What is Spiritual Abuse?

What is Spiritual Abuse?

spiritual abuse

A Spiritual Abuse Checklist


Think you might be experiencing spiritual abuse?

Let’s take a look at some common characteristics of spiritual abuse, to help you discern.

But first, what is spiritual abuse?


What is Spiritual Abuse?


The typical example given of spiritual abuse is that of a pastor or some other person with spiritual authority, who abuses that power to exert control over others. Often, they misappropriate religious beliefs or practices to do so. The outcome can take a variety of forms such as emotional manipulation, verbal abuse, and physical or sexual assault.

A recent prominent and deeply tragic example of this is Ravi Zacharias.


Ravi Zacharias: A Prominent Example of Spiritual Abuse


As a world-famous Christian speaker and writer, Christians around the world greatly respected Ravi Zacharias. However, as you can read in this article from Christianity Today, he used his position to abuse a number of female massage therapists:

One woman told the investigators that “after he arranged for the ministry to provide her with financial support, he required sex from her.” She called it rape.

She said Zacharias “made her pray with him to thank God for the ‘opportunity’ they both received” and, as with other victims, “called her his ‘reward’ for living a life of service to God,” the report says. Zacharias warned the woman—a fellow believer—if she ever spoke out against him, she would be responsible for millions of souls lost when his reputation was damaged.

He used this survivor’s very commitment to the Christian faith against her. Threatening her with the damage that could be caused to the image of Christianity if his actions became known, he forced her to keep silent. He also misappropriated Christian practices (namely the practice of expressing gratitude towards God) as a further means of manipulation. According to his twisted version of events, what he was doing wasn’t abuse. Instead, it was an ‘opportunity’ for which they should be giving God thanks.

If your skin isn’t beginning to crawl just thinking about it, then you’re stronger than I am.

While (of course) I hope you never find yourself in a situation as extreme as this one, here are some warning signs to look out for if you think you might be experiencing spiritual abuse.


1. Religious Beliefs or Scripture are Used as a Tool of Power


When your pastor or other person with spiritual authority quotes the Bible or refers to religious beliefs, what is their intention? Is it to express or search for truth? Is it to support and help their listeners? Or to control them?

In some cases, spiritually abusive authority figures quote Bible verses as a means of silencing potential threats to their authority. Often, they misconstrue or misapply these verses as they do so. In such cases, people are often left thinking that they must do what these authority figures say without thinking it through for themselves.

After all, how could they possibly question somebody so knowledgeable about Christian topics?

Surely it would be wrong to disrespect somebody who holds the authority of being a pastor or other type of leader? Or at least that’s what they are led to believe.


Heavy Shepherding – A Form of Spiritual Abuse


This kind of abuse of authority can also manifest itself in what Dr Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys, in their book ‘Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse’, refer to as ‘heavy shepherding’:

‘… often found in house churches as well as other expressions of church. A hallmark of leadership in these settings was the requirement of those who followed to be submissive, to be willing to share details of their lives and to consult the ‘shepherd’ ahead of making significant decisions, including job and relationship choices.’

If you find yourself in a situation where you’re expected to do whatever your spiritual leader tells you and to consult them with any approaching life decisions (as Oakley and Humphreys describe), then you might very well be in a spiritually abusive situation.

Christian authority figures should be modelling themselves on Jesus’ style of leadership.

Jesus was a servant king.

He used his authority to serve and love those around Him. He definitely didn’t use his authority to exert heavy-handed power dynamics – especially power dynamics attained by twisting the truth.


2. There’s a Shame Dynamic Operating Around You


Do Christians around you truly feel that they can ‘come as they are’? Or are they trying to project themselves as some kind of ‘super-Christian’?

While spiritual growth is extremely important on the Christian journey, we’re never going to grow spiritually if we try to mask where we’re really at on that journey.

That way, any apparent spiritual growth is only ever skin deep. We may be going around with a big smile on Sundays at church and doing and saying lots of pious things, but it’s just a performance.

The process of becoming holy with Jesus is messy work.

It often involves unsavoury confessions and prickly moments that we simply need the Christians around us to love us through.

If you feel too ashamed to open up about the ugly parts of your life or struggles, then this too is spiritual abuse.

What’s more, in some cases the fear of losing face and appearing less holy than some ‘ideal’ presented by leadership is so strong, that it can be used as another tool of power.

Get out now if someone in spiritual authority is manipulating you in anyway because they make you feel ashamed or threaten you with shame if you don’t comply.


3. You Feel More Drained When You Leave Church Than When You Arrived


Being in a healthy Christian community should be a give and take situation. You give out spiritual life but you also receive it.

It’s normal for there to be stretches of time that are unusually spiritually exhausting – e.g. you have a temporary project that’s taking a lot out of you. If this goes on indefinitely though, then something has gone wrong.

To get more specific, this warning sign could apply to a number of situations, including:

  • You’re a servant-hearted kind of person but people abuse this and never allow you to say no to doing tasks nobody else wants to do.
  • You give out a lot in relationships with people, but they never do the same back. You keep going to church every week, hoping for meaningful connection but constantly receive rejection or coldness in return.
  • People in spiritual authority belittle your gifting and don’t value you for it. Instead of nurturing what you have to offer the Christian body, they diminish your abilities. Either way, it can leave you feeling more and more worthless the longer you go on and ultimately leads to a distortion of your identity in Christ.

4. The Growth and Survival of the Institution are Prioritised Over the People It’s Supposed to Serve


What’s at the centre of the Christian community you’re a part of? Is it to serve God and the people that make up the community? Or to create a Christian institution that gives off the appearance of success?

If the latter is true, you might notice these tell-tale signs:

1. Hiding the Truth or Plain Lying is Expected If The Institution’s Reputation is at Stake

One example of this can be seen in the controversy surrounding church and other religious organisations’ use of non-disclosure agreements. (Check out this article from Christianity Today to read more).

As many Christians are currently pointing out, if something goes wrong (like an incident of sexual abuse), a non-disclosure agreement can leave Christian workers with no way to speak out about what’s happening. In doing so, the church or Christian organisation’s image is protected over the suffering of any survivors of abuse.

2. Pressuring Congregation Members to Give Money

This was a characteristic of spiritual abuse that left Jesus fuming. Flipping tables in the temple courtyard, He was famously furious at how people were using God’s temple as a business opportunity.

Listen carefully to the Gospel you hear from the pulpit of your church. Does the essential message work to separate you from your money in order to support the exorbitant lifestyles of church leaders or to constantly maintain a flashy image for the church?

If so, then it’s time to find a new place of Christian community.

3. Do Spiritual Leaders Around You Convict People of Sin or Condemn Them For It?

Sin is, inevitably, a sensitive topic for any Christian leader to deal with. Conversations about areas of our lives where we’re struggling with our brokenness can leave us feeling one of two ways. Either we go away feeling deeply loved, seen and supported … or worthless and ashamed.

As I discuss in this post, Jesus made an important distinction when confronting the issue of people’s sin. While He convicted sinners and told them that they were sinning – in order to protect them from the inevitable bad consequences of that sin – He didn’t condemn them for it.

It’s a strong indicator of spiritual abuse if Christian authority figures around you actively work to make people feel worthless or ashamed for their sin. While encouraging people to leave their sin behind for their own good and those around them, Jesus loved people where they were at and never made people feel less than for the struggles they had.


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