Profile of a Spiritual Abuser
Topic: Church Life Passage: 2 Corinthians 11:16–11:21, Psalm 82:3–82:4
Grace Community Church
May 9, 2021
Profile of a Spiritual Abuser
Happy Mother’s Day to all our moms! We appreciate and honor you for all you do.
Let’s turn to 2 Cor. 11 as we continue our series Messy Grace. I feel I need to begin this message with a disclaimer. This will not be a Mother’s Day message, in fact it’s about as far from a Mother’s Day message as possible.
As we work our way through 2 Cor. this morning we are confronted with the important but very unpleasant subject of spiritual abuse. Hold the applause. Honestly I’d rather not talk about it, but it’s clearly in this passage and we need to talk about it.
So, Moms, I apologize. And for the rest: if your mom or grandmother or wife is here today, do me a favor: treat her extra, extra special today to make up for this message. Clean the house, make her favorite dinner, do everything she asks you to do, buy her a new car. Whatever it takes!
The title of the message is Profile of a Spiritual Abuser. Let’s read vv. 16-21
16 I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. 17 What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would but as a fool. 18 Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. 19 For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! 20 For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. 21 To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that! 2 Cor. 11:16-21
On Paul’s second missionary journey he came to a pagan, non-religious city called Corinth and began the hard work of preaching the gospel and leading people to a living faith in Jesus Christ. He spent a year and a half there and when he left, there was a strong and vibrant church of believers in Corinth.
Then some people with bad agendas infiltrated the church and began to try to exploit the church for their own selfish agendas. They called themselves super-apostles – apostles 2.0 – and they too preached Jesus…but not the same Jesus that Paul preached.
A few year ago Esurance ran a commercial series called “sorta you isn’t you”. In honor of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d show you my personal favorite.
- Show Sorta Mom isn’t Mom commercial
We know that sorta mom definitely isn’t mom and sorta Jesus definitely isn’t Jesus either. The imposter apostles were preaching a sorta Jesus. Paul says in verse 4:
if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough. 2 Cor. 11:4
Look at that last line: you put up with it readily enough. Paul is being sarcastic. They should be showing these false apostles to the door, but they’re putting up with this heresy!
But that’s not all they’re putting up with. Paul uses the exact same phrase in verse 20.
For you bear it (or you put up with it) if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. Vs. 20
Verse 20 describes serious abuse. The imposter apostles are spiritually abusing the Corinthian believers. And they’re putting up with it. Spiritual abuse is when someone exploits and hurts others in the name of God. Its treating people badly in the name of God. It adds to the horror of ordinary abuse blasphemy against God.
The Bible tells us that God is great and that God is good. He’s good. God is kind, patient, loving, compassionate, merciful, and wise. God also hates sin with a fervent passion and that is good too! Sin destroys everything it touches so a part of God’s love is His hatred of sin. God so loved the world He gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Love.
Spiritual abusers don’t care about God, and they don’t care about people. They care about power, and they use the name of God as a means to power. Individuals can be spiritual abusers but churches and movements can foster an abusive atmosphere too. Spiritual abuse is a stench to God, and we should not put up with it!
Paul gives us a profile of an abuser in verse 20. I’m going to share a few stories of spiritual abuse that I’ve encountered over the years, but there are some I left on the editing floor, just too heart-breaking to share. You might have your own stories. May this time in God’s word help protect us from spiritual abuse and make us protectors of victims of spiritual abuse. Paul uses 5 words and we begin with the word…
- Control –makes slaves of you.
The Jesus Paul preached set the Corinthians free from their sin through his free gift of grace. The imposter apostles want to re-enslave the Corinthians to their legalistic bondage so they preached a sorta Jesus who began their salvation and now they needed to finish it by keeping the law.
One of the characteristics of spiritual abusers is they want to control you. What you do, what you say, what you think, who you talk to, what you read.
When I was single I lived with a family who had a dog named Freddie. Freddie was a good dog and he ruled the home until one day this family brought home a full grown sheepdog and Freddie’s nightmare began. Every time Freddie tried to walk anywhere, the sheepdog was there to herd Freddie where he wanted Freddie to go. It was amazing! Freddie would try to walk to his food bowl, and Sheepdog would block his way and guide him in a different way.
It got so bad that poor Freddie stopped walking in open spaces. He would slink behind the couches and chairs where the sheepdog couldn’t squeeze.
That’s a picture of what spiritual abuse looks like: it’s about control. Herding your thoughts, your words, your actions, your beliefs in the direction they want them to go in. They manipulate, gaslight, guilt, and threaten, all to make you do what they want you to do and all in the name of God.
When I was pastoring Lamb’s Chapel on Long Island, some people came to me telling me that a guy I knew name Carl was leading a bible study, mostly of women, and he was getting very controlling and legalistic. There were a few people who were beginning to see it wasn’t right and they asked me to go to the study and talk to Carl.
So I’m there, and as I look around, I see a room full of people who just look beaten down. Carl was putting heavy yokes of rules and laws they had to keep or they weren’t children of God. The joy had been beaten out of them in the name of God.Like Freddie, they were slinking in the shadows afraid to take one step on their own out of fear they might take the wrong step.
At one point in the evening I did speak up and I’ll admit it derailed Carl’s study as a discussion ensued. Many people stopped attending this cultish study and it closed down soon after. One woman who sat under Carl’s oppressive teaching started coming to Lamb’s Chapel and it was a blessing to watch her begin to heal from the wounds inflicted on her by the spiritual abuse of that study.
- Consumes - devours you
The word used here has a wide range of meaning from being robbed to being torn to pieces to literally being eaten. It reminds me of Jesus’ warning about the teachers of the law, that they devoured widow’s houses. They fed off the weakest and poorest among them. They were devouring the ones they should have been protecting.
Spiritual abusers consume rather than contribute. Here’s something that might help us get a handle on it: it’s the opposite of being built up. Ever notice how some people make you feel like you leave them with more. More encouragement. More optimism. More hope. More laughter. More love. More grace. They build you up. They leave you with something.
Abusers don’t build up, they tear down, they consume. You leave them with less. Your emotional account is drained after being with them. Your character is torn to pieces by their self-righteous criticism. Your hope is devoured by their discouraging words, your grace consumed by their guilting. You leave them with less.
- Takers- take advantage of you
The word Paul uses means to grab or take. Spiritually abusive people are takers. They take advantage of others. If you give them an inch they take a mile. They see relationships as a way of getting. Where Christ calls us to love, serve and give, they turn it on its head and seek to be served and admired and take.
They see relationships as a contest they are always trying to win at. That’s what the word “advantage” means. It’s putting yourself in a superior position over another. I have an advantage over you means I am in a better position than you. Abusive people see relationships as a contest they always want to win.
For them it’s not about God, it’s not about people, it’s about power. Every encounter is about acquiring or maintaining power. They have to win every argument, they have to be right every time, they have to be the most spiritual person in the room. It’s about power. It’s about advantage.
Be careful what you share with an abusive person because they are likely to leverage what you share with them in order to get an advantage over you. In an effort to strengthen my relationship with someone I was working with some years ago, I shared an area I felt I needed to grow in. Later I was taken by surprise when they attempted to use that against me in order to gain an advantage. They took that information hostage for their benefit.
Abusive people can be charming and great fun to be around – as long as their winning. As long as things are going their way. It’s to their advantage to be so. But the minute it’s not to their advantage, charm turns to harm. They take advantage of others for their own benefit and power.
- Spiritual phoniness - Puts on airs
I like the way the ESV translates a word that means to lift up. “Puts on airs”. It means acting like you’re something that you’re not, in this context it means being presumptuous or pompous.
I am grateful to say that over the decades that I’ve been a Christian, most of the Christians I’ve met have been sincere, decent people who love Jesus and who are also imperfect, flawed, messy-grace kind of people. Real.
But I have met a few Christians who have a “super-spiritual” air about them. They know the Bible better, they hear from God better, they know what the church is doing wrong and what it should be doing better, and they are better Christians. There is an air of superiority and frankly that air stinks.
And in every case I can think of, when I’ve gotten to know them and their lives and their families better, it’s evident that their superior spirituality isn’t real, it’s putting on airs.
The fact that these so-called apostles called themselves “super-apostles” might be a clue not only that they thought highly of their spirituality, but that they wanted everyone else to think highly of their spirituality too. Paul says, it isn’t real, it’s just putting on airs.
- Humiliates and bullies –strikes you in the face
The last description in this profile of a spiritual abuser is that they strike you in the face. George Guthrie writes in his commentary that Paul “would be hard pressed to find a more offensive image, or one that communicates the concept of abuse more forcefully.”
Being struck in the face is a metaphor for being humiliated and bullied. It might be a literal strike, more than likely it’s a verbal punch.
Spiritual abusers are bullies. They use their words and any other means they have to keep people in their place. Demeaning, humiliating, bullying. Paul says they strike you in the face in the name of God.
His question and amazement is implied: why do you put up with it?
The quick answer is people fear that they’d be crossing God not to. As we close, I want to say directly what Paul’s question implies: don’t put up with spiritual abuse!!
God isn’t abusive. Ever. In fact, just the opposite. James 1:27 says that religion that God accepts as pure and faultless is to care for widows and orphans. Psalm 82 gives us this command:
Defend the weak and the fatherless;uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;deliver them from the hand of the wicked. Ps. 82:3-4
God’s heart isn’t to abuse, it’s to protect. Spiritual abusers are distorting who God is and blaspheming His holy name. Don’t put up with it!
The real Jesus came to die on the cross to free us from slavery to sin and to the law and to make us sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. To make us friends. And, as Paul loved to say of himself – it was his favorite title - to make us bondslaves of Christ. A bondslave was one whose term of slavery ended and they were free to go, but they loved their lord and chose to remain as his servant. That’s the believer and Christ. We love Jesus as the best Lord and Master, the kindest ruler, and greatest King, and we would have no other master over us. Serving Jesus sets us free and leads us to freedom!
Listen, no church and no believer is perfect. We can and should put up with a lot. Imperfect believers, imperfect churches, we should show patience, grace, and charity. We must not have a hair trigger reaction and call every imperfect situation spiritually abusive. But where we find spiritual abuse we must not put up with it.
- If you know someone you suspect might be in a spiritually abusive situation, try to talk with them about it, pray with them, and if you find they are in a spiritually abusive environment or relationship, try to get them to leave it.
- If you are in a spiritually abusive situation, don’t be silent, speak to someone you trust, find counsel, get prayer. If the situation can be changed, good. If not, get help to get out. God wants you in a safe place.
God wants His people to be free from abuse and protectors of victims of abusers. It’s one practical way we can love God and reflect His great and loving heart.
More in Messy Grace: Second Corinthians
June 13, 2021Examine Yourselves Part Two
June 6, 2021Examine Yourselves Part One
May 29, 2021Minimizing Mess, Maximizing Grace in Relationships