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JESUS AND RELIGIOUS ABUSE: Preventing the Development of Legalistic Cults and Empire Building

JESUS AND RELIGIOUS ABUSE: Preventing the Development of Legalistic Cults and Empire Building

By Bruce Atkinson, PhD
September 1, 2020

(taken from Ken Blue's "Healing Spiritual Abuse," 1993, InterVarsity Press)

As I was teaching from the Gospel of Matthew, I came to the 23rd chapter where Jesus publicly confronts the Pharisees about the dereliction of their pastoral duties. I was tempted to skip those verses because they seemed to have little relevance for the pastoral needs of my congregation. Then, as if seeing for the first-time what Jesus was saying, I realized that the authoritarian, self-serving ecclesiastical abusers of our own day are the modern equivalent of the Pharisees whom Jesus scolded.

Jesus not only exposed and denounced the Pharisees as false shepherds but also offered himself as advocate for their victims. Jesus did not resign himself to the legalistic condemnation of sinners-- which can easily devolve into religious abuse. He was gentle and merciful to those people who knew and admitted that they were sinners. Recall the woman taken in adultery and the thief on the cross. But Jesus was tough on religious hypocrisy, especially among the leaders, comparing them to "snakes" and "white-washed tombs full of dead men's bones."

Jesus stood up to religious abuse and demanded change. Why should we do less? Jesus was so focused on this problem that it was the only social evil against which he ever developed a platform. It was the only cultural problem that he repeatedly exposed and opposed. Jesus took no public stand that we know of against racism, class warfare, terrorism, military occupation, corruption in government, the institution of slavery, or the exploitation of women. All of these and more were pressing problems in Jesus' day, but we have no record of his directly addressing them. He was not political, He was personal-- out to change the world, one person's heart at a time.

The modern church has spoken against each of these social ills-- and that is good. Surprisingly, however, until recently virtually nothing has been said or done about religious abuse (and associated hypocrisy in leadership roles)-- the one social problem Jesus himself seemed to care about most.


1. Extreme authority and power invested in the clergy and official church leaders.

2. Having an us vs. them (fear and hate-based) mentality toward anyone who believes differently than the leaders.

3. Failure of leaders to practice what they preach (hypocrisy).

4. Religion is limited to obeying rules rather than developing a personal relationship with God.

5. Instilling fear of God (as righteous judge who condemns sinners) but not emphasizing love for God (as merciful Savior who saves, transforms and sanctifies).

6. Concrete, black-white thinking and rigid literalism in interpreting Scripture. Valuing condemning Scriptures over saving Scriptures.

7. Refusal to tolerate faith questions and doubts, nor criticism of their own leaders and their doctrines.

8. Focusing on avoiding sins (external behaviors) instead of changing the internal sin nature.

9. Looking good in public becomes more important than being good in private.

10. God's love is regarded as conditional-- acceptance by God must be earned by certain behaviors, rituals, loyalty to religious leaders, and giving money to the church.

11. Teaching self-renunciation but not self-assertion among members.

12. Regarding full-time religious work as the only praiseworthy vocational choice.

13. Fostering neglect of individual conscience, the Bible itself, and other factors in deference to supporting the church leaders and their interpretations and dictates.

14. Leaders' neglect of attention to their own family (as husband and father) and putting all their energy into their congregation and career.

The background to this piece comes from this story below.

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