A Response to the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church

criticize-voltaire-550x414A succinct definition of spiritual abuse. Yesterday, Joe share what he regarded as the best article on spiritual abuse that he has ever seen. I agree. Here it is: Spiritual Abuse: An Unspoken Crisis. I thought that the definition from the article was excellent:

“Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being.”

A friend’s response. I posted What is Spiritual Abuse? on Facebook and received many interesting comments. Then I emailed a friend who has been in UBF for several decades to read and share what he thought of the article. I appreciated his prompt and honest response to me. So I asked him and he gave me permission to share it. Here it is:

Yes, I read it or rather skimmed it. Church abuse is an important issue. But as of now it’s not my focus. My logic is this: It would make no sense if the North Korean government pours its resources into the problem of obesity, because most people have no food to eat.

Similarly, western churches and American churches suffer from spiritual malnutrition; they are not being fed well spiritually or they refuse to be fed. Yes, the abuse of power and authority in American churches does exist like at Mars Hill and UBF. But it does not alarm me as much as a lack of zeal and a lack of spiritual power and spiritual authority to preach the gospel and to reach out to people for Christ—even while they make dumb mistakes like in UBF or Mars Hill.

Maybe it is just me. I may change in the future. Right now I don’t want to be involved in these issues of abuses in the church as much you may want me to–not because it’s not important but because my focus is on evangelism and discipleship, which I believe is far more important.

We all need each other. When we have an urgent task in front of us we cannot be picky about what instruments we use. We need people to work for the same cause of evangelism that God gave us all as Christians. We just have to work even with the second class or third class instruments like UBF.

While we try to fix the problem of spiritual abuse, we must be winsome in going about it. The leaders may not work with us on our terms but on theirs. But why does it  matter if we have to tackle the urgent common task of reaching people for Christ that is before us?

I hope you will understand me. But if you personally feel that you should deal with abuse issues in the church, go ahead. That’s your call.

Instead of responding to him, I thought that it may be better if others chimed in graciously.


  1. “But why does it matter if we have to tackle the urgent common task of reaching people for Christ that is before us?”

    This is the most spiritually abusive statement I have ever heard.

    • Mark Mederich

      ditto (wow the urgent feeling for quantity mission obliterates preemiment reality that quality is more urgent-increasing fruit ‘by any means’ may look good initially but as time goes by is evidenced by damaged/deformed/dying fruit (lives)

  2. +1, Brian. And yeah, let’s just forget about fostering trinitarian relationships and loving each other, as Jesus actually commanded, because we need to get on the with business of making disciples. Unbelievable.

    • Mark Mederich

      like jesus, we’re not fooled: ‘$ makes the world go around’-sung effectively by liza minelli (judy garland daughter) in ‘cabaret’

  3. Yes, the abuse of power and authority in American churches does exist like at Mars Hill and UBF. But it does not alarm me as much as a lack of zeal and a lack of spiritual power and spiritual authority to preach the gospel and to reach out to people for Christ—even while they make dumb mistakes like in UBF or Mars Hill.

    Does this person understand that Mars Hill, an outlier within the New Reformed movement in terms of evangelistic zeal and church growth, ceases to exist precisely because of issues related to spiritual abuse? That church didn’t self-destruct because of a lack of spiritual zeal or gospel proclamation, rather its efforts were ultimately undercut because the leaders refused to address the fact that their church culture was spiritually corrosive. I remember before the church collapsed, Mark Driscoll told his members to stay off the internet because it was all shenanigans (in his words) and told them to simply stay faithful to the evangelistic mission of MH. Typical directives from a spiritually abusive leader.

    • Darren Gruett

      That’s a very good observation, David. It makes me think of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. Their zeal for the law led to all kinds of spiritual abuse toward people, and ultimately to rejecting the Messiah. And in the end, they lost everything.

    • Right, Darren. An with the same logic one could ask why the gospels talk so much about the problems of the Pharisees, when the world of that time had so much bigger problems and when people of that time also suffered from spiritual malnutrition.

      The gospel must be kept pure. It’s better to spread no gospel at all than spreading a tainted gospel.

    • I agree, Darren and Chris. Any kind of wrong-headed spiritual zeal will ultimately undermine or occlude the gospel. Additionally, what the response communicates is that spiritual abuse is not necessarily grievous sin to be swiftly repented of, rather it’s just dumb mistakes. Meaning that the instances of spiritual abuse can be minimized by saying that they weren’t so evil, instead they just stemmed from a lack of understanding between the two cultures or from some gap in ministerial knowledge or practice. The spiritual abuse didn’t necessarily stem from bad motives, we just didn’t quite know what we were doing. That kind of response comports with what I’ve seen over the years when leaders broach the subject of some of the abusive elements of UBF. I don’t think that I’ve ever heard these instances called sin or abuse.

    • “the response communicates is that spiritual abuse is not necessarily grievous sin”

      Right, David, and that’s exactly why people must talk more about this issue, not less.

  4. Joe Schafer

    This response is truly one of the saddest things I have ever read, and it’s a prime example of why I’ve had to distance myself from ubf. The understanding of “evangelism and discipleship” is incredibly shallow. This person is in denial. That’s as gracious as I can be.

  5. This is a comment on Facebook:

    “Great article Ben Toh and I understand your friends response – the most imperative and important issue is the Gospel of grace through Jesus – YES… but as I understand it, aren’t we (as Christians) the representatives of Christ? isn’t the church the body of Christ? so when they (newcomers) see us… should they not see Christ? (or at least see us honestly struggling to be like Christ). When we focus on evangelism, preaching and zeal but we bring newcomers to an abusive, authoritarian, and unhealthy church… they (newcomers) will see God as an abusive authoritarian and evil God.

    In this case, in order for this church to move forward it MUST take a step backwards and re-visit and rectify these issues otherwise they will continue to hurt, abuse, destroy innocent lives who are searching for healing, prayer, freedom and God.”

  6. forestsfailyou

    People act like concern is a zero sum game. If I am concerned about one thing I cannot also be concerned about another thing. I recently read of a man who was raped. When he tried to talk about it people said “Well. It’s worse for women.” As if we cannot have empathy for more than one group of people at the same time. The author of that comment, like many people- believes that addressing spiritual abuse or putting any effort into fixing it is at the expense of evangelism. He concludes that it ought not to be addressed at all.

    This is view is far from uncommon. In UBF we pick key verses each year. I, out of curiosity, asked a UBF leader what they thought would be a good one for me. Philippians 4:8 was given. I understood it to be a challenge not to address problems, and instead think on “things that are praise worthy” like campus evangelism. I chose Job 40:7. My new year key verse testimony was not requested.

    • “I chose Job 40:7”

      Now THAT is a key verse :) I nearly spit my coffee across the room! Love your attitude Forests!

  7. Joe Schafer

    After thinking some more, I’m now able to put into words why this response is so troubling.

    The person wrote:

    “Right now I don’t want to be involved in these issues of abuses in the church as much you may want me to–not because it’s not important but because my focus is on evangelism and discipleship, which I believe is far more important. – See more at: http://www.ubfriends.org/2015/02/05/a-response-to-the-problem-of-spiritual-abuse-in-the-church/#sthash.W6qqg4mN.dpuf


    * I’m so busy telling people that they need to repent of their sins and follow the way of Jesus that I have no time to consider whether I and my church are repenting and following the way of Jesus.

    * I’m so busy witnessing to Christ that I have no time to consider whether I and my church are credible witnesses to Christ.

    * I’m so busy trying to bring people to church that I have no time to worry about whether my church is worth bringing people to.

    I’m sorry, but this response is sub-Christian. I say this in all seriousness. It is sub-Christian because it treats the gospel as a set of teachings and principles to be passed from one person to another, rather than a truth and reality that is embodied in persons and communities. It lacks understanding of the Incarnation and severs the organic connections between gospel and church. (That’s not surprising, because UBF has always held a low view of church and lacked a coherent ecclesiology.)

    Ben said that this person has been in UBF for several decades. This accurately depicts the kind of disciple that results from UBF teaching and practice. I’d bet this person is a chapter director, an elder and/or member of the senior staff. These are the attitudes that I have heard expressed by UBF leaders again and again. Is this the best that UBF can produce? Apparently yes. Is this the kind of person that you want to become? If so, then UBF is the place for you.

    • The primary sentiment that I hear from Joe and Chris is that the very idea of the gospel held by not a few ubf leaders is warped and woefully insufficient as to be sub-christian. From what I’ve seen over the years and what is written in the article above, I would have to a agree. I used to think that it was just blatant hypocrisy, and at face value it is, but I also find that it is a wrong understanding of the gospel which I find common in American evangelicalism. The thinking goes that Jesus saves us so that what we can primarily preach the gospel, in words, to others and make disciples who can then perpetuate the same thing again and again, i.e. preach the gospel and make disciples. It’s a kind of thinking that says don’t get bogged down in studying theology too much and storing up head knowledge and don’t focus so much on periphery issues (in this case spiritual abuse). Don’t focus on anything that will detract from the reason why we were saved in the first place, which was to proclaim the gospel in words and be a reproducer of other reproducers. That is the type of thinking that I have heard ad nauseam in testimonies over the years. People repented about not feeding sheep or going to the campus but not about things like spiritual abuse or being a domineering asshole to those under your care. This is the extent of what it means to be a gospel witness to them rather than embodying a community which reflects the loving, communal nature of God.

      While I’m very thankful for the good that ubf has done, it is difficult for me to regard it as a Christian church. It is a communtiy where people share a level of care for one another and use the bible in order to inform some of their decisions, but one would be hard-pressed to identify it as a christian community in the true sense of that label. I’ve always felt that people cared for our family because of our level of involvement in evangelistic activity or our ‘value’ as disciple makers, as if we are a commodity rather than human beings. Now that I want to bring up issues of abuse and inequality in relationships rather than making disciples, my voice and input are no longer needed. I’m seen primarily as someone who has ‘all these sense of problem’ as one missionary put it. Okay then, I will find a real church that actually cares about what Christ saved us for, which is be conformed to his image, not that of a megalomaniacal former leader.

    • Too strong; I think that I need to take a break from the internet.

    • David, I don’t think your comment is too strong at all. I had a similar experience when becoming vocal about the need to properly address these issues. But I was called more than having a “sense of problem.” I was outright called “ungodly” and not going about things “Jesus’ way” or “God’s way,” and so was dishonoring God and his servants and rendering myself unfit for service. Like Joe, I too have heard similar sentiments from senior leaders and directors regarding issues of abuse, inequality of relationships, and “spiritual power”, “disciple-making”, etc. And this is also why I could not remain in UBF. I could no longer ignore the issues in the name of serving God or having faith.

      Reading Hosea 6 strongly convicted me of this. Like the Israelites who said, “Let us return to the Lord, he will heal us,” UBF says, “Go back to the Bible!” But what was God’s response? He focused instead on the people being right with each other first, then they start to get right with him. It was a turning away from the regulations and rituals and written codes, to a right relationship with each other. Interestingly, this is also the passage Jesus quoted to the Pharisees, telling them to go and learn what it means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” I was surprised in my readings of 2 Kings, Jeremiah, and other minor prophets how strongly the accusation against the people is for neglecting justice and righteousness among each other, how often and strongly God told them to stop killing each other, stealing from each other, and just mistreating each other in every terrible. I have not gotten any responses from UBF leaders that will acknowledge the need to address the issues. Relationships between people are given low priority, unless it is in the context of “trusting God’s servant” and being quiet.

    • Joe Schafer

      David, I don’t think your comment was too strong. Both Sharon and I thought it had great clarity.

      By calling these attitudes “subChristian,” we are not saying that they are wrong. Rather, we are saying that they have reduce the gospel to only a small part of what Jesus taught and the apostles believed. Many evangelicals have oversimplified and reduced the gospel message to a point where it lacks power to sustain spiritual health and growth. That was my experience in ubf.

  8. Thanks, Joe. I also thought some more about why I’m so outraged about UBF and other spiritually abusive groups who share such views.

    One thing that came to my mind is the holiness of God. I remember one large UBF conference where the message was on Isiah 6. The messenger quoted the words “Holy, Holy, Holy!” in a very dramatic way. You should think that UBFers are aware of the holiness of God. I believe many non-religious people are also aware of this holiness. This is why they tend to shy away from having a personal relation with God, from personal prayers, etc. I remember my difficulties in that regard when I first joined UBF. This is because you instinctively know that you’re a sinner and it would be presumptuous to come to the holy God as you are or even bother Him with your problems. Many non-religious Christians, liberal Christians, Catholic Christians, but also Muslims have this natural awe and timidity before God. However, UBFers are very different. In their world, God is like a crony if not of all UBFers, then at least of the leaders. In their testimonies, you can’t see a differentiation between the will of God and the direction given by a UBF leader. They seem to be always sure to know the will of God. They brazenly call their own ministry “God’s ministry.” I remember that a Korean missionary labelled the coffee pot in our center with “God’s house” – the UBF center was considered God’s holy temple like the temple in Jerusalem. Prayers ended with “I speak in Jesus’ name.” The general mood was that UBF was always on the side of God and God always on the side of UBF – at least the UBF leaders. There was no dread or reservation of speaking about the will of God. Also, there was a lot of boasting about UBF’s own achievements, and no mention of UBF’s failures (failures of their leaders and way of operation).

    Note that I don’t speak about the individual members here. Despite of this outward brazenness, many of the low-ranking members were still very fearful and driven by feelings of guilt, underperformance and unworthiness. I’m speaking about the brazenness of UBF as an entity here, and the presumptuousness of its leaders who never seem to be insecure or afflicted with guilt, which is in stark contrast to the ease with which they can induced feelings of guilt in their “sheep.” So this resulted in a staggering combination of humble subservience and megalomaniac arrogance.

    From where does UBF take this brazenness? Of course, we all know it, this is because they claim to have “Evangelical faith” according to which any sinner can come to God through Jesus Christ.

    However, they are confused about one thing: The ground on which you can come to God and have a personal relationship with Him is not your work or affiliation with a ministry, but that you have a broken heart and that you are willing to get out of the darkness and live in the light. Just read the verses after John 3:17 – they talk about the difference between living in the light and living in the darkness: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” Only those who come into the light, who admit and confess their sins, instead of trying to keep face and cover them up, are eligible to come close to God. Paul also talks about this in Eph 5. This is a fundamental thing. This is why on UBFriends people started to speak plain text. Living in the light does not mean that your life must be bright and shiny and flawless. It means that you are willing to expose and admit all the flaws and sins.

    UBF and their leaders show the opposite of this behavior. They cover up their wrongdoings of the past as best as they can, they don’t live in the light. This is generally true for spiritually abusive systems with their “unspoken rules.” An “unspoken rule” is generally a sign that a group is not living in the light. If rules were healthy and Biblical, they would not shy away from making them public, from writing them down and explaining them to everyone asking. Take for instance UBF’s rules of how “marriage by faith” must be conducted. You will not find them mentioned on any website of UBF. They try to conceal and even deny them, even from members, until they are considered indoctrinated enough to swallow them.

    My point is that UBF; and authoritarian, spiritual abusive systems in general, don’t show the brokenness of the heart and do not live in the light that are the necessary requirements for approaching God, and then preaching about God, being God’s witnesses, doing mission.

    Well, UBF leaders claim to have a “broken heart” – but actually they brokenness is not about their own sinfulness, but about the sinfulness of others. This is also expressed by the UBF term “broken shepherd heart.” I.e. they believe others are sinners, and they need to be shepherds for them, but they don’t recognize and admit their own miserable sate.

    In the course of time, the gospel faith has become perverted. Now they’re not righteous in front of God anymore because of their broken heart about their own sins, but because of their faithful engagement for what they think is “world mission,” because of their “broken heart” for others. It goes so far that this engagement starts to cover up the multitude of their sins, and becomes the true reason why they think they are qualified to speak and act in behalf of God. This mindset also shines through in Ben’s “friend’s response.”

    This is really what makes me so upset. By trying to cover up their own failures, they deny the power of the gospel they claim to be preaching. It’s better to have no gospel at all and live in natural shyness of God and by the “golden rule” (Mt 7:12) than living in false brazenness with a perverted gospel in front of God, claiming to do things for God and speaking in behalf of God, when all you do is spiritual abuse and show others a perverted picture of God who is like a man and not the Holy God. Jesus said “On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’” And: “You cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” These are real problems, this is not some irrelevant stuff Jesus said about Pharisees who have long gone extinct. Any group that has such problems as UBF or Mars Hill should really shut up, bring their things in order, and start living in the light, instead of continuing to portray themselves as messengers of God, trying to change other people, or expect people to speak about their “good sides” and achievements.

  9. I’m just reading a German good with the title “Broken Wings – Spiritual Abuse and Destructive Faith” (an extract is available online here), and I found the preface gives a great definition of spiritual abuse:

    “The perpetrator wants to play the role of God in the life of another person, while disregarding the other person’s personal freedom – something that God Himself never does. The perpetrator tries to bind the consciences of others to his own plans and beliefs, and utilizes Bible verses or prophecies in a manipulative way. The purpose is to keep the believer in immaturity; although they may preach on the freedom of access to God by every believer, in practice the perpetrators try to establish themselves as intermediaries and retain control.

    It is not always an individual perpetrator, there are entire systems based on an abusive behavior between people, in which everyone can be perpetrator and victim at the same time, depending on the position in which they are located towards the other person.”

    That’s exactly how I experienced it in UBF.

  10. Joe Schafer

    Theologian Roger Olson is publishing a series of articles in which he tells his personal story of being in an abusive church. This is a must-read for ex-members of ubf and, even more so, present members of ubf. Abusive churches and church leaders do real damage to peoples’ lives.

    Part 1:


    Part 2:


    Part 3:


    Part 4 is forthcoming.

    “…a church or other religious organizations does not have to be blatantly heretical to be “cultic.” A perfectly orthodox Christian group can be cultic insofar as its ethos includes a pattern of spiritual abuse.”


    • Joe Schafer

      Part 4 is here.


      “… part of the reason I stayed, in spite of the spiritual abuse, was fear—of what my family and spiritual mentors would think, that they would disown me, that I would be alone, and that my spiritual connection with God would suffer if not be broken.”

    • Olson’s story demonstrates that spiritual abuse needn’t always be explicit, aggressive, shouting-in-your-face, etc. in nature. Often times, it is passive-aggressive, covert/subtle, manipulative and widely accepted by the rank and file members of the group. This is mainly what I experienced in UBF and I know that many others have as well. People who raise the complaint of abuse within UBF are nowadays told to name a specific person and event and subsequently work it out with that person. There are problems with this that I won’t get into, but my point is that one can be in an inherently abusive system and won’t be able to necessarily tie it to a specific person or event. Thus it’s very difficult for one to articulate said abuse which they feel that they have experienced. It’s essentially pointless to talk about abusive elements within ubf with the members or leaders because their ‘normal’ is that very system and they can’t or won’t allow themselves to look outside of it. I would encourage all young ubfers to experience a wide diversity of ministries and mentors as Olson did.