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Any instance where a person chooses to dominate, manipulate, or seek to control someone else is a context for spiritual abuse. I regularly see spiritual mistreatment in marriage counseling, where one spouse is creating havoc in the other spouse’s life.
I think most people would equate spiritual abuse as something that happens in a local church or within a denominational setting. When Peter wrote about spiritual abuse, he most certainly had the local church in mind.
Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3).
The word “spiritual” speaks to the type and the location of the abuse–it is spiritual, and it happens inside of a person. Spiritual abuse is different from physically beating someone or bringing other forms of physical harm to a person. Though bodily harm will affect you spiritually, the idea of spiritual abuse is its internal effect.
This chapter is about how a person can be abused spiritually within an organizational setting, even when there is no physical danger. These kinds of mental mind games happen more than you may realize.
Spiritual abuse connotes mental manhandling. It is controlling and manipulating the thoughts of an individual to coerce the person to a desired end. This outcome is easy to accomplish within religious systems.
People participate in religion because they are eager to be part of a system to which they can submit. They desire to follow God, and they want others to teach them how to honor Him by their lives. I would say this kind of humility is the makeup of most people who consistently pursue God, His Bible, and His church.
This paradigm is most definitely what happens in the counseling office. People come to me broken, looking for help. There is a level of vulnerability and willingness to motivate a person to find solutions for their situational challenges.
Vulnerable people are manipulatable people. They are looking for answers, which makes them willing to submit to the counsel given. This reality elevates soul care to the highest level of sobriety.
As a Christian counselor, I realize I have the full attention of those within my care. Their hearts are open to what I have to say. God has placed me in a position that could direct the entire course of their future lives.
It is profoundly humbling to think about, and even as I write this, I feel a weight on my soul for the people who are in my care. The experience of writing is similar. The Lord has given me a big door to walk through, and the reality of the effect I can have on people’s lives never leaves me.
People do not enter their local churches the same way they walk onto a car sales lot. They come to the church building with open hearts, eager to receive something that will help them to be better human beings.
Some of these believers even prepare their hearts beforehand by asking the Father to open their eyes and minds so they can receive the transformative Word. They appeal,“Lord, give us ears to hear what you have to say.”
Because of these willful vulnerabilities from the congregation, every teacher should be doubly cautious about how he brings his teaching to bear on hungry hearts.
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).
It would not take much to steer a person the wrong way or to abuse them spiritually. You couple a person’s desire to be taught with a teacher’s propensity to sin, and it makes sense as to why Peter and James would warn pastors about how to take care of their flocks.
When abuse happens, it’s hard to perceive or believe it is happening to you. It typically takes a long while for the mind to shift gears from being willingly vulnerable to willingly defensive.
The hungry soul wants to be part of an organization that helps them mature in Christ. As time within the system progresses, and as they become more acquainted with the internal machinations behind the scenes, they may experience things that they don’t relate to their understanding of the Bible.
This process will be slow for them. The abused will go from not seeing the abuse to denying it. It will be a challenge for them to admit that what they are observing is true. I think most of us prefer to live in a reasonable amount of bliss.
If abuse is happening, as they become more involved in the system, the chances of them experiencing violence will be high. What they finally understand will become their personal experience, as they are on the receiving end of mental manipulations and unedifying speechifying.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:29).
This kind of domination will be exhausting to the soul and fatiguing to the mind–two signs of abuse. Their walk with God will become more rote than refreshed, more guarded than joyful.
It is like those scenes you see in war movies of the soldiers slinking their way back from the battlefield. Their eyes are glazed over, shoulders slumped, and their gait drags along.
The abused person is shell-shocked. Their energy is gone. The soul drains. They are the victims of a verbally pummeling that leads to spiritual defeat. In most situations like these, the abused does not know what happened until it has already happened.
They are always hoping against hope. Just maybe things will change. But the problem with staying too long can over-tax the soul, which could prolong their recovery.
If spiritual abuse is happening within an authoritarian context, you are more than likely not going to change it. Only the mighty hand of God can intervene in the lives of the abusers. They have constructed their systems with no real accountability measures in place.
Spiritual abuse thrives when there is no checks and balances set up to counteract the sinful actions. Abusers are shrewd. They live within a system that only they can manage. No one else can disrupt what they have built.
There is always an apparent dichotomy between the leadership and the laity. Though the congregant may interact with the leaders, they will not be able to hold the authorities accountable. And what you know about the leadership on a superficial level is not all there is to know.
True biblical leadership is different. Individuals found their leadership worldview on humility, which manifests in openness, transparency, honesty, and vulnerability. Christian leaders invite you to speak into their lives.
They build open systems where all people are truly equal, and they treat their followers as more significant (Philippians 2:3-4). Biblical leadership cares more about the people they serve than their own lives (Mark 10:45).
They have a healthy self-suspicion of themselves, knowing how the heart leans toward corruption, and without the care of a reciprocal and caring community, they understand the possibilities of personal failure.
This trap motivates them to build communally rather than isolating themselves from the body of Jesus. They have an interdependent worldview when it comes to church life. They don’t want to be independent leaders, as though the community they serve does not matter.
True shepherding always has attentive ears to the needs of the flock (Psalm 23:5), and the leaders would rather die than to offend those within their care. Abusing another person, regardless of the context, is about as anti-gospel as a person can be.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).
But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written (Exodus 32:32).
For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh (Romans 9:3).
I would not recommend you go toe-to-toe with spiritual abusers. If abuse is happening, I suggest you leave the system of injustice. I’m not saying you should refrain from saying anything. You should tell someone. Matthew 18:15-17 applies to you, and it is quite clear on what you should do.
You should make your appeals and try to address the wrongs you perceive. I’m not recommending you slither passively out the door without making a sound. I am saying that in most cases, efforts to change abusive leadership or leadership models do not accomplish anything good.
The spiritual abusers live in a closed system of which you are not allowed to participate. They have firm and defined secret handshakes where a person is vetted as they climb the ladder of success.
If you’re in what you perceive to be a manipulative, heavy-handed, overly-authoritarian church environment, you need first of all to make an assessment of what is going on in your church as well as in your soul.
Here are a few considerations, which is by no means an exhaustive list. These thoughts will get the ball rolling (in your mind). If you have a friend, like a spouse, who can wisely walk with you through this process, it would be good to seek their counsel.
If abuse is objectively happening and God has not called you to bring change, and you know you can’t bring change and your conscience is hardening, you need to consider leaving.
Here are a few “soul signs” that, if they are happening, you must seek help. These could be signs that are pointing you toward the exit. These are signs that speak to something wrong with you, and it’s imperative you find help. I preface each one of these statements with, “when you think about your authority,”
The only person you can change is yourself. If the abusive environment does not change, you need to leave. The longer you stay, the more hurt and hardened you will become.
Prayer is the best thing you can do for the abusers. But you will not be able to do this if you’re angry or harbor resentment in your heart toward them. They need your prayers, not your indignation.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).