In light of recent allegations of spiritual abuse at Soul Survivor Watford and the church formerly known as Anaheim Vineyard, Dr Selina Stone explains what spiritual abuse is and how to identify it in our communities


What is spiritual abuse?

Spiritual abuse can be understood as a separate category of abuse, or simply as a form of abuse (eg. emotional or psychological) that takes place within a religious setting. In many cases, it can appear in subtle ways or go unrecognised.

In her book Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse (SPCK Publishing), Dr Lisa Oakley, a psychologist who has committed her career to research in this area, highlights several examples of what spiritual abuse might look like:

“Manipulation, pressure and exploitation; expectation of excessive commitment and conformity; enforced accountability; censorship (the inability to ask questions, disagree, raise concerns or discuss spiritual abuse); requirement for obedience; fear; isolation and rejection; public shaming and humiliation.”

The “spiritual” in spiritual abuse, can be linked to the use of scripture or theology (ideas about God) to legitimise abuse or threaten people. But it can also be about the spiritual power the abuser often holds through their formal position and/or their status as a “man” or “woman of God”.

Is it happening at my church?

The reality is that most of us at some point in our Christian life may have experienced one or several of the kinds of behaviours Dr Oakley outlines above. This is true of places we consider to have been generally positive.

Our leaders might tell us that what is being demanded of us is essential to our lives as Christians and to pleasing God. The psychological and emotional impact of living under such conditions can be deeply damaging. Coercion, I fear, may be such a part of Christian cultures that we can no longer tell the difference between coercion and healthy Christian leadership.

How can I identify coercive control?

There is nothing wrong with providing opportunities for people to give their time or money to their church. Contributing to the communities we belong to enhances our experience of them. It is also acceptable to explain how particular activities might enhance or undermine a person’s spiritual life. We cannot be Christians in isolation. But coercion prevents a person from having agency and power over their own lives and gives that power to another. Coercion does not allow people to disagree or say no without consequences. It denies the God given dignity and freedom of a human being.

How can I support someone who has been spiritually abused?

When spiritual abuse happens, the consequences are devastating. When God’s name, voice, will and character become associated with an individual who turns out to be an abuser, a spiritual crisis can easily follow. It can also provoke an emotional and psychological crisis for Christians.

In some cases, survivors are expected to remain silent to prove they are “good Christians”. They can experience gaslighting (where an individual’s experience or perception of reality is repeatedly undermined or questioned by another).

How can a person differentiate between God’s voice and the harmful actions of “God’s anointed”? This can involve a considerable process that often involves helping the abused remove themselves from the place where the abuse took place and other similar contexts.

Some survivors seek alternative spaces to explore spirituality and faith without the risk of manipulation by others. Some find their way back to God, and some even find their way back to church. Yet neither outcome can be predetermined, and neither should be demanded.

Healthy Christian cultures ensure that each person understands the power they have, and are able to reflect on how they should and shouldn’t use it. This is not just a matter for leaders on platforms, but for all of us, who have the power to tell the truth, speak up when it counts and stand in solidarity with those who suffer. Each of us is responsible for reporting the abuse of children or adults at risk of abuse. We must all be aware of the safeguarding procedures in our churches and other settings so we are ready to act when necessary. If someone shares their story of experiencing abuse, we can listen well by not questioning them, expressing doubt or downplaying their experience. We might be in the position to offer practical support. This might be as simple as sitting with them as they send an email or make a phone call to report the abuse. It might also be helpful to let them know who else they can speak to who may have the relevant expertise.

How can we prevent spiritual abuse?

The problems of spiritual abuse are rooted in the dynamics of power and vulnerability that often shape churches and some Christian organisations. We encourage high levels of vulnerability without having honest conversations about the potential for abuse. We create atmospheres in worship where people are inclined to let their guards down. We encourage people to let go of their will, opinions and desires, but we do not encourage healthy boundaries in view of the risks that exist.

To put it in biblical terms: we focus on the sheep, the shepherd, and even the hired hands, but rarely ever mention the wolves (John 10: 11-13). When we do speak about dangerous leaders, we assume they are in other communities. We warn people about the dangers lurking in other churches and denominations or those with different views, but not about those in the places we inhabit every week.

Preventing spiritual abuse depends on each of us recognising that we are incapable of judging others, and even ourselves, accurately. Trusting in God, does not mean we must practice the boundless trust of others. Love requires that we do what we must to ensure the wellbeing and care of others, as well as ourselves.