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.

16 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

  4. Wow…… I was told about this website and decided to check it out. I did not realize the wealth of information I would find, or the tremendous help it would be for me. I was part of a religious cult for 25 years. I thought about leaving for at least 15 years before I broke away. You might wonder how I could stand it all those years. I liken it to serving a prison term or living under communism. After I left, I felt like a bird that had been in a cage for so long, that I did not know how to fly. It took a long, long time to break away, as I knew the consequences of my leaving was separation from my family whom I love so very dearly. The grief and pain of this separation has been hugely emotional for me. I left nearly 7 years ago. Not a single day has gone by in which I do not think about and miss and worry about my family. But I know and believe with all my heart that I made the right decision. God has made this clear to me. It is amazing that when you leave a cult, you are at a place in your life where you have come to see that many, many things are not right in the “church” (cult) that you belong to. But, after you leave, you realize a whole lot more things that were not right. It is hard when you are under that constant control and influence. Breaking away, I was able to think for myself and things became even more clear. I just read through the signs of a legalistic minister. It totally describes the minister of the cult I used to belong to! I am excited to read more on this wonderful website. Liberty for captives. This is what salvation is all about! God has freed us from the bondage of sin and the wages of sin. He has called us to live life abundantly. God wants us to be filled with joy and love. He wants us to have peace. He wants us to show compassion and mercy towards those who need His gift of salvation. If Jesus sat with publicans and sinners, who are we to judge those around us and act “holier than thou”? If you are in a church that makes you feel sad and miserable, question things. If you are in a church that makes you give up your dreams of college, question things. If you are in a church that will not let you date anyone that is not a member of that particular church, question things. If you are in a church that keeps you from all family members that do not live exactly as the minister thinks they should, question things. If you are in a church where everything you wear, say, do, think, etc. is scrutinized under a microscope and the pressure and control makes you miserable and anxious and leaves you feeling like you are losing your sense of self……..run. I use the word “church” as that is what they proclaim to be. Cult is actually what they are. Spiritually abusive “churches” (cults) are detrimental to one’s physical, emotional and spiritual well being. Leave the cult you are in and inspire and encourage those who are imprisoned by legalism and legalistic “ministers” to do the same.

  5. […] tell if you are in an abusive church? Scan the checklist to see if you need to find the exit ramp https://libertyforcaptives.com/2014/05/07/checklist-55-attributes-of-a-spiritually-abusive-leader/ If most churches there are levels of accountability so that good leaders maintain their own […]

  6. I had read Jeff’s book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse about two years ago. Found it, in all places, in a church library where I go to for Bible study at times. I often wonder what is the huge connection many pastors and church leaders make between numbers and success. I have had this conversation with my pastor and there is pressure from the upper levels of my denomination that if “you are not growing, you are dying”, So hence, the numbers game and the “need” to fill the pews instead of getting sinners saved and delivered from their bondage. This brings about plans to fill the pews at any cost and most pastors are actually unaware of any abuse that may follow to attain these ends. Does this issue get bigger as the size of the ministries and churches gets bigger?

    • I don’t think the size of the church matters. There are large churches led by very healthy pastors/elders, and very small churches which are extremely unhealthy, and vice versa. Some leaders are predisposed to abuse others–unwittingly, for the most part. Personality disorders play a large role.

      • I would agree that certainly the problem arises more because of the familiarity that exists in a small group and especially if the drive to pay the rent may be resting on the leader as well.

  7. Condones the neglect or oppression of women and girls.
    Members can never attend, serve, or give enough for his approval. Church and personal life among the members are out of balance.
    Does not keep secrets shared in counseling. Encourages pastoral staff to share these secrets with him in order for him to cover his back.

  8. Thankyou for this article which I’ve found insightful. I’m appreciate others comments especially what sort of approach is recommended to address this problem not forgetting the moat in one’s eye.

  9. Thank-you! And by the grace of God alone, I am free from these things. Now, I must present this in bible study. There is so much of it in this day of apostacy, and it seems that it has infiltrated nearly every denomination. Thank-you for this info. I will present it today, because I see so many of God’s sheep who have been kicked out of the churches and abandoned if they follow Christ, and speak His written word.
    In His Service,

  10. […] These leaders push performance-based religiosity in order to ‘please God’; they mandate attendance at all church functions. […]

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