What is spiritual abuse?

When I first heard the term “spiritual abuse,” I think somewhere deep down I thought it was some term a therapist trying to sell a book coined.

What I learned, however, is that spiritual abuse is real and it’s painful. The fear, anxiety, distrust and trouble with intimacy of all sorts that any kind of abuse breeds is just as common in spiritual abuse victims.

Spiritual abuse is much more prevalent in today’s churches than most people realize. Or want to admit.

So what do I mean by spiritual abuse? My personal “elevator definition” is mental and emotional abuse that regards spiritual matters and in turn affects a person’s spiritual life. Abuse can take on many forms including

  • inappropriate shaming from the pulpit in an effort to get the congregation to do something out of guilt;
  • leading the congregation to believe that only the pastor or the pastor’s wife can help them (instead of going to a counselor or other outside help for common problems);
  • making up man-made rules using snippets of Scripture to make them seem required by God; and
  • teaching members that their belief system is the only true Biblical way to believe.

Want more than my word for it? The definition found on the Watchman Fellowship website reads like this:
“Spiritual abuse is the misuse of a position of power, leadership, or influence to further the selfish interests of someone other than the individual who needs help. Sometimes abuse arises out of a doctrinal position. At other times it occurs because of legitimate personal needs of a leader that are being met by illegitimate means. Spiritually abusive religious systems are sometimes described as legalistic, mind controlling, religiously addictive, and authoritarian.”

The following excerpts from “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” by David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen offer a few more detailed examples of spiritual abuse:

  • “Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person.” (p.20)
  • “Spiritual abuse can also occur when spirituality is used to make others live up to a ‘spiritual standard’.” (p.21)
  • Spiritual abuse occurs when shame is “used in an attempt to get someone to support a belief, or…to fend off legitimate questions”. (p.22)
  • “When your words and actions tear down another, or attack or weaken a person’s standing as a Christian-to gratify you, your position or your beliefs, while at the same time weakening or harming another-that is spiritual abuse.” (p.23)
  • “There are spiritual systems in which…the members are there to meet the needs of the leaders… These leaders attempt to find fulfillment through the religious performance of the very people whom they are there to serve and build. This is an inversion of the body of Christ. It is spiritual abuse.” (p.23)

As I’ve learned more and more about the idea of spiritual abuse (and become a more outspoken advocate against it), I’ve seen the damaging power that it can have in a person’s life…but more importantly, the healing that only God can give from a kind of abuse that works to drive us away from him.

This post is a revised version of what I wrote for the Daily Jesus site, which is still up but not active. All the words, except where noted in quotes, are mine in both locations.


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