What Spiritual Abuse Is and Is Not

What Spiritual Abuse Is and Is Not



So often, when defining what something is NOT, it helps to understand so much better what something IS.  This article will be   a brief look at what spiritual abuse is not.

For definitions for spiritual abuse, go to the tab entitled ‘FAQ’ on the Church Exiters site to find helpful information.

This article will look at what spiritual abuse is NOT in order to sift through some faulty concepts and get a fuller picture of how it could be better discerned in the context of the church today.

Paul’s analogy about the body in the First Corinthian passage is fitting here:  “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it . . .” Therefore, it is important for Christians to correctly understand spiritual abuse.  It is equally important for them to understand what it is not.


Just Because You Say You are Spiritually Abused

In my book, Spiritual Abuse Recovery, I asked these pertinent questions:

1.  Are people who say that they were spiritually abused simply a group that is made up of discontented complainers who may never be happy anywhere?

2.  Do these participants characterize those who are overly sensitive, embittered, and difficult to get along with?

 3.  Do the participants in this study portray an exaggerated view of their previous church situation and thus need to be discounted?

Unfortunately, the concept of spiritual abuse has not been clear in many circles.   Many church leaders and other Christians believe that those who claim that they have been spiritually abused are simply a group who are made up of discontented grumblers who may never be happy anywhere.

The idea that most churches are good and that all you need to do is to check out the doctrinal statement and the governance style to see if it agrees with your particular persuasion, is about all that is needed to find a church.  One blogger noted her lack understanding about this issue until she experienced spiritual abuse herself:

“I was naïve.  I figured that, if I went to a good church with a well thought out church polity, all would be well.  However, as I, along with many others, have come to discover, it is not what is written that counts.  It is that which is unwritten and is said in back rooms that rule the day.”  (Dee at The Wartburg Watch   Feb. 1, 2011.)

When I get an opportunity to clarify, I confirm that Christians who have been spiritually abused are those who were:

          *devoted and regular attenders,

          *those active in serving and leadership in the church,

          *financial givers,        and

          *those who supported the leadership direction.

This sheds a better light on who has ended up in this category.

They were not considered ‘troublemakers’ until they raised pertinent concerns.  This gives a whole different look at the topic and definition of spiritual abuse, who are the spiritually abused, and who are the perpetrators of spiritual abuse.

This information can bring clarity to those who lead and oversee as well as for those who help or counsel.


Human Nature

Human nature, being what it is, certainly influences how we look at spiritual abuse.  All of us can be pretty persnickety at times and we need family and friends to challenge our wonky thinking.  When bullying behavior happens in the church, either by leaders or by congregants, it creates all kinds of misunderstandings and stress.

Since the church is primarily a group of people who have had the same spiritual experience, that is, the new birth, then all true members are related to one another spiritually.  Since Christians belong to the Family of God, they should be able to relate to each other at a spiritual level.  The local church, then, is a smaller version of the ideal of the dynamic of the whole.  It remains to be seen if the local church can be the best thing or the worst thing in people’s lives.


Where Does Church Discipline Fit Today?

When there are Christians who are not living up to their potential in Christ and are living with habits and attitudes that are harmful to themselves, their families, and others, what should a caring church, a loving spiritual family, do?

If people are left to themselves, that is not a demonstration of love, but of neglect.  Caring families look after one another; they pray and act in loving ways to help guide those who are living recklessly and hurting others.

How families deal with family members who have gone beyond ethical parameters is a source of challenge for the local church.  How people have been dealt with has often become a source of greater problem rather than a source of hope for suitable restoration.

Loving pastors and other trained church personnel work hard at speaking the truth in love so that wayward believers get the message in a way that they can see the ridiculousness of what they are doing and get the help that they need in order to change for the better.

There are pastors who see habits and behaviors that are unhealthy in people’s lives and are available to help them.  Some leaders have great people skills and are able to work well with people who come to them for counsel.

On the other hand, there are some clergy, for whatever reason, who are inept at working with people and the individual does not get the help they need in a way that they can work together with them toward restoration.  Some people just don’t have the skills needed for the pastoring and counseling task.

Nevertheless, there are countless loving and trained pastors and other church leaders who make themselves available to guide people who have a heart to change and they are willing to walk with them every step of the way.  Caring pastors can be invaluable in their Christian community and to the world just outside their door.


When Everything is Labeled as Abuse

I have talked to a number of observant pastors who have concerns that everything that happens negatively, between a pastor and a congregant, can get misconstrued and end up being labeled as spiritual abuse, when it certainly is not.

I first assure attentive pastors that it is important to have a working definition of spiritual abuse and to understand what spiritual abuse is and is not.  This is the first place to start.  Then I explain what spiritual abuse is and how important it is to recognize its destructive trail in the lives of multitudes of Christians.

For example, so many Christians have been harmed by improper interpretations of Matthew 18.*  Using this passage to generate biblical grounds to shun or expel certain congregants so often goes beyond the original intent of this passage.  So many have been innocently charged and have been severely wounded by this exercise.  Finding appropriate ways to use this passage would be a better way to go.  (*See Articles and Links re Matthew 18 in the For Further Reflection Section.)


Things Not to Lump Together

Therefore, the following are some selected examples of things that should not be lumped together as spiritually abusive behaviors:

  1. Biblical, godly church discipline.
  2. Pastors having a difference of opinion with congregants.
  3. Hurting a congregant unintentionally.
  4. Personality differences and authority figures.

1.  Biblical, godly church discipline.

The reason that I put biblical and godly together here is that so many groups claim that they are following ‘biblical’ principles when dealing with people in churches, but their view of what might be biblical might be up for better interpretation.  Too many times, what is deemed as biblical, so often is not.  Not everything that has been called biblical, by clergy, is accurate.

The Bereans in the Book of Acts were a good example of those who were careful to check out what they had heard with the text of Scripture.  They were careful to see if what they heard designated as biblical was accurate or if it interfered with the original and best intention of the text.

All too many have been spiritual and emotionally wounded by what has been deemed as ‘biblical’ church discipline but, instead, has only been a way for unscrupulous church leaders to control and manipulate.  So often the Matthew 18 passage has been used where there is no outright ‘sin’ by a congregant.

Even if there had been some observable sin, the methodology used did not represent the kind of church discipline that modeled the restorative and redemptive factors that the local church is to embody.  In many places, the term ‘biblical godly church discipline’ has a ways to go in completing this task with reasonable skill.

2.  Pastors having a difference of opinion with congregants.

You wouldn’t be human if you did not have a difference of opinion with most people.  That is part of being human.  It is how differences of opinion are expressed and then reacted to is where problems arise.

Having a difference of opinion is often a good thing.  Another outlook helps to test our initial reasons why we feel strongly about a particular situation.  Different viewpoints provide an opportunity to stop and examine other views in order to choose the best or blend the lot.  A respectful exchange of ideas is a healthy atmosphere which ought to stimulate rather than be stifled.

In a family, what works best is having respect for one another.  Respect can be seen by those older listening to the opinions of those younger and vice versa.  Respect can be modeled by parents showing how males and females can get along while dwelling under the same roof without creating stressful situations around opposite points of view.

The local church is a place to carry on the care and listening to different perspectives with an attitude of respect and interest.

3.  Hurting a congregant unintentionally.

Again, it is not possible to live on this planet without offending or being offended.  It is how one works out the incidences of personal emotional injury that makes or breaks a relationship.

Pastors, along with congregants, hurt one another.  This is part of church life.  It is a healthy congregation that recognizes that and works at keeping short accounts with one another and working through offenses and differences.

4.  Personality differences and authority figures.

One of the potentials for problems among members of any organization is the differences in personalities among people.  Just the differences in personalities among pastors and congregants can be enough to create relationship problems.  It takes time and respect for people to work together in any organization, part of this is recognizing and working with various personality types in a group.

Add to that dynamic how people were raised in their families. How people were to treat the authority figures in their family, what people expect of pastors, and what pastors expect from congregants, all play into the clergy-congregant relationship.  The potential for misunderstandings in a church setting are simply waiting to happen.


When a Church is Unfairly Labeled

I was delighted to connect with a pastor some time back with an active church ministry to help women who experience domestic abuse.  His ministry experience led to some questions about spiritual abuse and shared pain from being wrongly labeled a spiritually abusive church.  Our email dialog might provide some interesting insights on this topic from both our vantage points.

This pastor’s email with his observations and enquiry:

“Here is my observation.  Many of the people that we have had to deal with in these kinds of scenarios over my twenty years as pastor here, have gone to other churches, been welcomed in by them, and have announced to those churches that we are the very kind of church that you are writing about, spiritual abusers.

They have leveled all of those kinds of accusations against us:  that they can’t talk with us, that no one is allowed to disagree with us, or that we are harsh, etc.  Most of the cases we have had to deal with entailed us working with the people over a long, long time.  If anything, I think we took too long.

Now, numbers of these people have been abusers.  Some in the domestic violence sense, others as abusers in the church who are hungry for power and control.  As you probably know, these kinds of people are extremely manipulative and crafty in pretending to be pious saints.  And so often, other Christians believe them.

My question, then, is how do you discern in your research?  That is to say, how do you keep yourself from being duped by these masters of disguise, as most Christian women who have been abused will tell you that their churches were duped?

I have no doubt at all that the spiritual abuse you describe truly exists.  In fact, I am trying to expose it in connection with how abuse victims are being treated by their pastors and churches.  But I think you see what I mean.

Sociopaths are extremely good at playing the game and manipulating.  So, as I said, as I read on your webpage the things that abusive churches do to people, I realize that many of them are said about us by these kinds of people we have had to confront.

If we had just let them go, do their thing, keep pretending, never confront their sin, we would be popular just like so many other churches and pastors around us and not have these accusations leveled at us.  But then, the wicked would succeed, wouldn’t they?”


The Lordship of Christ 

My email response to this pastor’s concerns:

“I understand your concern about this topic.  Many pastors have dealt with people who are just not willing to submit to the Lordship of Christ, work through their sinful lifestyles, and be found in a caring Christian community.  This is discouraging.

As well, I understand that there are some plain ‘troublesome’ people in every congregation who just are a pain to the pastor and church leaders.  These are not the type of people who were found in my study.  . . .

I understand your concern that people call churches who exercise godly discipline and leave, naming ‘that’ church as an abusive church.  That is very disconcerting for a caring church fellowship, who are trying to help people to be overcomers and to recognize their identity in Christ.


Believing the Victims 

The people who I talk to on the phone or visit with; the people who email me, or the people I connect with in various contexts, are Christians who have genuinely experienced spiritual abuse.  They are much wiser now because of experiencing what I call a ‘muddy tunnel’ church experience.  They have gone through a process of recovery and are then in a position to help others.

It comes down to the issue of ‘believing a true victim’–of any kind of abuse.  When a child says that they have been sexually abused by their uncle, or beaten by their father, or the wife who says she has been beaten and controlled by her abusive husband, we, in the church, need to believe them.  The church has been so lax in understanding these issues and taking appropriate action for both victim and abuser.

We know that some people have manipulated others, people have told lies about good people, and some have framed parents/spouses who are innocent.  Nevertheless, the statistics again show that abuse in all its ugly forms does happen, in the home and in the church.  I agree that it is important to understand all forms of abuse in order to make wise decisions and not be beguiled by the tactics of abusers.

I have heard a multitude of spiritual abuse accounts.  The people that I have gotten to know through this research are generally caring, supportive people who gave of their time and finances, and supported the direction of the leaders of the local church.

Out of that framework, these people, whether individuals or couples, were devastated by what happened to them.  Yes, they were shaken to the core and their whole world was turned upside down.

Some were asked to leave their church, others needed to leave, since they realized how toxic the environment was.  What started out as a ‘nice’ church to attend, turned out to be a nightmare.

So yes, those who are challenged about their sinful lifestyles are going to glum onto the word ‘abuse.’  In fact, the term abuse/abuser has wearied many Christians.

It becomes:  “Oh, that again.”  Therefore, it is the task of those who have been behind the scenes, who understand the foundations of these dysfunctions in the Body of Christ, to continue to raise the awareness so that more believers know about them.”


Reporting Abuse

          It is important to note that:  any occurrence of sexual abuse or domestic violence, whether in the home or in the church, needs to be appropriately reported to the police.  These are criminal matters that need to be investigated by the police.  The church should lead the way in uncovering any of these dark behaviors, reporting them, and then leaving it to the authorities to deal with.

Once an incidence has been dealt with by the police, then there is opportunity for the church to suggest professional counseling for victims as well as for the perpetrators.  The local church has an opportunity to be part of the solution and not part of the problem regarding these covert and dysfunctional issues in the home and in the church.



In summary, spiritual abuse is a complex church issue.  There have been a number of factors that have been brought forward in order to help people to understand what spiritual abuse is and what it is not.  It is important that the charge of spiritual abuse be followed up.

As more people understand what spiritual abuse is and what it is not, then there can be an army of people who are able to help in clarifying many of the confusing aspects that get intertangled with this issue.

Raising the awareness about spiritual abuse and informing people adequately will benefit the entire church.

Knowing what spiritual abuse is and what it is not can be a wholesome contribution to finding solutions to this complex church problem.


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Your Thoughts

Your thoughts on the above article, further insights, along with questions, or other points of view, would be most welcome.

Just email Dr. Barb at:  info@churchexiters.com and you will get an email back as soon as possible.


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For Further Reflection

Two bloggers have written about the misuse of the Matthew 18 passage in many church settings.  It is worth considering this Scripture passage again, in order to make sure that it is used as correctly as possible.

1.  Jeff Felkins at “You See Kids . . .” has written two helpful articles:

The first article is entitled:

“Matthew 18 and Church Discipline” dated Feb. 3, 2012.

The second article is entitled: 

“Church Discipline and 1 Cor. 5” dated Feb. 6, 2012.

Jeff’s articles can be found by scrolling down to these dates at:     http://jeffandwendy.wordpress.com


2.  Paul Dohse at Paul’s Passing Thoughts makes the point that there is a danger when the third step is skipped, that of not involving the congregation.

So often there is an announcement made to the congregation of what the elders have already done.  This is particularly done in order to confirm a false charge of sin against someone.  Paul confirms that this passage so often is not used biblically.  When used incorrectly, it serves to be a convenience for abusive leaders.

Paul’s article is entitled:  “Is Love and Forgiveness Always the Same Thing?”  It is dated:  May 17, 2012.

Paul’s article can be found at:

Are Love and Forgiveness Always the Same Thing?


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© 2012   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.