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Pastor Gregory L. Jackson, Ph.D.

A Mighty Fortress Lutheran Church

6421 W. Poinsettia Drive

Glendale, AZ 85304-2419; chemntiz@bigplanet.com





After watching President Clinton try to make himself innocent by accusing Kenneth Starr, I decided to dust off the book review I began on abusive churches.


How do people describe the Clinton political machine?

1.     He is never wrong about anything, even when caught in the act.

2.     His explanations always fall short of the truth, but usually are blatant falsehoods, such as his finger-wagging denial of a relationship with an intern the age of his daughter.

3.     His oily subordinates destroy anyone who dares to question Clinton’s business dealings, statements, or romances.

4.     Clinton and his supporters are righteously angry at the thought of being criticized on matters of principle, even while promoting slander against opponents.


All four statements also fit the methods of Lutheran church officials, both those in office and the wannabees. Allow me to describe just a few situations in various synods, to show how abusive Lutherans have become, foreshadowing the administration of William and Hillary Clinton. All the anecdotes are from “conservative” Lutheran synods.


A.    A man left his liberal Lutheran seminary to attend one faithful to the Scriptures. He was ordained and then pushed out of his congregation for supporting closed communion, the official position of his synod.

B.    Another man left the liberal Lutherans to attend seminary. He was canned during his vicarage year and refused admission at the synod’s seminaries. He was not allowed to repeat the vicarage year.

C.    A woman objected to the blatant falsehood at her congregation. One church official had long discussions with her and then used her confidential statements to destroy her reputation among her church friends. She was driven from her church and alienated from her friends.

D.    A parochial school teacher murdered his wife. His college president came to the trial to support him. The teacher was found guilty and then married his children’s babysitter while in jail.

E.     A pastor was known as a real “crick-jumper,” like Clinton, a serial adulterer. He started a new congregation in a “conservative” synod when things began to get hot for him. He was allowed to join the synod, even though the officials were informed about his blatant infidelities. He later murdered his wife.

F.     Another adulterous pastor was caught in the act, then found himself kicked out of the ministry. He immediately assumed another religious position, with the knowledge of “conservative” church officials. They lied to protect him and themselves. He is serving as a pastor today. God help anyone, lay or pastor, who questions his fitness for the ministry.

G.    Many pastors and laity report being abused and driven away from “conservative” Lutheran congregations and synods when they asked that stated confessional positions be followed.


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.


a.      “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. It is important to include effusive praise for the synod in any remarks that may be taken as critical. The speaker must pretend to be humble, unintelligent, and perhaps wrong.

b.     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 about this event, “This guy knows how to market his Pentecostal 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. He was convicted of manslaughter, kidnapping, and child endangerment (p. 57). He separated couples, demanded that they seek his blessing, and expected people to live with starvation. He did not starve. Abusive leaders never go hungry.


Luther on Abusive Leaders

Luther disclosed that God’s wrath is revealed by His tolerance of false teachers. Their characteristics exactly parallel the Church Growth dictators of today:


"If the devil were to identify himself and show himself as black as he is, who would want to follow him? But now he peddles his poison and false doctrine under the cover of God's name and does so with an impressiveness greater than that with which the true doctrine is presented."

What Luther Says, An Anthology, 3 vols., II, p. 633. 2 Corinthians 11:14.


"We are not free from blame if we have a wrong faith and follow false teachers. The fact that we did not know will be of no help to us, for we were warned beforehand. Besides God has told us to judge what this or that person teaches and to give an account. If we fail to do this, we are lost. Therefore the soul's salvation of each person depends on his knowing what is God's Word and what is false teaching."

What Luther Says, An Anthology, 3 vols., II, p. 636.


"Note the master hand wherewith Paul portrays the character of false teachers, showing how they betray their avarice and ambition. First, they permit true teachers to lay the foundation and perform the labor; then they come and desire to do the work over, to reap the honors and the benefits. They bring about that the name and the work of the true teachers receive no regard and credit; what they themselves have brought--that is the thing. They make the poor simple-minded people to stare open-mouthed while they win them with flowery words and seduce them with fair speeches, as mentioned in Romans 16:18. These are the idle drones that consume the honey they will not and cannot make."

 Sermons of Martin Luther, 8 vols., VII, p. 110. 2 Corinthians 11:19-33; 12:1-9; Romans 16:18.


"And such false teachers have the good fortune that all their folly is tolerated, even though the people realize how these act the fool, and rather rudely at that. They have success with it all, and people bear with them. But no patience is to be exercised toward true teachers! Their words and their works are watched with the intent of entrapping them, as complained of in Psalm 17:9 and elsewhere. When only apparently a mote is found, it is exaggerated to a very great beam. No toleration is granted. There is only judgment, condemnation and scorn. Hence the office of preaching is a grievous one. He who has not for his sole motive the benefit of his neighbor and the glory of God cannot continue therein. The true teacher must labor, and permit others to have the honor and profit of his efforts, while he receives injury and derision for his reward."

Sermons of Martin Luther, 8 vols., VII, p. 110f. 2 Corinthians 11:19-33; 12:1-9. Psalm 17:9.


"In the second place such teachers are disposed to bring the people into downright bondage and to bind their conscience by forcing laws upon them and teaching works-righteousness. The effect is that fear impels them to do what has been pounded into them, as if they were bondslaves, while their teachers command fear and attention. But the true teachers, they who give us freedom of conscience and create us lords, we soon forget, even despise. The dominion of false teachers is willingly tolerated and patiently endured; indeed, it is given high repute. All those conditions are punishments sent by God upon them who do not receive the Gospel with love and gratitude."

Sermons of Martin Luther, 8 vols., VII, p. 111. 2 Corinthians 11:19-33; 12:1-9. John 5:43.


"In the third place, false teachers flay their disciples to the bone, and cut them out of house and home, but even this is taken and endured. Such, I opine, has been our experience under the Papacy. But true preachers are even denied their bread. Yet this all perfectly squares with justice! For, since men fail to give unto those from whom they receive the Word of God, and permit the latter to serve them at their own expense, it is but fair they should give the more unto preachers of lies, whose instruction redounds to their injury. What is withheld from Christ must be given in tenfold proportion to the devil. They who refuse to give the servant of truth a single thread, must be oppressed by liars."

Sermons of Martin Luther, 8 vols., VII, p. 111f. 2 Corinthians 11:19-33; 12:1-9.


"Fourth, false apostles forcibly take more than is given them. They seize whatever and whenever they can, thus enhancing their insatiable avarice. This, too, is excused in them."

Sermons of Martin Luther, 8 vols., VII, p. 112. 2 Corinthians 11:19-33; 12:1-9.


"Sixth, our false apostles justly reward us by smiting us in the face. That is, they consider us inferior to dogs; they abuse us, and treat us as foot-rags."

Sermons of Martin Luther, 8 vols., VII, p. 112. 2 Corinthians 11:19-33; 12:1-9.


From Discipline to Abuse

Some mega-churches have hit the bigtime by having dictatorial ministers, who speak about “making disciples,” so that has become a rage. It is easy to move from a concept of some discipline to one that is all Law, that turns into legalism and finally into ludicrous behavior.


One women’s Bible study group did not allow participants to speak if they came late. They had extremely rigid rules, impressing many who found it new and exciting. Once people accept such brow-beating as normal, the leaders are tempted to make even greater demands to show a higher level of spirituality.


The more our society become torn up through divided families, the more people will be drawn toward abusive churches and ministers. When someone has done whatever he wanted for years, he enjoys the security of being told where to live, whom to marry, where to work.


Warning Signs

Some congregations abuse ministers. Some pastors abuse their congregations. Church officials abuse faithful ministers while supporting adulterers, murderers, and false teachers. No one should tolerate abuse, because it becomes habit-forming. The Stockholm Syndrome is named after those people who were kidnapped by a weirdo and ended up feeling sympathetic toward him, in spite of the horrible things he did to them. Sudden attacks do not encourage this feeling, but long captivity does.


The following warning signs should be noted:

1.     Leaders (laity or ministers) are very infatuated with their power but have little sense of responsibility. They like to order people around but they never study the Word.

2.     One can see a constant pattern of deception in the leadership. Members may steal from the minister, verbally abuse him and his family, eavesdrop at open windows.

3.     Rules are exceptionally strict for the commoners but do not exist for the leaders.

4.     The family life of the leaders is a complete mess, but they are only too happy to tell everyone else what to do.

5.     Constructive dissent is considered a betrayal of the group. Dissenters are driven off by shunning and verbal abuse, then accused of being disloyal for “leaving.”

6.     Something minor will be treated as a horrible, unforgivable sin while people overlook obvious cases of adultery, embezzling, and so forth.

7.     Church officials are cozy with destructive laity and pastors but hostile toward faithful laity and ministers. They block discipline against evil ministers while promoting the expulsion of good pastors. In time the ministerium gets very political, corrupt, and lazy, due to adverse selection.


Taking Advantage

I have noticed that feminazis can easily roll over feminine women, just as dictatorial men can often make other men shrink back. The Christian Church is especially vulnerable because the believer should be Christ-like, humble, and willing to step aside for others. Our corporate culture creates an environment of managers who love a smooth-running machine rather than a country of warriors who will go to battle for the truth.


Having no conscience whatsoever is a definite advantage in these maneuvers. Being incapable of blushing is often viewed as proof of being in the right. Someone who can lie and then switch stories quickly, without a pause, giving evidence of skill attained through practice, will almost certainly become a church leader. Although “all men are liars,” as the Psalmist says, some men are much better than others. Their ability to size up the audience and adjust accordingly, a trait common to confidence men, serves to make them man-pleasers rather than God-pleasers.


The Great Escape

One must escape an abusive situation. It will be painful leaving. Abusive churches are even more abusive when one leaves them. Ministers know that from experience. When adulterous men remove a pastor from his divine call, do they phone and say they are sorry, help him pack, give him some money to help in the transition? No, not at all. They will make up new stories to justify their evil actions. When Pentecostals in a “Lutheran” church remove a pastor, they are likely to say that he “quenches the Spirit” and throw a few more slanders in, just to prove they are right. 


Steps in leaving may be:

1.     Compare the Word of God to what is happening in your situation. If a pastor gives a few good orthodox sermons, he will be tossed out of an abusive congregation or denomination, and that will move things along faster. The Word is effective.

2.     If a member sees signs of definite abuse in the congregation, it is good to compare concerns and evidence with a person far removed from the situation. One can adjust to weirdness, and that is dangerous. Spiritual abuse is often linked to sexual abuse, as the Church Growth pastors have shown so many times. We should not allow our wives, daughters, or sons to be alone with certain “conservative” Lutheran pastors. Two are in jail at this moment. More should be.

3.     If a pastor or a member brings up serious concerns and finds himself shunned, screamed at, or slandered, he might as well pack his bags. One may try to convert people to the truth, but abusive churches are very in-grown, closed to alien ideas, and legalistic. If a congregation justifies adultery or fornication while picking on little things, run, run, run.

4.     It takes a long time to recover from spiritual abuse because it is so insidious. Luther’s sermons are the best antidote, because he alone distinguished the Gospel from the various substitutions for the Gospel. We can enjoy the comfort of the Gospel in Luther while enjoying his devastating portrayal of false teachers.

5.     Pastors and laity must adjust themselves to a certain level of Satanic hostility in these End-times. Opposition is, as Chytraeus taught, a sign of sound doctrine. So we should not blubber in our milk if we are jumped by Lutherans for quoting Luther too much, for preaching about baptismal regeneration, for practicing closed communion, for having a pancake supper, for quoting the Bible on self-love, for quoting false teachers verbatim, and for opposing clergy sex offenders. I speak from experience.


One delightful church member has said this, and I agree with her completely, “In these times, orthodox Lutherans will be more and more scattered, but we will work with each other more closely and help each other more often.”

[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