What is spiritual abuse?
According to Oakley & Humphreys (2019), “Spiritual abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. It is characterized by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behavior in a religious context. Spiritual abuse can have a deeply damaging impact on those who experience it. This abuse may include: manipulation and exploitation, enforced accountability, censorship of decision making, requirements for secrecy and silence, coercion to conform, [inability to ask questions] control through the use of sacred texts or teaching, requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position, isolation as a means of punishment, and superiority and elitism.”
Just like church hurt, spiritual abuse exists in the church as well. It may not always be the pastor or leaders, but, pastors and leaders could be victims themselves. Congregates can manipulate and abuse their leaders and pastors through various malicious acts. They can make threats and spread lies to others in order to gain their power.
I do realize that in most settings, the spiritual abuse will be done by pastors and leaders. With that being said, spiritual abuse can be very harmful to people. It can create division between people and God, which is probably the most harmful consequence. Spiritual abuse can cause people to question God, question doctrine, and question who can be trusted in their lives.
Spiritual abuse can be difficult to talk about and it can be difficult to identify. Obedience to God and submission to a pastor or leader can often cause someone to question themselves if they feel like they’re being abused. For example, a woman in the church can express that she does not want to lead a group or wants to take a step back from her duties, the pastor could coerce this woman to stay in that position by stating that stepping down would be disobedient to God. Another example of spiritual abuse is stating that the Holy Spirit spoke to a leader or pastor and told them that a congregate was living in sin or lying or any form of disobedience when that person may not be doing anything wrong at all. Scriptures can be used as a form of abuse and being used to hurt people versus leading them closer to God.
Oakley and Humphreys (2019) offer some helpful suggestions when a person states they have been spiritually abused. “Actively listen to the story, showing that you are taking it seriously. Ensure the individual telling the story knows that he or she is valued. Do not minimize, judge or defend a person or the church. Be clear about the boundaries to confidentiality. Take care of offering prayer or Scripture as a response – ensure that the individual can make a choice as to whether he or she wants this. Avoid using Matthew 18 as a first principle in responding to a disclosure of spiritual abuse. Do not rush people to a place of forgiveness and reconciliation. Discuss the risk of harm with your safeguarding coordinator/lead and consider next steps carefully. Ensure that there is policy and procedure including spiritual abuse in your church or denomination and that this is followed.”
Spiritual abuse is very detrimental to its victims. Most victims leave the church without their issues being addressed. A lot of churches and denominations do not have policies or procedures in place when these issues arise. Additionally, legally, there is not much that can be done. So, victims often feel helpless and feel that there is never any justice in their situation. This further keeps them from the church and keeps them from God.
The goal of this blog is to help identify what spiritual abuse is and to offer help to those who have been abused. Therapy can help a victim get validation and healing after their abuse. Therapy can also help victims separate their abusers from God, which can ultimately help restore their trust and relationship with Him. What I have learned in working with those who have been spiritually abused is that they are not alone and their truth, stories, etc. are valid. They are still very important and loved by God. God can use their experiences for good and hopefully create a call for action within the church in order to decrease the number of occurrences of spiritual abuse.