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How to Heal from Theological Abuse

It’s not uncommon for me to receive communication from people who God has graciously saved out from extreme charismatic abuses, prosperity gospel exploiters, and cultish movements like the New Apostolic Reformation. I find myself both overjoyed and heart-broken at the same time because on one hand it’s the beginning of the rest of their new life in Christ. Sadly, on the other hand, it’s often the beginning of a very painful journey through loneliness, despair, and confusion.

People saved out of deception don’t know where to start. Imagine being in their shoes and having everything you ever believed and most everyone you ever trusted turn out to be predominantly false. Now, go even further. Your friends, social circles, and even family members ostracize you when you try to explain the truth to them. You get labeled as “rebellious” or “hateful,” are threatened with divine judgment, and anyone associating with you is warned not to join you in “touching the Lord’s anointed.” Few people understand what many theologically abused exiles say feels a lot like PTSD.

One of most common series of questions looks something like this: What can I do to heal and move on from the abusive theology and actions I have been a part of? What do you think my next step is? How to I get over this? How do I get stable after being so confused?

Before any of those questions can be answered effectively, it’s important we echo the words of Martin Luther when he was asked how the Reformation happened. He said, “The Word did it all.” Friend, whenever “reformation” happens in our lives it is a “word-centered” process. That is what the Holy Spirit uses to illuminate our dark souls.

I’ve put this list in emails to people time and time again so I thought it best to compile a blog in case this may help more people get answers. Think of this list as a “plagiarize and customize” kind of thing. Use what you think is helpful and toss out what you don’t.

If you have some helpful tips, add them in the comments here or on social media. My guess is that over time, we’ll continue to see people share their stories and provide practical steps towards recovery from their own experiences as well.

Here are several next steps:

1. Cling to a (BIBLICAL) church, your pastors, and wise mentors — In my case, I was fortunate to be saved at the same time that our church was shedding shallow methods (and some bad theology) and embracing sound doctrine. We received a lot of help from seminary professors, selfless pastor-theologians, and retired pastors. Our pastors and elders (thankfully) were open to learning and growing! They wanted truth. Had they not, my wife and I were ready to pack our bags. God was gracious — we didn’t need to leave and so we all grew together. Older, wiser, and spiritual balanced mentors will always be used by God to play a key role in helping abused and confused sheep recover. Overall, run from error and abuse, find a biblically minded church with leaders who shepherd people, then stick to it like velcro! That’s the takeaway here. Don’t go rogue. Don’t do “online church” because you refuse to trust anyone. Don’t wander aimlessly. Find a Biblical church and plant yourself there.

2. Get into counseling — Depending on your church size and pastor’s schedule, you may need to seek counseling outside your church. In order to keep progressing, I recommend seeing a biblical counselor. I remember a very fruitful season of growth because at various points over a period of three years I met with biblical counselors. I poured my heart out, told them everything I’d been through, asked questions, received wisdom from the word, and put truth into practice as soon as possible after each session. Counseling is huge for recovering. Don’t hold back. Get your trust issues out on the table.

3. Saturated your life with sound teaching — For all the time our society spends binging on Netflix, wounded sheep do well to put that energy into soaking up sound doctrine. I’ve heard story after story of people who were saved out of deception and subsequently spent Sundays under their pastor’s teaching, then spent 5 nights a week reading solid blog articles, devouring theological books, and watching John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Steven Lawson, and Paul Washer sermons — taking notes as though they were in the front row at church until their eyes couldn’t stay open. Get serious about sound doctrine. God will use it to strengthen you.

4. Journal what you’re learning —This may not be your first thought, but writing can be very useful for processing thoughts, emotions, and the wisdom you’re learning. Make T-charts of “true teachings vs. false ones,” write out verses that debunk your old beliefs, write your testimony in 500 words, 250 words, and a 50-word elevator speech. Consider making prayer lists and spending substantial amounts of time on your knees with the Lord. In short, putting things on paper helps bring clarity to otherwise sporadic thoughts and emotions.

5. Continue your education – Seminary education may not be your thing but continuing education should be. This could be an online learning program, or a Bible Certificate from a seminary or Christian University, or starting some classes at your local church’s bible institute. Doctrinal training puts “meat” on the bones of your new beliefs. Many churches have excellent (free) resources for training lay people (find one of those kind of churches). If you’re church isn’t there yet, consider an online learning tool like Ligonier Connect.

6. Wash, Rinse, Repeat – Never stop doing the steps listed above. Even if school ends, or you’re counseling is complete, continue saturating your life with the Word. Stay plugged into the local church, keep accountability close by, seek out wise counsel, and prioritize your devotion to Christ. What you’re experiencing now is the Christian life. We get saved, and then the fun begins — even if the “fun” takes hard work. Remember, God is the one working in you and through you, but your hands need to stay on the plow. The road to recovery is more like running a marathon, not using a microwave. Salvation is instant, sanctification is a process. Trust the Lord and stay the course.

Can You Define Deception?

The church’s greatest threat has never been from the outside, but rather, from deception within.

The Bible is clear. Satan doesn’t show up at the foot of your bed with red horns and a pitch-fork claiming, “Here I am to distract and deceive you!” Neither do his false prophets. They are disguised in light; seeming to be workers of righteousness (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

Our adversary’s deceptive strategy is to infiltrate our ranks. Like a Trojan horse entering through the city gates, darkness often hides in plain sight. Satan doesn’t fight fair and false teachers take no prisoners.

During the 1930’s and 40’s, millions of Jews were murdered as a result of the Holocaust. Museums like the Yad Vashemin Jerusalem have preserved the horrific evidence of how deceptionplayed a crucial role in the Nazi plans. The Germans used propaganda to appear as though they were caring for Jews, but millions were being brutally slaughtered. Nazi soldiers were trained to deceive Jews until their death. In one of the most inhumane acts in world history, countless Jews were told that the concentration camps they were being taken to were communities of safety and rest. Some were shown pictures of a beautiful paradise only to arrive at the sterile barracks confused. At the camp named Auschwitz, Jews worked to unknowingly lay the foundation for the very buildings that would be their own “death factories.”

Like the ruthless deception and false propaganda used by the Nazi’s to execute their evil plan, false teachers and the kingdom of darkness use lies to attempt to bring down the church and destroy the kingdom of God. Discernment is crucial to preventing spiritual casualties.

Can you say with absolutely certainty that you are not being deceived? Do you know if the church you’re a part of is a biblical church? How do you know that the ministry you follow is playing for the right team? How has your pastor’s pulpit ministry increased your prowess for studying your Bible? Are you confident in saying that you know when something is biblically true, or fatally false? Many Christians are sitting in churches and following ministries that are anything but biblical – yet they aren’t sure what the signs are.

To help you navigate the challenges we’re facing in the body of Christ today, here are 5 ways to define deception:

  1. The Gospel is Mishandled

One of the keys to defining deception within the church is how the Gospel is treated. If God is always in a good mood, sin is “too intense” for the pulpit, and the cross is a just revelation of our value, things are heading in the wrong direction. If sermons are preached so broadly that people aren’t told Jesus is the only way can to be saved (John 14:6), there is a problem. The Gospel is not inconvenient, it’s essential. A church (and its pastor) must be willing to offend people if it means pleasing God. Yes, there is the Good News! But, it’s only Good News because there was some bad news.

The Gospel is also mishandled when certain people dogmatically assert that without “signs and wonders” the Gospel has no power. This faulty view is common in Word of Faith theology and flies in the face of Romans 1:16 where Paul declares, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” The Gospel is not powerful because it accompanies signs and wonders. The Gospel is powerful because God authored the transformation of dead sinners into living saints.

  1. My Experience Informs My Truth

There is a massive wave of experience-driven theology sweeping over the church. If you find that your church or your favorite ministry uses “expert eye-witnesses” claims in order to propagate things that are contradictory to the Bible, the writing could be on the wall. As Christians, it’s great to have moments of awe in light of what God is doing in the church. But if those moments are built on the mystical experiences of someone like Jesus Culture’s Kim Walker-Smith claiming that Jesus appeared in a vision and behaved like “Stretch Armstrong,” or Bethel Church’s Seth Dahl (Redding, CA) explaining how Jesus appeared to him in a vision to ask him (yes, Seth) for forgiveness, things have stretched into dangerous territory.

Right now our culture is waging war on absolute truth by using subjective experience. People can identify as whatever gender they “feel like” they are, women can kill babies because they “feel like” it’s ok, and gay-marriage is ok in more churches than ever because pastors “feel like” we should just love people and not “judge.”

If our church or our pastor is building on the foundation of experience to define the truth, is that much different than the world? True Christians must be committed to trusting the Word of God as the authoritative and sufficient filter through which every experiences must pass through.

  1. You and I are the Same as Jesus

One of the best ways to define deception in a church or teaching, is to analyze what they do with the doctrine of Christ. When pastors with a global platform like Bill Johnson claim that Jesus did His miracles as a just a man in right relationship to God and not as God, that’s heresy. This is a historical heresy with a modern face. It is the springboard for today’s mystical-miracle movement which claims that if Jesus was just a man anointed by God when He was on earth, you can be just like Him too! If a teaching diminishes Christ in order to elevate man – that’s the mark of deception. Satan has always been a master of twisting Scripture to undermine God and shipwreck people’s faith. From the beginning the serpent has been whispering, Did God really say…? You surely shall not die!(Genesis 3:1-4)

  1. The Abundant Life Is Now

A church is off course if John 10:10 means that the “abundant life” of heaven guarantees health, wealth and happiness on earth. The idea that you should be experiencing job promotions, perfect medical reports, and an overflow of financial provision throws out James 1:2, 2 Timothy 3:12, and Luke 18:29 (at the very least). If your pastor gears his messages towards “hope” that is realized through material possessions and perfect relationships on earth – he’s not a pastor; he’s an imposter.

Jesus didn’t promise that life would be easy on earth for those who are His true disciples. An over-realized atonement that guarantees riches and health on earth has missed the entire point of trials, suffering, sovereignty and sanctification.

  1. Faith Is a Force You Can Unleash

Billionaire prosperity preacher Kenneth Copeland has built an empire on the false teaching that “faith is a force.” In other words, you can make things happen if you believe. If your pastor twists passages about confession of faith in Christ (Romans 10:9) to mean that confession is also the way to land a Bentley on your driveway – run to the nearest Biblical church. When a church has a culture of “making it happen with your mouth,” it is time to move on.

This theology defines deception by teaching that God is like a magic genie – you get what you want by rubbing Him right. Positive confessions are repeated in cult-like unison as crowds say, “I am promoted!”, “I am healed!” or “I am blessed!” They believe that faith does not lead one to merely confess their sin and turn to Christ in repentance but that faith is a force you can use to control all outcomes.

It is a War on Truth

All of the deception within the church can be disheartening. People are being used and spiritually abused. But there is hope.

First, we’ve been forewarned that false teachers would “secretly introduce” destructive heresies, and exploit people in their greed (2 Peter 2:1-3). We need not be surprised. We also know that even in the midst of spiritual warfare, victory has been won by Jesus Christ! Discerning Christians have no need to cower in fear if they are clad in the armor of God (Ephesians 6:11-18). The believer equipped with the Word of God has everything needed to stand firm against enemy tactics. God has given us the ability to define deception and enjoy the security of walking in truth.

Take courage, Christian. Christ promised to build His church (Matthew 16:18). Make sure you’re a part of a local body where He is actually building.


If you need help discerning what is true and what is false, order your copy of Defining Deception today!

If You Can’t Heal ‘Em, Beat ‘Em?

The following post is a modified portion of a chapter from “Defining Deception.”

Why in the world does church history matter? That’s a question more Christians should be able to answer – and a highly important one at that.

In his phenomenal work, Why Church History Matters, Robert F. Rea defines history as “the study of the past in order to understand the present and improve the future.”[1] History teaches us valuable lessons about the good, the bad, and the ugly. It teaches us about the nature of the way things have been and how they came to be. These are certainly lessons we do well to learn because they remind us that even the best of men are still men at best. Furthermore, lessons from history provide us with the motivation to change the future, even when it’s painful to face the facts.

Unfortunately, and far too often, we tend to idealize past figures because death is the great equalizer and it’s considered poor form to talk ill of the dead.  But where does that refusal of the facts leave us? Are we to simply brush over swaths of historical mayhem by saying, “Well, nobody’s perfect”? Is it prudent, or even Christian, to turn a blind eye to those who call violent abusers and scripture-twisting manipulators heroic? Denial is never an option when seeking the truth – in fact, it’s downright impossible.

At the risk of tearing down the sacred cows of the past we must be committed to giving our children a hopeful future – a future founded on biblical truth. Nobody is perfect, but Christians who proudly find their roots in certain erroneous theologies are in desperate need of a reality check regarding those who introduced those belief systems. Such beliefs and practices are found nowhere in the Bible.

If “history is the endeavor to provide accountability to the present in light of the past,”[2] proper understanding of history is an imperative need. In light of that need, here is a historical faith healer who is still revered as a general of the Christian faith but need be known for what he always was.

Smith Wigglesworth (1859–1947)

Wigglesworth was one of the first to take faith healing to violent new heights. He is considered Pentecostal and Charismatic royalty these days, but that’s mostly because people are ignorant of his aberrant and unbiblical ministry tactics. For nearly two decades of my own life, Wigglesworth was one of my heroes because he represented audacious faith without any regard for the confines of religiosity and tradition. He was a reckless rebel and, just like Peter, was willing to jump over the side of the boat to walk on water and follow Jesus. That’s the kind of risk-taking that God always blesses, I often thought. That’s who I wanted to be! wigglesworth

Born before both Charles Parham and William Seymour, Wigglesworth outlived them both. Due to his long life span, he was perfectly positioned to almost single handedly impact the UK in the same way Parham and Seymour impacted America.

Wigglesworth focused the core of his ministry on signs and wonders like healing, miracles, and tongues. He taught that believers should refuse medical treatment for any illness. If not the first, he was one of the first in history to conduct his faith healing using methods other than laying on of hands—though he still touched them. According to Wigglesworth, sickness was demonic activity so he would physically attack the person as though they were the devil! Ignoring biblical teaching that spiritual warfare has nothing to do with flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12), Wigglesworth would punch, slap, or hit people in the place where they were afflicted. Wigglesworth explains his reason for assaulting sick people:

There are some times when you pray for the sick and you are apparently rough. But you are not dealing with a person, you are dealing with the satanic forces that are binding that person. Your heart is full of love and compassion to all, but you are moved to a holy anger as you see the place the devil has taken position in the body of the sick one, and you deal with his position with a real forcefulness.[3]

If people didn’t get healed, he was sure to place the blame on the sick. Wigglesworth taught that everyone should be able to control their own healing. He blamed those who couldn’t rid themselves of sickness on their own sin and lack of faith. He declared, “Is healing for all? It is for all who press right in and get their portions.”[4] To one sick woman he barked, “If you’ll get rid of your self-righteousness, God will do something for you. Drop the idea that you are so holy that God has got to afflict you. Sin is the cause of your sickness.”[5] He also states, “There is a close relationship between sin and sickness . . . but if you will obey God and repent of your sin and quit it, God will meet you, and neither your sickness nor your sin will remain.”[6] With no regard for biblical teaching on praying and trusting God’s will, God’s purposes through physical trials, and sanctification from unhealed sickness (Gal. 4:13-14; James 1:2-3), Wigglesworth confused and spiritually abused those who were sick and desperate by telling them they were the problem and he was the solution. He was especially aggressive toward anyone who approached him for prayer more than once. One poor man experienced public humiliation when Wigglesworth came to the altar and asked the faith healer to pray for him a second time because he wasn’t yet healed. Wigglesworth yelled, “Didn’t I pray for you last night? You are full of unbelief, get off this platform.”[7] His method of placing the blame on innocent people for his own failed healing attempts, and his violent antics for trying to heal people, are still practiced today by many false teachers. Later on in the book, we’ll get an up close look a modern day preacher who, like Wigglesworth, assaults people when praying for their healing.

People merely searching for hope were devastated when men like Wigglesworth humiliated them with his shameful practices. Still, countless modern day Pentecostal and Charismatic preachers ignore the hard facts of history and consider Wigglesworth a hero of the faith. Regardless of modern sentiment, Wigglesworth was a charlatan who exploited the sick by teaching falsely about salvation, sin, and sickness. His legacy does not represent true Christianity nor the character of biblical leadership.

Those who wish to faithfully represent Christ must arm themselves with truth. The dark history of abusive false teachers is not where Christians should ever find their truth, or claim their heritage.  Look to God’s word for timeless guidance – it will never disappoint.

[1] Robert F. Rea, Why Church History Matters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 23.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Smith Wigglesworth, Ever Increasing Faith (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1924), 135–36.

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] Ibid., 38.

[6] Wigglesworth, Ever Increasing Faith, 41.

[7] Julian Wilson, Wigglesworth: The Complete Story (Tyrone, GA: Authentic Media, 2004), 82–83.