Spiritual Abuse and How It Can Lead to Other Abuses

Spiritual Abuse and How It Can Lead to Other Abuses


When looking at spiritual abuse, you often find that there is relationship with other abuses—spiritual, physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual. Where you find at least one abuse in action, you frequently find all the rest lurking nearby.  As the old saying goes:  “To be forewarned, is to be forearmed.”

This article briefly looks at how spiritual abuse specifically ties in with some of these other forms of abuse.  In order to understand the relationship with other abuses we must first define what spiritual abuse is.  Here is my brief definition:

“Spiritual abuse involves using one’s spiritual authority inappropriately and

thereby violating the sacred trust of a spiritual shepherd.

The misuse of ecclesiastical power to control and manipulate congregants, ultimately results in damage.”

It is, therefore, imperative to understand what spiritual abuse is in order to make an appropriate assessment.


Brief Facts About Spiritual Abuse

  1. What are some Faulty Perceptions about spiritual abuse and why people leave their home church?

Misperception 1.  Isn’t spiritual abuse what happens to people in cult groups?  If people get caught up in groups that don’t preach the Gospel clearly, then they are bound to get sucked into a faulty belief system and experience being spiritually abused.  That’s to be expected.

Misperception 2.  It is widely felt that people who leave church must be ‘backsliding’ or just too busy for God.  People who enjoy attending church find it hard to grasp that there are valid reasons why people have faced the inevitable decision to leave their home church.

Misperception 3.  Some people think that it is a perception problem—meaning that vulnerable people seem to perceive that they have been spiritually abused.  Besides, there is too much being made out of the term abuse today anyway.  It is just a matter of perception, they conclude–after some minor incident that has happened in the church.  It could just be a matter of communication or it may simply be a personality conflict with a leader, or whatever.

A Better Response.  It is important to be diligent in trying to help church leaders and congregants to understand some of the valid reasons why people have made the decision to leave their home church.


  1. How prevalent is spiritual abuse?

There are numerous incidences of spiritual abuse happening in Christian churches today—maybe more than most church or denominational leaders would like to admit.

Since many people think that spiritual abuse is only found in cults or cult-like groups, it is a shocking reality to be informed that:  spiritual abuse can be found in many Bible-believing churches with orthodox doctrinal statements.  It is, therefore, not so much what people believe, but how they practice what they believe that is the issue.

More Christians are beginning to recognize the harmful effects of this leadership behavior on individuals, couples, and families.

Ronald Enroth concludes that:

“It [spiritual abuse] is far more prevalent and much closer to the evangelical mainstream than many are willing to admit.”

From the number of websites that have developed that directly address spiritual abuse and sites that include specific articles on this topic, it adds up to a host of people who are trying to draw this occurrence to the attention of church leaders and congregants in mainstream Christianity.

Furthermore, confidential family counselors are engaged by those wounded, in order to help them to process the feelings of loss and devastation.  Caring pastors are sought out to provide comfort and support to those bruised by church leaders. Researchers are faced with the mounting statistics related to this dysfunctional issue in the church. Yes, these observations point to the fact that:

Spiritual abuse needs to come to the


of clergy and congregant attention.


  1. Why don’t we hear much about spiritual abuse?

If it is supposed that it is the individual or a couple who ARE the PROBLEM, then this matter can be dealt with privately, behind closed doors.  The individual takes the brunt of the situation, but the church leadership is never called into question and is seldom held accountable in any way.  The organization and its leadership are rarely included as a factor that might need to be considered in these concealed situations.

Many times, others in their church have no clue what has just happened or why these members are no longer attending. When a tale is spun about the cause of the situation being some kind of sin (that no one talks about) and church members are warned not to associate with these people, then the issue cannot be discerned as being spiritual abuse, but is considered a matter of ‘church discipline’–though very little information seems to be available.  The facts are hidden from view and the situation is now considered dealt with.

After an individual or couple have experienced harsh treatment by their clergy, they are usually so devastated that they can hardly grasp what exactly has happened to them.  Their usual posture is to go into seclusion and to try to process the extreme grief and confusion that they are experiencing.  Little support seems to be available to congregants by denominational overseers.  Overseers tend to favor church leaders, while those wounded in the church are left to suffer in silence without any hope of remedy.


Linking Other Abuses

Many have factored in the obvious connection of spiritual abuse with other abuses.  The reason behind the direct linkage of various abuses is related to the thinking patterns of certain groups and specifically the church leadership in groups that call themselves Christian.  In church cultures where shame and silence are upheld, women particularly, especially younger women, are the most vulnerable to abuse of various kinds. These abuses include:  verbal, emotional, physical, spiritual abuse, child sexual abuse, sexual abuse, and clergy sexual abuse.

People’s theology, that is, their belief system shapes their behavior.  How church leaders and congregants view church leadership effects their expectations of leaders.  Where there is a feeling of entitlement among leadership, because of position, there may arise opportunities for unscrupulous leaders to take advantage of people by their spiritual leadership position and followers are harmed.

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.


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 by 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.  This faulty perception of entitlement can be used to manipulate and even beguile the unwary.

In thinking about spiritual abuse and the connection with other abuses, the word ‘violation’ comes to mind.  Something has been violated in each of these cases.  In fact, a number of things have been violated:  violation of trust, violation of the person’s dignity, a violation of the image of God, a violation of personal value and expected care for the individual, and so forth.  Something that is sacred has been treated with a gross lack of respect.  The person’s body, mind, and spirit have been violated and defiled by abuse.

Just as spiritual abuse is usually ‘dealt with’ behind closed doors, so also in some churches, when domestic violence, sexual abuse, child sexual abuse, or clergy sexual abuse is identified by congregants as happening in the church, the first response is to keep these issues quiet. Whoever has brought the information forward is now marked and is usually cautioned not to divulge these facts to anyone.  Certain churches feel that they have a right to deal with human sin in-house and are not obligated to alert local authorities, though this is the law.

As stated above, spiritual abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, and sexual abuses are repeatedly treated the same way:  “The individual takes the brunt of the situation, but the church leadership is never called into question and is seldom held accountable in any way.  The church organization and its leadership are rarely included as a factor that might need to be considered in these concealed situations.”



It is extremely grievous that these forms of abuse are linked and are found in the Christian church today.  You would think that after all that the Church has learned from the Scriptures about living a godly and healthy spiritual lives and being in a spiritual fellowship with others, that there would be robust spiritual life that would be manifested in a healthy approach to all of life.  Evidence of the reign of God should be found among the people of God.  This, unfortunately, is not always the case.

There is much injury that has been done in the name of the Church and scores of God’s people have been severely harmed.  Since abuse is kept hidden, abuse can thrive.  It is when flawed beliefs and abusive practices have been identified and exposed that there is some hope that this scourge on the Christian Church will be remedied.  It will take every serious Christian to make a difference by raising the awareness about these issues and dealing in sensible ways with those who have been harmed.


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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.


*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.


*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.”


*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.


*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.


*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.


*The Hope of Survivors


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


*A Cry for Justice


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


*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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© 2013   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.