What Spiritual Abuse ISN’T (Part 3 of 10)

What it’s not

Understanding what “spiritual abuse” isn’t is essential.

As noted in a prior post,  by “spiritual abuse” we are NOT referring to instances of simple disagreements or differences of opinion.  We’re not talking about perpetual malcontents who disagree with another, stomp off in a huff and label the experience “spiritual abuse.”  Nor are we talking about professing Christians living in willful, wanton sin who are graciously confronted, refuse to repent, and walk away spitting “toxic church” to all within earshot.

Five Hallmarks

We’re talking about “church contexts” or experiences such as those described by The Watchman Fellowship, an independent, non-denominational Christian research and apologetics ministry that provides resources on cults and new religious movements. The Watchman Fellowship has identified five hallmarks of abusive religious systems in a Spiritual Abuse Profile. (Also see Elements of Spiritual Abuse, Beating the Sheep, and Is Spiritual Abuse in the Bible?)  They are:

– Authoritarian: unconditional submission to leaders is expected.

– Averse to criticism: the person who dissents becomes the problem rather than the issue being raised.

– Image conscious: protecting the reputation of the leaders or church is more important than truth or justice.

– Perfectionistic: individual worth is determined by performance; there is no compassion for weakness or failure.

– Unbalanced: they will try to distinguish themselves from other groups by putting excessive emphasis on some minor point of theology.

What it is

Johnson and VanVonderen define ”spiritual abuse” as:

“The mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment” (David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen in The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing & Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority, Bethany House, 1991, p. 20).

How/When Does Spiritual Abuse Occur?

“Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person.  It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being.  In this application, power is used to bolster the position or needs of a leader…” (from Johnson and VanVonderen.)


Is “spiritual abuse” exclusive to “sheep”?  Can “shepherds” be targets, too?  Are pastors/spiritual leaders ever victims of spiritual abuse?  Short answer: Yes.  However, most sources indicate that this is atypical, due to the fact that a key identifying element of “spiritual abuse” is that it usually comes from those in authority/positions of power – pastor, priest, bishop, elder, deacon, etc.

“Spiritual abuse occurs when a person in religious authority or a person with a unique spiritual practice misleads and maltreats another person in the name of God or church or in the mystery of any spiritual concept. Spiritual abuse often refers to an abuser using spiritual or religious rank in taking advantage of the victim’s spirituality (mentality and passion on spiritual matters) by putting the victim in a state of unquestioning obedience to an abusive authority.” Wikipedia

“Spiritual abuse” was once thought to be limited to cults or megalomaniacs.  However, experts cite growing instances of spiritual abuse within “Bible-believing, Bible teaching evangelical churches,” especially those that center around one personality and employ a top-down hierarchy or autocratic governing policies.

Spiritual Abuse: What Are the Signs? (For informational purposes only.  Inclusion does not imply endorsement.)

Real People. Real Damage.

While spiritual abuse may not result in external evidence or damage, it can be every bit as devastating as physical abuse – perhaps moreso.  This isn’t news to those who’ve been spiritually abused:

“Spiritual abuse has a devastating effect on people. A very high level of trust is often placed in spiritual leaders. It is, and ought to be, expected that the trust will be honored and guarded. When such trust is violated the wound is very deep. Sometimes the wound is so deep that the wounded person cannot trust even a legitimate spiritual authority again.

– David Henke, The Watchmen Expositor

Coming up: “Five Categories of Spiritual Abuse”, “Beaten Down Boundaries”, “Indicators”, “Unquestioned Authority” – and lots more!

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