Spiritual Abuse: Shape Up or Ship Out

For over 2 decades as a UBF fellowship leader, my uncompromising implicit imperative to others was, “Shape up or ship out!” Looking back, it is a surprise that anyone has stayed with me. Clearly, this is God’s grace and not my work! Without a doubt my sinful default is to be authoritarian. To break this inclination feels like going against every grain in my body. My only recourse is the gospel: Jesus loved me in spite of me (Jer 31:3). When I am touched by grace, God softens and transforms my heart. It does not mean that I become a wimp. But only by God’s grace, I may not be authoritarian.

This post and quotes are from a blog by Duke Tabor, a pastor who has been a Christian for 33 years: Spiritual Abuse: Shepherds Ruling Like Royalty. He regards spiritual abuse as “a very real and tragic problem in our churches.” Obviously, I know that very well.

Definition: “Spiritual abuse is the misuse of power, authority, leadership or influence to further the self centered interests or agenda of the leader rather than to meet the needs of the individual that is following that leader. This happens sometimes because of a flawed doctrinal position and sometimes it happens because of an unmet emotional or spiritual need within the leader that is being met with illegitimate means. Those that engage in spiritual abuse can sometimes be described as legalistic, mind controlling, spiritually addictive, and authoritarian.”

Tabor identifies 5 common characteristics of spiritually abusive leaders, churches and organizations:

  1. Predominantly authoritarian.
  2. Very concerned with outward appearances.
  3. Suppresses criticism.
  4. Promote perfectionism.
  5. Always biblically unbalanced.

Overemphasizing Authority. Regarding authoritarianism, Tabor writes: “(Spiritually abusive leaders and churches) are predominantly authoritarian. The most prevalent commonality of spiritually abusive systems or leaders is the overemphasis of authority. Since the leader claims to have a special insight or revelation by God either directly or by the Scriptures, this allows them to claim they have a right to exert authority over their followers. They claim a positional seat of power and will even use the scriptures to justify it. Many times they will call it the Moses model of leadership. This is what the scribes and Pharisees did in the day of Jesus (Matt 23:1-2). This assumes that God works through a chain of command or leadership structure rather than in each individual being part of the body of Christ. These authoritarian leaders will claim usually by innuendo that people who submit to them receive a special blessing by God.”

Addressing Authoritarianism. My mantra over the past few years to everyone in UBF can almost be perfectly articulated by what Tabor wrote above. I do believe that God is helping us to gradually begin to address this as more and more people begin to speak up prayerfully and respectfully. Progress is being made simply by the fact that in the past the implicit (or explicit) attitude was “Don’t speak up. Keep spiritual order and just obey.” But today we Christians can begin to speak out against what we believe is not right before God and man.

A Humble Servant. I addressed this problem of authoritarian Christian leadership in my very first post on Nov 4, 2010: Why Do We Have Divisions? Authoritarianism weakens or breaks relationships. It is never ever right nor biblical. It does not mean that there will be no leader or elder or shepherd or visionary in the church. But it does mean that the Christian leader does not lead with his authority, but leads like a humble servant (Mk 10:42-45; 1 Pet 5:3). This is always easier said than done, especially for those who have been in church for some decades, such as myself.

Depending on the interest, I may address the other 4 aspects of spiritual abuse identified by Tabor. Or you can read it for yourself: Spiritual Abuse: Shepherds Ruling Like Royalty.

Do you feel that the problem of authoritarianism is being addressed? Do you have any practical proposals and suggestions going forward?


  1. Samantha

    Nice picture you chose to go with this article Dr. Ben. Not sure if this comment belongs exactly with your article, so bear with me.  I just wanted to chime in on all of the writings of late. I have been reading them all and find myself agreeing wholeheartedly, while at the same time struggling with what has been written.  The authority and control seized by UBF shepherds at times is overwhelming. It is overreaching. I do not believe that this is God’s will or purpose for his church. 
    However, I cannot deny that God used people in my life at UBF to help me come to Him. I cannot deny that God is sovereign over my life. Today I have no regrets. At the time that I met a 1:1 Bible teacher (almost 21 years ago), I was attending Catholic mass every day. I was desperately seeking God in my life. No one at the Catholic church ever talked to me (though I was the only person present under the age of 75!) Yet, after leaving mass, I went for tutoring with a grad student – who I had no idea at the time – was a Bible teacher. After one semester of making friends, he invited me to Bible study. He introduced me to Jesus. I am forever thankful for him and his prayer for me. He remains my friend to this day! 
    I don’t want to be misunderstood. I have lots of issues with things that have happened in UBF. I don’t like many of them. When my family moved away from Chicago after 14 years, it was a huge struggle to survive outside of the UBF community. We now attend a local church. I admire and applaud those of you who have chosen to remain in UBF and facilitate change. I wish we were in a place to do so, but we are not. I pray for you often. Below is a quote that I wanted to share from our “Read through the Bible in a year” project at our local church. The context is about the time of the judges…
    “Listen  — have you ever wondered about the people who have been genuinely converted to Christ under the ministry of well known pastors and evangelists who later were found out to be terrible frauds  — living lies and trampling on the grace of God? Could the people affected by the ministry of a corrupt preacher really be saved?  Why would God honor their work and use them for good even when their lives were inconsistent and at times rotten to the core.  What we need to understand is that God is sovereign and there are times when He chooses to honor His word and His truth despite the fact that the instrument is an unworthy one.  That is not the “norm” and it is certainly no justification for you and I as His servants to develop an attitude of nonchalance about our personal holiness, but it is true that God is so great that He can use a Cyrus or a Nebuchadnezzar to accomplish his purpose just as easily as a Daniel or a John the Baptist.If and when you discover that some Christian leader, through whom you have seen the Holy Spirit accomplish some mighty work of grace, turns out to be a fraud, don’t let that throw you spiritually — don’t turn away from God on that account.”
    I don’t know if the analogy is exact…as I don’t know that any UBF shepherds are frauds or rotten to the core. That is not my point. It’s just that in spite of our sins, God works. There are no perfect people, churches, missionaries, Christians, etc. I am thankful for God’s work in me and my family through imperfect people!! And I pray that no one is chased away from God because of our many imperfections!
    Thanks for all you do! I am a quiet reader and prayer supporter! 

    • Samantha, it is encouraging to read your comment as the first commenter on Ben’s post! I am encouraged because we men really need to hear women’s viewpoints. 

      Your family’s situation seems to be the same as mine, as well as quite a few other families I’ve meet this past year. I was simply astounded to find out that I was not alone, and that “it wasn’t just me!”.

      You point out an important issue that hits home with me: I found salvation in Jesus during a UBF conference in 1988. I refuse to cut UBF out of my journey of life, as some have. Like it or not, UBF is part of my history.

      Despite what some may misinterpret from my blogging, I contend that 98% of what I experienced in UBF was good. The structure and discipline was helpful. I am not against discipline. I am not against authority. For years I had a “shape up or ship out” attitude. I told people who left UBF, that they should just “man-up” or “suck it up” and deal with it. But lately God is showing me how harmful my attitude was. Human conscience and human emotion are necessary parts of humanity that my attitude was crucifying. As a Christian, I should be marked by grace and compassion, as well as a fearless contention for the faith of the gospel.

      Part of why I have been so “flint-headed” lately is to counter-act the hard-headedness that I found when I raised one simple question 9 years ago, and again when I raised just a few issues last year. To those who remain so callous and call themselves leaders, I will remain “flint-headed” and will fight fearlessly to protect the harm that has been done to others. 

      So although I too thank God for His work during my time in UBF, and will likely even continue some of the good spiritual disciplines I learned there, in the end I will never be allowed to return because I did the unthinkable. I did the unforgiveable act of rejecting my shepherd’s authority to control my life. And for that I do not apologize. 

  2. Thanks, Sam. Like yourself, God’s grace to me through God’s people in UBF, especially Dr. Lee, is monumental. I am a debtor to God’s grace through them forever, as you are. I love your quote. I believe it. It’s especially applicable to me through all my sins, mistakes, stupidity, insensitivity, and screw-ups.

    Yet, God has been pouring out his grace to me! I know it. I’m overwhelmed by it. I love him with fear and trembling. My gratitude for his grace tears me up.

    I agree with you on this point: “The authority and control seized by UBF shepherds at times is overwhelming. It is overreaching. I do not believe that this is God’s will or purpose for his church.” But I do believe that God is doing His own thing. He always does. Sometimes we just can’t figure it out.

    I am indebted to your friendship and prayers. Being silent is great. Being vocal sometimes is also great. In my case, I know I need to learn silence more…but seemingly always fail! So I need Jesus.

    Yeah, I love the picture too! Sometimes I have more fun looking for a picture than writing the article.

  3. GerardoR

    Dr. Toh,
    In regards to charecteristic #5, how does one know whether someone is biblical unbalanced? I might look Mark Driscols ministry as biblicaly unbalanced. He might look at the Methodist Church as biblical unbalanced. In most cases, the precise reason why there are so many churches is because they all see to some degree other churches being biblical unbalanced. 

    So how do we define what is balanced?

    Personal Revelation? Is it what my interpretation of scripture is?

    Consensus? Do I need 30 people to agree with me? Most Churches could find 30 people.

    Tradition? Many churches turn to tradition and yet accuse each other of still being biblical unbalanced?

    Financial growth? There are many prosperity ministries out there that are doing pretty well for themselves despite.

    Church growth? Tons of Churches have grown dramatically and then are dismantled.

    Joy of congregants? Despite heretical doctrines, Mormons are often admired for their
    happiness and joy.

    Withstanding the test of time? Again, see Mormons.  

    So how do we define what is balanced?

    • I like your train of thought Gerardo. How do we define what is balance? This past year I had to go back to my basic identity to find the answer: my humanity. Fundamentally, we are all human beings. Yes we know that some of our humanity is bad and should be changed. But we also know that much of our humanity is good.

      After being in UBF for 24 years, I found that my humanity was almost gone. I tried to be a super-apostle, crucifying all of my humanity. But now, I fully believe that my conscience, my freedom of mind, my integrity and my feelings are not meant to be crucified. 

      God can and does violate human wisdom, but I contend that God never violates logic. God is just and righteous. And God intends to redeem humanity. We should not be bloody butchers crucifying our humanity left and right.

      So we answer what is “balanced” fundamentally by ensuring that our religion does not crucify our humanity. Especially our freedom of mind should not be violated by whatever religion we pursue.

      The authoritarianism Ben speaks of in this article does not happen instantly in most cases. It is more like a slow process of yielding control to your shepherd and leaders that takes many years.

    • “shape-up or ship out” is not what you hear when you first begin Bible study in UBF. It is what you hear after 24 years of being a leader.

    • I believe that an authoritarian model is unbiblical and unhealthy, which has accounted for the exodus of many good, faithful, committed, longstanding UBF members and leaders from many chapters and many nations.
      The more we address this and the more people speak up without fear, I believe that change, albeit gradual, is in the air.

    • Hi Gerardo, This is unrelated to this post, but I thought that this blog by John Armstrong addresses an interesting friendship and ecumenism between the Catholic church and Brother Roger, a Protestent and founder of the Taize community: http://johnharmstrong.typepad.com/john_h_armstrong_/2012/03/the-life-and-witness-of-brother-roger-an-icon-of-love-and-unity.html

  4. Great questions, Gerardo. Below is a verbatim cut and paste from the blog I referenced:

    Spiritually abusive leaders are always unbalanced biblically. These leaders need to distinguish themselves from all the rest of uninformed believers and leaders. They need to be “special” or distinctive. They will do this by becoming strainers of gnats concerning a particular doctrine or issue. Whether it is the prophetic movement, the King James Only movement, or the movement that says spiritual gifts need to be in a special service for believers only, or the ones that demand that the verse by verse method of bible teaching “must” be taught on Sunday mornings. (this is actually in the agreement charter of a major charismatic organization today) they will become out of balance doctrinally by emphasizing their distinctive so that they can claim that “God is on their side.”

    • GerardoR

      Dr. Toh, so being balanced means you dont concern yourself with periphery things or try to distinguish yourself as a means of justifying God being on your side? How do you feel UBF has tried to distinguish itself? And was this their intention or was their desire meant to serve an otherwise good goal?

  5. You ask tough but great questions, Gerardo! Of course, Jesus is the only one who is perfectly balanced. If we have Jesus, the love of God, the indwelling of the Spirit and the Word, grace, faith, we don’t have to nit pick in order to distinguish ourselves, our church, our ministry, our denomination, our particular religious practices, traditions, methodolgies, etc. When we do, we tend to promote elitism, legalism, pietism, tribalism, Phariseeism, behavioral control, superiority complexes, etc.
    UBF has done great things primarily related to Bible study with others for 5 decades. I became a Christian through Bible study in UBF in 1980. I am sure you are already quite familiar with some of UBF’s distinguishing distinctives through fellowship in Hyde Park UBF.
    We will lose the centrality of Jesus and the gospel if we over-emphasize our distinctives and our methodologies rather than keeping Jesus and the gospel central.

    • “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ.  No Christian community is more or less than this.“…’Life together under the Word will remain sound and healthy only where it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis, but rather where it understands itself as being part of the one, holy catholic, Christian Church, where it shares actively and passively in the sufferings and struggles and promises of the whole Church….When the way of intellectual or spiritual selection is taken the human element always insinuates itself and robs the fellowship of its spiritual power and effectiveness for the Church, drives it into sectarianism.” Life Togetherch 1, Bonhoeffer

  6. James Kim

    These are another great quotes from “Life together”

    “It is the struggle of the natural man for self-justification. He finds it only in comparing himself with others, in condemning and judging others. Self-justification and judging others go together, as justification by grace and serving others go together.”
    “Strong and weak, wise and foolish, gifted or ungifted, pious or impious, the diverse individuals in the community, are no longer incentives for talking and judging and condemning and thus excuses for self-justification. They are rather cause for rejoicing in one another and serving one another.”
    “The sin of resentment that flares up so quickly in the fellowship indicates again and again how much false desire for honor, how much unbelief, still smolders in the community.”
    “Therefore my sin is the worst. He who would serve his brother in the fellowship must sink all the way down to these depths of humility. How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own?”
    “Genuine spiritual authority is to be found only where the ministry of hearing, helping, bearing, and proclaiming is carried out. Every cult of personality that emphasize the distinguished qualities, virtues and talents of another person, even though these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community.” 


    • Thanks, James. More excellent Bonhoeffer quotes! Each one seems worthy of an entire blog post. For sure:
      * Self-justification is the default sin of all well meaning Christians, churches and organizations.
      * Categorizing people into “better” and “worse”, exemplary and ordinary, mature and childish, is not useful or helpful for the most part.
      * Resentment and honor are 2 sides of the same coin.
      * Only the gospel enables us to consider others better than ourselves.
      * Highlighting and emphasizing our strengths (rather than our weaknesses and vulnerability) has no place in the church.

    • Thank you for all of these thought provoking and challenging quotes.  Good to keep it all in mind as we discuss such difficult things…

  7. Thanks, Sharon. Does Bonhoeffer ever write anything that is not so appealingly quotable, relatable and real?
    For sure, whenever the human element insinuates itself into the church, we become a sectarian collegium pietatis–the elevated elite exclusive assembly of the pious. (I had to google that.) It is always so much easier to relate to one another through our own church ideals and distinguishing distinctives rather than through and in Christ.

    • Is this a battle of the quotes?  Or are we all talking about the same thing?  Honest question.  What is going on here?

    • Hi Sharon, I may be wrong but I think that James decided to quote more Bonhoeffer quotes from Life Together after reading your quote. That’s just my guess.

  8. Thanks for posting my picture, Ben! :)

    Seriously, I’m glad you shared this, Ben, although it is still a very painful subject for me. The picture of the bodybuilder is actually a picture of me. This is not my physical picture (since I am more of the 98-pound weakling type!). But this is a good picture of what my spiritual body must have looked like a couple years ago. (the Bible does declare that we have a spiritual body by the way). Let me explain.

    There is a huge difference between the strength of a bodybuilder and the strength of a farmer. My family grew up as farmers so I’ve seen the strength of farmers. A bodybuilder has muscles on muscles, and looks impressive. But a farmer has endurance and strength that matters for real life tasks. I am certain my dad could have put this bodybuilder to shame in a wood-chopping exercise.

    The bodybuilder’s muscles are for show and don’t have much practical use. In fact, when a bodybuilder reaches the point in this picture, he looks grotesque to most of us.  And in fact, the bodybuilder at this point only tries to protect his body, which is beautiful in his mind. He actually stops doing a lot of normal activity and focuses on preparing for the next bodybuilding show.

    These days my pastors ask this question most often: What would that look like? From a spiritual perspective, I would have looked like this bodybuilder up until a few years ago. I had spiritual discipline upon spiritual discipline. I went “fishing”. I had “1 to 1” studies with sheep. I gave Sunday “messages”. I did “daily bread”. At one point I made sure my checklist of religious duties was bigger than anyone else’s, spending 30 to 40 hours per week in UBF activities in addition to family and a full time job.

    But I didn’t know how to talk to my wife. I didn’t know how to build a friendship. My  conscience became numb to horrific acts. What good is my religion and all my “muscles” if I can’t live as a human being and love my fellow man? 


  9. Thanks for sharing Brian. When we met last week, without a doubt, you are Christian by the grace of Jesus, and human too!
    My attempt at an explanation is that UBF is a very nice Christian community with a clear explicit focus on campus mission. But perhaps, without realizing it, UBF may have replaced Christ as center with our mission and methodology, with our legalism and loyalty. Whenever Christ is not preeminent, we might become like the picture: it looks “good”–too good–that it becomes unbalanced, disfigured and ugly. Only beholding the beauty of the Lord through the gospel can make us beautiful in Him.

  10. Those who do not like spiritual abuse (who does) might like the Hunger Games, because the protagonist, an unlikely and reluctant young teenage girl (Katniss Everdeen) stood up against the powerful and seemingly invincible and corrupt authoritarian totalitarian regime.
    She refused to let them control her, manipulate her, or to dictate how she lives. What an example of gospel freedom!

    • Standing up against seemingly invincible regimes… seems to be a theme of several movies lately. Perhaps Hollywood took note of how social media played a huge role in the revolutions that took place in the “Arab Spring”.

      Issues with UBF are not nearly that bad (but I must say sometimes it does feel that bad!) These movies have been rather therapeutic to me this past year. I just watched Hugo and found it very relevant, not to “fight against the man”, but to find a way to fix what is broken, which is love.

      I find that I must be careful of interpreting such movies in light of my own paradigm, for the danger is to live in a fantasy world fighting an enemy that doesn’t exist. Still, the parallels of these movies to parts of my life are striking:







      The Lorax


  11. Yeah, Brian. I believe God gives us experiences–both good and bad–to help us. I have countless positive experiences in UBF over the last 30 years for which I can only praise and thank God. Nonetheless, there are also negative experiences, many of which are expressed by me and others on this website, that needs to be increasingly addressed going forward.
    For sure, even these negative experiences (however “bad” it feels), are never meant by God to make us bitter or revengeful, though Satan ALWAYS prompts us to retaliate. Thus, my 2 favorite verses with bad and negative experiences are Rom 8:28 and Gen 50:20.
    I do absolutely believe that all the worst things are absolutely meant for my good and for God’s glory!
    Of all the movies you mentioned, I have only seen Tangled. We must have different taste in movies. I’d still prompt you to go see Hunger Games. Next, go see Safe House.

    • Thanks, Ben. Yes I hope to see Hunger Games while it is in theatres. I’ll check out SafeHouse.  I also forgot to mention the all-time most-relevant paradigm movie: “Mars Needs Moms”.  That is a must see for anyone who has struggled with the issues presented in your article. “Monsters Inc.” is relevant as well. Both were healing for me!

    • btw, Ben, yes I indeed saw Hunger Games and Safehouse. Both were awesome movies. And yes both were extremely relevant to my situation.

  12. i like your taste in movies, Brian! I think kids these days are growing up with better movies than those Disney Princess Classics:). I also recommend Megamind with Will Ferrel. It’s hilarious and also shows much character development. People are not what they seem and they can change. I watched it with my mom and she loved it.

  13. This is from an email response who wishes to remain anonymous:
    I think that sometimes, because of the culture, both Koreans and Americans might exhibit behavior which seems like spiritual abuse, though they are unaware of it. For instance, authoritarianism is simply part of the Confucian culture; this is unbiblical, harmful and repugnant to Americans. On the other side of the spectrum, staunch independence and borderline defiance or questioning the status quo is part of the American culture; this is surely frowned upon by Koreans and is somewhat unbiblical and harmful as well. Both of these paradigms could seem abusive depending on your culture. So I think that sometimes we abuse each other simply in ignorance. I hope that a time comes in which we could address the issue on both sides of the spectrum, repenting for our respective sins of culture. But if we think that we are solely victims of the other culture, then we will never be able to have an open and constructive dialogue.

    One thing though that we are perhaps explicitly guilty of is the exaltation of our ministry characteristics. We tend to champion our model of discipleship, missionary sending and 1:1 bible study, specifically. If one is forced or strongly guided into these narrow paradigms, then this could be translated as abusive activity; at the least, it is spiritually unhealthy. We think that because we teach the Bible, we are particularly unique and therefore special above other ministries. It is a wonderful aspect of our ministry which is deeply needed. But we need to repent if we exalt the ministry because of this because each part of the body has its own unique, beautiful characteristic. Off the top of my head, I can see a few things that we sorely lack: lack of awareness about social justice issues and also how to integrate the Bible into work and family life. We are just now beginning to skim the surface on the topic of the so-called ‘house-church’. There is almost no mention of the former. Anyway, I wish that we (UBF community) could have a healthy dialogue about this, but it seems as though we’re just not ready. It’s as though we don’t want to admit our faults. I’m not asking for a head-hunting, tribunal, but just for people to admit that we have deficiencies and also perhaps for individuals to admit past faults so that we can move forward and improve. For now, the only thing that gives me solace is being able to bring my past wounds to the foot of the cross. Also, reading books and dialoguing with Christians outside of the ministry helps me to see my deficiencies and grow. Human reconciliation within the ministry is another matter however, which I don’t see being a possibility unless there is a powerful work of the Holy Spirit in our midst.

  14. I have found some articles from 25 to 30 years ago that do a rather good job of articulating the nature of spiritual abuse in the ubf context.

    This is one of the most relevant to me:

    In God’s Name

    The former ubf member in the article explains three stages of abuse. I can see examples of this in liveforCHRIST’s comments here lately.

    I think ubf shepherds and sheep need to learn what spritual abuse is and how to recognize it. ubf sheep need to learn how to counteract spiritual abuse. The bible exhorts shepherds to take care of God’s flock, bearing with those with weaker consciences or faith. But in ubf, the weak will get steamrolled.

    Here are the three stages of spiritual abuse defined by a former ubf member 27 years ago:

    Stage 1 – Love bombing
    “Shepherds display what is apparently unconditional acceptance and affection for the recruit,” Brauns said. “If you are shy and a bit insecure, that environment makes you feel safe and more open to what they have to say.

    Stage 2 – Isolation
    “If they can cut you away from your friends, family and the people you trust, then they can replace them and totally surround your life.”

    “Brauns said his shepherd told him his parents wouldn’t understand his new commitment and would probably persecute him for it. When that happened, the shepherd explained, he would know Satan was working through them.”

    “The shepherd also pushes for financial commitments to UBF, he said. Brauns said his shepherd told him the minimum contribution was $50 a month. By his last year in UBF, he said he was paying $200 a month to the group.

    Stage 3 – Ego destruction
    Brauns said when he left home and moved in with UBF members, stage three — ego destruction — began. He said he fell in love with another recruit, but because such feelings are considered evil by the group, he did not tell his shepherd. “When my shepherd found out she nailed me to the wall. She constantly worked on me, yelled at me everyday, rebuking me, hammering at all my areas of weakness and telling me what a rotten sinner I was.”

  15. forestsfailyou

    Probably the worst thing I have ever heard as a Christian was when someone (who I will not name…) told me “If you go to [country will remain unnamed], I will introduce [you to someone to marry]. But you don’t choose. God chooses.”

    • This sounds like coming from one who believes they have a right to subdue and rule over your life in the name of shepherding. It sounds like one who believes they are the ruling class, while others are the servant class who can’t chose or decide for themselves.

      The most serious problem with the above is that many have no clue whatsoever that they are like this, and that they are NOT communicating the gentleness and humility of Christ (Mt 11:29).

    • forestsfailyou

      The equation of God and the person is also frightening.

    • forestsfailyou

      In fairness God can use the agency of people, but to say it is God’s choice removes from the person the freedom to choose. If it is God’s choice I must say yes, because that is what God wants. I recall a conversation with a certain North American director. He told me “The thing that is controversial is that UBF believes that people should marry who God wants them to marry.” The mere fact that he said it was controversial betrayed it for what it truly was (marry who the church wants you to marry), because taken as it there can be nothing controversial about that.

  16. “The equation of God and the person (shepherd, leader) is also frightening.” – See more at: http://www.ubfriends.org/2012/03/24/spiritual-abuse-shape-up-or-ship-out/#comment-15739

    I’ve stated for over a half dozen years now that a horrific glaring blind spot of a “shepherding ministry” is that for all intents and practical purposes the shepherd or the leader is equivalent to or literally functions as the Holy Spirit, whom you better not question, challenge, refute, disagree with, or disobey…

    • Right, Ben, the usurpation of the role of the Holy Spirit is the key issue.

      I would even go one step further. The shepherd not only replaces the Holy Spirit (by giving “directions”, “orientation”, “rebuke”, etc.), but also the Father and the Son, i.e. all spiritual dimensions of God.

      Regarding the Father, just google for “father-like shepherd” to understand that groups like UBF want the shepherd to be a father figure. On a positive side this can mean care and love, but on a negative side this can also mean authority and dependence, and this is what inevitably happens in practice. “Raising” disciples is done very much like “parenting”. Sarah Barry is called “mother”. And Samuel Lee was considered the “father”. In the 1976 open letter, the senior shepherds wrote “we believed that you were our spiritual father” (this is a literal quote). Like parents in ancient times, UBF spiritual parents also arrange marriage. Sheep are considered to honor their spiritual parents and be always thankful and obedient, just like real parents. Jesus warned particularly about this problem in Mt 23:9. How more explicit could Jesus and the Bible text be about this?

      Regarding the Son, this is obvious. Shepherding ministries believe that Jesus who had 12 disciples is a model that should be copied 1:1 to reach the goal of world mission through exponential growth, with Jesus being replaced by human “disciplers” or “shepherds”. This seems like an obvious idea, but it’s a human idea that the Bible warns of (Mt 23, 1 Cor 1:12 etc.) Jesus said He is the good shepherd. So people who claim to be personal shepherds are directly competing with that role. For a certain (very short) period of time, this may be ok for some people, but as John the baptist said, “He (Jesus) must become greater and greater, and I (the personal shepherd) must become less and less.” In shepherding ministries, it’s the other way around. People start out with the spiritual experience of their deep love to Jesus who redeemed them. But then they get “training”, and the human shepherd comes to the fore. 1 Peter 5 explains these things very well, it also explains that there must be a m:n relationship between human shepherds and sheep. I.e. there must be a plurality of elders=shepherds who consider each other equal (Peter wrote “I appeal as a fellow elder”, not “as a top elder” or “general director”), and there must be a plurality of sheep (Peter wrote about God’s “flock”). 1:1 relationships are always dangerous if they get spiritualized and loaden with authority. The shepherds/elders are to oversee (not lord over) God’s (not their) flock (as a whole).

      That’s the deep fundamental and systematic problem of all shepherding and discipling ministries.

  17. “For a certain (very short) period of time, this (shepherding) may be ok for some people, but as John the baptist said, ‘He (Jesus) must become greater and greater, and I (the personal shepherd) must become less and less.’” – See more at: http://www.ubfriends.org/2012/03/24/spiritual-abuse-shape-up-or-ship-out/#comment-15744

    Yes, the “abuse” in shepherding is the failure of the shepherd to release his/her sheep, but still expecting matters of the sheep’s life to pass through the shepherd or the leader, in order to “keep spiritual order.” This, in my opinion, can be and has been destructive to countless friendships and relationships in ubf over the last 50 years.

    I have shared this before. There are two older leaders who are already grandfathers. One said to the other, “You must obey me because I have been your shepherd for 35 years!”

    This is so funny, even though it is really very very sad.

    Yes, and certainly a plurality (and diversity) of elders/leaders, rather than an autocracy or an oligarchy of a select few. A lack of diverse plurality will eventually destroy any organization.

    • Mark Mederich

      spiritual order: Jesus said, “I am,” therefore ‘We are’-every one of us, as Tiny Tim would say..all equal in Christ, only one Head-Christ; all else is man’s invention for man’s misuse.

      now there are roles like pastor, preacher, teacher, but only if done rightly in service to Christ’s body, NEVER if done wrongly to be served by Christ’s body..HALLELUJAH

  18. Joe Schafer

    The best article on spiritual abuse that I have ever seen.


    • The book mentioned in the article, “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” by Johnson and Van Vonderen, helped me and my wife tremendously when we left UBF in 2001.

      Particularly, it explains the power of “unspoken rules.” This aspect was very heavy in UBF, maybe even more than in other spiritual abusive systems. What I learned is that as soon as you take them seriously and try to write them down or speak them out, they immediately reveal their ridiculousness and fallaciousness.

      Joe, here you gave a very good example. So hilarious. I must say that I became and still am pretty embarassed when I realized under which crazy rules I submitted voluntarily. (Even though the word “voluntarily” is not unproblematic here. People often laugh about the apparent foolishness of cult members, but they don’t realize the subtle, but mighty power of mind control methods, as emphasized in the title of the book.)

    • Darren Gruett

      Joe, thanks for sharing this. It was a very good article. It made me realize how easy it is to justify or allow abuse due to peer pressure.

  19. Thanks, Joe, for the link. It’s painful to read this:

    “Insecurity is dangerous thing for a senior pastor. Insecure leaders typically build a protective structure around themselves to keep themselves safe. These “yes men” uncritically support their leader. Those who question, refuse to support the pastor’s needs, or pose a threat to the pastor’s leadership are marginalized within the leadership structure—or placed at the “bottom of the list.” These pastors are under the delusion that they are doing the right thing—and even believe they have accountability to ensure they stay on track. But in reality they are inflicting pain and misery on those at the bottom of the pastor’s “list.” Through the fear of marginalization they train others within the organization to conform to the pastor’s abusive system.”

    • Mark Mederich

      ‘Yes’ is a beautiful word when true & right in God, but disgusting when self-aggrandizing leaderthink incites self-emulsifying groupthink of the worst kind..

      “Through the fear of marginalization they train others within the organization to conform to the pastor’s abusive system.”


  20. Mark Mederich

    Spiritual Abuse
    Tabor:”it happens because of an unmet emotional or spiritual need within the leader that is being met with illegitimate means. Those that engage in spiritual abuse can sometimes be described as legalistic, mind controlling, spiritually addictive, and authoritarian…This assumes that God works through a chain of command or leadership structure rather than in each individual being part of the body of Christ.” Right!
    So abusive leader is most emotionally ill member of society, who must be counseled/helped to find legitimate means of meet needs

    Brian:”Part of why I have been so “flint-headed” lately is to counter-act the hard-headedness that I found when I raised one simple question 9 years ago, and again when I raised just a few issues last year. To those who remain so callous and call themselves leaders, I will remain ‘flint-headed’ and will fight fearlessly” I’m with you Bro!

    people can call themselves whatever they want, & live in fantasy world as long as like, but fact remains: TRUE leader tell truth, TRUE leader at battle FRONT like Matthew Broderick rushing up Confederate hill in ‘Glory’, true leader not CHICKEN to do right-

    Let’s strive to be real/true leaders in religion/government/whatever or let’s cease to lead until we can..HALLELUJAH!