Saturday, February 19, 2011

Spiritual Abuse

According to the Spiritual Research Network, spiritual abuse is defined as occurring when a leader, church or a belief system, whether well intentioned or not, dominates, manipulates or castigates individuals through fear tactics, mind control, or some other psychological or emotional abuse.  Unfortunately, spiritual abuse can take many forms.  It can look really, really good as in the form of church members being held to a certain standard of performance in order to advance in ministry or it can be as blatant as what we all know as cult behavior.  

In cult behavior, there is usually a very strong leader who has been given a "vision" or has a particular truth that few other people have understanding of.  Individuals who follow this person are required to dedicate their lives to whatever the "truth" is and often are manipulated into giving their money, time and even in extreme cases, they live together in communities.  Often they are not allowed to leave without experiencing the humiliation of  "shunning" and are considered rebels for turning away from the particular belief system.  This is the obvious spiritual abuse, the Jim Jones and the David Karesh types.

However, in our society there are less obvious types of spiritual abuse ranging from the type where families are subject to a dictatorial husband assuming the role of "spiritual leader" of the home to churches that exercise excess control over their congregations.  This type of abuse is somewhat less obvious because at the bottom of it is a very strong desire to do the Lord's will.  The motivation is to be what God wants us to be, but the methods are in opposition to the teachings and heart of the Lord and the fruit of those methods is found wanting.  Talking with people who have been raised in strict and abusive Christian homes, they all have similar feelings.  They either hate the church, are very bitter towards God or they desire a relationship with God but hold Him at a distance because they are afraid of Him.  In some cases these people have been put in their rooms and forced to memorize large sections of the bible as a form of discipline or they have had to go to school in clothing that is so odd or different from what their peers are wearing that they are mocked and ostracized by the other students.  Others have experienced parents who take the verse "spare the rod and spoil the child" to mean that they have free license to beat their children into submission to their will.  Other less obvious forms can manifest in just the simple misinterpretation of what "honor your parents" means.  Many of these children have learned that honoring means never to disagree and that is a mindset that produces large control issues as well as producing adults who are never confident in their own decisions about life.  In regard to husbands and wives, a spiritually abusive husband will quote scripture to keep his wife from doing things he doesn't want her to or to demand sexual favors from her.  The two portions of scripture most used are "wives submit to your own husbands" and "the wife's body belongs to her husband and the husband's body belongs to the wife".  When interpreted simply as behaviors rather than heart attitude, these verses turn into demands that produce bitterness and resentment.  However pure behavior is not the character of Christ.  If we truly love and trust one another in a marriage relationship, we will free give our submission to another and come together in the sexual relationship as an outgrowth of the abundance of love that exists within the relationship.  This, however, requires more of us than simply demanding what we want, but it also is more in line with the character of God and therefore is more true than the idea that husbands/wives have the right to demand certain behaviors from one another.

In churches, ministries and other spiritual organizations what this can look like is baffling.  From the outside it may look very good.  Lots of people involved, lots of resources, and perhaps even the pursuit of excellence for God.  What could possibly be wrong with that?  There is nothing wrong with it if the motivation is right.  If these organizations are filled with people who are serving the Lord out of free will, who believe that their giving and their service to the organization is where they are supposed to be and it is coming from an abundance in their own personal lives...then that is appropriate motivation.  However, many times these organizations are filled with people who are performance based, who have little identity beyond what they do and how well they do it.  If the organization has a person like this in authority, then the organization will be motivated by what it does, how good it looks, how well its membership or staff produces and in terms of churches or ministries it people may be motivated by receiving the approval of those in authority.  If that is the case, you will see many individuals serving, doing a good job, taking great responsibility in their service but there is an underlying sense of competition that no one talks about.  That competition has little to do with the Lord and everything about becoming a leader in the organization or someone the leadership depends on or calls on regularly.  These individuals illustrate success in ministry and the example for which everyone else should strive.   In these types of environments, service is then tied to being a good Christian, doing the Lord's will and if you don't serve you aren't as good and there must be something in your life that you need to look at.  

This doesn't mean that people shouldn't be in ministry or serve in their local churches.  Not at all! If there weren't people to do that, churches and ministries wouldn't survive very long.  No, it isn't about what we do, it is about why we do it.  When church leadership motivates from a sense of approval for good behavior rather than motivating individuals to become closer to the Lord and out of that relationship comes are looking at a form of spiritual abuse.  Should we encourage one another, yes!  Should that encouragement and approval be the reason we seek to serve the Lord, no.  

Things to look for when considering spiritual abuse may be found both internally and externally.  Internal red flags can come in the form of losing joy.  If what you are doing brings you joy and is fulfilling, that is awesome, but if you find that along the way you have lost your joy and you are doing what you are doing out of a sense of duty or because you believe you will be labeled or viewed negatively if you should stop, pay attention.  Again, do we always have to be ecstatic about what we do....not really, but it shouldn't be drudgery and if that lack of motivation extends over a long period of time, we may need to think about changing what we are doing.  Another thing to look for would be absolute authority of the leadership or no real accountability of the leadership to the corporate body.  Some church governments are set up with a board who has accountability and others are set up where the Pastor has ultimate authority, but in every case there is accountability to the church body and to the Lord.  A third sign to watch for is hand-picked sub-leaders based on their demonstration of loyalty to the ultimate leader rather than on the basis of their leadership skills, spiritual acumen, and anointing and appointment by God.  Yes, church leadership teams do need to have individuals on them who can work together effectively, but these people should not be chosen on the basis of relationship with the Pastor or someone on the senior staff.  It is the business of elders to see God's chosen, who He has anointed and then place them in the appropriate level of service.  Usually when God anoints someone for service, they function in whatever area they have been called to long before leadership may be aware of them.  

Although the list of spiritual abuses is quite long, the last one I would like to point out is theological incompetency by the leadership, especially with respect to the rules of hermeneutics and Bible exegesis employed in the formulation of doctrine, giving license to twisting and adulteration of Scripture in order to provide proof texts for unorthodox and invented doctrines.  This is probably the most serious and may be the reason that scripture points out that teachers are held to a higher standard.  When spiritual leaders start teaching scripture in ways that support their own positions, projects or desires...that is wrong.  If someone believes that they are in a church or a ministry that is doing that, the first thing to do is pray, do your own homework as to the doctrine or teaching and then confront the leadership with your findings.  If there can be no reconciliation regarding the matter, you need to make a decision whether the place you are working or attending is where you need to be.  Everyone can disagree about theology, but fundamental errors that do not agree with the context of scripture or the character of God need to be examined.

I have listed several books here that deal with the subject of spiritual abuse, however there is also an article entitled "Signs of Authoritarian Abuse"  written by Steve Lambert, ThD that you can find online.  He outlines quite a few of the signs of spiritual abuse.  I need to say that I don't quite agree with all his conclusions, but for the most part, the article is valid and I believe you, as a discerning reader can judge for yourself.  If you find yourself in a spiritually abusive situation, whether it be in a relationship or an organization, you may need to make some hard decisions about what to do about that.  The first step is recognizing it and then you can decide what to do.

Kriss Mitchell is a Christian counselor in Post Falls, Idaho and owns Living Well Counseling and Consulting, LLC.  For more information, please visit or


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Signs of Being in an Abusive Relationship

In all the articles that I have read on this subject, I think the one written by the Mayo Clinic is one of the best.  I don't think that I could say it any better so I will put the entire article here for your reference:

Domestic violence toward women: Recognize the patterns and seek help

Your partner apologizes and says the hurtful behavior won't happen again. But you fear it will. At times you may start to doubt your own judgment, or wonder whether you're going crazy. You may even feel like you've imagined the whole thing. But the emotional or physical pain you feel is real. If this sounds familiar, you may be the victim of domestic violence.
Also called domestic abuse, intimate partner violence or battering, domestic violence occurs between people in intimate relationships. It can take many forms, including emotional, sexual and physical abuse. Men are sometimes abused by female or male partners, but domestic violence is most often directed toward women. It can happen in heterosexual or lesbian relationships.
Unfortunately, domestic violence against women is common. It happens to teenage girls and women of all backgrounds. As many as 4 million women suffer abuse from their husbands, ex-husbands, boyfriends or intimate partners in the United States each year.

Recognizing abuse: Know the signs

It may not be easy to identify abuse, especially at first. While some relationships are clearly abusive from the outset, abuse often starts subtly and gets worse over time. For example, abuse may begin with occasional hurtful comments, jealousy or controlling behavior. As it gets worse, the abuse may become more frequent, severe or violent. As the cycle of abuse worsens, your safety or the safety of your children may be in danger.
You may be a victim of abuse if you're in a relationship with someone who:
§                                 Controls finances, so you have to ask for money
§                                 Looks at you or acts in ways that scare you
§                                 Acts jealous or possessive, or accuses you of being unfaithful
§                                 Tries to control how you spend your time, who you see or talk to, where you go or what
                  you wear
§                                 Wants you to get permission to make everyday decisions
§                                 Gets angry when drinking alcohol or using drugs
§                                 Scares you by driving recklessly
§                                 Threatens to kill him or herself
You are very likely in an abusive relationship if you have a relationship with someone who does even one of the following:
§                                 Hits, kicks, shoves, slaps, or chokes you or threatens you with violence or a weapon
§                                 Forces you to have sexual intercourse or engage in sexual acts against your will
§                                 Calls you names, insults you or puts you down
§                                 Prevents you from going to work or school
§                                 Stops you from seeing family members and friends
§                                 Hurts, or threatens to hurt you, your children or pets
§                                 Destroys your property
§                                 Controls your access to medicines
§                                 Blames you for his or her violent behavior or tells you that you deserve it
§                                 Says that his or her abusive behavior is no big deal or even denies doing it
§                                 Tries to force you to drop charges
§                                 Tries to prevent you from calling the police or seeking medical care

Pregnancy, children and abuse

Pregnancy is a particularly perilous time for an abused woman. Not only is your health at risk, but also the health of your unborn child. Abuse can begin or may increase during pregnancy.
Abusive relationships can also be particularly damaging to children, even if they're just witnesses. But for women in an abusive relationship, chances are much higher that their children also will be direct victims of abuse. Over half of men who abuse their female partners also abuse their children.
You may worry that seeking help may further endanger you or your children, or that it may break up your family. But in the long run, seeking help when you safely can is the best way to protect your children — and yourself.

An abusive relationship: It's about power and control

Though there are no typical victims of domestic violence, abusive relationships do share similar characteristics. In all cases, the abuser aims to exert power and control over his partner.
Although a lot of people think domestic violence is about anger, it really isn't. Batterers do tend to take their anger out on their intimate partner. But it's not really about anger. It's about trying to instill fear and wanting to have power and control in the relationship. In an abusive relationship, the abuser may use varying tactics to gain power and control, including:
§                                 Emotional abuse. Uses put-downs, insults, criticism or name-calling to make you feel bad about yourself.
§                                 Denial and blame. Denies that the abuse occurs and shifts responsibility for the abusive behavior onto you. This may leave you confused and unsure of yourself.
§                                 Intimidation. Uses certain looks, actions or gestures to instill fear. The abuser may break things, destroy property, abuse pets or display weapons.
§                                 Coercion and threats. Threatens to hurt other family members, pets, children or self.
§                                 Power. Makes all major decisions, defines the roles in your relationship, is in charge of the home and social life, and treats you like a servant or possession.
§                                 Isolation. Limits your contact with family and friends, requires you to get permission to leave the house, doesn't allow you to work or attend school, and controls your activities and social events. The abuser may ask where you've been, track your time and whereabouts, or check the odometer on your car.
§                                 Children as pawns. Accuses you of bad parenting, threatens to take the children away, uses the children to relay messages, or threatens to report you to children's protective services.
§                                 Economic abuse. Controls finances, refuses to share money, makes you account for money spent and doesn't want you to work outside the home. The abuser may also try to sabotage your work performance by forcing you to miss work or by calling you frequently at work.

Breaking the cycle: Difficult, but possible with help

Domestic violence is part of a continuing cycle that's difficult to break. If you're in an abusive situation, you may recognize this pattern:
§                                 Your abuser strikes using words or actions.
§                                 Your abuser may beg for forgiveness, offer gifts or promise to change.
§                                 Your abuser becomes tense, angry or depressed.
§                                 Your abuser repeats the abusive behavior.
Typically each time the abuse occurs, it worsens, and the cycle shortens. As it gets worse, you may have a hard time doing anything about the abuse or even acknowledging it. Over time, an abusive relationship can break you down and unravel your sense of reality and self-esteem. You may begin to doubt your ability to take care of yourself. You may start to feel like the abuse is your fault, or you may even feel you deserve it.
This can be paralyzing, and you may feel helpless or as though your only option is to stay in the abusive situation. It's important to recognize that you may not be in a position to resolve the situation on your own.
But you can do something — and the sooner you take action the better. You may need outside help, and that's OK. Without help, the abuse will likely continue. Leaving the abusive relationship may be the only way to break the cycle.
A number of government and private agencies provide resources and support to women who are abused and their children. These resources include 24-hour telephone hot lines, shelters, counseling and legal services. Many of these services are free and can provide immediate assistance.

Create a safety plan

Leaving an abuser can be dangerous. You're the only one who knows the safest time to leave. You may know you are in an abusive relationship and realize you need to leave as soon as you safely can. Or, you may be concerned about your partner's behavior and think you may need to get out at some point in the future. Either way, being prepared can help you leave quickly if you need to. Consider taking these precautions:
§                                 Arrange a safety signal with a neighbor as an alert to call the police if necessary.
§                                 Prepare an emergency bag that includes items you'll need when you leave, such as extra clothes, important papers, money, extra keys and prescription medications.
§                                 Know exactly where you'll go and how you'll get there, even if you have to leave in the middle of the night.
§                                 Call a local women's shelter or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233 to find out about legal options and resources available to you, before you need them.
§                                 If you have school-age children, notify the school authorities or school counselor about custody arrangements and warn them about possible threats.

Keep your communication private

It isn't uncommon for an abuser to monitor mail, telephone and Internet communication. Take precautions to help maintain your privacy and safety by following these steps.
Telephone conversations
§                                 Avoid making long-distance phone calls from home. Your abuser could trace the calls to find out where you're going.
§                                 Be cautious when using a cell phone. Your abuser may be able to intercept conversations using a scanner. Switch to a corded phone if you're relaying sensitive information.
§                                 Be aware of controlling use of your cell phone. Your abuser may use frequent cell phone conversations or text messages as a way to monitor and control your activities. An abuser may also check your cell phone to see who has called, or attempt to check your messages.

Computer use

If you think your abuser is monitoring your computer use, the safest bet is to access a computer at a friend's house or at the library. If you do use a shared home computer, there are several steps you can take to help maintain your privacy:
§                                 Use a Web-based program for e-mail. Programs such as Outlook Express, Netscape Mail and Eudora store sent and received e-mails on your computer. A Web-based e-mail service is safer. Most of these services — such Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo mail — offer free e-mail accounts.
§                                 Store files on the Internet. You can store files online and access them from any computer. A few companies that offer this service are IBackup and HyperOffice. You can also store documents as attachments in e-mail programs.
§                                 Change your password often. Choose passwords that would be impossible to guess. The safest passwords contain at least six characters, both numbers and letters. Avoid easily guessed numbers and sequences.
§                                 Clear your Web-browser history. Browsers such as Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator keep a record of the Web pages and documents you have accessed. They also store graphics of images you look at. You can also use a program such as AbsoluteShield Internet Eraser or Speed Tracks Eraser to clear your Internet records.
§                                 Clear your document history. Applications such as Word or Excel keep a record of edited documents. Don't store or edit any documents you don't want your abuser to see on a shared computer.

Where to find help

No one deserves to be abused. If you think you may be in an abusive situation, seek help or advice as soon as you safely can. There are many resources available to help you. The first step to getting out of an abusive situation may be as easy as making one phone call. In an emergency situation, call 911, your local emergency number or your local law enforcement agency. If you aren't in immediate danger, the following resources can help:
§                                 National Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-SAFE, or (800) 799-7233. Provides crisis intervention and referrals to in-state or out-of-state resources, such as women's shelters or crisis centers.
§                                 Your doctor or hospital emergency room. Treats any injuries and refers you to safe housing and other local resources.
§                                 Local women's shelter or crisis center. Typically provides 24-hour, emergency shelter for you and your children, advice on legal matters, advocacy and support services, and evaluation and monitoring of abusers. Some shelters have staff members who speak multiple languages.
§                                 Counseling or mental health center. Most communities have agencies that provide individual counseling and support groups to women in abusive relationships. Be wary of advice to seek couples or marriage counseling. This isn't appropriate for resolving problems of violence in intimate relationships.
§                                 Local court. Your district court can help you obtain a court order, which legally mandates the abuser stay away from you or face arrest. These are typically called orders for protection or restraining orders. Advocates are available in many communities to help you complete the paperwork and guide you through the court process.
§                                 Books and online resources. Learning more about how to cope with your situation and communicating with others who understand what you're going through can help you make strong choices.
May 23, 2007
© 1998-2009 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. A single copy of these materials may be reprinted for noncommercial personal use only. "Mayo," "Mayo Clinic," "," "EmbodyHealth," "Reliable tools for healthier lives," "Enhance your life," and the triple-shield Mayo Clinic logo are trademarks of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.