What is Spiritual Abuse?

Heart pounding. Mouth going dry. Breath coming fast. Feeling like the room is spinning, and everything is suddenly turned upside down. ‘ What is happening? I thought they were supposed to protect me. I thought they were safe. Is it really me? Am I at fault here?’ You feel as if you have just been in a car accident. The shock moves in waves through your body as you try and process the pain and the disbelief. You can’t think clearly as you remember the words they spoke like knives, the Scriptures that used to comfort or clarify now cause deep pain and confusion.

This is the evil of spiritual abuse. Before we get any further, let’s define what exactly is spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse is any religious leader using their power or control to silence, oppress, or harm a member under their authority. This could include:

-manipulation through Scripture or other means

-coercion (e.g. to give financially)

– putting pressure on an individual or group to do anything against their will

– threats of consequences if individuals do not comply (e.g. expulsion from religious community)

Spiritual abuse can be incredibly harmful to an individual because the way we view our religious leaders can often influence our view of God. If our pastors are harsh and demanding, we think of God as harsh and demanding. If our pastors force us into compliance through fear, we are afraid of punishment from God if we disobey. If our leaders treat us as less than, we have a diminished view of our value in God’s eyes. Many people leave the church forever because of spiritual abuse. Their view of God and the Body of Christ becomes permanently warped. And that includes genuine believers and unbelievers alike. This is a serious problem, and it was all too common in Ezekiel’s day, when the shepherds of Israel were failing to lead the people well.

Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them. Ezekiel 34:2-6, ESV version

Jesus also speaks very bluntly to the Scribes and Pharisees for their harshness, hypocrisy, and pride (Matt 23:1-12). Sadly, many who thirst for power, prestige, and control are drawn to positions of authority in the church, and become the opposite of Christ’s example of humility and gentleness (Phil 2, Matt 11:28-29). Those who do not stand up to these power-hungry leader become enablers, idolizing the leader rather than calling them out for their sin.

The last thing a powerful man or woman needs is a flatterer whispering sweet affirmations all day long, and the first thing he or she needs is a friend who will speak frankly. ‘ Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy,’ the Bible says. Friends don’t let friends become narcissists.”

Excerpt from A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture that Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing by Scott McKnight and Laura Barringer.

If you suspect you have experienced spiritual abuse or are currently experiencing it, I am so sorry. What a horrible and life-altering situation you have been through. I would like to give you some practical ways to deal with it.

  1. Try and find a safe place. As soon as you can safely do so, I would advise you to leave the harmful community. This may mean attending church online for a time, or it may mean taking a break from church for a season as you take time to heal. Perhaps you have friends at a different church where you can attend while you find your bearings. Be prepared for aspects of church to be quite triggering for a time, such as certain songs or Scriptures. You also may feel quite numb and disconnected from anything spiritual. This is normal, and is your body protecting you from further harm. Eventually your emotions will be able to engage again. I remember the first time I felt God’s presence in church after several months and it was so healing.

2. Talk to a safe person you can trust. This may be a counsellor, or a friend or mentor, but someone who is willing to help you sort through the confusion and point you to the truth. You will be disoriented for a time, and it is crucial that you have someone who can keep you focused on the person of Christ and who he really is. Preferably find someone who is trauma informed and can go at your pace. http://www.sacredwilderness.org is a good resource with support groups for sharing your story and connecting you to trained care providers.

3. Your body remembers your trauma. You may be able to function for a while, but eventually you will likely get flashbacks; such as dreams, intrusive thoughts or reactions in your body such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain, and/or feeling like you want to escape. This is the fight or flight response, and it is your body reacting to a sense of imminent danger. You may want to process these by talking to a friend or counsellor, journalling, listening to calming music, doing deep breathing exercises or stretching. Even vigorous exercise such as running can help to manage stress as it releases endorphins.

4. In time, it may be helpful to listen to other abuse victims’ stories so you know that you are not alone. Some of these can be triggering, so be careful, but they can help you to feel like you aren’t crazy or overreacting. Spiritual abuse is much more common than you think, and once you have experienced it, you will likely find many people come out of the woodwork with similar experiences. The Bodies Behind the Bus podcast was a helpful resource for me in helping me make sense of my story and also to see a wider pattern in the church.

Finally, let’s look to Christ, our true Shepherd, and the one who was familiar with abuse, shame, and grief. Let’s run to Him with our wounds and our deepest pain, for He truly does care for us and weeps with us. One day He will make all things new, and every wrong will be put right, and justice will prevail. Let’s look to that day, and may you know that you are loved.

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