Recognizing Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse in the Church
- Beth Ann Baus Crosswalk.com Contributor
- Updated Jun 29, 2023
Have you ever heard someone say they were spiritually abused and didn’t know what to think about it? Do you consider yourself to be spiritually abused but don’t know how to move forward in healing? My goal here is not to give you all the answers, but rather encourage you to dig in to this sensitive topic and grapple with the questions that come with it.
While the topic of spiritual abuse can be confusing, what’s clear is that there is hope, and healing can happen! I pray this helps you take first steps in that direction.
Like all forms of abuse, the effects can be life-altering and long-lasting. Trust issues can arise, keeping you from corporate worship and building relationships with other Christians. Spiritual abuse often leads to fear, anxiety, isolation and in extreme cases, can cause some to walk away from their faith all together.
Psalm 147:3 tells us that the Lord heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. Please know there is hope, healing can happen and trust can be restored. As with any abuse, the Lord can redeem your past and use it for your good and his glory.
First, let's look at what spiritual abuse is. Spiritual abuse is using the Bible or your position as a spiritual leader to influence others for personal gain. This would likely be categorized as emotional and psychological and doesn’t exclusively happen within the church body. For instance, it can also happen in the home and in personal relationships.
Spiritual abuse might include: manipulation and exploitation, accountability enforced by threats, censorship of decision-making, coercion to conform, and the inability to ask questions or voice disagreement. The abuser might suggest they are in a “divine” position and therefore require your obedience.
Examples and Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse in the Church
So how do you know whether a church has come under the influence of a controlling spirit? There are some clear warning signs that can signal an atmosphere of abuse.
There is certainly a place for biblical teaching on spiritual authority. But if a pastor preaches on this subject every Sunday, constantly reminding everyone that he is in charge, you can be sure that trouble is around the corner.
In an unhealthy church, the pastor actually begins to take the place of Jesus in people’s lives. Commonly, people are told they cannot leave the church with God’s blessing unless the pastor approves the decision. The implication is that unless they receive pastoral permission, not only will God not bless them, but they will also be cursed in some way, resulting in sure failure. Controlling spiritual leaders use this kind of reasoning to manipulate people.
A controlling leader may also attempt to instill a sense of obligation by reminding his congregation of everything he has done for them. This kind of preaching causes church members to seek a position of favor with the pastor rather than a proper desire to “please God and not man.” A healthy church will not allow genuine pastoral concern to cross the line into manipulation or control.
In an unhealthy church, it is considered rebellion when someone questions decisions that are made or statements that are said from the pulpit. Granted, there are those who constantly question the leadership in any church – but often such constant questioning comes from an individual’s critical attitude. Pastors must learn to deal with such questioning in a compassionate, positive manner. However, in an unhealthy church, any and all questions are considered threats to the pastor’s “God-ordained” authority. Members who do dare to question their leaders or who do not follow their directives often are confronted with severe consequences.
Pastors operating under a spirit of control are often convinced that they are the only ones who can accurately hear from God. Under the constant exposure to this spirit, members often become convinced that they indeed need their pastor to think for them. In essence, their personal fellowship with the Lord has been abdicated for a relationship with a man. As a result, they lose their confidence in being able to discern the will of God for their lives.
An Atmosphere of Secrecy
Once a church member surrenders to a system of control, the leader gives limited information to each individual, carefully monitoring each relationship. As a result, each member is only able to relate to other members based on the information he receives from the leader.
In this way, if the church staff or pastor determines that one of the members has become a “threat,” they have a strategy in place to maintain the control they believe is required. Consequently, the church can sever relationships when necessary and keep this process cloaked behind a veil of secrecy.
Secrecy may also cloak the area of finances. Pastors may make brazen appeals for money, yet offer no assurance that the finances of the church are handled with accountability and integrity. It is very simple – money represents power. Ultimately, control comes down to issues of power. Therefore, it should be no surprise that controlling leaders will use unbiblical means to manipulate people into giving.
An Elitist Attitude
The deadly trait of elitism produces an “us and them” mentality. A church with an elitist attitude believes “no one else” is really preaching the gospel – except that church. Or at least, no one is preaching it as effectively as they are. An elitist spirit discourages church members from visiting other churches or receiving counsel from anyone who doesn’t attend their church. If anyone visits another church, he is viewed as a dissident.
A healthy church respects and celebrates the other expressions of Christ’s many-membered body. A Jesus-centered church realizes that no one denomination or local church can win a city, regardless of how large it is. Christ-centered leaders who are clothed with humility recognize that the small church is as significant as the large church, the Baptists are as vital as the Charismatics, and every racial group has a place at the Lord’s table.
A healthy church will promote other churches in the city, rather than simply promoting its own events and agendas all the time. A healthy church will promote spiritual renewal in all churches rather than further the idea that it has some kind of doctrinal superiority.
(Excerpted from Exposing Spiritual Abuse by Mike Fehlauer. Copyright 2001 Mike Fehlauer. All rights reserved.)
What Spiritual Abuse Isn’t
Being hurt by the church is not the same as being spiritually abused. For instance, all churches are made up of sinners. There will be disagreements, slander, short tempers, misunderstandings, and acts of selfishness and pride.
Pastors won’t always say the right things and elders won't always lead well. Nursery workers can lose their patience and Sunday school teachers might replace the curriculum with their own agenda.
A women’s bible study can easily turn into a social club and prayer can be used as a form of gossip. Churches are made up of broken people who hurt each other but this, in and of itself, is not grounds for claiming spiritual abuse.
We live in a culture that likes to use the word “abuse” freely and often in the wrong context. Being treated poorly is categorically different than being abused.
Is Spiritual Abuse Always Crystal Clear?
The answer is unfortunately no. Consider the following scenarios.
Randy has been constantly unfaithful to his wife. The elders of his church have counseled him to stop this behavior and to repent of his sin. Randy refuses to give up his mistress and work at restoring his marriage. After a long season of discipleship and counseling, Randy’s behavior still has not changed. Because of his unrepentant sin, Randy was removed from membership and put out of the church. When Randy talks about this situation with friends, he tells people his church spiritually abused him.
As an adult, Margot has had trouble letting go of the legalistic teachings from her childhood. She is often distressed and confused when making decisions on what to wear because modesty was often associated with body shaming. She questions if it is okay to go dancing with her friends or if it is okay to watch R-rated movies. Margot knows her parents taught her what they thought was right, but she sees things differently now and is often angry about her upbringing.
Robin is married to a man who won’t allow her to get a job. He interprets his role as the head of the home to mean he is the only one who can provide financially. He also discourages Robin from having friends who attend other churches. He fears she will get confused and question his authority. Robin feels safe and considers herself to have a happy marriage. She is content staying home and having a small circle of like-minded friends, and thinks everyone should live this way.
Jackson is currently attending a church that encourages husbands to beat their wives if they are not submissive. This church encourages parents to place their children in solitude when they misbehave. The elders discourage their members from reading the Bible themselves, claiming that God’s Word is too deep and can only be understood by trained leaders. The elders go so far as to mandate their members only eat a vegetarian diet, as modeled in the Garden of Eden.
Questions to consider:
- Do you consider all of these situations to be spiritually abusive? Why or why not?
- Can you call someone spiritually abused when they themselves are happy in their situation?
- Does the motivation of the church or individual play a part in whether or not their actions are abusive?
- Can we attach the word abuse to anything that causes us distress, discomfort or dislike?
I’m not going to answer these questions for you but rather encourage you to spend time thinking, praying and talking about this complicated topic with others.
How to Heal from Spiritual Abuse
Being the victim of spiritual abuse can leave you feeling alone, confused, and wondering if you can ever trust again. I believe healing can happen. Here are some steps to help you move in that direction.
1. Know That Jesus Cares
There are countless examples in the Bible of how Jesus cares for us, but one of my favorites is found in John 11:33:
“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.”
What we see here is Jesus, not turning a blind eye to someone in pain, but being deeply moved in his spirit and being greatly troubled. He cares about what you have been through. He cares about your pain and suffering. He cares about the long-term effects spiritual abuse can have. He cares. May you find comfort in that.
2. Talk to Someone
Abuse victims often stay silent for fear of their claims being dismissed, not taken seriously, or not believed. But I urge you to tell your story. Whether it’s something you lived through a decade ago, or it’s something you’re currently experiencing, talk to someone. This could be a trusted friend, family member, or a biblical counselor. Read Galatians 6:2 with me:
“Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
Allow someone the blessing of bearing your burdens by telling them your story. Allow yourself the joy and blessing of having someone walk with you on your road to healing. You don’t have to suffer alone. Pray that God will surround you with people who will genuinely love you, point you to Christ, and help you process your pain.
3. Pray for Change
If spiritual abuse has come from church leadership, pray that God would help you find a healthy church. This can be difficult to do on your own because trust has been broken, and you might not have a good sense of what a healthy church looks like. Take your time. Meet with the leadership of multiple churches, talk to the members and pray that the Lord will lead you to a safe, healthy, gospel-centered church.
John 14:16 says “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever--”
If you are a child of God, you have the Holy Spirit (the Helper) in you. Utilize him! If your spiritual abuse is coming not from a church but from your spouse, for instance, pray that God would change their heart. Pray that God would show you how to be faithful to HIM and in your marriage. However, if your situation resembles Jackson’s (see above) and you are physically unsafe, you should contact the authorities immediately.
4. Study the Scriptures
If you’ve spent years in a spiritually abusive situation, studying the scriptures can be overwhelming. You’ve been taught to interpret the scriptures in a certain way, or perhaps you’ve not been encouraged to study them at all, so reading the Bible now is like looking at it with new eyes. But that’s a good thing! Look at Ephesians 1:18-19:
“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe."
You want new eyes to see his Word! Ask God to open the eyes of your heart so that you can receive the gospel for what it is. Pray that God would free you from the bad theology that has been ingrained in you.
5. Get to Know God
Spiritual abuse can paint a very inaccurate picture of God. Victims are often left with the perception that God is angry, mean, distant, blind or uncaring about your situation. You likely don’t see God as a loving father. A vital part of healing from spiritual abuse is recognizing that the abuser is the enemy, not God. The abuse is not to be trusted, but God is.
Ask God to give you eyes to see him, not only through his Word but also in your life. Spend time talking to him, reading about him, listening to sermons about him. Get to know him. Learn to trust him. Meditate on Hebrews 10:23:
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”
Something that’s important to remember is that God is faithful, even when we are not. Separating God’s goodness from the evil works of your abuser is vital for your healing and for your continued walk with the Lord.
6. Trust That God Will Redeem Your Past
For the victim of spiritual abuse, Romans 5:3-5 can be a tough pill to swallow. But I ask you to spend time reading this, meditating on this, and praying that God will help this be true for your life.
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Freedom from your past abuse comes to fruition when you are able to look at your past through the lens of this verse. Your pain doesn’t have to be for nothing. God will use it for your good and there is lasting joy to be found in that truth.
7. Don’t Walk Away from Your Faith
We have an enemy who wants nothing more than for us to doubt God’s love for us. The enemy will go to great lengths to make this happen. Read John 10:10 with me:
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” This is the heart of the enemy that we face. His lies are what caused someone to distort God’s Word and spiritually abuse you. But Praise God, the verse doesn’t end there;
“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus came and gave up his life for you so that you might have life and have it abundantly. Don’t let the enemy’s lies distract you from God’s love. Don’t let the sins of others weaken your faith. Lean into God and the truth of his Word.
Spiritual abuse takes time to recover from. Learning to trust again is extremely difficult. And if you’re currently in an abusive situation, getting out can seem impossible. But know you are not alone. You are not alone in your suffering and you don’t have to be alone in your healing. May you find the strength to resist the lies of the enemy. May you find comfort in knowing you are not alone and that God not only grieves with you, he longs to heal you. I leave you with 1 Peter 5:9-10:
“Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace,who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”
Photo Credit: ©Pixabay
Beth Ann Baus is a wife and mother of two adult sons. She is a freelance writer and author of Sister Sunday, My So Much More, and His Power, Our Weakness: Encouragement for the Biblical Counselor. In her writing, Beth often pulls from her own experiences of abuse, anxiety, depression and OCD. Beth has a heart for homeschooling, women’s ministry, and is an ACBC-certified Biblical Counselor. She loves serving alongside her husband and pointing couples to the Word for strengthening their marriages and home life. You can find more from her at www.bethannbaus.com.
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