Cue the trigger warnings, lets just close out January with a banger, shall we? 😉
Seven months ago I got up the courage to publish a blog post about “church hurt” and how to heal and move on from it. Since then, I have found a lot of healing personally thanks to God and counseling, and because of that freedom that I have found, I know it’s time to talk about this in more depth.
So many of you have sent me stories of your own experiences whenever I have discussed this topic, many of you whom I’ve never met. So I know I don’t write about any of this in vain. This isn’t a platform for me to complain and air the details about my own experiences with “church hurt” and spiritual abuse, but I do think that God uses our stories to bring freedom and hope to others, which is why I feel so strongly about sharing what I have learned through my own experiences, in hopes that it sets somebody free.
Here’s the thing, I don’t really want to talk just about church hurt anymore.
The term “church hurt” casts such a wide net of meanings. It often seems to be shrugged off and dismissed as a general “spirit of offense” by church people. “They were offended by something the pastor said or did, so they have experienced church hurt.”
What I am talking about, and what sadly many of you reading may have experienced is SO much more than that.
Last week my therapist encouraged me to write about the issue that was really at the heart of my “church hurt” struggle: Spiritual Abuse.
I’d be lying if I told you that suggestion didn’t intimidate me, but I also knew it was confirmation from the Lord because He had been stirring my heart to talk about this for quite some time.
Before we get too far into this, I need you to know up front that I have prayed for wisdom and discernment over this post, and that my driving fuel behind writing it is not anger, bitterness, or even justice… maybe a little justice... but my main driving force behind writing this is simply for FREEDOM. Freedom for those who have found themselves in a situation like this but haven’t been able to name it. Freedom for those who have stayed in a cycle of abuse because they are too afraid to lose their community, or because they feel completely stuck. Freedom for those who may not even realize that they are under this type of oppression, people who think they are just doing the “good Christian thing”, submitting to authority and dying to self, when in actuality there could be more going on and that it could be much more detrimental than they know.
I am writing this because I have been there, and I know that there is MORE on the other side of healing. There is hope, there is light, there is freedom, there is so much restoration and redemption, there is a deeper intimacy with Christ and a greater knowledge of His love for you – but it’s gonna require some intentionality and quite possibly some heart-wrenching decisions.
I would also like to ask you to read this series (however long it may be) through a lens of compassion. Compassion for your own experience, compassion for those who have been severely effected by this kind of abuse, and even compassion for those who have wronged us, yes… even for the abusers.
Today, I am going to share about the basics: what spiritual abuse is, how it happens, and 20 or so ways to identify it. I will also be doing a follow-up post soon to share about what to do if you have experienced spiritual abuse yourself, and what it looks like to leave it and pursue freedom and healing.
Before we dive in I want to remind us of Ephesians 6:12 – “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” As you read this, remember that abuse is the result of sin, and that sinful people are a result of the enemy, and while God HATES sin, He still loves all of us sinners, including those who have deeply wronged, deceived and hurt His people. I have to believe that NO ONE is too far from God’s reach, however, we need to learn how to protect ourselves from toxic people such as these, who are used by the enemy to tear down the people of God and distract them from their callings. While we can have compassion for these toxic people and abusers, we need to realize we cannot force them to change. As Gary Thomas talks about in his most recent book, When to Walk Away, We have other work to do in spreading the truth of the gospel to a hurting world and loving reliable people, instead of spending all of our energy on trying to fix the toxic ones. We must leave the rescue missions to the almighty.
That said, here we go.
So… What is Spiritual Abuse?
A year and a half ago when my husband and I were first introduced to the idea of spiritual abuse, I went on a googling rampage. You know, the kind of rabbit hole research where you find yourself bookmarking deep corners of the interwebs at 2am in hopes of finding some explanation and answers.
The first article I ever read about spiritual abuse, was this one, and it confirmed much of what my husband and I had been walking through over the past few years. Though a christian counselor had already confirmed this, there was just something so validating about reading articles like these, mentally checking off each point, realizing there was a method to the madness that we had walked through, and that we were NOT crazy. While affirming and relieving, it was also heartbreaking to read about how common this issue truly is, especially in light of how very little it is talked about.
I will be referencing some of that article, as well as other sources throughout these posts and do my best to provide you with all of the links and credit the authors.
To talk about Spiritual Abuse, we first have to define it, which is actually no simple thing as it is often defined vaguely as a type of emotional and psychological abuse. Digging deeper, based on my research, I am going to sum up spiritual abuse as when a pastor or person in spiritual authority or “leadership” distorts biblical truth in order to control and manipulate.
“Spiritual abuse happens to the soul, which primarily affects the mind, how a person thinks. Spiritual abuse takes the victim’s thoughts captive by trying to manipulate them to believe lies. If the internal harming of the soul continues unabated, it will exponentially affect the person spiritually, especially how he (she) relates to God, to himself, and to others.” – Rick Thomas.
Note: often when spiritual abuse is present, the leader that is perpetrating the abuse, is likely also narcissistic.
When a narcissistic leader is given total power/authority over a church body or organization, spiritual abuse is almost guaranteed. This unfortunately happens because narcissists are drawn to positions of authority, and though they are unable to truly feel empathy and care for others, they typically have enough charisma and surface level “leadership skills” to get themselves behind a pulpit, and convince enough “sheep” to trust him with their loyalty. Leaders with narcissistic personality disorder present as confident and strong, and are typically very charming, but underneath they are deeply wounded, easily offended and threatened. Their motivation is never love, but power and control.
Dan Allender, of The Allender Center says “In the good graces of a narcissist you feel like a million bucks, if you do something to threaten a narcissist, the move to annihilation is profound.”
It is very likely that as you read through these statements, you who have not experienced spiritual abuse will probably think, “Good Lord, why would anyone STAY at a church like this?” or “How does anyone not just punch this leader in the face and walk away?” Unfortunately, this is exactly the nuance of spiritual abuse. A biblical way of living can be taught and twisted in such a way that spiritual and/or narcissistic abuse victims often feel like they are the ones in the wrong. Think about the traits that are often praised and how they can be misused if power is in the wrong hands. We will talk about this more later.
One more thing about a narcissistic leader is that they often give you just enough reason to keep coming around, giving them grace, and “believing the best.” They will encourage you just enough to make you feel important. They will give you just enough responsibility for your ego to be fed. They will be inspiring with their larger than life visions and plans for the future, and likely the strongest pull to stay comes from the fear of losing friendships and community… all of these things can keep spiritual abuse victims in captivity for a very long time.
It has been extremely helpful for me to look into the narcissism piece along with spiritual abuse, but the internet has a lot more content on that part, so I won’t get too deep into that here. You can hit up Google and Pinterest for more info. 🙂
Breeding Ground for Spiritual Abuse
So now that we know what it is, how does spiritual abuse happen? Well, there are a few key factors that really seem to set the stage for spiritual abuse to take place. Here are some of the common criteria that I have experienced and/or found in my own research, I am sure there are more, but these come to mind.
- The church or organization has an authoritarian structure, one person is pretty much the top dog, “in charge” of every decision, and controls everyone else with very little to no oversight or accountability. One person is given entirely too much power.
- Respect and submission to authority is demanded, not earned. There is again, a very high focus placed on authority and leadership, as well as trusting and being loyal and committed to that authority.
- The leader struggles with spiritual pride and does not exemplify humility. This type of leader typically self-promotes, talks about his positive traits and boasts of his “unique call to lead and shepherd, and all the ways he is qualified to do so”, he may even talk about how humble and loving he is... Sure, you may not be able to tell if there is a narcissism diagnosis at play here, but at the very least, you should be able to discern between pride and humility. I don’t know that I have ever known of anyone who’s favorite hill-to-die-on topic was “submitting to spiritual authority” (the authority being them) who also exemplified humble, servant-leader character… just sayin’.
Evidence of Spiritual Abuse
I really love what Rick Thomas included in the first point of his article “Eight Signs of Spiritual Abuse” which is, “Do you have to ask?” Because if you have to ask if you have been spiritually abused, there’s a good chance you’re not wrong.
In addition to that, here is a list of twenty qualities that may help you decipher what Spiritual Abuse looks like. Many of these points are taken from a list on Jill Monaco’s website, and edited a bit to add additional points and explanations from my experience and research. Read her full article here.
- Spiritually abusive leaders twist the truth to make themselves look better. And you end up questioning if you heard them correctly or were misinterpreting something.
- Spiritually abusive leaders often claim “God told them, etc…”, but extremely often, and without any humility or room for interpretation. Their “messages from God” are spoken as if they are as clear and confirmed as scripture itself, and if you listen carefully, you’ll realize that what God is “speaking to him” is often very contradicting.
- Spiritually abusive leaders betray your confidence and share your information with others. Even though his messages will often speak against gossip and division, he is probably the most guilty party of both.
- Spiritually abusive leaders say you need to give up your free time for Jesus sake. And shame you if you don’t agree. This is so hard especially in a body of young believers and those new to the faith, they often have little to no spiritual depth because they were told to serve more in order to grow, but there is no legitimate biblical discipleship. Burnout runs rampant, yet many are afraid to admit it in fear of being accused of not being committed enough to the cause, being selfish, prideful, or having a ‘heart issue’.
- Spiritually abusive leaders don’t allow themselves to be held accountable or corrected. And bully anyone who disagrees. There is no room or capacity for anyone in the church to ask questions of those in authority. In fact, churchgoers are often explicitly told to not ask questions, and that if they did not agree with what the leader was doing that it meant they are being disobedient and/or have “issues with authority”.
- Spiritually abusive leaders avoid your request for conflict resolution but are quick to confront you. If you try to bring up things they are twisting, you are seen as unteachable, defensive, or blameshifting, having a prideful heart, having issues with authority, being divisive, etc.
- Spiritually abusive leaders make you feel you can’t change churches or you’ll miss what God has for you. They also often have a very “us vs. them” mentality when it comes to other churches, even though in a healthy picture of the body of Christ we are all on the same “team” and are all considered the big “C” Church, you are conditioned to believe that THIS church is the very best and THIS leader is the very best, and that those who are no longer there are not following God, etc.
- Spiritually abusive leaders demand their way over your free will. And scare you with threats to your reputation if you don’t comply. Or shame you by bringing up your past failures.
- Spiritually abusive leaders silence their critics by making them the bad guy. Anyone who has expressed disappointment or asked questions, will be made the scapegoat.
- Spiritually abusive leaders don’t give you credit for your ideas and successes but take the credit for themselves. Sometimes they will publicly reject your ideas, make one minimal tweak to it on their own and re-present it as their own to gain credit.
- Spiritually abusive leaders bully, shame or tease you into breaking your communicated boundaries. “Boundaries” are not actually allowed… to them, boundaries are just another thing that shows you aren’t “truly committed.” The leader may even preach about his own boundaries and their importance; for example, rest, the Sabbath, and prioritizing family, however if you try to uphold those boundaries yourself, things will be twisted and you will be accused of needing to work on your priorities.
- Spiritually abusive leaders gaslight you into thinking you are crazy. They deny saying things that they have said, and will accuse YOU of their own abusive behavior traits.
- Spiritually abusive leaders can’t admit fault but use the knowledge of others fault to cause fear and intimidation. You will not hear a spiritually abusive leader give a truly heartfelt apology without also bringing up your flaws and accusing you or reminding you of your part in the issue.
- Spiritually abusive leaders have their minions (those whose only qualifying skill is undying loyalty and commitment to the leader) do their dirty work and isolate, intimidate or manipulate those who don’t comply. If there are any “elders”, a “board”, or other leadership positions in place, they are most likely not filled by people who are spiritually strong in leadership, theology, discipleship, or talent, as any of these good and biblical qualities would be seen as a threat to the leader’s ego.
- Spiritually abusive leaders surround themselves with the elite and don’t interact with the sheep. There is undoubtedly an “inner circle” that everyone longs to be in, they are the ones who are given any weight of leadership, although it is typically just an arbitrary label of leadership, there is no actual delegating or spiritual strengthening.
- Spiritually abusive leaders use their charisma to create a cult-like following that would defend them when they are questioned. The leader is likely a commanding presence, a gifted speaker and communicator, attractive, and compelling. And they share just enough of their charm with the majority to turn them into blindly following sheep.
- Spiritually abusive leaders create a culture of a popular inner circle. If someone raises a concern they are put out of the clique and other inner circle people are afraid to speak up. Leadership and access to the leader and his family are used like a dangled carrot to bribe those with any sort of desire to be “used by God” to remain quiet, loyal, and compliant.
- Spiritually abusive leaders surround themselves with only people who praise them, fear them, or submit to them. The ones who are brave or naive enough to raise questions or take a stand against the leader will be reprimanded, demoted, and used as a scapegoat. “Spiritually abusive leaders and churches view those who bring up legitimate issues as enemies. Those who were once friends/allies swiftly become enemies once a concern is raised. Sometimes these folks are banished, told to be silent, or shamed into submission.” Mary DeMuth
- Spiritually abusive leaders lie without a conscience. They lie about those who have dared to defy them, about their own shortcomings, etc. They see their platform as worth protecting for the sake of the gospel.
- Spiritually abusive leaders attribute any negative circumstances that come against them to “spiritual attack”. Attendance is down? A staff member left unhappily and a trail of members followed? Rumors going around (that are true)? It is all viewed as an attack of the enemy. Spiritually abusive leaders never take opportunity to look inward, search their hearts, or dissect their own actions to see how they could be responsible.
Keep in mind that this list is not a comprehensive list of ALL spiritual abuse traits, there are many more that I will not go into today, as well as even more traits of a narcissistic leader and the effects that has on a church body. One thing to know also is that a spiritually abusive leader may not have ALL of these qualities, but that even a few of them should be enough to raise a red flag in your spirit, and for very good reason.
Why does this matter?
Spiritual abuse is a form of psychological abuse and it can easily become a type of mind control. Spiritual abuse messes with our minds in such a way that it can drastically alter the way we see God, the world, and those around us. Also, spiritual abuse is also an umbrella to many other forms of abuse. Once your spirit has been abused and your mind has been formed to trust an abuser, it opens the door for many other types of abuse, including sexual abuse.
Spiritual abuse matters because it grieves the heart of God.
If you are reading this and it has opened your eyes to your own circumstances, please know, this is not what God intended faith communities to look like. A God of love, a God who gives us free will, who sent His son so that we could be set free from bondage and eternal punishment is not a God who wants his people to be abused, controlled, and manipulated.
Know this, that spiritual abuse is about fear, shame, and control, those things are not of God. Our God is a God of conviction, yes, but never condemnation, never manipulation, and never oppression.
I love what Rachel Clinton said in a podcast by the Allender Center, “The Bible is very clear. When people use their power to present themselves as a false god, or to speak FOR God in a way that brings division or harm, God has a very clear stand against that… Jesus speaks boldly to religious people who use their power to oppress.”
I truly believe that anytime we take a stand against any kind of abuse, we are working on behalf of His glory.
I will talk much more in my next post about the Bible’s stand against spiritual abuse, the trauma, and the path to healing. But today to conclude Part 1, I will leave you with these passages from 1 John 4, The Passion Translation:
“Delightfully loved friends, don’t trust every spirit, but carefully examine what they say to determine if they are of God, because many false prophets have mingled into the world…
Those who are loved by God, let his love continually pour from you to one another, because God is love. Everyone who loves is fathered by God and experiences an intimate knowledge of him. The one who doesn’t love has yet to know God, for God is love.”
Thanks for reading friends, I promise you, there is so much hope and healing to come. I am here for you as you navigate this topic, know that you are not alone. Feel free to hop over to my Instagram as we continue this conversation, or comment below to share your thoughts and questions on spiritual abuse.