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


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