Christian Biblical Counsel: SPIRITUAL ABUSE

See Also – Spiritual Abuse Questionnaire – Questions To Help Identify Specific Areas of Spiritual Abuse, Deception, and Fraud

Spiritual Abuse

Religion at Its Worst

by June Hunt

Think about it. Who in our society offends us the most? It’s the robbers, the killers, the rapists—the flagrant law breakers.

Now think about Jesus. Who offended Him the most? It was the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day—the legalistic law keepers. They upset Him the most.

But, why the Pharisees? After all, they went to the temple, paid the tithes, read the Word, kept the Law, prayed the prayers. So, why the prominent law keepers?

Although they were representatives of the house of God, they did not represent the heart of God. Christ called them “hypocrites.” And He made it plain: They will be rewarded here on earth, but certainly not in heaven.

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.”

(Matthew 6:5)

I.     Definitions

They can’t believe their eyes … when they see the disciples’ hands. Dirty, unwashed hands, such a contrast to their own pristine palms. The religious leaders strived to be the “picture” of perfection, so refined in their priestly garb. These prestigious Pharisees scrutinize the followers of Jesus, who lift their food to their mouths with “unclean” hands—ceremonially defiled hands that had not been washed according to their customs. “Beware—your unclean hands soil any hope of righteousness”—so say the Pharisees. But Jesus says, “No, what stains your righteousness is your unclean hearts.”

“What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’ ”

(Matthew 15:11)

A. What Is Spiritual Abuse?

The practice of spiritual abuse has persisted ever since the serpent in the Garden of Eden distorted and outright lied about God’s words to Adam and Eve. In doing so, he managed to create doubt in their minds regarding the character of God and His relationship to those He had created. The result, of course, was that they found the thought of becoming like God more appealing than remaining dependent on God. That thought led them to trust Satan’s words rather than God’s words, and their descendants have struggled with this same problem ever since. The serpent said to Eve,

“Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’ … You will not surely die.… For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

(Genesis 3:1, 4)

The serpent skewed God’s Word and seduced the first couple into taking the fatal bite!

Spiritual abuse is a relatively new term. The following definitions explain how spiritual leaders can misuse their position:

•     Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person by someone in a position of spiritual authority, resulting in diminishing that person’s spiritual vitality and growth.

•     Spiritual abuse is the use of religious words or acts to manipulate someone for personal gain or to achieve a personal agenda, thereby harming that person’s walk with God.

•     Spiritual abuse can be broadly defined as any misuse of Scripture whereby truth is twisted and which may or may not result in harming a person’s relationship with God. The victim in this case may not be an individual, but truth itself.

Question: “What is at the heart of spiritual abuse?”

Answer: At the core of spiritual abuse is excessive control of others. Spiritual abuse is acting “spiritual” to benefit oneself by using self-centered efforts to control others.

Acting spiritual to

Benefit oneself by



Efforts to control others


—  The pastor who uses guilt to compel attendance, financial giving, or service

—  The spiritual leader who takes emotional or sexual advantage of a counselee in the name of “comfort or compassion”

—  The religious people who accuse those who disagree with them of being rebellious against God

•     Spiritual abuse is putting confidence in your “position of authority” and your perceived right to use those under your influence to accomplish your own personal agenda. However, God alone has the right, the wisdom, and the power to accomplish His plans and purposes for those whom He has created.

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”

(1 Peter 5:1–3)

Spiritual abuse is not:

•     Church discipline

God commanded the church to administer church discipline for the purpose of correcting and restoring sinning Christians to fellowship with the Lord and the church. Because the focus of church discipline is not on punishment, it must be done prayerfully and in love. Church discipline is lso intended to maintain the church’s purity in belief and practice.

Example: The apostle Paul instructed the Corinthian church to remove a sexually immoral man from their midst.

“Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” (1 Corinthians 5:6–7)

•     Rejection of a person’s incorrect theological beliefs

The church must evaluate those who teach the Bible to other members. The church, as the “pillar and foundation of the truth,” must reject incorrect interpretations and false teaching just as Christ rejected the self-made righteousness and erroneous teachings of the Pharisees.

“We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.” (Galatians 2:5)

B. What Is Legalism?

“Do this.… Don’t do that.… Do this.… Don’t do that.”

What was the purpose of the Old Testament Law … especially since today we are not bound by it? The hundreds upon hundreds of rules and regulations revealed a supreme standard of holiness … that no one can keep. Rather than leaving God’s people discouraged and in despair, the Law was intended to first show them that they were sinners and then to lead them to a Savior to meet their need—the need for the forgiveness of their sins.

Because no one keeps the Law perfectly, no one is ever saved by the Law! Instead, the requirement of the Law (perfection) shows that we all need to come to the Lord for His mercy and grace. However, between the giving of the Law and the coming of Jesus, the religious leaders so distorted and mishandled the Law that it came to be viewed as the way to become righteous before God, making it a type of savior in and of itself.

The outward practice of “do’s and don’ts” defined the law keepers as righteous, while they woefully negated the issues of the heart. Then, when the true Savior came, the religious leaders failed to recognize Him and condemned those who did. Therefore, Jesus adamantly opposed the religious legalism of His day and the spiritual abuse His people suffered at the hands of those to whom the Law had been entrusted generations earlier. The apostle Paul said,

“Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.… Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ ”

(Romans 10:3–4; Galatians 3:11)

Whereas the general motive behind most spiritual abuse is power, the primary tool by which this power is gained is legalism.

The following statements provide a comprehensive definition of legalism:

•     Legalism is a system of living by the law in order to make spiritual progress and earn God’s blessing. “Legalism” comes from the Latin word legalis, which means “law.”

•     Legalism is a strict adherence to a code of “dos and don’ts” as a means of earning the approval of God.

•     Legalism is a misuse of the law resulting in a wrong way of trying to appear right.

•     Legalism is any attempt to gain or maintain God’s favor by human effort.

Question: “What is at the heart of legalism?”

Answer: At the core of legalism is a works mentality—looking to your own efforts to gain the acceptance of God.

Looking to your own

Efforts to

Gain the

Acceptance of the



—  The congregation that judges another congregation because of their manner of dress, style of worship, or the Bible translation they use

—  The spiritual leader who looks down on some in his congregation because he perceives them to be spiritually immature

•     Legalism is putting confidence in “the flesh,” which means living out of your own resources and your perceived achievement of a self-imposed standard of righteousness that causes you to despise others and to develop a prideful spirit.

However, God alone is the judge of motives. Only He can know the heart of a person.

“All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord.” (Proverbs 16:2)

Legalism is not:

•     Obeying rules and regulations

Every organization, including churches, schools, and homes, has rules and regulations. These are necessary for the organization to function properly.

Example: The apostle Paul instructed the Corinthian church regarding how they should conduct their religious meetings.

“Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints.” (1 Corinthians 14:29–33)

•     Submitting to authority

God established authority figures in the church, home, and government for our good. These authorities are to give leadership, guidance, protection, and accountability.

Example: The writer of Hebrews explained the function of authority and how Christians are to relate to their leaders.

“Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Hebrews 13:17)

•     Having personal standards for Christian living

Within the boundaries of biblical absolutes, God gives us the responsibility to choose how we will live our Christian lives. The choices we make throughout the day as to how we will present ourselves to others and how we will conduct ourselves around others reflect our standards. Making choices is not legalism, even if the choices are more conservative than the choices of others.

Example: Through Joshua, God gave the Israelites the choice of serving Him or not.

“Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.… But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

C. Who Are Legalistic Spiritual Abusers?

It’s invigorating … even intoxicating. And when unrestrained and unchecked, it can be characterized by the timeless adage—power corrupts.

In some ways they started out so right. The Pharisees esteemed the Mosaic Law, rejected moves toward secularization, and swelled national pride through rightly honoring Jewish heritage.

But they ended up so wrong … preoccupation with the Law turned into misapplication of the Law, rules came before people, and nationalism spawned a sense of superiority toward others. This is the opposite picture of the requirements for the spiritual leaders in Christ’s church.

“Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.”

(Titus 1:7–8)

Although many people have spiritual hearts, the following list includes frequent positions in which spiritual abusers commit their abuse:

•     Controlling Religious Family Members

—  Parents

—  Husbands/Wives

—  Children

—  Other relatives

•     Manipulative Church Members (and equivalents in all religions)

—  Pastors/Priests/Chaplains/Bishops

—  Missionaries/Evangelists/Prophets/Apostles

—  Bible teachers/Mentors/Disciplers/Intercessors

—  Choir members/Choir directors/Worship leaders

•     Covert Occult Practitioners

—  Fortune tellers/Psychics/Astrologers

—  Spiritists/Mediums

—  Sorcerers/Witches/Witch doctors

—  Parapsychology teachers and leaders

•     Mind-controlling Cultists

—  Cult leaders

—  Cult boards/Council members

—  Cult trainees

—  Heretical sect members

•     Other Deceivers and Dominators

—  Manipulative televangelists/Para-church ministry leaders

—  Coercive counselors/Therapists/Advisors

—  Religious bullies in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces

—  Religious extremists/Terrorists

D. What Are Three Errors of Interpretation Regarding Law?

The Law given to the Israelites through Moses has been discussed and debated for centuries. While its meaning might appear quite clear and uncomplicated to the average person the Hebrew religious leaders poured over it day and night, searching for secret and minute meanings to debate among themselves.

These students of the Law approached God’s Law like a secular lawyer might approach civil law, as something for them to interpret and apply, rather than something to simply obey. They considered it complicated and added “amendments” to it in order to “simplify” it for the common people. In so doing, they twisted and distorted it to the point that it was unrecognizable to its Author and became a stumbling block to salvation for those seeking to keep it.

•     Similarly, first century Christians encountered contradictory opinions and criticism for teaching that Jesus had freed them from the demands of the Law. These contenders fell into basically three camps, and Christians today continue to face these same three errors of interpretation when trying to decide what to do with the Old Testament Law.

•     Galatianism refers to the purpose behind the writing of the Book of Galatians, wherein Paul was correcting false doctrine. It is the commingling of law and grace, teaching that grace is given for salvation but the law is given for living. It is performing good works in an attempt to attain perfection or holiness in order to keep what Christ has already made possible by His death and resurrection. This produces a stress-filled local church that sees God as a critical parent whose love and acceptance has to be earned.

“Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Galatians 3:2–3)

•     Ceremonialism is the teaching that certain ordinances such as confession, baptism, and particular sacraments are essential to salvation and bring about God’s favor. This is the commingling of rituals and grace, teaching that grace alone is not sufficient but must be accompanied by something else. This produces a pressure-filled local church that seeks to do enough good deeds to both gain and retain God’s approval.

“Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ ” (Acts 15:1)

•     Antinomianism comes from the Greek words anti, which means “against,” and nomos, which means “law,” that is, “against the law.”

Antinomianism is the teaching that under the gospel of grace, a person is free from any moral law or standard. Faith alone is necessary for salvation; therefore, all rules for living are soundly rejected. This produces a confusion-filled local church that mistakes liberty in Christ for license to sin, keeping its members in slavery to sinful, fleshly desires and in conflict with God’s Word.

“Certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.”

(Jude 4)

Question: “Is there no law for Christians to live by?”

Answer: The Bible says that under the New Covenant, God will put His law in the minds and the hearts of every Christian. Additionally, everyone has an internal law that is not the Law of Moses but rather the Lord’s personal law for each of us. According to Romans 2:14–15, “When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.”

Since Christ indwells every true Christian, we naturally have both His will and His supernatural power to do His will.

“This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” (Hebrews 10:16)

—  He prompts you to desire and to do His will.

“It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:13)

—  He provides you with the power to do what He calls you to do.

“The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:24)

E. What Is The Difference Between Law and Grace?

Law  Grace 
Purpose  To show us our   sin and our need to be right with God  To make us   right with God 
“No   one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather,   through the law we become conscious of sin.” (Romans 3:20)  “A   righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law   and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in   Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference.” (Romans 3:21–22) 
Terms:  Our   responsibility  Our gift from   God 
  “The   Lord your God commands you this   day to follow these decrees and laws; carefully observe them with all your   heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 26:16)  “The   wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus   our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) 
Motivation:  Fear/Reward  Love 
  “ ‘Cursed   is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.’   Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’ If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all   his commands I give you today, the Lord   your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these   blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 27:26;   28:1–2)  “Christ’s   love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and   therefore all died.” (2 Corinthians 5:14) 
Focus:  Bondage/Obligation  Release/Freedom 
“It   is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let   yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)“I   declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to   obey the whole law.” (Galatians 5:3)


“By   dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we   serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”   (Romans 7:6) 
Results:  Fear/Rejection/Condemnation  Forgiveness/Acceptance/   Reconciliation 
“Whoever   keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking   all of it.” (James 2:10)  “I   will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews   8:12) 
Emphasis:  What man does  What God does 
“If,   in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but   not before God.” (Romans 4:2)  “[The   believer will] be found in him, not having a righteousness of [his] own that   comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the   righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” (Philippians 3:9) 
Lives   Out of:  Flesh—man’s   resources  Spirit—God’s   resources 
“Are   you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain   your goal by human effort?” (Galatians 3:3)  “Through   Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin   and death.” (Romans 8:2) 
Deals   with:  External   regulations, rules, standards  Inner heart   attitude 
“Since   you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though   you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not   taste! Do not touch!’?” (Colossians 2:20–21)  “In   my inner being I delight in God’s law.” (Romans 7:22) 
Relates   Doing/Being:  “Do in order   to be.”  “You are,   therefore, do.” 
“Is   the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a   law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly   have come by the law.” (Galatians 3:21)  “You   were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of   light.” (Ephesians 5:8) 
Operating   Principle:  Try harder   through work and effort  Receive,   trust, rest 
“All   who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed   is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the   Law.’ ” (Galatians 3:10)  “Come   to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”   (Matthew 11:28) 
Type   of System  Achieving   System  Receiving   System 
“Israel,   who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because   they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over   the ‘stumbling stone.’ ” (Romans 9:31–32)  “It   is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves,   it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians   2:8–9) 

F.  What Questions about the Law Cause Confusion?

Question: “Is the law wrong?”

Answer: No. The Law is the revelation of God’s perfect standard of righteousness. The Bible says,

“The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.” (Romans 7:12)

Question: “According to Scripture, was the law abolished?”

Answer: No, Jesus didn’t abolish the law. He fulfilled it. That means the standard still exists, but the methodology for attaining that standard has changed from self-effort to Spirit-empowerment … from works to grace.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17)

Question: “What does ‘Jesus fulfilled it’ mean?”

Answer: The Law was a covenant, an agreement, a contract. Just as a builder is under a contract to build a house, once the house is complete, the contract is fulfilled. The builder does not continue to work at building the house any longer. Likewise, Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the contract (the Law) through His teaching and actions. He accomplished what we could never do by our own efforts. Then the Law-Keeper became the sacrifice for us, the Law-breakers.

“Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4)

Question: “What is the difference between legalism and biblical obedience?”

Answer: Obedience is the act of conforming outwardly to God’s righteous standard and inwardly to the character of Christ through the enabling grace of God.

—  In legalism, the resource is self-effort—the motive is self-promotion. Legalism results in pride and approaching God on the basis of your performance.

—  In obedience, the resource is the Spirit of God—the motive is to glorify God. Obedience results in humility and approaching God on the basis of Christ’s performance.

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (Ezekiel 36:26–27)

II.    CharaCterIstICs

They come from opposite sides of the tracks. One is refined, respected, and revered—after all, he is a Pharisee. He has an “in” with God. The other is despised, disdained, and dejected—after all, he’s a tax collector. He is a spiritual “outcast.” While both say something to God, the tax collector can’t look up, but the Pharisee stands up, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” (Luke 18:11–12).

So goes the prayer of the Pharisee. Standing aside, the tax collector beats his chest and pours out his heart, “God, have mercy on me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

Jesus speaks this parable to those who trust in their own righteousness, who exercise spiritual snobbery toward any who don’t “measure up.” The tax collector expresses a humble dependency on God that results in the forgiveness of his sins.

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

(Luke 18:14)

A. What Characterizes Spiritually Abusive Groups?

While some religious groups are free of abuse, others are occasionally abusive, and still others are intensely abusive. The people especially vulnerable to systemic spiritual abuse belong to groups where all the power is at the top and average members are subject to the dictates of those over them. Therefore, the structure of a religious organization is of paramount importance when trying to identify the probability of spiritual abuse. The apostle Peter reflected the heart of humility vital for every spiritual leader when he said,

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”

(1 Peter 5:1–3)

Spiritually abusive leaders are …

•     Authoritarian

—  Implying that God communicates with His people only through a hierarchy of power

—  Claiming to have been established by God Himself

—  Boasting that the leaders speak for God and expecting followers to support and obey them

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12)

•     Image Conscious

—  Seeking to present an image of perfect righteousness

—  Misrepresenting their personal history to wrongly portray a special relationship to God

—  Minimizing or covering up their mistakes and character flaws

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.” (Matthew 23:27)

•     Suppressive of Criticism

—  Determining all issues at the top and handing it down to the members

—  Maintaining that those who question anything about the organization are actually challenging God’s authority

—  Curtailing individual thinking by saying such individuality leads to doubts about God

“Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)

•     Perfectionistic

—  Demanding flawless obedience

—  Condemning failure of any type or magnitude

—  Promoting pride, elitism, and arrogance

“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)

•     Unbalanced

—  Flaunting their distinctiveness to validate their claim of having a “special” relationship to God

—  Majoring on the minor issues

—  Carrying biblical law to the extreme

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.” (Luke 11:42)

•     Coercive

—  Using any tactic available to get followers to disregard their own logic and do what the leaders demand

—  Demanding submission by claiming the messages they receive come directly from God

—  Deluding members by presenting themselves as the only ones who can properly interpret God’s Word to the people

“They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” (1 Timothy 1:7)

•     Intimidating

—  Threatening members routinely with punishment or excommunication in order to gain compliance

—  Holding the possibility of eternal condemnation over the heads of followers in order to force submission

—  Predicting financial ruin or physical calamity for disobedient members in order to assure obedience

“The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.” ’ ” (Ezekiel 34:1–3)

•     Terrorizing

—  Imparting fear, shame, self-doubt, identity confusion, and guilt to members

—  Blaming problems within the organization on the sinfulness of the congregation

—  Overemphasizing the problems of followers and presenting strict obedience as the only solution

“You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.” (Ezekiel 34:4)

•     Condemning

—  Heaping condemnation on outsiders and anyone who leaves the congregation

—  Teaching that followers will join the ranks of the condemned if they deviate from the teachings of the leaders

—  Scapegoating individual members for failures within the organization

“How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4)

•     Discriminatory

—  Promoting church hierarchy

—  Responding to people according to their titles and roles

—  Instructing average members that their needs are less important than the needs of the leaders

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” (Luke 11:43)

•     Legalistic

—  Communicating that approval and acceptance are based on performance and position within the organization

—  Expecting members to make extreme sacrifices of money, time, and energy for the sake of the organization

—  Burdening the people with excessive demands supposedly given by God directly to the leaders

“Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees.” (Isaiah 10:1)

•     Isolating

—  Defining relationships outside of the congregation as negative and destructive

—  Encouraging members to minimize or discontinue contact with family, friends, and the outside world

—  Presenting the outside world as a place of egregious sin and temptation without any redeeming qualities

“If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8)

Legalism is basically an attitude in which God is seen as quick to judge—a stern taskmaster—a judgmental judge. The attitude toward oneself is a misplaced confidence that leads to frustration, failure, and self-condemnation. The attitude toward others is prideful exclusivity that produces frustration, fear, and resentment in others.

B. What Are the Symptoms of a Spiritual Abuse Victim?

Diseases have accompanying symptoms such as fever and specific aches and pains. The symptoms are not the problem, but they are the result of the real problem, which is the disease itself. Spiritual abuse and legalism, like a disease, also produce symptoms, which some mistake as the real problem. As you read the following symptoms, check to see whether you are a victim of spiritual abuse or legalism.

“Jesus replied, ‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.’ … ‘Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.’ ”

(Luke 11:46, 52)


Low self-worth

—  Do you feel you must accept abuse?

—  Do you feel you must accept blame?

—  Do you feel you must accept condemnation?

Excessive fear

—  Do you have fear of disapproval or condemnation?

—  Do you have fear of authority figures?

—  Do you have fear of conflict?


—  Do you feel like a failure?

—  Do you feel a sense of shame?

—  Do you feel a heaviness of heart?


—  Do you feel frustrated for not being perfect?

—  Do you feel angry for not keeping all the rules?

—  Do you feel you are losing patience with yourself and others?

Lack of transparency

—  Do you feel you must put up a false front to hide the real you?

—  Do you feel that if others really knew you, they would reject you?

—  Do you avoid closeness with others?

Intimacy difficulties in relationships

—  Do you have difficulty saying no?

—  Do you feel that you are not forgiven?

—  Do you keep comparing yourself with others, keeping them at a distance?


—  Do you try to earn love by performing well?

—  Do you feel the need to do everything perfectly so as not be rejected?

—  Do you feel you must be in control in order to feel a sense of significance?

Majoring on the minors

—  Do you prioritize the externals such as complying with rules and regulations?

—  Do you have difficulty setting boundaries?

—  Do you place importance on outward actions rather than on inward needs?

“The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’ ”

(1 Samuel 16:7)

C. What Are Warning Signs That One May Be Spiritually Abusive?

As with all types of abuse, certain circumstances are more conducive than others for a spiritual “wolf” to take advantage of an unsuspecting “sheep.” Should you suspect spiritual abuse might be occurring, check to see if a number of the circumstances listed below apply to the leader.

“A simple man believes anything, but a prudent man gives thought to his steps.”

(Proverbs 14:15)

The potential for spiritual abuse is present when the leader within a religious group is:

•     Authoritarian: demanding unquestioned obedience

•     Controlling: invading aspects of life better left to the individual

•     Performance driven: emphasizing external rather than internal qualities

•     Hypocritical: employing a veneer of spirituality to cover carnal motives

•     Rigid: devising elaborate, extra-biblical guidelines for members to follow

•     Deceitful: twisting the truth of the Word to fit with their own opinions and desires

“All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord”

(Proverbs 16:2)

D. Are You Susceptible to Being a Spiritual Abuser?

While some people may be aware of their abusive behavior, many refuse to acknowledge it and respond to allegations with defensiveness and denial. If it has ever been suggested to you that you might be spiritually abusive with others, you may need to do some self-examination to check out the possibility of its being true.

“Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.”

(Psalm 51:6)

Additionally, if you suspect someone else has the potential of being abusive, you can test them along with yourself by taking …

The Self-Test

□    Am I … Self-sufficient?

“Do I think that I am right in God’s sight because I am self-disciplined—using the right words and doing the right works? Do I go about doing things focused solely on my ability to ‘get the job done’—rather than being focused on God’s ability?” Realize that Paul said,

“If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.” (Romans 4:2)

□    Am I … Self-serving?

“Do I do good things for the wrong reasons? If I am absolutely honest, do I desire to please myself more than I desire to please God?” Realize that Jesus said,

“When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:2)

□    Am I … Self-righteous?

“Do I take great pride in all of my righteous deeds, yet forget to give total credit to God for giving me the ability to do what I do?” (In truth, I take the credit that I should give to God and others.) “When God looks at me, does He at times see me as hypocritical and overly pious … trying to present myself as holier than others?” Realize that Jesus said,

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)

□    Am I … Self-focused?

“Am I more focused on what I have done well than on what others have done well? Am I taking credit for accomplishments that should be credited to God?” Realize that Paul said,

“I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God.” (Romans 15:17)

□    Am I … Self-promoting?

“Do I work at trying to promote myself, or do I let God boast in me—if He chooses to? Do I try to manipulate circumstances so that people will focus on me?” Realize that Paul said,

“If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.” (Romans 4:2)

□    Am I … Self-protective?

“Do I let others know the real me, or do I put up barriers to keep others at a safe distance? Do I admit that I struggle with certain areas in my life, or do I put up a false front?” Realize that Jesus said,

“On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:28)

□    Am I … Self-important?

“Do I feel important because I religiously follow traditions, man-made rules and standards?” Realize that Paul said,

“Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.” (Galatians 4:8–11)

□    Am I … Self-centered?

“Am I touchy, judgmental, unloving, intolerant, or condemning of others? Do I find it hard to accept another believer whose thinking is different from mine?” Realize what Jesus said,

“At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, ‘Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.’ … [He answered] ‘If you had known what these words mean, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.’ ” (Matthew 12:1–2, 7–8)

III.   Causes

What are the beliefs behind legalism? Trying to maintain God’s acceptance is a full-time job for legalists. Thinking of God as their judge is more real an image in their minds than seeing God as a father who grants blessings to his children. But God’s Word tells us that we are accepted by God through our acceptance of Christ, not through our human efforts. Christians will not experience God’s judgment, for Christ experienced judgment for them at Calvary.

“Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

(Hebrews 9:28)

A. Why Do People Become Trapped in Legalism?

For many reasons people are susceptible to and then become snared by legalistic or spiritually abusive people. Some of those reasons include …

•     Having legalistic parents …

—  Legalism in the home either trains children to perform well in order to please or drives children to rebel against the rigidity and hypocrisy found in legalists.

—  Children with legalistic, authority figures tend to view God as harsh, demanding, unmerciful, and unforgiving, a perception that breeds fear-driven compliance.

… presents real problems

—  Legalism does not create a climate of love for God based on His love for us. Nor does it encourage a heart inclined to please Him by living according to His Word.

—  Children thrive on being raised in a Christian home by loving, godly parents—parents who accurately reflect God as a compassionate father who comforts us in our difficulties, disciplines us in love, and mercifully meets our needs.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles.… Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (2 Corinthians 1:3–4; James 1:17)

•     Feeling insignificant and unacceptable to God …

—  Legalism provides an “exact ruler” based on the expected standards of the leaders—an objective way to measure where you stand with God.

—  Legalism provides discipline—perfectionist people become model disciples in a legalistic environment.

… presents real problems

—  Legalism tends to increase guilt rather than relieve it. Further, it fails to provide assurance of salvation.

—  Rather than demonstrating humility before God, legalists become either prideful or so discouraged they give up on God altogether.

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)

•     Being pressured by fellow Christians …

—  Legalists feel entitled. They present themselves as having spiritual authority and therefore entitled to receive immediate agreement and unquestioned compliance.

—  Legalistic peers condemn those who disagree and accept those who agree with them, creating immense pressure for conformity.

… presents real problems

—  Legalism cannot make all people think, feel, reason, or believe the same way, nor can it provide God’s “rest,” which comes from knowing that He loves and accepts us all just as we are.

—  Christians need to share their spiritual struggles with one another so that they can pray for one another and grow in God’s grace together. Doing so can create deep bonds of Christian love and intimate relationships.

“Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16)

•     Belonging to a legalistic church that lacks grace …

—  Legalism emphasizesdoing”—witnessing, discipling, teaching, attending all required activities, and whatever else is expected.

—  Legalistic activity flows out of a need to perform for God in order to meet His requirements for righteousness and to gain His approval.

… presents real problems

—  Legalism cannot give people the spiritual security that comes only in being assured of God’s forgiveness and unconditional love and acceptance.

—  Christian activity flows out of love for God and the grace of God.

“God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8)

B. What Are Causes for Feeling Abused?

Leaving a spiritually abusive church can be grueling because spiritually abusive pastors often use fear and shame to keep their members from leaving. Regardless of the difficulty, you must leave—your spiritual life depends on it! Take the following steps to escape:

Ask yourself the following questions:

Is there an irrefutable authority in the church?

Are my questions discouraged?

Is my absolute allegiance demanded?

Is there a long list of rules related to dress, hairstyle, or activities?

Does the church judge those who do not keep the list of rules?

Does the church consider itself the “only true church”?

Does the church insist on making my major life decisions for me?

Are those who leave the church considered “apostates,” “backsliders,” or “doomed”?

Does the church shame people publicly?

Pray the following prayer of King David’s every day to reaffirm your reliance on God to guard and protect you.

“Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me. Free me from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge.”

(Psalm 31:3–4)

For every abuse that your church has committed, repeat the following:

“It was inappropriate for my church to , and I regret that I have practiced a similar offense in my own life.”

C. What Causes the Abused to Be Drawn to Spiritual Abusers?

Victims of spiritual abuse typically feel that they need to work to please God or that they need to be punished by God. The guilt they feel can be based on true guilt for their actual sin. More often, however, it may be false guilt for actual sin that has already been forgiven—or false guilt for imagined sin. This type of person has usually had a series of abusive relationships, often beginning with excessively rigid parents or authority figures. People in spiritually abusive churches often …

•     Grew up being abused or manipulated by someone they loved

—  Unjustly and severely disciplined for minor or imagined infractions

—  Coerced into complying with wishes of parents

•     Were neglected by or enmeshed with one or both parents

—  Ignored or made to feel insignificant

—  Responsible for meeting the emotional needs of parents

•     Have been systematically shamed or put down

—  Humiliated in front of others or made to feel like a bad person

—  Called degrading names or constantly criticized

•     Come from demanding homes

—  Unable to please parents

—  Expected always to excel and never to make mistakes

•     View God as a tyrant who imposes impossible standards

—  Perceive God to be a “watch dog” waiting to punish every bad thought or action, no matter how small or insignificant

—  Feel that God has unrealistic expectations and that He is impossible to please

•     Obsess about blame and guilt

—  Constantly focus on personal faults and failures

—  Live with persistent feelings of self-reproach and regret

•     Cannot accept grace and forgiveness

—  Persuaded that personal accountability and payment for sin cannot be transferred to another

—  Driven by a strong need to suffer personally and pay for wrongdoings

•     Have a low self-worth

—  Convinced that they have little or no value

—  Feel inferior to others and undeserving

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”

(Colossians 2:8)

D. What Wrong Thinking Has Kept You in Bondage?

If you have found yourself in a spiritually abusive relationship, you can be sure that certain situations made you susceptible to it … and kept you in it. Discovering what those situations are will be helpful as you seek to walk in freedom.

If you are uncertain of the thinking patterns that led you into the abusive relationship, evaluate your wrong thinking—then you can change those thoughts, which will change your choices, which will change your actions, which will change your life! Like Job, what you think about will determine how you feel and ultimately will direct your decision making.

“When I think about this, I am terrified; trembling seizes my body.”

(Job 21:6)

Ask yourself:

Am I afraid to hold spiritual authorities accountable for their actions?

Am I afraid to ask questions in church?

Am I afraid to read the Bible for myself?

Do I feel the need to obey a list of unwritten rules?

Have I become judgmental?

Do I have excessive guilt?

Am I worried about being shamed because of my sin?

Am I afraid to make decisions for myself?

Do I feel guilty for leaving the church?

Am I tempted to go back to the abusive church?

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

(Romans 12:2)

E. Why Does God Allow Spiritual Abuse?

This question—phrased in different ways—is asked in every country and every culture: “How can a loving, all powerful God permit abuse?” But even more so, why would He permit spiritual abuse? While the question is logical, so is the answer.

•     When God created Adam and Eve, He gave them “free will.” This means they were not programmed like robots to do His will. They were given “choice.” Their freedom allowed them the possibility of going against God’s will—even to the extent of abusing someone else.

•     Being “free” means not only having the opportunity to choose wrong but also the ability to do wrong. This is exactly what the original couple did: They chose to exercise their free will by doing what was against God’s will. Thus, sin entered the human race.

•     Freedom is being able to decide between different options without external force. God causes no one to sin—such “causing” would make God the author of evil—thus, being a malevolent God, which He can never be.

•     God made spiritual abuse possible only by giving human beings free will, but human beings make spiritual abuse actual by choosing to sin. Ultimately, God allows sin, but we cause sin by the choices we make.

Although God allows spiritual abuse, He hates it!… Those who are godly will hate it also. Proverbs 8:13 says, “To fear the Lord is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech.”

Know that He will execute His justice toward those who sin against Him and who spiritually wound His followers. The Bible clearly states,

“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

(Romans 12:19)

F.  Root Cause

Spiritual abuse is the misuse of a position of power, leadership, or influence to further the selfish interests of someone other than the individual who needs help. David Henke of Watchman Fellowship writes of spiritual abusers: “Sometimes abuse arises out of a doctrinal position. At other times it occurs because of legitimate personal needs of a leader that are being met by illegitimate means.”

Spiritually abusive people typically seek power through legalistic, authoritarian control.

G. What Is the Root Cause of Legalism?

Wrong Belief of the Abused:

“God’s acceptance of me is dependent on my keeping His laws. That is the only way I can earn His approval.”

“Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Galatians 3:3)

Right Belief:

“God’s Law shows me my sin and leads me to Christ, who alone can save me from sins. Because my faith is in Christ, not in the law, I am free in Christ. The Spirit of Christ, who lives in me, gives me the desire and the power to overcome sin in my life and to live in a way that pleases Him.”

“The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” (Galatians 3:24–25)

H. What Is the Root Cause of Spiritual Abuse by a Leader?

Wrong Belief of the Abuser:

“God has given me special authority that sets me above others and entitles me to special treatment. I have more authority, and I know God’s will better than others. Therefore, I deserve to have obedience from others. My way is God’s way—I should not be questioned. My will is His will—I should not be denied.”

Right Belief:

“As the Lord’s appointed ‘under-shepherd,’ I am to protect and provide for the flock of God with a heart totally committed to Him and His Holy Word. I am to love God and serve His people with my whole heart, and I am to live a life worthy of His calling. As God’s shepherd, I am to lay my life down for His sheep just as He laid down His life for me and for them.”

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” (1 John 3:16)

Question: “How can being abused be a block to salvation?”

Answer: When children hear the word “God,” they subconsciously think about their own fathers—or the most authoritative figure in their lives—and then superimpose the characteristics of that adult on to God.

—  If that person in authority is trustworthy, the child considers God trustworthy.

—  If the adult is untrustworthy, the child considers God untrustworthy.

As a result, their ability to trust in a loving God is severely damaged. Thus when “spiritual shepherds” misuse the privilege of their position, many of the flock lose faith—feeling they cannot entrust their lives to the Lord for salvation. That is why every victim of abuse needs to take to heart these words of encouragement …

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5–6)

I.  What Characteristics Lead to a Changed Life?

It’s nighttime. Why wouldn’t he come during the night hour under the cover of darkness! Why wouldn’t he fear upsetting his fellow religious Pharisees! In truth, he’s not like most of the Pharisees: prideful, pompous, and puffed up. This humble seeker of truth truly respects Jesus as a teacher. But now, what he hears doesn’t make sense. Nicodemus—a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin—tries to make sense of the absurd statement made by Jesus: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3).

Born again? Nicodemus asks: “How can a man be born when he is old?… Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4). Patiently, Jesus explains that this birth far exceeds any physical birth. Then He emphatically states, “You must be born again”—literally meaning, “born from above” (John 3:7).

Jesus leaves Nicodemus no option. Likewise, He leaves us no option. It’s not enough to be physically alive. We also need to be spiritually alive. If we want to hear the counsel of God, we can’t be spiritually dead.… We must be spiritually alive.… We must be born again!

How to Have a Changed Life

There are four spiritual truths you need to know.

#1  Your Problem—You (like everyone else) have chosen to sin.

We all have chosen wrong, we all have sinned—not one of us is perfect. Each time we choose to go our own way, not God’s way, the Bible says that we “sin.”

“We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6)

#2  Your Position—Your sin separates you from God (spiritual death).

Because God is without sin (God’s character is perfect), our sin is an offense against God. This offense results in a penalty or a consequence. The Bible says that the consequence of our sin is to be separated from God’s presence. This separation is called spiritual death.

“Your iniquities have separated you from your God.” (Isaiah 59:2)

“The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23)

#3  Your Provision—God has provided the way for you to be relieved from the consequence of death.

Sin is serious because it separates us from God. Because God is just, He cannot ignore our wrongdoing. But because of His love for us, He doesn’t want us to be separated from Him. He had to punish sin, yet He did not want us to die and be permanently separated from Him. For this reason, the heavenly Father sent His own Son, Jesus, to come to earth for the purpose of dying on the cross for our sins—Jesus actually chose to pay the penalty for our sins. We should have died, but instead, Christ died for us.

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

#4  Your Part—You can move from spiritual death to spiritual life now.

We must seek God’s forgiveness God’s way. You need to trust that Jesus Christ died as your substitute. Ask Him to come into your heart and take control of your life. This is God’s only acceptable plan. Jesus said,

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

By believing in (relying on) Jesus alone to pay the penalty for your sin and yielding your will to His will, you are truly forgiven of your sins. And when you are forgiven, you are not only cleansed from all of your sins (past, present, and future), but also saved from eternal separation from God (spiritual death). The Bible says,

“God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16–17)

If you desire to be fully forgiven by God—if you want to move from spiritual death to spiritual life—you can tell Him in a simple, heartfelt prayer like this:

Salvation Prayer

“Lord Jesus, I need You. I admit that I have sinned. I understand that the punishment for my sin is death—to be spiritually separated from You. Yet, because of Your love, You have a plan to save me. I believe what You said in Your Word is true, that You sent Jesus Christ to pay the penalty that I should have to pay. Jesus, thank You for dying on the cross for my sins and taking the punishment in my place. Right now I ask You to come into my life to be my Lord, my God, and my Savior. Take control of my life and make me the person You created me to be. Thank You for Your unconditional love. And thank You for Your mercy. In Your holy name. Amen.”

If you sincerely prayed this prayer, listen to what God says!

“I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

(Jeremiah 31:34)

IV.  steps to solutIon

They’re on the prowl! With smooth stealth, they circle quietly, looking intently for the right time to close in on the unguarded. Crouching down, they watch to discover the ones most vulnerable … to detect which sheep are defenseless. Thus they lie in wait for the weak. Then, to satisfy their insatiable hunger, they slowly move in on the unsuspecting sheep with the most meat, the ones with the most to offer.

When the time is right, they quickly pounce on the unprotected, preying on the powerless. These are “the wolves in sheep’s clothing”—the wolves wiLth their wooly masks who mingle among the wooly sheep. These are the ravenous wolves Jesus referred to when He said,

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”

(Matthew 7:15)

A. Key Verse to Memorize

Open your heart to God, and He will guide you to right living—not through rigid commands or use of power, but through the never-failing indwelling Holy Spirit. As a Christian, you are completely accepted as His child! Live in the liberty of His love and trust Him to work in you and to change you into the person He created you to be.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

(Galatians 5:1)

B. Key Passage to Read and Reread

The Book of Galatians

“Who has bewitched you!” exclaims the apostle Paul. He is alarmed that his fellow Christians are being enticed by false teachers. These legalistic “law keepers” insist that the young believers must submit to the old laws because they are necessary for salvation … and necessary for staying in right standing in the church.

Upon hearing this, Paul feels passionately compelled to reestablish the fact that the gospel of salvation comes through faith alone. He emphatically refutes the teaching that any legal requirements are necessary to merit the salvation of God and reaffirms that we receive the Spirit of God only through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Today Paul’s urgings are for us to …

Live by Faith Not by the Law.

Galatians 3:1–14—A Paraphrase

v. 1            Don’t be foolish! Don’t be duped into believing that keeping the law will save you.

v. 2            Ask yourself, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit by keeping the law or by placing faith in the message you heard about the gospel?”

v. 3            Don’t be short-sighted! After beginning your life relying in faith on the Spirit’s ability, don’t think that you gain success by relying on your human ability to keep the law.

v. 4            Have all your painful experiences under the law been for nothing?

v. 5            Stop and think! Is God working in your life because you have obeyed the law or because you have placed your faith in Jesus Christ?

v. 6            Think about Abraham—God declared him righteous because of his faith.

v. 7            Therefore, all who live by your faith are the true children of Abraham.

v. 8            The Scriptures prophesied how even the Gentiles would be saved through their your faith (just like Abraham) and announced to Abraham, “All nations will be blessed through you.”

v. 9            Therefore, those who have your faith are blessed along with Abraham, who is called “the man of faith.”

v. 10          If you rely on keeping the your law you are doomed because keeping the law is impossible!

v. 11          No one is saved in God’s sight by keeping the your faith. The righteous live by your faith.

v. 12          The your low is not a matter of your faith, but a measuring stick of “doing.”

v. 13          Christ has saved us from the curse of the your law by becoming the curse Himself.

v. 14          God’s purpose is plain. The blessing given to Abraham can also reach the Gentiles through Jesus Christ, but it comes only by your faithyour faith alone!

C. What Is the Difference between True Sins and Man-Made Sins?

One of the problems Jesus had with the Pharisees is that they added to God’s laws by making up laws of their own and then making them equal to God’s laws. The result was that the people were burdened down with literally thousands of nitpicky things to remember to do or not to do in order to be right with God.

They were so busy thinking about their actions that they had no time to think about their God or to grow in a personal, intimate relationship with Him … no time to focus on His love, His grace, His mercy, His glory, His character, His goodness, His provision, His compassion, His blessings, His specific plan and purpose for them.

They were unable to distinguish between what man considered a sin and what God considered a sin. That is why Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was revolutionary for them. It opened up the heart of God to them so they might see the spirit of the law in order that they might interpret the law. We have that same need today. Jesus said,

“I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago.…

But I tell you.…

You have heard that it was said.…

But I tell you.…

Again, you have heard.…

But I tell you.…

You have heard that it was said.…

But I tell you.…

You have heard that it was said.…

But I tell you.…”

(Matthew 5:20–22, 27–28, 33–34, 38–39, 43–44)

As you seek to look into the heart of God in order to distinguish what He considers sin from what man considers sin, you need to …

•     Ask specific questions.

—  Is it stated as a sin in God’s Word?

“How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word.” (Psalm 119:9)

—  Is it in keeping with following Christ’s example?

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.… Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:3, 5)

—  Is it glorifying to God?

“Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

—  Is it a barrier to a Christian brother?

“Let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died.… It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.” (Romans 14:13–15, 21)

•     Be fully convinced in your own mind.

—  If Scripture doesn’t clearly address an issue, look for biblical principles that will help you determine whether or not to become involved in that activity.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16–17)

—  Bring questionable areas before the Lord in prayer, asking Him to give you personal convictions about that activity.

“ ‘Everything is permissible for me’ [a popular saying]—but not everything is beneficial. [Paul is saying] ‘Everything is permissible for me’—but I will not be mastered by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)

—  Realize, the Lord may convict you about something that He doesn’t convict someone else about or vice versa.

“Each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:12)

—  Don’t condemn someone for choosing not to participate with you in something that you think is perfectly acceptable.

“As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.” (Romans 14:14)

•     Use proven principles of decision making.

—  Learn the difference between spiritual commands and social convictions. Make sure you know whether the Bible prohibits a certain action or if it’s just culturally unacceptable to certain people.

“They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” (Matthew 15:9)

—  Let your own convictions be cultivated. Study the Scriptures and pray that the Lord will show you His heart on certain issues. Write your convictions down on paper and explain why you believe what you believe.

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

—  Limit your liberty out of love. If something is allowable for you but would cause someone else to sin, you are to refrain from that activity. If your behavior merely offends someone but would not cause the person to sin, you are not dealing with a weaker brother but possibly a legalist.

“Let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” (Romans 14:13)

—  Let the Holy Spirit do His job. Allow the Lord to establish His convictions in your heart. But don’t try to be someone else’s conscience; let the Convictor convict and the Counselor counsel.

“When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment.” (John 16:8)

D. Guidelines for Those in a Spiritually Abusive Situation

Snakes … Hypocrites … Sons of Hell … Blind Guides …!

Jesus could see past the pretension and the pomposity of the Pharisees, stating plainly, “Everything they do is done for men to see” (Matthew 23:5). Their long tassels, their priestly robes, their seats of honor in the synagogue didn’t impress Jesus—it sickened Him. His warning to us—what may seem sacred, might really be sickening to God.

“How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23:33). Jesus decries the religious leaders with a litany of rebukes in Matthew 23 for their greed, self-indulgence, legalism, and murderous inclinations against those who are truly of God. Seven “Woe to you” pronouncements are made against the Pharisees, who “do not practice what they preach” (Matthew 23:3).

And pulpits today are filled with “spiritual” leaders just like the Pharisees who one day will face the same chilling condemnation … from Jesus Himself. Therefore, what can you do if you continually find yourself in a spiritually abusive situation?

•     Submit yourself to God’s authority. You are accountable to God first and to human authorities second.

“Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)

•     Talk about your concerns with spiritual leaders who are not involved in your abusive situation. God desires peace, unity, and reconciliation between Christians.

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2–3)

•     Consider how the spiritually abusive attitude of others is impacting your spiritual life, your relationships with family members and friends, and your sense of personal value.

“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)

•     Separate yourself from abusive situations and seek out people who are encouraging.

“Encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

Question: “Don’t I always have to submit to spiritual leaders—even when I know they are abusive? After all, the Bible says, ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men’ (1 Peter 2:13).”

Answer: Spiritual abusers love to manipulate others by telling them that they must always submit to spiritual authority. This is wrong! When the apostle Paul was facing trial at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders, he knew that he would be executed. Therefore, rather than submitting to religious leaders in Jerusalem who were not following God, Paul appealed to stand trial in Rome before the secular court of Caesar! However, before appealing to Caesar, Paul unknowingly insulted the high priest. When he was told who he had insulted, Paul agreed that no one should speak evil about the ruler of the Jewish people. Spiritual authority is to be always respected, but obeyed only when it lines up with God’s truth.

“At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, ‘God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!’ Those who were standing near Paul said, ‘You dare to insult God’s high priest?’ Paul replied, ‘Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: “Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.” ’ ”

(Acts 23:2–5)

E. Move from Legalism to Grace

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.…” Who hasn’t heard these familiar words that begin what is probably one of the most favored hymns of all time? The author, John Newton (1725–1807), was captain of a ship that engaged in slave trade. He transported his share of the six million African slaves brought to the Americas during the eighteenth century. While on a homeward voyage, his ship encountered a violent storm and fearing all was lost, he exclaimed, “Lord, have mercy on us.”

For the rest of his life, he referred to that day as the day when he understood the limitless grace of God. Newton spent the last 43 years of his life as a minister who fully understood the dynamics of divine grace … God’s gift to everyone irrespective of “good deeds or earned worth.” “Amazing Grace” is the means by which we are saved from original sin, given the power to live a life pleasing to God, and then granted eternal salvation.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils and snares

I have already come;

’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home.

If your heart’s desire is to move from legalism to grace, you need to …

Give up on trying to please God through your own efforts.

•     Understand that the law is not a spiritual code for you to follow in order to earn God’s favor.

•     Understand that you will fail if you think you can fulfill the law in your own strength.

•     Understand that you need not fear when you fail to measure up (and you will). Just rely on Christ to be your Redeemer.

“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1–2)

Realize God’s love is a free Gift … complete and unconditional.

•     You are under the “grace principle” of life if you are a Christian.

•     You have not been delivered from bondage in order to focus on a code of rules and regulations.

•     You need to know that because of the everlasting love of the Lord, you are free in Christ.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)

Accept that Christ is living in you, to empower you to please God.

•     Remember, Satan and death were defeated at the cross.

•     Remember, you receive the gifts of salvation, eternal life, justification, righteousness, and glorification, not by any of your own efforts.

•     Remember, you died to your old life—and your new life is now lived by faith in Christ, who earned these things for you.

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Commit to reading God’s Word.

•     Know that the ways of the world are not God’s ways.

•     Know that by reading the Word of God you will know the ways of God—especially in the areas of your weakness.

•     Know that God will use His Word to conform you to His character.

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

Experience the freedom of God’s fulfilling His plan and purpose for you.

•     It’s up to you to focus on the truth that God promises to complete His purpose for you.

•     It’s up to you to drop the mentality that “God loves me only when I’m good and rejects me when I’m bad.”

•     It’s up to you to accept God’s free gift of grace.

“Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)

F.  How Can Legalistic or Abusive Arguments Be Biblically Answered?

#1  The New Testament Alone Is Valid, Not the Old Testament.

•     Argument: Since the Bible says we are no longer under the Law, but under grace, Christians don’t need to read the Old Testament, just the New Testament. After all, Galatians 3:25 says, “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (Galatians 3:25).

Answer: The Bible encompasses both the Old and New Testaments—both make up the whole written Word of God. While Jesus fulfilled in Himself the requirements of the Law given through Moses (Matthew 5:17), God’s entire Word is vital for us today because both Old and New Testaments

—  Reveal the character of God and thus are necessary to gain a complete picture of God

—  Reveal how God has intervened in human life

—  Reveal His purpose for us

—  Reveal His plans for the future

—  Reveal a validation of each other and comprise the authoritative Word of God

Even the apostle Paul, who wrote about the misuse of the Old Testament Law, states this …

“We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.” (1 Timothy 1:8)

#2  Polygamy Is Valid Today.

•     Argument: Since God blessed David and other Old Testament leaders with multiple wives, this fact proves that God approves of polygamy. Those who believe in the whole Bible should be permitted to take a second and third wife (or more) and enjoy polygamous relationships.

Answer: Just because certain situations are presented in the Bible, does not mean that they have God’s approval. Just because several suicides are reported in Scripture does not imply, “Go and do likewise!” Don’t make the mistake of assuming that God was silent about polygamous relations.

—  In the first mention of marriage in the Bible, the Lord laid the foundation for the one man/one woman union. Genesis 2:24 states, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”

—  The Bible does not say wives! Note that this verse is also repeated in the New Testament by Jesus in Matthew 19:5 and Mark 10:7 and by Paul in Ephesians 5:31.

—  The New Testament adds that to “be above reproach,” a spiritual leader must be “the husband of but one wife”—not wives (1 Timothy 3:2).

—  Interestingly, all countries and cultures that have their laws rooted in biblical morality require that the marriage relationship be exclusively “one husband—one wife.”

“Since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.” (1 Corinthians 7:2)

#3  Baptism for the Dead Is Biblical.

•     Argument: Baptism for the dead will bring salvation to everyone for whom I am baptized and will enable me to advance in the heavenly realm.

Answer: Those who have this belief base these baptisms on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:29, “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?”

But look carefully at the Bible itself:

—  The mention of people being baptized to save the souls of the dead is found nowhere else in Scripture. In fact, this interpretation was condemned as heresy by many of the early church fathers!

—  Because false teachers had infiltrated the church saying, “There is no resurrection of the dead” (v. 12), the entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 15 addresses the historical fact of the resurrection of the dead.

—  This chapter gives reasons why this practice is based on false teaching from false teachers:

•     There were over 500 eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection from the dead, most of whom were still alive at the time of this writing (vv. 5–7).

•     Ultimately, a major inconsistency is evident: If they did not believe in life after death, then why are they being baptized for the dead. Paul is simply saying, “If you reject the resurrection of the dead, you shouldn’t baptize for the dead. It is illogical!”

•     Those practicing baptism of the dead were the false teachers—not Paul or the other Christians. This is evident because Paul referred to the ones being baptized as “those” and “people”—not “I,” “you,” or “we.”

•     Even for those who believe in the resurrection, the practice of baptism for the dead in order to earn another person’s salvation cannot be reconciled with Scripture. The Bible says that salvation comes as a gift of God’s grace, but only through each individual’s faith in Christ—that is faith alone, not any work of baptism. Ephesians 2:8–9 states, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

•     The Bible clearly teaches that there are no opportunities for salvation after a person has died.

“Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)

#4  Wives Must Submit to Their Husbands—No Matter What.

•     Argument: Since God says wives are to submit to their husbands, I must submit to whatever he says, even if it violates my conscience. Ephesians 5:22 says, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22).

Answer: In the Bible, a “hierarchy” of submission exists to guide our decision making. Based on Ephesians 5:21, we should “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This is mutual submission and includes both husbands and wives deferring to the desires of each other.

The very next verse says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands” (verse 22).

The Bible also says a Christian should “submit himself to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1).

And ultimately, “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29). Clearly the highest authority is God, next is the governing authorities, and then the husband. No one should ever submit to that which is not of God.

Example: If an angry husband is physically abusing his wife or engaging her in any illegal activity and then hitting her over the head with the submission Scripture, her response should be biblical—biblical by calling for help, even from the police (Romans 13:1). If he gets angry and shouts, “You aren’t being a Christian,” her response should be biblical—biblical by getting out of harm’s way. Proverbs 22:24 says, “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered.” If he tries to manipulate her into not taking legal action against him, her response should be biblical—biblical by allowing him to suffer the consequences of his actions. Proverbs 19:19 says, “A hot-tempered man must pay the penalty; if you rescue him, you will have to do it again.”

Never submit to abuse because the situation will only get worse if you do and because violence is never right in God’s sight.

“Give up your violence and oppression and do what is just and right.” (Ezekiel 45:9)

#5  Wearing Jewelry Is Forbidden.

•     Argument: Wearing jewelry is worldly and prohibited by God. First Peter 3:3–4 says, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that ofyour inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”

Answer: If you refuse to wear jewelry based on 1 Peter 3, you have a major ethical dilemma because you must also refuse “the putting on of clothing,” which is also stated in the literal translation of this verse. Likewise, 1 Timothy 2:9 states that women should “dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” However, many biblical passages speak positively about wearing jewelry and fine clothing—even about God’s being the giver of both! Therefore, when looking at the “whole counsel of God,” the biblical position has to be: Any item of external beauty—like attractive jewelry, clothing, and hairstyles—should never be regarded as more valuable than the internal beauty of a humble heart and a sensitive spirit. The stigma against jewelry is unbiblical when the numerous Scriptures that present jewelry in a positive light are considered.

—  Proverbs 25:12: Solomon, the wisest of all men said, “Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is a wise man’s rebuke to a listening ear.” Because the rebuke of a wise person is presented as good, obviously a gold earring or ornament is also presented as good.

—  Genesis chapter 24: Abraham sent his chief servant to bring back a wife for his son, telling the servant that he would be led by an angel to her. The chosen bride-to-be was given a gold nose ring … and two gold bracelets—obviously provided by Abraham (v. 22). Later, “The servant brought out gold and silver jewelry and articles of clothing and gave them to Rebekah” (v. 53). Notice that all items of jewelry are presented in the most positive light.

—  Genesis 41:41–43: After Pharaoh put Joseph “in charge of the whole land of Egypt,” Joseph wore a signet ring … [and] a gold chain around his neck.”

—  Numbers 31:48–50: Moses’ officers “brought as an offering to the Lord the gold articlesarmlets, bracelets, signet rings, earrings and necklaces—to make atonement.”

—  Job 42:10–11: After the Lord made Job prosperous again, “All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and.… Each one gave him a piece of silver and a gold ring.”

—  Song of Songs 1:10–11: Solomon describes the beauty of his bride-to-be, “Your cheeks are beautiful with earrings, your neck with strings of jewels. We will make for you earrings of gold, studded with silver.”

—  Song of Songs 4:9: Solomon says to his bride, “You have stolen my heart … with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace.”

—  Ezekiel 16:11–13: God describes Himself as adorning Israel “with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. So you were adorned with gold and silver.”

—  Haggai 2:23: the Lord Almighty says He will take His servant and “make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you.” Notice that the Lord Himself promised to make His servant like a choice signet ring for God Himself!

—  Luke 15:22–24: Jesus Himself shared a poignant story about a prodigal son who, when returning home, experienced the full forgiveness of his father who ran to his son and called out, “Quick!… Put a ring on his finger.… For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” Realize that the purpose of this parable is to describe the compassionate, forgiving heart of the heavenly Father toward us. Therefore, God the Father figuratively bestows a ring upon us—when we are truly repentant and willing to come home to Him.

In conclusion, refusing to wear “rings and things” does not make a person “spiritual.” Likewise, the choosing to wear jewelry and jewels does not make the wearers “worldly”! Throughout the Bible, the primary issue is the heart: “What is the priority of your heart?” Your first priority should be to set your heart on the “spiritual things” of God. Then all other choices in life will fall right in line.

“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (Colossians 3:2)

#6  Hair Length and Head Coverings.

•     Argument: In church services, women should wear a head covering and wear their hair long. The Bible says, “Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is just as though her head were shaved.… But that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering” (1 Corinthians 11:5, 15).

Answer: To understand these cultural mandates, we must understand the context of why Paul wrote these words to the Corinthian Church.

—  Paul’s comments regarding women’s hair length and head coverings were clearly in response to the thousand priestesses—prostitutes—at the Temple of Aphrodite on Acrocorinth who did not cover their heads and who wore their hair short.

—  The purpose of Paul’s words was to protect Christian women from being thought of as sexually immoral or as prostitutes if they were to cut their hair, and thus dishonor themselves, their husbands, or their church. According to Jewish law, an adulterous woman had her hair cut off (Numbers 5:11–31).

—  If any of the temple prostitutes became Christians, they were required to wear a head covering (peribolaion) until their hair had time to grow long.

—  This custom was necessary in that era (but not today) because of what short hair symbolized to the people.

#7  Wearing Red Is Forbidden.

•     Argument: Wearing any shade of red is worldly and thus prohibited because of its association with sin and harlotry. Isaiah 1:18 says, “ ‘Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.’ ”

Answer: Nowhere in the Bible do we find a prohibition against wearing red. This passage from Isaiah is not attaching the color red to sin, but rather using red to illustrate the cleansing effect of the red blood of Christ.

A similar misinterpretation surrounds Jeremiah 4:30: “What are you doing, O devastated one? Why dress yourself in scarlet and put on jewels of gold?… You adorn yourself in vain.” Obviously scarlet was considered beautiful. But since Israel was spiritually “desolate,” this passage presents a contrast: Israel had outer beauty, not inner beauty. Therefore, the solution to this problem is not that God’s people should never wear anything beautiful, but that our outer beauty should be a reflection of our inner beauty. (See Ezekiel 16:1–16.)

Numerous passages present the color red in a positive light.

—  Proverbs 31:21: The unmistakable proof that wearing red is not worldly is presented in Proverbs chapter 31. Verse 21 states that the virtuous, godly, ideal woman dresses her entire family in red! “All of them [her household] are clothed in scarlet.”

—  Exodus 26:1: The curtains of the Tabernacle were made with scarlet thread.

—  Exodus 28:33: The High Priest in the Tabernacle wore scarlet on the hem of his robe when he entered the presence of the Lord within the Holy of Holies.

—  Numbers 4:7–8: The table of showbread in the Holy Place was entirely covered with a scarlet cloth.

—  Nahum 2:3: The army God chose to defeat enemy nations had red shields and wore scarlet garments.

—  Isaiah 63:1–2: The One stained with crimson red, the One robed in splendor, is a prophetic picture of Christ after His Second Coming and His victorious judgment over the ungodly—He is the triumphant King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:13–16).

#8  Women Are Forbidden to Wear Pants.

•     Argument: It is sinful for women to wear pants because Deuteronomy 22:5 states, “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.”

Answer: This Scripture cannot apply to women wearing pants because …

—  When God gave this command to the Israelites, men did not wear pants, but rather garments like robes that were called kethoneth. Ironically, men and women wore the same garments!

—  Most biblical scholars report that this prohibition was in response to a cross-dressing ritual common in the Canaanite religion. To cross-dress is to wear clothing designed to give a person the appearance of being the opposite sex and to make that person feel like the opposite sex.

—  Presently, cross-dressing is considered to be practiced by those who struggle with gender identity issues, most specifically, those called “transvestites.” Cross-dressing is incongruent with the Bible, which declares that each person’s physical body is intricately formed by God. Subsequently, to reject one’s own sexuality is to reject God’s design. “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13).

—  Originally, God Himself made clothing for Adam and Eve that was so similar that the one word kethoneth described the specific garment He made for each of them. “The Lord God made garments [kethoneth] of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21).

—  Most cultures do not consider pants to be exclusively “men’s clothing.”

In the New Testament, the subject of how women are to dress is communicated by Paul, “Women [should] dress modestly, with decency and propriety” (1 Timothy 2:9). Consequently, the only restriction on women’s clothing is this: Whatever women wear, it should be modest, decent, and appropriate.

#9  The Dietary Laws in the Old Testament Must Be Kept.

•     Argument: Since God gave dietary laws for the benefit of His people, we should abide by them today in order to live a blessed life. Those who do not adhere to the dietary laws will be doomed. Leviticus 11:47 says, “Distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten.”

Answer: Jesus repealed the Old Testament dietary laws to demonstrate that righteousness could not be obtained by observing the law. Even if certain dietary principles are still considered beneficial, Jesus makes it clear that personal holiness cannot be achieved through what is eaten and what is not.

—  Mark 7:18–19: Jesus asked, “ ‘Are you so dull?… Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him “unclean”? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.’ (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods ‘clean.’)”

—  Acts 10:15: The apostle Peter, when confronted about keeping the dietary law, was reprimanded by the Lord who said, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

—  Colossians 2:16–17: The apostle Paul explained that the dietary laws were repealed because they were not the reality but merely a foreshadowing of Christ, who is the reality. The coming of Christ did away with the shadow. Paul said, “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

—  Romans 14:3, 14: The apostle Paul himself declared all food clean by saying, “I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.” But he makes the point that no one should spiritually condemn another for eating or not eating any food. Such condemnation constitutes spiritual abuse. “The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.”

#10            Saturday Worship Is the Only Valid Day of Worship.

•     First Argument: One of the Ten Commandments is “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8). To be obedient to God, all worship services must take place on Saturday or else they are not valid. Because God rested on the seventh day following His creation of the universe, we are supposed to rest on the Sabbath Day. Genesis 2:2 says, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.”

Answer: To understand and apply this fourth commandment correctly, we must first understand the background of the Sabbath.

—  The word Sabbath does not mean “Saturday.”

—  The word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew root shabath, which means “to cease.” The double “b” in Sabbath intensifies the impact of the word to mean a complete cessation of activity—a complete rest from work.

—  In God’s eyes, believers must cease from working to try to gain His acceptance. According to the New Testament, the Sabbath of the Old Testament was merely a foreshadowing of the fact that Christ is to be our “rest.”

“Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:16–17)

—  Authentic Christians enter into a never-ending “Sabbath rest” in which they cease working to attain to righteousness and receive His righteousness as their own. They enjoy a never-ending relationship with the Lord and receive His never-ending acceptance.

“There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God.”

(Hebrews 4:9)

—  We are to stop seeking to please God in our own strength and rest in our secure relationship with Jesus … rest in our never-ending relationship with Christ our Lord.

“Anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.” (Hebrews 4:10)

When you choose to rely on Christ as your Lord and Savior, no amount of work makes you acceptable to God—only Christ’s finished work on the cross makes you acceptable.

•     Second Argument: Since Jesus kept the Saturday Sabbath, we too should keep the Saturday Sabbath.

Answer: The reason that Jesus kept all the Jewish Laws, including the Saturday Sabbath, was that He was born in a Jewish family “under law” (Galatians 4:4). But upon the death of Christ on the cross, the Bible says, “Christ is the end of the law” (Romans 10:4), meaning He had fulfilled the Law for us so we would no longer be “under the law.”

•     Third Argument: The Bible states that Christian leaders like Paul and Barnabas worshipped on Saturday.

Answer: Paul and Barnabas did go to the Saturday services in the local synagogues, but their sole purpose was to proclaim the good news of the Gospel. They proclaimed that the promised Messiah had come. For example:

—  In a synagogue in Antioch, Paul said, “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38–39).

—  At the next synagogue the response was huge … “At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed” (Acts 14:1).

—  When Paul went with Silas to Thessalonica, “When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:1–2).

Since Paul clearly states that the Gospel was to be presented “first for the Jew” (Romans 1:16), the most logical place to find the Jewish people would be the Jewish synagogue on the Saturday Sabbath.

•     Fourth Argument: For almost 300 years, the early Christian church worshipped on Saturday. Many historical writings have concluded that the Roman Emperor Constantine in the year AD 325 changed the Sabbath to Sunday.

Answer: Such “historical writings” are based on fiction rather than fact, as seen in the documented writings of the early church fathers. While Constantine did make a proclamation that Sunday was to be the legal day of rest, he never changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday because Christians who lived centuries before him had already done that. He merely legalized it. As proof:

—  Born in AD 69 Ignatius wrote, “No longer observing Sabbaths, but fashioning their lives after the Lord’s Day (Sunday), on which our life also rose through Him.”

—  In AD 125, the Didache (considered the earliest written teachings of the church apart from the Bible) states “But every Lord’s Day (Sunday) do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanks.”

—  In AD 140, Justin Martyr said, “But Sunday is the day on which we hold common assembly.… Jesus Christ, our Savior, on this same day rose from the dead.”

Yet, most convincingly, two different New Testament books written by two different authors refer to the Sunday worship services …

—  Luke, the author of Acts and the Gospel of Luke, wrote,

“On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.” (Acts 20:7)

—  Paul described the regularity of making contributions at the Sunday church services.

“Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.” (1 Corinthians 16:1–2)

•     Fifth Argument: Those who do not practice a Saturday Sabbath will be cut off from all true believers and will be doomed. Exodus 31:14 says, “Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut offfrom his people.”

Answer: This entire passage (Exodus 31:12–17) reveals that the Sabbath was given exclusively to the children of Israel to set them apart from all other people. It reveals the absolute reality that the “work of salvation” was done by Jesus alone and the fate of those who seek to gain salvation by their own works is eternal death and separation from God. If being doomed to hell is the horrific fate of those who do not observe a Saturday Sabbath, consider:

—  Of the 10 Commandments, this fourth commandment was the only one not repeated in the New Testament.

—  Neither Jesus nor any of the New Testament writers mentioned it.

—  The apostle Paul left the sacred day of worship up to each person simply as a matter of preference or conscience. Then he admonished us to quit judging others over this issue.

“One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5)

G. Is Divine Healing Guaranteed for Everyone Today?

One major tenet of the “prosperity gospel” asserts that physical suffering will always be alleviated with the proper amount of faith in God’s healing power. With a “name it-claim it” mindset, all we need to do is name the needed healing and, in faith, claim the healing in the name of Jesus and we will be healed.

This assumption is based on the fact that Jesus healed all the sick who came to Him when He was on earth. “When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases’ ” (Matthew 8:16–17).

However, does this healing by Jesus imply that all people who ask for healing today are to be healed by Him? Some religious leaders teach that all of our illnesses will be healed by Jesus Christ based on Matthew 8:16–17. But this passage refers directly to a prophecy found in Isaiah 53:4–5.

“Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4–5)

—  The meaning of the word “fulfill” resolves the misunderstandings about this verse.

Illustration: After buying a house and signing a contract for a 20-year mortgage, once you make your last payment, the contract is fulfilled.

•     If the mortgage company calls you to continue paying the monthly rate, would you comply? Of course not! The contract was “fulfilled.”

•     In the same way, Isaiah’s prophecy was “fulfilled” in Matthew 8:17. Just as it would be incorrect to expect you to keep making mortgage payments after the contract had been fulfilled—after the debt had been “paid in full”—it would be incorrect to assume that Jesus would always heal every infirmity.

•     The Messianic prophecy of His healing all the sick had been fulfilled in the person of Jesus in order to prove to the people that He was indeed the promised Messiah. This fact is validated by the fact that after Jesus fulfilled the prophecy and was crucified, buried, resurrected, and had ascended to heaven …

#1  The apostle Paul was not miraculously healed, even after he pleaded with God.

—  In 2 Corinthians 12:7–9, Paul records that he asked God three times to deliver him from what he called a “thorn in my flesh,” and God refused. God’s answer was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

—  Paul, who is considered the world’s greatest Christian missionary, was not healed when he asked God. Obviously, it was not because Paul did not have enough faith. It was also not because God lacked the power to heal him.

—  Healing did not occur because God had a purpose in allowing Paul to experience this malady, just as God had a purpose in allowing Jesus to heal all who came to Him when He was living on earth.

#2  Timothy was not miraculously healed. Paul told Timothy to “stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Timothy 5:23).

—  If the cure for all physical problems is prayer, why would Paul recommend a medicinal cure? (Wine has certain medicinal properties.)

—  Was it because Timothy did not have enough faith? If so, why did Paul not address that issue?

—  Paul recommended Timothy to take wine because he knew that God does not heal every sickness and ailment that comes along.

#3  Not all prayer will be answered in accordance with our requests, even when we have the most sincere heart and the deepest faith.

—  Jesus, God the Son, prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42). Yet He still experienced the torture and torment of the cross.

—  Jesus’ prayer reveals the correct attitude to have toward these kinds of requests. He said, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).

H. Recovery from Legalism and Spiritual Abuse

Their priorities and practices couldn’t have been more different, making one thing perfectly clear: Jesus was indeed the Good Shepherd—the Pharisees were the false shepherds.

Jesus taught   truth.  Pharisees   spread lies. 
Jesus embraced   sinners.  Pharisees   shunned sinners. 
Jesus healed   the sick.  Pharisees   hindered the sick. 

In the end, the Pharisees fleeced the sheep, whereas Jesus died for the sheep. And Jesus lives today to be your Shepherd—to shepherd you through life. As you come under His care, putting your total trust in Him, He will be the Shepherd of your soul.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

(John 10:11)


Realize that you have been in a legalistic/abusive situation.

•     Acknowledge to yourself, to God, and to someone else that you have been spiritually deceived and deeply wounded.

•     Acknowledge your own willingness to believe the lies you embraced.

•     Acknowledge your personal responsibility for propagating those lies to others without personally verifying their validity.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” (1 John 1:9–10)

Exercise your freedom in Christ.

•     Renounce being in bondage to the lies of legalism and embrace the truth that you have been forgiven and set free.

•     Renounce your excessive allegiance to any spiritual leader or church and embrace Jesus as your spiritual head and leader.

•     Renounce the laws you have been living under and embrace the One who has set you free from the law.

“If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)

Correct your concept of God.

•     Study the Bible for yourself to learn the true character of God.

•     Study the books of Galatians, Hebrews, and Romans chapters 3–8, which proclaim your liberty in Christ.

•     Study the Gospel of John and the Epistle of 1 John to see the loving heart of the Father.

“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” (1 John 3:1)

Open yourself to healthy Christian relationships.

•     Realize that your fear and distrust of authentic Christians is based on your abusive situation—then refuse to judge others for the sins of some.

•     Realize that God created you to be in fellowship with others and that He will use other Christians to bring love, nurture, and healing into your heart.

•     Realize that God wants to use you to bring comfort into the lives of others who have also experienced spiritual abuse.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” (2 Corinthians 1:3–5)

Voice your cares and concerns to God.

•     Tell God your deepest doubts, hurts, and fears as well as the deepest longings of your heart.

•     Tell the Lord about the guilt and anger you feel at being deceived.

•     Tell the Lord how you feel about being used to satisfy the unquenchable hunger of another person for power and position.

“Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart to him, for God is our refuge.” (Psalm 62:8)

Enlist the help of spiritually mature, grace-filled mentors.

•     Seek relationships with those who have unquestioned wisdom and integrity.

•     Seek those who love the Lord and who cling to the Word as their guide to knowing God.

•     Seek for a spiritual mentor who will encourage you to accurately interpret the Bible for yourself.

“He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.” (Proverbs 13:20)

Rest in the finished work of Christ.

•     Deny your fleshly compulsion to do “works” in order to gain the approval of God. Claim the righteousness of Christ as your own.

•     Deny condemning thoughts that assault your mind and your emotions. Claim the cleansing forgiveness of Christ, who has washed you whiter than snow.

•     Deny the lie that you need to prove yourself worthy of salvation. Claim the fact that God loved you and Jesus died for you, in spite of your sin.

“At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.… But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6, 8)

Yield yourself to the Holy Spirit, who lives within you.

•     Trust the Holy Spirit to guide you into truth and to protect you from error.

•     Trust the Holy Spirit to empower you to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to live a life that is pleasing to Him and that glorifies Him.

•     Trust the Holy Spirit to fulfill the promise of God to conform you to the character of Christ.

“When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” (John 16:13)

I.  Thank God for His …

•     Saving Grace

“I know I cannot be saved by keeping the law.”

“It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9)

“Thank You for the gift of salvation—a gift I do not deserve.”

•     Sustaining Grace

“I know I cannot lose my salvation.”

“You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:13–14)

“Thank You for giving me the gift of eternal life that is guaranteed.”

•     Sufficient Grace

“I know that through my weaknesses, God’s power will be perfect within me.”

“He [Jesus] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I [Paul] will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

“Thank You for the gift of Your power—all that I need in difficulty.”

•     Sanctifying Grace

“I know I have been given victory over sin.”

“Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” (Romans 6:14)

“Thank You for the gift of Your grace to live a godly life.”

•     Satisfying Grace

“I know that because of God’s mercy, I can experience complete satisfaction.”

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you.” (1 Peter 1:3–4)

“Thank You for giving me the gifts of a living hope and an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade.”

“In the essentials, unity.In the nonessentials, liberty.

And in all things charity.”

Precious child of God, you don’t need to work

or to do one more act to gain God’s approval.

You have His approval—

you are accepted in the Beloved!

—June Hunt



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Blue, Ken. Healing Spiritual Abuse: How to Break Free from Bad Church Experiences. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993.

Crabb, Lawrence J., Jr. Understanding People: Deep Longings for Relationship. Ministry Resources Library. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987.

De Haan, Martin R. I’m Not a Legalist, Am I? Grand Rapids: Radio Bible Class, 1988.

Discipleship Counseling Services. Discipleship Counseling Training Student Manual. Dallas: Discipleship Counseling Services, n.d.

Hovestol, Tom. Extreme Righteousness: Seeing Ourselves in the Pharisees. Chicago: Moody, 1997.

Hunt, June. Counseling Through Your Bible Handbook. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2007.

Hunt, June. How to Forgive … When You Don’t Feel Like It. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2007.

Hunt, June. How to Handle Your Emotions. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2008.

Hunt, June. Seeing Yourself Through God’s Eyes. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2008

Huntsperger, Larry. The Grace Exchange: God’s Offer of Freedom from a Life of Works. Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1995.

Johnson, David, and Jeff VanVonderen. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1991.

McGee, Robert S. The Search for Significance. 2nd ed. Houston, TX: Rapha, 1990.

Miller, David R. Breaking Free: Rescuing Families from the Clutches of Legalism. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992.

Miller, Kevin A. “I Don’t Feel Like a Very Good Christian: Why Does It Seem That You Can Never Quite Measure Up?” Discipleship Journal, September/October 1988, 6–10.

Ryrie, Charles C. Balancing the Christian Life. Chicago: Moody, 1969.

Scofield, C. I. Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth: Ten Outline Studies of the More Important Divisions of Scripture. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1896.

Seamands, David A. Healing Grace. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1988.

Stewart, Jack. The Legalist. Green Forest, AR: New Leaf, 1989.

Swindoll, Charles R. The Grace Awakening. Dallas: Word, 1990.

Ulstein, Stefan. Growing Up Fundamentalist: Journeys in Legalism & Grace. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995.

Yancey, Philip. What’s So Amazing About Grace? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.[1]

[1] Hunt, J. (2008). Biblical Counseling Keys on Spiritual Abuse: Religion at Its Worst (2–59). Dallas, TX: Hope For The Heart.

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