A newspaper in one Midwestern city has run several stories about an independent church located within the city. One story told about a lawsuit filed against the church concerning fraud. The lawsuit accused the church of attracting children to their services with the promise of trinkets and fun activities, only to baptize many of them without their parents' permission. A jury cleared the church of the most serious charges involved in the suit, but found the church did deceive eight children. It was ordered to pay damages to each child.
Another story, which ran in another newspaper about this same church, reported the arrest, conviction and consequential prison sentence of one of the pastor's sons for sexual abuse. It had been discovered that over the years, the son had engaged in sexual relations with several teen-age girls--all members of his father's congregation.
In addition to these discoveries, I found it troubling that the pastor had attempted to produce the perfect church by creating a close-knit community governed by strict rules, stern authority and intense loyalty. The newspaper quoted one former member as saying: "You just didn't question anything that was said or done. The church demanded blind loyalty."
The highly regimented environment in this independent church includes not only abstinence from any alcohol and tobacco, but also abstinence from involvement in bowling leagues, mixed swimming and the movies. Members are also commanded to avoid association with anyone who is involved in such activities. In one sermon, this pastor boldly stated that the people needed to check with him before they made any large purchases. He went on to describe a large purchase as being one of $100 or more.
A spirit of control, fueled by a heart of insecurity, drives men like this pastor. Unfortunately, this spirit has been around a long time, and it has a long list of men who have succumbed to its seduction of absolute power.
TRAITS OF AN INSECURE LEADER
One of the saddest examples of an insecure and abusive leader is found in the life of King Saul. Saul's life is a tragic testimony of a man who had everything, and yet lost it all because of his insecurity.
But as tragic as was the end of Saul's reign, the beginning was just the opposite. God had chosen Saul to be Israel's first king. When God could have chosen anyone, He chose this lowly Benjamite. In God's selection, Saul discovered a validation he had never known, as well as a new sense of destiny and purpose he never had.
The inauguration service of Saul as king was a time of further validation--but it also gives us some insights as to where Saul's life took a turn for the worse. During what should have been Saul's finest hour, an event unfolded that Satan used to poison Saul, eventually costing him the kingdom.
In 1 Samuel 10:27 we read about this defining moment in Saul's life: "But some rebels said, 'How can this man save us?' So they despised him [Saul], and brought him no presents. But he held his peace" (NKJV).
The phrase "But he held his peace" is interesting. It implies that Saul noticed the rejection of these men. Even though he held his peace, he allowed the rejection of these few men to poison his new heart.
Saul had an entire nation celebrating him. Yet he found his heart poisoned with fear because of the rejection of a few men. Consequently, he became imprisoned by the fear of rejection. It is very important to note that from this time forward, Saul's chief aim as king was to maintain the approval of the people of Israel.
Saul committed what I call "sins of insecurity." Within these sins, and the events surrounding them, we see four major traits of an insecure leader.
1. Lust of approbation. Initially, Saul started out strong in his reign as king. For example, in 1 Samuel 11 we see Saul saving Jabesh Gilead. By the time we get to 1 Samuel 13, Saul has reigned two years. It is after his second year as king that we see him committing his first sin of insecurity.
Saul had attacked a garrison of the Philistines. When the Philistines heard what Saul had done, they responded with force, and the men of Israel hid anywhere they could to save their lives. Some of the Hebrews crossed over Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul was in Gilgal, and the Bible says that the people followed Saul as they trembled in fear (see v. 7).
Because the Philistines had gathered for war, Saul knew that Israel would need to go into battle. The prophet Samuel was to come within seven days to offer a burnt offering. When Samuel didn't come within the seven days, Saul took matters into his own hands and performed the offering himself (see vv. 8-9).
When Saul had performed the offering, Samuel arrived, and Saul went out to meet him. Samuel immediately confronted Saul concerning his carrying out the burnt offering on his own. Within Saul's response, we see why he took matters in his own hands:
"And Samuel said, 'What have you done?' Saul said, 'When I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered together at Michmash, then I said, "The Philistines will now come down on me at Gilgal, and I have not made supplication to the Lord." Therefore I felt compelled, and offered a burnt offering'" (1 Sam. 13:11-12).
Notice Saul said he was concerned that the people were "scattered" from him. In Saul's mind, the completion of the burnt offering would be an indication of God's approval and hand upon him, not only in the impending battle with the Philistines, but also as king. According to the Law, however, his offering was unlawful.
When Samuel did not come to Gilgal in seven days as he had promised, the people of Israel, realizing the importance of an offering to God before battle, began to question the anointing on Saul's life: "Why hasn't Samuel arrived? Does this mean that God isn't going to be with Saul in the battle ahead of us?" As a result, they began to "scatter," as Saul put it.
Saul could see that he was quickly losing influence with the people. Because he had never gotten over the previous rejection at his inauguration, he couldn't stand the thought of being rejected again. As a result, he took the path of expediency and offered up the burnt offering himself.
Out of his fear of rejection, Saul found himself living for the approval of others. He defined his personal worth based on what the people thought of him and how they responded to him. This deep-seated insecurity leads to the lust of approbation.
When we are being driven by this compulsion, we find ourselves desperately needing others to affirm us. Insecure leaders need some kind of affirmation in order to feel good about themselves. If a leader's sense of worth isn't found in God's love, he constantly finds himself fishing for that pat on the back or that compliment.
An insecure leader demands signs of inordinate loyalty--no matter what the cost may be to his followers. The lust of approbation demands constant recognition and validation from others to feel a sense of worth.
Insecure leaders have a desperate need to be needed and a passion for the affirmation of man. Why? It is in the affirmation of others that they determine their personal value. Living for the approval of others is a sure sign of insecurity, and many times it leads to spiritual abuse.
2. Cowardice. Even though, in response to Saul's attack upon the garrison of Philistines, the Philistines had encamped in a place called Michmash, Saul, Jonathan and 600 men remained in Gibeah (see 1 Sam. 13:16). Soon, "raiders came out of the camp of the Philistines in three companies," traveling in three different directions (v. 17). The Philistines' strategy was to surround Saul and his men, positioning themselves for a sure victory.
The Philistines were cocky and sure of success because of one other factor in their favor: "Now there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, 'Lest the Hebrews make swords or spears'" (v. 19). Somehow the Philistines had successfully removed anyone from Israel who was able to make any weapons of war. In fact, only Saul and Jonathan had weapons (see v. 22).
As a result, Saul was overcome with fear. Instead of courageously leading his men into battle, he fell in a frightened heap under a pomegranate tree on the outskirts of Gibeah (see 1 Sam.14:2).
In the meantime, Jonathan made a decision to enter battle with God's help. He and his armorbearer made their way to the camp of the Philistines. Shortly afterward, 20 Philistines lay dead at the hand of Jonathan and his armorbearer. As a result, the Philistines were overcome with fear and began to scatter in terror.
It should have been Saul who led Israel to victory. But when a man lives for the approval of others, he is enslaved to the fear of man. This translates not only in the fear of the rejection of friends, but also fear in the face of enemies.
Often abusive leaders are afraid of direct and honest confrontation, preferring others to do their "dirty work." Because of their insecurities and personal inner conflicts, often they are incapable of straightforward communication.
3. Jealousy. Not wanting to be upstaged by his son Jonathan, and in an attempt to prove his own courage, Saul declared that no one was to eat until he killed his quota of Philistines. Although Israel was weak from hunger, no one ate because of Saul's oath.
However, the problem was that Jonathan didn't hear his father's decree, for he was busy establishing victory for Israel by destroying the Philistines. After doing so, Jonathan came to the forest where the people of Israel had gathered. The forest was filled with honey, both on the ground and dripping from the abundance of honeycombs.
As Jonathan entered the forest, he began to eat the honey. The people of Israel gasped in disbelief, saying, "'Your father strictly charged the people with an oath, saying, "Cursed is the man who eats food this day"'" (1 Sam. 14:28).
Because of Jonathan's courage and the fear that struck the hearts of the Philistines, Israel drove back the Philistines from Michmash all the way to Aijalon (see v. 31). Consequently, there was a great spoil of sheep, oxen and calves. The people had not eaten due to Saul's decree, and they were faint with hunger. They began to eat sheep, oxen and calves--with the blood, which was unlawful to do (see vv. 32-33).
The priests immediately informed Saul of the people's sin of eating the flesh of the herds with the blood. Quickly, Saul built an altar in order to make a sacrifice for the sin of the people. Then Saul attempted to determine who was to blame for the people's sin (see vv. 34-35).
Through a biblical system of the casting of lots, the lot fell to Jonathan, indicating his guilt. "'Tell me what you have done,'" Saul demanded of Jonathan (v. 43). Jonathan replied by telling his father that he had simply eaten a little honey from the end of his staff. Realizing the implication of the casting of lots, he added, "'So now I must die!'" (v. 43).
Saul answered, "'God do so and more also; for you shall surely die, Jonathan'" (v. 44). Jonathan was stunned and confused by his father's anger and found it hard to believe that his own father would kill him over this.
At this point the people of Israel finally took a stand against their own king (see 1 Sam. 14:45). After all, it wasn't Jonathan who caused the people to sin by devouring animals. It was Saul's ungodly decree of withholding food from Israel in a time of battle. It was Saul's impulsive edict that brought Israel to the point of near starvation.
However, there is always a penalty for sin, and as a result of Israel's sin, Saul needed to find someone to blame. Because of his intense insecurity, Saul felt he couldn't afford to take responsibility for his own actions and honestly face his own cowardice. He needed someone upon whom to point the finger of blame. It was a spirit of jealousy that drove Saul to lay a charge against his own son, even to the point of being willing to kill him.
If we are insecure, any praise or recognition that others receive, we view as a threat to our own sense of worth. Somehow we feel that the recognition of others diminishes our value. Therefore, we constantly find the need to decrease the value of others through criticism, thinking that by doing so, we increase our worth.
4. Overly concerned with appearances. Another characteristic of insecure leadership is a preoccupation with image. Someone with a spirit of insecurity can't afford to show any weakness for fear it will result in some form of rejection. Therefore, he or she crafts an image that doesn't always reflect the truth.
We see this trait in the life of Saul. In 1 Samuel 15:13, Samuel brings Saul a message from the Lord concerning Amalek. The instructions Saul received were clear and simple: He was to completely destroy the Amalekites, sparing nothing or anyone. Yet as simple as the command of the Lord was, Saul once again chose to do his own thing.
When Saul approached Samuel, he said: "'Blessed are you of the Lord! I have performed the commandment of the Lord'" (v. 13). The prophet responded by wanting to know that if Saul indeed obeyed the command of the Lord, why did Samuel hear the sound of sheep and cattle. Saul blamed the people (see v. 15). Once again, he was unwilling to take responsibility for his own sin and willing to sacrifice the people on the altar of his own personal ambition.
Samuel sharply rebuked Saul. But he gave him a second chance to take responsibility for his actions (see v. 19). But Saul was insistent in his excuse, and again blamed the people.
Samuel proceeded to inform Saul that because he had rejected the word of the Lord, the Lord had rejected him as king. Saul immediately responded by saying, "'I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice'" (v. 24).
Saul said the right words, but he lacked the sincerity of true repentance, evident from his next comment, "'Now therefore, please pardon my sin, and return with me, that I may worship the Lord'" (v. 25).
Samuel had just informed Saul that the hand of God had been lifted from him. In essence, Samuel was telling Saul that he would finish out his reign as king without the anointing of God. Yet Saul responded by asking Samuel to come and worship with him. In other words, Saul wanted Samuel to help him keep up appearances before the people, giving the illusion that God was still with him as king. Saul was more concerned with his own image than he was with the reality that he had lost the favor of God!
In Philippians 2:3-4 the apostle Paul confronts such unhealthy attitudes, saying: "Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others."
In the Greek, the word "conceit" is kenodoxia. It describes someone who has an excessively high opinion of himself. This is someone who, out of insecurity, is fighting for a sense of personal worth. As a result, this person is so busy trying to establish his or her value that he or she loses sight of the value of others.
If we see our value in Christ and understand that our worth is intrinsic, then we can afford to value and celebrate others. Our security in God's love gives us the freedom to esteem others better than ourselves. It is our security in God's love that liberates us from jealousy, cowardice and the need to keep up appearances for the approval of man.
Instead of being driven by the desire for the approval of man, we find ourselves living for the approval of God alone. It is the attitude expressed in Philippians 2:3-4 that sets us free from insecurity and the need to keep up appearances to impress those around us.
Seven Signs of Spiritual Abuse
It's time for a course correction if any of the following dynamics are functioning in your church.
The following are clear warning signs that can signal an atmosphere of abuse in a church:
1. Power positioning. There is certainly a place for biblical teaching on spiritual authority. But controlling spiritual leaders use this kind of reasoning to manipulate people. This kind of preaching causes church members to seek a position of favor with the pastor rather than a proper desire to please God and not man.
2. Unquestioned authority. In an unhealthy church, any and all questions are considered threats to the pastor's "God-ordained" authority. Members who do dare to question their leaders or who do not follow their directives often are confronted with severe consequences.
3. Atmosphere of secrecy. When a church member surrenders to a system of control, the leader gives limited information to each individual, carefully monitoring each relationship. If the church staff or pastor determines that one of the members has become a "threat," they have a strategy in place to maintain the control they believe is required.
4. An elitist attitude. A church with an elitist attitude believes "no one else" is really preaching the gospel except that church. Or at least, no one is preaching it as effectively as they are. An elitist spirit discourages church members from visiting other churches or receiving counsel from anyone who doesn't attend their church.
5. Performance emphasis. Opportunities to minister are abundant in most churches. Yet in a controlling church, individual areas of ministry are no longer opportunities to serve. They become necessary in order to prove one's commitment to the organization.
6. Fear motivation. When a pastor tells his congregation that those who leave his church or disobey his authority are in danger of God's wrath, you can be sure this man is operating in a spirit of control. Instead of motivating people through love and servanthood, a controlling church tries to motivate through manipulation.
7. Painful exit. In a controlling church, it is impossible to leave on good terms; an insecure leader considers it an affront to his leadership, taking it personally. As a result, when people do leave, they are labeled rebellious, or the rest of the congregation is given the explanation that they left because they had become offended. Regardless of the situation, the people who leave are always the "problem."
Mike Fehlauer is pastor of Tree of Life Church in New Braunfels, Texas, and director of Foundation Ministries. He is the author of several books, including Exposing Spiritual Abuse (Charisma House), from which this article was adapted. Log on to www.charismahouse.com for this and other books by Mike Fehlauer.