Spiritual Abuse and The Zeal of the Lord

Spiritual Abuse and

The Zeal of the lord



Being zealous about something often makes people nervous. On the other hand, when it is connected to sports or outdoor activities it takes on a positive spin.  Having zeal can be equated with being a fanatic, which of course, can have a positive or negative connotation depending on the context.  Nevertheless, having zeal or passion for something can be a good thing.

In Romans 12:11 we read:  “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.”  So from that verse it would appear that having zeal and keeping one’s spiritual fervor high, as they serve the Lord, would be a worthy attribute for disciples of Christ to have.

Zeal can be understood as having energetic enthusiasm, especially for a cause or an idea. 

Fervor can be described as intensity or having extremely passionate enthusiasm.


Jesus, the Zeal Man

As the people watched the new prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, they saw a man who had passion, they often exclaimed:  He is not like the religious leaders; he is different!

Christ’s life manifested passion and zeal.  One account stands out in the life of Jesus when he came into the temple area.  He was appalled at the practices going on in this supposedly ‘holy’ place.  His anger rose within him.  With focused energy on what was downrightly grievous, he quickly sized up what he could do to make a difference.

We read about the deliberate action that he took.  Jesus was not intimidated by the religious leaders or those who bought and sold in this sacred place.

From Psalm 69:6-9 we read:

“Lord, the Lord Almighty, may those who hope in you not be disgraced because of me; God of Israel, may those who seek you not be put to shame because of me.

For I endure scorn for your sake, and shame covers my face.

I am a foreigner to my own family, a stranger to my own mother’s children;

for zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.”

The psalmist was expressing his fervent devotion to Yahweh in spite of enduring scorn for His sake.  The concerns for Yahweh’s house were paramount for this Israelite.  He did not want anything to distract from his devotion to God.

It is interesting to note that this passage is found in the New Testament in the Gospel of John at the beginning of Christ’s ministry.

His disciples remembered that it was written:

           “Zeal for your house will consume me.”                   John 2:17

Jesus’ life modeled how to take on and deal with injustice and inequality in his society.  He died a martyr’s death as his type of righteousness was not appreciated among those who represented the belief and practices of Judaism.  The common people were swept along by the bent view perpetrated by their spiritual leaders and they were party to his execution.


When Zeal Goes Wrong

The Apostle Paul drew attention to the fact that the Israelites, his own people, had a zeal for God, but their zeal lacked knowledge.

“For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.”                           Romans 10:2

Paul, himself, recognized his own fervent trends based on his Jewish belief system.

“I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”                                                                                 Galatians 1:14

Also, in Philippians 3:6 we read Paul’s description of his former type of zeal:

“. . . as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”

Therefore, zeal that is without knowledge can be:

ruthless, reckless, and ethically wanting.

There have always been religious leaders who make it their practice to captivate their followers and lead them into ways that their supporters do not recognize as being faulty.  The leader’s zeal charms the adherents and the fascination among those gathered generates a flawed spiritual community, living unto themselves.

As the leader’s boundaries are skillfully and creatively pushed, the followers tend to see no problem with the direction of their beloved leader.  They risk being harmed by being so gullible.  Being maltreated spiritually and emotionally is usually the end result of these types of scenarios.

So often, the actual direction of this leader cannot be detected in the earlier season while they are gaining followers and expanding in their ministry.  What looks like a good thing, a fresh spiritual dynamic, because of growth in numbers and size of a facility, has great appeal for those looking for an energetic group to join with.

As time goes on, there are chinks in the ministry armor and a few begin to realize that there are unhealthy behaviors going on, either in the public arena, in the back rooms, or both.  Some express mild concern, but the majority have no inkling what may be going on in their midst.

It is often predictable that religious belief systems with active groups can follow a trajectory from legalistic, to cult-like, to cult.  Without boundaries or interventions, church leaders can lead their communities in ways that are theologically and emotionally harmful.

So, what at first appears to be a fresh activity motivated by the zeal of the Lord often turns into a zeal that is unhealthy, damaging, and disheartening.  It is at this point that the realization of what has unfolded hits a number of congregants while others are oblivious to their concerns.  Misgivings mount and damage control now becomes the experience of the devoted.


When Zeal Goes Right

Paul was not against zeal, but qualified it by saying that:

“It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good . . .”

                                                                                              Galatians 4:18

There are many things to be passionate about in the Christian faith.  Studying the life of Christ and other biblical characters can give insights into what motivated them to love God and to serve him.  How they chose to serve the Lord in Christian community can inform our thinking today.

Reading the biographies of men and women in Christian history can also be a rich source of how people demonstrated their passion for Christ in a broken world.

People who have suffered from the intensity of spiritual abuse and then have recovered have a fresh overview of their entire Christian experience.  What had been woefully lacking in their understanding of the magnitude of the Gospel message and Christian discipleship has slowly been replaced over time.  They have renewed insights and increased gratitude to the Lord.

Believers have been fortified with the truths of the amazing Gospel that they had initially believed.  Now they have a renewed passion and a re-visioned zeal that carries them into new realms.

Their love, faith, and hope have been reinstated.  They have begun to grasp what the impact of Paul’s words to the Romans could look like in Christian community:

Romans 12: 9-19

“Love must be sincere.  Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love.  Honor one another above yourselves.  Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another.  Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.”


Zeal for the Issue of Spiritual Abuse

Are you one who is a survivor of spiritual abuse and now you seek to help others?  This is a worthy direction for your zeal to go.  Since this issue is often hidden from view, there is a need for many to link arms and work together in order to get the word out about this destructive issue in the church today.

The internet has made a wonderful highway to network and to connect with others around the issue of spiritual abuse and other abusive behaviors.

*What could we do as a group of concerned people to raise the awareness about this topic?

*Can you think of ways to raise the awareness about spiritual abuse in your area?

*Are you seeking for others who could join you in talking about these issues?

*Can you think of ways to support those who are wounded?

*What suggestions do you have for ways to network with others around the topic of spiritual abuse and recovery?

Ideas can be bounced off Dr. Barb at:




Zeal is a good thing when it is rooted in the passion for Christ that is healthy and grounded in a valid interpretation of the Scriptures.  Anything that takes away from legitimate passion for Christ and redirects it away from the Lordship of Christ, the love for God, and love for others needs to be evaluated.

Spiritual abuse is an issue that needs to be identified and tackled head on.  This is one issue that could use your help.

Since the Kingdom of God can be identified by love, joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit, then these attributes could be the criteria used to measure if certain church leadership behavior is appropriate zeal or not.


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For Further Reflection

Here are some questions for personal reflection:

*What does zeal for the house of the Lord look like for you today?

*How can you be better informed by examining more deeply the way Christ lived?

*What passages of Scripture are meaningful to you as you consider this idea in a deeper way?


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© 2012   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.