Michael Daly CJ Blog

A Companion of Jesus

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse

I was recently re-reading the book ‘The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse’ by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen and was particularly struck by their story based around Matthew 21, when Jesus went into the temple and drove out the money changers. Here they are telling an imaginary journey of a man and his family journeying into Jerusalem to go to the Temple.

The point in the book is about leaders, pastors and elders abusively leading people under the power of religious observance…and binding them there, through the use of a Bait and switch.

“The victim in this case, is the man or woman looking for meaning in life. More than that they are looking for God. They have tried everything the world has to offer and they are still empty inside. They need more. The bait in a spiritually abusive system is the promise of a relationship with God, rest for the soul, forgiveness of sins, and nothing less than a brand new identity in Christ Jesus. And best of all it’s free. It comes by grace through faith.

The switch takes place when, upon arriving, we receive a heavy load of new rules, and external performances to live up to. We still hear words and sing songs about grace and life, but there seems so little of the genuine article. There is no life giving reign of God, only a substitute God who suddenly demands a great deal of activity from us to “prove” we are “worthy servants”. In fact God-talk is used to drive people. We end up with a facsimile of what we came for. How did the “Bait and Switch” take place?

Matthew 23:13 reveals more about this dynamic in the statement “nor do you allow those who are entering [the kingdom] to go in.” Here, Jesus indicates that the ones who are being denied access to the Kingdom are not rebellious God-rejecters. They are the God-seekers. They are the ones responding to God’s own prompting to find Him, to “enter in.”  In their attempt to enter in, they do the obvious thing: they go to church. But when they get to church (and receive an enthusiastic welcome), they do not find God and grace and light and life. They come under a false basis of authority, heavy weights of legalistic load-carrying, and external performance with no internal reality. They get “a form of godliness void of power” (2Timothy 3:5).

Millions of people have experienced church, or some form of Christianity. But if that experience came in the context described in Matthew 23, they may have never experienced the freeing, life-giving reign of God. We must never forget that there is a significant difference between the church and the Kingdom. For some, it may even be the difference between life and death, entering in and being shut off, heaven and hell.

An Imaginary Journey.

A graphic illustration of Jesus’ attitude toward such  systems is found in Matthew 21, where we see Him cleanse the temple. Let’s set the scene. It is Passover in Jerusalem, Jews from all over the world, desiring to meet with God and to be obedient to His commands, have made the pilgrimage to the holy city. Perhaps it will be easier to understand Jesus’ actions if we dramatize the experience of one father as he arrives with his family in Jerusalem.

“I was feeling more excitement and anticipation this year than in other years. For the first time, all the children could really understand what is going on. We had already noticed a simple faith in them, and they have a yearning for the truth of God that I have not seen before. Surely, we thought, the place to fan that flame is at the temple in Jerusalem.

“I remember looking at them with their yearling lamb. For months they had cared for him, and he became to them a cherished pet – though he was to be our family’s sacrifice. The children had chosen to raise the lamb themselves. This sacrifice was clearly a gesture from their hearts.

“When we came to Jerusalem there were two imposing images that I shall never  forget.

“First, the temple itself, its silent stones keeping us away from the holy presence of God. Courtyards within courtyards, allowing fewer and fewer people near to the Holy of Holies. All could enter into the outer courtyard, the place of the Gentiles. Beyond that was an imposing door and another courtyard. Into this courtyard, only we Jewish men could go-no women, no children. There were six ascending courtyards in all. Each of them excluded a few more people until, at the top of the temple mount, stood the final court. This was the Holy of Holies. Into that place only the high priest could dare to venture, and only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.

“As I stood with my family in the outer court, I felt small and insignificant. I want to know God. I think I love God. But will I ever be acceptable in His sight? This I do not know. Only the religious leaders can say.

“But then I was struck with the second imposing image-the bazaar of Annas.

“The bazaar was created by the former high priest, Annas, to provide pilgrims with all the necessary implements of worship. Space in the courtyard was rented to chosen vendors, who set up shop in small booths. Each booth provided animals for sacrifice and implements for cleansing. In addition, there were many religious trinkets you could buy to prove devotion. The prices were very, very high. A lamb purchased at the temple could cost ten times the market value.

“we were taught by the rabbis not to question whether this bazaar really did provide a necessary service. After all, people could lose their sacrifice on the long journey or forget some necessary tool and purchase it here.

“Then I saw what was called the ‘booth of approval’, manned by one of the strictest of the Pharisees. Before we could offer our family’s lamb for sacrifice it had to be ‘approved’.

“We stood in a long line, nervously waiting for our lamb to be inspected. Our disappointment rose as it became clear that most of the people’s offerings were being rejected. ‘Not good enough.’ ‘Not clean enough.’ ‘Not big enough.’ By the time our turn came, I knew the verdict and I was right: ‘Rejected.’

“Go to one of the vendors’ booths,’ we were told. ‘There you can purchase a lamb pre-approved for sacrifice. You don’t even have to come back here for approval. They can take care of all your needs right there.’

“My heart sank. The children were confused. What about our lamb? What about our sacrifice? Doesn’t God care about that? How do we get to God? I suppose we just have to follow the rules. After all, we are in the temple. True, something feels wrong in all this–but this is God’s House. It says so, right on the sign outside.

“I supposed we should just pick a vendor’s booth and get on with it-which one did not seem to matter much. They all had a little different sales-pitch, but basically the same merchandise was available. We finally settled on a vendor because he looked friendly. He quickly sold us a lamb at ten times its real value. Then he proceeded to inform us of the other necessary implements for “proper” worship that we did not know of. Wanting to show our true love for God, we paid all the fees.

“But there was a serious problem at the end of the day. It was simply this: We never knew if we were pleasing to God—or just to the religious leaders. It seemed that the kingdom of heaven was too far beyond our reach….”

The sad thing is that this still goes on today. People are looking for God, and they hope that the church will be that place to find Him, as it claims to have God and the truth. Unfortunately, what happens is that they find a church, which they believe will help them find God. What they find however is a system that gives them more work to do in order to be “close” to  ot to “go deeper” with God.

When leaders put more burdens and expectations upon the flock, then we need to stand up and speak out. When leaders twist scriptures around to fit their agendas. When leaders ask for more money to do God’s work. When they expect more giving, more input, more output, more of anything… beware!

As we read in Matthew 21, when Jesus enters the temple, he overturns the tables with money piling up, he makes a whip and drives out those peddlers of money orientated religion. So much of what I see in the Church today is bound in with the false teaching of prosperity preachers, who peddle their gospel at the expense of the poor and downtrodden.

If you find yourself in a church where the leaders put expectations upon you whilst feeding their ego’s and not your spirit, soul and body….building their kingdoms but not the Kingdom of God….loving you with words, but failing to be loving shepherds after our master’s example,  who would leave ninety-nine in search of one lost sheep….placing expectations upon your shoulders which are millstones around your neck…..don’t listen to them! They are door closers who deceive themselves into believing they are door openers. They shut off the kingdom of heaven.

“Spiritually abusive systems do not shut people out from synagogues, temples—or, in our Christian context, from churches, or bible studies. On the contrary, systems like this spend great energy trying to get people to come. Consequently, people may first experience fellowship and a sense of being “right with God.” But in the context of a false authority, increasing loads, external performance, and religious pride, it is unlikely that the experience of joyful liberty under God’s reign will continue. Consider this: Is it possible to grow up in the church, do all the “do’s,” don’t do the “don’ts,” know all the doctrine—and still not enter into the Kingdom? What a tragedy to spend a lifetime around religion and never to have experienced the reality of Christ alive in and among us! Such is the danger in a spiritually abusive system. We dare not minimize this. We must all examine whether we are offering people life in the Spirit only to substitute something far less when they have accepted the invitation.”

Michael Daly CJ

July 2010

Living loved.


July 15, 2010 - Posted by | Thoughts

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