Checklist: 55 Attributes of a Spiritually Abusive Leader


via Faith on Campus

To recognize a spiritually abusive leader, first we have to define 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: Though 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.

While not every spiritually abusive leader has all of the following characteristics, most will have a surprisingly large percentage of them. And just because I use the pronoun “he” does not mean all spiritual abusers are men. Spiritual abuse enjoys gender parity.

A spiritually abusive leader:

  1. Is a perfectionist
  2. Uses “church discipline” to punish dissent
  3. Regularly promotes sacrificial or transactional giving (giving beyond your means, or in order to get something from God)
  4. Says his words are God’s words
  5. Creates division in order to isolate followers from friends and family
  6. Focuses on attitudinal sins such as pride and selfishness, which he seems unerringly able to produce in others
  7. Makes himself indispensable for his followers’ salvation
  8. Labels questioners “rebels”
  9. Demands unquestioning obedience
  10. Acts narcissistically
  11. Often criticizes other church leaders
  12. Equates salvation with his or her own church
  13. Claims special, unique understanding of the Bible
  14. Claims special, unique relationship with God
  15. Applies a double-standard of behavior for himself versus everyone else
  16. Demonstrates questionable behavior financially or sexually
  17. Disrespects relational boundaries
  18. Mandates attendance at all church functions
  19. Disempowers other leaders
  20. Can’t take a joke played at his expense
  21. Is often severe, serious, or gloomy
  22. Has an obsessive preoccupation with personal salvation
  23. Judges outsiders as unsaved
  24. Attributes malevolent motives to outsiders
  25. Dehumanizes outsiders
  26. Reinterprets clear events in confusing ways
  27. Confuses sanctification with justification
  28. Is followed by a trail of negative media reports
  29. Focuses on behavior (works righteousness) rather than on salvation by grace through faith
  30. Tries to break people down with exceedingly long sermons or talks
  31. Is unable to dialogue – has to control conversations
  32. Makes unreasonable demands to test followers’ loyalty
  33. Forces followers to relocate
  34. Talks humbly but acts proud (false humility)
  35. Constantly declares how spiritual/godly/humble/wise he is
  36. Declares followers saved or unsaved
  37. Makes an unbiblical distinction between sacred and secular work
  38. Eschews internal or external accountability
  39. Refuses to dialogue with outsiders who demonstrate disagreement or concern
  40. Labels criticism as “slander” or “persecution”
  41. Shifts blame to cover heinous behavior
  42. Loudly proclaims his devotion to God/Bible reading/prayer
  43. Quotes Bible out of context to justify his behavior and condemn outsiders
  44. Treats scripture as a magic talisman to wield power over others
  45. Creates dress codes for followers
  46. Makes leaving the group extremely painful
  47. Exhibits black and white thinking
  48. Stifles creativity
  49. Confuses uniformity with unity
  50. Showers newcomers with time and attention, then makes heavy demands when they become followers
  51. Shows inconsistency between words and behavior
  52. Promotes unreasonable fear and anxiety about the “world”
  53. Focuses on Satan’s power rather than on Jesus
  54. Shames followers through forced confession and public humiliation
  55. Uses confidential information to blackmail followers into silence


Alas, a spiritually abusive person will also take a list like the one above and do three things with it:

  1. Explain item by item why it does not apply to him.
  2. Explain that many of these items are actually biblical and therefore not evidence of spiritual abuse.
  3. Explain how most of these criteria somehow apply to Jesus.

Does any of this sound familiar? Perhaps you have additional criteria to add in the comments section below.

7 comments on “Checklist: 55 Attributes of a Spiritually Abusive Leader

  1. …has double standards; insists on submission; preaches against those who don’t, using labels like ‘Jezebel’ and ‘false prophet’; warns that you are “murmuring against God’s anointed”; always finds a reason why he/she is not the problem; always finds a way to show you are the one at fault; refuses to talk with you if they can’t control you; insists on being respected; won’t admit they want you to leave ‘their’ church but makes sure you are treated in such a way that you can’t help but leave; shuns you…

  2. Sets rigid rules specific to women, children, seniors, for control rather than for individual well-being.

  3. Manipulates by sowing bad seeds between church members

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