Spiritual Abuse and Hypocrisy

Spiritual Abuse and Hypocrisy


From the Mouths of Children

When our daughter was about seven years old, one day she asked a significant question:  “Mommy, what’s a hyper-kite?”  With a chuckle I turned to her and said, “Oh, you mean:  What’s a hypocrite?!” This word had caught her attention from somewhere and she labored to remember the correct way to pronounce it.

I did my best to give a suitable definition for her age level.  After that day, this delightful expression became a regular part of our family collection of funny kid sayings.

The question:  “What is a hypocrite?” has been asked by many people since it is a word that has a pertinent definition as well as a unique origin.



The word hypocrite means:

1. a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.

2. a person who feigns some desirable or publicly approved attitude, especially one whose private life, opinions, or statements belie his or her public statements.*  (*This definition has been borrowed from DictionaryReference.com.)

Hypocrite is from the Greek word.  It was used of an actor under an assumed character (a stage-player).  The meaning has come to mean a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion.

It speaks of a person who professes certain ideals, but fails to live up to them.  They are basically acting in contradiction to their own stated beliefs.  That is, what they ‘do’ does not measure up with what they ‘say.’  Therefore, hypocrisy involves the deception of others.  It is lying.


New Testament Uses

According to Jesus, the teachers of the law and the Pharisees who were the religious leaders in Israel were rebuked by him.  Though they got some things right, they sadly neglected the more important things that the law was intended for—issues of justice, mercy and faithfulness.  These were the things that really mattered—to God.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

                                                         Matthew 23:23-24 

All their energies were spent on cleaning things up on the outside, but the heart issues were left in disarray.  Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees “hypocrites” seven times in just Matthew 23 alone.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”

                                                         Matthew 23:25-26

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

                                                         Matthew 23:27-28

There is a warning for each reader of these passages to consider if there may be things that have turned rotten inside while great lengths are invested in order to look pristine on the outside.  These passages have been available for centuries in order to curtail any hint of rising hypocrisy in a believer’s life and show the folly of its deception through the life style of the Pharisees.

The Mark passage pointed to the words of Isaiah the prophet when Jesus spoke about the flawed system that Judaism had turned into.  All their outward efforts with their religion were for show, along with the fact that their hearts worshiped Yahweh in vain–since the teachings that had been woven into their belief system were based on human rules.

We read from Mark chapter seven:

“So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me.

They worship me in vain;

their teachings are merely human rules.’”

                                                                                             Mark 7:5-7

Human rules, outward show, inner rottenness, all pointed to a corruption of a true belief in Yahweh. The meaning of the message had been changed and the fruit of hypocrisy was evident.  This potential outcome has always been obvious.


From the Mouths of Adults

So many people who experience spiritual abuse have found themselves in places where the spiritual leaders, at first, seemed to lead so well.  Most church leaders start off with good intentions, yet for a minority, their moral values along the way get off track.

In Acts 4:13 we read: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus.” When people truly spend time with Jesus, it will show up in how they live.  The opposite is also recognizable.

Though some leaders have charisma and flair in the beginning of their ministries and are a big hit among the growing church crowds, as time progresses it becomes apparent that there were some things that just did not add up.

Over time, it becomes painfully evident to a number of congregants that their esteemed spiritual leader is simply a hypocrite.  Pastoral words over the pulpit, though dynamic, are not in alignment with their treatment of others. The unsettling realization that this church leader is a partial or complete fraud begins to unfold.  Words spoken and behaviors exhibited are now seen as pure hypocrisy—loud and clear.

Whether it was exposed to everyone or not that there were improper financial dealings; inappropriate behaviors with the opposite sex; improper railing on church members about perceived sins; improper treatment of the church staff, or how leaders treated their own family—the mounting evidence that some were distinguishing pointed to hypocrisy, big time.

There is no contradiction in someone who has no Christian belief, only among those who claim to know Christ.  The greater damage is done by leaders who claim they are Christians–since they set the standard as a moral example for the flock to emulate.  When there is inconsistency found in a Christian leader’s beliefs and practices, then there is confusion and distraction which brings emotional dismay among their followers.

Through the deception and hypocritical behavior evidenced by certain leaders, spiritual abuse was also woven into their dealings with congregants.  At first, people made room for questionable leadership behaviors–noting that ‘no one is perfect.’  Unfortunately, as time went on, some church members began to see the reality of the situation.  Flawed patterns were virtually unmistakable.

Church leaders who exhibit spiritual abuse also manifest hypocrisy along with other distressing behaviors.  Those who have the courage to point out questionable leadership behaviors or ask too many questions soon find themselves on a ‘mark and shun’ list.

In some churches, there seems to be a hidden agenda.  This fact is quite disconcerting for church members.  It may only be a few church members who first realize how wrongly things are being administrated.  They are aghast at how they and a number of others are now being treated after discovering pertinent details.  Others in the congregation, however, see a different picture.  In contrast, the majority experience the wonderful Mr. Nice Guy pastor who seems to be there for them.  They have no idea what has come to light for these other church members.

There is often no way for those who have been harmed behind the scenes, by a devious church leader, to be able to explain to the others in the church what has happened to them.  If they try, they are considered as troublemakers or rebellious, which is exactly the perception that this leader wants people to think about these individuals.  That makes it easier for them to continue with their underhanded strategies while the rest of the community is none the wiser.

We know that no one is perfect and that there is grace and forgiveness needed for omissions and commissions by pastors and other church leaders in congregant dealings, in church business matters, and in the day-to-day issues that arise in a church family.  We also know that grace and patience is needed for all church members as well.

However, when there are conspicuous offenses, harm, and distress, then there are issues which need to be addressed by the church leadership team.  If the broader church leadership team is unwilling or afraid to address issues with a church leader, then it makes it difficult for the average church congregant to take any constructive action.

Furthermore, questions like–How could this happen?  How come we didn’t see this before? and, How do we deal with the grief that we are now experiencing?–begin to plague these now cognizant church members.  These types of questions are what people wrestle with when such realities surface.

People feel genuinely cheated by someone who has deliberately deceived them.  Hypocrisy, in a sense, is a moral crime.  The trust factor in the pastor-congregant relationship has been shattered.  Now there is genuine grief experienced by church members and the accompanying dilemma, of what to do with this knowledge, now haunts them.



Processing the betrayal of leadership by hypocrisy and spiritual abuse can be agonizing for congregants.  Never imagining that this could happen to them via a church leader increases their personal grief.  Once individuals take the time to recount the warning signs that seemed to be there, then they begin to get a better handle on their situation.  Making the effort to consider their own expectations of leadership, as well as forgiving the offending leader, are all part of the healing process from this church ministry dilemma.

Finding others to share with in a safe environment also helps people to process the emotional weight that they feel.  It will take some time to heal from this type of soul-damaging experience.  Keeping one’s faith intact through regular devotional practices with Christ will keep one’s heart and mind focused on the Kingdom of God and not on the situations which have disillusioned them.


* * * * *

For Further Reflection

Recognizing that human leaders can and do fail and harm people is part of the grieving process that individuals and couples must go through on the road to recovery.  Considering the faithfulness of God, as a loving Shepherd, can bring comfort during times of distress and personal anguish.

He tends his flock like a shepherd:

He gathers the lambs in his arms

and carries them close to his heart;

he gently leads those that have young.

                                                                                                  Isaiah 40:11


The psalmist in Psalm 26 reminded himself of Yahweh’s “unfailing love” since he had learned how to live in reliance on God’s faithfulness.  The psalmist invited God to test his heart and to examine his mind to see that he had remained steadfast and that he had a worthy focus—the Lord himself.

The psalmist was also mindful of not sitting with the deceitful or associating with ungodly hypocrites.  He did not hang out with those who were evildoers and he refused to sit with the wicked.  His delight was in the place where Yahweh dwelt—in his house.

His heart was ever toward the Lord and his aim was to please him.  His habits revolved around proclaiming out loud Yahweh’s goodness and telling of all his wonderful deeds.  We listen in on the psalmist’s reflections.

This is a psalm of David.

Vindicate me, Lord,

for I have led a blameless life;

I have trusted in the Lord

and have not faltered.

Test me, Lord, and try me,

examine my heart and my mind;

for I have always been mindful of your unfailing love

and have lived in reliance on your faithfulness. 

I do not sit with the deceitful,

nor do I associate with hypocrites.

I abhor the assembly of evildoers

and refuse to sit with the wicked.

I wash my hands in innocence,

and go about your altar, Lord,

proclaiming aloud your praise

and telling of all your wonderful deeds. 

Lord, I love the house where you live,

the place where your glory dwells.

Do not take away my soul along with sinners,

my life with those who are bloodthirsty,

in whose hands are wicked schemes,

whose right hands are full of bribes.

I lead a blameless life;

deliver me and be merciful to me. 

My feet stand on level ground;

in the great congregation I will praise the Lord.

                                                                                     Psalm 26:1-12


* * * * *


© 2012   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.