Although no hard statistics currently exist, stories of people who claim they are victims of spiritual abuse abound. Although this is not a new phenomenon – it appears that more people than ever before are prepared to voice their hurt and disappointment at the misuse of power that is at the heart of spiritual abuse. Like other forms of abuse – whether it is an adult seeking sexual favours from a child, or an employer manipulating their employee – an abuser uses their position for their own ends, and not the good of others. Spiritual abuse is no exception.

Jeff Van Vonderen, co-author of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abusehelpfully highlights the context: ‘Spiritual abuse takes place when anyone in a place of spiritual authority (or perceived authority), instead of using their authority to come under members of the body of Christ and build, equip, uplift and set them free to do God’s agenda, uses their authority to come over and control and manipulate the spiritual performance of the flock, to do their agenda.’

In every church, conflicts may arise requiring the leadership to take a strong stand. This is not abuse. Neither is the natural disappointment and hurt suffered when people are let down by others. Churches are not perfect! There are however churches struggling with issues of control, which if left uncorrected can lead to abuse. Although circumstances may differ, as I researched this article, the pattern of abuse that emerged across the denominational spectrum was surprisingly similar.

Recognising spiritual abuse and its causes

Sometimes the church’s theological structure lends itself to abuse. Compliance with the theology becomes more important than personal need as illustrated by Penny and David’s experience.

“Our first church bought into the ‘name it and claim it’ principles of socalled prosperity teachers. We were taught that if you became ill, it was because you had sinned or were in rebellion. People became oppressed and were pushed into repentance. The leadership hounded a church member to his deathbed by asking him to repent of the sin that had caused his illness, yet there was no practical help and support given to the family.”

In some charismatic churches, particularly during the 1980s, the requirements of accountability towards the church leadership became extreme and unbalanced, resulting in a form of spiritual abuse, which became widely known as ‘heavy shepherding’. Some church commentators regard the whole of evangelicalism as overly prescriptive and prone to spiritual abuse. In his book Ungodly Fear Anglican minister Stephen Parsons argues that a ‘fundamentalist’ view of Scripture can lead to authoritarian thinking, opening the way for possible abuse to occur. While seeking to be sympathetic to victims of heavy shepherding, evangelical leaders regard this analysis as a simplistic over reaction. However the stories of those who have been abused need to be heard and lessons learned.

Jenny became a Christian at a large evangelical Anglican church soon after her 18th birthday. Looking back on her spiritual journey she now considers the church was over controlling. “We were told what to think and what was right and wrong. No one encouraged critical thinking. We had to conform to how the group interpreted the Bible. This kind of thinking causes homogenised cloning of Christians,” says Jenny, “maybe a bit more mess should be allowed.”

Another common comment made by people who believe they have been spiritually abused is a lack of openness to criticism particularly among the church leadership.

Fay and Michael attended a Baptist church with a very dominant leader. “Everyone quoted the pastor’s point of view and if you had a different perspective you were marginalised and not listened to. Visiting speakers would have their sermons torn to shreds but the pastor could say what he liked and no one would challenge him. The only way to function in the church was to gain his approval, and although you might be aware of the dynamics, you would still get sucked in.”

The strong and dominating church leader is a common factor in stories of spiritual abuse. Stephen Parsons warns of the leader who positions themselves as ‘God’s mouthpiece’ or makes claims that they are the only ones who can hear accurately from God on behalf of the congregation. “This means they effectively take the place of God, and a person’s relationship with God becomes bound up in the persons’ relationship with the leader. They want the approval of man rather than God.”

This can lead to members of the congregation placing too much emphasis on external behaviour that will please the leader – and those that don’t have their spirituality called into question. Depending on the church, people may be seen as less spiritual if, for example, they don’t speak in tongues, or don’t use a particular version of the Bible, or are infrequent attenders at the prayer meeting. Compare this with the words of God to Samuel – ‘Man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7).

Many regard the insecurity of a church leader as a common factor in the abuse of power. ‘Abusive leaders may use their congregations as a psychological crutch,’ writes Stephen Parsons. ‘Any criticism is immediately taken personally and anyone questioning what the leader does is perceived as a threat. They, rather than the leader, become “the problem”.’

As Fay comments, “if anyone challenged the leader, he would become extremely angry. In part, it would be anger at himself, but he also directed anger at the person doing the challenging. He could not admit to making a mistake.”

Fear of being labelled as a problem may cause the congregation to deny the abuse is happening. According to theologian Elaine Storkey, “the biggest danger is when the abuse is silent and the abused person is so debilitated they must rely on others taking notice”.

Leaders who want to maintain control over the church will not want their ‘flock’ looking outside the church in case they are ‘led astray’. The congregation is told they are the only ones with the whole truth and all other churches are in error. One leader of a Pentecostal church claimed they were the only ‘spiritually enlightened’ ones and contact with other churches in the town was discouraged because he wanted to ‘protect’ them from false doctrine.

An insecure leader who is in a position of supreme authority in the church will find it difficult to admit to failure or difficulty within their personal life. They may try to surround themselves with a leadership team who agree with them and do not challenge the status quo or hold the leader to account. In this type of church although there is the appearance of accountability, it does not in reality exist.

Often it is Independent churches where systems of leadership accountability and transparency are most likely to be suspect. But even in mainstream denominations where there are ‘checks and balances’ and clear lines of accountability, an abusive leader may be able to operate unchecked for a considerable period of time.

Baptist minister Paul Beasley-Murray surveyed ministers belonging to the Richard Baxter Institute of Ministry, publishing his findings in the bookPower for God’s Sake. Of the 141 ministers taking part, 77% had no formal job description, and although 36% underwent regular appraisal, this could range from every six months to every 3-5 years. He concludes ‘most ministers are on their own as far as their job is concerned. Meaningful external support, which involves some form of real accountability, is lacking.’ This does not mean the leaders are abusive, but it does highlight issues of accountability within even mainstream churches.

Further effects of spiritual abuse

Spiritual abuse doesn’t just damage relationships within a church, it typically affects a person’s relationship with God. If the person who led you to Christ or helped you grow as a disciple is also abusive in their relationship with you, this confusion and distress often leads to a crisis of faith. As well as feeling the leader failed you – there is also a sense of loss and disappointment in God if your faith is heavily influenced by the witness and example of an abusive leader.

Jenny found that her experience of abuse led to a “complete confusion of faith, depression and post traumatic stress disorder.”

However, some claim individuals need to take responsibility for some of the consequences if they keep quiet and do nothing when they realise someone in the church is being abusive or manipulative. Mike Fehlauer, inExposing Spiritual Abuse writes, ‘within unhealthy churches, two dynamics are always at work. One, there needs to be the controller, someone who through their insecurities has a desperate need to be needed. Second, there are those, who out of their own insecurities, need the acceptance of someone whom they view as greater than themselves.’

Stephen Parsons calls this ‘the dysfunctional family’ where there is a collusive relationship between leader and congregation. ‘They allow the leader to say, “You do as I say, and I’ll say God will bless you”,’ he comments.

People may even be attracted to an abusive church because of their own insecurities. They attach themselves to the leader, whose approval they desire, and abdicate responsibility for their Christian growth. This leaves them open to abuse, as they are prepared to accept whatever is given to them from the front without questioning.

Others act like ‘adult children’. As children, they may have been brought up with an exaggerated fear of life and now they only feel safe within welldefined boundaries. A church where they are told exactly what to think, do or say will appeal to them.

There is also the temptation to put our leaders on a pedestal, expecting them to be all things to all people. This can put terrible pressure on them, and their families. Paul Beasley-Murray found that 45% of the 141 ministers responding to his questionnaire felt there was an overload of expectation, and 23% suffered from work overload, whilst 92% had suffered some form of stress. There may also be powerful factions within the church causing conflict. In extreme cases this led to 16% of leaders leaving under unhappy circumstances, and 4% being forced out.

All this is very different from the kind of leadership modelled by Christ. Beasley-Murray writes, ‘Power, even used for God’s sake was not to be the dominating factor of Jesus’ ministry. Love was his controlling passion, love which never forces itself on another, which always respects the individual and which therefore allows individuals freedom to choose which way they want to go.’ Beasley-Murray uses Jesus’ roles as servant and shepherd as models on which to base leadership in a helpful section to his book.

What to do?

If you recognise you have been part of an abusive system, what should you do? Much of your identity and security will lie in the group, and leaving can feel like bereavement. Because leaving is taken as an implicit criticism of the church or leader, there is often no easy way to go about it.

In Exposing Spiritual Abuse Mike Fehlauer writes, ‘A controlling pastor will be too insecure to render his blessing to anyone who leaves his flock.

If anyone does leave, they immediately become the problem.’ He goes on to say it is important to guard your heart from unforgiveness, as you may find yourself doing and saying things out of anger that you might regret later. Try to avoid getting caught up in arguments or disputes, and only leave after talking to the leadership about your concerns. If you can keep your conscience clear, the path to healing will be easier.

“It is also important to examine why you were attracted to the abusive church in the first place,” advises Parsons. “Talk to someone outside the church who understands, and don’t get into self blame.”

However Fay crystallises the pain of leaving; “If we hadn’t loved the people we could have easily walked away. When we left, it was assumed we were wandering away from the ‘true faith’. The church leaders condemned us for leaving, but can’t seem to see that they were the reason for us leaving in the first place.”

This attitude can be very hurtful. “It was one of the hardest things I have ever done” says Jenny. “When we left the people in the church thought we had done terrible things; we lost all our friends.”

Many spiritually abused people have dropped out of attending a church altogether, while many others find it difficult to fully participate in church life, for fear of being hurt again. Even if survivors attend another church and begin to get actively involved, an understandable but corrosive attitude towards trusting anyone in a position of authority within a church can remain for many years. Meanwhile who knows how many have given up on their relationship with God as a consequence of spiritual abuse?

For others there is a happier ending – having identified the unhealthy and abusive relationships in the past, they find a healthy church into which they are free to be part of a community of God’s people growing together in maturity, who serve one another and those around them in love.

To keep their anonymity the Christian names of people quoted in this article have been changed and their surnames omitted.

ED: One article cannot possibly cover every aspect of this subject – but we hope this has been a helpful introduction. If you have observations or personal experiences that may help other readers, as well as specific comments on this article – write to Feedback and we will feature a special section on Spiritual Abuse in the September issue.

Further reading:

  • Power for God’s sake by Paul Beasley-Murray, Paternoster Press, 1998
  • Ungodly Fear by Stephen Parsons, Lion, 2000
  • The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, Bethany House, 1991
  • Exposing Spiritual Abuse by Mike Fehlauer, Charisma House, 2001

Helpful contacts:

Eight marks of a healthy church

  1. Clear and transparent structures of accountability.
  2. Leaders and wider congregation are prepared to admit that they are equally prone to mistakes.
  3. An emphasis on building community rather than conformity.
  4. Actively working with other local churches – not isolated and ‘going it alone’.
  5. Leaders who encourage and enable rather than dominate and dictate.
  6. A place where alternative points of view are listened to.
  7. The congregation share, own and help shape the goals and vision statement.
  8. Leaders who are respected and honoured, but not held in awe as though infallible.