Eight Signs of Spiritual Abuse in the Church

Eight Signs of Spiritual Abuse to See If It’s Happening to You

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“Can you give some clear examples of signs of how a pastor or church leader is crossing the line from being a shepherd to a spiritual abuser? It would be helpful to know when to support a pastor when he is genuinely trying to defend and protect his flock from outside and wrong influence vs. a pastor who has an agenda and is above questioning or accountability. The lines sometimes seem blurred, and I would appreciate your help distinguishing these differences.” – Supporting Member

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Internal Disordering

What you’re calling spiritual abuse happens when someone is determined to evilly manipulate another person to accomplish an ungodly agenda. Anytime anyone sins against another person, including physical and sexual harm, it is spiritual abuse—or the disordering of one’s soul. You cannot physically or sexually harm someone without adversely affecting their inner being—their spiritual selves. I realize your question is not asking about physical or sexual abuse but asking a question about the internal adverse impact on one’s soul, which is what all sin does.

Humans are two parts—dichotomy: physical and spiritual. The spiritual aspects of a person include the soul, spirit, mind, will, emotions, thoughts, intentions, etc. The physical also has several parts, e.g., internal organs and external body parts. Spiritual abuse happens to the soul, which primarily affects the mind—how a person thinks, and you’ll see emotional manifestations from their thought processes. Spiritual abuse takes the victim’s thoughts captive by trying to manipulate them into believing lies. Suppose the internal disordering of the soul continues unabated because of the antagonist’s sin. In that case, it will exponentially affect the person spiritually, especially how they relate to God and others.

Darkness comes over their soul, leading to depression, despair, despondency, and even suicide. It also leads to erratic behaviors like random anger, fear-motivated withdrawal, or alleviating mechanisms like alcohol and medications. Alleviating happens to someone more than you may think, which makes your question relevant. The most common place where you find spiritual abuse is in contexts where someone has authority over someone else, whether the power is God-given or self-proclaimed.

Home and Church

Bad marriages and horrible churches are two of your typical breeding grounds for this type of sinful activity perpetrated on the vulnerable. It can also occur in work environments. In these contexts, there are God-given hierarchies. These biblical structures will become dangerous when the sinful person wants to dominate someone. God pre-wired people to follow and submit to others. Paul called Christians to follow other Christians (Ephesians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 4:8). Our culture calls this the herd mentality, which is an unfortunate connotation.

Christians call it biblical wisdom and humility to submit and follow. The world does not function well without hierarchal structures, as we see in our current equal outcome culture, where everyone is on the same level functionally. God did not wire us to be independent gods but to follow Him and others, making a hierarchy crucial for our well-being. You see this notion throughout the Old and New Testaments. God elevated leaders for His people to follow. So far, so good. The problem comes when some leaders forget their God-given call and God-illuminated directives for leading others well.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1).

Proceed with Caution

However, your question is a dangerous one. It is dangerous because it can unsettle and even destroy a local church. I appreciate the carefulness and sobriety with which you approach this subject. There are souls at stake. If there is no spiritual abuse, discretion is paramount so our Christian brothers and sisters are not discouraged by the discourse. If there is spiritual abuse, caution is crucial because our Christian brothers and sisters are in harm’s way. They need help; you must warn them, and intervention must happen.

The other people group you want to think about are those who reject our religion. You do not want to give them more ammunition for their already well-stocked arsenals. The most significant concern is God’s fame, of course. You want to make God’s name great in all you do, so you cannot ignore potential spiritual abuse, especially when you are made aware that it is happening. To be silent about the abuse makes you culpable in a less consequential way.

I appreciate your love for humanity and the body of Christ. I admire your courage because you are willing to speak up on a far more critical matter than some of the things we like to turn into arguments. To answer your question, I’m going to ask you eight questions. It would be foolish for me to pretend that I know the answer to your question when I don’t know what is happening. However, I do understand the problem and will provide you with eight signs of spiritual abuse. I trust these responses will help you determine what might be happening in your situation. My questions do not represent an exhaustive list or a list in order of importance.

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Eight Signs of Possible Abuse

1: Do You Have to Ask?

If you have to ask whether a person is spiritually abusive, that may be your first sign. Think about Jesus here. Nobody asked that question about Him—nobody with any common sense. If you are sitting under a pastor and you have a general sense of uneasiness about him, you need to explore this—first:

  1. Start with your thoughts.
  2. Then, with God.
  3. With your spouse, if you’re married.
  4. Possibly a close confidant.
  5. Please keep a tight net around your thoughts, at least initially. It will become apparent to all if you are right, but if you are not, you do not want to mischaracterize a person’s reputation or discourage others unnecessarily.

2: Does He Delegate?

Abusive pastors are usually controllers. They like to micromanage their organization and their people. There is one way to do things, and it is their way. Alternatively, when abuse is not there, you will find much biblical liberty that taps into the diversity in Christ’s body. The controller does not appreciate opinions; they are not encouraged or celebrated.

3: Does He Clone Leaders?

Along with his tight control over how the church operates, you will also sense that he only uses those in lockstep with him. Think Hitler here. Hitler believed in a superior way and granted promotion only to those who gave allegiance to him. You had to have his trust to carry out his policies using his methods. The spiritual abuser will test his candidates, usually with extra-biblical guidelines—his guidelines. The people promoted within his system will think and act similarly to him. They are pawns who won’t buck the system—his system. One of the instructive things you’ll find with his underlings is that if you ask them a question they do not know the answer to, they will not be able to provide an answer. They will have to check with HQ first. The Spirit of God and His Word are no longer leading the church. The leaders keep in step with another kind of spirit.

4: Does He Clone a Culture?

Because of his heavy-handed control and his cloning of leaders, you will begin to notice a lack of diversity in your church. They will create their language, mannerisms, and customs like the leader. When guests visit, they will notice how different it is from other local churches. Those inside the clone factory will take this as a compliment. Those outside the clone factory will think it is a cult. No sensible Christian should walk into any Christian church and believe it is a cult because of its unique language, mannerisms, or customs.

Paul wrote to many churches, teaching them how to think and behave, and you see a consistent pattern throughout church history of local church body life. Within diversity in all the local churches, there is a similarity between those churches worldwide. If your church is becoming something other than what anyone would typically expect from a New Testament, local church—while making allowances for pneumatic (Spirit-led) diversity—there may be a danger. This problem will point back to the tight-fisted control of the leader.

5: What Do You Think?

If you are not around your pastor, are you less guarded? Are you free to be you? I am not talking about the fear of pastor syndrome, where insecure people are intimidated by authority figures or people who overly exalt their pastor, thinking he is bigger than life. One of the pastor’s greatest strengths is his ability to build up another person while humanizing himself. Do you feel edified and free to be the person God calls you to be, or are you more cautious about your words and actions around him? Think about Hitler again.

If I were around Hitler, I would guard my words and actions. If I were around Jesus, I would be relaxed and free to be myself. If I were not relaxed, He would lead me into that freedom (Psalm 23:1-6). I know I can make a mistake around Jesus. I would be nervous about messing up around Hitler. The abusive pastor makes you more self-aware and self-conscious. You feel more constricted and less free, especially when around him.

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6: Are You Free to Speak?

Can you tell him what you are thinking? Let’s go back to Jesus again. Prayer is one of your most beautiful means of grace as God’s child. You are encouraged to talk to Him. You can tell Him anything and never fear undesirable repercussions. Your pastor is the Lord’s under-shepherd. God called him to emulate the Savior as he provides an example for you to follow. You should be as free to talk to your pastor as you are free to speak to the Lord.

Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3).

  • Can you share your concerns with him, whatever they are?
  • Do you believe you can trust him?
  • Does your pastor steward your thoughts and concerns like Jesus, always seeking your best?
  • Can you disagree with him?
  • Does he approach your differing opinions as a learner, not a defender of his position?
  • Is he willing to allow you to exercise your views as long as they are not contrary to the Bible?
  • Is he willing to change his mind because he sees the wisdom and value of your input?

7: Is He Ignorant?

He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit (1 Timothy 3:6).

A pastor can be a novice. He may not be a recent convert, but he could act like one. One of the patterns I have noticed in our church culture today is how the process for selecting pastors does not pay attention to the more essential details. In many cases, the qualifications for a pastor are not 1 Timothy 3:1-7. It is more about a person’s ambition to be in a ministry—possibly his education, charisma, and leadership ability. The church is looking for a particular guy, but his character is not at the top of the list.

A genuine desire to be a pastor and an excellent pastoral education or a leadership gift does not make you a good leader. Hitler had two of these: a strong desire to be great and a pronounced leadership gift, though twisted. He was not an educated man, but he was street-smart. The qualifications Paul gave Timothy were mostly about a person’s character. Except for the gift of teaching, the criteria for a pastor are the same for any believer. They are Christlike character traits found in the person’s heart, which take much time to discern.

There have been too many instances where folks have given men the reins of a local church, even though they were deficient in character. Premature promotion is a disaster for the church people, the pastor, his family, and God’s fame. It is easier not to put a person in ministry than to put him in ministry and remove him later. The fallout can be disastrous and generational.

8: Is He Humble?

Has he created an environment for personal growth and relationship building? Servant leaders develop environments of grace where those they serve can grow and mature into the unique Christlike people God called them to be. The humility of the leader accomplishes this, not his pride. Your spiritual abuse question also applies to you: can your spouse and your friends share their concerns with you, whatever they may be? If they cannot share because of your immaturity, anger, or unwillingness to listen, you must reconsider how you may affect them. A humble man or woman will want to hear about areas of weakness because he’s never about himself. The humble pastor welcomes grace-motivated, grace-concerned individuals seeking his best for God’s glory. That kind of pastor is an active learner willing to change, grow, and mature. He’s a good under-shepherd.

Call to Action

  1. Is there an authority figure in your life whom you believe is abusing you or someone else? How do they align with these eight signs? Perhaps you can add other potential signs.
  2. If you believe abuse is happening, will you talk to a competent and trusted friend about this to affirm or dismiss your assumptions? It’s not wrong to talk to others about someone else if your motives are redemptive and you hope to resolve a potential issue.

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