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When Use of the Diagnosis 'Spiritual Abuse' Becomes a License for Bad Pastoral Care

The Evangelical Alliance in the United Kingdom has recommended against use of the term ‘spiritual abuse,’ a term that has been promoted by advocates of the ever-present issue of homosexuality.[1]  Clearly, there is an agenda on the part of those trying to silence orthodox Christianity: the intention is to turn historic Christian teaching on homosexuality into ‘spiritual abuse’ and then to silence, even criminalise, it.  The EA worries that the phrase ‘spiritual abuse’ is vague and incoherent.’

There is no question that anything (such as enshrining the phrase ‘spiritual abuse’) proposed by Jayne Ozanne will have an anti-orthodox and anti-Biblical agenda and should be seen for what it is.  She is one of the primary spokespersons for undermining orthodoxy in the Church of England in our day, a campaigner for the distortion of Christianity by encasing it in postmodern, Western culture, particularly on issues of sexuality and marriage.  The EA is right to challenge her and others trotting out their views behind a socially powerful, pseudo-psychological, and potentially litigious category.  ‘Spiritual abuse’ can be interpreted in various ways and even lead to criminalisation of religious practices.  Indeed, she calls for ‘professional organisations external to the religious institutions [to] call for better safeguarding measures against spiritual abuse.’[2]

Ozanne’s paper, however, is interesting in its description of various ecclesiastical bodies using the term ‘spiritual abuse.’  At issue is concern over the abuse of power by those with some sort of authority in a religious body.  That sounds fair enough, yet the poison is in the pudding.  What emerges is not only an anti-Christian agenda on sexual issues but also an opposition to ministry with children that entails things like deliverance ministry and encouragement to accept Christ.  There is also something so vague as ‘misuse of scripture or the pulpit to control behaviour.’  Certainly, these things can involve abuse by persons in power, yet there is no end to the abuse that some, armed with this vague language, could go to oppose historic Christianity.  Indeed, the Jesus of this group would not have challenged the disciples’ for their lack of faith when trying to cast the demon out of the boy (Matthew 17) but would charge them with spiritual abuse.  They would no doubt applaud the authorities of Philippi for hauling off Paul and Silas to jail after casting out a spirit from a slave girl (Acts 16).  As it turns out, spiritual abuse is what one wishes to make of it, and the EA is right to challenge the notion itself.

Yet, is there a Biblically defensible place for such a notion as ‘spiritual abuse,’ or is there a better language to get at some of what is of concern here?  As it turns out, Scripture does not support a notion of ‘spiritual abuse’ so much as what might be called ‘bad pastoral care.’  ‘Pastoral’ is a good term to use because the related language of ‘shepherd’ is found repeatedly in both Old and New Testaments.  It is a better term to use than ‘spiritual,’ which is far less specific.  The general term ‘bad’ in this alternative suggestion is useful as a way to capture the various adjectives and issues that Biblical texts identify.  It could be replaced with various words, as might be observed in the following, brief study of 'shepherds' caring for the 'flock'.

Jeremiah, for example, warns of prophets and diviners who deceive the people because God did not send them (Jeremiah 29).  God promises to judge the shepherds of the people who destroy and scatter the sheep (Jeremiah 23).[3]  ‘Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their evil” (Jer. 23.11).  The sexual immorality (specifically, adultery) and evil of Jerusalem’s prophets are to God as the sinful people of Sodom and Gomorrah (Jer. 23.14).  Such passages are addressing ‘bad pastoral care.’  Jeremiah was falsely accused of misusing his authority as a prophet: ‘Then the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, "This man deserves the sentence of death, because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears’ (Jer. 26.11).  In Ozanne’s view, Jeremiah might well have been guilty of ‘spiritual abuse’ on the grounds that (1) he was a prophet with ‘spiritual authority’ and (2) he said things against others that were challenging rather than supportive.  The question, though, is whether God sent Jeremiah or the politically correct prophets. 

Such a study shows that ‘bad’ pastoral care will involve the idea of care of God’s people that departs from God’s ways.  One simply cannot get around the question of whether something is right or wrong and focus simply on relational or power dynamics.  Otherwise, the language of ‘spiritual abuse’ is easily susceptible to replacing God’s standards with alternative practices, as we see in Isaiah:

Isaiah 5:18-20 Ah, you who drag iniquity along with cords of falsehood, who drag sin along as with cart ropes….  20 Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

This rather well defines Ozanne and her fellow shepherds.  Their concept of ‘spiritual abuse’ is defined in large part by their understanding of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and ‘abuse’ comes to mean what they do not like, not what God says is wrong.  They rightly point out that persons in pastoral roles can abuse their authority, but they wrongly understand what constitutes abuse on their own terms rather than on Scriptural terms.  They rightly capture the idea that abuse will involve the misuse of power.  But they miss the point that substituting their own ethics for what Scripture says is an example of that misuse of power.  They are, as Paul warned, those very ‘wolves’ rather than shepherds of the flock that ‘come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them’ (Acts 20.30).  They are the false teachers ‘who will secretly bring in destructive opinions’ (2 Peter 2.1), who, as Jude says, are intruders who ‘pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness’ (Jude 4), who are ‘scoffers, indulging their own ungodly lusts’ (v. 18).  Peter warns against the abuse of authority when he calls on the church elders to be shepherds who ‘tend the flock of God,’ who exercise oversight willingly, without desire for gain, and without abusing power but by using their own example to guide the flock (1 Peter 5.1-3).  This is a restrictive use of authority, but it also entails remembering that the sheep are God’s and that, therefore, the shepherd’s oversight is under God’s authority.  On Ozanne’s view, God’s authority would be spiritual abuse because it condemns homosexuality.

Ozanne rightly warns against such things as
·       Pressure to conform
·       Misuse of scripture or the pulpit to control behaviour
·       Requirement of obedience to the abuser
·       The suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position
·       Isolation from others, especially those external to the abusive context[4]
As it soon turns out, however, Ozanne’s interpretation of this involves opposing the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality and certain practices of charismatic groups.[5]  There is certainly room to criticise charismatic groups where they espouse unbiblical notions of faith and spiritual gifts (the Prosperity Gospel), and where their leaders practice abusive power relationships.  The problem, though, is that Ozanne’s attempt to deal with this is itself an exercise in power: to shut down groups she does not like rather than to argue from Scripture what is right or wrong.  She seems unaware of her own interest in gaining power over others rather than submitting to the authority of Scripture.  In part, she does this with a pseudo-therapeutic interpretation, such as when she denounces orthodox Christians maintaining a Biblical view of sexuality as creating three phases of spiritual abuse (silencing homosexuals, trying to heal them, and trying to convert or deliver them).  One can only assume that every Biblical prophet, John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles would all fall to the same sword.  The only proper cure for ideology and the abuse of power, including Ozanne’s, is to submit to God’s Word.  Bad pastoral care, it turns out, is pastoral care that does not witness, oversee, and care for the flock according to the teaching of Scripture.

[1] See the article by Harry Farley, ‘Evangelical Alliance rubbishes ‘spiritual abuse’ language: It could ‘criminalise’ conservative teaching on sexuality,’ Christian Today (5 February, 2018); online at  Accessed 5 February, 2018.
[2] Jayne Ozanne, ‘Spiritual Abuse: the Next Great Scandal for the Church,’ p. 9; online at  Accessed 5 February, 2018.
[3] Zechariah uses the term ‘worthless shepherd’ deserts the flock, the people (Zech. 11).
[4] Ibid., p. 5.
[5] Ibid, pp. 5-8 especially.