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What Are the Signs of Spiritual Abuse and How Can We Recognize Them in the Church?

What Are the Signs of Spiritual Abuse and How Can We Recognize Them in the Church?
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Spiritual abuse is defined as the use of psychological and emotional manipulation, characterized by a systematic pattern of using coercive and controlling behavior within the teachings of religion. That is, spiritual abuse is the same as spousal, child, elder, or workplace abuse – it can be physical, sexual, or emotional. Because of the context, however, the impact is particularly widespread. 

Any announcement about a church that chose to fire a pastor because of bullying provides the excuse for individuals to abandon their faith or to not explore Christianity at all, to their eternal detriment.

Signs of Spiritual Abuse

The signs of spiritual abuse can vary depending on the context, but there are some key things you can watch out for:

"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."

(Excerpted from "Recognizing Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse in the Church" by Beth Ann Baus)

Spiritual Abuse in Leadership

Michael J. Kruger explored the problem of spiritual abuse in his article “Standing Up to Bully Pastors.” He highlighted the case of Jerry Falwell Jr., whose abuses included intimidation and other forms of bullying. It was only when evidence of sexual misconduct surfaced that the board of Liberty University confronted Falwell.

Spiritual abuse as bullying is far too common, intimidation is a widespread problem, yet churches often overlook such behavior until a big scandal (fraud or sexual abuse) forces elders or a board of directors to confront an abusive pastor.

Sam Allberry addressed the frequency with which pastors are fired from their positions for bullying. While “domineering pastors aren’t a new problem, they do seem to be more and more evident in the Western church today.”

He points out that the problem is as old as the Christian church, evidenced by remarks in 1 Peter 5:3 exhorting leaders to serve God without “domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”

One would hardly expect pastors to be bullies since their example is Christ himself. Christ, though direct and honest about sin, was merciful, kind, and gentle, particularly to the most vulnerable members of society.

Spiritual abuse can be silent, subtle, and easily dismissed or attributed to the wronged party. A pastor is expected to be trustworthy, gentle, and reasonable; thus, a victim might struggle to overturn the assumption that he embodies these characteristics, especially a victim speaking out in isolation.

Speaking Up Against Spiritual Abuse

But the fact is that some pastors are guilty of ongoing spiritual abuse. Those under their care are apt to be more trusting because of the expectation that pastors will emulate Christ. Yet, like any domineering parent, spouse, or boss these leaders manipulate, censor, silence, ignore, verbally berate, physically/sexually assault, and/or humiliate their victims.

Church leaders who are also abusers will slowly escalate their behavior, while victims become confused, second-guessing their personal discernment. Victims might “know” in one sense that something is wrong, yet feel they must be mistaken because of their abuser’s position, or they believe they will not be heard so why speak up?

Add the distress of contributing to cultural suspicion of churches in general, and it is easy to see why a church would try to ignore a case of spiritual abuse.

Today’s society is used to hearing about priests and vicars and pastors who have been fired because they used their positions to cover up sexual misconduct and commit fraud to the detriment of those in their care.

They have coerced people into having sex with them. They have engaged in suspicious money-making schemes. They have angrily preached against divorce instead of providing care and protection to men and women enduring domestic abuse.

Employees are sometimes treated with contempt unless they agree with their lead pastor or if they are not as well educated as their leaders. Spiritual abusers are expected to exemplify trustworthiness, humility, and a wise use of power. Instead, they take Scripture out of context to justify oppression.

A genuinely loving pastor will care for his flock as an under-shepherd of the ultimate Shepherd--not perfectly, but humbly and respectfully. He will protect those who could easily be victimized due to physical weakness, intellectual disabilities, or any other factor which marginalizes them and makes them more susceptible to abuse.

The Effects of Spiritual Abuse on Faith

The story is familiar: when asked why he does not believe in God, a person will say “because the church is full of hypocrites. Just look at the Residential School Scandal.” The list of famous abuses of spiritual power is long, inspiring books, documentaries, and movies. Christianity becomes a laughing stock.

Besides the famous scandals are examples on the small scale, in little churches, and abuses by church leaders besides pastors. They include elders, counselors, worship leaders, and volunteer coordinators 

One of the tragic consequences of bullying by pastors and other abusive church leaders is the effect they have on Christ’s reputation. Christ and the church are often conflated in the eyes of onlookers because the church represents Jesus to a world that does not yet know him. They are not the same, but if Christ is made to appear like a schoolyard bully by those who claim to follow and imitate him, many onlookers will believe this lie.

They might walk away from any possible encounter with a God who (they believe) coerces, oppresses, and manipulates.

God’s Response to Spiritual Abuse

The Triune God is an angry God, so angry that his Son had to die on a cross to pay for our sin in order that his people would never be subjected to that anger. No one could withstand it.

This God always uses his power justly, and he has clearly stated his expectations of those who lead in any capacity, whether in small groups or as pastors of thousand-strong congregations. He spoke against abuses by leaders in Ezekiel 34.

God promised to come as the Shepherd and care for his sheep “because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts [...] because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep.” (v.8) Negligence is another form of abuse.

Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). A bully might involve members of his congregation in sinful activities by way of coercion and manipulation. God’s “little ones” are people of any age susceptible to this influence.

God also spoke of the tendency to become angry when our desire to promote our own agendas is thwarted. Paul Tripp wrote that this desire can become a “driving motivation in our lives, and the foundation on which we build our own personal kingdoms.”

Abuse is frequently an outworking of anger, but James offered a solution: “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-12).

This inspired teaching applies to all people. Reacting angrily when one’s longings are not met is unrighteous. There are examples in the Bible of righteous anger, such as when Christ cleansed the temple. We are also called to exhibit righteous anger as the children of God when the poor and weak people of the world are treated abusively.

But James is referring to quick anger, losing one’s temper; lashing out at someone because he or she did not do or say what the abuser wanted to see or hear.

A Warning from David

The story of David and Bathsheba is an example of the consequences of spiritual abuse among leaders. Although David was King, he was also expected to set a spiritual example. David was the King, Bathsheba was his subject: what could she do against this powerful man?

David pleads with the Lord “let the bones that you have broken rejoice. Hide not your face from my sins” (Psalm 51:8-9). He knew that he was a sinner, and he realized that he had rejected God’s commandments. His actions were especially heinous because David was King, and he was expected to set an example of what it looks like to follow God.

If You Are Being Abused

The majority of pastors are not bullies, but spiritual abuse is a form of conflict we must not deny as a church body. Christ instructs the abused party how to respond to conflict generally.

Speak openly to someone who is sinning, then if that does not work, involve other witnesses. And if the offending party does not listen to a personal intervention, bring the matter to a higher council.

Speaking up can be dangerous: the Pharisees sought to kill Jesus. If a situation feels threatening, confrontation should be done with at least one advocate or should be taken to elders right away. The abused party must always remember that he is not to blame for someone else’s sinful choices.


What Is “Spiritual” Abuse? A Working Definition

Standing Up to Bully Pastors

How Do Churches End Up with Domineering Bullies for Pastors?

Your Kingdom Awaits

Recognizing Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse in the Church

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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.

This article originally appeared on Christianity.com. For more faith-building resources, visit Christianity.com. Christianity.com