Welcome to the world of spiritual abuse. You’ll find it in many churches and in many church leaders, hidden in plain sight. The church, of more recent times, has been exposed for its complicity in the child sex abuse scandal and rightly so. However, spiritual abuse is harder to pin down. It is both widespread and difficult to spot because, unlike other forms of abuse, it masquerades as virtue and even spiritual maturity.
Time to Wake Up
Spiritual abuse hides in the fact that it is not commonly discussed and thus is often overlooked. However, the time has come to call out spiritual abuse for what it is because, like all forms of abuse, it damages people. So, what exactly is it? I’m glad you asked.
I want to talk about the types of behavior that typify spiritual abuse, because all people, regardless of their faith, need to be equipped to identify spiritual abuse, the environments where it is likely to take place and the kind of church leader who is likely to engage in it.
What Spiritual Abusers Do
Spiritual abusers misuse Biblical texts and doctrines to wield power and control over their victims, and to elevate and protect themselves from being held accountable for their own actions. Here are some examples:
- Spiritual abusers use the doctrine of sin and fallenness to accuse, berate, critique, attack, belittle, condemn or produce guilt
- Spiritual abusers may add weight to their personal opinions by prefacing it with, “God told me to tell you…” so that the matter is not up for discussion
- Spiritual abusers use their — apparently — sophisticated knowledge of the Bible to position themselves above critique
- Spiritual abusers may misuse Bible passages about admonishing and rebuking to justify verbal abuse
- Spiritual abusers may inappropriately use Bible passages about giving/tithing and generosity to manipulate people into giving money to the church
- Spiritual abusers may use Bible passages about faithfulness in marriage to keep people in violent, dysfunctional or abusive relationships
- Spiritual abusers may use a person’s moral sensibilities against them, in order to make them feel like the problems or doubts they are experiencing are a consequences of sin or not having enough faith
- Spiritual abusers may insinuate or explicitly state that if the victim understands the Bible differently, that difference of opinion is actually a product of sin
The Spiritually Abusive Leader
There are many faithful and good church leaders out there. They are authentic, well-meaning, caring and are genuinely in the game to help people. Sadly, there are more than a few bad apples as well. Here is how to spot them:
- Spiritually abusive leaders usually have an authoritarian style
- Spiritually abusive leaders are primarily concerned with maintaining control
- Spiritually abusive leaders demand respect, often using Biblical passages about authority to prop themselves up
- Spiritually abusive leaders are preoccupied with presenting an image of righteousness and infallibility
- Spiritually abusive leaders are often radically insecure. As such, they have difficulty being honest, open and vulnerable because they are afraid that if people knew about their burdens and vices, that could be used against them
- Spiritually abusive leaders are often more concerned with “sin management,” rather than real transformation
- Spiritually abusive leaders suppress criticism or new ideas. They are threatened by free-thinkers, and people who challenge the status quo and advocate for change
- Spiritually abusive leaders claim credit for your growth and your spiritual victories, but abandon you if they perceive you are doing anything that might make them look like a bad leader
- Spiritually abusive leaders are most interested in preserving their position and status in the organisation, even if it means harming others
- Spiritually abusive leaders convince themselves and others that anyone who leaves their church must be in the wrong
When Spiritual Abusers are Exposed
When spiritual abusers are exposed or called out for their behavior, do not expect them to meekly submit and repent. Typically, spiritual abusers believe that they are justified in their actions, and can resort to using some or all of the following strategies to escape being held accountable.
- Spiritual abusers leverage their apparent spiritual maturity as a reason to dismiss the victim’s complaint
- Spiritual abusers may use Bible passages about unity in the church to justify silencing the victim
- Spiritual abusers may appeal to the work of evil spirits as an explanation for the victim’s accusations or complaints
- Spiritual abusers may attribute accusations against them to the work of Satan or spiritual attack
- Spiritual abusers may exploit the doctrine of sin and fallenness to excuse or minimize the severity of their own behavior. They may try to convince people that since everyone is sinful, their abuse is normal, and they shouldn’t expect anything different
- Spiritual abusers may exploit the doctrines of forgiveness and reconciliation to demand that a victim forgive the abuse, even if there has been no real repentance
- Spiritual abusers may pressure the victim to ‘move on’, as though any ongoing hurts are the result of ungodly bitterness or resentment
- Spiritual abusers may try to isolate their victims socially, by spreading harmful or damaging rumors or even suggesting to others that to continue contact with the victim may somehow lead them astray
- Spiritual abusers may attempt to make themselves vital to significant ministries, so that people will feel responsible for their possible collapse if they revealed the abuse
- Spiritual abusers manipulate others so that they think highly of the abuser and little of the victim, making the victim feel like they wouldn’t have any support if they did expose the abuse
- Spiritual abusers like to paint themselves as a long-suffering or patiently enduring martyr — the victim of an erratic and emotionally immature person, undermining the real victim’s credibility whilst underscoring theirs
- Spiritual abusers lie to the victim about how they are regarded by the Christian community, isolating them from possible sources of support
Knowledge is Power
It is my hope that this article has armed you with knowledge. Knowing and understanding the characteristics of spiritual abuse and the kind of leader who engages in them is the first step in taking back control. There is no place for abuse of any kind in Churches. It needs to be called out for what it is.
I am a victim of spiritual abuse.
I am not alone.
It is the silent epidemic that plagues our churches, and it is time for it to stop.
Previously published on medium
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