What is Spiritual Abuse?
“Spiritual abuse happens when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control, or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds.”
– Ken Blue, author of “Healing Spiritual Abuse.” 1
Among the most-visited pages within Apologetics Index, those dealing with various aspects of spiritual abuse — sometimes called religious abuse — rank very high.
It is a subject many visitors contact us about, and one we frequently see in face-to-face counselling.
Religious abuse can take place in every religion or religious movement. But this website deals primarily with spiritual abuse that occurs in Christian churches and movements.
That said, much of the information we provide and refer to also applies to followers of other religions — including religious movements that are considered to be, theologically, cults of Christianity.
Abusive Churches and Leaders
Cults can be defined sociologically and/or theologically. The former deals with behavior; the latter with beliefs.
In Chapter 1 of his book Churches That Abuse, 2 sociologist Dr. Ronald M. Enroth explains:
Sociologists looks for patterns in human behavior and in social institutions. As you read the following pages, a profile of pastoral and spiritual abuse will emerge. Abusive churches, past and present, are first and foremost characterized by strong, control-oriented leadership. These leaders use guilt, fear, and intimidation to manipulate members and keep them in line. Followers are led to think that there is no other church quite like theirs and that God has singled them out for special purposes. Other, more traditional evangelical churches are put down. Subjective experience is emphasized and dissent is discouraged. Many areas of member’s lives are subject to scrutiny. Rules and legalism abound. People who don’t follow rules or who threaten exposure are often dealt with harshly. Excommunication is common. For those who leave, the road back to normalcy is difficult.
– Source: Ronald M. Enroth, Abusive Churches: A View From Within
A cult of Christianity is most commonly defined by its theological deviations. It is
…a group of people, which claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrinal system taught by an individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which (system) denies (either explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian faith as taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible.
– Source: Alan Gomes, Unmasking The Cults (paperback) [ Kindle edition]
A wider definition takes actions and practices into account as well. A movement that appears theologically sound with regard to the central doctrines of Christianity, but whose actions and practices are cultic (or cult-like) in nature, can still be considered a cult of Christianity (e.g. International Churches of Christ).
In many (though certainly not all) such groups, movements, or churches the cult-like behavior is rooted in faulty theology. 3
Bad doctrine produces bad fruit behaviorally (e.g., Mark 7:7-13; Col. 2:20-23; 1 Tim. 4:1-5; 2 Pet. 2:1; Rev. 2:14-15, 20, 24), which is as true for Christians as it is for cultists. As Van Baalen stated, ‘If practice follows from theory, if life is based upon teaching, it follows that the wrong doctrine will issue in the wrong attitude toward God and Christ, and consequently in warped and twisted Christian life.’
– Source: Alan Gomes, Unmasking The Cults
See more in our entry on Cults of Christianity
“Psychological abuse” and “Spiritual trauma”
Spiritual abuse rarely occurs on purpose, as those involved generally start out with the best of intentions.
That does not make it harmless. Dr. Ron Enroth says:
Unlike physical abuse that often results in bruised bodies, spiritual and pastoral abuse leaves scars on the psyche and soul. It is inflicted by persons who are accorded respect and honor in our society by virtue of their role as religious leaders and models of spiritual authority. They base that authority on the Bible, the Word of God, and see themselves as shepherds with a sacred trust. But when they violate that trust, when they abuse their authority, and when they misuse ecclesiastical power to control and manipulate the flock, the results can be catastrophic.
The perversion of power that we see in abusive churches disrupts and divides families, fosters an unhealthy dependence of members on the leadership, and creates, ultimately, spiritual confusion in the lives of victims.
– Ron Enroth, Churches That Abuse, Zondervan, 1993, p. 29. 4
Just like former cult members, people who have suffered spiritual abuse often describe their experience in terms of “psychological abuse” and “spiritual trauma.”
Ken Blue lists seven symptoms of abusive religion, based on the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:
- Abusive leaders base their spiritual authority on their position or office rather than on their service to the group. Their style of leadership is authoritarian.
- Leaders in abusive churches often say one thing but do another. Their words and deeds to not match.
- They manipulate people by making them feel guilty for not measuring up spiritually. They lay heavy religious loads on people and make no effort to life those loads. You know that you
are in an abusive church if the loads just keep getting heavier.
- Abusive leaders are preoccupied with looking good. They labor to keep up appearance. They stifle any criticism that puts them in a bad light.
- They seek honorific titles and special privileges that elevate them above the group. They promote a class system with themselves at the top.
- Their communication is not straight. Their speech becomes especially vague and confusing when they are defending themselves.
- They major on minor issues to the neglect of the truly important ones. They are conscientious about religious details but neglect God’s larger agendas. 5
Why do people put up with spiritual abuse?
Why do otherwise sensible and intelligent people put up with abusive churches?
Blue points out that many people feel perfectly comfortable being led.
[W]e have the tendency to let authority figures make the rules and then apply them to us. When they administer the rules in an abusive manner we will (at first) tend to submit.
Combined with our tendency to want a leader is our incurably religious nature. Our longing for God is essential to use. It is the most significant aspect of our being. Those who sit themselves down in Moses’ seat and pose and mediators for God can therefore play on our desire for a leader and our yearning for God.
It is no surprise then that those who most earnestly desire to please God are most apt to be victimized by spiritual authorities setting themselves up as mediators for God. The spiritually keen are most at risk. […]
Nevertheless, Christ calls us to spiritual maturity. And that sometimes means resisting spiritual authorities just as he did.”
– Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse: How to Break Free from Bad Church Experiences, InterVarsity Press, p. 36.
Many of the people we counsel regarding spiritual abuse indicate that they long submitted to their leaders because they were afraid to lose their community — their history in the local church and the relationships they have built up with people over time.
Others stayed out of fear as they were told they would ‘lose their salvation’ if they left or were forced to leave the church.
- Abusive Churches by Pat Zukeran of Probe Ministries
- Churches That Turn Into Cults by Marlene Jones-Skurtu
- Authoritarianism in the International Churches of Christ By Dr. Ronald Enroth
- Eight Distinctives of an Aberrational Christian Group On NEIRR’s site
- Elements Of Spiritual Abuse Overview of the seven characteristics of shame-based relationships as presented in "The Subtle Power Of Spiritual Abuse". A Watchman Fellowship article.
- Is Your Church Free From Cultic Tendencies – a Checklist From the October, 1991 Spiritual Counterfeits Project Newsletter
- The Power Abusers: When follow-the-leader becomes a dangerous game Dr. Ronald Enroth takes a look at "shepherding" and "discipling."
- Recovery from Spiritual Abuse By Sharon Hilderbrant, M.A.
- Spiritual abuse: 10 ways to spot it. By Mary DeMuth
- "They Told Me That If I Left…" Article by Ron Henzel
- Traumatic Abuse In Cults : An Exploration of an Unfamiliar Social Problem By Daniel Shaw. Uses Siddha Yoga as an example of an abusive cult
- Uncovering Churches That Abuse Questions that help determine whether or not a church is abusive. From Ronald Enroth’s book Recovering from Churches That Abuse
- Voices From The Fringe “Former members report the tragedy of churches that drift
- What do (Abusive) Churches and Cults Have in Common? Adapted from The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen
into the distorted behavior more expected of a cult.” By Dr.Ron Enroth
- Churches That Abuse, by Ronald Enroth. Published by Zondervan. Info and review [Currently out of print]. Read this book online.
- Exposing Spiritual Abuse: How to Rediscover God’s Love When the Church Has Let You Down by Mike Fehlauer
- Grace Plus Nothing by Jeff Harkin. Most Bible-based cults and abusive churches twist the Biblical doctrine of grace. Instead, they preach and teach The Law. This book book is highly recommended to those who have been involved in an abusive church – and to anyone who wants to have a better understanding of what grace is all about.
- Healing Spiritual Abuse, by Ken Blue. Subtitled, "How To Break Free From Bad Church Experiences." Excellent resource.
- Recovering from Churches That Abuse, by Ronald Enroth. Zondervan, 1994. [Currently out of print] Read the book online
- Toxic Faith: Experiencing Healing From Painful Spiritual Abuse
- The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse Excellent book by David Johnson, Jeff Vanvonderen. Summary of this insightful book.
- Twisted Scriptures by Mary Alice Chrnalogar.
Books – Online
- Churches That Abuse + Recovering From Churches That Abuse, by Dr. Ronald Enroth.
- The Discipling Dilemma. Online book on abusive discipling. Specific focus is the International Churches of Christ, but this book provides lots of general insight into the practice and history of discipling.
- The Heresy of Mind Control By Steve Martin. “Recognizing Con Artists, Tyrants, and Spiritual Abusers in Leadership.” This book is no longer in print, but is available in both PDF and as a second-hand published hardcopy
People who have experienced spiritual abuse (or who are still being subjected to it) often feel isolated. It is difficult to know whom to turn to — and who you can trust. After all, at one point you believed the very people who are abusive now were trustworthy.
Nevertheless, it is important that you realize you are not alone. Many people just like you have encountered spiritual abuse, and most have found ways to deal with their experiences constructively.
If you are a Christian and have been (or still are) part of an abusive church, a good approach is to reach out to other Christians who are not involved in that church. Though not everyone may understand the issues you face, it is good to have a sounding board — people who can help you with prayer, Bible-based counsel, and other practical help.
Study the resources available here to help you think through the issues, and document your thoughts.
Every situation is different. For many, the simplest answer to dealing with spiritual abuse is to ‘simply’ walk away. For some that may not be so easy to do. There are situations in which standing up to abusive pastors could lead to losing your family and friends as they choose to remain in that church — and break off all contact with you, even to the point of divorce.
If you believe you need the help of a cult expert, make sure the expert you select is a Christian as well. While non-Christians may understand the way cult-like control works, they are ill-equipped when it comes to dealing with theological issues that — more often than not — lie at the root of spiritual abuse. Non-Christians also lack Christian discernment because they have, naturally, not received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Don’t get taken for a ride by someone who talks the talk, but does not walk the walk. One particularly bad apple is bitterly hostile toward Christians.
- Abusive tyrants in the church Some clips used in this video may be triggering
- Spiritually abusive churches — a personal testimony. It sounds odd, but many people do not realize they are experiencing spiritual abuse. A spiritually abusive church creates an environment in which questioning and the application of personal insight are discouraged — if not outright forbidden. Listening to a testimony like this can help people recognize that they are being abused. (Poor sound quality).
- Surviving Spiritual Abuse (Part 2) Interview with Dr. Stephen Arterburn, author of Toxic Faith: Experiencing Healing From Painful Spiritual Abuse
- Top 10 signs of an abusive church (plus part 2). By Elizabeth Esther
- Battered Sheep A place of encouragement for sheep who have been wounded and victimized by authoritarian and legalistic churches.
- Spiritual Abuse Lois Gibson’s excellent collection of material and links
- Recovering from Spiritual Abuse Detailed information. Very helpful site.
- Cults, Sects, Alternative Religious Movements
- Cult of Christianity
- Ex-Cult Support Resources
- Faith Healing
- Mind Control
We’re not done yet. We’ve got additional resources to evaluate and post. Also, we’re happy to receive suggested links to helpful material.
- Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse: How to Break Free from Bad Church Experiences, InterVarsity Press, p. 12. ↩
- The book Churches That Abuse is available here online in its entirety by courtesy of the author ↩
- E.g. The Watchtower — theologically a cult of Christianity, and sociologically a cult as well — dictates its Jehovah’s Witnesses to refuse blood transfusions. It does so on the basis of false interpretations of the Bible. ↩
- Online version ↩
- Ken Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse: How to Break Free from Bad Church Experiences, InterVarsity Press, p. 134-144. ↩