What is Spiritual Abuse?
Written by Paul Race
Editor’s Note: As a Bible-believing Christian, I believe with my whole heart that God wants us to live in harmony and spiritual fellowship with like-minded believers who can encourage us and accomplish more for the kingdom of God together than we can separately. If I seem to write a lot about things that break churches or hurt members, it’s because those things are wrong and disrupt God’s plan, not because church itself is bad for people - it is good for most people who belong, and should be good for everybody. Unfortunately, there are glitches, hiccups, and sometimes outright wrongdoing. It doesn’t serve the interest of the church or its members to allow such issues to go unaddressed until they become the defining characteristic of the church or of any person’s relationship with fellow believers.
If you see yourself or your experiences in any of our articles about possible church problems, I want to say that I’m sorry you’ve had such experiences, that they are not God’s plan, and that being hurt by a church or by specific church leaders or members should not put you off of the notion of fellowship.
God has created us to need other people, to encourage each other in Christ, and to help others to grow in the Lord. One bad church experience, or five, doesn’t change that. But I have to take exception to those who claim that you owe any church whose leadership knowingly hurts you and your relationship with Him your service, your tithe, your membership, or your blind obedience.
Sadly, churches can go wrong, or turn a blind eye when members hurt other members, and so on. And it doesn’t serve any good purpose to pretend that never happens, or to tell people who’ve been hurt that the problem is all in their head or some such, as often occurs. Thus the hard talk about hard subjects. God called you to everlasting life, and keeping you in fellowship with Him is far more important that keeping you in a toxic relationship with other folks who claim to have some hold over you.
We now return you to our regularly scheduled article - Paul
Abuse occurs when a person or system mistreats another person who, for one reason or another, cannot easily avoid the mistreatment. Often the abuser is in a position of relative power over the other - employer, teacher, pastor, husband, physically stronger, better-connected, etc. And the abuser makes use of that advantage to do wrong and hurtful things that they would never get away with if the other person was on an equal footing.
The term “spiritual abuse” is usually applied to situations in which a supposed spiritual leader such as a pastor or youth leader takes unfair advantage of people they have supposedly committed to protecting and serving. However, any kind of abuse can have “spiritual” overtones if:
- It is done in a religious setting,
- The people in authority refuse to deal with the problem, or
- The abuser uses religious language or religious-sounding control mechanisms to justify, excuse, or cover for the abuse.
Abuse of all kinds can occur in schools, on the job, in sports teams, in scouting clubs, with or without the participation or knowledge of “those in charge.” What makes it worse is that abuse is often compounded by “those in charge” when they cover for it, even if they didn’t know about it in the first place. Or when the greater circle, be it an organization or a community, responds by rushing to support the accused abuser and demonizing the victim(s). Such compounded abuse almost always causes long-lasting emotional damage to the abused, and often to their families. What could be worse?
Abuse in the church and related organizations. Abuse turns into spiritual abuse when it occurs in religious circles, especially when it is performed, excused, covered up, or ignored by people who spout religious precepts, who claim to have God-given authority over the abused.
Abuse Outside the Church is Wrong and Has Hurtful Consequences
As an example of abuse that is not spiritual: as a professional in the computer industry, I have worked for more than one abusive boss. Both men and women have held my ability to support my family hostage to unreasonable demands, have lied about employees’ accomplishments so they could justify diverting raises and promotions to their toadies, and have bullied workers who didn’t “measure up” or belonged to minority groups. Not to mention several men who bullied women on the team into sexual “favors.”
As Paul says, “Men and brethren, these things ought not to be!”
Abuse in Religious Settings is Worse.
But even the worst bosses I ever had never claimed that I got “what was coming to me” because I was spiritually deficient in some way. Or that my friends would be in spiritual danger if they listened to my side of the story. Or that my children would go to hell if I took our family out of an abusive situation.
All of those things have happened to me and to close friends in church situations. Frankly, the “spiritual” dimension adds another heavy layer of pain and confusion. For many, abuse in what should be a spiritual setting decimates their trust in the church, and even - to various degrees - trust in God.
Bullying, lying, slander, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse are even more painful and destructive to the victim when they occur in a religious environment that should have been a “safe place.” Even worse, victims who speak up against abuse are often re-victimized by people they know and should be able to trust.
Sadly, even church leaders who are not involved in the original abuse may turn on the victim because it’s easier or less likely to disrupt the church as a whole than to deal with the abuse and the abuser.
As an example, sexual abuse victims have been asked not to report criminal behavior to the police, because the church leadership was going to deal with it. But “dealing with it” in such contexts is usually nothing more than sweeping it under the rug.
In some cases, the abuse is an ongoing problem of which leadership is already aware, but they treat each occurrence as if it’s never happened before and is unlikely to ever happen again. But the abuse goes on. I’ve even known well-intentioned, otherwise good leaders to fall into this trap. It almost always allows things to get worse until they can’t be hidden any more.
Beyond the kinds of abuse that can occur outside the church, but whose damage is multiplied in religious settings, there are kinds of abuse that are almost specific to churches. As an example, leadership may begin telling people who disagree with them over some point that their children will get sick or go to hell if they “raise a hand against God’s annointed.” Or leaders may claim that the Bible gives them the right to tell members how to live their lives in areas that are, frankly, none of their business - how to handle their finances, how to educate their children, how to communicate with each other inside the home, and more.
Such abuses, which are unimaginable, say, in the workplace, can only happen in religious setting because of the presumed authority of the spiritual leader. Which, in my eyes, makes them worse.
Why Address this Now?
I held off writing directly about this topic for a long time because it is so painful for so many people and I’ve seen so many ill-considered or “halfway” attempts to address it cause even more pain and confusion. I didn’t want to be the next stop for people who’ve already been disappointed by “helpers” who turned out to be anything but.
I have addressed two false teachings that abusers often use to control their victims:
However, I was recently invited to attend a big “reunion” at a church that damaged many dozens of people in the community in the 1960s and 1970s. Though - as far as I know - the current leadership has long since avoided the patterns of abuse that occurred, there has never been a systematic attempt to help the abused with recovery.
Worse yet, aspiring spiritual leaders who grew up in that system have gone on to set up abusive systems themselves, the same way the sons of wife-beaters often become wife-beaters themselves. And - to my knowledge - those men have never been called to account for their abuse.
Here’s an irony - after I wrote most of this article, but before I published it, the pastor of a church we’ve attended for about two decades stood in the pulpit and announced a quantum shift in the church’s core theology, and claimed that anyone who disagreed with him doesn’t “really believe the Bible.”
There are churches that historically preach the theology he espoused, and if I had joined one of those, that would have been “on me.”
But this is an individual who professed to agree with the church’s doctrinal statement when he took the office, and who then arbitrarily and radically redefined the core theology of a 49-year-old church.
Worse yet, the Godly men whom he had chosen to become part of the “leadership team” are not the kind of men who are used to standing up to this sort of thing. Instead they tell me it’s not as “bad” as I think it is.
The trouble is that something almost exactly the same happened to us in another church. I made the mistake of standing my ground, but the pastor manipulated our closest “friends” into becoming our accusers, and we were far worse off than if we had just left. If you haven’t been through this once, you have no idea how bad it can get in a surprisingly short period of time.
If Not Addressed, Abuse Can BECOME Part of the Culture.
In the church that recently held a “reunion” while glossing over the damage they had caused, there was systemic, institutional abuse. Nothing of a sexual or physical nature, mind you, but a lot of bullying and threats that God would judge the families of those who judged the leadership.
Unfortunately, the leaders’ attitude toward bullying and other abusive practices became reflected in the behavior of many individuals who weren’t in leadership but were modeling what they saw. Even peer-to-peer relationships that might have been healthy in other churches became toxic.
Leaders Who Refuse To Address Abuse Become Part of the Problem.
In many situations, abuse initially comes from one or two people who may not even be in a leadership position. But when you try to draw attention to the abuse, and church leadership pretends that you’re the problem, a quantum shift occurs, and the leadership becomes part of the problem. And you’d better believe that bullies and other abusers pay attention to how such things resolve, or don’t resolve.
At some point, you have to decide whether the good you’re getting out of the church is worth the grief you’re getting as well. Unfortunately, like battered wives, many church abuse victims tell themselves “If this is as bad as it gets, I can take it for now.”
But it gets worse and they still take it, often to the point where it seems impossible to make the right decision. Their self-worth is diminished; they are demoralized; they have been gaslighted to the point where they can’t trust their own senses, much less their own judgment.
Add to that many abusive leaders’ preaching that leaving the church “for no good reason” is a sign of backsliding that will put you and your family’s salvation at risk. Such chains are not broken without trauma of some kind.
The only thing worse is staying in such situations as they continue to deteriorate, and you continue to be broken down.
Leaving an Abusive Church is Often the only Right Spiritual Choice.
Many people who stay in abusive churches until it is painful to leave not only leave the church, but question or even reject the truths of scripture. Saying “Get out while your faith in God is still intact” may sound like overkill, but it’s valid.
Most people who attend any church joined of their own free will. Though abusive ministries always try to make you feel guilty or condemned for leaving of your own free will, in God’s sight you are just as free to leave as you were to join in the first place.
God doesn’t save institutions. He saves people. You’re a person for whom Jesus died. Why should you let institutions make demands on you that Jesus never made, and worse yet, put up with it until it destroys your faith?
For more discussion on this topic and the unbiblical teachings people have applied to this situation, please see our article “Is it a Sin to Change Churches?”
The Church May Try to Manipulate You into Returning.
Most abusive churches simply write you off and say bad things about you to make current members more fearful of leaving (because the church would say bad things about them, too). But some churches will use relatives or close friends you have left in the church to nag you into returning, or to make excuses for the church, or to say it’s all better now and you should come back.
Some churches will tell their members to shun you and refuse to restore your “relationship” until you repent and go back. Sadly, if your friends and family treat you that way, you don’t have a relationship worth keeping after all.
Some churches may even go to such extremes as approaching your children, or using members’ children to beg or bully your children into nagging you to return.
The saddest part of this is that such manipulation often works. But once people give in and return, the abuser knows their vulnerabilities, and often become even more abusive toward the reputed “prodigals” than they were before.
Don’t be fooled. They may want your tithe; they may want your work; they may want to keep membership numbers from going down; they may want more normal-looking people in the pews. The one thing they’re not interested in is your spiritual welfare. Otherwise, they’d pray for you and allow you to find support elsewhere.
You May Struggle to Find Support Among Believers.
Many Christians have no idea how bad spiritual abuse can be. The worse the abuse you experience, the more trouble they’ll have empathizing with you. They may not even believe you. In their denial, they may try convincing you that:
- You’re overreactomg.
- It’s not as bad as you claim.
- You did at least something to bring this abuse on yourself.
- You need to forgive everyone involved, and the hurt will stop immediately.
- You just need to “snap out of it” and get on with your life.
Worse yet, it’s easier for some people to believe that their closest friends have suddenly become liars than it is to believe that such abuses occurred.
I have had formerly close friends try to excuse a pastor who set out to destroy my family because it was easier than standing up to him. Once I even had a pastor friend whom I had coached and counseled through a tough church situation that was far less grievous complain that I was:
- Taking it too hard.
- Taking it too personally.
- Not admitting my part in the matter (supposedly I shared the blame for an abusive pastor spreading lies about me and my family members from the pulpit).
- Not being forgiving.
- Not being forgiving enough.
- Gossiping by describing my experience to a minister friend behind closed doors.
- Gossiping by sharing my experience with a support group.
As far as I can determine, such reactions seem to stem from denial that this sort of thing could happen to a faithful believer living right to the best of his or her ability.
Unfortunately, the folks you know who have been through this sort of thing and do understand you may not be much help, either - many of them are still struggling to recover themselves, and have few emotional resources to spare.
“Support” From Unbelievers Is Unhelpful, Too.
Your friends who hold less strongly to the truths of scripture may come right out and tell you that, this wouldn’t have happened to you if you hadn’t been so darn religious or put so much stock in spiritual things or some such. The irony, of course, is that something akin to spiritual abuse happens in every ideology - even belief systems where the Bible plays no role whatsoever.
Rather than the “Take two prayers of forgiveness and call me in the morning” response, your unbelieving, or more shallowly-believing friends may say, more or less, “Give up on Jesus and it will all come right.” Or at least, “Learn to take Jesus (or the Bible) less seriously and it will all come right.” But the abuse didn’t happen because of Jesus or the Bible. The abuse happened because people have learned how to manipulate and take advantage of people while hiding behind “the cloth” or out-of-context Bible verses.
To put this into perspective - Jesus wasn’t persecuted by the Romans. He was persecuted by the self-serving religious leaders of His day. How should Peter and John have responded for being called before their own religious leaders in Acts chapter 5? Can you picture their religious friends - even knowing that the system is broken - counseling them to “go along to get along?” Can you imagine their pagan friends telling them their life would be easier if they just “moved on to other gods?”
I can, because - adjusting for differences in cultures - I heard both sorts of “counsel,” from all sorts of people who should have known better.
Recovery Takes Time.
Being betrayed by folks you trusted, being shunned and accused by your closest friends, closes a chapter on your life as surely as death of a loved one. Though you may be assisted in some crises by a support group or understanding friends, most people recovering from spiritual abuse are not. Either way, the upheaval and shock in your life will trigger certain responses, which will most likely include:
Denial: You can’t believe this is happening to you after all the trust you’ve put in the church and all you have done to support it. “Surely it’s just a misunderstanding,” or “They realize this is wrong, and if I just hang in there a little longer, someone will straighten this out.” God will judge those who were knowingly complicit in hurting you, but it may not happen in your lifetime, or even theirs.
False charges against us from a pastor who was eventually drummed out of the ministry for other abuses nevertherless circulated throughout our small denomination and even affiliated denominations unchecked. I have to confess that I gave up expecting to be vindicated long ago, even among my former friends who knew the charges were false the whole time they were siding with the abuser. That said, it took me years before I was able to stop dwelling on what had happened to me and started thinking about realistic “next steps.”
Anger: Though letting your anger and outrage eat you alive is unhealthy, having spells of anger, especially at first, is totally normal. And asking the Lord to help you to forgive the accuser doesn’t make the anger go away - no matter what people who haven’t been through this sort of thing keep telling you.
Just don’t let anger become part of your permanent outlook.
If you’re familiar with the “four stages of grief,” you know that “bargaining” should be included here somewhere. But in cases of spiritual abuse, it’s often more about muddling through and doing your best while in a haze of hurt and confusion, until at some point - hopefully - you seem to see things more clearly and make hard, but informed decisions.
Acceptance is not really an adequate word for the way this sort of trauma usually resolves, since you may never get over the feeling of being violated and misused. That’s perfectly understandable - you were violated and misused.
In most people’s case, there is a long period of just “putting one foot in front of the other.” Life being what it is, you eventually encounter other pressures that demand your attention, until at some point, your experience is no longer the single defining characteristic of your life’s direction.
You may always be “hypersensitive” to the signs of spiritual abuse, the way people stung by bees become more allergic to bee stings than they were before. But you can move on.
This may sound weak, especially coming from a person who was saved into a Christian subculture that preached constant “victorious Christian living.” But when I read about Jacob’s limp, Paul’s persecution by his own people, and many other Bible heroes, I realize that none of us survive unscathed. The victory is in surviving and continuing to live for Christ regardless.
And it usually gets better. We know it will one day get so much better than we won’t even remember the bad times.
What about the people who hurt you? Don’t be surprised if they seem to do well and to keep doing well long after they did hurtful things to you. God IS taking notes and will have something to say to them eventually. Don’t let them dominate your life choices or affect your emotional reactions to new events. Kick the dust off your heels, emotionally as well as physically, vow to “let the dead bury the dead,” and move on with your life. I know, that sounds easier than it is. Believe me, I know. But I pray this note gives you at least a little of the perspective you need.
May God bless, guide, and heal you!
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