I’ve read a lot of discussion recently about the difficulty defining spiritual abuse of adults by faith leaders in positions of power. It seems most debates center on whether to believe victims who report such abuse and whether there is a culture of victimhood. Behind these discussions is the question of whether we can operationally define spiritual abuse.
For some, since there isn’t consensus on a definition, then there is little to no value in discussing its reality. “It is too subjective and can’t be known.” For others, “too many good leaders will be hurt by false allegations” is reason enough to doubt an accuser’s experience.
Permit me two small historical sidebars to give context on these kinds of debates. 15 years ago I gave a lecture at a denomination’s general assembly on the problem of child sexual abuse. In the room were 300 or so pastors. The very first question asked from the floor was whether it was biblically proper to accept a child’s report of abuse against an elder if there wasn’t a second witness. The second comment from the floor was a statement expressing concern that false allegations would ruin the ministries of many good pastors. The third question amounted to, “Why do we call it abuse, can’t we just call it sin?”
My second historical point goes back a bit further. In the mid-1800s doctors did not routinely wash their hands or instruments after doing cadaver work. As a result, when they delivered babies, mothers and infants died at alarming rates, especially when compared to mortality rates of mid-wife deliveries. When the medical community began speaking about microbes and the need to wash, doctors often resisted. The renowned Dr. Oliver Wendall Holmes was castigated for speaking about the need for better hygiene and some New York doctors wrote letters expressing that such practices would harm their business and the public’s trust of their guild.
In both examples, the primary concern seemed to be to protect the guild, much like our current discussion.
Two criteria for determining spiritual abuse
Consider the case of child abuse. There are two accepted criteria used in defining child abuse that can be helpful here: 1. Actions that result in abuse, and 2. Impact on victim. For example, refusing to take a sick child to the doctor may be found to be abuse/neglect whether or not the child recovers. Or, in another example, one parent routinely expresses paranoia that aliens are trying to hurt them. One child appears resilient and unbothered while the other child becomes suicidal. The impact on the second child is what may lead to a finding of abuse. Note that intentionality is not a criteria for whether a finding of abuse is valid.
So, try on some of these action words for size. How do they fit for criteria of spiritual abuse? Rejecting…terrorizing…isolating…ignoring…corrupting…verbally assaulting…over pressuring.
Let’s apply to a specific case. A man pressures his wife daily for sex and when she does not comply (she often does) he gives her the cold shoulder and refuses to speak to her. When he does talk to her, he quotes bible passages and tells her she is sinning and may be responsible if he looks at porn. This woman comes to her pastor for help and to tell him that her therapist has encouraged her to leave to preserve her emotional safety. In this hour-long meeting, the pastor asks no further questions about her experience even though he does express some empathy for her pain. Because he does not ask questions, he does not find out that she being raped, that she regularly wakes up in the night to find her husband trying to penetrate her. Instead, this pastor tells her to be wary of leaving as it will lead to divorce and potentially harm the husband’s reputation as head of a Christian non-profit ministry. He also wonders aloud if her therapist is giving Godly counsel. As the meeting ends, he asks her to come back next week to talk further and gives her homework to identify the log in her own eye. She leaves confused, sad, afraid, and wondering if she is the problem in her marriage.
Now, has the leader committed spiritual abuse? Quite possibly. Is talking about sin and divorce spiritual abuse? No. But, it also is naïve and poor spiritual leadership. As far as actions go, he ignored her pain, he implicitly isolated her by questioning her therapist, asking her to stay, and showing undue concern for the husband’s reputation. She leaves feeling he has rejected her concerns.
If they continue to meet and he continues to emphasize her need to bear up under this burden and to examine her own heart, then he is likely overpressuring (aka coercing) her. Let’s assume the pastor does not want to harm the wife and believes his counsel is helpful. There is no intention to commit spiritual abuse. But, using his spiritual position and wrapping his counsel in biblical and doctrinal language, the pastor has indeed begun to spiritually abuse his parishioner. The abuse could be averted with some basic education if the pastor was open to learning. But ongoing mild to moderate use of these actions would constitute spiritual abuse for this woman. Another woman might just tell the pastor off on the first visit and walk away. In this case it wouldn’t be spiritual abuse. It would be incompetent pastoral care. But in our imaginary case, this woman stayed because (a) she had been raised to always trust pastors, (b) her husband’s chronic belittling had convinced her that she was in the wrong, and (c) she was already rather isolated. What was incompetent care becomes spiritual abuse due to action AND impact.
Why call it spiritual abuse?
Recall the question posed at the beginning of this essay: Why not just call it sin (or bad care in this instance)? Why call it (spiritual) abuse? I would argue that this question comes from a cultural sense that abuse label means the person who committed it is an ABUSER and therefore unable to change and worthy of being cast out of society. Sin feels better because it can be just a “one off” misbehavior. The problems with calling it sin are several. It reveals we are likely far too comfortable with sin. It denies patterns that need attention. It favors the one who has done the wrong and minimizes the impact on the victim. We seem more focused on propping up the careers of those with certain leadership capacities than recognizing the numerous examples in the bible of how God handles those who misrepresent him (e.g., Job’s friends, bad shepherds (Eze 34), blind guides and white-washed tombs, false teachers in Jude).
Labeling certain behaviors as spiritual abuse helps us focus on those actions that crush spirits. Just as labeling the failure to wash hands may cause infections. Identifying spiritual abuse and its impact helps us focus on consequences rather than intentions.
Want to read more on defining spiritual abuse?
 This essay concisely describes the action and impact criteria for child abuse. Some actions are not per se abusive but create a negative impact. These behaviors, if not stopped, could however be labeled abusive in the future if the parent does not respond to corrective education.