“Spiritual abuse takes place when leaders to whom people look for guidance and spiritual nurture use their positions of authority to manipulate, control, and dominate.”
In the book Healing Spiritual Abuse, Ken Blue compares other types of abuse with spiritual abuse:
“Abuse of any type occurs when someone has power over another and uses that power to hurt. Physical abuse means that someone exercises physical power over another, causing physical wounds. Sexual abuse means that someone exercises sexual power over another, resulting in sexual wound. And spiritual abuse happens when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds.”
Many people have borrowed the definition of the term spiritual abuse, found in the book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen:
“Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment.”
These two authors go on to refine this definition:
“Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or well-being. In this application, power is used to bolster the position or needs of a leader over and above one who comes to them in need.”
Spiritual abuse can also occur when spirituality is used to make others live up to a “spiritual standard.” This promotes external “spiritual performance,” also without regard to an individual’s actual well-being, or is used as a means of proving a person’s spirituality.
On the website Spiritual Abuse Recovery Resources, Jeff VanVonderen summarizes the term spiritual abuse in the introduction to this website:
“Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority, the purpose of which is to ‘come underneath’ and serve, build, equip and make God’s people more free, misuses that authority placing themselves over God’s people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly godly purposes which are really their own.”
In an interview with VanVonderen about spiritual abuse, he plainly confirmed that:
“Spiritual abuse is always a power issue. In order for abuse to happen, by definition, it has to come from a place of higher power to a place of lesser power. People in low-power positions can’t abuse people in highpower.”
Therefore, my brief definition would be:
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.
→ Now comes a moment for your assessment.
→ If these definitions describe the situation in your church and among your church leadership, you can be sure that this accurately describes spiritual abuse.
It is imperative to understand what spiritual abuse is in order to make an appropriate assessment. Ronald Enroth does not want people to make a mistake in judgment, but to be aware that:
“Whatever label we apply, spiritual abuse is an issue the Christian community must acknowledge and confront. It is far more prevalent and much closer to the evangelical mainstream than many are willing to admit.”
When does the light dawn for individuals—that they are in abusive church settings?
A significant number of Christians had not initially considered that their experience was spiritual abuse, but after making a concerted effort to understand their situation, they soon came to the realization that the definitions and examples given in books and on websites quite accurately described their experience. This may be happening to you. The best advice is:
Consider the following thought:
“Ask yourself if you are in a place of worship where there is always a fresh, radical presentation of the freedom and equality of individual followers of Christ. If not, consider leaving, because in the end you will find your Christian community was never really about Christ or His people at all.”
~ Wade Burleson
Church → Exiters Website and Dr. Barb Orlowski’s book
Spiritual Abuse Recovery
can help you to process your disheartening experience of church life.
- if you are dealing with spiritual abuse,
- what to do about it, and
- how you can recover from it.