Have You Been Hurt by Someone in the Church?
Two friends have confided in me regarding an agonizing journey through spiritual abuse. As a pastoral counselor and spiritual director, I can confirm that these instances are not isolated. Jesus, in Matthew 16:6, warned his followers to be on the alert against the yeast (or things that were spiritually harmful) of the Sadducees and Pharisees.
What exactly is spiritual abuse?
The term spiritual abuse became more familiar to many in the 1990’s. Of course, this type of abuse has been happening for centuries but it was rarely discussed openly. As physical, sexual, and emotional abuse became more publicly recognized it followed that society became more comfortable opening up about spiritual abuse. The March 2018 issue of Christianity Today noted that the church of England convicted a priest of spiritual abuse. This was the first time that such an action had been taken.
In their book, Recovery from Spiritual Abuse, Juanita and Dale Ryan write that “Spiritual abuse is the kind of abuse which damages the entire core of who we are. It leaves us spiritually disorganized and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God.”
So, how can one define the term, spiritual abuse?
Jeff VanVonderen and David Johnson provide the following definition in their book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: “The mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support, or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing the person’s spiritual empowerment.”
In the journal, Violence Against Women, Dehan and Levi state that such abuse keeps a person from realizing total spiritual fulfillment. Spiritual abuse can certainly occur in cults, but for the purpose of this post, I will be discussing the subtle yet equally harming manifestations of spiritual abuse in the Church.
Christian sociologist Ronald Enroth explains, “Unlike physical abuse that often results in bruised bodies, spiritual and pastoral abuse leaves scars on the psyche and soul. It is inflicted by persons who are accorded respect and honor in our society by virtue of their role as religious leaders and models of spiritual authority. They base their authority on the Bible, the Word of God, and see themselves as shepherds with sacred trust. But when they violate that trust, when they abuse their authority and when they misuse ecclesiastical power to control and manipulate the flock, the results can be catastrophic.”
This abuse can occur in a faith community but it also can occur in the context of a legalistic family environment. Children look to their parents as role models and this is where their primary trust is developed. Therefore, abusive spiritual teachings and actions from parents can be very damaging to children.
What might spiritual abuse look like?
Boyd C. Purcell’s book, Spiritual Abuse From The Womb To The Tomb, describes a few causes of spiritual abuse. One is legalism or the belief that we can only please God by works, obeying certain commands, or earning our way to heaven. Grace is not part of the spoken message.
Another derives from mixed messages or viewpoints about God. So, a parishioner might be taught that God loves him/her unconditionally but then be told that God only loves the person as long as he/she does not sin.
Another source of abuse that I observe in my work is taking scripture out of its historical or cultural context. An example is 1 Timothy 2:9, “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.” Without the understanding of that culture, one might be told that women should not wear jewelry.
What are traits of those who might spiritually abuse others?
Many abusers have narcissistic traits which surface to hide deep insecurities. They may use their knowledge of scripture as a way to intimidate others. Abusers often truly believe that they have a gift for ministry and they do not intend to hurt others. They do not see the insecurities that drive their behaviors and actions. These individuals can be quite manipulative. They know how to lure people to them with incentives like genuine community, love, and hopes of healing.
What are the traits of those who are abused?
People who fall prey to spiritual abusers often are in need of security and emotional support. They have a deep desire to pursue truth and their faith. They long for deep intimacy, love, and a safe environment to express feelings. They are more vulnerable during times of stress, crisis or life changes.
What beliefs may people have about themselves due to this abuse?
After time, they often feel they are not good enough, worthy enough, and are somehow damaged and do not deserve God’s love. Therefore, they believe that God might be disappointed in them. This can drive them into perfectionistic tendencies to over-compensate for low self-esteem. They may blame themselves for the abuse. Their own bodies may not be seen as temples of God and there is a disconnect between their mind, soul, and body. Trusting, feeling safe and being able to be vulnerable with emotions can be a struggle. Some might even describe themselves as demonic or possessed.
How does one recover from this abuse?
Barbara M. Orlowski’s research, detailed in her book, Spiritual Abuse Recovery, Dynamic Research on Finding a Place of Wholeness, found that there are four steps required for survivors to heal. People need (1) sufficient time to grieve, (2) the ability to forgive and hand over their pain to God, (3) a healthy faith community for support, and (4) the ability to move forward in their faith with the help of the Holy Spirit.
For many who have experienced pain, recovery may take years over the various seasons of life. Spiritual abuse is a form of trauma and may require the assistance of a licensed counselor or competent spiritual director who is well versed in walking with others through the healing process.
Spiritual Abuse Part One, https://theallendercenter.org/2018/03/spiritual-abuse-1/ (The Allender Center, 2018).
Barbara M. Orlowski, Spiritual Abuse Recovery, Dynamic Research on Finding a Place of Wholeness (Wipf & Stock, 2010).
Nicole Dehan and Zipi Levi, “Spiritual Abuse: An Additional Dimension of Abuse as Experienced by Abused Haredi (Ultraorthodox) Jewish Wives,” Violence Against Women 15 (2009): 1,294–1,310.
Boyd C. Purcell, Spiritual Abuse From The Womb To The Tomb (AuthorHouse, 2008).
Jeff VanVonderen and David Johnson, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Manipulation and False Authority in the Church (Bethany House, 2005).
Ronald M. Enroth, Churches That Abuse (Zondervan, 1993).
Ken M. Blue, Healing Spiritual Abuse (InterVarsity Press, 1993).
Juanita and Dale Ryan, Recovery from Spiritual Abuse (InterVarsity Press, 1992).