Unmasking Abusive Spiritual Leadership Part I: Shunning

Unmasking Abusive Spiritual Leadership Part I: Shunning

Shunning is more akin to the leadership of Diotrephes, exposed by the apostle John, than faithful church discipline.  “So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church” (3 John 10).  The counterfeit stands in sharp contrast to the true principle.

A man who has left a church finds himself cut off from life-long friends.  An older couple is forced out by church leadership and is reduced to a surface level relationship with their adult children who remain.  A former member discovers that anytime she encounters people from the church, they act as if she does not exist.  What is going on?

Much has been written lately on the topic of abusive spiritual leadership.  In a series of blogposts, Michael Kruger provides a helpful definition in What Is Spiritual Abuse?, stating, “Spiritual abuse, then, is when a spiritual leader—such as a pastor, elder, or head of a Christian organization—wields his position of spiritual authority in such a way that he manipulates, domineers, bullies, and intimidates those under him, as a means of accomplishing what he takes to be biblical and/or spiritual goals.”  He unfolds key signs of an abusive pastor:  A Long Track Record of Broken Relationships, Hyper Defensive About their Own Authority, Overly Critical and Harsh with Others.1

The goal of this series is to further unmask spiritual abuse. As Chuck DeGroat writes, Congregants do not always have categories for what they may perceive from the outside to be occasional inconsistencies, frustrating drama, troubling rumors, or arrogant behaviors.  They’ll forgive these things for powerful sermons, persistent success, and perceived authority….And because narcissistic leaders appear so confident and certain, they tend to be believed.2  It is therefore important to be alert to the signs.

This post addresses the topic of shunning.  Shunning is present not only among cults but is prevalent among seemingly biblically orthodox groups with spiritually abusive leadership.  The popular podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill brought this reality to light.  Often the congregation that is under such leadership will practice shunning to some extent under the guidance of the leadership, thinking they are being biblical and would not even know to name their actions with this word.

A Distorted Biblical Principle

Shunning is a counterfeit of a biblical principle.  Matthew 18:17 describes the culmination of church discipline.  “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  There is such a thing as rightly distancing oneself from an unrepentant person in the context of church discipline.  But in an abusive church, the principle is distorted and believers need to be on guard to recognize this.  Shunning goes beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6) and does not align with biblical church discipline in at least four ways.

First, right church discipline occurs in the context of grave sin.  The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) Book of Church Order, summarizing the requirements for excommunication states, “This censure is to be inflicted only on account of gross crime or heresy…”  A clear indicator of shunning is that the evidence of the “sins” of the shunned person will be thin.  Instead, insinuations will be made about a person’s character and rarely will there be something concrete. If there is, it won’t rise to the level of a chargeable offense, although the leadership may greatly exaggerate it.  The “sin” actually consists of disagreement with the leadership, but this fact is shuffled behind the other accusations that are brought forth.

Second, shunning does not have the redemptive quality that is requisite in church discipline.  Even at the final stage of church discipline in cases of unrepentance, treating someone as a “Gentile and a tax collector” nonetheless has at its heart, “I love you and I want your good.”  Shunning at its root is a “good riddance.”  It is to discard someone.  The coldness of it will be evident over time with repetition of occurrences.  Rather than the love which “always hopes” there is a sentiment more like, “you have to be willing to pull the trigger.”

Third, shunning will be recognizable by its high frequency in contrast to the general infrequency of loving and rightful church discipline.  Abusive spiritual leadership will shun people time and time again, whereas faithful church discipline by its very nature will be relatively rare.  Among the shunned will be saints known for their faithfulness, gray-headed servants of the church, kind-hearted and generous persons who have washed the feet of the saints, and many others.

Fourth, with shunning, often there will be no church discipline involved; a process demanding the rigor of due process, true shepherding, time, and layers of accountability due to the gravity of what is at stake.  This is not always the case, however.   In cases where excommunication is abusively applied, the damage is even worse as the keys of the kingdom are misused to bring terrible confusion and distortion upon victims.  Perhaps more often though, the leadership simply communicates to the church in various ways that certain people are to be totally avoided because they pose a “danger” to the church.  People disappear with little discussion or invitation for questions, except for insinuation about them.

Shunning is more akin to the leadership of Diotrephes, exposed by the apostle John, than faithful church discipline“So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church” (3 John 10).  The counterfeit stands in sharp contrast to the true principle.

How It Works

How does the leadership accomplish this tactic in a congregation, particularly in a biblically orthodox setting?  Obviously in cult settings or false religions like Islam, it is built into the doctrine explicitly, but since this is not intrinsic to Christianity, the leadership must incrementally instill it.  This happens through a process something like the following:

Identifying “Threats”:  First, those who are perceived as a “threat” to power and control of the spiritually abusive leadership are marked.  This can happen in a few different ways.  Some individuals, by simply asking questions or raising concerns in the church in good faith are labeled a threat. This is due to the underlying control issues of the narcissistic leader. It may take place in the context of a controversy where leadership is domineering and anyone who questions is therefore marked.  It may also occur in the context of a counseling situation where a person disagrees with the leadership on some assessment of sin in themselves or others.  Simply leaving an abusive church may result in someone being thus marked.  The perceived threat to power or control is the key driving factor.

Exclusion: Second, the abusive leadership moves to push out the perceived threat.  There are multiple ways in which this happens.  It can be as simple as a cold shoulder: the person receives nonverbal cues that they are not wanted by the leadership.  Exclusion may be accomplished by veiled references with criticisms from the pulpit where the victim and others know who is being described.  It may be a more direct approach: telling them they probably would do better elsewhere.

Worst of all, it may be the full force of condemnation and accusation.  Pastoral knowledge of their lives or weaknesses may be marshaled against them abusively.  “Look at your life – you are an utter failure.  And you question me?”  Victims may find themselves berated, facing tremendous anger and rage designed to cow them into submission.  Even when individuals may have questioned the leadership, the force of spiritual authority and the collective power of a body of complicit leaders may convince them that the problem is indeed themselves.  This may be the worst scenario, as the victim finds himself under the terror of condemnation, believing that the anger he is receiving is the anger of God.  Sins are magnified in his own mind in a terrible distortion of reality.  The psychological toll is terrible.  But this tactic is effective: such persons are neutralized as a “threat”.  The misuse of spiritual authority is diabolically contrary to the commands of scripture for spiritual leaders and it can destroy people.

Discrediting and Demonizing:  Third, in order to minimize any potential damage to the leadership’s reputation and maintain control, individuals must be discredited.  Here is where the real work must be done upon a congregation to get them on board.  Those who have been marked and excluded continue to pose a threat because they may speak with persons in the congregation.  The more godly and mature the excluded person is, the more intently the leadership will have to work to discredit them.  This results in demonization.

The words of the Pharisees whose control was challenged by the formerly blind man are pertinent: “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out (John 9:34).  This will be the propaganda shared with the congregation. “Can you believe the utter sin of that person?”  Pastoral knowledge is once again inappropriately used, as failures and sins are brought out of confidentiality to discredit.  Sins may also be completely fabricated or embellished.  “He has completely failed in his marriage and parenting!”  “They have a problem with alcohol and were serving in leadership! How dark!”  The process may begin before the person has left the church, at times before the person even knows they are targeted, with insinuations and accusations made about them behind their back.  This is particularly bad if the person was in any sort of leadership, where they pose the greatest threat.

Full Shunning:  Fourth and finally, now the leadership can train the naive congregation to slowly accept this practice.  It takes place incrementally, with exhortations of “protecting the flock from dangerous people,” “purging the church from sin,” “not compromising,” “exerting tough love toward unrepentant people,” and “not allowing Satan a foothold” at the forefront.  These are convincing themes for biblical Christians who trust their leaders.  Although there may be no formal discipline, the character of the person is so slandered that others conclude they have reason to withdraw from them, and even a moral obligation.  Various avenues are used to push these principles.  The pulpit, private conversations, committee meetings, and public prayers become useful for insinuations.

It will not necessarily be the whole church that takes on this practice, but if the core of staff and leadership is convinced by the abusive leader to begin cutting off contact with a few people because of these principles, then the pattern will easily be replicated and expanded.  The leader therefore begins with strong pressure on the other leaders to do this.  Other involved members will pick up on the practice as it is now reinforced from multiple people.  Once the principles are inculcated with a core, it will spread. It becomes a powerful tool for control as well as instilling fear of disagreeing and being among “those compromised people” whose eternal destiny is called into question.

When it is leaders who step out of line and are excluded, they will quickly be erased.  Material from departed leaders is removed from websites, indicating silently that they are dangerous.  They may be forced to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in order to receive a severance or if they are cowed and docile from the abusive mind control, they may be ordered to leave town.  But the demonization will be swift and the plan for shunning will advance.

Ultimately those who maintain any degree of connection, even the most basic formalities with shunned people, are pressured to cease and desist and may themselves be spiritually abused for failing to shun. “You are keeping a foot in the world.” “You are looking back at Sodom and Gomorrah like Lot’s wife.”  Heartbreaking stories unfold.  Long standing close relationships are ruptured.  Members are sometimes influenced to sever or curtail family bonds.  The closer the remaining individuals are to the core leadership, the more severe the pressure will be. Victims multiply.

The Root

In biblically orthodox contexts, often at the root of abusive leadership and shunning is the sort of self-idolatry commonly described as narcissism.  This takes the shape again and again of a charismatic figure, compelling in his leadership, capable in his use of scripture, remarkably gifted in different ways, yet underneath gripped by sins of great spiritual pride and need for control.  He labors to hide these from all people and especially from himself with ministerial activity and forms of piety.  He views himself as fundamentally different and above others and unable to begin to consider the possibility of something being so wrong within.  This leaves him with great insecurity and unable to receive criticism or be questioned in his judgment.  He excels in gathering others around him by flattery to serve as supporters, training and convincing them of his ways, but will swiftly crush them if he detects disloyalty.  Resources on this subject, including non-Christian ones such as narcwise.com, are useful to understand the mindset when read through biblical lenses.

Take Action

In the end, accusations against the brethren will not stand.  The Lord will vindicate his people.  Nonetheless, the damage done to lives through shunning and other aspects of spiritual abuse is real and terrible.  It is important to recognize shunning for what it is, along with other marks of spiritual abuse.  If you have concerns that such tendencies may be present in your church, read further resources on the topic and seek objective counsel and prayer from other Christians outside of your church.  Equipped with knowledge, prayer, and counsel, consider then asking questions of the leadership.  Ask direct questions about how they receive criticism and disagreement.  Be sure to ask the leadership if they are comfortable with you having friendships with people who have left the church.  Both the answers and the way you are treated after asking questions will be telling.

Any Christian leader should gladly welcome such questions with great transparency.  That will not be the case with abusive leadership where asking such questions will raise alarm and suspicion.  For this reason, prepare to ask such questions prayerfully, in the strength and freedom of the glorious gospel of grace.  When Christ’s grace is known, the fear of man has no power, as demonstrated by a formerly blind man long ago.  The man answered, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes (John 9:30).

Steven Light is a member of a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation in Jacksonville, Fla.

1 See also, Why Don’t Churches Stop Spiritually Abusive Pastors, and What Do You Do when an Abusive Leader Is Allowed to Remain in Ministry.  For books on the topic see Kruger, Michael J., Bully Pulpit: confronting the problem of spiritual abuse in the church, Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 2022. Also, Johnson, David W. and VanVonderen, Jeffrey, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Bethany House Publishers, 1991.  Also Three Recent Books on Narcissism and Spiritual Abuse in Church, Michael Gembola, Journal of Biblical Counseling, 35:3, pp 61-92.

2 When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse, Chuck DeGroat & Richard Mouw. Intervarsity Press, 2020, ch 4.

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