How to Identify and Address Spiritually Abusive Leaders in the Church: A Lesson from Eli

by | Security, Security Connections

We all want to trust the leaders in our church, and most of the time we can. But have you ever felt shamed by one, sat through toxic teachings you were too afraid to question, or confided in a leader only to have your trust betrayed? We don’t always recognize these types of behavior as spiritual abuse, but they are. Anytime a leader uses their position to control or mistreat rather than serve, the situation can quickly become abusive. We have to learn to recognize and deal with spiritual abuse before it turns someone away, not just from your church, but from God. 

In 1 Samuel 2:27–29 (NIV), a man of God came to Eli and said, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Did I not clearly reveal myself to your ancestor’s family when they were in Egypt under Pharaoh? I chose your ancestor out of all the tribes of Israel to be my priest, to go up to my altar, to burn incense, and to wear an ephod in my presence. I also gave your ancestor’s family all the food offerings presented by the Israelites. Why do you scorn my sacrifice and offering that I prescribed for my dwelling? Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?’”

If you Google “lessons from the story of Eli and his sons,” you get a lot of articles and information about parenting. Fair enough, but for me, the real meat of this story is about allowing spiritual abuse. Eli had not only a father-son relationship but almost a boss-employee relationship as well. He was the high priest, and all of the other priests were accountable to him. Eli was also a judge of Israel, making him a civil leader. Any way you look at it, Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas were under Eli’s direct authority.

Let me give you a quick recap of what these two were up to. In a nutshell, when they were performing their duties as priests, they were mishandling the offerings for their own benefit. They were also using the services of temple prostitutes. Apparently, this was widely known because it brought shame to the Israelites. Who would trust that they would get sound spiritual counsel from these two knuckleheads?

How to Recognize a Modern Day Phineas or Hophni

Eli had the authority to remove his sons as priests, but he did not. The moral authority of God’s people was already in a downward spiral in the time of the Judges, and this certainly didn’t help. Eli didn’t have a plan in place for what to do if this moral failure of the priests happened, so he did nothing. Can we see the church of today and maybe ourselves in this story? Do we use the authority of Christ to confront and maybe even remove damaging processes and leaders? Or do we allow them to neglect or mistreat our brothers and sisters? The wolves aren’t just at the door. Some of them are in the building. Fortunately, there are red flags we can look for to spot them before they wreak havoc among the flock. 

  • Authoritarian Leadership: When church leaders exert excessive control, demand unquestioning obedience, and discourage independent thinking, it can lead to spiritual abuse. Are clergy or church leaders abusing their authority by exerting undue control, manipulating congregants, exhibiting bullying behaviors, or using their position for personal gain?
  • Doctrinal Manipulation: Are any of your leaders twisting or misinterpreting religious doctrine to control or manipulate congregants, making them feel guilty or fearful, creating a cult-like atmosphere? Is anyone making false predictions about the end times or sharing what they call personal prophecies? Such behavior can damage individuals’ faith and trust in the church.
  • Isolation and Exclusivity: Spiritual abusers often encourage people to isolate themselves from friends and family outside the church. This creates an environment that fosters dependency on the church community and its leaders.
  • Shaming and Guilt-Tripping: Using shame, guilt, or fear to coerce members into compliance or can deter them from questioning church teachings or practices.
  • Financial Exploitation: Misusing church funds, pressuring members to give beyond their means, using financial control to manipulate individuals, or using financial contributions for personal gain are also ways that spiritual abusers exploit people.
  • Secrecy and Lack of Transparency: Withholding information about church decisions, finances, or leadership actions leads to a lack of accountability and trust.
  • Emotional Manipulation:Abusers often employ emotional manipulation tactics, such as love bombing or gaslighting, using fear-based messages to influence behavior or decisions to control and influence congregants’ emotions and decisions. Coercing or pressuring vulnerable individuals into joining the church or staying in the congregation against their will is also a form of spiritual abuse.
  • Spiritual Neglect: Failing to provide adequate spiritual support or guidance, leaving members feeling spiritually abandoned or disconnected is an often overlooked form of spiritual abuse.
  • Forced Confessions: Requiring members to confess personal sins or issues in a public setting can lead to shame and exploitation and is an abuser’s way to maintain control over people. 
  • Censorship and Information Control: Controlling or censoring access to external information, discouraging members from seeking outside perspectives, or labeling dissenting views as heretical is another way abusers seek to control their victims.

Implementing safeguards in these areas can help protect the spiritual well-being of church members and ensure a healthy and nurturing religious community. It’s imperative that we maintain open lines of communication and establish clear guidelines and policies to prevent spiritual abuse from occurring within our churches.

It’s time to Make Your Plan

To create effective safeguards for spiritual safety in churches, it’s crucial to educate both leaders and congregants about these potential areas of abuse, establish clear policies and reporting mechanisms, and promote a culture of openness, accountability, and respect for individual autonomy and spirituality. John Maxwell says that everything rises and falls on leadership. He’s right. In his blog “Without a Plan, You’re Growing Nowhere,” Maxwell emphasizes the importance of having a plan. Many churches address issues as they arise rather than being proactive. This reactive approach can lead to greater harm and a lack of trust within the congregation.

Having a good reporting system is essential. It allows people to speak up about abuse without fear. It helps create a safe space where everyone feels protected and knows that any problems will be dealt with quickly and properly. When there’s a way to report abuse, it keeps everyone honest and open. Leaders and members know they’ll be held accountable for their actions. This openness builds trust within the community and shows that the organization takes responsibility seriously.

Having a reporting system in place can stop abuse before it starts. Abusers prefer easy targets and may look elsewhere if they know it will be harder to get away with their misconduct at your place of worship. It also helps you spot patterns and take action to prevent future issues, making your church spiritually safer for everyone.

Why Churches Need Unbiased Consultation

The story of Eli and his sons teaches us that even those with the best intentions can fail to act when needed. As church leaders, it’s crucial to recognize when we need help. This is where an unbiased consultant can make a difference. An external perspective can provide the clarity and objectivity necessary to identify and address issues before they escalate.

When you’re too close to a situation, it’s hard to see all the angles. An unbiased consultant brings a fresh set of eyes and can spot things that otherwise might be missed. Consultants have valuable experience and know-how from working with lots of different groups. They’ve seen what works and what doesn’t, so they can bring proven strategies to the table. Internal discussions can easily be influenced by personal feelings and politics (yes, churches have factions that fight with each other for control. Shocker!) An unbiased consultant doesn’t have a stake in the game, so they can offer objective advice.

If your church is struggling with these issues, don’t wait for them to resolve themselves. Be proactive. Seek out an unbiased consultant who can help you navigate these challenges and create a safer, more spiritually nurturing environment for your congregation.

Lori Morrison is a member of her church’s security team, a retired private investigator, a former church staffer, and serves on the Worship Facility Editorial Advisory Board. Her training guide, “Reclaiming Sanctuary: Enhancing Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Safety in Our Churches” helps church leaders adopt a new mindset, build a customized strategy, and launch a sustainable plan for the protection of their flock. You can grab your copy on Amazon here, and schedule a FREE 20 minute consultation here

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