In this blog I refer frequently to terms like “spiritual abuse,” “legalism,” “cult,” and “destructive group.” When I use these terms, I have particular definitions in mind.

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.

Legalism—David Miller, author of Breaking Free: Rescuing Families from the Clutches of Legalism, says that:

“Legalists are people who add personal preference to accepted doctrinal teaching, accept these additions as having equal weight with doctrinal teaching, and apply these additions in the judging of others.”

The Tenth Edition of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines legalism as:

“Strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious moral code.”

In other words, legalists follow the letter of the law with rigid compunction, ignoring the original spiritual motive and loving intent of the instruction. They are so fearful of breaking the law that they add their own “hedges” of rules around the original commands. They then judge other people based on both the original law and their own man-made laws.

I like Mark Buchanan’s summary in The Rest of God:

“Legalism is the reduction of life to mere technicalities. It substitutes code for conscience, ritual for worship, rectitude for holiness, morality for purity.”

Biblical Evidence: Primary biblical citations which discuss legalism are the following: Isaiah 28:10, 13; Matthew 12:9-14; 15:1-14; 23:1-33; Acts 15:1-31; Romans 14:1-23; 15:1-9; 1 Corinthians 8-9; Galatians 2:11-21; 3:1-29; 4:1-11; 5:1, 25; Colossians 2:8, 20-23; and Titus 3:5.

Cult— Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., the 20th century expert on thought reform and totalitarian ideology defines a cult in the following manner:

“Cults can be identified by three characteristics:

  1. A charismatic leader who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose their power;
  2. A process I call coercive persuasion or thought reform;
  3. Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.”

From The Harvard Mental Health Letter/February 1981

Destructive Group or Cult— From the Rick Ross Institute:

“What are the characteristics of a destructive ‘cult’ or group? Margaret Singer, clinical psychologist and once Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, was the preeminent cult expert of the 20th Century. She counseled and/or interviewed thousands of people affected by controversial groups often called ‘cults.’ Dr. Singer offered meaningful definitions of unsafe groups or ‘cults’ in her book Cults in Our Midst.

According to Singer, unsafe groups or cults can generally be defined by three factors:

  1. The origin of the group and role of the leader.
  2. The power structure, or relationship between the leader[s] and the followers.
  3. The use of a coordinated program of persuasion, which is called thought reform [or more commonly, ‘brainwashing'”].

What typifies an unsafe group or ‘cult’s’ leadership and structure?

Again, a good working understanding has been provided by Margaret Singer: ‘In most cases, there is one person, typically the founder at the top…decision making centers in him or her.’ Illustrating the structure Singer says, ‘imagine an inverted T. The leader is alone at the top and the followers are all at the bottom’. There is little if any accountability and as Singer says, ‘the overriding philosophy…is that the ends justify the means, a view that allows [such groups] to establish their own brand of morality, outside normal society bounds’.

What specifically would define a group or ‘cult’ as unsafe?

Unsafe groups or ‘cults’ often abuse and exploit their members. This abuse may occur in the areas of finances, physical labor, child abuse and neglect, medical neglect, sexual exploitation and/or psychological and emotional abuse.”


5 comments on “Definitions

  1. A friend of mine directed me to your blog. I find it comforting and helpful as I too am an ex-cult member and know all too well the effect of spiritual abuse. Thank you for your passion to help others avoid and/or recover from these things. My most recent blog post reflects my heartfelt feelings on this subject. Thanks again!

  2. My friends are in a cult, and it honestly scares me. They belong to a branch of the Christian Assemblies International. They are so brain washed they think that the founding pastor is innocent of all the sexual, physical, spiritual and financial abuse, and fraud that he is accused of. In fact they characterized me as an unread heathen for discovering this well known fact about the founder. They believe the founder has been victimized by all the accusations and that they are prophesized in the bible.

    I cannot bring the topic up because I am instantly talked over, which turns into a shouting match.

    I’ve removed myself from their friendship. Since then I’ve asked they not approach me, which at least one of them respects. I think this feeds into their feelings of persecution.

    I am not a trained psychologist, and I think my anxiety towards their belief system as a woman is warranted, given their misogynistic attitude, and history of violence towards women in the church.

    Do you have any tips on how to handle a conversation with someone who is so thoroughly brainwashed?

  3. Thank you for your blog…my daughter and I left the leadership and the congregation of a YA campus of a Charismatic church 6 months ago after the control, manipulation and domination of the female pastor turned into unimaginable verbal abuse behind closed doors. Her husband and co-pastor sat passively and allowed her to continue to verbally assault and accuse my daughter ruthlessly and then take her off the leadership team for not following and not being a “true” Christian…etc. It was the antithesis of everything that God calls a “Shepherd” to.

    We are frightened by the level of anger we feel – and are still reeling. The most painful part of it all is that over a dozen others who experienced the same behind closed doors have contacted us and shared their own stories and the pattern was clearly repeated both long before and after our departure with other leaders and congregants.

    The leadership of the denomination has caught wind of some of what occurred on some level. Months ago two of the leaders of the movement contacted my daughter on separate occasions after she left and when she shared some of what happened to her, both leaders responded with a true empathy. However the comments that followed were “sadly, I am not surprised” and we love ______ and ______ but honestly we are not surprised. We have been aware and have things and this was abuse and we are so sorry it happened to you.

    We have been so devastated by these responses from those who said they loved God and us? How can leaders stand before God and let this happen and do and say nothing?

    Could what happened to my daughter and others not have been prevented? Why do those in levels of authority that can act, not do so? Who will be a voice for those who have experienced spiritual abuse? Is there no accountability in leadership levels that can stop this type of thing from continuing?

    My faith is rocked to its core! My trust is shattered as is my daughters. The betrayal is beyond what we can articulate. This is a well know revival movement that originated in Canada with churches all over the world? I was part of the movement for years before moving to this campus where my daughter was serving in leadership.

    I have removed myself from all support of this movement and my daughter and I are trying to pick up the pieces and move on, but I am afraid my anger will never come to an end and that she will never heal from what occurred.

    • Dear Lynn, I am so sorry for what happened to you and your daughter. A lot of church leaders misunderstand grace and believe that they are not in a position to correct or remove other leaders who are abusive. They are. If they catch wind of abuse happening, they must move to stop it immediately.

      I recommend that you reach out to Hope for the Heart in Plano, Texas. They are Christian counselors who are familiar with matters related to verbal abuse, spiritual abuse, anger, and forgiveness issues. They can listen to your story more fully and perhaps provide a way forward. Their counseling is free and confidential. You can call them at 1.800.488.HOPE (4673).

      Grace and peace, Steve

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