The Ugly Nature of Spiritual Abuse

A few of decades ago, my family sat under a pastor who was a wonderful teacher of the Bible. However, sadly, he became more controlling as his tenure increased. It was gradual, and like a frog in water that comes slowly to a boil, we almost didn’t jump out in time. In fact, our eldest eventually left religion completely.

This is the ugly, insidious nature of spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. It is characterized by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behavior in a religious context. Spiritual abuse can have a deeply damaging impact on those who experience it.

Indeed. Trusting spiritual leaders continues to be a challenge for members of my family, despite earnest effort to do otherwise.

Characteristics of Spiritual Abuse

There are several lists of characteristics available, so I am borrowing from a couple and condensing them. Furthermore, if you have been in this painful situation, you could likely add one or more aspects to the list.

  1. Abusive leaders have a distorted view of respect. They forget the simple adage that respect is earned, not demanded or granted.
  2. Abuse of power is always at issue. Abusive leaders misuse their authority to coerce people to do what they want, all in the name of God.
  3. These leaders push performance-based religiosity in order to ‘please God’; they mandate attendance at all church functions.
  4. No one knows the unspoken rules until they break one, i.e. don’t question the pastor; don’t talk about church problems.
  5. Abusive leaders label as rebels anyone who questions him or his policies.
  6. Exhibits black and white thinking
  7. Use exclusive language: “We’re the only church following Jesus.”
  8. Create a culture of fear and shame, often using Scriptures about not touching God’s anointed.
  9. Buffer him/herself from criticism by placing people around themselves whose only allegiance is to the leader or protecting the church they have built.
  10. There is often a charismatic leader at the helm who starts off well, but slips into arrogance, protectionism and pride.
  11. Abusive leaders are often a narcissist.

photo by Samuel Martins

The First Step To Recover From Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse is talked about mostly in psychological terms. But there is also a spiritual dynamic to it—a dynamic of the spirit. Spiritual abuse is not just something that comes about in a spiritual way…[it] is like physical abuse, which is not something that comes only in a physical way. When physical abuse happens, something physical is hurt. And when spiritual abuse happens, your spirit gets hurt. And that has long-lasting consequences.

photo by dnk-photo

Unfortunately, the first step to healing from spiritual abuse is removing yourself from the church or organization where it is occurring. However, choosing to leave one’s spiritual community or, in some cases, one’s entire set of religious beliefs, can lead to post traumatic stress symptoms. We are seldom prepared for the loss of security we had known.

And nothing prepared us for the loss of our complete friend group who remained part of the church we exited.

Staying, however, will only cause further anger and bitterness. It’s OK to be angry for awhile; God gave us emotions for a reason. Nonetheless, remaining in the situation could eventually direct those feelings toward God. About now, finding a counselor or someone to talk to would be very beneficial because these wounds are deep.

They are not going to simply disappear.

photo by Karl Frederickson

Next Steps to Healing

Grieve…the loss you are experiencing is akin to a death.

No one told my husband and I that we should give ourselves time to grieve the loss of our friends, the comfort of our ‘home church’, or the investment of 25+ years of our lives to this body of believers. Consequently, the grief continued to bubble to the surface for decades afterward, triggered by various situations.

While we grieve, we need to give ourselves permission to rest. Rather than resting, my husband and I were remodeling a home we had just purchased. In addition, we were dealing with grieving teens who had lost their youth group, and seeking to find a new church, thus a new church visit every Sunday.

We were exhausted. Therefore, our recovery took much longer.

In time, forgive the abuser(s). I’m going to be honest here. This. Was. Very. Difficult. For. Me.

Maybe because I erroneously thought forgiveness was a once and for all transaction, as with Jesus for me. I repeatedly felt guilt if I saw the abusers in public and felt the pain and anger rise up, again.

Thankfully, in time, I learned that forgiveness is 70 X 7, Matthew 18:21-22, ESV. Each time I was presented with the sin of the past, by God’s grace and mercy, I chose to forgive. This freed me from bitterness. It will free you, too.

photo by Joshua Eckstein

Learning to Trust Again

When trust is violated at a spiritual level, it creates an extreme hardship on the abuse survivor to trust anyone in a religious leadership capacity, again.

I think that recovery from spiritual abuse is in some ways the most difficult of recovery journeys. One reason is that the person who has the greatest potential for helping us recover from spiritual abuse is the person we feel most alienated from….

Let me explain that a bit. When someone gets physically abused, they don’t necessarily distrust the Department of Social Services. The abuser wasn’t acting as a representative of the Department of Social Services when they abused the person. Similarly, when a woman gets abused sexually, she doesn’t necessarily distrust the person from the women’s shelter who offers to be helpful… In the case of spiritual abuse, however, there is always a major problem with the “agency” that is specifically “designed” to be helpful: God. The fear is that if you go to God, you will get hurt even worse than you have already been hurt. Spiritual abuse always does damage to our relationship with God…It’s a wound of the spirit. It’s a wound right down at the core of who we are.

Three decades later, my husband and I continue to struggle with trusting spiritual leaders.

photo by Allen Taylor

God’s View of Spiritual Abusers

Be assured, God doesn’t look with favor at shepherds who abuse their flocks. For example, in Jeremiah 23:1-4, Jeremiah pronounced woe on the evil shepherds who had driven their people away. Their harsh ways and fearmongering had scattered the flock, but God would restore His people, again.

In the New Testament, Jesus spends nearly an entire chapter of Matthew berating the Scribes and Pharisees for their abusive leadership. In Chapter 23, Jesus pronounces woe after woe upon them because of their hypocrisy and the high standards they set for others, but not themselves.

Paul addresses false teaching in several of his letters. For example, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul begins in verse 6 expressing his astonishment that they could turn so quickly to desert him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. 

As Paul noted in verse 9, if anyone attempts to distort the gospel – Christ alone through faith alone – by adding other conditions, let him be accursed.

That, my friend, is how God looks at spiritual abusers.

Is there room for their repentance? Always.  Do they repent? Not often.

I’m not pessimistic about recovery for anybody, for anything. I’m hopeful. That’s why I do what I do. But I am aware of the track record and of how difficult it is for spiritually abusive people to see what’s real and to change that pattern.

God, have mercy…for us all.

The truth is, however, even at our lowest point, we were never alone. God was with us; we were not forsaken for a moment.

4 thoughts on “The Ugly Nature of Spiritual Abuse

  1. I think so many men have such a problem with an obsession with respect and power. Often, God has not called the pastors, but they appoint themselves, or people appoint them and their desire is power. All too common. Even Jesus had to set the disciples straight a few times about authority.

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