Updated: Oct 12, 2022
What is spiritual abuse?
Spiritual abuse is controlling another person in a religious setting. Spiritual abuse uses faith, religion, and belief to exert control over another person.
Pastors can abuse their congregation. Congregations can abuse their pastor. Congregation members can abuse one another. Parents can spiritually abuse their children. Spiritual abuse can occur in friendships and in intimate relationships.
Examples of spiritual abuse:
Censorship of decision making
Requirements for secrecy and silence
Coercion to conform
Inability to ask questions
Control through the use of Scripture or teaching
Claiming to be speaking for God
Requirement of obedience to the abuser
The suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position, is in spiritual authority.
Isolation, rejection as a means of punishment
Rebuking, correcting, criticizing, judging, belittling harshly
Public shaming and humiliation
Superiority and elitism
Keeping victims locked in abusive relationships
Punishing someone for not following gender roles
Purity culture: Forcing abstinence and modesty
Financial exploitation: Asking people to give a lot of money to earn God's favor
Using scripture to justify verbal, sexual, emotional physical assault
Biblical references to spiritual abuse
"Her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey; they shed blood and kill people to make unjust gain. Her prophets whitewash these deeds for them by false visions and lying divinations. They say, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says’-when the LORD has not spoken." Ezekiel 22:28
"They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them." Matthew 23:4
“Beware of the false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Matthew 7:15
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." Matthew 23:27-28
How do address it: If you are a victim of spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abuse needs to be exposed and called out. If you are a victim of spiritual abuse, talk to someone you trust about it. Expose the abuse and the abuser. Ask for support to confront the abuser. Have witnesses present. If the offender does not listen, continue to bring the matter to a higher council: other leaders and elders. Speaking up can be dangerous. Confrontation should be done with at least one advocate or should be taken to the other leaders.
One aspect of being a victim of spiritual abuse is the loss of trust. Take your time and give yourself permission to rebuild trust. Take it step by step, looking at each relationship, and each spiritual belief and practice. Ask yourself, can I trust them?
How to address it: If you are the offender of spiritual abuse.
Spiritual abusers need to be removed from their position of leadership and power so they stop abusing people. If there are criminal, financial, or other consequences they need to face, these should be addressed. They need to engage with and begin their journey of healing, growth, and change to stop abusing people.
What can churches to do address spiritual abuse?
Churches can help address spiritual abuse by not ignoring it. They can help by having multiple avenues for members to communicate their concerns. They can help by addressing the issue of pride. They can provide oversight so the leaders are not surrounded by "yes men". Setup structures for constructive feedback.