Spiritual abuse has become a topic of increasing concern for evangelicals in recent years, as a string of once highly respected spiritual leaders and megachurch pastors have been revealed as having cultivated abusive leadership structures, often on the backs of tithes and charitable donations.
Even apart from the scandals that make headlines, many Christians whose lives have been embedded in the life of the local church have had experiences that left them feeling disappointed, confused, or deeply hurt. For some, those experiences have taken years to recover from, dramatically impacting their relationship not only with the church but with God himself. As a result, they have begun examining the dynamics of spiritual abuse and how to cope with the trauma it causes.
Nevertheless, church hurt is not the same thing as spiritual abuse, or vice versa.
In cases of abuse, spiritual leaders intentionally sought to manipulate and suppress you. In other cases, they may have just acted incredibly foolishly, or even deeply sinfully, and did not mean you harm—even though that’s exactly what they did.
At different points in my life, I have experienced both. As I reflect back on certain spiritual traumas, I have come to grips with the fact that people who were in spiritual authority over me misused that authority to harm me. I have also come to grips with the fact that in other situations, I was merely hurt by someone who, while in a position of spiritual influence, was not seeking to harm me and did not attempt to manipulate me to their personal ends. They were merely someone who made grievous relational errors, wounding me in the process.
It has often been said that you don’t want to treat cancer like it’s a cold and a cold like it’s cancer. So how can thoughtful Christians discern the difference between church hurt and spiritual abuse, so that they can move forward in their journey of healing?
What is Spiritual Abuse?
WebMD defines spiritual abuse as any “attempt to exert power and control over someone using religion, faith, or beliefs.”
This kind of abuse can happen within the context of a church’s official or informal authority structures, as well as within the context of individual relationships between family or closely associated community members. Further, other forms of abuse may be present alongside spiritual abuse, such as physical abuse or sexual abuse, and in the case of churches, financial impropriety; but this isn’t always the case.
To illustrate, in the case of the late evangelist Ravi Zacharias, spiritual abuse was part and parcel of his sexual abuse of massage therapists, whom he coerced into performing sexual acts on him by using his position of spiritual authority as his main tactic of intimidation.
He told one victim that she was “his ‘reward’ for living a life of service to God.” Before sexually assaulting another, he had the two pray together “to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received.”
On the other hand, in the case of Mark Driscoll, former pastor of the now defunct Mars Hill Church in Seattle, no sexual abuse was present. However, his use of power to intimidate, dominate, silence, and ostracize those who clashed with his leadership decisions is well documented.
In fact, Driscoll has been accused of similar abuses as pastor at The Trinity Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, which he founded in 2016. Those accusations include the claim that Driscoll used church security to stalk and surveil former members of the church with whom he had a falling out, and these new accusations of abuse have led former Mars Hills elders to call for his resignation in an open letter.
What makes these cases and others like them so striking is not only that they were so highly publicized, but also that the spiritually abusive actions were so easily identifiable as such.
But what about situations where the presence of abuse isn’t so cut and dry? How can a person be sure that what they have experienced goes beyond the pale of poor leadership or difficult relationships and has become spiritual abuse?
How to Identify Spiritual Abuse
The key to identifying spiritual abuse is realizing that it centers on a person’s need to control and be dominant. So whenever a pastor or spiritual authority figure seems overly fixated on “being in charge,” at the very least, a yellow flag should be raised in your mind.
This isn’t to say that every leader who is sometimes overly brash is necessarily an abuser. Nevertheless, an apparently compulsive need to control every situation is a warning sign that trouble may loom ahead.
To take it a step further, in a church context, if a leader grows to develop an attitude and culture of unquestioning submission to their leadership, they may be placing themselves in a position to perpetrate abuse, particularly if they have a secretive inner circle that carries disproportionate influence irrespective of the official reporting structure.
Additionally, those who challenge an abusive leader’s decisions often experience negative repercussions. Punishments for raising questions or concerns can include a public dressing down, whether in direct response to the “offense,” or in short succession on a seemingly unrelated matter.
Further, a public dressing down couched in scripture references is an immediate red flag. Watch out for language that seems cruel, even if not vulgar. Being unnecessarily hurtful is a sign that a leader isn’t merely reprimanding someone but manipulating them and intentionally stoking fear.
Other punishments for dissent may include a decrease in access to the leader—being placed in the “out” group, even where it may relate to the areas of that person’s ministry responsibilities. Some abusive leaders may use their authority to bully others into excluding or avoiding the person who challenged them. In some cases, the person is continually marginalized until they finally choose to leave, and are regularly demonized by the abusive leader following their departure.
While some spiritual abusers have regular outbursts of anger that include yelling and physical intimidation, some abusive leaders may maintain a veneer of “niceness,” rarely raising their voice or presenting themselves in a physically dominating way. Nevertheless, every so often, the curtain on their rage is pulled back, leaving those around them confused and dismayed.
Spiritual abusers often cross personal boundaries, use spiritual language to excuse their unacceptable behavior, and consistently refuse to recognize when they have hurt someone, often blaming others for the pain they themselves have inflicted upon them.
Listening to Your Body
Another key in identifying spiritual abuse is listening to your body. When you are put in situations where abuse is present, whether it is directed at you or someone else, your body often recognizes it before you do.
It may start with a pit in your stomach or a rush of anxiety. And if you find yourself in an ordinary ministry meeting having a full fledged fight-or-flight experience, do not ignore the implications of that—particularly if it is something that has happened more than once.
There’s a caveat to that, though. Your body doesn’t always tell you the whole story, and you being triggered doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person is being abusive. This is particularly true for those who have been abused in the past and for whom a tense interaction may activate the same feelings they experienced when abused. Nevertheless, being engaged in a difficult conversation is not abuse, even if the person speaking to you is not being entirely gracious or fair.
So listening to your body requires wisdom, and often counsel from a trusted friend or mentor.
Nevertheless, if you feel that something is amiss, and you have identified one or more of the red flags described above, you may be dealing with someone who is spiritually abusive.
Regardless of Whether You Were Abused, Your Pain Matters.
In discerning the hurts that have been inflicted upon you, you may come to realize that you have been dealing with spiritual abuse. This may necessitate removing yourself from the situation and reaching out to elders or board members to warn them of your experience, so that they can conduct a thorough investigation.
Depending on the strength of oversight procedures and a willingness to follow them, those leaders may not respond to the situation as strongly as is necessary to adequately address the problem. But regardless of what they do, God wants to meet you in your place of hurt and bring about healing. He sees your pain and your trauma, and he is near.
Conversely, upon further reflection, you may discern that you have not been abused. There was nothing about how the other person or leader treated you that could reasonably be defined as spiritually abusive. And yet, you have been hurt deeply. Your rose-colored illusions about what the church or church leadership is have been shattered. You’re reeling, and your soul is struggling.
That matters to God too.
There is no benchmark of abuse that your experience must hit to justify God’s compassion. There is no minimum amount of trauma needed to justify your need to be loved well in the midst of your pain. God is close to the brokenhearted, regardless of what caused that heartbreak. And when the church is at its best, we are close to each other too.