12 Signs of Spiritual Abuse
What is spiritual abuse? What are the signs of spiritual abuse within the church today?
Below are some various definitions of spiritual abuse within a religious context:
Spiritual abuse is when a person uses religious beliefs and their religious influence to manipulate people into performing behaviours and making decisions which meet the personal and selfish interests of the abuser.
Spiritual abuse is the use of spiritual authority or religious doctrine in order to demean, scare, manipulate, control or exploit people.
Spiritual abuse does not only occur between individuals, but an entire religious institution can be a spiritually abusive environment due to the group dynamics or the belief system of the group itself.
Spiritual abuse can be both subtle and blatant. Spiritual abuse is also characterized by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behavior from the abuser.
In many cases the victims of spiritual abuse seldom realize what’s happening to them. Initially they may notice some red flags, but gradually they may accept and normalize the abusive system as just part of the group culture. They may also have an inner desire to belong and so they might fear being shamed or punished if they oppose the group system or expose any red flags. Furthermore other members might be so deceived or blinded by the group system and its doctrines to the extent that they defend the spiritual abusive environment.
The Bible warns people regarding false teachers who exert spiritual abuse on others. It also advises people to learn to discern false teachers, false doctrines and any form of spiritual abuse (Matthew 23:1-39; 2 Peter 2:1-22).
So how can we learn to discern if spiritual abuse is taking place? Below are 12 signs or examples of spiritual abusive systems
1. Authoritarian leadership & no accountability – The leadership demands total submission and unquestioned obedience from members, even when there is a conflict with the scriptures or with moral values. Abusive leaders have a condescending view of their followers or laity.
In an abusive system, the leaders invoke the perception that they have “divine authority” and therefore submitting to them is equivalent to submitting to God – and disobeying or questioning them is equivalent to disobeying or questioning God.
In an abusive system the leader is always correct and therefore unwavering loyalty is demanded.
Leaders like to be identified with many names (or titles & nicknames) that psychologically invoke a tradition of unquestionable spiritual authority upon members eg “spiritual father”, “spiritual covering”, “papa”, “father”, “general”, “commander” and even “apostle”.
2. Sexual misconduct – Adultery, fornication and other forms of sexual promiscuity are rife in a spiritual abusive system. This is partly due to group leadership having inappropriate power and control over their membership. A grandiose sense of self by a leader, combined with pride, power and a sense of unaccountability eventually leads to perverted passions and sexual immorality. Therefore sexual misconduct is always rife especially in a religious system where those in authority have no moral accountability.
3. Toxic & Misplaced Faith – Total faith is placed in the leader or in the doctrines of the leader rather than faith in God or the word of God. The teachings of the leader or the religious institution have more authority on various issues than what the Bible actually says about those particular issues.
In an abusive system where faith is toxic and misplaced, it means that common sense and rational decisions are no longer practiced within the group.
For example, a sick member can be advised by her leader to forsake taking medication for her sickness but instead trust in the “healing prayer” done by the group leader.
Therefore irrational behavior and irrational decisions are rife in most groups where there is spiritual abuse.
4. Claim to have a monopoly on God and the truth – An abusive church or cult might claim to be God’s only channel for truth and enlightenment. According to such groups, they alone can rightly interpret God’s word. So the knowledge of God can only be discovered through your association and commitment to the group. Consequently in an abusive system, to leave the group is to leave God; to leave the group is a sign that you no longer desire the truth; to leave the group is to backslide or to lose your salvation. So they alone are right and everyone else is wrong.
5. Overwhelming service – In an abusive church or cult the members are always kept busy to the extent of volunteering abnormal hours and days for the sake of the group activities. Members are overworked at the expense of family or the experience of authentic relationships elsewhere.
So there is too much work to be done and never enough personal time that can lead to personal reflection and critical thinking.
6. Spying or deceptive information gathering techniques – In a spiritual abusive environment there are many false friendships or relationships of convenience. Like a hive or groupthink system, total loyalty is to the institution or the leader and not necessarily to God or to each other. Therefore group members can be assigned by the group leader to spy or gather information on each other’s lives (sometimes under the guise of “discipleship” or accountability partners) and then report the information upward to the hierarchy or leadership.
So relationships and conversations are not always genuine because there is a culture of secretive and pretentious behavior where people hide what is inappropriate because they cannot reveal their true intentions.
7. Monetary or financial exploitation – Where there is spiritual abuse there will always be a form of financial exploitation of the members. There is enforced giving, manipulation and coercive techniques in order to ensure that members blindly give their money and thereby enrich the group leader. For example, followers can be told to sacrificially give their money to the group leader or his group in return for salvation or material blessings.
Leaders typically chase after money, material possessions by fleecing their followers through false teachings and coercion.
8. Isolation from friends and family or anyone who is not part of the group – Spiritual abusive groups tend to gradually isolate their members from non-members. The more committed and invested a member becomes to an abusive group, the more the member becomes isolated from friends and family. This is mostly due to the overwhelming service that the group demands from members and also due to false indoctrination which teaches one to alienate themselves from anyone who does not belong to the group.
9. Unspoken rules exist & critical thinking is suppressed – With spiritual abuse, members are not allowed to express themselves or to criticize the group or its system and its beliefs. They are not allowed to question the leadership about issues that are unpopular or that might negatively expose the leaders or the group. The person who questions or queries becomes the problem rather than the issue he/she has raised.
In an abusive system there are unspoken rules and unspoken behavior patterns that you are expected to adhere to. An environment where there are unspoken rules is usually an indication that manipulation and coercion is taking place.
10. Culture of manipulation – In abusive groups there is usually a culture of coercive techniques, fear tactics and psychological manipulation that is applied to manage individuals or the entire group. On other occasions, guilt and shame can also be used to ensure members conform to the group’s system. So there is always a culture of deception and lying as a means to control followers.
11. Scripture Twisting – In an abusive church or cult, the Bible scriptures are used in order to manipulate or even scare the followers into conforming to the personal interests and needs of the leader. The scriptures are twisted as a tool for subjecting members into spiritual bondage rather than giving them genuine freedom in Christ. The scriptures are also twisted so that followers have total dependency on the leaders and the group, rather than have total dependency on Jesus Christ. The pulpit is also used to settle personal scores and to shame people rather than genuinely teach and edify.
12. Legalism & performance-based culture – In a spiritual abusive system there is also judgmentalism and legalism. There is little grace towards each other and your acceptance by the group is dependent on your loyalty to the group and its system.
There is also a preoccupation on presenting a good external/outward image whilst the true internal behavior of the group system is hypocritical, false and abusive. So internally there can be a system of slandering, gossiping and even shaming of those members who do not conform to the group system or standards.
What Does The Bible Say About Spiritual Abuse?
The Bible has a lot to say about spiritual abuse and it gives many examples. According to The Bible, most spiritual abusive systems expose false teachers as the perpetrators of spiritual abuse.
Among other Bible scriptures, Matthew 23:1-39 and 2 Peter 2:1-22 give a detailed account of the hypocritical and spiritual abusive behavior of false teachers and false religious systems.
In Matthew 23:1-39 Jesus Christ not only exposes spiritual abuse, but He rebukes the abusers and He warns the people to beware of being spiritually abused.
Jesus exposes abusive teachers as people who exert overwhelming service as they “crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden” (Matthew 23:4 NLT)
Jesus also rebukes the authoritarian, the hierarchical system and the superiority complex of leadership (Matthew 23:6-12) and states that an abusive leader is one who lacks humility and lacks the qualities of a humble servant.
In Matthew 23:8-10 Jesus says that we should not call anyone our (spiritual) father or to give people religious titles that invoke a false sense of spiritual greatness or infallibility. Instead Jesus mentions two important things: first, being that in spiritual matters we are equal and therefore “you are all brothers” (verse 8) and secondly, as equal brethren we all have one true infallible Teacher & Instructor – Jesus Christ (verse 10).
Jesus further exposes spiritual abusive leaders and how their false teachings and scripture twisting only serve to create false converts or false believers (Matthew 23:13-15).
Jesus also exposes how spiritual abusive people are preoccupied with outward appearances and garnering the adoration of their followers instead of genuinely repenting and reflecting true inward godliness (Matthew 23:5-6; Matthew 23:27-28).
Jesus also rebukes abusive leaders for having created man-made traditions and religious systems which supersede the Scriptures. In Matthew 15:3 Jesus asks the question “… And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”
So Jesus would rebuke abusive leaders for declaring their man-made traditions to have equal authority as the Scriptures. Therefore He exposed the false and abusive religious system and branded such religious traditions to be at enmity with the genuine Scriptures of God (Matthew 15:1-9).
2 Peter 2:3 NLT says the following about spiritual abusive leaders: “In their greed they will make up clever lies to get hold of your money…”
2 Peter 2:1-2 NLT says that spiritual abusive leaders will “… cleverly teach destructive heresies and even deny the Master who bought them” and that “… many will follow their evil teaching and shameful immorality.”
2 Peter 2:19 NLT presents abusive leaders as people who “promise freedom” but yet they make you “slaves of sin and corruption” by entrapping you into spiritual bondage.
Whilst there are genuine churches and religious groups that exist around the world, for many decades there has been an increasing rise in the number of cultic and abusive churches.
Furthermore, not a single week goes by without a story or scandal involving a so-called pastor, prophet, apostle, church leader etc.
Jesus Himself warned that in the end times there will be a major increase in the rise of false prophets and teachers (Matthew 24:11,24).
The Bible also warns that there will be a rise in false doctrines and that many people will be deceived and many people will fall from the faith due to spiritual deception (1 Timothy 4:1-2; 2 Timothy 4:3-4).
Abusive churches and cults are spiritually dangerous. Spiritual abuse is one of the reasons why many victims unfortunately depart from true Biblical Christianity.
Unfortunately, many people who are part of an abusive religious system seldom realize how they’re being deceived or manipulated. And if victims become aware of the abuse, or at least notice some red flags, the victims may become afraid to confront, expose or even escape the abusive system. Furthermore, due to deception, toxic faith or spiritual blindness, there are some victims who may actually defend the abusive culture.
It’s therefore important to learn to discern and spot the signs of spiritual abuse. It is also important for people to personally know God through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, as well as to diligently study and research God’s word.
Just like the Bereans (Acts 17:10-11), it is necessary to look at everything through the scriptures and through a personal study of the word of God.
If you believe that you belong to a spiritual abusive group and would like to know how to leave an abusive church or cult, please read the following articles: 6 Ways to Heal & Recover from Spiritual Abuse and How To Leave And Recover From A Cult
RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson & Jeff VanVonderen