This is part two in my series on Spiritual Abuse. Read part one here: What is Spiritual Abuse?
When we think of abuse, we often think of the extremes. We think of sexual or physical abuse. It’s violent. It’s evil. It’s ugly. But spiritual abuse isn’t that dramatic, it’s more subtle. You don’t always see it at first. (Spiritual abuse might include physical and sexual abuse, but let’s not go there for clarity sake.)
When the hotheaded jerk beats his wife and the police are called, everyone knows. It’s obvious. There’s no disputing the broken jaw or black and blue marks.
But with spiritual abuse it’s not that obvious. There are often questions. There’s uncertainty. We can’t always see the damage that’s been done. Because of this, I want to give you a checklist to help you discern if abuse is really taking place.
A Word of Caution: Humility Required
But before I give you the checklist, I want to speak a word of caution. When we talk about abuse, we need to come at it with humility. It shouldn’t be a witch hunt. I take no pleasure in identifying toxic and spiritually abusive pastors and churches. I do it with a broken heart, aware that I am capable of doing the same thing. Plus, in confronting abuse, churches can dissolve. Pastors can lose their jobs. This is very sobering.
As you learn about spiritual abuse and possibly confront it, I hope you will do so with humility. I’m not asking you to excuse the abuse in any way. But let’s not demonize the idea of abuse to such an extreme that none of us think we are capable of it. Sure we are. We are human. We mistreat each other all the time. And if we are not careful, our response to spiritual abuse can be just as ugly; Just as hurtful; and just as divisive and destructive as the original abuse.
Jesus cautioned us to take the log out of our own eye before we take the speck of dirt from someone else. So before you accuse others of emotional or spiritual abuse, look in the mirror. Are you doing this to others…even in the subtlest ways? Do you recognize that you are capable of it?
Spiritual Abuse Checklist
With that said, let me give you a checklist to help you determine if you might be in a church that is spiritually abusive. Sometimes a symptom checklist helps to reveal the obvious. We are so prone to deny abuse. But if we answer “yes” to several questions, it helps us to break through our denial and admit the obvious.
There’s nothing scientific about this list. These are merely questions I developed based on observing spiritually abusive church environments.
Sometimes a symptom checklist helps to reveal the obvious. We are so prone to deny abuse. But if we answer “yes” to several questions, it helps us to break through our denial and admit the obvious.
- Is the outside influence getting wider or smaller? That is, do you see your church making more and more connections to other churches and pastors or less and less? Does your church find reasons to break fellowship with others?
- Is the list of acceptable behavior getting smaller and smaller and the list of objectionable behavior getting longer and longer? Has it been made very clear to you what you can and cannot do as a church member?
- Is there a sense that you have to check with somebody to make sure you are doing the right thing?
- Do you find yourself hiding or minimizing thoughts or behavior to not draw critical attention to yourself?
- Is there a climate of fear and shame in the congregation?
- Is there high praise for conforming to the acceptable model?
- Are certain teachings repeated over and over, or is the full range of biblical truth taught?
- Does the teaching move people to rely more and more on the Spirit of God or the teachings of the church and its leadership?
- Are people afraid to challenge questionable behavior and teaching?
- Is your leadership defensive when questioned about their behavior and teaching?
- Is it hard to get information/answers from the leadership of the church, specifically the pastor? That is, is there a pattern of avoidance?
- Is there a sense that your pastors are better or more insightful than other pastors, that his/her teaching is more inspired than other pastors?
- Is there a sense that your church has an inside track with God, possibly the only way to God?
- Are you made to feel guilty or like God doesn’t love you for not complying with what’s expected from your pastor or church?
- Do you find yourself having to justify and explain away your concerns about the leadership?
- When you ask questions of the leadership, do they eventually turn the conversation around to attacking you personally or your spirituality?
- Is there a system of accountability in place to correct pastors and leaders that stray in some fashion? Most denominations have this in place. If your church is independent, what kind of safe guards are in place should leadership stray? Note: many independent churches have people they say they are submitted to, but in reality, these people hold no authority over them for correction.
- Do you find people outside of your church expressing concern about your involvement in the church?
- Do you find yourself increasingly doubting your ability to make good decisions?
- Does encountering your pastor/leaders leave you feeling more confident or more ashamed of yourself and needing to please them?
If you answered “yes” to even a few of these questions, it’s worth a discussion with someone in leadership. (If you can think of another question to add to the list, let me know.)
Confronting Spiritual Abuse
Now, here’s a word to the wise. Don’t go in to confront your leaders with “guns blazing.” It never helps to accuse people and put them on the defensive. Like I said at the outset, everyone is capable of misbehavior. We often fall into emotional and spiritually abusive behavior because we want the best for someone else but we approach it in controlling ways. We don’t trust people to listen to us, or trust God to do his work, or trust our ability to confront people respectfully, so we take the easy way: manipulation.
When you speak to your leaders, give them the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume the worst. Assume they mean well but they’ve chosen poor tactics to achieve their goals. Over the years I’ve detected my own manipulative behavior. I’ve worked hard to strip it from my toolbox. I never meant harm. I just wasn’t trained in interpersonal relationships so I had to learn through trial and error (like most of us). I couldn’t have written this post twenty years ago. I was too guilty of it.
Let me give you an example. Over the years I’ve caught myself saying “You must do this…” It’s a subtle word, must, but why did I feel the need to use it so much? Didn’t I trust the person to follow my advice? Didn’t I trust God to reveal to the person their need to do what I was recommending? No, I didn’t. I needed to turn up the intensity so people didn’t feel like they had a choice in the matter. That’s manipulation. Whenever I speak in that manner I’m violating people’s right to choose. It’s a form of abuse. I may have been ignorant of my abuse but not innocent of it. I needed to own that about myself and change.
When you speak to your leader, tell them how you feel when they say or do certain things. Don’t accuse them of abuse. Image you were to confront me about my language. You could say something like, “Pastor, I’d like to talk to you about something you often say. You often say, “You MUST do this or that.” When you say that, I feel like my ability to choose is being violated. I feel like I am no longer accountable to God, I’m accountable to you. I’m sure you don’t mean for this to happen, but I wonder if you could choose a different way to convey your passion?”
Do you see how respectful this is? No accusation. You simply told me how you felt when I said something. Hopefully, if you confront your pastor, he/she will listen and be a better person for it. If they won’t listen to you, then refer to my post on How to Confront a Toxic Pastor.
To learn more about spiritual abuse and what to do about it, see my book: Broken Trust…a practical guide to identify and recover from toxic faith, toxic church, and spiritual abuse.