What is Spiritual Abuse?
The term, “spiritual abuse” has made its way into contemporary Christian discourse over the last twenty years. Although the term was popularized in Christian books in the 1990s (e.g. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Johnson and VanVonderen, 1991), the Bible talks extensively about the subject. In the Old Testament, God tells Ezekiel to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel:
“Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? ...You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd…Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord…because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock...I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock.” (Excerpts from Ezekiel 34, NIV).
Spiritual abuse has been defined as "a kind of abuse which damages the central core of who we are. It leaves us spiritually discouraged and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God" (Recovery from Spiritual Abuse, Juanita and Dale Ryan, 1992). Like other kinds of abuse, spiritual abuse results when a person in a position of power or authority manipulates another in order to serve the manipulator’s needs. Spiritual abuse differs from other types of abuse because there is a religious component, such as misuse or misinterpretation of scripture, a distortion of the character of God, or a foreshadowing of eternal damnation.
The following comments are excerpted from Healing Spiritual Abuse by Ken Blue:
"Abuse of any type occurs when someone has power over another and uses that power to hurt. Physical abuse means that someone exercises physical power over another, causing physical wounds. Sexual abuse means that someone exercises sexual power over another, resulting in sexual wounds. And spiritual abuse happens when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds.
Spiritual abuse may differ from other forms of abuse in that it is rarely perpetrated with intent to harm someone's faith. Spiritual abusers are curiously naïve about the effects of their exploitation. They are usually so narcissistic or so focused on some great things they are doing for God that they don’t notice the wounds they are inflicting on their followers. The authoritarian, narcissistic ecclesiastical abusers of our day are the modern equivalent of the Pharisees whom Jesus scolded. Jesus not only exposed and denounced the Pharisees as false shepherds but also offered himself as an advocate for their victims … [Spiritual abuse was] the one social problem Jesus himself seemed to care about most."
Spiritual abuse is a topic that most clergy have difficulty acknowledging. Yet over the last decade more and more clergy and priests have been accused of abusing their members. The best statistics that are available is that at least 3 out of 10 people have experienced spiritual abuse. This is a crucial moment in the life of the Church. The need for clergy and the church to take the initiative to publicly denounce abuse in the church has never been more crucial. The church can be instrumental is helping the spiritual wounded by seeking greater knowledge about this crisis and learning how to minister to these individuals. The Church can be a place of solace and spiritual healing from religious abuse by initiating outreach efforts and developing model programs to reunite former members with God and His Church. With thousands of individuals in the churches reeling from their experience of sexual and spiritual abuse there may never be another time in church history where the need to establish a church as a place of sacred healing.
Examples of possible spiritual abuse:
- Telling a young woman who has come for pastoral counseling that her depression is the result of her self-centeredness.
- Labeling a parishioner as “rebellious” and out of touch with God’s will when the individual asks whether a Scripture passage could have another interpretation.
- Suggesting that parishioners are acting like Ananias and Sapphira to manipulate them into giving more money.
- Advising a woman to forgive their assailant rather than contact the police.
- Requiring public confession before taking communion.
- Pressuring a high school member to choose a religious college when the student has a scholarship to and wants to attend a secular college.
- Different than other types of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual)
- because there is a religious component, such as a misuse or misinterpretation of Scripture, a distortion of the character of God, or a foreshadowing of eternal damnation.
- The most typical incidents involve those in leadership who often have charismatic personalities and some narcissism and a strong leadership style. This is most evident in evangelical churches, especially those with a charismatic or Pentecostal background. But there are also small bible based aberrant groups who are lead by strong personalities and often teach that they have been specially appointed by God and therefore their authority should not be questioned.