The Christian church, from its earliest days, has always faced the threat of false teachers and false teaching. Spiritual abuse is a form of false teaching: it says that spiritual leaders and organizations can mistreat other Christians to advance some spiritual cause, because the end justifies the means. Fortuntately for us, the Bible gives us guidance how we can protect ourselves from false teaching in general, and from spiritual abuse in particular.

Do Not Focus on an Organization

If we've experienced spiritual abuse, the most natural thing in the world is to associate the abuse with the organization. We might say things like, "That church is abusive." or perhaps, "I should find a church that is not abusive."

This is not to say that spiritual abuse cannot be practiced in an organization. Organizations have leadership and systemic processes that can lead to abuse. Once subjected to abuse, it can be tempting to look for a new organization that won't have those things.

But here's the problem. Every organization has leadership and a structure, and establishes processes by which it does things. Any organization can become a tool of abuse.

Another problem with focusing on organizations is that most often, the abuse is practiced in a way that is not readily apparent to guests and novice members. For example, it might only be practiced in the staff or leadership groups, or it might only raise its head around certain events or programs. Often, many of the experiences in a spiritual abusive organization are perfectly fine.

So while it's easy to focus on an organization and call one "abusive" and another "not abusive," that's not going to protect you from spiritual abuse. In fact, it just might set you up for more abuse.

What is needed is an approach that is more keenly focused on the problem. Thankfully, the Bible has the answer.

Biblical Models: False Teachers

In New Testament times, the early church was plagued with false teachers and false teachings. These infiltrated the church, misled people and caused a lot of damage. Much of the New Testament is devoted to addressing the problem-- it is the primary reason some epistles were written (e.g. Galatians, Colossians, 3 John), and nearly every book of the New Testament has something to say about it (more about that later!).

The point is this: Jesus and the apostles recognized that false teaching (of which abuse is one aspect) is practiced by people, and sometimes by groups of people. These people, or groups of people, are so intertwined with the actual church that it is very problematic to look for an organizational solution.

For example, you don't see Jesus advocating a new leadership structure for the Jews during his earthly ministry. And even with a corrupted apostle, you don't see him kicking him out of the apostleship or seeking to start a new apostleship without that corrupted member. There are several passages that could be cited here, but let's consider the Parable of the Weeds:

Jesus told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

"The owner’s servants came to him and said, 'Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?'

"'An enemy did this,' he replied.

"The servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?'

"'No,' he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'" (Matthew 13:24-30)

Let's consider one more passage, from Jesus' comments to the apostles after an interaction with the religious leaders of his day.

Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matthew 15:12-14)

Jesus is teaching his followers not to be in the weed-pulling business. He fully allows that there will be weeds. What's important is not getting rid of them, but rather denying these people influence in their lives.

How the Early Church Dealt with It

So how did the early church implement this guidance? It really came down to two steps, and these are constantly mentioned when this question arises:

That's it.

However- this calls for something more than just being a church member. It calls for diligence and awareness. It calls for paying attention. It calls for always increasing your Bible knowledge. It calls for shrewdness. It calls for not being easily fooled or misled by fine-sounding ideas or all of the hoopla going on in a church. All of these attributes- and more- are reflected in the Scriptural teachings at this root of this advice.

Scriptural Teachings to Protect Yourself

Speaking of the Scriptural teaching at the root of this advice, let's just dive in.

"Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again. Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

"Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:25-32)

I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people (Romans 16:17-18).

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong (1 Corinthians 16:13).

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Corinthians 3:1-3)

But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough (2 Corinthians 11:3-4).

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:6-9).

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1:3).

Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:9)

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant (Colossians 1:21-23).

I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints (Colossians 1:25-26).

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness (Colossians 2:6-7).

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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 3:14-17).

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men (Titus 2:11).

We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away (Hebrews 2:1).

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess (Hebrews 4:14).

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat (Hebrews 13:9-10).

Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings (1 Peter 5:9).

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires (2 Peter 1:3-4).

So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things (2 Peter 1:12-15).

Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking. I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles (2 Peter 3:1-2).

Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position (2 Peter 3:17).

See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he promised us—even eternal life. I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him. And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming (1 John 2:24-28).

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world (1 John 4:1-3).

Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work (2 John 1:7-11).

Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For 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 1:3-4).

This is just a short sampling. There could be other passages added to the list.


It's futile to think one can find a local church that cannot be abusive. Humans are sinners and they fail; and sometimes these failings can fall into the category of abuse. If the great King David can commit one of the most horrific examples of abuse, anybody can. We should all be sober about this.

But that doesn't mean we're destined to be subject to the abuse of leaders and churches as a condition of membership in a local church. The very tools we have for faithfulness are the tools we have to protect ourselves from abuse. And even if we're not a part of a local church, we still need to use these tools in our faith context.

Thankfully, we don't need to concern ourselves with all people everywhere who call themselves Christian, or even everybody in our local church or faith context. That's pretty overwhelming, if not impossible. But those whom we are around, and those who seek to influence us, that's where we can and must focus. And it's something that needs to be a part of our day-to-day faith- just as much as prayer or Bible Study or anything else.