In the second part of our series looking at money, sex and power abuses in the UK Church, we investigate the prevalence of spiritual abuse


Jesus said that the greatest among us ‘should take the lowest rank’ (Luke 22:26, NLT). As demonstrated in many other areas of his teaching and his life, he suggested that kingdom power and authority are not what they seem; it was a humble, penniless man on a donkey who ruled the earth, not the Roman emperor. It is a teaching that is vital for the Church today; because when it is not followed in church, it can lead to the devastating effects of spiritual abuse.


The term ‘spiritual abuse’ covers a wide variety of behaviours, but can be summarised as the use of spiritual authority or spiritual means in order to demean, manipulate, control or exploit someone. Examples from the people interviewed in this article include being threatened with spiritual consequences when they wanted to leave a church; being thrown out of a church without discussion and the pastor telling the congregation and other local churches not to speak to them; being reminded of their past sins when they questioned the leadership; ministers being bullied by people within the congregation; and being blamed for a divorce or a family suicide.


When people who have experienced spiritual abuse contact Adam Harbinson – who wrote the book Savage Shepherds (Authentic) about his own experience – he finds a common theme in their stories. ‘It’s nearly always the same; they share my experience that someone has muscled their way in between them and their God, and demanded the right to be God’s mouthpiece,’ he says. ‘The person says that they are God’s lieutenant, they have the hotline, and that the church member cannot be trusted to hear and understand God’s voice.’


Unfortunately, when this happens, what the ‘lieutenant’ then says can be far from accepted Christian doctrine, and is often highly legalistic. For Andrew,* his former pastor taught that grace was merited and that God is only interested in us in a limited way. ‘“I will hear God for you” was commonly heard,’ he says. ‘The minister believed he had the right to speak into your life. He often said, “I am never wrong.”’


One of the difficulties of the issue is that some subtle forms of spiritual abuse can be hard to define and even harder to identify when within a church community. ‘Generally, people don’t realise they are in it until they are out of it, and then they go “oh my goodness”,’ says Andrew, who left a church himself when he saw friends being threatened and manipulated when they tried to leave.


Graham* often questioned his preacher, which did not go down well. However, when he became romantically involved with the leader’s daughter, he was publicly excluded from the church and accused of sexual impropriety (which he denies). Church members were told not to associate with him, and the few that did were later punished by taking away positions of responsibility within the church. Other churches in the area were ‘warned’ about him when he tried to attend them. As he looks back he remembers that other people who questioned the pastor would be treated in a similar way. ‘Every time someone disagreed, especially assistant pastors, they would go,’ he says. ‘He was a real hellfire and brimstone preacher. There didn’t seem to be any love in his ministry – it was all fear. Everyone was fearful; all the people who were around him were yes-men. Over the next few years, the amount of people publicly or privately thrown out was off the chart.’


These examples of controlling behaviour are more extreme than some of the ‘warning signs’ of a potentially abusive church [see box on p29]. Subtle problems of control and authority in a church can lay the foundations for more harmful behaviour in the future. Harbinson was uncomfortable about the culture of his church for some time. Issues that concerned him were the lack of financial transparency, behaviour towards people who questioned the leadership (they were seen as ‘rebels’) and a high requirement for commitment to the church. But he questioned his own doubts because the church had played a positive role in his conversion. When he eventually decided to move on, he was ‘threatened, cajoled, manipulated or frightened’ into staying. Ultimately, when he did leave, he had accusations made against him which led to his business closing down, despite his being cleared of the charges.


 Worrying Prevalence


Such stories are shocking in a faith that so often displays the best of God’s love and fellowship. But there is evidence that spiritual abuse might be more common within the British Church than might be expected. When Tim and Dr Lisa Oakley set up an organisation to support people who had experienced spiritual abuse, they were inundated with Christians contacting them. So many people were seeking help that they had to shut down the support group, because they did not have enough resources to respond to all the queries. And when Steve Clifford, the general director of the Evangelical Alliance, did a seminar on the subject at a Christian festival a few years ago, he was surprised to find it was ‘packed’ with people who were hurting from their own church experiences. ‘It was a painful experience being there,’ says Clifford. ‘There was pain around the room, and a bit of bitterness. But there was also a real desire to do things better…to hear from each other. I found myself as a church leader thinking that I’m really sorry for what these people have experienced. I recognised that I…bring my vulnerability and fallenness into my leadership. I can’t distance myself from this.’


Clare,* who experienced spiritual abuse in her church, says that she considers spiritual abusive behaviour to be ‘hugely’ prevalent in British churches. ‘From conservative evangelical churches where the leader is special to God because they are the only one who can understand the Bible properly, to charismatic churches where the leader is the only one who can hear the Spirit properly,’ she says, ‘the Church is riddled with leaders who see people as objects, not as much loved children of God.’


 Devastating Effects


The consequences of spiritual abuse are often the same as other kinds of abuse; severe emotional reactions such as depression, suicidal thoughts, and anger. All of the people who experienced it in this article described a deep distrust of churches, even when they are not ‘abusive’. ‘My faith in God hasn’t shifted, but my faith in church is ruined,’ says Graham, who also lost his friendship group at the time. ‘I have likened my experience to a rape victim in a particular building and not wanting to go back to that place. It has really left an indelible mark and it is very difficult for me to feel ok going to church. I still believe in God but…every time a preacher opens his mouth, I start thinking “this is all lies”…I’m really damaged. I am deeply suspicious of Christians and organised religion. That’s not very good for your faith.’


Harbinson describes the consequences of his experience as ‘utterly devastating’. ‘The most common reaction to spiritual abuse is post-traumatic stress,’ says Rev Paula Parish-West, a United Reformed Church minister who has experienced spiritual abuse and has since written a dissertation on the subject. ‘The reaction is often delayed and it is usually not until they come out that they experience it – it can include guilt, depression and suicidal thoughts. Some people go back to the church because they are told God is trying to draw them back. Sometimes it takes people years to regain their sense of self again.’


At present, awareness of the issue in this country is limited, particularly among secular counsellors, and it might not be taken as seriously as other forms of abuse. ‘I have wanted to show that spiritual abuse can be deeply damaging without a sexual or physical aspect to it,’ says Dr Lisa Oakley. Her research found that victims of spiritual abuse are commonly left with an inability to trust others and to trust God. In one case, someone still didn’t have any close friends, ten years after their experience in church.


There is an additional response; often victims lose their faith. ‘People in the first instance blame God, when it has nothing to do with God. He weeps over this,’ says Parish-West. ‘Victims hopefully won’t move away from the church, but just be made aware that Church isn’t perfect – be aware of [abuse] and avoid it, and move for the leaders to be made accountable.’


Difficult experiences often lead to distorted ideas about God and religion. ‘My wife has not been to a church meeting for over a year,’ says Andrew. ‘She is still struggling to believe that God loves her unconditionally.’


 Wrong Conditions


So how does it happen? Parish-West argues that it is the hierarchical structure of many churches in the UK, where there are a small number of leaders and a large congregation, that provides the conditions for spiritual abuse. ‘Particularly in the evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal traditions, their members are often people who have to obey the leadership; what they think comes second,’ she says. ‘People can icon-ise their leaders very easily. That is where perpetration can be started; they are seen to have a “hotline to God”. Over a period of time this reduces people’s confidence, and their opinions don’t matter because the leadership has got to be right. Spiritual abuse can flourish in a hierarchical structure. We are not going to change a lot of these structures, but if people are aware of the issue…leaders can become servants instead of iconic leaders.’


However, some say that it is not just the qualities of leaders that are important, but the pressure that we put on them in today’s Church. Graham thinks that the problem is that we idolise preachers and don’t allow them to be human; we effectively put them on a pedestal. ‘I look at them and think that must be a really, really difficult job,’ he says. ‘I am not sure I could do any better. I would like to see a preacher that does say “I’ve messed up”. But the pressure is to not be like that…it is to be almost nearly perfect.’


Graham points out that this culture leads to abusive behaviour without the pastor being aware of it, as in the case of his former church. ‘I don’t think he thinks he is being spiritually abusive; he honestly, genuinely thinks he is doing God’s good work,’ he says. ‘He started with good intentions, but when people weren’t agreeing with him, his ego got in the way.’


 Drawing the Line


One of the difficulties of the issue is that the definition of what is abusive and what is healthy church authority can vary substantially. ‘What some people call spiritual abuse others wouldn’t bat an eyelid at,’ says Anne Richards, national adviser on alternative spiritualities and new religious movements for the Church of England. ‘I get a lot of complaints about different things. Sometimes it takes a lot of digging to find what is going on.’


Most Christians would acknowledge that the controlling or harsh behaviour experienced by the people in this article is wrong. But what about the culture that leads to it? If we increase accountability, could this bring problems into the Church? Clifford worries that this could happen if not addressed carefully. ‘You can end up creating a culture where it actually becomes difficult for leaders to bring leadership,’ he says.


In fact, leaders can also be subject to abusive behaviour from members of the congregation, particularly through accountability structures such as annual general meetings. ‘Power can be used against leaders,’ says Clifford. ‘Meetings can become open season for criticism of leaders; there can be expectation of 24/7 availability, they can be overworked, underpaid and not appreciated.’ Dr Oakley agrees: ‘Most of what has been written is about ministers, but it can be the other way; ministers can experience very damaging behaviour from their congregations.’


This is why it is argued that more research to both identify spiritual abuse and define it is necessary. ‘If you want to go on the tea and coffee rota and the minister says “no”, that is not spiritual abuse,’ says Dr Oakley. ‘People are worrying that it will end up like the child protection issue where you can’t have a child on your knee in church – or…if someone disagrees they say it is spiritual abuse. We need better understanding so that we can help.’


When discussing the greyer areas of what constitutes abuse, even the phrasing can be emotive. ‘I don’t like the term “spiritual abuse”,’ says Clifford. ‘The word “abuse” is so strong it stops the conversation. You are talking about such a multitude of situations. Most of them revolve around the word “power”. Leadership and power do go hand in hand. It can be a wonderful thing for good, but also for corruption. I don’t like the language, but I do think this misuse of power…is a tantalising thing, and it brings all kinds of temptations. It can be used for good or used for evil.’


Of course, strong leadership is endorsed in the Bible. Romans 13 and Hebrews 13 emphasise obedience to church leadership in particular, as well as outside authorities. However, there are many passages that warn of the abuse of authority. In Ezekiel 34, the spiritual leaders of the time were harshly criticised for seeking wealth, for ignoring the pastoral needs of the people, and for treating them ‘harshly and brutally’ (Ezekiel 34:4).


Jesus speaks clearly on the subject, particularly to the Pharisees of his day. Matthew 23 brims with Jesus’ frustration and anger towards these leaders – particularly for imposing heavy legalistic burdens on the people, being hypocritical and not practising what they preached. He also states that we should call no one ‘Rabbi’ but that we are all equal as brothers, which suggests humility in leadership is important. ‘Jesus said don’t put people on pedestals – in my view, the entire church system ignores this,’ says Harbinson. ‘You have a pulpit which is raised, putting a person physically and metaphorically on a pedestal, set apart quite separately from the flock.’


 Tackling the Issue


Dr Oakley argues that the main priorities for tackling spiritual abuse in the UK are to acknowledge the problem and work on training and research, and also to provide support for people who have experienced it. She also maintains that all people preparing for leadership should be trained in the issue.


It is also about improving the accountability of the church leadership. ‘Every church has to have a mechanism whereby those in power can be questioned and can be removed if necessary,’ says Clare*. ‘The problem is, the churches that have these mechanisms usually don’t need them, and the ones that don’t put them in place are the ones that do.’


For Clifford, external accountability is important. Some denominations have stronger accountability structures than others. ‘We do need to challenge each other as to how we do church… how we put in checks and balances,’ he says. ‘We should ensure there are opportunities to ask questions [in church] and that those who do aren’t labelled as rebels.’ He also advocates the ‘check and balance’ of a leadership team, an ability to laugh at itself, and financial transparency.


Clifford states that it is also about how we judge a member’s commitment to a church. ‘If commitment is judged on financial giving or attendance of church activities, or people are discouraged from involvement in other interests…this can have a controlling element in it,’ he warns. ‘In the charismatic tradition, care should be exercised around strong directional prophecy…ensuring that there is always space given for people to make up their own minds.’


The importance of the subject is stressed by the effect it can have on people’s faith. ‘My heart is evangelism and bringing people in to the kingdom,’ says Dr Oakley. ‘But if you are losing them as fast as they are coming in and people are being hurt in the process, we need to be looking at that…scripture is often used out of context to make people do what you want them to do. That is very damaging if they have a strong faith.’


*Some names have been changed