Authoritarian abuse is an important, yet often overlooked subject. Unfortunately my wife and I have been a victim of this, and know several people personally who have been victims of this. Authoritarian abuse can take many forms but it is essentially "a misuse and over emphasis on authority." It is related to spiritual abuse, defined as, "Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment (David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen in The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, p. 20). All forms of spiritual abuse inevitably lead back to the one who is the abuser; and most often it is the leader of the spiritual group. Authoritarian abuse can simply be defined as a misuse and over emphasis on authority. Many abusive systems claim they are ‘led by God’ and therefore justify their ‘abusive behavior’ by saying they are ‘God’s leaders,’ etc. Abusive leaders damage people in countless ways. – Chris Lawson, Spiritual Resource Network.EXAMPLE #1 - Words of Life Church
When I was a missionary before I got married, I worked for an organization that had one employee around my age. She and I became friends and eventually we were in a serious relationship. Well, she ended up getting breast cancer and dying. Shortly after this, I received a call from Words of Life Church. They said they had her sister there from another country and they wanted to all meet with me to go over her life insurance. I met with them and they told me that she had listed me as the only beneficiary, but that she only had a small policy. They insisted I sign some papers giving the proceeds to her sister. They said the family was shocked I was the person listed and not her family back in the country she was from. They told me that her family really needed the money and that it wasn't much money anyway. I thought that sounded reasonable but I asked that I get all my stuff back (I had a LOT of stuff at her place, including some very expensive things like antique books) and I received something like $7K from her 401-K (retirement account) to pay for some expenses she incurred. Wouldn't you know, shortly after this I got a call from her last employer re: the check for my money and I told her what happened. She was frankly shocked I signed over that money. When I told her the amount they told me it was, she said something like, "listen, I can't tell you how much it was, but they lied to you and it was a LOT more than that!" Of course I was hurt hearing those words, that I had been cheated out of a lot of money, but what made it worse is that it was done by a church, and a church that my girlfriend and I faithfully attended and supported. How ironic a prosperity church would help steal a huge amount of money from me.EXAMPLE #2 - Calvary Chapel
A friend of mine told me that he was under a lot of stress from his wife having cancer and issues at our church. He went on to tell me that one leader (not even a Pastor) was giving him a hard time over tithing. My friend said a leader had checked on his tithing record because he was serving in the church, but my friend was giving part of his tithe to the main Calvary Chapel church, Pastored by Church Smith, the founder. Whether or not this was true, he shared that a leader in our church had checked on his tithing and I went on to tell him that this is exactly what had happened to me. Shortly after this, this friend committed suicide. This same leader who gave this friend such a hard time tried to use this same argument against me in a meeting with other leaders where I explained that his information was incorrect - I had multiple accounts which I tithed from (I owned a business with a corporate account and had personal checking and savings accounts with several banks), and I also gave cash at times. When I discussed this incident with someone in accounting, they were shocked that this leader did this and said that they are not supposed to be able to access those records. When I went with my wife for us to meet with a Pastor and explain several abuses by this individual, we were told by the Pastor that he was one of his most trusted colleagues, and he didn't believe us. Rather than go to the Senior Pastor and make a big deal out of this, we felt led to just leave the church.EXAMPLE #3 - Oasis Church
After this, my wife and I visited a number of different churches, but none seemed like a fit. We also realized we were spoiled by solid Biblical teaching where we previously went. We eventually had one church recommended to my wife from a friend, and that went well for over three years until I simply shared a concern privately with the Senior Pastor in May, 2010. We were very close with him and serving everywhere - we each worked in the children's ministry, counted the money on Sunday, were ushers/greeters, and served wherever we felt led. My wife was elected to be on the Church Council. I was elected to be a "Lay Pastor" and was asked to become a "Host Pastor" in charge of the Thursday night services. This went on smoothly but as soon as I expressed concern that the Pastor was pushing the prayer team to read a highly controversial book called The Prayer of Jabez, everything changed. I received a scathing reply with name-calling ("extremist," "grossly misguided," "judgmental," "extreme," "critical," "laughable," etc), yet he never asked why I felt that way. I had seen him be very defensive before but I couldn't believe what I was reading from a Senior Pastor and close friend, on what should have been a minor issue. The very next day, he felt "profoundly moved" to send out an email to the entire church, asking them to read and meditate on the book. He mentioned twice that he had done a whole sermon series on this and I was naturally more concerned. I decided to send him a 23-page list with over 100 reasons and examples of false teaching from this book (2 Tim. 2:25). In another scathing reply with twelve bullets, he complete dismissed me, said I had no authority to say anything, said I was arrogant and proud, and said he was going to discuss this with the other Pastors and have me meet with one of them. Sure enough, I met with one of them shortly after and was promptly removed from being a host pastor and told I was not going to be the Internet Pastor as anticipated, even though we hadn't even begun to plan that project. I asked how I was supposed to express a simple concern, which I also asked the Senior Pastor but received no answer, and was told when pressed that I was in no position to make any recommendations. He began to explain how the Senior Pastor was like Moses (see Moses Model), and this just confirmed what my wife and I got ourselves into. I knew the dangers before because there was such a deliberate effort to shelter the church from outside ministries, churches, teachers, etc. There was a clear effort to teach seeker-friendly watered-down topical messages, yet excluding many important topics (at least over the three years I attended). My wife and I never witnessed an altar call or saw anyone get saved. Isn't that ridiculous??? The church was basically a social club. The whole emphasis was not discipling as Jesus commanded us to do, but rather getting new people in. The Pastors made it clear in pastoral meetings that they wanted to fill up every one of the services and we had brainstorming sessions on ways to do this. My recommendations, such as worship services and prayer services, were shunned as not being good ideas and weren't even mentioned in forthcoming summaries of our ideas. I felt that we needed to strengthen what we already had but was told by three different Pastors that it was "their job to feed themselves." So much for feeding Christ's sheep (John 21:15-17, 1 Cor. 3:2, 2 Tim. 3:16-17, 4:2-3, Heb 5:12-6:3, 1 Pet. 2:2-3). So in November, 2010 when the Pastor got wind that I was looking for another church, I was promptly removed from all remaining ministries (Lay Pastor and childrens' ministry) in an abrupt email. When the Sr. Pastor found out, he emailed my wife asking if was going to stay on the Church Council and suggested we get counseling for my issues, which he said were that I couldn't hold down a job or stick to one church. Ironically I've had my own company for the past 12+ years and have been very successful. I also attended Calvary Chapel for a long time but when I moved, I changed to a different Calvary Chapel. I find it pathetic that this "Sr. Pastor" would take my concern so personal and then put me down in an email to my wife. Needless to say, she did not respond and we went elsewhere. Soon after I heard about other cases of authoritarian abuse at this church which involved several Pastors, resulting in these people leaving as well.CHURCH DISCIPLINE VS. AUTHORITARIAN ABUSE
It is important to make a distinction between church discipline and authoritarian abuse. Church discipline is essential and is extremely Scriptural. See my pages on Church Discipline, "Moses Model", and even False Teachings and Cults for more information. Neither of these cases warranted church discipline, yet that was essentially the result. “Church discipline may be broadly defined as the confrontive and corrective measures taken by an individual, church leaders, or the congregation regarding a matter of sin in the life of a believer.” In these cases, these actions were not an action in response to sin, but rather our of the pride of someone in authority. My friend was no longer allowed to serve and in both churches I was removed from serving in the same capacity. He told me how this overbearing individual seemed to make his life difficult through gossip, slander, lying, abuse of his position to check his tithing, removal him from ministry at church and his home, etc. They didn't like each other and my friend even confessed to me that he wanted to phyically hurt this individual, and even did a background check on him. Unfortunately my friend ended up committing suicide shortly after this as, in his words, everything got to be too much. In the second example, I was told by a Pastor that after I sent a private email to the Sr. Pastor voicing a concern about him pushing people to read The Prayer of Jabez, a book with a lot of false teaching, he got all of the Pastors and staff together and fished for anything that I could have said/done that could be taken as confrontational. One Pastor said I asked if the church purchased some construction jackets but he made it sound like I questioned it (I simply asked and thought it was "cute" for the ushers to wear them during a series). I had never had a conversation with this Pastor in the two years I served at this church so he clearly assumed the worst and rather than confront me as Scripture instructs (Matthew 18), he chose to slander me. The only other thing anyone could offer is when I emailed the tech guy to tell him about an email problem they were having. I had owned several IT/computer businesses since I was young and fixed computers for a living, so I was well aware of this "known issue" with Microsoft. I simply sent him the link to Microsoft's solution on their Knowledge Base and told him how to fix it. For some reason, this person chose to bring this up and I guess three strikes make me out. This is clearly an example of authoritarian and disciplinary abuse, and some incredible ministry I was involved in was lost when the Sr. Pastor removed me as the Thursday night Pastor, all for simply raising a concern privately via email. Some egos can't be questioned.FOOTNOTES:
1. Carl Laney, A Guide to Church Discipline, Bethany House Publishers, p. 14.SUGGESTED RESOURCES:
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, Bethany House Publishers. Excellent help for recognizing and escaping spiritual manipulation and false spiritual authority within the Church. 235 pages-$10.
Faith That Hurts, Faith That Heals, by Stephen Arterburn, and Jack Felton, Thomas Nelson Publishers. Very thorough treatment, analyzes beliefs that make harmful faith, religious addiction, etc. as well as treatment and recovery, and the characteristics of healthy faith. 320 pages-$11.
Breaking Free, by David R. Miller, Baker Book House. Speaking first-hand from the experiences of his own family, Miller penetrates virtually every nuance of legalism and its insidious effects on individual and family life. 176 pages-$10.
Wisdom Hunter, by Randall Arthur, Multnomah Press. Taut, fast-paced thriller presents a powerful message about the damage caused by Christian legalism. 323 pages-$10.
Broken Hearts – Shattered Trust, by Dr. John K. Setser, Barnabas Group. Identifies causes of spiritual abuse while compassionately embracing both sinner and sinned against. Excellent discussion on what “forgiveness” is and isn’t. 142 pages.
Churches That Abuse, by Ronald Enroth, Zondervan. Providing real-life examples throughout, Enroth probes every corner of the abusive church. He also provides help to find the way out, and back to God’s healing. 253 pages, endnotes-$6.
© Todd Tyszka
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