Spiritual Abuse and Linking Other Abuses


When you delve into any one form of abuse, you quickly find that there is relationship with other abuses–physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, and spiritual. Where you find at least one of them on the surface, you often find all the rest of them lurking nearby. This article looks at how spiritual abuse specifically ties in with some of these other forms of abuse, and why.

We normally think of spiritual abuse as inflicted by ministry leaders in a church setting or in parachurch groups, where someone is believed to hold a special role in connecting people with God. Because this role of leadership deals with wielding power, authority, and responsibility over others ‘in the name of God,’ it can also be found in the home.


Getting to the Roots of the Spiritual Abuse Issue

In contexts where patriarchy is valued or where certain aberrant teachings abound, spiritual abuse is evident.*

When a culture puts greater value on males, as being:
Central, Superior, and Deserving,

the converse is that females are of lesser value in that society:
Peripheral, Inferior, and Servants.

*For information on the Christian Patriarchy Movement, see the article entitled: “Spiritual Abuse and Patriarchy” [soon to be posted ] on this website.

In patriarchy, men are viewed as divinely mandated or authorized to hold power over women and children. So, a misuse of position in this case is actually spiritual abuse. This kind of bullying with hiding behind spiritual authority can occur in homes, churches, and ministries–wherever God is brought into the picture (rightly or wrongly) as the source of the leadership authority. Thus, to go against the man in authority is to go against God Himself.

So, what happens when the ‘man of the house’ yells at his wife and children? Or when he hits his wife, whether behind closed doors or in front of their children? Does she deserve such verbal or physical reprimand and subjugation for serving imperfectly? Does he deserve to do such things, because he is a man? Are children traumatized by these actions? Or do these violent scenes merely serve as life lessons for how boys should treat women and children when they grow up and how girls must learn to silently suffer through such hardship?

The root issues to violence and its cover-up are often based on a faulty view of males and females and their place in society. What people believe about the place of males and females in society is crucial. What people believe directs how they will actually live. Entrenched belief systems are hard to dismantle.

A clear interpretation of the New Testament points to the fact that in the Kingdom of God, the equal value of men and women is a valid biblical view regarding gender. However, one emerging problem in North America is that patriarchal, authoritarian church leaders are demonstrating deficiencies in theology–and not just by their placing less value on women and children.

In particular, they do not understand the overlaps between sins and crimes, they hold a skewed view of the relationship between Church and culture, and they end up misusing their own power to cover up crime and in the process they abuse others–typically, women and children.

To get a bit more specific, certain sins are also actually crimes. (As we’ll explore shortly, these include physical abuse, sexual abuse, and other forms of violence.) But these leaders suggest the church is not of the world and, therefore, is biblically required to deal with sins inside the church, just as the man is in charge of dealing with issues in the home.

Therefore, these church leaders do not involve civil authorities immediately as they ethically (and legally) should. Instead, they try to resolve situations between perpetrators of crimes and their victims strictly through supposedly biblical means, leaving out the very system of criminal justice and consequences of the country in which they live.

Ultimately, they falsely justify the negation of some scriptural commands about obedience to civil authorities in order to fulfill others. And the victims in such cases usually end up further traumatized by these theologically mangled efforts at forgiveness and reconciliation.

Presumed authority over sins does not give church or ministry leaders a ‘pass’ on their obligations as citizens. Therefore, what are the civic responsibilities and legal requirements when we know or suspect that criminal acts occur? And, what are the spiritual responsibilities of leaders to the victims and perpetrators–without bypassing the laws of the land that we are biblically bound to obey?


The Issue of Reporting Abuse

When it comes to sexual assaults, child sexual abuse, child abuse/neglect, and domestic violence, these are crimes that must be reported. Failing to do so goes against the law and brings further anguish to those harmed.

When it comes to sexual abuse and domestic violence, there seems to be a problem in understanding: What exactly is a crime that needs to be reported to the police?

When people, especially Christians, can comprehend the crime factor and the need to take appropriate action in reporting crimes, then the keeping it ‘in house’ and dealing with individuals through the church, as a tradition of the past, can stop. There is a better chance of helping the victims and seeing that justice is served when a violation of the law committed against an individual is reported without delay.


1.  Understand first that crimes need to be reported to the police–and in fact, legally MUST be reported to officers of the law.

2.  Report the situation to the police and allow them to do their job and put their investigative skills to work.

3.  After this, then the church could be part of the aid provided to the victim, to his or her family, and to the perpetrator.

4.  If church ministers are ill-equipped to help the victim, the family, and the perpetrator–which is often the case–then they need to involve professional counselors.

5.  The church can be a support with ongoing resources and church community care after the police and professional counselors have been involved.

6.  Failure, neglect, or delay in carrying out ANY of these actions not only inflicts further damage on victims and their family, it also actually gives perpetrators the opportunity of a ‘silent mandate’ to re-victimize those they have already harmed, or to move on to victimizing others.

The urgency to understand the scope of our responsibilities to report gets amplified when we grasp how widespread these various criminal actions are. Sexual abuse and violence are ‘hidden’ in the shadows all around us. Will we be sources of light for those harmed in the dark? Or will we be complicit with the Kingdom of Darkness through our silence, excuses, and/or negligence?

*S t a t i s t i c s*

Statistics Regarding Sexual Violence

*  Every 2 minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. In their lifetime, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be a victim of sexual assault.

*  College-age women are 4 times more likely to be sexually assaulted.

*  60% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.

*  Approximately 73% of rape victims know their assailants.

*  Only 6% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail.

Source:  RAINN


Statistics Regarding Child Sexual Abuse

*  90% of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator in some way; 68% are abused by family members.

*  A report of child abuse is made every ten seconds.

*  Child abuse occurs at every socio-economic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education.

*  About 30% of abused and neglected children will later abuse their ownchildren, continuing the horrible cycle of abuse.

Source:  Childhelp

Statistics Regarding Domestic Violence

*  One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.

* An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.

*  85% of domestic violence victims are women.

*  Females who are 20-24 years of age are at the greatest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence.

*  Most cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police.

*  Witnessing violence between one’s parents or caretakers is the strongest risk factor of transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next.

*  Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.

*  30% to 60% of perpetrators of intimate partner violence also abuse children in the household.

Source:  National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Fact Sheet

Sexual Abuse, Power, and Effects

*  Sexual abuse is much more about power than it is about sexual attraction.

*  Most sexual deviancy is about power.

*  There are long term effects on individuals and families.

*  “It is important to know that the serious effects of any sexual molestation at any age are devastating to the victim and their family for many years. It doesn’t just “go away” after forgiving the person!” Mother of a Victim


*R e s p o n s e s and R e s p o n s i b i l i t i e s*

Some Questions That Arise

*  What is the proper protocol for pastors when they find out or suspect someone has been abused physically or sexually?

*  What should church members do when they know someone has been abused and nothing has been done to help the victim?

*  Do other churches in their area provide counseling–after church leaders become aware of the abuse in their fellowship?


When Churches Fail  . . .  

*  When churches fail to take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of children under its care, then that provides a place for predators to operate.

*  When churches fail to adopt any processes or policies to deal with sexual predation and fail to train workers in direct control over children, then they have failed to protect children and their families from life-changing crimes.

*  When churches put their reputation and their financial status above the protection of children, the mentally challenged, or anyone who is vulnerable for any reason in their church family, then they are grieving God’s heart, putting individuals at risk, and harming the witness of Christ in that community.

*  Justice is not served and individuals are again harshly victimized when churches fail to report known incidences of sexual predation to law enforcement, encourage parents to refrain from reporting the assaults to law enforcement, and/or interpose themselves between the parents of the victims and law enforcement in order to mislead law enforcement into believing parents have ‘forgiven’ those who prey on their children.

*  When victims are silenced and churches fail to report abuse and act wisely, then it creates a culture in which sexual predators are protected from accountability.

*  Who are churches trying to protect and why?

People are not willing anymore to tolerate the fact that leaders overlook or cover up sex abuse. Pastors and church leaders must take note.

Sexual deviance and domestic violence are already far reaching. When uneducated and/or misguided people try to ‘cover’ it up, it only gets worse.


Clergy Sexual Abuse Compounded by Clergy Spiritual Abuse

One way that things get even worse is when sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone who holds a leadership role in a church or ministry. The covert action of clergy to abuse their ecclesiastical power and violate a congregant sexually rightly shatters trust in them–and understandably can shatter the victims’ trust in any clergy. Clergy sexual abuse is thus a double wound of crime and sin against an unsuspecting child of God.

On top of this horrific behavior of a church leader, other church leaders often take the position that this episode needs to be dealt with ‘in house’ and covered up. But, what church or denominational overseers seem to forget, is that when they victimize and/or cover up, they are failing in their role as shepherds over God’s flock. They are using their power to their own advantage and to the detriment of those they were charged to serve–not given permission to subjugate.


Pastoral Training with Gaps

The consequences of churches poorly handling abuse issues is that the cover-up is worse than what would have been if it had been handled properly in the first place. When those who are responsible do not appropriately handle sex abuse and ignore the victim, the victim is re-victimized. The victim first experiences sexual abuse by the perpetrator and then spiritual abuse by the pastor, other church leaders, and even denominational leaders. This is both crime and sin; it must be stopped!

In fact, in many places, failure of clergy to report child abuse and neglect, when it comes to their knowledge of it in their church community, can have grave repercussions. Clergy can be charged with a crime for their failure to report. Also, we are beginning to see an emerging trend where they may face civil lawsuits for neglecting their legal obligations by remaining silent, for their ‘pastoral malfeasance’ in failures to provide constructive care for victims and families, and/or for their outright destructive treatment of victims and their families. But here again, bad theology compounds the problems.

What helps to create a situation where pastoral leaders and/or denominational leaders prefer to cover up accounts that come to their attention rather than expose them? The answer could be that twisted teachings about sin and the role of the pastor are what have led to situations where these sorts of crimes seem to be minimized and perpetrators are quickly restored to good standing within congregations. Poor handling of such matters in the church create unsafe places for congregants.

There are plenty of printed and personal resources available for situations of sexual abuse, child sexual abuse, and domestic violence. The time for congregational ineffectiveness in these crucial areas is now past. It is important to be a resource for hurting souls and for their abusers.

Church leaders need to know who has the skills needed to help, have a list of resources available, and then use them as needed. For instance, in most communities, both Christian and secular experts or agencies can be engaged when dealing with issues beyond the training and skill set of the pastor and other church officials.

But it takes commitment to a healthy environment, with no power games, for churches to lead the way in helping those in need. And we must work to lead the wave of help and healing, rather than play catch-up or else be rebuked for our dismal approach in these areas.

But how do we do that? How do we create the commitment and momentum to be a force for good in these issues of sin/crime?


Change Begins When Faulty Belief Systems Are Changed

The FaithTrust Institute has developed their guiding principles. These include: What We Believe. These sentiments provide a worthy guide for anyone.

The following are The FaithTrust Institute’s five principles:

1.  We believe that our religious values of justice and the equality of persons summon us to affirm the dignity and worth of every human being and to affirm the right of each person to live without fear and threat of violence.

2.  We believe that the teachings of our religious traditions have been a source of pain and confusion as well as a source of strength and healing for those facing sexual and domestic violence.

3.  We believe that the teachings of our religious traditions obligate us to work towards an end to sexual and domestic violence in our individual communities and in society at large.

4.  We believe that it is possible to transform individuals, families, communities and institutions through education and the power of our faith traditions.

5.  We believe that the voices of survivors of sexual and domestic violence are a primary source of knowledge and direction for our work.



Knowing the statistics and knowing what to do as individuals in our society and as church fellowships is important in raising awareness about horrific social issues of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and dealing with them in a suitable way.

You can be part of the solution!

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Websites Resources

Over time, the internet has proven extremely helpful in providing information and resources suitable for this need.

The following are a sample of websites that can be accessed.

*Abuse Resource Network

• The Abuse Resource Network strives to raise awareness about abuse and help to motivate and train the church to respond to abuse in a biblical way.

• The Abuse Resource Network has been formed to provide a comprehensive hub of information with resources to help people find answers to questions about their own abuse and to help church leaders, workers, and counselors to find and share resources–in order to help people to properly grieve, to come to terms with what happened, to progress towards healing, and to help to find closure.

• The Abuse Resource Network has also been designed to provide interactive resources for support and healing.

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*Faith Trust Institute

FaithTrust Institute is a national, multifaith, multicultural training and education organization with global reach working to end sexual and domestic violence.

Founded in 1977, the FaithTrust Institute offers a wide range of services and resources, including training, consulting and educational materials.

We provide communities and advocates with the tools and knowledge they need to address the religious and cultural issues related to abuse. We work with many communities, including Asian and Pacific Islander, Buddhist, Jewish, Latino/a, Muslim, Black, Anglo, Indigenous, Protestant and Roman Catholic.

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*Christians for Biblical Equality

Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) is a non-profit organization of Christian men and women who believe that the Bible, properly interpreted, teaches the fundamental equality of men and women of all ethnic groups, all economic classes, and all age groups, based on the teachings of Scriptures such as Galatians 3:28:

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

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*PASCH Peace and Safety in the Christian Home

Peace and Safety in the Christian Home (PASCH) is a loose coalition of academics, professionals, clergy and lay people who are alarmed by domestic violence in the Christian home and are interested in solving the problem of abuse in the Christian home. Our goal is to increase peace and safety in the Christian home, and in the world it serves, by addressing and decreasing all forms of abuse.

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*RAVE Religion and Violence e-Learning

The RAVE Mission Statement:

“There is no place like home; when abuse strikes, there is no home.”

RAVE seeks to enable religious leaders to respond to domestic violence in ways that are compassionate, practical, and informed by the latest research and best practices for professionals;

RAVE seeks to enable religious leaders to respond to domestic violence in ways that are compassionate, practical, and informed by the latest research and best practices for professionals;

RAVE seeks to walk alongside victims and survivors on their journeys toward healing and wholeness;

RAVE seeks to forge pathways between the Steeple and the Shelter;

RAVE seeks to hold abusers accountable for their actions, while offering hope for a transformed life.

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*Speaking Truth in Love Ministries


Speaking Truth in Love Ministries addresses the difficult issues of Sexual Abuse and Domestic Violence within the Body of Christ.

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*The Hope of Survivors


The Hope of Survivors provides support, hope, and healing for victims of pastoral sexual abuse.

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*A Cry for Justice


Awakening the Evangelical Church to domestic violence and abuse in its midst.

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*SNAP—Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests


We are SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.  We are the largest, oldest and most active support group for women and men wounded by religious authority figures (priests, ministers, bishops, deacons, nuns and others). We are an independent and confidential organization, with no connections with the church or church officials.


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For Further Reflection

“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

                                                                                               Isaiah 1:17

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say:  Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
                                                                                         Isaiah 58:6-12

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© 2012 Barb Orlowski, D.Min. and Brad Sargent