What is Spiritual Abuse?

In my last post I talked about how to confront a toxic pastor. Like my post on toxic church people, the post on toxic pastors was read by hundreds of people. The interest in these two posts tells me that there is a lot of toxicity in the church. We need to do something about this! Jesus called us to be the “light of the world,” but how can that be if we allow so much darkness to exist?spiritual_abuse

A toxic church is a church where spiritual abuse is allowed to exist. But many people don’t know what spiritual abuse is and are blind to it. Part of the problem is that so many Christians have been unknowingly exposed to spiritual abuse, they don’t see it for what it is. Spiritual abuse has been normalized to some extent, preventing believers from grasping the dangers of it.

This might not make sense to you right now, but follow along with me for the next few posts and I think you’ll start to see what I mean. I plan on releasing at least four posts over the next two weeks discussing the subtle power of spiritual abuse. Here’s what I have planned so far:

  1. What is Spiritual Abuse?
  2. A 20 Question Checklist on Spiritual Abuse.
  3. Let’s Not Revictimize the Spiritually Abused.
  4. How a Church Can Recover From Spiritual Abuse.

I’ll wade in slowly today with some simple definitions of abuse taken from the newly revised edition of my first book, Healing the Hurts of Your Past (not yet available).

First, my definition for abuse:

Abuse happens when someone crosses the boundaries of another person and enters that person’s personal space for their own gain (that is, the abuser) and to the detriment of their victim. Abuse involves a systematic pattern of manipulating, intimidating, or coercing their victim to gain and maintain power and control over them.  

Spiritual abuse has been normalized to some extent, preventing believers from grasping the dangers of it.

Now, my definition of emotional abuse:

Emotional abuse often works in conjunction with other forms of abuse. You can recognize emotional abuse when someone: 

  • dismisses your difficulties, issues, or input as unimportant, or an overreaction.
  • doesn’t listen to you.
  • belittles you by calling you names and humiliates you in front of others.
  • puts down your opinions or accomplishments.
  • acts excessively controlling or jealous:

– they limit your use of money, technology, travel, etc.

– they restrict you from seeing friends or family.

– they constantly check up on you.

  • ignores logic and gets dramatic and even hostile in order to get their way.
  • makes you feel responsible and guilty for things that have nothing to do with you. In other words, it’s always your fault. It’s never their fault.
  • attempts to destroy any outside support you receive by belittling your friends, family, church, counselor, etc.
  • causes you to “walk on eggshells” in an effort not to upset them.

Finally, here’s my definition for spiritual abuse. It incorporates the definitions above:

Spiritual abuse is a form of emotional abuse, but it happens when people use God, or their supposed relationship to God, to control your behavior. The physical abuser might use their fist to threaten you. The verbal abuser will use their words. The spiritual abuser uses God (or the Bible, church, or religion) as their threat.

Parents can spiritually abuse their children by threatening their children with what God will do to them if they don’t obey their parents. Ministers can do the same thing. I was talking to a friend once about why he left his church after going there for years. He said, “I was just tired of getting beat up every week” (referring to harsh sermons). I’ve actually heard this a lot. This is spiritual abuse.

It’s unfortunate how quick some people are to defend spiritual abuse. If I went to my friend’s pastor and told him that people were leaving his church because he was spiritually abusive, he’d probably say, “No, I’m just preaching the Word of God. I can’t help it if they find it offensive.” Spiritual abusers are quick to explain away their behavior, justifying it as their service to God and people’s lack of commitment. 

One of the subtlest forms of spiritual abuse is when a religious person speaks emphatically about God and faith with no room to disagree. I bet you’ve been in a group where this has happened. You were with one or two people who were going off on what the Bible says on some topic and how their way of interpreting the Bible was the only way to see it. They belittled any person that dared to disagree with them, and all the while you were thinking to yourself…Well, I disagree! But you didn’t want to say anything because you didn’t want them to think you were a bad or unspiritual person. That’s spiritual abuse. 

But They Aren’t Trying To Hurt Anybody

People often can’t see spiritual abuse because they think of an abuser as someone who purposefully sets out to harm others. In their mind, an abuser is an evil person with evil intentions. But that’s not necessarily true. An abusive person can simply be someone who is not aware of how their behavior adversely impacts those around them.

Pastors can easily fall into abusing others precisely because they do care for others. They want to help so much that they force their beliefs and behaviors on others, thinking that their ways will rescue people, when in reality, their behavior crosses personal boundaries that create emotional and spiritual damage. People excuse their behavior because they trust their motives. But there is no excuse for spiritual abuse. Good intentions don’t absolve them of their abusive behavior.

I’ll talk about this more over the coming days. Be sure to send me your comments and questions and “like” this or forward this post to a friend if you found it helpful.

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8 thoughts on “What is Spiritual Abuse?

  1. Sara

    Thank you for writing this!! I went to several pastors looking for counseling during my first marriage to someone who was all of the above, only to find out they were equally spiritually abusive. Thank goodness for a non spiritually abusive pastor and my loving family that helped me get out and away from the abuse.

  2. Heidemarie Downing

    After reading your book:Healing the Hurts of Your Past, I have been amazed at the help it has given & gives me. This topic is another that will do me a great service. Thankfully Yours. HD

  3. Pingback: Spiritual Abuse Checklist

    1. F. Remy Diederich Post author

      I’m glad you found it helpful. Yes, when spiritual abuse is present in a church, it models abuse for others who take it into their homes and use their religion to justify the abuse. Very sick.

  4. Pingback: I Left My Toxic Church...Now What? - F. Remy Diederich

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