Pharisaical Heart of an Abusive Leader

“Jonathan, tell my wife how she’s sinning by not submitting to my leadership! The problem is that she is rebelling against God for not obeying me as the head of the home. She just needs to shut up and follow my lead!”

I smelled a disillusioned prideful heart through the sewage of this man’s lips. Another weak male who wants to act as “CEO of the home” accuses his spouse of being “disrespectful” and uses hyper headship to tamper with his ego.

The sad reality is that these sorts of conversations I have as a pastor and as a biblical counselor are quite common. That shouldn’t be surprising, as Scripture is always true and is sufficient for all life and manner. “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” (1 Cor 10:13).

These are often the hardest cases I must work with as a counselor. So often because they are blinded by their sin, they do not see the way how they mistreat, abuse, and manipulate others in taking the “victim mentality” in throwing more fuel into the fire.

How do we walk through this sticky toxic relational sin that Christians are entangled in? How can we offer the hope of the gospel in their present helplessness that leads to future hopelessness?

Where Do You Even “Begin” with a Pharisaical Abusive Nature? 

The term “abuse” can be confusing on many levels.

First, the word abuse is a loaded term with many emotionally triggering words that if not careful can open a whole can of worms without getting to the bottom of it.

Second, abuse has been “hijacked” by the secular culture, and Christians with a biblical worldview at times have a hard time trying to understand from a biblical framework by God’s definition of abuse.

Finally, some Christians will either find one or two verses throughout the Bible and call it, “Yes, that is abuse!” But abuse is much more complex than simply boiling down to doing mumbo-jumbo of a few verses of the Bible.

In these cases, from a secular standpoint, the world may use language such as, “Narcissism” and blame it on a disorder or a disease of the person.

DSM-5 diagnostic defines NYD (narcissistic personality disorder) as, “a disorder in which a person has an inflated sense of self-importance” The psychology world believes the mental health sickness cannot be treated as it is a “disorder” one is born with, but Scripture offers hope for abusive people to be changed by God’s triumphant grace.

Before we further discuss narcissism, I believe Christians should throw that term out of the window. The Bible has a specific word for and that is, “pride” As people of the Bible, turn to Scripture such as Proverbs says, “Scoffer is the name of the arrogant, haughty man who acts with arrogant pride.” (Prov 21:24).

Also, as much as “abuse” and “harassment” has been thrown back and forth in the modern #MeToo culture movement, narcissism is thrown around on the internet. Outside the United States, NPD is not even recognized as a separate diagnostic entity. People should not use it from a basic social media post, or even from a “checklist” with negative information shared by upset people who are driven emotionally with ulterior motives, which often heightens the inability to make sound decisions.

At Reigning Grace Counseling Center define “abuse” as the following: “Abuse is a habitual, excessive, and destructive pattern of sinful behavior that exert coercive power and control over another person” The definition of abuse is important, as much as “narcissism” is thrown left to right, so is with the word “abuse”

Close to the hills of “abuser” being the problem, “victims” can confuse a person being “abusive” versus simply being a “jerk” The definition is to be revisited by both parties, as this gives room for concrete and flexibility to protect individuals who can be falsely accused as an “abuser”

Abuse can be witnessed in a holistic approach physically, sexually, emotionally, mentally, verbally, domestically, financially, and spiritually. Each case must carefully be verified with validity through (1) frequency, (2) duration, (3) intensity, and (4) occasions. Identifying abuse is not as simple as a mathematical equation but must be seen through various lenses and carefully validated.

Therefore, a proper assessment will be utilized as a framework evaluation in the process of collecting data/information. Based on the finding, people can find concrete statements that will give clarity to move toward the next step in addressing the sinful heart.

What is the Heart of the Abusive Leader? 

Helping any person must first begin and aim for the “heart” of the individual. The heart of the problem is always the problem of the heart, as the heart is the control center of all action attitudes of the person.

Abuse at the heart has always been an anger problem. Scripturally speaking, biblical anger is seeing the following three categories.

  1. Divine anger (By far the most common form of anger in the Bible).
  2. Righteous human anger.
  3. Sinful human anger. (Matt 5:21–22; Eph 4:30–31; Jas 1:20).

Dr. Robert Jones said in his book well, anger is a whole-person response arising from a negative moral judgment against perceived evil and is done before God and incurs his judgment. Anger is not an “emotion” simply the outer part of man, but anger engages the whole person. Anger is a response to something/someone that occasions and provokes (but does not cause) action. Therefore, anger is a choice.

In the name of “leadership” or “headship,” they are unwilling to see the sin of self. This reminds me of the passage where Christ says, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye but does not notice the log that is in your eye?” (Matt 7:3). They are quick to judge others and slow to give grace.

People who struggle with anger hate to admit their sins. As a result, people rarely say, “I am angry!” But they will change the wording such as, “I’m stressed, I’m upset, I’m anxious, I’m ticked, I’m fed up, I’m pissed off, I’m annoyed, I am frustrated… etc” but ultimately at the core, the problem boils down to being the person feeling angry.

According to the book of James, anger manifests in the following five categories; (1) Entrenched desires, (2) Ruling wants, (3) Covetousness, (4) Selfish-motives, (5) Sinful reasons (James 4:1-12). God’s plan of response to anger is found in James 4:1-12. James addresses the cause of anger (v. 1) and roots the cause in your heart’s beliefs and motives.

Yes, just like the olden days Pharisees, aren’t they? A Pharisee is often hard on others, yet easy on himself. A spiritual man is often hard on himself yet easy on others. Scripture is true, “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Eccl 1:9).

They take the same approach to how Adam and Eve dealt with sin. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” (Gen 3:12). It is extremely rare for an abusive leader to ever take responsibility for his anger, attitude, or action.

The abusive leader will hide, minimize, and blame shift and that is a never-ending battle. The confusion will only lead to further conflict, ultimately, resulting in the chaos of the messy sin. That is a dead end and cannot determine what the true problem is.

As a result? Tragically, too many churches and untrained ministry leaders end up feeling defeated and end up putting the blame on the victim and using that as a scapegoat, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (Isa 53:7).

The aftermath of these cases is like witnessing a wolf tearing up the sheep in pieces with ultimately God’s judgment falling upon both parties.

How to Identify the Characteristics of a Prideful Leader?  

One of my professors Dr. Stuart Scott at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote an excellent resource called, “The Exemplary Husband” that identifies Prideful Heart vs. Humble Heart.

The Prideful Heart 

–       A lack of gratitude in general: They may complain because they think they deserve better.

–       Anger: A proud person is often an angry person. A person most often becomes angry because his “rights” or expectations are not being met.

–       Seeing yourself as better than others: He gets easily disgusted and has little tolerance for differences.

–       Having an inflated view of your importance, gifts, and abilities: They are a legend in their mind, but what they need is a loving dose of reality.

–       Being focused on the lack of your gifts and abilities: Having a “woe is me” attitude is self-pity, which is pride.

–       Being devastated or angered by criticism: Proud people usually struggle a great deal with criticism.

–       Being sarcastic, hurtful, or degrading: Proud people can be very unkind people.

–       Being defensive or blame-shifting: You will often hear a proud person say, “Are you saying it’s my fault?”

–       A lack of admitting when you are wrong: A proud person will make a great many excuses such as, “I was having a bad day”

–       A lack of asking forgiveness: Proud people rarely admit their sins or ask for forgiveness from others.

–       Resisting authority or being disrespectful: A proud person may detest being told what to do.

–       Maximizing others’ sins and shortcomings: To the proud person, other people are the problem.

As we have seen above, there are many forms of variations of sin, and the same holds of pride. Pride is so subtle that most people think they have little or none of it within them. Andrew Murray even said, “the root of every sin and evil”

Pride is difficult to deal with, for so often prideful people can see the problem in others, yet not be able to see within themselves. Only the Holy Spirit can convict the heart that leads to repentance.

The Humble Heart 

–       Recognizing and trusting God’s character: In trials, he will even thank God for the reminder of how much he needs Him and for all the good He is doing through the trial.

–       Focusing on Christ: Throughout the day they talk and worship Him often.

–       Biblical praying and a great deal of it: Because they see themselves as needy, they pray often.

–       Being a good listener: Humble people consider what others have to say as more important than what they have to say.

–       Talking about others only if it is good or for their good: A humble person will speak well of others, not negatively.

–       A quickness in admitting when you are wrong: Humble people have no problem with saying, “I was wrong. You are right. Thank you for telling me”

–       A quickness in granting and asking for forgiveness: Humble people are eager to forgive because they know how much they have been forgiven.

Pride is the opposite of humility and is one of the most loathed sins in God’s sight. Just so you know, humility is rare because it is unnatural to man.

Therefore, humility compared to pride is difficult to see as this goes counter cultural to the fleshly desire. Humility is a supernatural divine work of God that is mustered within one’s heart that emulates Christlikeness. A humble heart lives a life, “no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf” (2 Cor 5:15).

Often in abuse cases, the abusive leader has a critical spirit versus a critical mind. A critical spirit has a prideful heart that is divisive by nature. As Pharisees showed their own true nature “when they didn’t get their way”, their words and action are quick to fault-finding and keep a record of wrongs with a long list, which goes against Scripture (1 Cor 13:5).

Part of the problem with abusive leaders is that they are experts at manipulating the situation by controlling others and the situation (self-sovereignty). At times, they may outright lie and turn the conversation by blame-shifting. The cunning tactic of a pharisaical leader even at times comes across as “humble” by utilizing the avenue of seeking “wisdom” or “counsel” and spreading gossip like wildfire through friends, family, and the church.

What is common in conversations is the master manipulator makes one think as “crazy” and the conversation leads to “gaslighting” by throwing fuel into the fire and tossing logic straight out the window. Just like the Pharisees during Christ’s time, abusive leaders seek “power” which is, and always will be the desire of the heart problem.

The desire for control is not so much of the problem, but when the desire for control becomes the ruling desire of the heart that demands an expectation, that is when it has become a problem.

If you struggle with this, pray for God to help you put off pride and to produce humility in you.

What is the Cure for the Pharisaical Leader? 

That is an easy answer. Repentance.

So many of our preaching in churches today sadly, do not preach the gospel of repentance. So much preaching in the modern churches has forgotten repentance, therefore we don’t see the power in the churches any longer. Repentance is central to New Testament churches. Without repentance, there will be no true restoration, no true reformation, nor true revival.

One must be born again by the power of the gospel. It doesn’t matter if you grew up in a Christian country, Christian home, or even a Christian church, that means nothing, for you must be born again!

John the Baptist in Luke 3:7 said this, “He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (v. 7). Now, that’s hell-and-brimstone sort of preaching! He spoke very harshly by rebuking these hypocritical religious leaders who had hardened their hearts towards God. Those were, the “Pharisees”

Jesus himself rebukes by sharing a parable of the Pharisees and the tax collector. May we never become like the Pharisees who say, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11). But more the humble broken sinners, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).

The problem regarding repentance, the pharisaical leader is often too blinded by his pride and unable to even recognize the sin that is causing damage to others.

The other extreme is they may, “half-hearted” take the responsibility, but excuse it by self-justifying and rationalizing their reasoning.

When Can You Notice a True Biblical Heart Change? 

That depends on the individual and each situation.

I often tell married couples or counselees that this was never meant to be a prescriptive approach like jumping over one hurdle after the other.

There are markers to recognize in the repentance process, but my encouragement is to take the long hall. As one preacher said it this way, “Long obedience in the same direction” That does not mean the person will reach perfection, as Christians that will not be the case until we are face-to-face with our loving Savior.

In difficult times, I am personally often prone to wandering, prone to anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed. The journey is even for sojourners, there are uphill, downhill, side roads, detours, and delays in the progressive sanctification process. I hope and wish the journey doesn’t have obstacles, but that will be too “idealistic”

Each obstacle leads to opportunities, and those opportunities lead to becoming overcomes, and overcoming face objective reality of the sweet spot of “spiritual growth”

That is why James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (Jam 1:2-3). Paul echoes the same idea in Romans which says, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,” (Rom 5:3-4).

John MacArthur, the Pastor of Grace Community Church and chancellor of Master’s Seminary said, “You will never become spiritually mature unless you develop endurance, and you can only develop endurance as you persevere in faith through painful experiences.”

Therefore, that means a whole lot of grace and mercy that must be rooted in the heart of restoration like Jesus, for both the abuser and the victim. That means to reflect Christ-like kindness and have an enormous amount of love that must be remembered, must be read about, must be preached, and finally must be agreed upon.

Don’t settle for any less with helping one another with the sufficiency of Scripture. Go for the heart change which lasts for a life change.

Take your time. Be patient. For the journey of discipleship at times can take not only weeks, but months, or even years to see genuine fruit of repentance.

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