I am a recovering Pharisee. I did some of what Jesus rebuked the religious leaders for. Pastors are given a place of influence, which they can use appropriately or illegitimately. The Pharisees, then and now, often violate their position in these ways:
They place heavy expectations upon people that they themselves do not carry out. In their excellent book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen say (my summary) that when abuse is present, good news becomes bad news, the gospel becomes a curse, what is supposed to make you happy makes you sad, and what is supposed to bring rest brings work, ceaseless work to get better.
EXTERNALS OVERRIDE INTERNALS.
They value looking good more than being good, a preoccupation with performance. One’s identity can be wrapped up in the nervous pursuit of holiness, which means putting forth effort to keep the law. Abuse often boils down to transferring the focus from grace to law.
MAJORING IN MINORS,
which also means minoring in majors. The Pharisees made gray areas into black and white issues. When the doubtful things like drinking or entertainment or clothes take center stage instead of core doctrines, what you do supersedes who you are. In religious abuse, questionable things are no longer questions.
Abusers don’t mind telling men and women what they can and cannot do, wear or not wear, say or not say. But they like to keep people in the dark. They are secretive and seclusive. People who disagree with them are cut off from fellowship and often shamed in public. Abusers adopt a bunker mentality: “They are out to get us,” which typically makes them defensive, argumentative, and feisty.
IMPOSITION OF GUILT.
Compliant people enter into a co-dependent relationship with the abusers by walking in submission, defined in the way the leaders mandate. Followers pick up as best they can on the silent codes and the unwritten rules. The God of the spiritually abused is a judge rather than a father. He is tricky, changing, always wanting more, and disappointed with a faulty performance. Abusers are like an insecure dad who cannot get what he wants so reverts to emotional force to get it.
As a young pastor, I identified with the elder brother more than with the prodigal, which made me a little nervous, because he is the brunt of the story. He postured himself as the responsible one. He is blind to his selfish accusations, critical spirit, and irresponsibility. I never left home like the prodigal did, but look at the story; each brother had his own field that he was trapped in. Simply put, the elder son was an abuser.
To keep us recovering Pharisees on our toes, let us agree that by God’s grace…
- We will not shame people. (Part 2 will explain Seven Things We Will Not Do!)