34 Comments

Ten Major Symptoms of Spiritual Abuse

Ten Symptoms of Spiritual Abuse

Sheep and Wolves, via Pinterest.

What is spiritual abuse?

I once linked to an excellent article by Mary DeMuth which talks about 10 Signs of Spiritual Abuse. But I have received enough emails and questions to warrant another, separate post covering other symptoms of spiritual abuse.

Jeff VanVonderen, co-author of the classic book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, defines spiritual abuse like this:

“Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority–the purpose of which is to ‘come underneath’ and serve, build, equip and make God’s people more free–misuses that authority by placing themselves over God’s people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly godly purposes which are really their own.”

VanVonderen adds:

“Nothing about spiritual abuse is simple. Those who have experienced it know it is powerful enough to cause them to question their relationship with God, indeed, the very existence of God. And it is subtle too! The perpetrators of spiritual abuse are rarely ‘Snidely Whiplash’ sorts of characters who announce that they are going to drain your spiritual energy. They may be people who seem like they are seeking to guide you to the deepest levels of spiritual maturity.”

Biblical evidence: While the term “spiritual abuse” does not occur in the Bible (nor does the word “Trinity,” for that matter), the concept is clearly alluded to. Primary biblical citations which discuss spiritual abuse include Ezekiel 34:1-10; Matthew 20:25; 23:1-33; Luke 22:24-27; and 1 Peter 5:3. Each of these passages involves God condemning leaders who mistreat the people under their care in order to promote their own welfare or ideology.

Ten Major Symptoms of Spiritual Abuse:

1.) Salvation Redefined – Spiritually abusive ministries continually redefine salvation. This keeps the bar moving higher and higher so that followers must stay dependent on the Ten Symptoms of Spiritual Abuseintercession, wisdom, and power of the leader. Healthy leaders, on the other hand, communicate a clear biblical gospel of salvation by grace through faith. God’s plan of salvation never changes.

2.) Deification of Leaders – While few spiritually abusive leaders overtly claim divinity, in practice they act as if they are godlike. For example, the leader may say that he or she speaks for God, that God works exclusively through his or her ministry, or that followers can please God by pleasing the leader. Healthy leaders, however, avoid putting themselves in the place of God.

3.) Exhaustion – Spiritually abusive ministries exhaust their followers through high commitment and endless demands on time and service. If you always feel exhausted after church—or if your church life seems one continuous demand on your time with never a chance to rest—you may live in a spiritually abusive system. Healthy churches and leaders understand the need for rest and personal time. After all, even God rested on the seventh day.

4.) “Sacrificial” Giving – Spiritually abusive ministries regularly call for sacrificial giving of time, talents, and treasure. The Bible knows little of this. Instead, the New Testament calls for generous and cheerful giving (2 Cor 8 and 9). While God does sometimes call us to give sacrificially, this is between us and the Holy Spirit. For example, the Philippians gave sacrificially and amazed even the Apostle Paul. But no person can demand such sacrifice, and certainly not on an ongoing basis. Healthy churches teach biblical giving which is based on generosity and freewill, not coercion or guilt.

5.) Transactional Giving – Spiritually abusive ministries correlate the giving of your time and money with physical or spiritual blessing. The more you give—or the more dedicated you are to the ministry—the more blessed you will be. This is a works-based system of salvation and sanctification. Healthy ministries focus on transformational giving which is simply a byproduct of thankfulness and faith.

6.) Abuse of Special Revelation – Spiritually abusive leaders often claim to have special insight into the will of God for you and your family. Rather than sharing such “special” revelation and giving you freedom to decide whether the Spirit spoke it or not, Spiritual Abuse and Special Revelationsuch leaders demand that you obey their pronouncements. Healthy leaders, on the other hand, may also sometimes receive special revelation from the Spirit, but they communicate such “words” from the Lord with humility, qualification, and room for doubt. They allow you to respond—and even disagree—rather than forcing you to obey. And such “words” never benefit the leader financially or in regard to gaining power over you.

7.) Perfectionism – Spiritually abusive ministries may have a mentality which demands full sanctification from members in order to prove that they are saved. This may masquerade as a focus on bearing spiritual fruit, becoming mature in the faith, or living sanctified lives. In reality, such leaders want to control the people underneath them, and the easiest way to do this is to point out their sins (or supposed sins) and show how worthless and hopeless they are. This keeps people dependent on the intercession and teaching of the leader. Healthy leaders, on the other hand, recognize the role of grace in salvation and understand that all believers are sinners in need of mercy, patience, and understanding. We all wear checkered garments on the way to glory.

8.) Shaming – Spiritually abusive ministries often publicly shame their followers. Leaders in such groups misuse confidential information and share it widely in order to humiliate people. Or they bad-mouth people who have left the group. This maintains an atmosphere of fear, degradation, and disempowerment. Healthy leaders, however, maintain confidences, encourage the weak, and empower people under their care toward maturity and joy in Christ.

9.) Exclusivity – Spiritually abusive ministries denigrate other Christian leaders or churches. They claim that they alone have the truth, that they alone practice biblical Christianity, or that they alone have access to God’s will and pleasure. Whether this is Exclusivity of Spiritually Abusive Churchesstated explicitly or remains implicit, followers understand that to leave the group is to fall out of grace or to become a friend of the world. Conversely, healthy leaders rejoice that God is working all over the world. They try to see the best in other groups and Christian leaders, even when they must sometimes speak words of discernment or correction about them. Followers are empowered to understand that the Holy Spirit works variously in other situations and cultures and that he doesn’t make clones.

10.) Punishment – Spiritually abusive groups use church discipline passages as an excuse to punish current members or to shun ex-members. They use church discipline to keep people in line, to quell disagreement (which they call “rebellion”), and as a threat against critical thinking (which they call “pride”). They also overreact to small sins or minor behavioral issues and bring the full weight of church discipline against people who actually just need time to mature. Leaders of these groups misunderstand the purpose of church discipline, which is restorative, not punitive. Spiritually abusive groups also misinterpret the warning passages in the book of Hebrews—they claim that people who leave their select group have left the faith. In contrast, healthy leaders use church discipline only in serious matters of major unrepentant sin. And they understand that the goal of such corrective measures is restoration, not punishment.

Conclusion:

If you read this checklist and discover that it applies to your church or group, you likely live in a spiritually abusive system. God has better things for you. Consider what steps you might take to disengage from the abusive group and plug into a healthy system full of grace and truth.

34 comments on “Ten Major Symptoms of Spiritual Abuse

  1. Steve, fwiw, here’s: a short mp4 video of Larry Crabb defining Spiritual Abuse

    and a Partial transcript of his thoughts:

    “When a person uses the Scriptures, when a person uses their position of authority to really indulge their own need to feel superior or to be in control or to manipulate or to make things happen that they think should happen; when they’re really serving their own agenda and calling it God’s agenda, whether they’re Elmer Gantrys and just pretending, whether they’re self-deceived, then I believe we’re talking about spiritual abuse, and that’s not a good thing.

    “When you’re living in a church situation where your pastor, where elders, where Sunday school teacher, where a father to child, Christian father to child, is using their position of authority to bring the Bible to bear in a way that makes you feel incredibly pressured and guilty and awful. I’m not talking about conviction of sin. I’m talking about: You better shape up or there’s going to be hell to pay—and said in a very nasty kind of a way, in a controlling kind of a way—then you’re in a spiritually abusive environment.

    “Any time a pastor, or any person, I don’t want to just pick out pastors, lots of wonderful pastors of course, but spiritual abuse can happen when anybody in a position of authority uses a Bible verse to control another, uses their platform to maneuver another to make a person feel something which is going to make them perform according to their expectations as opposed to releasing the power of the spirit of God in your life through the grace-filled experience of community. Anything that opposes that I would call spiritual abuse.”

  2. Great article. The “church” that my son is in fits each of these characteristics. It is very sad to watch so many be so deceived. Thank you for all of the information and insight.

  3. Abuse of Special Revelation – Spiritually abusive leaders often claim to have special insight into the will of God for you and your family.

    Coming from a church whose preferred way to flake out is “Mary Channeling”, I am naturally skeptical of claims of Private/Special Revelation. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary levels of evidence.

    • HUG, I can appreciate your skepticism. I still have a healthy dose of skepticism when I hear someone say, “The Spirit told me thus-and-so.” I always compare such statements with what I know about God from Scripture. And if the person says that they have a revelation for me, well, I can choose whether to take it seriously or not. They can say anything they want, but I am the one empowered to decide whether I want to believe it or reject it. They have no power over me. And because God knows my background, I’m pretty sure He’s okay with my skepticism.

  4. Once again, fantastic job. Keep it up!

  5. Is It Spiritual Abuse If The Pastor Tells You That All Your Called To Do is Deliver Fliers, That Depicted Up Coming Events In The Church And Gives You A Designated Area Known To Him And Makes You Walk Up And Down Steep Hills Like A Roller Coaster Ride, Knowing You Are Suffering From Rhuematoid Arthritis Somewhat Physically Visible. Constantly Telling You, That “THATZ What God Told Him” Was All You Were Called To Do. But God Never Told That Person That. That Person Was Never a Released To Do Anything Outside The Church, Except To Walk The Hills….
    10 Years Of Pew Warming When Not Walking The Hills!!!
    Just Wondering?????

    • Absolutely NOT !!!! RUN, do not walk, and find a church that preaches the Cross of Jesus…teaches the fruits of the Spirit…where they show love, mercy, and grace …we are not called to be slaves for Jesus or for man… He came so we may be free… and released from bondage… I’m sorry you’re going thru this… prayerfully ask Jesus to guide and direct you elsewhere !!!!! Been there !!!

  6. In the system I was part of, there was a great emphasis on “bearing fruit”, which really meant “converting people”. I once heard, “If you don’t bear fruit, you don’t go to heaven,” and by the time I heard that remark, I had been around enough to know that “bearing fruit” meant “converting people” in the group that I was in.

    It’s *only* taken me 30 years 🙂 but it finally got through my head that when you say that you have to convert people or you don’t get to heaven, you are saying that a person’s ultimate salvation depends on the choice of *someone else* Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought it was the grace of God that was going to get us into heaven?

  7. Reblogged this on When Church Hurts and commented:
    Excellent list.

  8. I was part of a “church” like this where the leaders controled everybody. They would control mariages, the people you were aloud to talk to. One had to cut ties with family and friends although they visited their families. They would exhaust you with hard labour and then prayer meetings in the night. We even had to work on some Sundays.

  9. I don’t think there’s a single church on this earth that hasn’t participated in at least one of these symptoms, willingly or not, because churches are made up of flawed people. This is a helpful list for all believers to be mindful of their motivations; and to recognize the tactics of the enemy. We don’t wrestle against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world , against spiritual wickedness in high places Eph 6:12
    When you find yourself a victim to this sort of abuse, immediately ask the the Lord to protect your heart from bitterness and to forgive the one that transgressed against you….this can be very difficult process and generally not an overnight one depending how deep the wound is. But the most important thing is get your focus back on the Savior and hang onto Him because He is the perfect One.
    I was born and raised in a denomination that was like this and sure wasn’t expecting it to take place in a Non-denomination…but surprise to me!! Don’t be found off guard.

  10. How do people deal with it after they’ve left? I have a few people who want to meet with me from my old church and every time, I just think the worst. I wonder if God isn’t opening a door for me to speak truth to them, but I get overcome with fear. There was a lot of information control, telling the pastors what I said, gossip, and shaming. But I got a text message from a friend from there that I haven’t seen in 6 months and she wants to meet up. My first thought is “why? are you gonna shame me too?” I just don’t know if I can deal with it. On the other hand, maybe God wants me in that situation to speak what is true to her. Maybe she truly wants to just see me. I hate how paranoid I am because of all of this. It makes me sad.

    • Hi Elle,

      That is sad 😦 But if you keep getting hurt by these folks, it is wise to set up boundaries to protect yourself from that toxic environment. God can use you to help them, but he also cares about your heart. Maybe take more time to heal and then talk to folks. And if they keep hurting you, they have made a choice to be unsafe people and as a consequence they are choosing not to be able to have contact with you. Think of it like that. I hope things get better.

      Grace and peace, Steve

      • Good advice. I think I am fairly paranoid so I question myself. Continued toxic feelings aren’t good though. Thank you for sharing that!

  11. I recently parted ways with a ministry i was apart of for 17 years. There were many things that was good about the pastor and much he did for me and my family, but we started disagreeing with somethings. The ministry never grew large usually around 20, but this always lead to elitism. We now feel like where do we go; There is no place that is “running after the Lord” like this pastor/people. I know there is but it never seems “deep enough”. My wife struggles with this, she was saved in this ministry and has only known it. I see some of things you talk about in the article. The exclusivity, shaming others when they left, i now wonder if i am talked about the same way. I know sacrificial giving was always talked about and people were always exhausted. Now i just don’t know where to go to from here. Do you have any suggestions on material about moving on?

    • I would like to know the same thing about moving on. Is it Bibically correct to just leave that type of environment? Or do you have to have that particular pastors blessing to leave? Which is what I’m dealing with right now. I don’t want to displease Gos for not doing things in decency and in order.

  12. My husband and I have now made a stance in leaving. This Tues. my husbands suppose to go talk w/ the pastor & his wife. There was lots of spiritual abuse mainly pulpit bashing certain members that they looked down upon.but there definitely were other issues too that I consider pretty severe. We live in a very small town and there isn’t other alternatives right now. So we will be in the wilderness seeking Jesus. We are so hurt with so many things that happened there. This has caused me loss of sleep, anxiety, stress etc…Am glad you posted this informative article. O Lord help us is my prayer lately.

    • I am so sorry for the pain and abuse you have suffered, Allie. You are right to leave an abusive environment. Jesus surely has other healthy people for you to meet in the wilderness. For the first two years after I left my toxic church, I only sporadically attended another local church. I missed a lot of Sundays. Instead I stayed home and watched sermons online from healthy pastors and teachers. Other Sundays I just took a walk. The trauma is real, and healing takes time. I will pray that you and your husband are led step-by-step into new, healthy community and a sweeter realization of who God really is.

    • Please share the outcome of when you left. Was your pastor understanding? Did he release you?

      • Hello Steve Smith and Renay, sorry it took me so long to answer. My second sister decided to leave when we did and so she & my husband went to talk to the pastor & his wife. My husband brought up the major issues and some the pastor addressed (which were weak answers) that didn’t please us. He felt he was correct to throw people under the bus at the pulpit, to shame the whole church, to belittle, to degrade etc…my husband couldn’t get a straight answer. We always saw signs he wasn’t a straight shooter and this last meeting confirmed it. Yes, he released us with no arguments or anything. My husband and sister could tell they didn’t expect us to make a decision like this. My husband tried to keep it lighthearted. My little sister keeps attending there bc her husband wants to continue going. My little sister has also seen the spiritual abuse. the no talk rules, the silencing etc…etc…But her husband believes that if they leave the church that then they have left the faith. It has taken me about 4 months to finally feel freed, at peace, soaking up Jesus love at His feet. We haven’t plugged in anywhere nor are we searching. If there’s any good online bible studies that y’all can recommend? I’ll appreciate it.
        I’ve been listening a lot on the religious spirit, legalism etc…by Chip Brogden. He has some new testament books bible studies. His articles and bible studies have helped me understand more on legalism, the law etc….His ministry is in this helping people that have been spiritually abused bc he went through it like 15 yrs ago or maybe longer. I don’t know if I have truly forgiven them from my heart but I do ask the Lord to help me do that fully. To heal my heart. Hope this is a decent update. Thank you for your prayers they truly helped.
        The Lord bless you all and keep you all here and bless this ministry abundantly.

        Allie~

      • Thanks for the update, Allie! I’ll have to check out Chip Brogden. Sounds helpful. I’m not too familiar with online Bible studies, but I do like Thomas Constable’s “Sonic Light” website which has his free Bible commentary on both Old and New Testaments. I also like anything by Jeff VanVonderen, Tim Keller, Tony Evans, and Rich Nathan. I am glad you were released from this group. I hope eventually your youngest sister and her family will also be able to leave. You are doing the right thing. Eventually you may find a healthy church which will build you up and not tear you down. Until then, online options are helpful. I wish you all the best.

  13. We are coming out of this as well. It was the church I grew up in and shortly after my husband I were married, we became the youth pastors. Now we left the church because about 6 months prior to doing so our eyes were opened to a lot of “junk” that was going on. So we prayed and prayed and God just kept giving us confirmations left and right that he wanted us out. We were also 100% worn out from being over obligated by not only running the youth but being apart of this and that and having to go to all these meetings and having to be apart of this while we were both working full time with a very young child. We were offered to become the full time yp’s and quit our jobs but the financial offer to us was only $500 a month total, which in reality we were just like really? We’re suppose to leave our full time jobs with health insurance for that? No way! After we left people from the old church asked ok why did you really leave that’s not like yall at all. So we were truthful, we were hurt, but didn’t go into a lot of detail because I didn’t feel that we had too. Since then my parents have left as have others. The only thing I struggle with now is that the worship leader, who is still the worship leader, is now also the new youth pastor. It doesn’t set right with me at all and since then teens have left and have contacted us to start a bible study with them. But we have reserves about that as well.

  14. I’m saddened by this post. Where as for the most part what you’ve written is true there are a lot of biblical inaccuracies and generalisations mentioned in this text that would lead some away from the truth rather then towards. There is a simpler way to write this whole thing. God said his church will show signs wonders and miracles. If it’s not, then it’s not Gods church so change it so it does or find one that is.

    • It’s not that simple, Sieth. Do you have a background in spiritually abusive churches? There are abusive churches which demonstrate counterfeit signs, wonders, and miracles. I lived for 25 years in a Bible cult which counterfeited the work of God and where it was made extremely painful to leave. I understand that it can be a lot more nuanced than you make it out to be and that people in these groups need detailed explanations which help them recognize and reject subtle dynamics. If you found biblical inaccuracies or false generalizations in this post, by all means point them out for the benefit of the readers. If it were as easy as you make it out to be, everyone would immediately free themselves from spiritually abusive churches. It is not. Satan is a deceiver and he makes plausible counterfeits.

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