This article was originally published on Core Christianity.
The worship song lifted my soul as tears welled up like a dam, ready to be released. I bit my lip. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. It’s been years since the day harsh words pierced my heart and I’m still scared to let anyone see my tears, especially a pastor.
I’m not alone. There are many in church pews each Sunday who feel the same, wincing at certain phrases or words, crying through sermons, or feeling numb to it all. The harmful effects of spiritual abuse run deep and long in the rivers of our hearts. Many victims have anxiety about attending church while others refuse to go at all. Heartbreakingly, some even reject Jesus altogether.
In his book Bully Pulpit, Michael Kruger defines spiritual abuse this way:
“Spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader—such as a pastor, elder, or head of a Christian organization—wields his position of spiritual authority in such a way that he manipulates, domineers, bullies, and intimidates those under him as a means of maintaining his own power and control, even if he is convinced he is seeking biblical and kingdom-related goals.”
Those who’ve walked through the devastation of spiritual abuse will find ourselves wrestling with many lies. Here are a few we must fight against.
Lie: The hurtful words spoken to you define you.
When a person experiences abuse from a leader in the church, they might become plagued by the words spoken to them. Some leaders have twisted Scripture to manipulate their congregants. These men are often harsh, lacking grace, and drawing conclusions that go beyond the biblical mandates on confronting sin.
Whether we experienced words spoken in a private meeting, words directed at us from the pulpit, or gossip spoken about us, these hurtful comments can become a banner over our life—accusations that reverberate in the walls of our minds. Michael Kruger explains that when a pastor says something derogatory to a congregant it can be particularly crushing: “It can make a person doubt what God thinks of them.”
Our picture of ourselves can be confused with the portrait painted by a fallible shepherd rather than our Good Shepherd. Yet, our identity stands, fixed in Christ. No matter what words are thrown at us like mud, the truth of our new life and new nature remains. We are united with our Savior; no one can change the truth of who we are: beloved, saint, priest, forgiven, redeemed, clean (Col. 3:12; Rom. 1:7; 1 John 1:9; Eph. 1:7; 1 Cor. 6:11).
 Michael J. Kruger, Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2023), 24.
 Michael J. Kruger, Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2023), 27.