“Spiritual Abuse” – Part 1 of 10

“Quite a number of us wanted more information about how church finances were being spent.  We wanted to know if more money could go into direct ministries, benevolence, things like that.  When I asked some questions at an elders’ meeting – boy did the room get icy.  Later I was told to stop trying to create a faction in the church.” (The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, p. 21)

“Our church leadership used ‘spiritual authority’ to run our lives. They tried to tell us what Sunday school class to attend, how to raise our kids, what friends we could have, what car we should drive, who and how often to invite people over – everything.  When we objected, saying we could make those decisions ourselves, leadership labeled us ‘rebellious’ and bad-mouthed us all over the church.”

“Jill* and I sold our home and moved across country so I could work for this major ministry.  After a year they got on this weight thing.  Because I’m overweight, I was told I had to lose weight, because being overweight is ‘a poor witness.’ My financial raises and even my employment were at stake.”

“The pastor seemed to regard himself as a monarch ruling his domain” said Roy*.   “He saw the church as his private fiefdom.  Members were his personal serfs. When he said ‘Jump,” you said “How high?”, or else. He didn’t make requests  or suggestions – he issued ‘royal edicts.’  If you didn’t do what he wanted the way he wanted, you got slapped with ‘insubordinate’ – or worse.  You didn’t decline, disagree, or hold another  view.  When he wanted your opinion, he gave it to you.   Everything revolved around a top-down pecking order, ‘authority,’ and control.  Mostly control.”

“Our church has gotten into this heavy emphasis on home schooling and having big families. Also on women wearing head coverings to show they’re in submission – and no makeup.  Eventually it came out.  Our best friends told us we aren’t spiritual because our kid is in public schools, and I’m ‘of the world’ because I wear eye shadow and lipstick.”

“The controversy began… when I raised a question in the adult Sunday school class. We were batting around a doctrinal issue, predestination, which I always thought of as a ‘gray area.’  I disagreed with the teacher, in a friendly spirit.  But two days later, I was told by the church’s ministry coordinator that I’d been ‘argumentative’ with the teacher in front of everyone – that they would appreciate it if I would drop out of the class until further notice.” (The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, pp. 21, 22.) +

“Wounded and Overweighted”

These are examples of Christians who’ve been wounded and overweighted by the demands of their leaders and their version of ‘spirituality.’

“Each of these incidents had similar dynamics at work” write Johnson and VanVonderen in The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, considered by many to be the seminal work on the subject.  “The person in need – whether it was the need for information, dialogue, support, acceptance or counsel – was sent the message that they were less spiritual, or that their spirituality was defective.  In several instances, shame was used in an attempt to get someone to support a belief, or it was used to fend off legitimate questions….”

“Whatever the case, the results of spiritual abuse are usually the same: The individual is left bearing a weight of guilt, judgment or condemnation, and confusion about their worth and standing as a Christian.

It’s at this point, we say, that spirituality has become abusive.” (Subtle, p. 22.)

Ring Any Bells?

You may have seen or experienced similar scenarios.  Do any of these ring a bell?

–     A pastor maligns anyone who disagrees with him, smearing them both professionally and personally.

–     Heavy-handed authoritarianism.

–     Shame-based manipulation.

–     Elitism (“The rank and file aren’t spiritually mature enough to understand the inner-workings and decision-making processes of this church,” etc.)

–    Spiritual intimidation.

–     Suppression of criticism and/or castigating those who express honest differences of opinion.

Just a “Catchy Phrase”?

The terms “spiritual abuse” or “spiritually abusive” may conjure up images of Jonestown and Guyana, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians or various cults.  “Spiritual abuse” could never happen within a doctrinally sound, “Bible-believing, Bible teaching church,” right?  After all, isn’t “spiritual abuse”  just a “catchy phrase” to distract Christians from preaching the Gospel and standing for God’s Word?   That’s how Jesus responded to the spiritually abusive religious leaders of his day, right?  WRONG!

Shouldn’t We?

A quick Google of “signs of spiritual abuse” generates more than 170,000 hits.  That’s one hundred, seventy-thousand PLUS hits on the topic.  Clearly, this is no backwater phenomenon, no under-the-rug irrelevancy.  What used to be relegated to cults and heretical outfits is, sadly, occurring within “conservative, evangelical, Bible-believing, Bible-teaching churches.”  And Jesus had quite a bit to say to and about the spiritual abusers of his day.  As we shall see, God takes this issue seriously.  Shouldn’t we?

Buckle up!

While it is beyond the scope and purpose of this blog to post extensively on this subject, HEvencense has heard and seen enough about “spiritual abuse” to feel that it warrants some “ink.”  In this ten-part series we’ll look at:

–     What spiritual abuse isn’t

–      Biblical backgrounds

–      Characteristics and “hallmarks” of spiritual abuse

–       Indicators, identifiers, and categories

–        How and who

–         Some of the dynamics in play related to spiritual abuse

–         Healing and help

We’ll also include “What I can do” and offer several suggestions and steps you can take to heal and recover from spiritual abuse under “There’s Hope!


1) We aren’t experts in this field and don’t claim to be.  That’s why much of the material relies on data, research and findings from those who are.

2) This series is not intended nor does it pretend to be an exhaustive, comprehensive review of the topic.  Like peeling an onion, “spiritual abuse” is multi-layered and multi-faceted.  Entire books can and have been written on this subject.  This series is just “tip of the iceberg.”  So buckle up.  We’re in for quite a ride.

For further reading (a very, very small sampling):

Hot to Spot an Abusive Church – Ron Enroth

Beware of Spiritual Abuse – Craig von Buscek

Spiritual Abuse Profile – David Henke

Spiritual Abuse Resource Bank

Red Flags – Signs a Healthy Church is Becoming an Unhealthy One

Is Your Church Spiritually Abusive?

Red Flags – Signs a Healthy Church is Becoming an Unhealthy One

Is Your Church Spiritually Abusive?

Recovery from Abuse: A Practical Introduction for Pastors and Other Religious Professionals.  Includes Biblical References on Spiritual Abuse as well as additional Resources.

Healing from Spiritual Abuse: How to Break Free from Bad Church Experiences – Ken Blue

NOTE: Listing does not necessarily imply endorsement.

More next time, so don’t touch that dial!

+ Names changed to protect identities.  Examples culled from various sources.

See our Comment Policy.


2 Responses

  1. I remember a few years ago you commented on my ‘True Woman Manifesto’ post I would like to inform you that I will be writing a ‘True Man Manifesto’ and posting weekly inserts on my blog.

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