Emotional and Spiritual Abuse

The Insidious Stalker of Fellowship by Bob Williston

Abuse, it is generally agreed, is evil and unbecoming of Christians. It is probably on the short list of things that should “not be mentioned among us” – and we understand that to imply that it should not “occur” among us. But this ideal is frequently shattered when some incident of abuse does get mentioned. Unfortunately, such mentions are usually whispered, treated as rare and isolated incidents, and rarely ever recognized as abuse. This generally preserves the notion that in the fellowship one is quite safe from abuse.

But that is no assurance that abuse does not occur. It is not even an indication that abuse is less prevalent or less severe in our fellowship than in any other group in society. In fact, the manner in which some cases of physical abuse have been handled is an indication that abuse, in general, is not even appropriately recognized among us. Furthermore, what has gone virtually undefined, undetected, and/or overlooked among us is emotional abuse.

This article is an attempt to familiarize the reader with the dynamics of emotionally abusive practices and how abuse can be perpetrated in a community like our fellowship. It should not be interpreted as a commentary on the fellowship – except for examples of specific incidents that have occurred among people in our fellowship, there is nothing presented here that does not apply to all spiritual or religious groups or communities. In fact, emotional abuse persists with alarming frequency in the society at large, and it flourishes unchecked in countless relationships and communities.


Emotional abuse is difficult to identify. Not only is it invisible, it most often gets passed off as normal behavior. Children learn it from their parents, and its victims attempt to recreate the perceived normalcy of their abuse in future relationships. But it is every bit as destructive to individuals as is physical abuse. As well as harming the victim when it occurs, it does damage to him long after the abuse is past. In spiritual communities the implications of emotional abuse are that it also produces spiritual abuse and religious addiction.

But what constitutes emotional abuse? Emotional, or psychological, abuse involves any behavior, verbal or non-verbal, that negatively impacts a person’s emotional or psychological well-being. It can occur as a consistent pattern of unfair and unjust treatment, but it can also be a onetime traumatic event that remains unresolved. Victims are most often told that the treatment is for their own good; but when an individual is degraded and controlled he is being abused. Whether consciously or unconsciously on the part of the abuser, all abuse is about control – and emotional abuse is no exception.

Human beings establish relationships with others for the support, comfort, companionship, and sense of belonging that our emotional and physical needs demand. However, when abuse is present these needs are not met – and damage is incurred. Emotional abuse can occur in almost any relationship, but it is especially common in those where a power difference exists It is most often perpetrated by spouses, intimate partners, parents, siblings, friends, teachers, employers; and in spiritual communities by the clergy and others in positions of influence.

When we know what it is, we can all relate to emotional abuse. It is notoriously prevalent throughout society but, as stated, goes mostly unidentified. This is not because it is all hidden – it is just subtle. Much of it we have learned to ignore, and much of it we have learned to accept. As a society we have come to value as comedy such abusive tactics as put-downs, sarcasm, and the ability to outsmart the unsuspecting. The tragedy is that, unless we give diligence to educating ourselves about emotional abuse, we are doomed to go on tolerating it and perpetuating it unchecked. We need most of all to make the “retro-connection” between the damaging results in individuals and the seemingly harmless and unrelated activities that cause them.


Surprisingly, individuals who have been subjected to emotional abuse in any of their relationships will not come easily to the conclusion that they have been abused. People have a built-in resistance to accepting that another human being has the power to manipulate them without their approval. Despite the fact that they have been plagued for extended periods of time by feelings of worthlessness, confusion, sadness, anger, isolation, a loss of control over their lives, or an unsatisfactory dependence on someone else, many people never come to an awareness that they are being abused. Except for battered wife syndrome, it is still unusual in our society for emotional abuse to be given serious attention.

It is normal and expected that stressful situations will arise within the fellowship. However, for the sake of one’s own health and to be vigilant against abuse, every person should ask himself the following questions when these situations come along [Adapted from Reference No. 1] :

> Are my valued beliefs being criticized or otherwise insulted?

> Are my feelings being ignored by those who make decisions that affect or involve me?

> Does someone neglect to express approval or appreciation when I merit it?

> Am I continuously being criticized?

> Am I being shouted at?

> Am I being humiliated by someone, either in public or in private?

> Have attempts been made to prevent me from seeing some of my friends or family?

> Have I been manipulated by lies or contradictions?

> Has someone behaved in a threatening way towards me?

> Does someone project intimidating facial expressions or body posture toward me?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, it should be regarded as a warning sign. All of the above are abusive gestures that inevitably and invariably do harm – not only to the recipient, but also to the atmosphere of fellowship. These actions should never be allowed to go unchecked.

When a stressful situation persists and an individual finds that the distress he has been experiencing will not dissipate, there are other questions he needs to give honest and serious attention to answering:

> Do I doubt my judgment on this situation and wonder if I may be “crazy”?

> Do I feel afraid to express my opinions freely?

> Am I fearful of other people and do I avoid seeing them?

> Do I have to be careful around certain people; am I hypervigilant in their presence?

> Do I seek permission or approval before spending money or socializing with others? [Adapted > from Reference No. 1]

> Have I learned to overlook unkindness and disrespect?

> Has someone denied putting me in an uncomfortable position?

> Have I suspected that my “feelings” are wrong?

> Do I forget my bad feelings when the people who distresses me are being friendly toward me?

> Have I been prevented from discussing upsetting interactions with others?

> Do I forget what occurs during the “bad” times?

> Does some abusive treatment I have experienced seem not to be real – because no one else seems to have noticed it? [Adapted from Reference No. 71]

If the answer to any of the above questions is “yes” the individual is displaying symptoms of having been hurt by abusive treatment. He may still not be convinced that he has been abused; but he is nonetheless advised to learn what he can about emotional abuse and what he has to do to rid himself of what can develop into demons.

Before anyone jumps to conclusions, this diagnosis does nothing more than warn the individual that he is exhibiting characteristics of a victim of abuse. This diagnosis will do nothing to clarify an abusive situation, or even identify an abuser. The victim will still need to educate himself on the dynamics of abuse before he will be able to deal with the abuse and heal himself.

Also, this diagnosis does not indicate that the victim is a weak person, a push-over, or in any way “crazy”. It probably means he has a balanced sense of what his life experiences have been. This diagnosis does not mean that he should rush off for counseling or begin throwing away relationships; but it does mean that he needs to (a) identify his abusers, (b) take steps to see that the abuse ends, and (c) give diligence to healing and preventing further abuse. Most of all, a victim should not feel embarrassed to discover that he has been abused. Emotional abuse involves personalities and processes that are not normally considered part of the dynamics of abuse. That is why people need to be educated about this.


People who abuse others emotionally use their words to wound, entrap, and imprison their victims. They also have their own select ways of exercising control. Ironically, it is still possible that they are not aware of what they are doing. It is quite usual that abusers have, in the past, had such a measure of success with their tactics that they make them their habitual way of relating to others. They stop evaluating why they treat people as they do, and come to think of their behaviors as normal.

But abuse is not normal – it is always abuse. There are several common and easily identifiable abusive styles described below, and it is worthwhile knowing what they are. Everyone will recognize them as types of people he knows. And it may be that he will find it necessary to deal carefully with those people, or even avoid them, in the future.

The Overbearing Critic – This is the person who has an opinion on everything. There is no matter that is sufficiently trivial for him not to offer an opinion on. Unfortunately, he treats his opinions as unquestionable facts. He refuses to consider the opinions of others, and forces others to accept his. This is the person who interrupts and corrects you when you express your opinions. In strangers this “in your face” behavior is considered arrogance, but within a group it sometimes passes as evidence of wisdom and authority. The effect of this interaction is that it restricts the flow of free expression so that the victims are not recognized, and ignored if possible.

The Person Who Is Always Right – This individual is less vocal than the Overbearing Critic, but he is always right and everyone else is wrong. Even if an event turns out wrong, he will still be right. He sifts through events and information for proof of his rightness, and he is the person who always has the last say. Unlike normal people who admit their errors, he always finds a way to justify his decisions. For him, “what” is right is not as important as his own “rightness”. This is the person who will railroad discussions so you don’t have time to think about what is right or wrong about his behavior and his judgments. A common example of this type of abuser is the religious authority who expects compliance with his rulings – despite objections by his victims that his rulings offend their conscience.

The Judge and Jury – This is the person whose decisions are final and who grants no appeals. Unfortunately for others, there is no reliable standard – his decisions depend largely on the benefits and convenience to him. This is the person known for his harsh judgments of one’s behavior and his condemning of others as persons. His “teaching” strategy is to produce guilt and shame to force another to reform. He is the authority who withdraws privileges from another “until he learns his lesson” – this childish action despite the fact that all concerned are mature adults.

The Put-Down Artist – This is the sarcastic, wise-cracking person who takes pride in outsmarting others. He is generous in his use of such adjectives as “crazy” and “stupid” when describing others. His choice of language and tone of voice is chosen to degrade and make a person feel valueless. Unfortunately, the more skillful and creative he is with his use of verbal put-downs and sarcasm the more popular he may be as a comedian. On the other hand he may simply be thought of as rude; but he is not abusive because he is rude, he is rude because he is abusive.

The Stand-Up Comic – This is the person who uses sarcasm to address issues or make a point – and in so doing belittles individuals. He tells jokes, often publicly, to engage others by his use of humor to participate in the abuse of his victims. He does not laugh with the victim, he laughs at the victim. This type of abuse leaves a deep sense of outrage in the victim for being used for another’s pleasure. This is reminiscent of the preacher who, during his sermon, could have said, “I do not believe in evolution,” but chose rather to say, “Once I was a monkey, climbing in a tree. Now I’m a professor with a P-H-D.”

The Guilt Giver – This individual uses unrealistic and undeserved false guilt to control the behavior of others. Unlike the Stand-Up Comic, who delivers his abuse like a ton of bricks, this person delivers it a brick at a time. He is the person who asks subtle questions like, “What do the workers (ministers) think of that?” To him it really doesn’t matter what the “workers” think; what he wants to do is have his victim question his own decision-making.

The Historian- This is the person who remembers every bad thing his victim has ever done, or that he thinks he has done. He tells him he is forgiven, but proceeds to bring up past issues over and over again. This he does to shame the victim once again into accepting his decisions and feelings. He cannot resist making comments such as, “That was when you weren’t coming to the meetings;” – a non-statement, but a subtle reminder of an “errant” past. Also, this is the person who says nothing until it is time to pass judgment, at which time he will bring out a full litany of accusations that support a condemnation of the “person” of the victim rather than a condemnation of any specific “act”.

The Commander in Chief – This is the person who likes order. For him life is not something to be enjoyed but something to be controlled, and discussions are just messy affairs. He attempts to control every aspect of another’s life, from his thoughts to his actions, by displaying rigid behavior and expectations. Because of his reputation, he frequently controls others’ behavior by using signals to trigger conditioned responses. This is the person for whom a chain of command is indispensable. He is the reason, but ironically never the excuse, for the guilty person who pleads, “I was only doing what I was told!”

The Screamer – This is the person who uses screaming, yelling, and name-calling as weapons to control another. One’s first response to the Screamer is to just comply in some way to appease him; but that is the trap. It only encourages him to scream again so he can again be “appeased”.

The Intimidator – The Intimidator uses threats. There are two types of intimidators, the ones who are all talk and the others who back up their threats with action. The threats are not necessarily blatant, but however they are delivered they are understood. By creating intimidation, fear, and anger the intimidator gets his way. His threats are commonly introduced with the phrases: “I love you, but …..”; and “If you …, I will …..”; In a healthy relationship, threats are not necessary because trust and love provide the motivation for behavior. In our fellowship the threat of being excommunicated can be taken seriously. And in the absence of having the authority to excommunicate another, threats such as “I can’t have fellowship with you!” or “I can’t say ‘Amen’ to your prayers!” have been known to be made.

The Roller Coaster – This is the person whose moods and behavior swing from one extreme to another, removing any sense of safety and consistency from one’s relationship with him. Dealing with him is like “a roller coaster ride in the dark.” His treatment may simply mean he recognizes you one day and not the next. But he is also the person who gives instructions one day and then disapproves or even punishes you the next day for following them.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Sometimes referred to as “street angel, house devil”, this is the person who has a gentle public persona that is distinctly different from his harsh private persona – the public person being the false front for the true nature. What is damaging to the person who has to deal with him is that he is expected to deny one aspect of his relationship with this person while functioning under the pretense of another kind of relationship.

The Person Who Plays Favorites – Children recognize this person with no difficulty. Suggestions that start with, “Why can’t you be more like …..” are clear indication to them that they do not measure up. To abuse adults in this way the person who plays favorites has to be much more subtle about it, but this style of abuse proliferates nonetheless. It can be interesting in our fellowship to make a comparison between the types who get ministerial recognition for being “lovely” and the types who get “told” about the habits and lifestyles of the ones who are “lovely”.

The Role Reverser – This is the person who forces others into roles without their consent, or into roles that are inappropriate for them. He commonly uses them as informers, couriers, enforcers, performers, or even lovers. A parent can put a child in the position of emotional spouse by assigning parental responsibilities to the child and taking childlike liberties for himself. This role reversal is often justified as a necessity because of circumstances, but the inappropriateness of the child’s assumed responsibilities produces all the manifestations of emotional abuse. Counselors call this “emotional incest”. In a similar manner, friends and fellowship partners are abused by role reversers when they are expected to inform on one another, deliver and/or enforce someone else’s judgments against each other, or encourage each other to accept any form of abusive treatment. None of these expectations are compatible with friendship or fellowship – they are, in fact, virulently destructive. But spiritual leaders frequently expect these things of individuals. In role reversing fashion, this abuser departs from his role as “minister” to the fellowship’s health and assumes the role of investigator, prosecutor, judge, or lord – all of which are incompatible with the role of “minister”.

The Wrath of God – This is the person who misuses Scripture to get his own way, and who equates his own opinion with that of God. His children grow up believing that the Gospel, which was meant to bring them life, is nothing more than a rigid code of laws. He is uncomfortable with much mention of “grace”, and may have some unusual explanations about how grace becomes a justification for legalism.

The “Little White” Liar – This person values conformity more than truth. He has no misgivings about saying whatever is needed to control the situation, even if it requires a “white lie”. One can find reason to excuse the Santa Claus myth with children because no one expects it to survive early childhood. With the liar it is the intention to mislead in some manner that changes the little white lie into a full fledged lie. And a lie is an abuse. A “lie” is the opposite of “truth” and the archenemy of trust. The “Little White” Liar should be warned that a lie, when exposed, is still a lie and honest people will recognize it as a lie. The most blatant and damaging lie that gets propagated among us is the claim that this presently organized ministry began in the first century A.D.

The Indifferent Attendant – This is the abuser who withholds relationship from you. He is the person in your circle who will not communicate with you or acknowledge your presence. He is the person who does not fulfill the expectations or obligations associated with his role in a relationship. Examples of these negligent types range from the absent parent to the unresponsive spiritual advisor. In one’s relationship with these individuals, it is the absence of the expected that wounds. To say this person has “done nothing” is more an indication of his guilt than of his innocence.

Recognizing these abusive styles is not really the final analysis of one’s abuse. It may seem that one could simply vow never to associate with these types of individuals again and go on to live his life more free of abuse. But it is not the style that constitutes the abuse, and not all abuse occurs within the framework of these abusive styles. Abuse is better determined by the strategies used by abusers to establish and maintain control. The following is a review of these basic strategies.


Regardless of the style of emotional abusers, their strategies are straightforward. Not allowing themselves the options of physical abusers, they practice their control in a hidden and secretive way so that their victims are unaware of their manipulation. They are especially adept at convincing their victims that whatever happens to them “is their own fault”. In the end, they are playing mind games with their victims, and their strategies satisfy their ends.

Abusers isolate their victims from support systems so the victims become dependent on the abuser. This reduces the victims’ opportunities to resist, making it seem like there is no alternative available to them. In emotional abuse the isolation is nothing so dramatic as the prevention of medical care for injured victims. It can be something as innocuous as a private little chat with someone whose authority is so overpowering that one feels inept at resisting the pressure of the situation. It is not by chance that such little chats are “private”.

Abusers monopolize the perception of their victims. By eliminating influences that compete with their objectives, abusers are able to frustrate any activity that does not satisfy their expectations.74 They are not fond of any media that can inform their victims against them, and they especially do not want their victims exposed to anyone who would educate them about their abuse. Abusive leaders find ways to dispose of anyone who would expose their mechanisms of control. In our fellowship one is frequently admonished to go first to the workers for advice.

Abusers induce debility and exhaustion in their victims. This weakens the victims’ mental and physical ability to resist. It is always appropriate to question any demand that is made on one’s time, energy, finances, or any other resource – even if it is solicited for spiritual purposes.

Abusers threaten their victims. The threats are not necessarily explicit or directed at them personally, but an occasional example of what can happen to those who get out of line is satisfactory to warn others. In the real world this is the modus operandi of political terrorists. This tactic creates anxiety and despair in the victims so that it encourages them to conform in an effort to reduce this anxiety and despair. It is a telling sign when a distressed individual cannot appeal to the one who is distressing him for reprieve.

Abusers occasionally indulge their victims. This they must do, because it provides positive motivation for compliance. Also, when these indulgences are observed by third parties it provides the abuser with a host of supporters who will attest to his kindness and generosity should his victims ever complain about him.

Abusers demonstrate omnipotence. Their show of ability gives the impression of being in control and serves the purpose of making resistance appear futile. Their omnipotence may very well be of the “Wizard of Oz” variety, but until they are sufficiently challenged their victims find it far less of a risk to conform than to resist.

Abusers enforce trivial demands. This has the effect of developing the habit of compliance. It also allows the abuser to test his victim’s vulnerability to and tolerance of control by others.

Abusers degrade their victims. The humiliation they administer makes the cost of resisting them appear more damaging than giving in to their control. It also has the effect of taking the victim’s concerns off matters of principle and focusing them on concerns of survival.

Above all, abusive leaders know that they must establish a sense of order, and their control accomplishes that. The victims, then, accept the guilt of “disturbing the order” of things and conform. It appears to the victims that to conform is the way to take back control of their own lives – but the abuser has orchestrated the whole thing.

In most relationships where emotional abuse persists, there is either an actual or a perceived component of authority vested in the abuser. This situation then gets combined with the notion that those who are strong are justified, because of their position, in whatever action they choose to take against a subservient or weaker individual. But there is a serious misunderstanding in this conclusion. Authority and power are not one and the same. Authority is assigned to someone by another, and power is assumed by the individual himself. Authority involves responsibility, but it is often twisted to mean dominion and the exercise of power.

Parents should also be aware that there are two negative and abusive messages that get passed on to children that reinforce the workings of emotional abuse. The first message is that whoever has authority over them can speak to them however he sees fit – it is his right and it is for their own good. The second message is the old adage “sticks and stone may break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” If it were not for their great convenience to abusers, it is questionable whether these messages would be repeated as often as they are. Parents are always aware of the danger to their children of physical abuse, but they should be just as vigilant in protecting their children from emotional abuse.


Emotional abuse is damaging to one’s “self”. Today there is a general understanding of what that means, but there lingers a great reluctance to accept the seriousness of this kind of damage. The fact that courts can no longer ignore the “battered woman syndrome” has probably broadened the forum of discussion on emotional abuse. This open discussion will surely contribute to the education of many people on the seriousness of emotional abuse.

One of the damages of all abuse is low self esteem – the person begins to feel helpless and hopeless. The person who has low self esteem will habitually give in to the wishes of others because he distrusts his own ability to make decisions. This makes him more likely to depend on his abuser. A person with high self esteem is not easily controlled by someone else.

Another result of abuse is lack of self confidence. The person with low self confidence is unable to make decisions on his own. He will seek out others to validate his judgment, and will give in to someone else’s persuasive arguments, even though it goes against his gut feeling. It is self confidence that allows a person to experience risk and recover from failure, because he believes in his own ability to learn and succeed.

A victim of abuse may also fall prey to perfectionism. He will go to any lengths to excel at whatever it is he is doing, using great amounts of time and energy, even shortchanging his health and peace of mind. But there is an equally damaging opposite end to perfectionism. For this person the risk of failure demands that some actions be avoided. For this reason a person will begin a project only to leave it unfinished. For the perfectionist, he has not failed as long as the project remains unfinished.

For somewhat similar reasons a victim of abuse can succumb to failure syndrome. This is the person who does not feel he is good enough to succeed, so he subconsciously sabotages his own success by doing something that will prevent him from succeeding. He can be so uncomfortable when things are going well for him that he will sabotage the whole situation so he can return to the low self esteem identity he has become accustomed to.

There is also the victim who is possessed of unrealistic guilt. This is the person who apologizes overmuch, and has a constant fear of doing things to hurt those he loves. It is no comfort to him to be told, “Don’t worry. It’s not your fault.” In his subconscious he is still convinced that “it is still his fault”.

Another sign of an abused person is his unresolved anger and resentment. He has a tendency to suddenly erupt in anger at inconsequential events. This is a signpost of a deeply sensitive, hurting place in his life, and he winces every time the bruise is touched. There is an appropriate adage for this: “An odd reaction is an old reaction.”

It is not uncommon for victims of abuse to establish inappropriate relationships. A victim may also become crisis oriented – his reality can be so chaotic that he learns to thrive on fixing everything for everyone. He exposes himself to being taken advantage of by taking on responsibilities that are not rightly his own.

Most of us, whether we have been abused or not, know individuals who demonstrate some degree of these signs of abuse. It probably is the case that many people, including the victims, do not fully appreciate the extent of damage that abuse can cause. The victim will tend to hide his “perceived” inadequacies, and others will either be unaware of his condition or have no idea what to do to help him.


It is unfortunate that emotional abuse so often goes unchecked because the effects of abuse, when allowed to accumulate, will take their toll on an individual’s health. The damage is not in such visible manifestations as bruises and scars, but in less noticeable physical conditions that can plague individuals for a lifetime and never even be suspected of being associated with abuse. The following is a list of physical conditions that can indicate the presence of emotional abuse.

Addictions – Many abuse victims turn to a physical addiction as a method of combating the harmful effects of their emotions. This, of course, compounds the problem because what began as an emotional trauma ends up involving a physical problem as well.

Allergies/Asthma – It has been found that a positive correlation exists between feelings of stress and allergic reactions. Asthma has also been linked to stress, especially in individuals dealing with perfectionism

Depression – Depression is a response to the overwhelming. When the pain is too great, when anger too consuming, when emotions too conflicting, the blurry haze of depression has an allure.

Digestive Disturbances/Eating Disorders – Fear is properly described as a “gut” reaction, so it is not surprising that prolonged encounters with fear produce digestive disorders. It has also been found that people who are anorexic tend to display intense levels of anger. The rigid control they exert over their feelings of hunger is a compulsive attempt to control their anger.

Free-Floating Anxiety – When a person lives with emotional abuse, it sets up a pattern where nothing can be considered safe; so he leaves no moment unguarded. The manifestation of this intense guarded state prompts people to refer to him as a high-strung or nervous type.

Hypochondria – Free-floating anxiety can eventually lodge in a person’s body and cause a variety of discomforts. This causes the person to have chronic symptoms that medical diagnosis cannot label.

Other Ailments – A number of other ailments are also attributable to emotional abuse, among them migraine headaches, panic attacks, phobias, and unexplained skin rashes.

It is true, of course, that not all incidents of these conditions are caused by abuse. But they all draw medical attention – because the victim is suffering physically. Very often medical professionals are expected to cure these conditions, when all they can really accomplish is to treat the symptoms. We have progressed to the point now where these conditions can be attributed to stress, but it appears that we have a long way to go before the frequently heard “it’s-all-in-his-head” dismissal is eliminated.

This situation, in fact, emphasizes the prevalence of abuse in our society. Because we have not learned how to deal with victims of abuse, we can abuse them yet further by discrediting them for manifesting symptoms of their abuse. Emotional abuse is an insidious evil.


Spiritual abuse is not an expression most are familiar with; but neither is it a new phenomenon. It has been part of religious life for centuries, and mention is made of it in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Jesus Himself spoke of the problem. Spiritual abuse, which is really just a variety of any other form of abuse, encroaches on the mind and bruises the inner depths of one’s soul; and the victims are more frequently young and virtually always sincere.

More specifically, spiritual abuse is abuse in the name of God. It is the misuse of a position of power, leadership, or influence to further the interests of someone other than the abused individual. It is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support, or greater spiritual empowerment that results in the weakening and undermining of his spiritual health. It is the use of religion to control the behavior of others. It is the abuse of power in the context of Christian fellowship.

This type of abuse is not unique to any religious group – it is everyone’s problem. It can be found across the entire spectrum of Christian faith groups. It can occur in any organizational structure, but top-down hierarchical structures are especially suited to systemic spiritual abuse. Sometimes the abuse rises out of a doctrinal position, but it is most efficiently practiced in cults. Its occurrence in Charismatic churches is notably on the rise.

Invariably in spiritually abusive situations there is the presentation that God is in league with the abuser. One’s commitment to God becomes mixed with his commitments to people and organizations, and the role of the Lord becomes confused with the role of the organization. The common complaint of victims is that they are worn down by religious systems and roped in by countless religious performance expectations.


The Bible confirms what the literature has defined as the hallmarks of spiritual abuse: legalism, authoritarianism, manipulation, spiritual intimidation, neglect, and excessive discipline.78 Diotrephes [3Jn.9,10] is a classic example of a New Testament abuser, and Ezekiel [Eze.22:27-28] relates a very clear example of spiritual abuse in the Old Testament.

Legalism refers to a strict literal or excessive conformity to law or a religious code that restricts freedom of choice. It is the weight of religious perfectionism, a focus on the careful performance or avoidance of certain behaviors. Its proponents believe that their acceptance with God is based on their performance, rather than a gift of Christ. External spiritual performance is used as proof of a person’s spirituality, and may be expected despite any detriment to a person’s well-being. Some common violations of legalism are behaviors that reflects badly on the ministry, a lack of participation in fellowship as expected, and resistance to a group dress code. In recent years even public education has fallen under the scorn of legalistic congregations. Paul clarified the error of legalism in his discussion of circumcision, [Gal.6:12-13] and pointed out that spiritual leaders are given to the church to protect the people from legalists. [Tit.1:9-10]

Authoritarianism refers to blind submission to authority. Human beings, it appears, have an insatiable appetite for evangelical gurus, Christian celebrities, superpastors, megachurches – teachers and experts that can be placed on pastoral pedestals. This need for authority figures arises from the feeling that we need to have someone co-sign for our lives. Jesus noted that the authoritarian “teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat…,” [Mat.23:1-2,NIV] no inconsequential pedestal by any appraisal. But the position they are in is no protection against priests who rule on their own authority. When people dwell at length on the special insight, tremendous discernment, great wisdom, unique gifts, spiritual power, or some other quality that makes a leader special or authoritative, it should be considered the first warning sign that he may be a spiritual abuser of the Pharisee variety.

Manipulation refers to the artful, unfair, or insidious means by which one obtains his desired objectives. The teaching of false doctrine for any reason falls into this category. Paul suggested these types were masquerading as “super-apostles” to lure people away from the teaching of true apostles. [2Cor.11:13] Manipulators pose as benefactors, of course, but Jesus warned His disciples never to permit anyone who exercised authority over the church to be called benefactors. [Lk.22:25] Paul warned Titus of how such influences work against the Gospel. [Tit.1:9-10] Jeremiah made mention of both prophets and priests who would practice deceit and announce, “Peace, peace, … when there is no peace”; and display no shame for their manipulation. [Jer.6:13-15] One of the best tools of the manipulator is guided Bible study because it assures that those he is “guiding” will come to “his” conclusions.

Spiritual intimidation refers to making a person timid or fearful, whether by threats or otherwise, and thereby controlling his actions. This involves more than false teaching – it concerns the motives of those who would intimidate others to establish control over them in the building of little spiritual empires with themselves as emperors. Paul described this kind of intimidation in his letter to the Galatians, [Gal.2:12-13] and it is worth noting that these abusers even intimidated some of the Apostles. In our time the common source of intimidation is a claim that a certain group or church has some special attribute that makes them different and sets them apart from all other groups. For this reason they claim that the normal criteria for assessing abuse does not apply in their situation. Sooner or later, though, the telltale red flag will appear: the intimidator has received full sanction from God for his actions.

Neglect refers to the giving of little attention or respect, and the leaving of things undone. Within a fellowship, neglect involves the lack of help from others with one’s spiritual struggles, and the lack of spiritual leaders to put the health of the fellowship ahead of other priorities. Probably the clearest picture we have of the neglect of God’s people by those who were committed to caring for them is in Ezekiel . It is worthy of review as a warning to everyone; to the neglected about their abusers, and to the abusers about their punishment for neglecting and mistreating God’s flock.

Excessive discipline refers to control gained by the dogmatic enforcing of obedience or order. Obedience and order are impressive. However, they are not of themselves virtues because they can be found in both the healthy and the unhealthy. In fact, abused people are more obedient and orderly than others – and for good reason. Their discipline can be “punishing”. This is not reminiscent of Jesus’ claim that the weary and heavy laden would find that His “yoke is easy, and [His] burden light.” [Mat.11:28-30]


When the topic of discussion is abuse, there are always those who are not clear on what is included in the definition. Many who speak out against abuse are suspected of defending, or even promoting, any number of things that are not abuse. Emotional abuse, in particular, is considered by many to be nothing more than the reaction of overly sensitive and thin-skinned individuals. Lest this article be interpreted by any as a witch hunt of sorts, let us consider some activities and mistreatment that this article is not about.

As mentioned previously, this article is not about physical abuse. Physical abuse undoubtedly has its psychological effects, but physical abuse has now been reasonably well addressed by legislatures. Emotional and spiritual abuse, on the other hand, is something we cannot always depend on legislatures to address effectively, and we need to educate ourselves about it.

Some people are of the impression that “emotional abuse” means “the perception of mistreatment” rather than true mistreatment. No phenomenon is presented in this article that has not been identified as having a damaging effect on one’s “self”. It must be stressed that it is not appropriate for people who do not understand emotional abuse to discredit those they believe are “wallowing in self-pity”. For anyone who feels inclined to deny someone else’s abuse, they are warned that the denial of abuse is also abuse, and is incredibly damaging. The real pitfall for the person who does not have any appreciation for emotional abuse is that he, himself, is an abuser and does not know it.

It is not the intention in this article to address any variety of domestic abuse. There are several aspects of domestic abuse that are deserving of their own individual attention. However, the styles of abuse discussed in this article are all prevalent in abusive domestic relationships. If this article raises suspicions of abuse in those relationships, then the reader is urged to investigate those situations further. Importantly, this article is not about the kinds of mistakes that all good parents make from time to time. Parents are not abusive of their children unless they force them to perform, use too harsh standards of judgment, or use their power over their children to gratify their own needs.

Among coreligionists, there are some important distinctions to be made between what is abuse and what is not. It is not abusive when a leader uses his judgment and goes against another’s opinion; but it is abusive when the spirituality of the one with the opposing opinion is devalued because of his opinion. It is not abusive to confront a fellow Christian because of sin, wrongdoing, or honest mistakes, but it is abusive if the purpose of the confrontation is anything but correction, healing, and restoration. It is not abusive if a minister is asked to step down from his position because of emotional, physical, mental, or spiritual problems, but the goal must be to have him receive whatever help is necessary for him to eventually return to his office if possible. It is not abusive, or even inappropriate, to disagree on doctrines or other issues, even in public; but it is crucial that one not belittle or attack his opponent. Also, where abuse is concerned, it must be remembered that abusers may also be victims of abuse themselves.

Because abuse is more often perpetrated by people in positions of power, there is a common tendency to attribute the abuse to the abuser’s affiliation with a particular group. This should never be one’s first conclusion about any abuse. All abuse is perpetrated by “individuals” upon “individuals” – it is personal. And there is no reason for any abuser to be excused for his abuse of another.

There is, however, a case to be made for labeling an organization abusive. Any group that makes it impermissible to talk about problems, hurts, and abuses, is an abusive system. Many reasons get given for secrecy on matters of abuse, but churches should not have secrets. Unfortunately for secret keepers, the fine line between secrecy and deception is nothing more than the perspective of individuals. Moreover, the church that wants to care for victims of abuse must learn that secrecy is counterproductive when it comes to healing the victim. Another unfortunate reality is that the secrecy and denial of abuse in an organization does indeed implicate the whole hierarchy of contributing to the abuse.

Abuse should also not be confused with persecution. Persecution is harassment designed to cause suffering because of belief – the persecutor being a stranger or non-believer who inflicts his hurt on a representative of an ideology he disapproves of. Abuse, on the other hand, is inflicted on a fellowship partner that the abuser wants to control. This is a critical distinction to make.

It may appear that this article is written without empathy for those who perpetrate spiritual abuse. But that is not so. Spiritual abusers are as trapped in their unhealthy beliefs as those they knowingly or unknowingly abuse. It is hoped that this article can serve both the abused and the abuser equally by educating both about the damaging dynamics of abuse on all concerned.


For people involved in abusive situations, spiritual abuse is not really difficult to recognize. For them there comes first a sense that “things don’t seem right”. Then, as they investigate the cause of their growing dis-ease they discover a pattern of symptoms that are manifestations of abuse. The victim then may be reluctant, or even refuse, to accept that he has been abused because all the aspects of his treatment were “normal” – despite his gut reaction that “things don’t seem right”. Unfortunately, the individual components of spiritual abuse are pervasively present in the church itself, and this makes it very difficult for victims to accept that they have been abused. We need to learn that abuse is not normal.

The following is a list of climates in which the strategies of spiritual abuse (discussed in the next section) can flourish. These are not symptoms of abuse – they are situations that accommodate the work of abusers.

The Group Is Unique And Special – In groups who hold to the belief that they are special in some way, there becomes a tendency to think of themselves in terms of spiritual giftedness, unique levels of spiritual commitment, and so unique in their experience and circumstances that people unfamiliar with their special context have no way of assessing what occurs within the group. They even confirm their unique status among themselves with reports of the envy of outsiders concerning their spiritual benefits. In this elitist atmosphere an abuser can satisfactorily isolate his victims from any support system that is outside the sphere of his control.

There is a Focus on Performance – Many groups openly proclaim a focus on performance for approval, but many others who practice it deny it. The group’s focus on performance makes them somewhat of a “spiritual magnet”, attracting outsiders by their apparent standards. The downside of this focus is that groups can become so image focused that they cannot even live up to their own standards, making the need to hide what is real – ironically, to protect God’s good name. This atmosphere breeds paranoia, and the associated priorities of the group encourage abusers to dominate and control others, and violate a person’s religious boundaries and choices to make them reflect positively on the group.

Authority is Legislated – In some organizations individuals are deemed to have authority when they are recognized for the refinement of their comprehension and principles; in the manner of authorities in areas of expertise. In other organizations, authority is an endowment that comes with an appointment to a role of leadership. This latter version of authority in a religious group leads to the consolidation of absolute control in a top-down hierarchy. If there is an eldership, it will be composed of men and women chosen precisely because they can be controlled. Leaders in such hierarchies will avoid being held accountable by a denomination or by their peers in the ministry. This situation is highly conducive to abusive practices.

An Image of Exemplary Righteousness Is Maintained – Abusive religions are scrupulous in maintaining their public image. They misrepresent their history in an effort to demonstrate a special relationship with God, and mistaken judgments and character flaws of their leaders are denied in an effort to validate their “authority”. These efforts constitute an example of abuse at the core of the organization that can permeate the whole group.

The Group Keeps Secrets – A religious system that keeps secrets is worthy of suspicion. People do not hide what is appropriate – they hide what is inappropriate. These groups do not release members with love or any kind of farewell – they are more likely to see that they leave in an atmosphere of shame. Over time there will build a collection of alumni who relate similar stories of abuse.

Spiritual abuse is not a symptom of cults or deviant doctrines – it can take place in the context of doctrinally sound, Bible-preaching, fundamentalist, conservative Christianity. All that is needed is a pastor accountable to no one and therefore beyond confrontation.


Real-life martyrdom is virtually a thing of the past, and persecution is rarely a physical event any more. But today’s spiritual abusers kill nonetheless. They “… kill people through character assassination. They crucify their victims in public humiliation sessions. They flog the members of their church with false guilt. And they pursue ex-members with malicious gossip, and through the traumatic memories of their experiences … [while] others among us stand back, incredulous that anyone would tolerate a spiritually abusive environment for very long.” This is not a good report.

Spiritual abuse is alive and well in our day. Any and all of the dynamics of emotional abuse can be found in spiritually abusive situations, but a normal ingredient in all cases is “shame”. The following is a review of typical scenarios where individuals are victimized by spiritual abusers.

Out-loud Shaming – This is the “shame on you” that comes from belittling in any verbal message that resembles, “Something is wrong with you?” It includes the humiliating tactics of public exposure of people’s private lives, and threats of being removed from the group. In our fellowship individuals have been required to apologize to the church for private indiscretions, and announcements of excommunications have been made at fellowship meetings. These fall into the category of out-loud shaming. People are shamed in this manner so an example can be made of them to warn others in the group. In an abusive system the shame of being exposed, humiliated, or excommunicated insures the members’ allegiance and preserves the authority of those in control.

Learned Powerlessness – Somewhere in people’s lives they can have their power not to be victimized stolen from them. It is possible they were never taught the skills necessary to “act capable” and resist abusers. Or it can be that they were taught that they are less capable, less competent, and weaker – and they believe that of themselves. These people fall into a mindset that they are not loved or accepted, not lovable or acceptable; except when they perform well. When they cannot perform acceptably, the shame of their deficiency leads to isolation that can separate them from healthy and rewarding spiritual fellowship. It is impossible to know how many people have slipped away, unnoticed, for this reason.

Power Posturing – Power-Posturing refers to the focus leaders put on their own authority and reminding others of it. It is “posturing” because it is not, in fact, a godly characteristic.109 When this authority is projected on others it is intimidating, and the abuser believes he is respected because his victims are prompted by fear to behave “respectfully”. Executions are no longer in vogue, but a lifetime filled with fear is equivalent to spiritual torture.

Manipulation – Intimidation inevitably leads to manipulation, and the simplest and easiest way to manipulate people is through legalism. It allows the abuser to look good while he keeps his victims off-balanced and vulnerable. Jesus described the manipulation of the Pharisees as “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel”. [Mat.23:24] Spiritual abusers remind those who are under their control of all the “benefits” they derive from being in their group, and they frequently remind them of how much more care they receive than can be had in any other group. As with political manipulation, spiritual abusers know that if they repeat something often enough people will believe it has to be true. The ever-present “can’t talk” rule keeps people quiet, and their code messages thinly disguise their intentions; “Don’t you think it would be better to ….” actually means, “I want you to ….”Manipulators are also known for triangling: sending a message to a person through a third party instead of delivering it directly. These activities foster talking about people instead of talking to them; difficulty trusting others; and reading other meanings into what people say – anything BUT open, honest communication.

Accusatory Mentality – A most effective weapon for intimidation and manipulation is “guilt”. We have all heard of the guilt trip; it refers to an attack on one’s conscience through accusation. It goes beyond mere accusation, however, by looking for sin where no actual evidence of sin exists. The abuser presumes he knows what is in another’s heart. He accuses people of false motives, improper attitudes, lust in their hearts, or some hidden unconfessed sin – things that are unseen. He considers confession a crucial action for Christians; however, the person who hears confession is normally someone higher in the group hierarchy who can use the confession against the confessor if he ever steps out of line again. When someone attempts to defend himself against such attacks, this is the abuser who counters with, “I hate to mention this, but ….;” and he proceeds to demonstrate his uncanny ability to always have “more on you than you have on him.” Responsibility and accountability are not the issues, fault and blame are the issues; and the accusatory mentality expects people to pay for their mistakes. The confessions of others are most valuable in identifying whom to shame! Usual products of this kind of abuse are a perceived need to always be right, difficulty forgiving oneself, and difficulty accepting grace and forgiveness from God.

Idolatry – Idolatry is an immoderate attachment or devotion to something or someone. It is the “god” invented to enforce a performance standard, and to keep the system intact. It is the god who obsesses on people’s behaviors: how things look, what people think, and who is in power. There is nothing more damaging than an abuser when he becomes such an object of attachment and devotion. His “followers” become blinded by the spirit of pride and the spirit of the religion, and cannot even recognize their abuse. Abused individuals develop a distorted image of God – they take their eyes off Jesus Christ and give reverence to the man.

Obscured Reality – In shame-based systems members are to deny any thoughts, opinions, or feelings that are different from the people in authority. This allows those in authority to claim unity of thought within the group, but it ignores the fact that problems are denied and therefore remain. Because of the normative expectations of the group individuals are conditioned to be out of touch with their feelings, ignore their healthy “radar warnings”, feel like no one understands them, guess at what is normal, become self-analytical and suspicious or afraid of others, feel threatened by people whose opinions differ from theirs, and suffer stress-related illnesses. They cannot find out what “normal” is because normal trial-and-error learning is too risky – since mistakes shame the person. They get a distorted understanding of the world around them, and interaction with people and places outside their system threatens the order of their lives.

Unbalanced Interrelatedness – People learn about behaviors and consequences in the context of relationships. In healthy relationships there is a balance between dependence on and independence from each other, and within the relationship structure there is provision for error and correction. In an unbalanced relationship there is either an under involvement (neglect) or an over involvement with each other. In this situation, rules take the place of people. Some of the common effects of this kind of abuse are a fear of being deserted, lack of self discipline, rebelling against structure, a high need for structure, feeling selfish for having needs, putting up boundaries that keep people away, difficulty saying “no”, allowing others to take advantage of you, feeling alone, possessiveness in relationships, feelings of guilt when having done nothing wrong, and rescuing others from the consequences of their behaviors.

Boundaries – One of the necessary protections against abuse is appropriate boundaries. These are not walls of separation – they are lines of personal space which, if violated, make us uncomfortable and vulnerable. People who respect our boundaries may be said to be “minding their own business”. A very common invasion of one’s boundaries is name-calling. Another is the intrusion on one’s priorities of commitment. A healthy sequence of priorities is God first, spouse and family second, and religious and other organizations next, but abusive spiritual leaders are notorious for violating this order of priorities. Individuals who have no boundaries of their own will not recognize others’ boundaries, and will do things to others that are very inappropriate. Then, when others are healthy to object to the invasion of boundaries, the invader/abuser interprets it as a personal rejection.

Performance Preoccupation – In abusive spiritual systems, power is postured and authority is legislated, so there is a preoccupation with the performance of the members. “Obedience” and “submission” are the two important bywords. For people in these situations, how one acts is more important than who they are or what is happening to them on the inside. Love and acceptance are “earned” by doing or not doing certain things. These people elevate objective truth to the exclusion of valid subjective experience (the Holy Spirit’s work), as though understanding and memorizing Scripture is the only way to hear from God. This kind of perfectionism causes people to give up without trying, do only things they are good at, fail to admit mistakes, be unable to have guilt-free fun, and live double lives.

Centralized Teaching – This occurs in systems where more weight is given to the experience of religious leaders than to what the Bible says. There is the perception that “until the leaders receive understanding by spiritual revelation from the Lord” or “until the timing is right” or “until the people are ready”, at which time the spiritual leaders “impart” these spiritual truths, the people cannot know or understand them. This causes people to doubt their own responsibility to make choices and promotes worshiping men more than God. And it minimizes recognition of the work of the Holy Spirit in individuals.

Image Management – Image managers are concerned with how they look to other people. In a shame-based system, religious leaders are loathe to admit error and slow to admit the truth. The flip-side of this is that it requires the members to give recognition to the leaders as a show of “respect”. This teaches the group members, by example, to manage the image they make with their lives, and to wear their spirituality on the outside, whether in their hearts or not.

Evangelical Exploitation – Evangelism is a most honorable pursuit, but it can also be the tool of abusers. An astute individual will on occasion conclude that people who are attempting to interest him in their faith group are doing it more for themselves than for him. The evangelist cannot lose – if a person refuses him he reaps the benefits of rejection for Christ, and if the person accepts his invitation it will be another star in the evangelist’s crown. It is reasonable to question the motives of evangelists to be sure they are not recruiting for a religious group. A similar concern arises when an individual who leaves a group is approached by people who want him to return. This also is an honorable act. But an abused person will have no problem recognizing when there is no discussion about reconciling differences or apologizing for the abuse. When the abuse is not addressed, the evangelists are serving their own ends in a last-ditch effort to keep him from leaving. If he does not return, they can claim that “they tried” and he refused “their care”.

Christian Counseling – As honorable as it sounds, Christian counseling can be as damaging as any other form of spiritual abuse. Typically it is an abused person who seeks such counseling, and invariably the expectation is that the counselor will be able to prescribe a solution to the problem. The solution, then, will involve some plan of action by which the abuse victim can petition God’s grace to relieve him of his distress. Then when the solution does not eliminate the distress, it cannot be blamed on God or the counselor – so it becomes apparent that the victim has a spiritual problem. It is no wonder an emotionally abused wife will stay with a husband who brutally abuses her – she comes to believe from her counseling that leaving him would accomplish nothing more than more damnation to her own soul, and to revert to secular counseling after a Christian diagnosis would be heresy. What begins as a cry for relief from abuse precipitates a judgment on her spirit. That is spiritual abuse.

As common as most of these scenarios are, not everyone is victimized by them; and some people will be unsure whether they have been negatively influenced by these actions or not. When in doubt, there is one question that will help a person determine whether he has been confronted with abuse: “Have I been made to feel like I need to convince someone that I am a legitimate Christian?” If this has been his experience, he can be assured that it arises from a sense of shame that someone has inflicted upon him, and he is justified in investigating the source of his dis-ease.


Without a doubt, an abusive past relationship sets a person up for more abuse. In order to break out of a cycle of abuse, it is important to recognize three factors that set the stage for abuse.

The first is mind set. Some people feel they have little or no capacity to discern God for themselves. They view the Scriptures as a book of rules, not a book that guides them into character transformation so they can become like Christ. To them it is a book of techniques for doing right so they can receive a corresponding blessing from God. This predisposes them to spiritual abuse. They may even go looking for the “authority” who will “co-sign for their lives”.

The mind set of leaders about themselves is no less important. If they believe they have broken through to some higher level of spiritual achievement and thus “earned” the right to lead, then they have the potential to become abusers without even realizing it.

The second factor involves motive, which normally is to cause religious performance on the part of the people. It will reportedly be for the good of the people, but the desired performances are those that prove the theology of the leader.

Thirdly, there is a method that is present in all spiritual abuse – it is proof-texting. This means that Scripture is quoted to prove or bolster the agenda of the person using it. Because leaders use this method, followers learn to use it too. The problem with proof-texting is that the Scriptures are not understood in context.

To prevent misunderstanding, there are some questions that need to be asked before that a passage can be understood in context:

> To whom was it written?

> What kinds of problems or issues were facing the people being addressed?

> What did it mean to the original hearers?

> Is this a timeless truth, or a specific instruction for a specific situation?

Upon answering these questions, one’s understanding of many Scriptural quotations can be changed dramatically. One common example involves the oft heard claim, “The Bible says an eye for an eye.” Jesus indeed uttered this. But to demonstrate the misdirection of such proof-texting, this quote means something quite the opposite. The passage in which Jesus said this actually suggests the opposite: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you ……” [Mat.5:38-39]

An abusive person may feel angry and powerless, and rather than directing his anger at its source he may instead direct it at someone close and less threatening to him. Abusers have often been abused themselves as children, but not all abused children grow up to be abusers. Abuse may be a by-product of traditional roles, such as the dominance of men over women.


Victims of religious abuse are rarely overtly terrorized. However, that is no assurance that the victim suffers any less. Many victims suffer minimally, while others display symptoms as extreme as dissociative disorders and post-traumatic syndrome. The fact that the abuse is spiritual in nature probably intensifies the devastation of what would otherwise be simply emotional abuse. The following are a number of effects that spiritual abuse has on individuals.

People learn to be victimized. People may have had experiences, spiritual or other, that render them less powerful emotionally. Or they may simply never have been raised to be sensitive to abuse and given the skills to deal with it. In other words, they have not been prepared to not be abused. The result is that they will continue to be victimized until they have the wherewithal to overcome it.

A very common result of spiritual abuse is that people lose their ability to trust. Because of the high level of trust placed in spiritual leaders, the wounds are very deep; and it causes people to distrust even those who could be trusted. Such abuse may even destroy intimate relationships, because of the trauma caused by the erosion of trust. This is unfortunate, because the essence of a Christian’s experience is a trust relationship with God.

Because they cannot trust others, abuse victims will have a problem relating to spiritual authority. To defend themselves from being further abused by “authorities” they will tent to the extremes of compliance or defiance – but neither approach will prevent hurt.

Because of abuse, individuals get a distorted view of themselves as Christians. They confuse guilt and shame. Because it is not acceptable to themselves to do wrong they become ashamed of themselves for their errors and, despite all efforts to attain salvation, they remain “worthless before God”. Not only are they devastated themselves, they also cannot be an encouragement to others in that frame of mind.

The abused person is usually preoccupied with spiritual performance. In many churches the teaching is that one’s place in heaven will be determined by the good works done here on earth. Because of their ability or inability to adhere to the formula of orderly Christian accomplishments they have bought into, these victims will have tendencies to the extremes of self-righteousness or shame. The tragedy is that performance will take precedence over emotional honesty and human need.

A common tragedy in abuse is the inability to accept grace. Salvation by grace is incompatible with “reaping the deeds of one’s lifetime”. These individuals will become uncomfortable with being treated gracefully. They will adopt the attitude that others, because they are less “busy” being a Christian, are either lazy in their service or taking advantage of God. This, in effect, is an indication that they have a distorted image of God. Their God is never satisfied, He is vindictive and waiting for them to make a mistake; He watches but does not intervene when people are hurt lest He destroy the hierarchy of His authority; and His mood can be manipulated by their slightest mistake, at which time He will flee from them.

The above are the effects of abuse on one’s relationship with God. What a tragedy that these results in individuals are so out of line with what Jesus promised in His Gospel! Yet these are not the only damages done by spiritual abuse. Victims also experience damage to their skills and abilities in relationships with others.

Victims of spiritual abuse have difficulty establishing personal boundaries. Boundaries are the invisible barriers that tell others “where they stop and you start”. They are the “doors” to one’s “self”. This lack of boundaries prevents individuals from saying “No” to a persistent monopolization of their lives because they are learning “death to self” and “their lives are not their own”. This situation allows the victim to have no concept of rights in a relationships, so there are no limits to be violated. They are as put on as the person who cannot hang up the telephone on a pesky salesman.

Victims also have difficulty with personal responsibility. Because of the intrusion of abuse on one’s personal boundaries, a person can become under-responsible – even in his relationship with God. He may give up and just do what he is told – or he may become over-responsible and feel that everyone’s problems are his to solve. The extreme of over-responsibility is when a person martyrs himself.

In abusive groups, the lack of living skills is manifested in a bunker mentality. People act as though contact with evil is a source of problems. Home schooling and private education are used to isolate people from “evil”, but this is a naive and possibly dangerous solution to the problem of evil. Maturity, strength, and the ability to make wise decisions are not developed in the vacuum of isolation from evil. The flip side of this is that, when abuse becomes apparent, it is more impossible for the victims to leave “because of all the evil out there”. Living in this environment, people lose track of what is normal. To them, it seems crazy and over-reactive, even heresy, to call their treatment “spiritual abuse” – it has become “normal” to them.

People also demonstrate a lack of balance. What is “true” is decided on the basis of feelings and experiences rather than what the Bible declares. One of the experiences is that they cannot understand truths until they are revealed to their spiritual leaders. It is common that education is viewed as bad or unnecessary, and individuals even become proud of not being educated and disdainful of those who are. Their bunker-like existence shelters them from scrutiny and accountability of a normal everyday world – and from answering legitimate questions from their “external enemies”.

Not only does spiritual abuse do damage to one’s relationships with God and man – it damages the psyche. It robs people of so much that God put in mankind that makes him the mind that can be enriched by the touch of His Spirit.

A victim of spiritual abuse normally has a hard time admitting the abuse. Rather than treating his abuse as an impediment to spiritual growth and getting out from under its weight, he believes he is the problem and makes no spiritual progress because he cannot arrive at the condition he believes necessary for acceptance with God. Counselors have found that for some victims it is beyond their capacity to consciously process what has happened to them. Such abuse can be so deeply buried in one’s mind that he literally will be unable to remember much of it.

Victims of spiritual abuse are unable to open up to new ideas because they conflict with what they have been taught about right and wrong. They are locked in a box, denying to themselves any possibility that God could lead them to any new understanding. They cannot believe anything that has not been permitted to them by another. Because of this condition they become judgmental of others who do things they cannot do. It does not matter to them that they may be envious and like to do things that others do. Their righteousness is at the expense of others who will not or cannot perform as they do, and whom they must judge to maintain their own sense of acceptance with God.

One serious result of spiritual abuse is called cognitive inefficiencies. Regardless of how intelligent or educated an individual is, he can suddenly discover that he has tremendous difficulty studying and concentrating. He cannot maintain reflective thought and sequential reasoning processes long enough to plan ahead, to motivate himself to do anything, and to exert himself to any accomplishment.

When the effects of this abuse become impossible to deal with on a cognitive level, individuals become chronically depressed. It is quite likely they will never understand the root cause of their depression. The list of places where the blame for this depression can be placed is virtually endless – but the possibility that it is because of spiritual abuse is unfortunately put at the end of the list, if it is ever considered at all.


An addiction is any substance or process we use to escape from and get control over a painful reality in our lives It is using something outside us to escape from the fear inside us – to put us “out of touch” with ourselves. With religious addiction, the primary feeling is shame – not an awareness of our human limitations, but a toxic, debilitating core sense of being unlovable and inferior as a person. Healthy spirituality helps us process life and to be “with the truth” of ourselves. Religious addiction is whatever we use as a substitute for that.

All addictive behavior comes from deep pain and contains a cry for healing. Unless that cry is heard, then all recovery is superficial and the addict can simply substitute one addiction for another. People who renounce smoking, drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity but who are not healed emotionally are especially likely to substitute religious addiction for the others because it looks good. The underlying addiction is to controlling one’s pain, so a rigid religious belief system helps one escape from his “real” self and religious things and actions become substitutes.

In a culture that does not teach us how to deal with painful feelings – what better drug of choice than a perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing God out there Who controls everything and everybody? Furthermore, in churches we are taught that the “truth” is in the Bible, in religious leaders, in the sacraments – everywhere but inside us. And religion that is presented as a system of “shoulds”, controls, rules, rituals, ideals, makes it easy to squelch the process of life while thinking one is being a good Christian.

Those who subscribe to this rigid control are still denying their own feelings of shame in this process, and they accept a type of desperation in their pursuit of this control. Sadly, because it works for them, they will insist that others believe as they do in their addictive behaviors. Those who do not, unfortunately, they then view as a threat to the system of controlling this inner pain.

All religions, especially those which emphasize baptism and the sacraments, recognize the need for ritual. But ritual creates an altered state of consciousness where one becomes vulnerable to manipulation. A ritual performed by a religious addict will always be ritually abusive. Jesus never meant for us to use Him or any other religious thing as an escape from the truth of our lives. And beware: Spiritual abusers use ritual and its altered state in order to gain control over their victims.


Another outgrowth of spiritual abuse is spiritual violence. It is nothing new. It has appeared in an endless variety of forms throughout human history. The objective of violence is to control or kill, and spiritual violence is no exception. Those who will not be controlled are damned to hell. It begins with children as an outgrowth of mental abuse when children are demeaned for their behavior and told that God does not love them.

People have suffered public humiliation for centuries because they have not conformed to local religious norms. The press and television today allow the same types of abusers to proclaim God’s wrath on as many errant personalities as they care to identify. This is all spiritual violence. The common passive/aggressive form of spiritual violence is shunning – the refusal of “righteous” people to speak or even look at offending persons. This is, of course, “spiritual” violence. It is significant to note that racial minority parents [do not] reject their children because of their race. [But] parents of gay children, … often reject them because they are gay.

Religion is seldom objective, realistic, logical, and based on accurate information. Consequently, religious teachings are based more on emotions and family conditioning. A great deal of spiritual violence arises then from misinformation about the Bible and the nature of religion in this formative process. It would be hoped that many who are targeted for such public humiliation have enough dignity and self respect not to buy into the myriad of hate messages delivered against them. Unfortunately, within the confines of family and fellowship groups are the manipulations that keep people trapped and repeatedly exposed to this violence.

Unless rescued from this, the result of spiritual violence is spiritual death – eventually and invariably. Not only does it hurt the abused, it also affects the abuser. Hate is a bitter emotional diet. A spiritual death may be prolonged and tormented because spiritual violence first kills the joy and hope that make life worth living. It is no wonder many victims of spiritual violence give up and die. Suicide is a viable alternative to this form of torture.

There is also something called intellectual abuse that can seriously handicap people. This includes any scenario in which a person’s right to think for himself is violated. By scores of means a person can be restricted from access to information, from the withholding of pertinent information from him to preventing him from being influenced by friends, counselors, family members, and others. Frequently a person’s right to an education is stifled. The more serious abuser will be skilled at intellectual arguments intended to manipulate others into control, and it should not be unexpected that they will resort to brainwashing.

Financial abuse is another common variety of spiritual abuse. By this a person’s freedom to live independently is violated, and financial power is misused. Spiritual abusers will create financial dependence in their victims, which restricts the victim’s options in the relationship and his options should he wish to live independently. What many do not realize is that financial abusers are prone to excessive gift giving. This looks like generosity but it is in fact designed to bolster not only their “reputation” for generosity, but also their control of what the victim may possess. Financial abusers refuse to account for money spent, and may or may not admit to controlling and hiding financial assets. In our fellowship there is not a lot of evidence of this type of abuse among the laity, but it is apparent that financial abuse in all its forms is practiced throughout the ministry – despite any claims to the contrary. It should not be surprising to find that financial abuse is a common occurrence. “Money” has been described as a “civilized form of power”, and in our society the pursuit of ends by financial means is well respected. That, however, is no guarantee that souls are not being destroyed in the process.


Anger, fear, and guilt are not negative emotions. Emotions, in and of themselves, are not good or bad, positive or negative. They are involuntary reactions to the world around us. The good and bad labels come as a result of what we have learned to do to deal with our natural emotions. How, then, do anger, fear, and guilt become so enshrouded in taboo?

There can be no question that anger, fear, and guilt exist and are powerful forces in all of mankind. Religious people even discuss and consider the virtues of these emotions at great length. But spiritual abusers find that the responses of others to these natural emotions can serve their purposes. For that reason they would have their victims learn new responses to these emotions, and the natural responses are considered taboo. This contributes to the development of taboos against some healthy responses to these emotions when they threaten the control of abusers.

Anger is a healthy response of revulsion to mistreatment. It is a response that prompts us to defend our personal boundaries. It is a restrainer on our tolerance for abuse. In a healthy person who is abused, the injustice of abuse demands the response of rage out of his battered psyche, and when he has had enough he can vent his own anger and aggression on the person who has abused him.

Sooner or later, though, someone will forbid the expression of our anger. Unfortunately, anger that is not expressed does not dissipate, it is directed inward and builds. Fear is experienced in the stomach; but anger, when it builds, will manifest itself in a variety of ways in one’s head, such as a red face, distended blood vessels, and increased breathing. The final confirmation that an individual has been abused is when he understands that it is taboo to identify the abuse of his abuser. Whatever happened to the God-given response that warns us against those who would abuse us?

Fear is a learned response. Children are born with very little fear, but from the beginning of their lives they learn what to fear. It is a valuable emotion because it sounds alarms in us that keep us from all kinds of danger. Children learn it from their experiences and from others; and others teach fear to them. And that is good. Then, of course, there is the “fear of the Lord”, and that also is good. But none of this healthy fear has anything to do with terror.

But there may come a fear with a gut reaction. It is a fear that does not deliver from a danger – it is a realization that one is unpleasantly trapped and helpless. That is how emotionally abusive relationships develop. It is the fortunate child who has a parent who will assure him that the fault is not with him and will teach him how to deal with such abuse. The final confirmation that one is being manipulated with this kind of fear is the understanding that it is taboo to confront one’s abuser. It will still be acceptable to ask why one is experiencing such anxious fear because it gives the abuser an opportunity to further excuse himself from any responsibility for the distress. But it will be taboo to accuse the abuser. Whatever happened to the healthy fear that could be relied upon to help one escape from such a perilous existence? It has been overruled by a powerful taboo.

Guilt is a valuable signal that something is wrong with one’s own behavior, and it is a good spiritual nerve ending. True guilt is brought on by a realistic understanding of one’s behavior and its consequences to himself and others. Guilt is an understanding that comes with an intellectual consideration of cause and effect. It is an appropriate motivation for self improvement.

But there is the person who will “explain” that “you are to blame” for the negative consequences of these actions, even when “you” had no consciousness of having done anything wrong. It is the accumulation of this blame that makes an individual ashamed of the inventory of his error, and his whole body reacts in loathing to his own unworthiness. Shame is an indictment on him as a person. The confirmation that he has been abused comes when he concludes that it is taboo to refuse blame when it is assigned to “you”. But guilt is not shame – he was not guilty, one does not need to be guilty to be shamed. Whatever happened to the healthy permission to take risks, make errors, and grow spiritually from convictions gained through that experience without someone else injecting condemnation into the learning process?


As with battered women, the question about people in all abusive relationships is always, “Why do they stay?” This is really the wrong question to ask – it implies that the victim has the wherewithal to leave and is himself to blame for not acting appropriately. The question really should be, “Why does the abuser continue unchallenged in his abuse?”

There are legitimate reasons why abused people do not simply pack up and leave. To begin with, there is too much at stake. People simply do not invest years of their lives into friendships, relationships, and reputations and simply walk away from them.

Then there is the fear of leaving. And the fear is never unfounded – 40% of all female homicides occur when the women decide to leave emotionally abusive relationships. Walking away from spiritual abuse is no less fearful – there is a spiritual paranoia that sets in when one’s eternal salvation is at stake, and it prevents people from getting the help they need. And when dealing with spiritual abusers, no one ever leaves without being threatened. This is spiritual blackmail – it is powerful and it makes people conform.

Very often people cannot escape abuse because of a lack of resources. One of the tactics of abusers is isolation, so abused individuals normally find they have no support system to depend on. Abused people become so dependent on their abusive situations that they do not know whether they could survive emotionally or financially if they leave. In our fellowship the financial aspects are not usually a consideration for lay people. But for those in the ministry who want to leave, making a living brings them face to face with lack of job skills and lack of experience in financial planning, both of which can spell disaster for them should they leave.

People in abusive situations are also trapped by their own feelings of guilt. It does not matter that they are fully aware of the abusive tactics being used against them. They may well believe that their abuser is sick and needs help, so it makes them feel guilty for leaving them in that condition. More surely they will feel that in some way they are to blame for inciting their abuse and they are only getting what they deserve.

Not to be ignored is the fact that abusers make promises of reform that keep people in their relationships. The reform never happens, of course, but the victim wants to believe it is true and keeps changing his mind about leaving.

Another interesting reason for not leaving is that an individual has been conditioned to his role in the abusive situation. There are still women who are taught they must be dependent on men, and to reject that role for whatever reason is to be admitting failure. In the same way, people believe things about themselves, about their relationships, and about God that are not true.

People also are conditioned to have misplaced loyalty. In systems where authority is assumed or legislated, it follows that a system of loyalty must also be set in place. In these situations, disagreement with and disloyalty to the leadership is construed to mean the same thing as disobedience to God. Members, then, believe that they must remain in the system if they want to stay on good terms with God.

What happens, then, to egregiously abused people who simply stay in a relationship and shut up? They normally are driven away because they end up isolated and spiritually starved to death. Or, having the emotional resources to do so, they finally give up and say, “This is abusive and I can no longer tolerate it.”


The above reasons are all legitimate practical concerns that all victims of abuse must evaluate. The crowning insult, however, normally comes when the victim moves to counter his abuse in some manner. Regardless of the form of abuse, there are five classic Biblical supports that all abusers rely on to keep their victims from leaving them. Abusers routinely rely on them for guidance in their actions and defense when they are indicted. Abused people need to know what these Scriptures are and how they have been abused against them.

The First Classic – Never Resist – “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” [Mat.5:39]

This is the common advice given to abused people to encourage them to stay in bad situations and to continue to be abused. But did Jesus really mean that we should not fight against evil? Or more critically, did He really suggest that we should leave ourselves in harm’s way? In this passage Jesus was not advising wounded people that there is any virtue in allowing themselves to be wounded again. He was preparing his disciples to take His Gospel to such types as lepers, prostitutes, tax-collectors, and Pharisees – it was not advice on the securing of salvation. That matter is addressed earlier in the same chapter [Mat.5:20] and there is nothing about “trying harder to please” in that instruction. Shame on the person who would advise an abused person to “turn the other cheek”.

The Second Classic – Just Forgive – “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” [Mat.18:21-22]

The simplicity of this passage makes it easy to understand. How, then, does it get to be a favorite tool of abusers? It is because it is skillfully misapplied by them to serve their own ends. Notice that Jesus did not say to “not notice” the abuse, nor did He say to “forget it seventy-seven times”. Furthermore, to “forgive” does not require that we “trust” the one we have forgiven. The irony of using this Scripture to indict abused individuals is that Jesus used this question of the “forgive-seven-times” rule to make His own indictment of those who abuse others of lesser authority than themselves. This passage of Scripture was His springboard to the parable of the unmerciful servant; and the theme of the whole chapter [Mat.18] is Jesus’ condemnation of anyone who would abuse another. This passage is intended to be an indictment of abusers!

Where abuse is involved, it is convenient for the abuser if the person who forgives also forgets and ignores further abuse. But forgiveness makes neither the abuser nor the problem go away, and as long as they are not dealt with the matter cannot be dropped because the wrong was never addressed. Shame on the one who accuses the victim of unforgiveness and a “root of bitterness” if he has not himself contributed to the relief of the victim from his abuser(s).

The Third Classic – Never Appeal to Secular Authorities – “If any of you have a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? … The fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already.” [1Cor.6:1,7]

This Scripture is clear enough. Or is it? Is an egregiously abused person expected to deprive himself of the only credible reprieve from his tormentor(s) in order to secure his eternal salvation? This is decidedly not what this passage of Scripture is about. In fact, in the very midst of this writing Paul identified what he was talking about as “trivial cases” [1Cor.6:2] and “disputes about such matters”. [1Cor.6:4] Abuse, especially physical abuse, is not a matter of trivial dispute – it is a crime. And Paul was not negligent to address the matter of crime.

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. … Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” [Rom.13:1,3,4]

This passage was written to people who were professing to be Christians to warn them of the divinely sanctioned authority of secular powers over them. It cannot be misconstrued as a ministerial authority. Neither does it give a shred of indication that a victim should not depend on the law for protection. In fact, there are laws that make it a crime not to report abuse to authorities. As Paul wrote, “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.” [Rom.13:6] Shame on the one who would blame a criminal case on an abused person.

The Fourth Classic – Wives, Submit – For many, this really means, “Submit, even if it kills you.” There are a few passages of Scripture that lend themselves to this interpretation, and they are favorites of “Christian” husbands who brutalize, emotionally crush, and even bloody their wives. The incidence of women who are in precisely this situation is widespread and appalling.

There is no answer to spousal abuse that is different from the response to the refusal to go to secular authorities. In fact, Peter specifically addressed submission and the implications for government. “Submit … whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” [1Pet.2:13-14] And there is another slap in this chapter for abusers as well. Peter advised that they “not use [their] freedom as a cover-up for evil.” [1Pet.2:16] It is doubtful that abusers will recognize that as applying to them, but abused wives can accept it as assurance that it is not evil for a wife to expose a crime.

The Fifth Classic – Never Dwell on the Past – “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have attained.” [Phil.3:14-16]

There is nothing negative about looking forward, and there is every need to be reminded of the “goal” of Christians. But has this passage anything to do with the perpetration of abuse? The answer is clearly “no”. In this chapter Paul is discussing his past religious performance and how he came to understand that it was all “rubbish”. [Phil.3:8] Shame on the one who would use this spiritual advice to prod an abused person into silence about his pain and the unresolved issues of his past.

Have no fear – a legalist will always want to see another punished, or made to perform, as a compensation for weakness or sin. It has always been the case, and it always will be the case. There is no error in uncovering any of their strategies and escaping from them. Jesus never called us to have fellowship with people who would abuse us with impunity.


There is a notion among abusive leaders that they are not accountable to others. But this is not the case. Leaders are more accountable than others because of their position of authority, and because people are following them and emulating their behavior. It is the business of their followers to examine them to determine that they themselves are not being led astray, or abused, by them.

Abusive leadership has a condescending, negative view of the laity. They consider them not mature enough to handle truth. As expected, this results in conspiracies at the leadership level – where this attitude flourishes. Abusive leaders love things and use people. One of the hallmarks of an abusive church is how many people have left the group because they could no longer stand being used and manipulated. These leaders work hard at creating a superlative image – spectacular programs, captivating ministries, impressive buildings, etc. But these are more monuments to their leadership than reflections of Jesus Christ.

Abusive leaders are invariably deceptive – they cannot afford to be transparent. They are masters at slick speech and manipulative words, and they will lie or deliberately engineer circumstances to accomplish their ends and cover their tracks. Ironically, the reason they lie and make bold promises is to gain one’s trust. Once that is accomplished, their victims relax with them and the leaders are free to do and get anything they want. In the end, however, victims are rarely deceived by them. This is why victims of abuse have extreme difficulty trusting people. They know from experience how badly one can be deceived. With abusive leaders people learn that the so-called “right” answer is not necessarily the “real and true” answer, and they say what they think others want to hear, not what they really think. But that is a lie. It is always a lie, and honest people know it.

Not surprisingly, because they are so deceptive, these leaders tend to paranoia. They compound this with a reluctance to keep written records or minutes of meetings. This, in fact, fuels communication problems because, when confronted, they become confused and get vital information mixed up.

What abusive leaders do not understand is that trust is not something that can be demanded or legislated. It is gained or lost on the basis of integrity and honesty. People who say what they mean and live consistently with their ideals are people who can be trusted, and more consistency is required of spiritual leaders as a demonstration of spiritual authenticity. One does not have to agree with a person. If the person is trustworthy he knows where he stands and he feels safe with that person, even safe enough to disagree. The approach of an abusive leader is, at its very best, patronizing.


In every person’s experience there come critical times when truths are accessible. When that occurs, he is confronted with the choice of accepting them or running and hiding from them. Regardless of the choice he makes, the truth will not stop being the truth, even when he refuses to accept it. The realization that one has been abused, even egregiously, comes to the victim in just such a startling and revealing moment of truth.

It is normal that one of the person’s first shocks is that he did not recognize sooner that he was, in fact, being abused. It makes him feel defective for not having recognized it. Just as normal is a sudden discovery that he is caught in a denial of his abuse. It is not surprising, though, that this should be so. Throughout history people had an awareness that there was such a thing as the religious persecution of Jews, but they were very often unaware of how it happened to them on a daily basis.

When a person has accepted that he has been abused, it follows that there are some very important things he must tell himself, and insist to himself that he believes them. The first is that he is not guilty and did not cause his abuse. Guilt and shame are by-products of having been taught that he is responsible for someone else’s life, but he is not. He must consciously refuse to accept any more guilt. It is the abusers and those who “will not hear” who will be held accountable for damage.

He must tell himself that he does not deserve the burden of his abuse. Even if he cannot really believe it, he should tell himself anyway. In the process of his healing he will come to know that it is true.

He should not beat up on himself because he did not see the abuse sooner. Instead, he should applaud himself for seeing through all the smokescreens sent up to prevent him from knowing what was happening to him. There are valid reasons why a person does not “see it sooner”, and the victim is not to blame for those reasons.

He must tell himself that he is not doomed to feel the way he does forever. He was taught to feel that way, but just because he was taught to feel that way does not mean he was taught accurately. It was part of the dynamics of the abuse perpetrated on him, and he will certainly recover from those feelings.

An abuse victim will feel a natural tendency to minimize the horror of what has happened to him. He will have to fight against repeated messages that were programmed into him by his abuser(s) and society at large. He will need to identify the source of his pain and deal with the effect of the abuse on his past, present, and future. He will have to recognize the effects it has had on his health, and his relationships, including his intimate relationships with his family. He must treat his recovery as the task of healing the whole person, so that no part will be left still wounded. This is the task of recovering from abuse.

An abuse victim is advised to consult with a supportive friend or family member. This is because abuse victims can have clouded or inaccurate memories of what happened in their past. They are notorious for forgetting both incidents and the severity of incidents. One caution, however, is that any person who suspects he was sexually molested as a child should not do this memory exercise until he is working with a qualified professional.

Ironically, denial is the God-given ability to delay strong emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain. This is not a conscious form of denial, like lying, blaming, minimizing, or rationalizing – it is a numbness that occurs when the pain is too much to bear. People who experience spiritual abuse most often cannot believe what has happened to them. It is so inconsistent with what is supposed to happen in families and churches that it short-circuits their normal perception of pain.

It is important, also, to realize that recovering from abuse is not a one-time revelation. It is a healing process, and it will take time for the injuries to heal. It must begin with an understanding of what happened. There is profit in learning that one is not the only person who has had the problem, and to know that there is an abundance of help available.

For obvious reasons abusers have a paranoia about their victims accessing public support systems. It is true that the welfare department cannot dispense with God’s love and grace, but neither do the Christians who abuse other Christians. Social services do, however, know how to help people who have been abused and how to hold perpetrators accountable for their behavior. Much to the chagrin of many religious people, Alcoholics Anonymous may be credited with helping more people become Christians than can evangelists. This is not because Alcoholics Anonymous makes any attempt at a Christian agenda, but because it knows how to heal addicts so they can become Christians without substituting their first addiction for a religious addiction.


Until an abused person decides whether to fight his abuse or leave the situation, he will find himself in limbo, attempting to decide one way or the other. There are some guidelines available to people who cannot decide.

He should set limits on how much of himself he is willing to invest without seeing healthy changes in his situation. This will prevent him from being sucked into an equity-rescuing scenario. Also, he should stay close to people who can hold him accountable when he has exceeded his limits.

There is a special caution for the person who believes in staying at any cost because he believes, “If I don’t do it who will?” If it is in God’s interest to save that system, He can do it with or without any one of us. In the meantime, the abused person can find safe places to rest where he will not be spiritually annihilated.

For the one who stays in the relationship, there is the prospect of the fight continuing. In that case, he must decide whom it is he serves. It is not a question of “whether” he will serve, it is a question of “whom” he will serve. Also, he must know who exactly is his enemy, and heed the warning that he will be “combating spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places.” There is a rule of thumb that is worth considering. No matter how legalistic some of the members of a group are, if the leadership of the group is “grace-full” grace has a chance. But if there is a bottleneck of power-posturing leaders at the top the chances of things changing are very slim.

Another question that needs to be addressed is whether staying would mean that the contribution of one’s time, money, and energy are enabling the continuation of something the victim disagrees with in his heart An honest person will not tolerate his name being used to tout something he finds offensive.


Once a person understands his abuse, there are proactive steps he can take to facilitate his healing.

He needs to find a helper that will not collaborate with his abuser(s). It is not necessary that the helper be a professional counselor, but he must be able to relate to the emotional needs of people who have been abused – those needs being acceptance, belonging, friendship, and love. The victim is advised to evaluate his helper against the list of things that people must do if they want to help abused people. (See section How To Help An Abused Person.)

He needs to talk and relive the trauma again and again, as do victims of all types of crises. When the healing process ends, so will his need to relive the trauma so frequently.

He needs to rediscover the Gospel. It does not matter what kind of group a person is in when he encounters spiritual abuse, he will do well to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians in a step-by-step fashion and contrast that message with his group’s practices.

He needs to step out of the blame mode. Anger is focused, intense, and powerful – being angry at oneself can become addictive. Anger has the power to cleanse, but continued anger blocks healing and can keep one in bondage and allow the abuser to continue to hurt him more. That is why he has to get out of the blame mode.

If he has identified a specific abuser, he needs to exercise caution in his contact with the abuser. If his abuser still has a powerful effect on his situation, any contact with him could be damaging until enough healing has occurred that he is strong enough to deal with him.

He needs to understand that “forgiving” will help him more than anyone else. It is entirely possible that his forgiveness will be rebuffed by his abuser, so communicating his forgiveness need not be in a face-to-face communication. Forgiving returns the abused person to a state of being in control. It does not mean he has forgotten what has happened to him – but it does validate that there is something to forgive.

He needs to remember that trying harder is not the correct response to spiritual abuse. What is needed is rest from a misguided emphasis on performance.


The first thing an abused person must do to improve his future is reclaim his personal power. If he is in an abusive relationship it will be difficult, but not impossible, because it will be confrontive to the abuser. It can be necessary to remove oneself from relationship with the abusive person until either the victim or the abuser changes.

Reclaiming personal power involves reclaiming the right to make one’s own decisions, and retaining the right to direct the course of one’s own life. It involves saying “yes” to oneself when needed and saying “no” to others when warranted. And it means using common sense to avoid conflicts. The greatest common sense is to get out of abusive situations when there is no hope for change. That does not mean severing the relationship completely, but it can mean putting it on hold.

Secondly, a person must set limits that are healthy and self-respectful. It is a way of acknowledging that he knows what he can do and what he cannot and should not do. Setting limits is good role modeling for others around him. It is also a good way for him to allow others to do what they do without fear that he will walk in their path. As well as allowing one to survive sensibly and with joy in his life, setting limits can be one of the most efficient ways to reduce stress.

A person should also actively develop healthy relationships Healthy relationships are those in which each individual experiences positive and uplifting consequences, individual opinions and personalities are respected, and trust is of prime concern. It is a good idea to listen to how others speak to us and about us so we can avoid people who have abusive tendencies. A critical consideration for people who have been abused in the past: they should not open up to another person for a relationship until they make sure the other person can make them feel safe and comfortable.

A person needs to be diligent to be a healthy communicator. This means that:

> He has an approach that is gentle and open.

> He does not presume a position of rightness in problem solving.

> He speaks the truth confidently.

> He does not allow his emotions to prevent him from delivering his message.

> He is aware of the different agendas of people he communicates with.

> He allows others to hold opinions that differ from his.

> He tries to communicate an attitude of acceptance and love.

> His motivation for communicating is to improve the relationship instead of to hurt the other person.

> He allows others to make their own decisions.

> He tries to inspire trust by responding honestly to what is said.

> He always seeks forgiveness when he makes a mistake. That helps others to feel comfortable to admit their mistakes.

> He is accountable for what he says. [Adapted from Reference No. 2, p.156]

An individual should also learn healthy ways to solve his problems with other individuals. This means that:

> He will deal with the problem and not just expect to be declared the winner.

> He will face conflicts instead of avoiding them.

> He will understand that others have other perspectives on solving the problem at hand.

> He is clear about what is and what is not acceptable in solving the problem, and will not accept abusive behavior of any kind.

> He remembers that people do make mistakes and need forgiveness.

> He takes the initiative to forgive first.

> He avoids the temptation to exact revenge for any hurt he has received.

> He realizes there are times when the world is unfair.

> He only attempts to solve one problem at a time.

> He anticipates a positive outcome to his problem-solving.

> He does not try to force a predetermined solution to the problem.

> He understands the power he has to provide a solution.

> He searches for common-sense solutions.

> He makes himself aware of non-verbal communication. [Adapted from Reference No. 2 p.158]

For a better future, one should also develop his gifts and talents. Gifts are the activities one is exceptional at and that require little work on his part. Talents are the things he can be good at, but require practice. Anyone who is unsure of what his gifts and talents are should review what he enjoyed doing as a child before others interfered and told him what he “should” do. It is not out of character for abusive people to distract their victims from anything that could provide them with competence and fulfillment; and turning to one’s gifts and talents can accelerate the healing of one’s self esteem.


There are times when a person must maintain a relationship with a current or former abuser. If this is the case, he should never try to meet his abuser alone. He should meet his abuser in a neutral place, and he should have someone with him to act as an emotional shield. An emotional shield is a person who can support him while he is confronting his abuser. It should be a close friend, sibling, or spouse – someone who pledges beforehand to act as a buffer between him and his abuser if he gets into trouble. Abusers are often “private” abusers, and they act differently around others than when they feel safe and private with their victim.

Then there are people who cannot be avoided: people who have abusive attitudes. Individuals need to know how to respond to them. One of them is the name-caller. The appropriate answer for him is, “Don’t ever call me names.” He should not be told why or how it makes one feel – he just needs to be told to stop. And there is the person who orders others around – which has the effect of relegating others to nonperson status. The appropriate response to him is something to the effect of, “I don’t follow orders.” There is also the undermining individual – the person who makes put-down comments. He should simply be told, “I don’t like your attitude.” Or something like, “I’m not having any fun with you. I’m going to [do something else].”

For anyone who has to deal with these abusive and hurtful attitudes, there are steps that one can follow to deal with current and future situations:

> Recognize the offense for what it is. Ask whether it was intentional, unintentional, or a misunderstanding; and trust your gut reaction.

> Resist the tendency to defend your position. If you need to confront the person involved, offer only your point of view about the incident.

> Give up the need to be right. It may be a leftover from a previous abusive situation, and it can escalate out of control.

> Recognize and apologize for anything you might have contributed to the situation. But MAKE CERTAIN IT IS A LEGITIMATE WRONG OR OVERSIGHT, not a false guilt.

> Respond instead of react. Learn to be provocative. It will mean you have to pause before you respond to evaluate the situation, but it gives you control over your own behavior.

> Adopt an attitude of bridge-building as opposed to attacking or retreating. To practice and maintain an attitude of love and acceptance does not mean you agree with the person who hurt you.

> Realize that being the target of someone’s hostility does not mean you are the cause of his anger. Take responsibility for only your part of it, and AVOID THE TRAP OF FALSE GUILT.

> Create your personal limits. You have the right to define what your limits are and to insist that they be respected. Realize that even if you are hurt, it need not take away your happiness. [Adapted from Reference No. 2 pp.152-154]

The summary of all this preparation for the future is that a person may not be able to stop all abuse, but he can refuse to accept it or be a part of it. And those who would pose as intermediaries between him and God should be regarded with suspicion.


People who have suffered from spiritual abuse have special needs and special problems. Not the least of their problems is that they are misunderstood, even stigmatized, by religious people. Anyone who wants to help these people should first of all educate themselves about their needs. Otherwise, one’s efforts to help them are likely to be frustrated. The following are some considerations that are critical for helping abuse victims.

Most survivors have trouble trusting. They need a safe place for confidentiality, where they may connect with another caring person without becoming too involved in private lives. Victims of abuse should NEVER BE PUSHED TO TRUST. Respecting the victim’s boundaries demands that the recovery process not be pushed.

Survivors need to tell their story. This is so they will remember it themselves and not deny any part of it. It is important to listen without (a) trying to extract information he is not willing to share, (b) attempting to discount or minimize the seriousness of his concerns, feelings, and fears, and (c) blaming him for his situation. The victim needs to be made to realize that he did not deserve to be abused, and the abusers are all responsible for their own actions.

Do not intellectualize the victim’s emotions. It is normal for an abused individual to feel intense emotions, and the longer he has had to endure the abuse the longer it will take for him to experience the full range of emotions involved in the experience. Too much intellectualizing inhibits the survivor from dealing with his feelings of fear, guilt, anger, grief, rage, and sorrow. Spiritual abuse involves the over spiritualizing of emotions, and survivors need time to regain a proper balance in their emotions.

Evaluate and be honest about yourself and your church, accept the truth of what the victim tells you, keep confidentiality, and be trustworthy. Admission to your own struggles will encourage him to struggle and not give up himself.

Do not make decisions for him and do not try to “fix” him. Count him as equal to yourself, not less because he is needy. Be careful not to speak to him “for God”. Assure him that a recovery time of 2 to 4 years, or longer, is normal, and trust him to make the right choices for himself. Encourage him and help him to develop a safety plan, and encourage him to avoid isolation from family, friends, church friends, and any others who can support him in his efforts to recover. Never minimize threats made by his abuser(s).

Be gentle. Most people who have suffered spiritual abuse do not need psychotherapy – they need education and information. They need someone to help them learn what has happened to them and what is causing the flood of emotions in them. Realize that spiritually abused people are normally under-experienced in dealing with conflict because of the abusive spiritual relationship they have had. It is critical that survivors know that “God is not the group.” Above all, remember that abuse separates people from others they love dearly.


It may surprise many, and offend others, to find this discussion in this article. The myths discussed here are those that apply to the public perception of cults. Ironically, these myths apply as much to any mainstream church as to any cult. The difference is that when the perspective is reversed the scenario appears quite unrelated. This is a sure indication that everyone needs to be educated about these things.

MYTH: The problem of ex-members are spiritual, not psychological. There is no basis in reality for this notion. Ex-members of cults and mainstream groups alike have demonstrated significant instances of depression, loneliness, anxiety, low self-esteem, overdependence, confusion, inability to concentrate, somatic complaints, and on occasion psychosis. Common among these hurting people is the need to ask such trivial questions as, “Can I be excused now?” or “Can I listen to the radio?” These are not spiritual problems; they originate in unbiblical teachings and in controlling social interactions.

MYTH: Only ex-members of non-Christian cults suffer from psychological disorders. For this to be true, one must assume that Christians never have psychological disorders, or that all cults are non-Christian. Both these assumptions are, of course, untrue. What can be substantiated is that abusive Christian groups can and frequently do exacerbate previously existing psychological disorders, and even produce such disorders when they were not already present. Abusive groups attempt to mold their members into a composite personality which requires relating to the world in value judgments and extroversion. But not all people are extroverts and judge-types by nature, and attempts to alter their personality types can invite disaster in the form of neurosis and emotional difficulties. In our fellowship people have been seriously judged for their reluctance to fit into the “taking part” mold; and there is no way of knowing how many have left or rejected our fellowship because of the pressure to extroversion.

MYTH: Christian and Non-Christian Groups can produce problems, but all the people involved must have had prior psychological hang-ups that would have surfaced regardless of the group they joined. It has been found that the proportion of people who have problems and join abusive groups is only slightly above that of the general population. There are a few variables, however, that do help predict the types of persons who will join a cult or a cult-like group.

MYTH: Unbelievers may get involved with cults, but born-again believers will not. The belief is that, even if they did, their involvement would not affect them so negatively. This ignores the fact that a large portion of those involved in cults and other extreme groups came from evangelical type church bases.

MYTH: Christians can and do get involved in abusive groups, but all they really need is some good Bible teaching and a warm, caring Christian fellowship and they will be fine. There is a lot of truth in this statement. Unfortunately, half-truths are often the worse form of error. Furthermore, not all people who leave abusive groups want Bible teaching or Christian fellowship. There is a long list of nonreligious activities that has proven very important in rehabilitating such individuals, including: love and support of family members, support of former group members, establishing a new career, supporting others who leave abusive situations, establishing new friendships, and getting as far away from cult influences as possible

MYTH: The best way for ex-members to receive help is to see a professional therapist such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or mental health counselor. The problem with professional therapists is that many of them can subscribe to any of the above myths. There are also therapists who will proceed as though the blame for the situation is with the individual rather than with the group. Such therapy can make the ex-member victim even worst.

The one piece of advice that must never be overlooked is that formerly abused people must be encouraged to think, and to think critically.


Having considered all the dynamics of abusive situations, and considering the reasons for which human beings enter into relationships with others, the following is presented as somewhat of a bill of rights for relationships.

> The right to goodwill from one’s fellowship partner.

> The right to emotional support.

> The right to be heard by one’s fellowship partner and to be responded to with courtesy.

> The right to have one’s feelings and experiences acknowledged as real and valid.

> The right to clear and informative answers to one’s questions of concern.

> The right to live free from criticism and judgment.

> The right to live free from accusation and blame.

> The right to encouragement.

> The right to live free from emotional and physical threats.

> The right to be respectfully asked, rather than “ordered”.

> The right to live free from angry outbursts and rage. [Adapted from Reference No. 165]

These are normal expectations of people who enter into fellowship relationships. They are all compatible with the teachings of Jesus. They are all necessary for the development of love in all its aspects. May we all know the kind of fellowship than can be nurtured on these principles.


1. Maleki, Meysa Emotional/Psychological Abuse

2. Jantz, Gregory L. Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse p.16

3. Ibid. pp.15-31 4. Ibid. p.17 – 5. Ibid. p.18 – 6. Ibid. pp.20,21,50 – 7. Ibid. p.23 – 8. Ibid. p.24 – 9. Ibid. p.27 – 10. Ibid. p.33 – 11. Ibid. p.34 – 12. Ibid. pp.35-37 – 13. Ibid. p.36 – 14. Ibid. p.37 – 15. Ibid. p.38 – 16. Ibid. p.43 – 17. Ibid. pp.44,45,128 – 18. Ibid. pp.46,47,128 – 19. Ibid. pp.47,48,128 – 20. Ibid. pp.51,52,128 – 21. Ibid. pp.52,128 – 22. Ibid. pp.55,56,128 – 23. Ibid. pp.58-60,128 – 24. Ibid. pp.60-128 – 25. Ibid. pp.63,64,128 – 26. Ibid. p.64 – 27. Ibid. p.66 – 28. Ibid. pp.66,67,129 – 29. Ibid. p.67 – 30. Ibid. pp.68,69,129 – 31. Ibid. pp.72,129 – 32. Ibid. p.74 – 33. Ibid. p.76 – 34. Ibid. p.77 – 35. Ibid. p.85 – 36. Ibid. p.86 – 37. Ibid. p.87 – 38. Ibid. pp.88,89 – 39. Ibid. p.92 – 40. Ibid. p.93 – 41. Ibid. pp.93-94 – 42. Ibid. pp.94,95 – 43. Ibid. p.97 – 44. Ibid. pp.97,98 – 45. Ibid. p.98 – 46. Ibid. p.99 – 47. Ibid. p.100 – 48. Ibid. pp.100,101 – 49. Ibid. pp.102,103 – 50. Ibid. p.104 – 51. Ibid. p.109 – 52. Ibid. p.125 – 53. Ibid. pp.126,127 – 54. Ibid. p.127 – 55. Ibid. p.129 – 56. Ibid. p.139 – 57. Ibid. pp.130-140 – 58. Ibid.pp.138 – 59. Ibid. pp.141-145 – 60. Ibid. p.145 – 61. Ibid. p.146 – 62. Ibid. p.147 – 63. Ibid. pp.147,148 – 64. Ibid. p.148 – 65. Ibid. pp.148,149 – 66. Ibid. p.154 – 67. Ibid. pp.154-155 – 68. Ibid. p.157 – 69. Ibid. p.159

70. Lorelei Symptoms of Emotional Abuse

71. Identifying Emotional Abuse

72. Mind Control and Ritual Abuse Recovery

73. Carver, Bob Understanding Mental and Emotional or Psychological Abuse

74. Chart of Coercion

75. Busselman, Gary Physical and Emotional Abuse

76. Pinson, Maxine Overcoming Clergy Abuse

77. Friedheim, Tom Surviving Spiritual Abuse

78. Henzel, Ron The Bible and Spiritual Abuse

79. Survivors of Spiritual Abuse Welcome to S.O.S.A.

80. Bordovsky, Casey Fighting Spiritual Abuse

81. Henke, David Spiritual Abuse

82. What Is Spiritual Abuse?

83. Johnson, David and VanVonderen, Jeff The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse pp.19,20

84. Ibid. p.20 – 85. Ibid. p.22 – 86. Ibid. p.23 – 87. Ibid. p.24 – 88. Ibid. pp.24,25 – 89. Ibid. p.31 – 90. Ibid. p.37 – 91. Ibid. pp.41,42 – 92. Ibid. p.42 – 93. Ibid. pp.43,44 – 94. Ibid. pp.44,45 – 95. Ibid. p.45 – 96. Ibid. p.46 – 97. Ibid. p.47 – 98. Ibid. pp.48,49 – 99. Ibid. p.49 – 100. Ibid. pp.49,50 – 101. Ibid. p.50 – 102. Ibid. p.53 – 103. Ibid. p.54 – 104. Ibid. pp.54,55 – 105. Ibid. p.56 – 106. Ibid. p.57 – 107. Ibid. p.58 – 108. Ibid. p.59 – 109. Ibid. p.63 – 110. Ibid. p.65 – 111. Ibid. p.69 – 112. Ibid. pp.69,70 – 113. Ibid. pp.69-74 – 114. Ibid. p.73 – 115. Ibid. p.74 – 116. Ibid. p.76 – 117. Ibid. p.77 – 118. Ibid. p.78 – 119. Ibid. p.82 – 120. Ibid. p.83 – 121. Ibid. p.85 – 122. Ibid. p.96 – 123. Ibid. p.97 – 124. Ibid. p.99 – 125. Ibid. p.100 – 126. Ibid. p.104 – 127. Ibid. p.121 – 128. Ibid. p.128 – 129. Ibid. p.164 – 130. Ibid. p.215 – 131. Ibid. p.217 – 132. Ibid. pp.218,219 – 133. Ibid. p.220 – 134. Ibid. p.223 – 135. Ibid. 226

136. Tabladillo, Mark How Spiritual Abuse Redefines “Love”

137. Enroth, Ronald Characteristics of Abusive Churches

138. Henzel, Ron What is “Spiritual Abuse”?

139. Shubinski, Robert, M.D. Domestic Violence and Abuse Help

140. Enroth, Ronald E. Churches That Abuse, p. 189

141. Watchman Fellowship, Inc. Elements of Spiritual Abuse

142. P. & A. Hawke, et al What is Spiritual Abuse

143. Enroth, Ronald E. Churches That Abuse, pp.106-107

144. Wilkinson, Laura Specific Abuser Tactics: Name-Calling, Ordering, Undermining

145. Linn, Matthew; Linn, Sheila Fabricant; Linn, Dennis Healing Spiritual Abuse and Religious Addiction, pp.2,3

146. Ibid. p.3 – 147. Ibid. p.11 – 148. Ibid. pp.11-14 – 149. Ibid. p.12 – 150. Ibid. p.13 – 151. Ibid. p.14 – 152. Ibid. p.15 – 153. Ibid. p.36 – 154. Ibid. p.43 – 155. Ibid. p.44

156. Wilson, Sue Spiritual Abuse…What is it and How Can One Overcome its Destructive Effects?

157. Gordon, Ruth Psychological Recovery From Mental Abuse

158. Truluck, Rembert Spiritual Violence

159. Why She Stays…

160. CyberParent About Abuse in General

161. Brewer, Dr. Pamela Letting Go of Guilt and Shame

162 . Martin, Paul R. Dispelling the Myths: The Psychological Consequences of Cultic Involvement

163. Brewer, Dr. Pamela Eight Ways to Think About Setting Limits

164. R. Enroth and J.G. Melton, Why Cults Succeed Where Church Fails, pp. 98-99

165. Helping Someone Who’s Being Abused

166. Hilderbrant, Sharon Recovery from Spiritual Abuse – How You Can Help


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Helping Someone Who’s Being Abused Abuse Counseling and Treatment, Inc. http://www.actabuse.com/helping.html

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* Maleki, Meysa Emotional/Psychological Abuse http://www.library.utoronto.ca/ca1ss/abuse.htm (2000)

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* Meyers, Stephen C. Spiritual Abuse http://bibleandscience.com/spiritualabuse.htm (1998)

* Mind Control and Ritual Abuse Recovery http://mcra.home.att.net/index1.htm

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* Survivors of Spiritual Abuse Welcome to S.O.S.A. http://www.sosa.org/saas.html

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Truluck, Rembert Spiritual Violence http://www.whosoever.org/v5i6/violence.html (2001)

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Wilson, Sue Spiritual Abuse…What is it and How Can One Overcome its Destructive Effects? http://www.selfgrowth.com/articles/Wilson6.html (2001)

* As of December 5, 2020, these sources are no longer available.

ORIGINALLY POSTED: September 9, 2002
Edited, Copyright © 2013, Bob Williston