Spiritual Abuse: What it is and Why it Hurts


In 21st century United States, does spiritual abuse really happen? Can’t we all just choose churches where we feel safe? No one makes us (adults) go to church so shouldn’t spiritual abuse be nonexistent in this day—or at least happen only once (e.g., fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…)?

Sadly, spiritual abuse happens in all sorts of churches and for all sorts of reasons.

What is spiritual abuse?

Spiritual abuse is the use of faith, belief, and/or religious practices to coerce, control, or damage another for a purpose beyond the victim’s well-being (i.e., church discipline for the purpose of love of the offender need not be abuse).

Like child abuse, spiritual abuse comes in many forms. It can take the form of neglect or intentional harm of another. It can take the form of naïve manipulation or predatory “feeding on the sheep.” Consider some of these examples:

  1. Refusing to provide pastoral care to women on the basis of gender alone
  2. Coercing reconciliation of victim to offender
  3. Dictating basic decisions (marriage, home ownership, jobs, giving practices, etc.)
  4. Binding conscience on matters that are in the realm of Christian freedom
  5. Using threats to maintain control of another
  6. Using deceptive language to coerce into sexual activity
  7. Denying the right to divorce despite having grounds to do so

For a short review, consider Mary DeMuth’s 2011 post on spotting spiritual abuse.

Why it is so harmful

If someone demands your wallet, you may give it but you do not think they have a right to it. You have no doubt that an injustice has occurred. You have been robbed! When someone abuses, it is a robbery but often wrapped up in a deceptive package to make the victim feel as if the robbery was actually a gift. Spiritual abuse almost always is couched in several layers of deception. Here’s a few of those layers:

  1. Speaking falsely for God. Spiritual leaders or shepherds abuse most frequently by presenting their words as if they were the words of God himself. They may not say “Thus sayeth the Lord” in so many ways but they speak with authority. When leaders fail to communicate God’s words and attitudes, they are called false teachers and prophets. Some of these false words include squelching dissent and concern in the name of “unity.”
  2. Over-emphasizing one doctrinal point while minimizing another. Consider the example of Paul, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). In three other places in the NT, Paul says similar phrases. The application is that our leaders are to exemplify the character of Christ. Sadly, it is easy to turn this into, “do what I want you to do.” Paul does not say to imitate him. He says to imitate him when he imitates Christ. There are other examples as well: forcing forgiveness, demanding victims of abuse to confront their abusers in private so that they will meet the letter of Matthew 18.
  3. Good ends justifying means. It is a sad fact that many victims of other kinds of abuse have been asked to be silent for the sake of community comfort. Indeed, community comfort is important. But forcing a victim of abuse to be silent and to forego seeking justice is a form of spiritual abuse.
  4. Pretending to provide pastoral care. I have talked with several pastors who crossed into sexual behavior with those they have been charged to counsel. All too commonly, the pastor deceived self and other into thinking that the special attention given to the parishioner was love and compassion. In fact, their actions were always self-serving. However, the layer of deception made it feel (to both parties) like love in the beginning stages.

The reason why spiritual abuse hurts so much is that it always fosters confusion, self-doubt, and shame. This recipe encourages isolation, self-hatred, and questioning of God. When shepherds abuse, the sheep are scattered and confused. They no longer discern the voice of the true Shepherd.

This is exactly why the Old Testament and New Testament speak in such harsh terms against abusive and neglectful Shepherd: Ezekiel 34:2; Jeremiah 50:6; John 10:9. Words like, “woe to you…” and “you blind guides…” reveal that spiritual abuse for any reason is destructive and is not of God. And it gets no harsher than, “better than a millstone be tied to your neck and thrown into the sea” to illustrate the depth of evil in harming vulnerable people.

20 Comments

Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, Doctrine/Theology, Evangelicals, pastors and pastoring

20 responses to “Spiritual Abuse: What it is and Why it Hurts

  1. D. Stevenson

    this is a popular one –
    Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.

    • Chet

      That exact verse was used on me before. Along with the phrase “you have a track record of disobedience ” bc i married someone the pastor didn’t personally approve of.

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  3. Example 7 in your list above, “Denying the right to divorce despite having grounds to do so” is intriguing to me.
    What do you think are the grounds for divorce? And in your observation/ opinion, under what circumstances is the right to divorce most commonly denied, when it should be allowed?

  4. Thank you for an excellent article. After enduring years of abuse from my husband, I brought the issue to my PCA church for help. I thought that they would have my family’s best interest in mind, and would shelter and protect us. What happened was the most horrific experience of my life. First they ignored my pleas for help, and the abuse escalated because my husband knew I called them. A year later, after discovering that my husband was having an affair, I informed them that I wanted to pursue a divorce. Ignoring the PCA procedure and common sense, they told me that they were going to ‘fix’ my marriage. This consisted in requiring me to pay for expensive mediation where they attempted to convince me that my husband was sorry, and destroy the boundaries that I had set up to protect my family from his abuse.

    After the sessions, it was obvious that my husband was not repentant, as he was threatening my life again, and the pastor was adding to the confusion by telling me that I needed to be submissive like Sarah, and take back the unfaithful spouse like Hosea did. Only recently, I have found that these statements come from John Piper and John MacArthur books-not from the denominational position. The church’s intervention caused the threats to escalate as they were offering my husband validation for his actions. Meanwhile, my health was breaking down, and my extended family was witnessing all of this chaos, concerned that I would be murdered.

    I was pressured to sign promissory notes for my unrepentant husband to continue in counseling, and I felt I was being waved around like a carrot on a stick for him to go, since the pastor told me that I won’t love him, but will be taking him back. Because of the expense of the counselor, and the fact that I was terrified of both my husband and the prospect of taking him back after this ordeal, I refused. I asked the church why they won’t discipline, and I received a letter threatening me with church discipline for ‘derailing’ their plans. The church intervention lasted over two years!

    What is so traumatic is that I was at the lowest point in my life when I came to the church, and completely trusted them. My children and I view the church much differently now, and will never trust in that way again. I highly recommend, Jeff Crippen’s book, “ A Cry for Justice, How The Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church”, for those who wish stop the abuse.

    • Sue

      Laura,
      I’m very sorry for the abuse that you endured at the hands of your husband and for the response that you received from your church leadership.

      I am curious about your statement which attributes the advice that you received – “to be submissive like Sarah, and take back the unfaithful spouse like Hosea” to John MacArthur. I was a member of Grace Community Church in the 90’s. While the leadership, including John MacArthur teaches that indeed, “God hates divorce”; they also readily acknowledge that divorce is permissible when dealing with an unrepentant adulterer (and in the case of abandonment). These Biblical teachings are found in John MacArthur’s book, The Divorce Dilemma.

      Sue

    • Pam

      Laura,
      I’m so sorry for the hurt you have endured. It is faith shaking and painful to be hurt by those who represent God. I read John Piper’s book and John McArthur’s books/articles and was hurt trying to follow their interpretation of God’s word for those in our situation. In my case, following their advice just enabled and perpetuated abusive behavior. I now wonder if I were one of their daughters, if they would send me back to the situation or tell me I could divorce but never remarry?
      I believe many PCA and reformed churches are patriarchal to the extent that they have little respect for women as human beings.
      I also recommend Jeff Crippen’s book and Leslie Vernick’s books, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship and The Emotionally Destructive Marriage.
      May God bless you Laura and bring you into a safe and healing place.
      Hugs,
      Pam

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  6. Marc Davis

    Thank you, Phil. Good work.

  7. OverIt

    How about a pastor actually using their influence to push someone to GET a divorce if their spouse does not believe or follow the tenants of that particular church?

  8. Laura S.I am so sorry for what you have endured. All I ask is that you do not allow it to prevent you from going to a true and faithful bible teaching church. May your faith remain in Christ always. I too was an abused woman. I did not have a church to go to at the time. Once I escaped my abuser and started my life anew, the Lord has guided me to a very respectful and loving church. There has been several couples that has gone through the same situation. Some more dramatic and others not so dramatic, however; the Pastor was always willing to counsel them. In my case I have to say he did not always choose my new husbands side. Pastor has corrected my husband numerous time. I am so grateful for a very dedicated pastor along with a spiritual and revived church. I will keep you in prayer that you will find peace and godly guidance in a bible teaching, faithful and living church. The church I belong to is Faith Baptist Church in Corona NY. You may hear my pastor preaching about how to love your wife on Sermonaudio.com. His name is Pastor Vincent Sawyer. May this be a blessing to you. God Bless

  9. Too many churches can be abusive. Agreed.
    Some of those also sound like ways people have at least tried to abuse me as their pastor. Yes, sometimes it goes the other way. As strange as that sounds.

    • D. Stevenson

      True, spiritual abuse can go both ways. Chances are that we all spiritually abuse some one, in some way, at some time.

      I was spiritually abused. However, can I say that I’ve never manipulated another for my purposes, however naive it might have been? Nope. It is likely that my words and behavior have had a negative impact spiritually on another person. At least once and probably more.

      Even the abused can abuse.

  10. Laura S.

    Sue,
    I agree that John Macarthur writes that divorce is permissible when dealing with an unrepentant adulterer. But he also teaches that the Book of Hosea “is a practical illustration of how to deal with a wayward spouse”, (pg. 17), which I think that is what my church was referring to when they said, “I won’t love him, but I will be taking him back.” It was obvious to me, but apparently not to them, that my husband was not repentant. The pressure was laid on me to take him back because he said he was sorry, and I think that this was the foundation of the spiritual abuse from the church.

    Also, there is no mention of abuse in the book at all. It is as if the author needs to pretend that abusive and mentally disturbed people do not get married so that he doesn’t need to address the dilemma of dealing with the damage they cause. I have come to discover that the PCA has an excellent position paper titled, “Divorce and Remarriage,” in which Dr. Diane Langberg advised the drafting committee. There is a practical procedure for dealing with abusive and threatening people which had the church consulted their own document, instead of popular authors, they would have assisted, rather than abused a family in their flock.

    I attribute the “Submit like Sarah” statement, to John Piper who takes a no divorce for any reason stance. He teaches that the purpose of marriage is to portray the indissolvable union of Christ and his church. I think that the fusion of teaching from these two popular teachers led to an unbiblical and hurtful response, by the church.

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