When someone mentions the term, “spiritual abuse” today, sexual molestation of a child often comes to mind. We have too many accounts of priests, pastors and Sunday school teachers preying on the children in their care. And yes, sadly, that is spiritual abuse.
But this kind of abuse can also take on a more subtle form as well. Its definition hinges on the manipulation of power enforced by a spiritual authority figure, with the abused party feeling helpless and coerced.
Children, of course, spring to mind as the most vulnerable. But the net spreads wider.
And a heartbreaking reality emerges: loving God does not exclude us from being hurt, even in the seemingly Godly setting of church. We are all susceptible when it comes to spiritual abuse.
“...Many spiritual abuse victims find themselves struggling to make decisions, and may even have a hard time disciplining themselves to do basic everyday functions such as getting out of bed and brushing their teeth. For so long, we allowed the group/leader to think for us, formulate our opinions for us, and make decisions for us. No wonder so many of us struggle for many years learning how to find ourselves again after leaving a spiritually abusive situation...”
“Spiritual Identity Crisis?” www.churchabuse.com
Used with permission.
When I was mired in the grief of my dad’s death, years ago, I was vulnerable. And, because of my wrong beliefs about myself and God, I had a harmful perception of being a “good Christian.”
I was desperate to have love, reassurance and stability in my life.
So, in that state, fueled by the wrong “good Christian” beliefs I adopted, I placed myself in situations in which I people pleased, at the expense of my true identity, relationships and my grief process.
I felt if I ever said no to a pastor or church leader, I would be sinning against God; I would be a bad person.
And, by being this bad person, I only deserved to be mistreated.
Therefore, in this mindset, scripture, instead of being my refuge, seemed to only be a weapon used against me.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”
Romans 13:1-7 is there. It should, ideally, be constructive and edifying.
But sometimes, when imperfect humanity gets ahold of it, more sinister, perverted and harmful agendas can easily dictate their abusive terms.
So, let’s break down the scriptural passages on spiritual authority and, dare I say it, challenge them a bit.
“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work.”
Submission, deference, respect- whatever you want to call it- it is there, especially concerning matters of faith; we cannot avoid it.
Submission to Authority:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities...”
Leaders are inevitable. Whether they are clergy, teachers, politicians, “first responders” or experts in any area of life, people leading other people is a day in, day out, reality. And so, we’re instructed to heed authority.
And that, of course, is quite pronounced within the church. There are understood agreements which state church leaders require our respect and cooperation.
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with that.
However, if certain individuals abuse that respect, submission or cooperation, they show themselves to be unfit. Just because we are under a pastor, a priest or someone in authority, does not give those persons the right to harm us in any way.
Leaders- including church leaders- are not above having wrong mindsets, behaviors or compulsions. And it is these issues which can drive their personal motivations.
Why do we think there are so many scriptures on the heart and its issues? (i.e., 1 Samuel 16:7; Psalms 139:23-24; Proverbs 21:1-2 and Proverbs 23:7).
It’s because we are vulnerable in this area and need them as reality check mirrors. Disorder, deception, misogyny, bigotry, lust, hate and greed can infiltrate any of us. We can all go to “the dark place.” We can all be led astray, pastors, priests, and leaders, included.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
In addition, complicating things more, titles and authority can further obscure our responses. Originally, abuse of anyone may not have been a person’s intention. But, subtle encroaching of carnal passions creep in, justify and rationalize why leadership is doing what he/she is doing. All too quickly, things can go from order to disorder, from trusted safety to abuse.
Leadership may earnestly believe...
... he/she is doing “what is best...”
...he/she has the right to do something because of a particular title or role...
...he/she knows more, ergo, “knows better,” than the person needing assistance, mentoring or help, influencing a certain inappropriate behavior and/or relationship...
...his/her title gives that person Divinely-ordered, sovereign power, endorsing any and all behavior “for the good of the church...”
These are just a few of the rationalizations out there, made on a daily basis. Often, they are hidden from view, allowed to flourish unchecked, within the protection of secrecy and authority’s power.
And so, it is within this light, it is all the more important we recognize the Most High’s method of operation:
HE never abuses; HE loves.
And His love does NOT compromise our conscience.
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
Out of that love, yes, comes guidance and correction, but it is always to help us, never to exploit us. It doesn’t ask us to violate ourselves. It doesn’t coerce a response from us by using physical, mental, emotional or sexual force.
I’m sure, by now, you may have heard the phrase, “God is a gentleman.” Hold tightly to that; it is indicative of His Nature. The Most High God desires our inherent willingness, not our conflicted acquiescence.
If you feel torn, conflicted or exploited in any way, it is not of God. It spotlights, indeed, how things have not be done “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
And that needs to be addressed.
Invoking the Name of God:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God...”
Likewise, we are to employ caution whenever anyone uses “God’s Name” or “God’s Will” to persuade you and me into doing something.
Again, our Creator doesn’t use abusive force or manipulation when He deals with us. Scripture, therefore, further instructs us to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1). This does not simply cover supernaturally-viewed demonic activity. It is about testing an individual statement, attitude or teaching. If a church or a leader is asking disturbing, violating things of us, we need to ask some questions back.
Who’s asking you to do something “for God?”
What are they asking you to do?
How do you feel about it?
What do you believe God thinks about it?
Who else knows about this request?
What are you afraid will happen if you say “yes” or “no” to the request?
If there is any kind of uneasiness with what is being proposed, we are to heed that. We are “Spirit-led,” according to scripture. We will “be led into all truth” (John 16:13). Sometimes, that truth may be...
“This leader/church is unsafe.”
“This leader/church is not doing God’s Will.”
“This leader/church need to be removed from power and restored.”
Guilt, Fear and Shame:
“...Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”
Furthermore, pressuring and shaming arguments, in the name of “Holy Authority,” can be hurled as weapons at our less-than-pleasing responses:
“You don’t love God enough.”
“You’re not submissive enough.”
“You don’t have enough of and/or the ‘right’ kind of faith by the evidence of your reactions.”
Man’s Words Versus God’s Words:
But again, we need to discern between man’s agenda-fueled perspective and the Almighty’s loving and perfect viewpoint:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”
Before we get so upset with a leader’s attitude and behavior and how it involves us, it would be helpful for each of us to be well-educated in the Holy requirements expected of that leader.
“Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.”
“What did I do wrong?”
So, sometimes, instead of asking this question, feeling the fear, guilt and shame it elicits, we need to ask another question in its place...
“What are you, the leader or church, doing wrong?”
“For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”
Leadership can get so drunk on power, they forget or forsake the more important aspect of stewardship.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”
Stewardship is a higher responsibility to do right with who or what is entrusted to us. We are not to abuse that for our own purposes: for lust, for gain, for ego gratification of any kind.
And we need to keep in mind the role healthy stewardship plays in our lives: freedom.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
The spirit representing the Most High God is one of liberty, not debilitating oppression.
“Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”
2 Corinthians 3:17
Spiritual abuse is the antithesis of Divine freedom; it is enslavement. Being enslaved is often defined within the physical realm of the body. And yes, spiritual abuse can incorporate the harmful physical and sexual abuse on the individual.
But it also involves the mistreatment, the neglect and the harmful mental and/or emotional tactics as well. “Mind games,” exertion of title, authority or any other advantage, creates an “or else” message in which the victim sees no escape or choice other than to submit to the abuser. There may not be a gun held to someone’s head, but some threat is, nevertheless, made. And that threat can be wrapped in a lie such as this...
“No one else will love, understand, believe, forgive or help you if you don’t trust that I know what is best for you... and do as I say.”
Most of the time, that threat is never actually uttered in those exact words. Again, much of spiritual abuse’s message is understood: the abuser’s needs/wants/desires outweigh the victim’s. And it is further sold by emphasizing how God completely approves of this arrangement.
But again, we are to test the spirits. The red flag deal breakers are anything and everything which go against our conscience, our intuition and the violation of our bodies. Remember the “God is a gentleman” principle and apply it directly to the leader/church in question.
Therefore, concerning what is being asked of or expected from us, which approach are we seeing from the particular leadership in question?
“Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity.”
“And many will follow after their sensuality, through whom the way of the truth will be maligned.”
2 Peter 2:2
If it is the latter of the two, there is spiritual abuse going on, requiring the execution of the Most High God’s directive:
“Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”
Knowing Them By Their Fruit (Matthew 7:20):
Again, knowledge is key, knowing what is or is not going on concerning the spiritual leadership and/or the church.
“And oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor; and let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart.”
Churchabuse.com has a comprehensive checklist of behaviors indicative of harmful conduct.
Honestly and prayerfully examine if what is taking place is healthy or unhealthy.
If you answered "no" to all of the above 12 questions, your church is very healthy. If you answered "yes" to three or more, your church is showing signs of being unhealthy. If you answered "yes" to six or more, your church is very unhealthy. If you answered "yes" to eight or more, your church is more than likely a full-blown authoritarian cult.
“Spiritual Identity Crisis?”
It’s Not Your Fault:
“... It’s perfectly okay to want to be accepted just for who you are now. As you transition from the group/leader identity back to your own identity, you may find yourself ‘acting out’ and doing things that would have displeased your former spiritual authority. This is all healthy, and is a completely normal part of the exit process... We may find ourselves rebelling against the politically correct aspects of religion, and even questioning everything we ever learned while in the spiritually abusive group. Even though this may feel like a very confusing, difficult process – rest assured it is a very healthy and normal part of recovery...”
“Spiritual Identity Crisis?”
One of the most frightening and demoralizing aspects of spiritual abuse is the aftermath of it. Whether it is an individual or the corporate church body, there is often further pain heaped upon the already traumatic situation.
The sheep are, in one way or another, scattered (Jeremiah 23:1-2), hurt and disillusioned.
“‘Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of My pasture!’ declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD God of Israel concerning the shepherds who are tending My people: ‘You have scattered My flock and driven them away, and have not attended to them; behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds,’ declares the LORD.”
There can be any number of scenarios which occur before, during or after the abuse and/or its scandal once it has come to light.
There may be threats, including threats against one’s life, one’s family, one’s career or one’s church membership.
There is often toxic gossip. The “Scarlett A” may be applied to the victim, while simultaneously excusing or protecting the perpetrator(s).
If/when that happens, please remember: this is victim blaming. And it is NOT of the Most High God. Therefore, it becomes important to see yourself in Psalms 40:17.
“But I am poor and needy; yet the Lord thinketh upon me: thou art my help and my deliverer; make no tarrying, O my God.
You are the hurt, wounded party. And you have not gone unnoticed. Our all-knowing, all-seeing Creator knows every last detail. And He is, by no means, blasé about what happened.
“And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.”
How did they cause you, little one, to stumble?
Furthermore, the predators in question will not get away with what they did. Never forget, the Most High God has limitless ways of executing His Justice.
“For we know him that hath said, ‘Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense,’ saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people.”
Scripture doesn’t tell us “it is a fearful thing to fall into the Hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31) for nothing!
Truth lives; Truth wins...
“‘For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known. Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.’”
And, if that still didn’t snap the guilty to attention, perhaps this big-time, eternal and spiritual reality WILL...
“...‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’”
The Divine does not possess a cavalier attitude on this point; neither, then, should we. For, this perspective came after another which cuts right to the heart of the Father...
“...‘Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’”
The Most High does not appreciate anyone who interferes with the communion of His children. Spiritual abuse, make no mistake about it, interferes, hinders and damages that precious gathering. It affects His children by promoting the doubt, insecurity and the lie of “un-lovability.” Spiritual abuse often has been a breeder of those toxic lies. As a means of manipulation and self-interest, it inflicts such assertions as...
“You are damned.”
“You have lost the love of God.”
“It is hopeless unless you ‘repent’ (by our definition of repentance only).”
And, because faith is the most personal to us, this shakes everything.
(Again, remember the scattering of the sheep).
Scripture, however, is emphatic about Our Father’s stance on the issue:
“For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
“The LORD of hosts hath sworn, saying, ‘Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand.’”
“‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand.’”
Concerning spiritual abuse, you, perhaps, for a time, may feel you are going it alone. But you are not alone. You are not forsaken, forgotten, unloved or blamed. He knows. He knows YOU. You may be walking through a spiritual abuse experience or season which constantly seems to beg the question, “What did I do wrong?”
Answer: Nothing, little lamb, nothing.
And, in your meantime, do not despair. He is leading, helping, restoring and guiding you...
“Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come.”
Copyright © 2017 by Sheryle Cruse