ArticlesSpiritual Abuse: Five Red Flags That Say It’s Time to Run

Spiritual Abuse: Five Red Flags That Say It’s Time to Run

By Diego Mota, Student and Next Generation Ministries Pastor at Duncanville’s First Baptist Church

Google acquired YouTube in 2006, turning it into the content juggernaut we know today. Not long after that, my twenty-something self got to watch a sermon by this young and powerful preacher located in Seattle. Eloquent and charmingly unworried about throwing a few highly unorthodox remarks throughout his sermons, that man not only caught my attention but quickly became one of the preachers I most admired. 

Fifteen years later I am in my office staring at the ceiling as I listen to the first episode of the acclaimed podcast series by Christianity Today entitled “Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”. In this lengthy documentary, Mike Cosper tells the story of Mark Driscoll’s controversial ministry and gives voice to its many victims, from its origins to the catastrophic “end”. Driscoll’s genius proved to hide a deeply narcissistic personality that rolled over those around him like a merciless steamroller. 

Many other high-profile religious leaders have also been accused of spiritual abuse. In their book entitled The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff VanVorderen point out some characteristics of these leaders, such as self-absorption and guilt manipulation. Chuck DeGroat [1] makes a case for narcissism being the big factor behind so many abusive leaders everywhere, including the church. Unfortunately, as the Gospels teach us, none of that is new.

Jesus speaks of this issue in Matthew 23:1-12. As He describes the behavior of Scribes and Pharisees to the crowd and the disciples, we can identify some “red flags” in abusive leaders that can prevent us from getting absorbed by the toxic vortex around them. 


1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. (ESV)

Jesus starts by pointing out that the Scribes and Pharisees will actually preach the word but will not live it (verse 3). Spiritually abusive leaders will speak the Truth while living a lie. They will speak of a godly marriage while oppressing their spouse. They will preach Ephesians 4 while causing jealousy, rivalry, and division within the flock – especially in the leadership under their authority. 


4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. (ESV)

Abusive leaders will envision great things and force others to carry them through. They will impose rigid rules, convoke fasts, and impose their followers either impossible restrictions or overwhelming tasks. Failure to comply will be seen as a lack of faith or commitment to “the cause”, with heavy sprinkles of guilt and shame. 


5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, (ESV)

These toxic leaders will make every effort necessary to remind all around them that they are the leaders. There is the never-ending need to reinforce their spiritual authority as if it is not real (most of the time it really is not!) 


5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, (ESV)

A phylactery, known as “tefillin” in Hebrew, refers to a pair of leather boxes secured by a leather strap to the left hand and forehead, worn during prayer. These boxes house four scriptural passages: Exodus 13:1-10 and 11-16, as well as Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21. The fringes, “tzitzit” in Hebrew, are blue tassels affixed to the four corners of their clothes, serving as a perpetual reminder of God’s commandments. 

Jesus condemns the fact that they make these items bigger than necessary so that all behold their “righteousness”. Abusive spiritual leaders will go the extra mile so all can see how deeply “rooted in Scripture” they are. They will soften their voices and flood social media with pictures of them praying or highlighting how deep their eyes are after a long period of fasting. They will confront others in their struggles while showing absolutely no grace. They will look in the eyes of sinners, unable to recognize themselves in them. 


6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. (ESV)

The public recognition of their greatness is the highest opium. Having their faces, high and mighty on the most prestigious billboard in town is worth every penny. Fame is the goal. 

What to look for: Servant-leadership

8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (ESV)

You may have noticed that I keep referring to the spiritually abusive leaders as “they”. The painful reality is that everyone in places of authority needs to stay constantly vigilant, even more so when it comes to spiritual authority. The Lord has called us to lead His People for His Glory alone. Like Jesus, we lead by serving. The church is often kind enough to recognize such a heavy burden and will cover us with love, serving us and our families in many ways. It is easy to be seduced by the illusion of power because of the (super)natural influence the Owner of our Calling lends us. We are all subject to being too focused on our own voices. The moment you look at [insert your favorite abusive leader here] and don’t see your natural potential to become the same, it has already happened. 


Look around. Have you seen any of these red flags? Seek the Lord in prayer. He will show you what to do. 

Look inside. Have you seen any of these red flags? Seek the Lord in prayer. He will show you what to do. 

Fellow pastors, a friendly reminder: In the dynamics between The Lord, us, and His Bride, we are the only ones who can be replaced.



[1] DeGroat, Chuck. When Narssicism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse






*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common

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