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What is Spiritual Abuse?

Spiritual abuse is a term not in common usage, unlike physical or emotional abuse. When you are publicly shamed or made to feel spiritually second class, something is not right.

Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person's spiritual empowerment.

"The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse" by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen

Johnson and VanVonderen identify seven characteristics of an abusive church system:


Power posturing

How much time does a person focus on their spiritual authority, reminding you that they are the one in control and that you must submit to their authority? Real leaders don't have to keep announcing their authority, they get on and use it without fanfare [See Lessons on Leadership, a bible study on Joshua, chapters three and four]. I think that leaders who talk about others having to "submit to their authority" on a regular basis are power-posturing.

You should be able to ask leaders why they made the decision they did. You are not refusing to submit to their authority, nor are you rebelling. It is a simple question. If you are not allowed to honestly ask questions, the person in authority is not being held accountable for their decisions.

Romans 13:1

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

Note that "submit" does not mean agreeing with everything the leader says and does. Neither does it mean that we should leave our brains at the front door because the leader wants to do our thinking for us.

God gives authority, not man. Elections do not give authority, posturing does not, shouting loudly does not, trying to appear the most spiritual does not, length of service does not, how much you give does not. God gives authority to our leaders to shepherd the flock, not to make the leader feel good, or to bolster their ego, or to paper over a sense of inferiority.

Performance preoccupation

We are taught early on to be beautiful, to do the right thing, that "image is everything." Magazines and television show us the illusion of perfection and ways to attain it. It's easy to bring this mindset to our Christianity.

1 Samuel 16:7

But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."

God can see if our acts of service, giving, hospitality, or leadership come from a heart wanting to please him and serve those around us, or from a heart wanting recognition, from feelings of obligation or resent, or from fear of what people will say if we do not perform. Our spirituality is not solely based on our standing in church, especially if what we do comes from the wrong motives.

Ephesians 2:8-9

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast.

Everything necessary for our salvation has already been done by Jesus Christ on the cross. We cannot add to that, we cannot make God love us more than He already does.

There is a fine line between our desire to be better Christians and thinking that our extra ten minutes of prayer in home group makes us better than Joe Random who doesn't pray aloud. Christianity is not a race where only the first across the line wins. What matters is that all of us stay in the race until we get to the finish line, by whatever route God leads us.

Unspoken rules

Unspoken rules are the ones you find out about after you've broken them. Take the unspoken rule of "Thou shalt not question the teaching." You'd find out about this rule when you were branded a disruptive influence and barred from home group for disagreeing with the teacher. No-one says these rules out loud, you have to infer them from the consequences.

The most powerful of all unspoken rules in the spiritually abusive system is what we have termed the "can't-talk" rule. The "can't-talk" rule has this thinking behind it: "The real problem cannot be exposed because then it would have to be dealt with and things would have to change; so it must be protected behind walls of silence (neglect) or by assault (legalistic attack). If you speak about the problem out loud, you are the problem. In some way you must be silenced or eliminated". Those who do speak out are most often told, "we didn't have all these problems before you started stirring things up." Or else, to make it sound really spiritual, "you were angry--you didn't confront the matter in a 'loving' way. So it proves you weren't handling the matter in a mature, Christian manner." In either case, the problem remains.

"The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse" by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen

The "can't talk" rule is a hallmark of abuse because it protects the offender from detection and just discipline.

Lack of balance

As Christians we should strike a balance between objective facts and subjective experience, between what we read and learn of God, and what we personally experience of Him.

The fourth characteristic of a spiritually abusive system is an unbalanced approach to living out the truth of the Christian life. This shows itself in two extremes: extreme objectivism ... [and] extreme subjectivism.

"The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse" by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen

Extreme objectivism

An objective view is one in which individual experience is dismissed in favour of things that can be explained or proved.

Merriam-Webster Collegiate® Dictionary definition:
objective (adjective.)

  1. having reality independent of the mind (objective reality)
  2. dealing with facts or conditions without distortion by personal feelings, or interpretations

Extreme objectivism elevates education and intelligence over a close, intimate relationship with God. It denies that God could be active in present day lives as He was in New Testament times.

Extreme subjectivism

Merriam-Webster Collegiate® Dictionary definition:
subjective (adjective.)

  1. characteristic of reality as perceived rather than as independent of mind
  2. modified or affected by personal views, experience, or background

Subjectivism elevates personal experience over objective truth such as the Bible. What a person hears from God in their prayer time would be more important than what the Bible says, where the Bible should be our yardstick to measure subjective experiences by.


Paranoid thinking says that the world is out to get you, that "outsiders" will not understand what you are doing and will act against you. Paranoia covers up wrong behaviour on the grounds that making this behaviour known would be even worse.

This kind of thinking leads to a siege mentality with "us against them." It turns outsiders into enemies instead of potential friends. It makes leaving the abusive system harder, because you would then be seen as one of the outsiders.

Misplaced loyalty

Johnson and VanVonderen identify three factors that produce misplaced loyalty, loyalty not to God, but to a church, organisation or leader.

  1. "We Alone are Right"
  2. Scare tactics
  3. Humiliation

Together, these three work to keep people in an abusive system. By defining their system as the only true and right one, abusive leaders condemn all who leave as following false teachings. Threats and spiritual blackmail are used to enforce obedience, including the threat of publicly shaming someone to humiliate them into compliance.

While discipline is necessary in a healthy church, it should not be used to humiliate people. Discipline should be given by people who care about the offender, and in a manner that shows love and concern.


Churches should not have secrets, our behaviour should be open and honest.

2 Corinthians 4:1-2

Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God.

Secrets imply there is something to hide and people may employ deception to keep it hidden. While the Bible does say we should not publicise our good deeds ("But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" Matthew 6:2-4), were those deeds known, we would not be ashamed.


You can either leave a spiritually abusive system, or you can fight to change it. It's not a choice to take lightly.

This article is a brief introduction to what spiritual abuse is. For more information, read The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen (Copyright © 1991, published by Bethany House).

Ron Henzel of REST ministries has written an excellent article about spiritual abuse which I recommend reading.

Copyright © 2000 Alison Hawke