Tag Archives: Spiritual abuse

Why do some spiritual leaders abuse power?


The topic of spiritual abuse has been in the news of late. In looking at the problem of cover-ups of sexual abuse within the church, we can see that not only bodies are violated and harmed, but spiritual abuse also happens to victims, their families, and those in the community who know about the abuse but are coerced to remain silent and still. Of course spiritual abuse happens outside of sexual abuse. In fact, I would hazard a guess that most of spiritual abuse happens apart from sexual abuse.

As I defined it in an earlier post, 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).

Over at www.whitbyforum.com, Carolyn Custis James is blogging each Monday about the problem of spiritual abuse. You can see the first post here along with the topics she’ll look at over the next 6 weeks. Today, she will be raising some questions about the abuser and I may comment on her site as I can [note: this is written earlier and if all happens as planned, I am traveling in Rwanda today]. For those of you who don’t know of Carolyn, she is the author of Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women.

What Do We Know About Those Who Abuse?

The truth is we do not have empirical survey evidence for those who use spiritual tools to harm or manipulate others. But, we can say something about the kinds of reasons why someone might want to coerce and manipulate. We know things about this activity because we all have participated in coercive acts. We have used others for our own purposes. In the words of an old Larry Crabb book, we have chosen manipulation of over ministry to those we love. So, in this way, we can learn a bit about why some try to control others by looking at why we try to control others:

  • Fear. We fear losing control, having someone disrupt our plans. We worry that we will be left, abandoned, rejected. We worry that what is important to us will not be cherished and valued by others so we seek to control the outcome. Notice that much of what we want as outcomes are good things. In spiritual matters, it is not good for people to do things that dishonor God. So, we may try to force our kids or parishioners to do what they ought to do. But force violates the picture of love God gives us in the Scriptures. He does not force us to come to him. He draws and woos us.
  • Love of Power. We must admit that we sometimes control others because we like seeing the evidence of our own power. Ever had someone trying to do something to you and you wanted to prove that you could beat them at their game? Maybe you thought, “I’ll show you who’s the boss around here!” This is nothing less than a love of one’s own power. God gives us power. Power is not wrong. But the use of it to serve self (even if in the name of God) is an abuse of power. Spiritual leaders have power of words and these words can be easily used to glorify self.
  • Efficiency. Power works. It gets us what we want. If the outcome is good, then the means seem good. End of story. Spiritual abuse works. People fall in line. They remain orderly and do not disturb church leader’s good goals.
  • Ego. Self is part of why we treat others as objects. We think about self, needs, desires, wants, and expectations. The stronger the ego, the more confidence we have that our way of seeing the world, our expectations, our outcomes are the right ones. And the stronger our confidence, the deafer we become to other ways of seeing the world. Narcissism sometimes operates out of fear (see bullet point 1) but also operates out of arrogance and pride. We become blind to others, insensitive to needs of others. Ego in ministry is a worship of self in place of worship of God—a God who illustrates sacrificial leadership! 
  • Habit. I would argue that many of us engage in controlling behaviors without much thought at all. It is habit or learned behaviors from others. It is said, rather crassly, that starving people tend to starve others. It means that we who have been controlled or manipulated tend to learn the habits of controlling behavior (like tug-of-war, it is natural to pull back in the opposite direction). But in doing so we may become controlling ourselves. So, many are unaware that they may be attempting to control others. Spiritual abuse has been passed down in the name of godly leadership and so many are just doing what they learned from others.

 What Can We Do From Inside The System?

There is little that we can do to stop others who want to abuse, especially when they are knowingly predatory. However, much of the above motives do not fall into intentional abuse—even the love of power. In the cases of naïve or unthoughtful abuse, we can bring truth to light in a couple of ways:

  1. Validate: “What?” you might be asking, “Won’t that encourage them?” On the contrary, validation often opens the validated to conversation and dialog where bare confrontation leads to defense and counter-attack. So, if you see someone who is seeking a good end (e.g., obedient children) but using coercive means, try to validate the good goal even as you suggest alternatives or point out that the means seems to be control oriented or objectifying.
  2. Raise questions: What outcomes are you seeking? How do you think the manipulated person might be feeling? How might you convey concern for the person as well as the situation? How might a good goal become perverted in the intensity by which we seek that goal?
  3. Say ouch. Sometimes just saying, “I’m hurt” can signal to some that they have over-stepped boundaries.

Not all should stay inside an abusive system. But, for those who feel they can stay, these are some of the things they can do. I would love to hear what else others have tried.

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Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, conflicts, counseling, Psychology, Uncategorized

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.

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