Every week, as a counselor, I come across victims
of ‘spiritual abuse.’ The following is offered as a first-draft
attempt to promote discussion on a very common problem…
‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as
when they do it from religious conviction’ (Pascal). ‘If the divine
call does not make us better, it will make us very much worse.
Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst’ (CSLewis, ‘Reflections
on the Psalms’, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1958, pp. 31-32). ‘The smarter
you are, the better your reasons for doing the wrong things’ (Grandma
Sophie to her precocious grandson Allen, in an episode of the
CBS TV show ‘Brooklyn Bridge’). ‘Hurt people hurt people’ (old
‘The greatest threat to the church today is not from
without but from our own leadership within’ (Philip Keller, p.12).
‘Don’t you ever be called Doctor, Reverend or Master,
for you have but one Master and you are all brothers and sisters’
(Ken Blue’s paraphrase of Matthew 23:8; p. 80).
‘Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock…
savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock…
Therefore be alert… And now I commend you to God and to the
message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up…’
‘In the motion picture ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’,
Julia Roberts’s character is married to a controlling, tyrannical,
high-powered business executive. Like all conscientious Pharisees,
he is obsessed with detailed performance. He demands that his
wife hang the bathroom towels straight and that she perform perfectly
in public. When she accidentally trespasses one of his rules (read
"laws"), he verbally, emotionally and physically punishes
her. His abusive power over her is virtually total and makes her
‘She must break free of him. Divorcing him is out
of the question; he is too possessive and powerful to allow that.
One of them must die if her freedom is to be secured, so she fakes
her own death. Successfully accomplishing this, she flees to another
city hundreds of miles away and assumes a new identity. By her
"death" she apparently delivers herself from a life
of torment.’ (Blue, 124).
A woman who was having difficulties in her marriage
(mostly due to unresolved childhood sexual abuse from her father)
answered the ‘phone. It was her pastor, wondering why she wasn’t
in church. She replied that she was having difficulty relating
to crowds these days. His response: ‘That’s probably because you
yourself don’t go out of your way to be interested in people.’
This is a true story – and an example of fairly common
spiritual and emotional abuse. The pastor did not attempt empathetically
to ‘resonate’ with the woman’s feelings, but rather scolded her.
Of course, technically (and speaking as a ‘church growth motivated
church-builder) he may have been ‘right’. But he displayed gross
insensitivity. And, indeed, a lack of wisdom: if he had connected
with the woman’s pain and fear, he would certainly have won her
*Spiritual Abuse* is sometimes difficult to define.
But in general it happens when
# ‘a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority
to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual
wounds’ (Blue, p.12)
# one or more persons in a relationship is damaged
spiritually and such wounding or scarring affects their relationship
with God so that they develop a distorted image of God and of
# a person is disempowered rather than spiritually
empowered – instead of the relationship being ‘safe’ it becomes
‘unsafe’; the abused person becomes dependent on the abuser, who
imparts subtle or not-so-subtle messages that ‘you won’t survive
without this relationship’
# someone with authority blames the person for a
problem rather than empathetically working towards healing; leveling
judgment where support is needed; using their power to attack
another to subtly gratify themselves
# a pastor or leader or authority figure regards
themselves as having supreme authority *because* of their status
(‘I’m the pastor, that’s why!’); their word is final, and not
to be challenged; they regard others as ‘too immature to handle
truth on their own’ (and like the scribes and pharisees often
quote Scripture to bolster their views); to disobey the leader
may even be tantamount to disobeying God; the leader/s are involved
in many/most people’s important decisions
# people go along with ‘authority’ whether or not
one agrees with the authority, or whether the authority is right;
people in the system must deny any thought or opinion contrary
to the leaders’; the leaders overtly and covertly remind others
regularly of their authority; ‘obedience’ and ‘submission’ are
# the leader is plagued by unacknowledged doubts
and/or feels inferior or insignificant, and compensates by gaining
power over others. Or the abuser is narcissistic, and is obsessed
with a desire to do something grandiose for God
# a church and its leaders become legalistic rather
than affirming the Christian good news about grace; there is an
adherence to formulas rather than freedom in Christ; peoples’
lives are governed by rules and ‘measures of commitment’ (frequent
attendance at meetings, tithing, etc.)
# young idealistic people want a ‘charismatic’ leader
to follow, a community to join, or simple answers to complex questions
# shame is induced because a person feels they rarely
# a congregation is berated for low attendances,
poor giving etc. – focusing away from a pastor’s defective leadership
# a person is not healed following prayer is blamed
for having a defective faith: in these situations the person is
‘revictimized’ to excuse the leader (and perhaps that leader’s
lack of faith!)
# this- or next-worldly scare tactics are employed
to keep people in line; or promises of this- or next-worldy health
and wealth if the ‘ministry’ and its beliefs are supported
# a person’s ‘boundaries’ are not respected
# there is not a free flow of communication within
the group: the leader/s control vital knowledge
# leaders appeal for ‘unity’ to protect themselves
from scrutiny/ appraisal
# attending meetings regularly is most important
– even at the expense of family life
# people feel guilty for feeling critical of the
abusing authority – they have been warned frequently about ‘disloyalty’
(Some abusing systems require members to sign ‘loyalty statements’).
Often they want to leave the abusing system but they feel trapped
– and they will have a significant chance of being trapped in
future abusive relationships, unless they get help.
Notes: # The key NT text for spiritual abusers is
Hebrews 13:17: ‘Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.
They keep watch over you as those who must give an account’. Ken
Blue comments: ‘The NT word here for "obey" (peithomai)
does not refer to the obedience that may be demanded by right
or imposed by decree’ (p.35).
# Ken Blue notes seven symptoms of abusive religion
from Jesus’ diatribes against the Pharisees in Matthew 23: ‘1.
Abusive leaders base their spiritual authority on their position
or office rather than on their service to the group. Their style
of leadership is authoritarian. 2. Leaders in abusive churches
often say one thing but do another. Their words and deeds to not
match. 3. They manipulate people by making them feel guilty for
not measuring up spiritually. They lay heavy religious loads on
people and make no effort to life those loads. You know that you
are in an abusive church if the loads just keep getting heavier.
4. Abusive leaders are preoccupied with looking good. They labor
to keep up appearance. They stifle any criticism that puts them
in a bad light. 5. They seek honorific titles and special privileges
that elevate them above the group. They promote a class system
with themselves at the top. 6. Their communication is not straight.
Their speech becomes expecially vague and confusing when they
are defending themselves. 7. They major on minor issues to the
neglect of the truly important ones. They are conscientious about
religious details but neglect God’s larger agendas.’ (pp. 134-135).
# ‘We must have the courage to follow Christ’s example
and overturn the system, be it a marriage or an organization,
if that system is wrong. Silent submission in the face of violence,
dishonesty and abuse will only enable that abuse to be passed
on to generations’ (Arterburn and Felton, p.72).
# Not all strong leaders are abusive; not all ‘black-and-white’
fundamentalists are abusive; perhaps (though I have my doubts)
not all ‘we alone are right / all the other churches are dead’
groups are abusive; not all ‘hell-fire’ preachers are secret adulterers
etc. (unlike the high-profile American televangelist who in the
midst of a sermon series about Rahab the harlot was visiting one
# ‘Abusive spiritual leaders gain followers because
they are, in one way or another, attractive. Their attractiveness
may very well be their genuine commitment to the work of God and
their sincere desire to train mature disciples… [Some of these
leaders] are not deliberately abusive’ (Blue, p.97).
# Watchman Nee has influenced many with his views
about hierarchy, rank and subordination: ‘Hence you recognize
not only the head but also those whom God has set in his body
to represent the head. If you are at odds with them, you will
be at odds with God.’ (‘The Body of Christ’, NY: Christian Fellowship
Publishers, 1978, pp. 20-21) ‘…Insubordination is rebellion
and for this the one under authority must answer to God’ (‘Spiritual
Authority’, NY: Christian Fellowship Publishers, 1972, p.71).
# Often in spiritually abusive situations external
‘worldly’ behaviors are castigated (can you name some?), but not
materialism, greed, lovelessness, injustice etc. And there is
more ‘sternness’ than joy.
# Abusive leaders rarely say ‘I’m sorry’, ‘I wonder
how I could have done better…’, ‘I don’t know’, ‘You were right’,
‘I need help’.
# Abusive leaders usually insist on special privileges,
honours, titles, honorary degrees etc. to bolster their insecurity.
# Mark Twain once said, ‘A cat that sits on a hot
stove lid won’t ever sit on a hot stove lid again. But it probably
won’t sit on a cold stove lid either.’ Spiritually abused people
find it difficult to trust authority-figures after their experience.
# ‘So, Ken, what you are saying in a nutshell is
that if we know for sure that we are really OK with God and other
people because Jesus makes us OK, then no one can manipulate and
control us ever again. And if the abuser realizes that he too
is fully loved and accepted by God, he will never need to lord
it over anyone ever again.’ Radio host, summarizing a three-hour
program on Spiritual Abuse with Ken Blue (p.120).
I have been helped by some of the insights from Ken
Blue, ‘Healing Spiritual Abuse: How to Break Free from Bad Church
Experiences’, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1993; Philip Keller,
‘Predators in our Pulpits’ Eugene Ore: Harvest House, 1988; David
Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen, ‘The Subtle Power of Spiritual
Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False
Spiritual Authority Within the Church’, Minnesota: Bethany House
Publishers, 1991; Ronald Enroth, ‘Churches That Abuse’, Grand
Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1992; and Stephen Arterburn and Jack
Felton, ‘Toxic Faith’, Nashville: Oliver-Nelson Publishers, 1991.