+27 (11) 867 3505 church@bbcmail.co.za

The notion of spiritual abuse pervades the Christian landscape today. People from every corner of the globe claim to have experienced spiritual abuse and to have been completely turned off church because of it. Many books have been published in recent years addressing the notion of spiritual abuse. Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys have produced a book-length study on the subject titled Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse, while Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer have written A Church Called Tov to help churches form a “goodness culture” that resists spiritual abuse.

To be sure, some claims to spiritual abuse are little more than refusal to submit to God-ordained leadership structures within the church. But we do not want to qualify the problem into nonexistence. Spiritual abuse is a reality. Job 22 presents us with a case in point.

This chapter records Eliphaz’s third and final speech. In it, he informed Job that he had definitely, beyond any shadow of a doubt, sinned to invite God’s displeasure (vv. 1–11). His evil was abundant and there was no end to his iniquities (v. 5). That was the only possibility that made any sense of his systematic theology. In particular, he accused Job of abusing his power (vv. 6–9). These verses included vague accusations with no concrete evidence to support them. If Job was guilty of these things, God’s displeasure would certainly be appropriate. That was Eliphaz’s conclusion (vv. 10–11).

Eliphaz continued to assure Job that God would certainly punish sinners (vv. 12–20). God was watching and could see his wickedness (vv. 12–14) and he must therefore be wary of walking in the company of evildoers (vv. 15–20).

Verses 21–30 are some of the most beautiful verses in all Scripture, if taken at face value. Here, Eliphaz assured Job that God was gracious and ready to forgive (vv. 25–30) if he would but confess his sin (vv. 21–24). It was time for Job to “agree with God” (v. 21) rather than arguing with him. God, through Job’s counsellors, was pointing out Job’s sin. Resistance was futile. It was time to confess. If he did, he would be at peace and experience good will from God. Eliphaz detailed God’s abundant blessings in vv. 25–30. It all sounds wonderful—until we read it in context.

When we consider Eliphaz’s words in context, their beauty fades as we witness the manipulative nature of his speech. Beneath the veneer of concern lay a spiritually abusive tone. Eliphaz could not identify specific sin in Job’s life but used his words and his theology to beat his friend down with vague, unprovable accusations. The promise of blessing sounded wonderful, but Job must first admit that he had sinned, which he could not, if he would inherit those blessings. Christopher Ash states it bluntly: “To press this believer to repent of sins he has not committed is a grotesque rape of his integrity.”

In Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse, Oakley and Humphrey define spiritual abuse as “a form of emotional and psychological abuse … characterized by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context.” That sounds exactly like Eliphaz’s third speech. The authors offer warning signs of abuse, which include manipulation and exploitation, enforced accountability, censorship in decision making, requirements for secrecy and silence, coercion to conform, inability to ask questions, control through the use of sacred texts or teaching, requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a “divine” position, isolation as a means of punishment, and superiority and elitism.

You may be able to spot the pernicious nature of spiritual abuse, because it often looks like legitimate spiritual accountability and authority but turns it into an authoritarian power struggle.

On the one hand, we should be careful of immediately accusing churches and church leaders of spiritual abuse when they may, in fact, be exercising biblical authority. On the other hand, let us be aware that even Christians have a tendency to abuse power and use it to exercise ungodly influence over others.

As you meditate on Job 22 this morning, pray to God to guard you from becoming a spiritual abuser and to be wise to the reality of spiritual abuse so that you can help those who are caught in the struggle.