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What Is Spiritual Abuse?

What Is Spiritual Abuse?

Whether or not you clicked on this article because you knew a lot about spiritual abuse or because you didn't, that phrase in and of itself is sure to bring up deep and visceral feelings. For some, maybe a heavy feeling in your gut because you are all too familiar with spiritual abuse. For others, perhaps a feeling of defensiveness because it's hard to believe that abuse can happen at the hands of those meant to shepherd us spiritually, or that Christianity could ever lead to harm. But either way, I hope you can take a deep breath and receive these words with compassion and humility, because I believe this is one of the most important conversations the evangelical church should be having.

Young people are crying out for a change, in the world and in the church. As hard as the evangelical church has fought to be different from the world and show itself as "the real deal," it has also largely become legalistic, controlling, fear-led and manipulative.

Let's start this conversation with a basic definition and then expand from there.

A Basic Definition of Spiritual Abuse

In an episode of The Allender Center Podcast, trauma practitioner, speaker and pastoral leader Rachael Clinton Chen defines spiritual abuse as "The use of religion or spiritual power and authority to control, coerce, or perpetrate harm. It really is the distortion or exploitation of God's power and authority and those who claim that to manipulate and control."

Similarly, a simplified definition from the authors of Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating Healthy Christian Cultures define spiritual abuse as "a form of emotional and psychological abuse. It is characterized by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context."

Truly, defining spiritual abuse can be elusive. First of all, there are not too many working definitions of spiritual abuse because it only recently began to be addressed. Secondly, any kind of abuse is on a spectrum.

But more than that, spiritual abuse can be so insidious, so hard to put your finger on, so a part of the fabric of one's understanding of God that its exact parameters remain unseen.

Counselor Adam Young shares how "a kid who is being hit by his father knows it. But someone who is being spiritually abused in their local church family or organization, very often has no idea that it's happening until years later."

Nonetheless, in this article, I will attempt to share four hallmarks of spiritual abuse to, at the very least, get the conversation started, whet our appetites to dig deeper in how to heal from spiritual abuse and stop perpetuating spiritual abuse.

1. Spiritual Abuse Uses Fear and Shame to Control and Manipulate

Fear and shame are the primary tools that systems and individuals use to keep their constituents in line and dependent on them so that they can stay in power.

Theologian and author Scot McKnight argues that spiritual abuse may include "enforced accountability, censorship of decision making, requirements for secrecy and silence, coercion to conform, [inability to ask questions], control through the use of sacred texts or teaching, requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a 'divine' position, isolation as means of punishment, and superiority and elitism."

Fear and shame play a role in each of these ways that spiritual abuse can manifest.

This is true in many abusive contexts, but it plays out so profoundly in Christian contexts because fear and shame are something the Bible often talks about. Spiritual abusers use fear and shame in twisted ways to further their agenda.

The Bible talks about fearing God and sin in a healthy way, but spiritual abusers take this to an extreme. They cause you to believe that you should be terrified of God himself because of his anger towards you because of your sin. Or they can teach you to be terrified of your sin because they claim it will separate you from the love of God.

Fear can be used to make you afraid of other groups of people that are outside of your church. Fear can be used to coerce you into certain actions, roles, or relationships because the implication is that if you don't do x, you are displeasing God, and He is angry with you. Like, "you better step in line before you are cut off from this particular community, or cut off from God himself."

Similarly, the Bible talks about shame (godly sorrow) in a healthy way. However, spiritual abusers take shame too far and make you feel like YOU are bad, innately, in your nature. And because of this, you're dependent on them to put you back together.

They can have an attitude like, "You're so sinful that you're lucky Jesus ever looked your way. You're lucky I ever looked your way. But don't worry, I can make you better… if you don't step out of line." This can also look like "if you do this action [like thinking for yourself or questioning authority], you will be shamed and maybe even cut off from this community."

Because fear and shame are experienced so close to our hearts, spiritual abuse can have immense harm.

2. Spiritual Abuse Has Very Strict Rules for What Is and Isn't Allowed

The Bible absolutely has some black and white rules. But there is also so much gray. More gray than I think the evangelical church would like to admit. And spiritually abusive environments make it seem like there is only black and white, and you must stay in those lines, or else risk losing your community.

These rules could be about how you spend your time, who you can date or marry, what you can wear, who can preach, how to evangelize, and the list goes on. It is insidious because it's easy to proof-text your way into sounding extremely wise and holy when laying down these rules.

But when there is no room for questioning these convictions, our individual souls and personhoods and unique walks with God quickly devolve into a list of "do's and don'ts." Or further, "do this and don't do this, or else."

3. Spiritual Abuse Has a Very Rigid Definition for Who Is "In" and Who Is "Out"

Again, spiritual abuse is about control. And if you can get people to believe that there is safety, goodness, and belonging within the community, and only darkness and evil outside of the community, then they will do anything you say to stay inside of it.

Jesus was about bringing people who were on the outside into his community. Spiritually abusive contexts will make someone feel as if they are being brought in, but it's at the expense of others being pushed out; others who are not holy, righteous or submissive enough. And with this is the implication that if you do not stick to their mold, you will soon be on the outside, too.

4. Spiritual Abuse Cuts People Off from Their Own Sense of Agency and Personhood

Agency over themselves, their lives, and their bodies. Chen explains that with spiritual abuse comes an "inferred or explicitly stated distrust of our own bodies. Our emotions are only deceitful. Can't be trusted. Any wisdom we can claim to come from ourselves can't be trusted unless vetted by someone in authority or leadership."

Adam Young, who is also a licensed clinical social worker, also emphasizes the manipulative nature of spiritual abuse.

"If you question this belief, this authority, you will be cut off from this community, maybe your family, and oftentimes cut off from God. Deeply physical and relational. We feel these things in our bodies. Whether it's verbalized or not, you feel a sense of 'I cannot think for myself. I cannot ask certain questions. I can't even wonder about certain questions because in that sense I am risking being kicked out'. If not officially, informally. Excluded from relationships that are really quite important to me. And that's all part and parcel of spiritual abuse," Young said.

If you've ever had Jeremiah 17:9 used against you, you know exactly what this feels like. Yes, there is wisdom in getting advice and not solely trusting your emotions. But it becomes spiritually abusive when you are told that your emotions are only deceitful, that your heart is only wicked and selfishly ambitious.

After a while of hearing this, you start to distrust your own body's gut reactions. You can't trust yourself, the very soul that God created, because you must rely on your institution for what to do and think.

Spiritual abusers' message is, "You are not good because you are sinful. But I will bring order to your life if you follow these strict guidelines and don't question me. I will give you this mold to fit, and then and only then will you be good."

When we submit to this thinking, however, we lose and forfeit our very selves. We were already created in the image of God; we do not need to conform to the image that a man-made church culture has come up with.

This is only scratching the surface. It is my personal intention within my own life, and my intention with these articles to give words to the experience of so many, and ultimately to bring healing. Spiritual abuse may be ineffably damaging, but not by any means outside the purview of God's goodness and grace.


Defining Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual Abuse — Commodities and Variables

89 Spiritual Abuse

What Is "Spiritual" Abuse? A Working Definition

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Marjan Apostolovic

Kelly-Jayne McGlynn is a former editor at Crosswalk.com. She sees the act of expression, whether through writing or art, as a way to co-create with God and experience him deeper. Check out her handmade earring Instagram and Etsy for more of her thoughts on connecting with God through creative endeavors.