Learn to recognize the signs of spiritual abuse within a church
WHAT IS SPIRITUAL ABUSE?
The following was adapted from the book Broken Trust: A Practical Guide by F. Remy Diederich. If you have experienced spiritual abuse, you are encouraged to use the information on our resources page and speak to a mental health professional.
Spiritual abuse occurs when spiritual leaders use their authority to manipulate and control people for their personal gain to the detriment of the believer.
People within the same church may have completely different experiences based on their level of involvement. Casual attenders may not notice anything unusual in the church environment. Those who are deeply involved in the inner workings of the church, however, are vulnerable to the darker side of a spiritual abuser's influence.
Abuse happens when someone crosses the boundaries of another person and enters that person's personal space for their own gain and to the detriment of their victim. Abuse involves a systematic pattern of manipulating, intimidating, or coercing their victims to gain and maintain power and control over them.
- F. Remy Diederich
Spiritual abuse happens when people use God, or their supposed relationship to God, to control your behavior for their benefit. The physical abuser might use their fist to threaten you. The verbal abuser uses their words. The spiritual abuser uses God (or the Bible, church, or religion) as their justification to back up their threats.
WHAT ARE SIGNS OF SPIRITUAL ABUSE?
It is important to recognize that just because the leader did not intend harm with their actions does not mean that spiritual abuse did not happen. Because abuse happens when personal boundaries are crossed for another person's gain, and because this happens in a church environment, the abuse will often appear well-intentioned, sincere, and empathetic.
There are a variety of ways spiritual abuse can manifest, all of which have to do with creating a culture of systematic manipulation, intimidation, and coercion so a leader or leaders can maintain power and control over others.
The following list is not exhaustive, but it can help in identifying a few key symptoms:
- There is a sense that questioning your leaders is the same as questioning God.
- Your experiences, thoughts, or feelings are automatically discounted or considered wrong if they conflict with the leader's.
- You feel intimidated by your leader, and that you always need to please him.
- There is a climate of fear and shame in the congregation.
- It has been made very clear what behavior is acceptable and what behavior is unacceptable, and the list keeps getting longer.
- There is high praise for conforming to the acceptable model.
- There is a sense that you have to check with someone to make sure you are doing the right thing in the right way.
- There is a mystical vagueness to the teaching which leaves you wondering how to obtain the "healing" and "revelation" that others seem to be accessing, which leaves you feeling like an outsider.
- The influence from external groups continues to get smaller and smaller as the community becomes more insular.
- Members feel guilty, or like God doesn't love them, when they do not comply with what the leader expects.
- People outside the organization (family and long-time friends) consistently express concern about your level of involvement with the group.
- You are told to distrust or avoid trained experts, counselors or therapists, Bible scholars, or any other kind of higher education.
- People are regularly shunned or exposed for not conforming.
WHY DO PEOPLE GET INVOLVED IN A SPIRITUALLY ABUSIVE CHURCH?
There are many reasons why people attend, become members of, and take leadership positions in abusive churches.
For many it wasn't evident from the beginning that the culture was abusive. People became excited about getting involved in an organization with a bold vision. Some may have heard stories about how others' lives were dramatically changed, or they experienced dramatic change themselves. Others felt emotionally connected and accepted after sharing difficult things and hearing the stories of their peers in small groups. The church could represent one of the few places where they have felt someone take an interest and willingly invest time and energy into them. Leadership opportunities can attract others who want to make a difference in the world.
For a variety of reasons people enter into an abusive environment and (consciously or unconsciously) overlook many of the red flags they sensed as time wore on.
Eventually their every decision, from the job they took, to the friends they had, to the books they read, were dictated, not by the Holy Spirit, but by leaders in the church who were "speaking into their lives." What was once a life-giving endeavor had become an all-encompassing loyalty test. The vibrancy and enthusiasm they once felt had been replaced by a growing sense of being used and manipulated.
If you have been under the power of a spiritually-abusive person or organization, you have undergone trauma. It is important to not minimize or make excuses for the abuser, and to prioritize your own self-care. The effects on you and your life are real, as are any continuing effects you are experiencing. For many, spiritual abuse can trigger PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), which can further amplify the effects of this trauma in your life.
Continue to educate yourself. Read more about spiritual abuse. Use the information on our resources page, and speak to your mental health professional. If you need some guidance to help you identify whether you need to protect yourself from the church you find yourself in, we have created an article titled "8 Signs of a Dysfunctional Church." Of particular interest is a video series by Dr. Jeff VanVonderen provided by the National Association for Christian Recovery which outlines abusive religious systems and the lasting trauma they inflict on people's lives.
Seek out friends, family members, and organizations where you can openly share your experiences without feeling judged or controlled. Establish healthy boundaries and say "no" more often. Take any steps you feel comfortable taking which help you to move forward. Spiritually-abusive organizations have worked hard to undermine your thinking and caused you to cast doubt on yourself.
Most importantly, remember that your journey to recovery can begin with a simple step, followed by another simple step. You don't have to tackle it all at once.
8 SIGNS OF A DYSFUNCTIONAL CHURCH: Characteristics of spiritual abuse within dysfunctional churches and high-control groups
 Diederich, F. Remy. "Healing the Hurts of Your Past", 2011, pp. 34.