Spiritual abuse happens when a person with spiritual authority or power uses it as leverage to exploit another person’s trust and vulnerability to get what they want. Spiritual abuse is enabled in churches that have twisted value systems.
You’ve seen the headlines: Report confirms a major denomination for decades has covered up sex crimes of its pastors and disregarded the victims. Pastor admits to decades-old affair and announces his resignation to an applauding church admiring his candor—until a woman takes the mic and clarifies that the pastor’s “affair” was with her, starting when she was sixteen. Pastors are forced to resign from their ministries due to domineering and angry behavior, but don’t leave without an ugly fight.
It’s not hard to recognize recurring issues: Church leaders who get away with bullying, insulting, and intimidating people into complete submission. A church member expresses genuine concern about a pastor’s doctrinal drifting which the pastor construes as rebellion and blackballs her to the congregation. Undiagnosed narcissistic personality disorder in a church leader is interpreted as commitment to the vision and any dissent is castigated as spiritual unbelief.
“One of the saddest life situations I can imagine is to be a kid growing up unsafe in your own home.”
One of the saddest life situations I can imagine is to be a kid growing up unsafe in your own home. To be abused by the parents that are meant to protect and cherish you? Sickening. Yet the results are in, and it’s the tragic truth that many people have been experiencing abuse in their spiritual home, the church. Spiritually vulnerable people open their minds to truth and their hearts to healing—only to receive wounds in the deepest, hardest-to-heal places. Shepherds turn out to be wolves seeing sheep as a next meal of money, sex, or power.
Why do we need to talk about spiritual abuse?
Spiritual abuse in the church is a heavy topic at a couple levels. For any of us who love the church, it’s uncomfortable to delve into how something we love is able to cause so much hurt to people. It’s easy to want to move onto a happier topic which presents church in a better light. But the urge to step over the issue and onto our next thing is the same temptation faced by the priest and Levite in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan: It’s a value system which says that my feeling comfortable is more important than the victim finding healing.
“…a value system which says that my feeling comfortable is more important than the victim finding healing…”
That’s why we’ve got to acknowledge a second level of heaviness here. The people who have suffered spiritual abuse in churches have a far deeper pain than those of us who experience the pain of delving in the issue. So, for their sake and the sake of future generations who will be shepherded in church, let’s do our best to figure out what spiritual abuse is and lead churches in which spiritual abuse finds no foothold.
What is spiritual abuse?
First, let’s start with abuse itself. What exactly is abuse? It’s a broad term meaning to harm or injure someone. A person can be abused in many ways, including physically, sexually, verbally, psychologically, and financially. An abusive relationship is a relationship in which someone is exploiting their power in the relationship to hurt the other person.
Spiritual abuse can also be physical, sexual, verbal, etc., but it’s done through a spiritual relationship. A person with spiritual authority or power is able to use that leverage to exploit another person’s trust and vulnerability. The person in power dominates them in some way to get what they want.
“A person with spiritual authority or power is able to use that leverage to exploit another person’s trust and vulnerability.”
In a conversation with Christian author Teasi Cannon, a survivor of spiritual abuse, she explained to me the role that doctrine can sometimes play. A person can wield religious doctrines in a way that abuses people. An obvious way this can be done is through teaching false doctrine which leads people to destruction, both in this life and the next. A more subtle way doctrine can abuse is when the doctrine itself may be biblical but is being used in an abusive, manipulative way. For example, a spiritual leader might try to suppress all dissent by strategically planning a sermon series condemning gossip or by pulling a verse like 1 Samuel 26:9 out of its context as if pulling a sword from its sheath: “Who can lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless?”
What is spiritual abuse not?
As multifaceted as spiritual abuse is, it would be unfair to call any and every form of hurt that comes from a church “spiritual abuse.” Plenty of Scriptures can feel painful when we consider their implications, for example, verses that condemn sin and describe judgment. A hallmark of progressive Christianity is to intentionally reinterpret passages which have caused people hurt, whether the hurt was caused by people misusing the Scripture or by people simply believing and teaching what the Scripture means. Is it spiritually abusive, for example, to teach what the Bible says about sexual ethics, knowing that it can be painful for people living outside biblical teachings to hear?
Cannon helped me think through the difference between appropriate pain and abusive pain. She described two scenarios: If I go to the dentist for a root canal and experience discomfort from the procedure, that’s pain but not abuse. Yet, if I go to the dentist for a root canal, and the dentist jabs me over and over with the numbing anesthesia to get a thrill, that’s abuse. In the same way, biblical doctrines can be offensive, but if taught in a biblical way, they are for our good. Abuse happens when a person wields biblical doctrine or spiritual authority to manipulate, dominate, deflect, or direct the narrative in his or her favor—whether it’s meant to inflate an ego or gratify a lust or protect a reputation.
“If I go to the dentist for a root canal, and the dentist jabs me over and over with the numbing anesthesia to get a thrill, that’s abuse.”
I also spoke with Kim Pennington, PhD in Christian Ethics and Philosophy of Religion from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, on the topic of spiritual abuse. She explained to me, “Call it what it is. Are you having a disagreement with someone? That’s not spiritual abuse. Watch for long term patterns of behavior.” For Pennington, listening to Christianity Today’s podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill was a healing experience, as she was able to relate to patterns she had experienced at various times throughout her years in ministry. “I finally admitted that I had been spiritually abused. And there was such a release. It’s important to call it what it is.”
It also needs to be acknowledged that sometimes a person is falsely accused of abuse. Destroying a person’s reputation is its own kind of murder, and we do well to remember that a “false witness who pours out lies” is one of the seven things that God hates (Pr. 6:19). We’ve got to seek truth diligently, or else we are in danger of ignoring spiritual abuse and believing false accusations, both of which are heartbreaking and devastating.
What makes spiritual abuse so poisonous?
If it were only for the psychological and physical wounds, spiritual abuse should already be one of the top vices we hate and protect against. But there are also eternal ramifications when someone injects poison where a person opens themselves to receive goodness and truth.
Negligent and abusive shepherds make God especially angry:
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.” (Ez. 34:1-6)
“You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.”
God summarizes his anger with words that should frighten any spiritual abuser to their core: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock” (Ez. 34:10a).
What makes spiritual abuse so possible?
Every person reading this knows that spiritual abuse is wrong. Protecting pastors who sexually abuse is wrong. Tolerating pastors who bully and intimidate is wrong. It’s wrong to silence whistleblowers, excommunicate abuse victims, and disregard suspicious patterns.
But knowing these things are wrong doesn’t go very far in preventing them—so long as we have value systems that enable them. What do I mean? When churches prioritize only A, B, and C, we end up not seeing (or not really caring) when there’s a problem with D, E, and F.
If we want to make our churches places where spiritual abuse can’t find a home, we need to make sure our values are in the right order. Here are four twisted values (valuing this over that) which enable churches to hurt people:
1. We enable spiritual abuse when we value charisma over character.
By definition, it’s basically impossible not to love charismatic people. They’re the leaders whose contagious enthusiasm wins our buy-in for bigger and better kingdom endeavors. Charisma is a wonderful thing. The problem is not charismatic leaders; the problem is when we prioritize charisma over character. It’s when we confuse giftedness with godliness.
Pennington explains, “Americans look too much at charisma, at whether the person is a gifted leader and speaker. Those tend to be the highest things we value, as opposed to the character traits laid out in Scripture. If you get a charismatic person in leadership who is able to lead, charm, and persuade people—and then that person also turns out to be manipulative and abusive—it’s very hard to hold that person accountable.”
“The problem is when we prioritize charisma over character. It’s when we confuse giftedness with godliness.”
When a church prioritizes a person’s likability and ability to get results over the person’s character, we’re creating a situation where spiritual abuse can happen—and we may not even notice or care.
2. We enable spiritual abuse when we value the institution over individuals.
Why do some churches and religious organizations fight so hard to cover up abuse scandals and hush up the victims? It’s because they are valuing the reputation of the institution over the well-being of individuals.
It’s a subtle seduction too, as leaders ask themselves, “What will happen to the cause of Christ if this gets out?” That could well be a cover for the real questions they won’t ask out loud: “What will happen to our institution if this gets out? What will it make us leaders out to be?” The best questions are the ones it’s easy not to ask: “What can we do for the people who are hurting?” and “What will happen to the cause of Christ in future decades if we cover this up today?”
“What will happen to the cause of Christ in future decades if we cover this up today?”
A church throwing individuals under the bus to preserve the institution’s reputation is a bit like spiritual Stalinism: sacrificing individuals for the glorious good of “humanity.”
3. We enable spiritual abuse when we value advancement over accountability.
Kingdom advancement is a good thing. But when we value it over accountability for our leaders, we set a timer for the leader to someday detonate the kingdom progress they’ve helped build. There’s a cultic celebrity-centeredness in the evangelical world which enchants us into forgetting some of the biggest basics of our faith: God is God. Everyone’s a sinner. We need the church.
In fact, the person selling millions of books or speaking in front of tens of thousands probably needs accountability more than the next guy. Do we really think that Satan and his demons are going to go easier on him because he’s a well-known Christian leader? Do we really suppose that, because his name is gold on a conference main stage or in a publishing contract, that he’s got more immunity to conceit and greed?
“Do we really suppose that, because his name is gold on a conference main stage or in a publishing contract, that he’s got more immunity to conceit and greed?”
And this need for accountability hits closer to home than we’d like to think. Even a leader of a small church can have an ego the size of a continent. Having spiritually hungry people feeding on your every word can be mouthwatering. Our church leaders need accountability. This is why church leadership was always meant to be a plurality, with character traits such as “above reproach,” “faithful to his wife,” and “self-controlled” heading up the list of non-negotiable qualifications (see 1 Timothy 3).
4. We enable spiritual abuse when we value muscle over meekness.
Meekness isn’t weakness; it’s having strength but keeping it under control. It’s the ability to mow over the whole yard—tulips and tomato plants included—but choosing to mow only the grass. It’s the decision to choose words of grace amid feelings of frustration. Church leaders need meekness for those situations in which they could exploit people’s spiritual vulnerability for their own gratification.
New Testament scholar Michael Kruger very helpfully points us to 4 Scriptures which it’s easy to miss when we’re prioritizing muscle (the strength to move things along) over meekness (the ability to control that strength so it doesn’t hurt people):
- 1 Timothy 3:3 – “Now the overseer is to be…not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.”
- 1 Peter 5:3 – “Be shepherds of God’s flock…not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”
- Matthew 20:25-26 – “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”
- 2 Timothy 2:24 – “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.”
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”
Did you catch these descriptions of biblical leadership taught by Jesus, Paul, and Peter? “Not violent but gentle.” “Not lording it over…but being examples to the flock.” “Servant.” “Not quarrelsome but kind to everyone.” If we want churches which don’t give spiritual abuse a foothold, we will be impressed with meekness over muscle.
Repentance and Resolve
It is easy to read an article like this, nod and say, “Good points,” and move on without feeling any urgency to take action. This is especially the case if you personally or your local church hasn’t been affected by the problem of spiritual abuse. But the problem is probably bigger than any of us are actually aware.
Teasi Cannon has helpful advice here, and I would encourage you to take what she says and figure out how it can play out in your context. She says, “All church leaderships should do some self-reflecting to make sure they have checks and balances in place. All church leaderships need self-awareness and humility to keep them from tripping into this problem in the future. We must not be dismissive of it. We must not see it all as attacks on the church from outside. I believe God is at work exposing this.”
“I believe God is at work exposing this.”
Resolution like this begins with serious repentance, as we grieve our twisted values and the whirlwind they reap. So, I’ll close this article with words from Jeremy Bacon, author of a series of Renew articles on the Sermon on the Mount. In his article “A Reckoning for the Church,” Bacon writes the following:
Reconciliation in a damaged relationship can only be found through repentance.
The offending party has to own the wrong they have done. There has to be a deep and sincere apology, and there has to be demonstration of an ongoing commitment to live a different way. A person who came out of an abusive relationship would be irresponsible to re-engage the former abuser without this happening.
We should understand better than anyone that there is no reconciliation without repentance. We just need to grasp the true nature of the reconciliation that needs to occur. If we want to have any hope of reaching these lost casualties of our culture, they aren’t the ones who need to repent in sackcloth and ashes.