I don't like writing this kind of post.
It's so sad to me that we have to even describe what spiritual abuse looks like.
When I first started serving in vocational ministry I always messed up (or so I thought). So many times I thought I wasn't submissive. I asked God to help me be a woman of grace in the midst of my independent ideas. I begged God to make me more meek, kind and gentle.
Then I learned that what was happening was actually spiritual abuse. Is that even a thing? No … these people that know the Word of God better than me, that went to seminary or have God-blessed platforms wouldn't be abusive.
Dismiss the idea. Keep working on me. I must be dying to self.
If you've gone through spiritual abuse from someone in authority over you (or even from a dominant friend) you may feel like you are all alone. You may wonder if you are crazy, being oversensitive or making too much of the things that rub you wrong.
You may be the only person who sees or knows the truth. If you share it, no one may believe you. But it doesn't make it any less true. You may endure persecution. You may lose friends or even credibility.
This is especially hard when it's a high ranking leader. They seem amazing until they are exposed or you confront them. They try to make it your fault. Or shame you into thinking you are the one who is unhealthy. And you have no one to bring it to because they don't have anyone over them. So they are allowed to continue deceiving people. And that is so hard to manage in your own thoughts and emotions.
In the course of 4 weeks I learned about 4 Christian leaders I knew personally … or have sat under their teaching … who have been exposed in various areas of misconduct. Two were men who were more than inappropriate with their female staff. Which is terrible in itself. But the common thread is that all of them were also bullies, controlling and manipulative with people.
That is what spiritual abuse is. Control. Manipulation. Bullying. It may be physical as well, but I'm not going to address that in this particular post.
I have had to guard my mind lately too … At my core, I am a justice person. I want to defend my friends. I want to warn others. It's so hard to be still and know He is God in these situations. But the best thing I can do is to give you a list of warning signs.
I want to highlight 25 signs of spiritual abuse so you know you are not alone. And after this list, I will share some brief tips on how to get through it all in a way that honors God, yourself and others.
Signs of Spiritual Abuse
- Spiritually abusive leaders twist the truth to make themselves look better. And you end up questioning if you heard them correctly or were misinterpreting something.
- Spiritually abusive leaders demand respect instead of earning it.
- Spiritually abusive leaders betray your confidence and share your infomation with others.
- Spiritually abusive leaders say you need to give up your free time for Jesus sake. And shame you if you don't agree.
- Spiritually abusive leaders don’t allow themselves to be held accountable or corrected. And bully anyone who disagrees.
- Spiritually abusive leaders avoid your request for conflict resolution but are quick to confront you. If you try to bring up things they are twisting, you are seen as unteachable or blameshifting.
- Spiritually abusive leaders make you feel you can’t change churches or you’ll miss what God has for you.
- Spiritually abusive leaders demand their way over your free will. And scare you with threats to your reputation if you don’t comply. Or shame you by bringing up your past failures.
- Spiritually abusive leaders demand to be served instead of serve.
- Spiritually abusive leaders silence their critics by making them the bad guy.
- Spiritually abusive leaders don’t give you credit for your ideas and successes but take the credit for themselves.
- Spiritually abusive leaders bully, shame or tease you into breaking your communicated boundaries.
- Spiritually abusive leaders dismiss you when you no longer serve their need.
- Spiritually abusive leaders accuse you of stealing their message when you grow beyond them.
- Spiritually abusive leaders gaslight you into thinking you are crazy.
- Spiritually abusive leaders can’t admit fault but use the knowledge of others fault to cause fear and intimidation.
- Spiritually abusive leaders have their minions do their dirty work and isolate, intimidate or manipulate those who don’t comply.
- Spiritually abusive leaders surround themselves with the elite and don’t interact with the sheep.
- Spiritually abusive leaders use their charisma to create a cult-like following that would defend them when they are questioned.
- Spiritually abusive leaders create a culture of a popular inner circle. If someone raises a concern they are put out of the clique and other inner circle people are afraid to speak up.
- Spiritually abusive leaders surround themselves with only people who praise them, fear them or submit to them.
- Spiritually abusive leaders convince people they can’t understand the deep things of God and need their help.
- Spiritually abusive leaders don't help you overcome sin in your life but discard you if you make them look like a bad leader.
- Spiritually abusive “leaders and churches view those who bring up legitimate issues as enemies. Those who were once friends/allies swiftly become enemies once a concern is raised. Sometimes these folks are banished, told to be silent, or shamed into submission.” Mary DeMuth
- Spiritually abusive leaders lie without a conscience. They see their platform as worth protecting for the sake of the gospel.
What to do if you are under spiritual abuse
My advice to those who have been seeking my counsel would fill a book. But here are a few brief things I would like to say to the those who are facing these kinds of trials. I truly believe that love will win. And spiritually abusive leaders will ALWAYS be exposed – eventually.
Ask God. In some instances, it's clear that you need to leave. In cases of sexual abuse, you need to go to the authorities. I have heard of way too many cases where criminal activity was covered up by churches and you need to know it's ok to leave. Other than that, you need to make sure you are following the right way to confront an issue according to Matthew 18. Let God show you what He sees. Find out what is your responsibility and what isn't.
Seek wise counsel. If you're on staff of a church it can be a different scenario and much more complicated. So seek wise counsel. Even with spiritual abuse, there is a right way to handle it and a wrong way. You want to be sure you are in a good place in your heart so you can approach even the spiritually abusive person in love. I'd offer one word of warning … depending on what level of abuse it is … they may not be safe to confront alone or at all.
Move on well. If you choose to leave the situation or church remember those who don't believe you or are still supporting the abusive person aren't those you are called to walk with anyway. End well by not gossiping or sharing your pain with those who may stay. It will only bring more division to the body. Give people who don't understand what you went through the grace to be where God's called them to be.
Find your inner peace. The truth always comes out. Guard your mind and don't let it take up space anymore. Guard your words and speak the truth with humility, grace, and mercy. Give God every reason to defend you. Think upon things that are lovely and good (Phil 4). You will become what you think about so use your thoughts wisely. Don't let bitterness take over. Forgive and find peace.
Pray for them. Remember it may not be known to the masses yet because God is still giving them time to repent. Be like Stephen and pray for those who are stoning you – they may end up converting like Saul who became the awsome Apostle Paul. And at some point – it's ok to not pray for them at all. There is no need to stayed emotionally tied to a place God released you from.
Don't feel bad. Be prepared that they may not repent or change … and if they are exposed … it's not your fault. Their choices put them in that position. Not you. Even if you feel like you should've done more, remember God wants you to manage you. He isn't in a pickle because you weren't strong enough to stand up to the abuse. Because … when it comes as a surprise … no one is strong enough.
If you think you are under a spiritually abusive authority, find someone experienced to talk to. Often times confronting that person will not make it better right away and you need a strategy. You need to decide if it's worth confronting or not. If you confront it you need to be prepared for their response. If you decide to walk away you still need to be prepared for their response. Having someone help you walk through it will benefit you in more ways than you can imagine right now.
Mary DeMuth wrote a great post about spotting spiritual abuse too. I'd recommend you go here to find some resources for healing from spiritual abuse.
You may also want to read these other posts to help you or someone you know: To the Bystanders of #MeToo or My Untold Story of #ChurchToo. Or listen to this podcast on how to Love Well.
And if you need help making some decisions about your next steps or want some Freedom Coaching®, please feel free to send me an email.
In the meantime, I'm praying for every person that finds this post. May God give you the grace to find freedom from spiritual abuse.
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This is such a timely post for me. I literally prayed yesterday that God would give me a clear answer regarding what I believed I was discerning concerning my leaders. So much of this applies. Thank you for the wisdom and resources shared concerning this.
Wow. I love how God works that way. I had someone else write me privately saying the same thing. I wasn’t going to post this until next week but felt prompted to post last night. Remember to love them because God does. But seek God for how to handle it. Much love.
Well said. Unfortunately, what you’ve said is needed more and more when numbers are equated with success, excitement with “anointing” and good teaching with the whims of current day “apostles” and “prophets.”
Thank you for sharing your thoughts too…you are so right. But I believe God is helping us enter a new season where the Christian famous are being exposed for ungodliness and the body of Christ will shine and be the beautiful bride.
What do you do when the spiritual abusive leader is your parent?
That is difficult … the more intertwined the relationships are the harder it is to confront or set boundaries. I’d recommend you seek out a counselor who can help you navigate the different situations. But one thing you can do is guard how you think and receive into your heart the things they say. Sometimes you need to dismiss what was spoken over you. For instance, if someone says you are selfish you can say in a calm voice, I’m not. I hope that helps a little.
My husband and I attended a church where there was a lot of spiritual abuse. During that time I was growing in my faith and wasn’t sure I was discerning correctly what I saw and heard.
Ten years later, in a different state, the discernment that I doubted began to unfold. And we were part of a church plant in our state that was exhibiting many of the same characteristics of it’s mother church. I have sensed it since the core group times, but my husband was not ready to throw in the towel. Out of respect and in submission to him, I drudged through it. Three years later, we have left the church.
We attempted to lovingly approach the leader in the Matthew 18 model, but it didn’t go well. The issues were denied and blame was shifted back on me.
I’ve also been working for a ministry where the senior leadership is toxic and abusive. Staff members are hurting and leaving, and the senior leadership has lost sight of the vision of the ministry.
I have been struggling in my faith walk. Why be a Christian? I see so much of the world in these Christian ministries. It’s not supposed to be this way. We are supposed to be different. What difference does it make? God revealed in a big way that sinners are in ministry. In fact sinners lead in ministry. That does not excuse their behavior in any way, shape or form.
I am trusting that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,
2 Corinthians 4:17
Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Selah
Thank you for sharing your gift Jill. Your article has been a tremendous help. God can use all of this for good.
Carol, I’m so sorry you’ve had those experiences too. Blameshifting is very confusing and painful. Especially for those that really believe they are trying to be vulnerable and it’s used against them. I had a season where I was like … God, I love you but not your church. Then He convicted me to say if we don’t love our brother then we don’t love Him. (I John 4:20) We are Christians because of God, not people … right? He is worthy of my service to those that are hard to love. That’s why we do it. I pray you are encouraged and blessed with strength in His glorious might.
I have experienced this and had to separate myself completely in order to heal. Not only were they my foster parents they held many positions within the church including youth leader. It isn’t easy so be prepared for a response,mine did not go well this is why I cut ties
I’m so sorry you had this experience. My prayers are with you today as you continue to heal.
Great stuff here Jill. Very timely for me personally.
I have very complicated feelings toward the church and leadership.
This is timely for me. Thank you for your obedience in writing it.
I’m so glad it was timely. I have such a heart for forgiveness and healing but sometimes we need to validate what people have gone through first.
Perfectly timed and carefully (thoughtfully) written post. You have so much wisdom. And I love that this article comes from a place of “love and protect yourself well” instead of a place of bitterness. Such good advice and powerful words.
Thank you so much. Loving well is key to honoring God and living a fulfilling life.
This is a great article. I can relate to much of what it says. Many people go into a faith or a church when their need is high, and maybe initially relationships that help a lot can move and change into something less helpful maybe even being used / abused. It is a shame but as you hint its an opportunity for learning, Jill. I especially like the points you make about “leaving well”
Thanks John. You made a good point … people are usually vulnerable when they first start at a new church. And they are hopeful to find someone who cares. Which can create loyalty when it’s given at first. And then when something starts showing up they discount it. Someone taught me about leaving well and I’ve seen it bless everyone involved … so glad you picked up on that. 🙂
What does one do when the spiritual abuse leader is a husband?
Bonnie – that is a question that doesn’t have an easy answer. I’d recommend you getting a counselor to work through those things. I pray you find the strength to know you are loved and valuable. And that God brings healing to your heart and soul.
Today I saw a counselor for the first time.
My life feels like it has me falling apart and crazy.
I am a fairly new Christian and am really having a rough go.
At first I was just thinking spiritual warfare because it seems to be coming from all sides.
The counselor mentioned spiritual manipulation…
Wow. So I Google it and have found this article.
I am in shock.
I don’t understand how I am supposed to submit as in Ephesians, to a man who seems to be trying to keep me confused and crazy.
Any books or other material out there?
Thank you for this article.
Darlene, you are courageous even though you feel like your life is falling apart. Just taking the step to see a counselor or comment here tells me there is a lot of victory ahead for you. As a new Christian, it is confusing to experience spiritual manipulation … well it’s hard for seasoned Christians too! But as you grow in your relationship with God you will gain strength in trials and discern truth from lies. As far as the submission question -the husband and wife are to submit to each other. You are not to submit to spiritual abuse (verbal or emotional). You are to address those things in a way that says, “I value and love you … I want to maintain connection but that can’t happen when …” And sometimes it is abuse but the person who has been made to feel crazy for so long can’t see it for what it is. Or they can’t see how they enable or have contributed to a toxic relationship either. So that needs the help of a counselor. I’d recommend the book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Vanvonderen. I prayed for you today … and I’m so glad this article ministered to you.
i feel like what you are describing here is a narcissist, and usually when they are religious they are spiritually abusive as a way to have control over others. i have found that there isn’t much written about how to deal with a narcissistic situation in the spiritual or secular world, other than saying to just run, because there is “no cure for them”.
Elena, I would agree with your diagnosis although I’m not an expert, I’m learning a lot about it. I’ve read that sociopaths can be helped but psychopaths usually do not change. But I want to believe with God, all things are possible and no one is too far gone for his redemption. But the person has to agree to submit to Jesus as Lord and with humility, repent and be refined.
Hi there . My name is carolcleo. And live in de Nederlandse.
Am going to a church that is Killing my mind. Or maby its is Just in my mind.
Yesterday i went to church bible study. IT was about the vision about the church. To reacht the people out of darkness. Ref to Jesaja 45: 2-3 that is where the ministry is bild on. Yesterday we where talking about that not everybody will be good enoug to forfill the caling of the church. And that if you want to leaf you leaf. There is where the fear get in. Today i went to nu work whit panic attaks i wanted to kill my self the world was black and evil and i wanted to hide in the church. I lived there manny years. There was alot of chreaming at us. I was dying inside . But maby its me maby am not good enoug. I understand what you are saying. I AM in a church that is spiritual abusive and AM scard and afraid to leaf. Pleas what do i do.
I’m so sorry that you’ve had a terrible experience at church. If any organization makes you afraid to leave it’s even more important to get out. There is no fear in love… church should be a place where you feel loved no matter what not afraid. Is there anyone you can confide in that is safe and can help you?
I stumbled here searching about this topic. I have to say, this seems like an article that does not actually understand the ramifications of spiritual abuse. If you have been traumatized, you are not going to be praying for your abuser. You are going to be so screwed up you don’t even know who God is anymore. You are going to question all of what scripture says since it was probably used to abuse you and justify it. After years of recovery work I still get triggered by the bible, articles about it, and the teaching of it. Abusers also tell victims to be silent and not say anything to the church lest you divide the church. It is called the “keep silent rule.” Talking about the pain with others in that church isn’t supposed to be divisive and it sure as heck isn’t gossiping. The church is supposed to be a healer of said wounds. It speaks of the immaturity of the church, not to what is right or godly toward the oppressed and destroyed. These are answers for people who are wounded little not people who are bludgeoned. If you are traumatized the level of emotional anxiety, depression, and fear is real and it is overwhelming. I can tell you, just quoting some scripture to yourself doesn’t ease any of it. You aren’t going “leave well” anymore than someone leaves an abusive marriage “well.” Spiritual abuse destroys your relationship to God….and it destroys ones ability to be in a church. You end up with more questions than answers and that is if you can stop blaming yourself as the entire church blames you and scapegoats you. Ugh. I wish people actually recognized this instead of giving these sort of “soft” pat answers to spiritual “abuse.” If you get out with your mind and relationship with God intact follow these…if not, expect to do A LOT of work before you can even arrive here….and don’t be silent. This isn’t about protecting the church but helping the people the church has destroyed. The church is the problem, not the victim.
I’m so sorry you’ve also been spiritually abused. I really appreciate you sharing how it impacted you and the honesty about how it makes you question so many things about God and others. I have actually been severely abused and traumatized so my thoughts on the topic come from things I learned through the process. It’s hard to cover everything in one blog post so I’m sorry if it seemed like it weighed too heavy on aspects that didn’t give empathy to the victim. I would never want to give “pat answers” to complicated situations.
I want to comment on one thing you said that is so important in case anyone else reads this: Abusers DO tell victims to be silent or threaten them (so many ways) to make them be quiet. It’s not okay. I meant to communicate that when we leave … which is the right thing to do if the leader doesn’t apologize and show signs of change … then others may not understand because they haven’t had that same experience. We can share our story but at some point, we need to move on and let God be the vindicator. He always reveals the truth eventually. My encouragement in that area was for the heart of the victim to move toward their own healing. Only the person speaking and God knows the heart. But if we do share in order to be divisive then it’s hurting the body of Christ. I hope that makes sense.
Also, I really believe because God loves even the abuser there is always hope for people to repent. I personally like to pray for that to happen. I wonder, what happened to the abuser that causes them to be that way? God knows what pain causes their behavior too. I am thankful God has shown me mercy. I try to extend that to others. But that doesn’t mean to stay in that abusive situation.
You may also be right about how this piece is for those who have been wounded not “bludgeoned.” I didn’t consider that when I wrote it. I’m sorry if it came across as insensitive. After multiple experiences with multiple different ministries, I can testify that depression, anxiety and such are real … and take time to heal.
But I still believe we can end well. As far as it concerns us we should be at peace with everyone. We are only responsible for our own actions and words. It’s up to God to protect His church. We are just to love it.