD as HIS CHILD and as PART of HIS BRIDE.
    Someone from our Ladies’ BIBLE STUDY quoted,
    “When we get to HEAVEN, we will be in SINGLE FILE line.”
    I tell this to my son everytime he is talking ILL of his father.
    Or to anyone who does not WANT to have anything to do with JESUS or CHURCH, supposedly because of the HYPOCRITE CHRISTIANS.
    LOVE GOD. LOVE others. LOVE self.
    If you LOVE in this ORDER, you will REMAIN unaffected by the CARES and IMPERFECTIONS of this world and its CREATURES.
    Thank you, Seth, for what you, your wife and children are willing to forsake for your LOVE and SERVICE of the LORD!
    The WORLD is a BETTER place because of SERVANTS of CHRIST like you!

  • seth – thank you for addressing this. i have felt stuck for some time now due to what i have been dealing with since training camp last year…i still wrestle with all of it. i wish there were easy answers. i hate being in the rut though.

  • I am touched by your openness, your willingness to consider that you may have been guilty of this at some time, and by your thoughtful advice. While I think it’s true that we have all been guilty of low-level spiritual abuse at some time in our Christian lives for which we now feel ashamed, there are some out there who never seen to quite “get it,” and they persist in destructive, abusive patterns.

    For example:


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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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