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Pastor Gregory L. Jackson, Ph.D.




David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1991. 235 pages.

            Roland Enroth, Churches That Abuse, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992. 231 pages.


Some people will think about abusive churches, “They must mean those weird cults.” Others may conclude the term applies to congregations at the extreme left or extreme right of the religious spectrum.


I have come to the conclusion that there is a lot of abuse taking place in congregations and denominations, in the cults and mainlines--abuse of pastors, and abuse by pastors.  I spend a lot of time hearing from pastors and laity about how they have been treated. In some cases I can predict the chain of events. Once I told a businessman exactly what was happening in his cell-group congregation. His eyes grew progressively wider as I added details. “How do you know all this?” he demanded. Unfortunately, cell-group churches carry out their abusive tactics in remarkably similar ways.


Another friend of mine began dating a girl. He soon discovered that her main goal was to get him to join her cell-group church. They would arrive at a location. She would disappear. Men from the group would appear and begin to talk to him about their church. He stopped dating her. Then she phoned again. He made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with her church, “that slowly deceives people into joining,” as he put it so adroitly. She promised. And did the same thing all over again. He phoned me, rather excited, and related the whole story, which was really much more involved. In spite of his intelligence, training in a Lutheran church, and individualism, he felt uneasy about totally avoiding this deceptive woman.


Churches That Abuse is the better of the two books being considered for this review, but I believe The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse might help people who have questions about this subject. It is somewhat of a breakthrough to include “church” in the title, instead of pretending that only anti-Christian cults abuse.



First, we need to consider the doctrinal origin of all religious abuse: rejection of the Means of Grace, lack of trust in the Means of Grace, and lack of trust in the efficacy of the Word. The Reformed reject the Means of Grace.[1]


"The doctrine of the means of grace is a peculiar glory of Lutheran theology. To this central teaching it owes its sanity and strong appeal, its freedom from sectarian tendencies and morbid fanaticism, its coherence and practicalness, and its adaptation to men of every race and every degree of culture. The Lutheran Confessions bring out with great clearness the thought of the Reformers upon this subject."

            "Grace, Means of," The Concordia Cyclopedia, L. Fuerbringer, Th. Engelder, P. E. Kretzmann, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1927, p. 299.


Luther predicted what would happen when people abandoned the Means of Grace:


"For we can definitely assert that where the Lord's Supper, Baptism, and the Word are found, Christ, the remission of sins, and life eternal are found. On the other hand, where these signs of grace are not found, or where they are despised by men, not only grace is lacking but also foul errors will follow. Then men will set up other forms of worship and other signs for themselves."   

What Luther Says, An Anthology, 3 vols., II,  p. 914. Genesis 4:3.


The horrible descriptions in the two books on religious abuse can be summed up by Pieper’s conclusion about the Reformed and those Lutherans who study at Fuller Seminary, the Church Growth Institute, Willow Creek, and Community of Joy.


"Another very repulsive concomitant of the Reformed false teaching is spiritual pride. Because those who harbor the conception of an activity of the Holy Ghost apart from the means of grace are dealing in an illusory, man-made quality, they regard themselves, as experience amply proves, as the truly spiritual people and first-class Christians, while they consider those who in simple faith abide by the divinely appointed means of grace, 'intellectualists,' having a mere Christianity of the head; at best, second-rate Christians."

            Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 3 vols., trans., Walter W. F. Albrecht, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953, III, p. 162.[2]


One Example

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse describes an example of “performance preoccupation.” The congregation fell behind 200 mark in worship attendance for the first time in 13 weeks. The minister wrote, “We’ve had great attendance, great giving, great participation in all of our programs. Let’s set the stage for a brand new decade by getting ‘graced up’ again.” (p. 65)


Anyone who has suffered from a Fuller-trained mission board can identify with this poor soul trying to “grace up” his congregation with the Law.


“Power posturing” is also mentioned as a problem. Clergypersons assume that their office allows them to be dictators.[3] The president of one minuscule synod is always talking about his “office,” as if he represents something like the House of Windsor or the papacy. On the other hand, many laymen who are elected president of the congregation think that they have assumed power over the pastor and the entire congregation. Businessmen often think they have a new employee, the pastor. Oddly enough, the lack of women’s suffrage in some synods has not kept some women from asserting power over men. The mother of one synod president calls herself  “the matriarch” and conducts herself as if she were the supervisor of all the pastors.


b.     “Unspoken rules” are a great way to control people. (p. 67) People are quietly informed, “You really alienated some important leaders.” One synod, known for being especially thin-skinned, has an elaborate ritual of public discourse.

b.It is important to include effusive praise for the synod in any remarks that may be taken as critical.

b.The speaker must pretend to be humble, unintelligent, and perhaps wrong.

c.      One may confess the sin of being too critical of the synod at times, especially when the confession is meant to include those critical of ecclesiastical fads.

Everyone is so touchy about his infallible synod, his infallible relatives in the synod (living and dead), and his own feelings, that church problems are allowed to fester under the rubric of “We cannot admit being wrong, because if we fall, Christianity is doomed!”[4]

The tyranny of emotionalism (p.70) contributes greatly toward spiritual abuse. The Pentecostals have added enormously to Holy Writ by announcing their recent dreams and giving canonical status to their imaginations. One is holier-than-thou by dreaming more, crying more, laughing more, dancing more, and jibbering more than the others. Every so often a smart Pentecostal will grab everyone’s attention by avoiding the crowded, sweaty center-stage and “humbly praying by himself quietly in a corner,” as one periodical stated with uncommon awe. I thought, when I read the newsletter, “This guy knows how to market his piety.”

One mixed-up Lutheran Marine went to a Pentecostal service with his tongue-speaking, hand-waving wife. The minister pointed at him and said, “God just told me that you should be a missionary to Thailand.” The Marine went home, shaken, thinking that he was divinely obligated to end his military career and ship out to Thailand.


Spiritual abuse can be assumed in anti-Christian cults. For instance, the lay leaders of a Mormon church will help a Mormon man get rid of his Christian wife, destroying a marriage. Cults have no problem with placing enormous demands upon an individual. Pentecostals often follow this winning formula by simply ordering people to do what the congregation needs. One minister said, “I expect this congregation to give $30,000 for the new carpeting before this weekend is over!” They did.[5]

A Lutheran woman returned from Pentecostalism, telling me that her former congregation ordered everyone to attend the various “family seminars” for $20 a person. The children had to mill around downstairs all day during the seminars. Imagine the resentment caused by the force of the Law and the lack of Gospel.

Churches That Abuse describes the rabid ministry of Donald Lee Barnett, Community Chapel, in south Seattle, (pp. 35ff.). People were encouraged to engage in “spiritual connections” and “intimate dancing.” The congregation had an enormous grip on people by holding them under authoritarian control until the scandal blew up completely.

Frank Sandford’s cult at Shiloh in the 1890s, located in southern Maine is described as an example of the dynamics of an all-powerful leader with devoted, sacrificing followers.

[1] Theses very close to Valleskey's Quarterly article (Spring, 1991, p. 117). Questionnaire mentions CG "underemphasizing the Means of Grace as the power of the Holy Spirit."  [That is like saying that Lutherans underemphasize the Assumption of Mary.]  David J. Valleskey, P.T. 418, The Church Growth Movement--An Evaluation, Summer Quarter, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, June 23-July 11, 1986.

[2] "There is but one way by which the Reformed theology can escape the doctrine of works--by accepting Lutheranism. And the Reformed actually take this step when they, including Calvin, at the last direct those who are troubled by grave doubts of their election to the universal grace as it is attested in the means of grace." Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 3 vols., trans., Walter W. F. Albrecht, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953, III, p. 169

ep when they, including Calvin, at the last direct those who are troubled by grave doubts of their election to the universal
 grace as it is attested in the means of grace." Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 3 vols., trans., Walter W. F. Albrecht, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953, III, p. 169