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Spiritual abuse—which is the manipulation and exploitation of others by the misuse of spiritual privilege and power—is a welldocumented problem in the mind controlling cults and sects of Australia. Unfortunately, as many battered Christians have discovered, its negative effects may also be found in ‘normal’, mainstream churches.
This article first appeared in Alive Magazine, 6 Wood Street, Hawthorn, VIC 3122; website:
Our thanks go to Dr. Graham Barker for allowing us to reuse his article.
The Insidious Harm of Spiritual Abuse
By Dr. Graham Barker
Graham Barker is Head of the School of Counselling at the Wesley Institute in Drummoyne. He has degrees in psychology, counselling, theology and education and maintains a private practice with Shiloh Counselling Centres.
At my first encounter with spiritual abuse, I equated the term with the well-documented mind-numbing cults such as the Jehovah Witnesses and insidious sects such as the Sydney Church of Christ* and the Shepherding Movement. I soon became aware, however, that this same abusive system had infiltrated some of the more respected evangelical churches.
Most people understand the terms “child abuse”, “sexual abuse” and “emotional abuse” but find it harder to grasp the idea of “spiritual” abuse. The task is easier when the definition identifies the common feature of all abuse — the misuse of power and privilege.
Spiritual abuse is just that: the manipulation and exploitation of others by the misuse of spiritual privilege and power.
By definition, the majority of those who perpetrate such abuse are officeholders in Australia’s churches and religious institutions.
Instances of spiritual abuse can range from a one-off event innocently committed by a single, well meaning church leader to an intentionally scripted abusive system involving the leadership en masse. The act can be as obvious as a public breach of pastoral confidentiality or as private as subtle pressure to give financially beyond your means.
Because the issue covers too vast a scope to be addressed adequately in one article, one of the sidebars accompanying this article lists sources for further information.
Spiritual abuse shares many common features with other abusive systems. The most identifiable are the unspoken rules: Don’t trust, don’t talk, don’t think and don’t question.
The power wielded by abusive leadership is generated from the double premise that they alone are God’s “anointed” and that their biblical interpretations alone are to be trusted. Any interpretation or information that does not receive their endorsement is untrustworthy. The “don’t trust” rule squashes the individual’s confidence in their own judgment and their ability to make decisions for themselves. Any personal experience that contradicts the leadership’s teachings is also deemed untrustworthy and an indicator of spiritual immaturity.
Leaders of closed systems do not tolerate the study and consideration of alternative interpretations of Scripture. Their viewpoints are considered unquestionable truth. This closed mindset often extends to edicts on personal life; clothing, occupation, ministry location and even marital choices may be prescribed. Independent thinking, particularly any close analysis of the group’s belief system, is considered a sign of dissention and disloyalty.
In abusive systems any discussion of group issues with nonmembers is discouraged. The leadership will not tolerate outside consultation since it could expose the membership to alternative solutions and undermine the leadership’s authority. Often current members are forbidden to talk to or about former members, unless it is to report on their subsequent shame and demise. Former members with relatives still involved in the church may be reluctant to talk about their experiences for fear of reprisal. In some churches, members are commanded to sever communication with non-member relatives and to adopt the group as their new family.
Abusive leadership will not tolerate challenges to its authority. “Don’t question” is a powerful rule. The member who questions the decisions or standards of the leadership is usually ostracised, humiliated or excluded from ministry opportunity. I have met with many individuals and couples who have experienced such treatment when they questioned the leadership in their churches.
Characteristics of the abuser
The leaders of abusive systems share a common profile:
– A need to control
– An authoritative style
– A commanding personality
– An inability to tolerate criticism or dissension
– A tendency to surround themselves with a small, exclusive clique.
Often the leader is a self-styled Bible expert whose subjective interpretations appeal to the members and reinforce the leader’s “anointed” position. Rarely do these interpretations survive close scrutiny, but, even so, such criticism of their teaching is perceived as persecution. Besides, given the choice, the membership invariably remains with the besieged leader, lest they risk having to face the reality that they were duped.
Abusive leaders are also quite secretive. Rarely are their financial affairs and family life subjected to the same scrutiny as those of their membership. The demands made on others are not made on self. Spiritually abusive leadership seems to flourish in environments with the following characteristics:
– Earnest seekers of truth
– A biblically diluted established church
– A society that seems to have lost its spiritual way.
In such cases, the resulting spiritual vacuum is filled by leadership that offers a sense of authority and a security not found elsewhere. That strong sense of “belonging” makes the abuse tolerable. To lose that is to return to insecurity.
The path through spiritual abuse
Survivors of spiritual abuse recount how they were left with deep personal issues, particularly an inability to trust.
Because critical thinking was discouraged, they had no confidence in their own ability to discern truth from error. This led to a distorted perception of God and how a person has a relationship with him.
Survivors also struggle with the concept of unconditional acceptance. Most spiritually abusive systems are very performance oriented. God’s pleasure depends on submission to the church’s edicts and the total acceptance of the leadership’s authority. This leaves many survivors with a relationship with God based on fear and performance. Grace and unconditional acceptance are ideas that were spoken about but never experienced.
This lack of trust and confidence also impairs the member’s marital, family and social relationships. It is difficult to share closely with a relative when issues of group loyalty are at stake or to accept another as a brother or sister when they have been labelled, with no uncertainty, as an untrustworthy non-believer.
A lack of self-confidence will impair most attempts to achieve or to take a risk in life, and a diet of performancebased acceptance will make most people vulnerable to emotional and physical burnout as they strive to gain approval.
For the survivor of abuse, recovery is often long and arduous. Spiritual abuse is no exception. The survivor, having exited the system, needs to begin trusting, talking, thinking, questioning.
Healing often begins with confronting and dismantling the rules that governed the group. This needs to be done in a safe and confidential setting, and the survivor has to find someone they can trust. Sometimes a neutral Christian therapist is a good place to start.
By talking about their experiences and expressing the strong emotions they feel, the survivor will discover that the hold the leadership had on them will weaken. Processing the fears and guilt associated with their exit will require sound counsel and caring, accepting friends or a transparent and accountable support group. Once the grief over exiting has been resolved, the survivor needs to immerse themselves in new patterns of relating and living based on the grace of God.
The need for vigilance
Christians, even in mainstream churches, need to be alert to the signs of spiritual abuse.
– Are their leaders open and accountable?
– Do they encourage critical thinking?
– Will they willingly consider new ideas and initiatives?
– Can they tolerate a diversity of opinion and interpretation?
Any hint of spiritual abuse needs to be addressed through all appropriate channels. In Matthew 18:15, Jesus outlines the process for dealing with those who have wronged us. This involves confronting the abuser in increasingly more public arenas until, as a last resort, the relationship is terminated.
If the local church leadership is part of the problem, most denominations have a grievance procedure that should be followed. But if the leadership is not accountable to a higher authority, then the members need to question the rules and talk out and challenge as often as they can. If you feel there is no acceptable response, move away. Find a group that is healthy and focus on your own healing.
Abusive leadership maintains its power and privilege by breeding fear and guilt and rewarding loyalty. Dissension and exposure are what they fear most.
The following is a selective list of resources dealing with spiritual abuse.
Churches That Abuse, by Ronald Enroth. Zondervan, 1992. ISBN: 0310532922
Healing Spiritual Abuse, by Ken Blue. InterVarsity Press, 1993. ISBN: 0830816607
More Jesus Less Religion, by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton. Waterbrook Press, 2000. ISBN: 1578562503
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen. Bethany House, 1991. ISBN:1556611609
Twisted Scriptures, by Mary Chrnalogar. Zondervan, 1997. ISBN: 0310234085
Uncovering Churches That Abuse People
The following questions come from the book: Recovering from Churches That Abuse, by Ronald Enroth, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervon, 1994.
1. Does a member's personality generally become stronger, happier, more confident as a result of contact with the group?
In an abusive church, the use of guilt, fear, and intimidation to control members is likely to produce members who have a low self-image, who feel beaten down by legalism, who have been taught that asserting oneself is not spiritual.
One of the first disturbing characteristics to be reported by relatives and friends of members of these churches is a noticeable change in personality, usually in a negative direction.
2. Do members of the group seek to strengthen their family commitments?
Nearly all unhealthy churches attempt to minimize the commitments of their members to their family, especially parents.
Young people may be told that they now have a new "spiritual" family, complete with leaders who will "re-parent" them.
Church loyalty is seen as paramount, and family commitments are discouraged or viewed as impediments to spiritual advancement.
3. Does the group encourage independent thinking and the development of discernment skills?
Control-oriented leaders attempt to dictate what members think, although the process is so spiritualized that members usually do not realize what is going on.
A pastor or leader is viewed as God's mouth piece, and in varying degrees a member's decision making and ability to think for oneself are swallowed up by the group.
Pressure to conform and low tolerance for questioning make it difficult to be truly discerning.
4. Does the group allow for individual differences of belief and behavior, particularly on issues of secondary importance?
A legalistic emphasis on keeping rules and a focus on the need to stay within prescribed boundaries is always present in unhealthy spiritual environments.
Lifestyle rigidity in such groups increase a member's guilt feelings and contributes to spiritual bondage. This rigidity is often coupled with an emphasis on beliefs that would not receive great attention in mainstream evangelicalism.
5. Does the group encourage high moral standards both among members and between members and non members?
In intense, legalistic churches and religious organizations, the official, public proclamations usually place special value on high moral standards.
In some instances, there is a double standard between those in leadership and those in the rank and file membership.
Abusive churches tend to have incidents of sexual misconduct more often than most conventional churches; leaders sometimes exhibit an obsessive interest in matters relating to sex.
6. Does the group's leadership invite dialogue, advice and evaluation from outside its immediate circle?
Authoritarian pastors are usually threatened by any outside expression of diverse opinions, whether from inside or outside the group. When outside speakers are given access to the pulpit, they are carefully selected to minimize any threat to the leadership's agenda.
Coercive pastors are fiercely independent and do not function well in a structure of accountability.
For the sake of public relations, they may boast that they are accountable to a board of some sort, when in actuality the board is composed of "yes-men" who do not question the leader's authority.
7. Does the group allow for development in theological beliefs?
Another hallmark of an authoritarian church is its intolerance of any belief system different from its own.
They tend to measure and evaluate all forms of Christian spirituality according to their own carefully prescribed system, adopting an "us-versus-them" mentality.
8. Are group members encouraged to ask hard questions of any kind?
A cardinal rule of abusive systems is "Don't ask questions, don't make waves."
A healthy pastor welcomes even tough questions. In an unhealthy church disagreement with the pastor is considered to be disloyalty and is tantamount to disobeying God.
People who repeatedly question the system are labeled "rebellious", "unteachable", or "disharmonious to the body of Christ".
Persistent questioners may face sanctions of some kind such as being publicly ridiculed, shunned, shamed, humiliated, or disfellowshiped.
9. Do members appreciate truth wherever it is found even if it is outside their group?
Whether they admit it or not, abusive churches tend to view themselves as spiritually superior to other Christian groups.
This religious elitism allows little room for outside influences. There can be no compromise with external sources, who, the leadership will say, really don't understand what is going on in the ministry anyway.
10. Is the group honest in dealing with nonmembers, especially as it tries to win them to the group?
Sometimes abusive groups illustrate a "split-level religion". There is one level for public presentation and another for the inner circle of membership.
The former is a carefully crafted public relations effort, the latter a reality level experienced only by the "true believers".
Recruitment tactics are usually intense, even if they are not actually deceptive or fraudulent, they can be manipulative or exploitive.
Sometimes high pressure religious groups are evasive about there true identity: "We really don't have a name, we're just Christians."
A healthy Christian group should have no qualms about revealing who it is and what its intentions are.
11. Does the group foster relationships and connections with the larger society that are more than self-serving?
First impressions are not always correct. Sustained contact with an unhealthy church, however, will usually reveal a pattern that is consistent with the characteristics we have identified.
Members will be requested to serve, to become involved, to sign up for a variety of activities that, upon closer inspection, appear to maintain the system and serve the needs of the leadership.
Abusive churches thrive on tactics that promote dependency.
Emphasizing obedience and submission to leaders, these churches often require a level of service that is overwhelming to members, resulting in emotional turmoil and spiritual breakdowns.
Copyright © Henry G. Sheppard 1997
"Churches That Abuse", the complete book as PDF.
The List of Strategies and Tactics of Church Leaders Who are Abusive