Sunday, February 24, 2013

Is Your Church Guilty of Spiritual Abuse? Check the Top Ten Signs

Don't underestimate the danger of spiritual
abuse. It devastates one's pysche, causes
depression and post traumatic stress disorder,
and leaves victims spiritually barren.  
Spiritual abuse: When those in spiritual authority manipulate, intimidate, and control others out of lust for power or fear of sin or insignificance. One or more of these signs doesn’t necessarily mean abuse is present, but the more signs, the more likely it is taking place.

Spiritual abuse is a stain on the body of Christ (I experienced it and write about it in my book). Today, many American churches and denominations are susceptible to it, particularly “reformed” Calvinistic churches or those with a highly disciplined authority structure. I cite examples from my experience including Sovereign Grace Ministries and Calvary Chapel. But spiritual abuse is also subtle and not easily recognizable unless one knows the signs. Learn these top ten signs so you can detect, expose, and help prevent abuse in your Christian community.

1 – Your pastor has an authoritative style of leadership. Churches that abuse typically have one controlling leader whose personality and ideas dominate church sermons, teaching, and decisions. He gathers elders and other pastors around him who submit unquestioningly to his authority. Members and other leaders are not encouraged to think and develop independent of his influence. Signs: (1) Lead pastor’s Sunday sermon is streamed via video to satellite churches. (2) The polity of the church is such that the lead pastor or pastors are shielded from real accountability. (3) There’s a strong focus on members submitting to their leaders and lower leaders submitting to higher leaders. Jesus never organized a hierarchy but told people to be servants. Paul’s form of biblical eldership was based on equality not submission.

2 – You are expected to commit to rigid rules for church membership and submit to church leaders’ authority. Despite no biblical mandate for formal church commitment or ecclesiastical authority in Scripture, spiritually abusive churches push a rigid form of membership and submission to church leaders as obedience to God. A hierarchy develops of members submitting to group leaders to elders to pastors to an executive board, which is controlled by the founder or lead pastor. Signs: (1) Members are required to sign a contract or agreement with strict rules for doctrinal beliefs and behavior. (2) A church discipline process is spelled out in detail that members must agree to.

3 – The church has a very wide view of what’s considered non-negotiable doctrines and behaviors and a very narrow view of what’s considered negotiable. Rather than making Christ’s one law of love for God and neighbor as the most important characteristic of a believer, belief in the right doctrines and certain religious behaviors becomes the main measuring stick for Christian maturity. Signs: There’s a lot of church documentation and teaching on correct doctrine.

4 – Any expression of concern about church decisions, teachings, or behavior of leaders is interpreted as disloyalty or sin. When a member or leader questions or challenges the status quo, they become suspect of being disloyal, told to submit, and even manipulated to do so. If they don’t, they are forced out. Signs: The history of the church or denomination includes leaders and members being fired or leaving under less-than-peaceful circumstances.

5 – The church deflects tough questions about their faith and doctrine. Only safe questions are allowed. There’s a veneer of openness but the bottom line is people are told not to be divisive about church doctrine. Pushed too far, sincere, reasonable questions are shut down in the name of unity. But biblical unity is not about creating uniformity. It’s about loving one another. Signs: Members are not encouraged to accept and explore their doubts but rather submit to what the church says is “orthodox” teaching.

6 – Church discipline is overdone and over taught in the church. Leaders will deny this by pointing to the percentage of discipline cases. But you need to measure the threat of discipline as well and how it’s done. Spiritual abuse happens when the interpretation of Matthew 18 and other Scriptures is very narrow and goes beyond what is stated or what can be reasonably applied to a contemporary situation. Signs: (1) There’s a long document about church discipline policy. (2) There is no appeals process for someone accused. (3) Members suspected of needing church discipline, or who are subject to it, must sit through lots of long meetings with leaders. (4) Shunning the accused is common when someone is deemed unrepentant or chooses to leave the church. Identifying “sin” and real “repentance” can become highly subjective and the church ends up shunning people for minor offenses (disagreeing with leadership or doctrine or what constitutes moral behavior) and rejecting people who have repented but haven’t jumped through sufficient hoops (e.g. signing a “discipline contract”).

7 – Your church and/or denomination has ex-member websites with stories of spiritual abuse. It’s one thing if a few disgruntled ex-members complain, but when a large number of people come out with stories about spiritual abuse, and are willing to post their stories, it’s a huge red flag. Especially when the stories reflect a pattern of misuse of authority, manipulation, and doing damage control to protect the reputation of the church. (See sample list of ex-member websites below).

8 – The church has a very strict definition of gossip. When members have concerns about the church or strains with relationships, they are expected to keep their thoughts to themselves. Signs: Any sharing of negative experiences in relationships, even if it’s healthy venting to a close friend, is perceived as sinful gossip.

9 – The church interprets Bible verses on women in submission to the nth degree. Women are expected to submit to their husbands. Paul’s teachings on women are rigidly and unevenly interpreted—e.g. wives are reprimanded for being unsubmissive but husbands are rarely reprimanded for not loving their wives like Christ and never for not submitting to their wives (Ephesians 5:21 tells believers to “Submit to one another”!! ). Signs: (1) Some churches teach husbands to monitor their wives communications, e.g. email. (2) The debate about women’s roles in the church is not up for discussion despite many alternative biblical interpretations, even in conservative churches, e.g. Four Square, Vineyard, and Evangelical Covenant churches allow women in leadership.

10 – A church deals with cases of sexual abuse in ways that serve the interest of the church not the interest of the victims and their families. When a member of the church is sexually abused by another member, rather than following the law and best practices (reporting it to local police and social services), a church will keep the abuse quiet under the guise of handling it “biblically.” Victims are forced to “forgive” their abusers and remain in their social sphere with no protection from post-traumatic stress and future abuse. Abusers are protected from local authorities and social stigma while victims and families are forced to remain silent about their pain, even to close friends, in the name of squelching “gossip.” Signs: People are familiar with this happening in the Catholic Church but it’s also common in Protestant churches. E.g., in 2012, a lawsuit was filed against several Sovereign Grace Ministries churches, the co-founders, and other leaders claiming cover up of child sexual abuse.

What should you do if you think spiritual abuse is taking place at your church? There is no set answer to this question, as it depends on the situation in the church. People should leave highly abusive churches and don’t look back or feel guilty. If spiritual abuse is not entrenched and it’s only in isolated cases, you should consider approaching a trusted leader in the church with your concern. How they respond will to tell you to what extent it is prevalent or if they desire to stop it from spreading. If they don’t acknowledge a problem and use abusive techniques like 2, 4, 5, & 8 above, it’s probably a highly abusive church and you should leave and consider warning others.

Have you seen other signs? Are there other ex-member groups we can add to this list? Please comment and add your thoughts and experiences with spiritual abuse.

Helpful Resources:
Spiritual Sounding Board – a blog that exposes spiritual abuse and encourages the abused
Abuse Resource Network – information on both sexual and spiritual abuse for Christians
Provender – a clearinghouse of sources on spiritual abuse
The Wartburg Watch – Dissecting Christian trends including spiritual abuse

Ex-member Sites:
Mars Hill Refuge
Joyful Exiles (Mars Hill Church)
SGM Survivors (Sovereign Grace Ministries/People of Destiny)
SGM Refuge
Calvary Chapel Abuse

Toxic Faith by Stephen Arteburn and Jack Felton (classic from early 1990s; one of first to uncover the problem in run-of-the-mill churches)
Churches that Abuse by Ron Enroth
Recovering from Churches that Abuse by Ron Enroth
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen
Spiritual Abuse Recovery by Barb Orlowski


MEM Reel said...

I just found your blog. Your comments strunk home. A few weeks ago, my husband and were within days of being evicted from our home. He answered an ad with Victory Handyman, a small busniess with Victory Home Recovery. We were offered a home for a month to see if the job would work out. There were red flags, but we needed a home. The very night we moved in, my husband missed ONE service. Because church wasn't important to us, we were told to move our things out and the job was taken away. We are now being housed by Union Mission until we can move to Montana. It was only until this happen that we learned this was not a group to mix with and we are so thankful we did not get mixed up with this group.

MEM Reel said...

I just found your blog. My husband and I got mixed up with such a group briefly. The ministry, knowing we were about to be evicted offered my husband a job and us a home. My husband missed one service because we were moving in and that same night we were told to move out. We are now being homed by Union Mission until we can move with family across country. But we count our blessings. We were with Victory Home Recovery 72 hours. May others learn from our mistake.

Michael Camp said...

MEM, thanks for sharing. Your experience reveals a tactic that lots of homeless "ministries" do--get people to sit through a service or class before they help them or make attendance mandatory during a program. There is a place for "tough love" for addicts but often it's religious hoops one has to jump through that aren't part of restoring someone but part of a legalistic system. May you be blessed on your journey back.

Anonymous said...

Speaking from experience, the subtlety of many abusive situations can give the impression to many congregants that their church is not abusive. There are pastors who do rule with an iron fist but have mastered the art of making it look like they have very little power at all. They surround themselves with yes-men and women who protect the pastor by carrying out his wishes while making it appear that he has nothing to do with the judgments and ostracism that are taking place. And there are pastors who delegate authority to others and, in doing so, allow the underlings to rampantly abuse by claiming that they are not going to micro-manage their staff.

Often, the rules are unspoken and you don't know what they are until you break them. The most heinous rule is the rule that says you can't talk about what is going on - you become the problem if you point out the problem. It is much more insidious to have a church that doesn't have disciplinary procedures than those who do simply because when there are no written rules, they can make them up as they go.

Ultimately, spiritual abuse robs you of your relationship with God - telling you that you are not good enough, don't measure up, aren't acceptable, and that neither God nor the church wants anything to do with you. This message can be sent in a miriad of ways but is most notably done through shaming, ostracism, shunning, and refusing to extend grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration.

Bishop Andrew Gerales Gentry said...

Unfortunately many of the so called "homeless ministries" or what I call "soup and salvation centers" even some that reportedly receive some kinds of government grants have a very bad of manipulation and exploitation. But spiritual manipulation is not the sole possession or characteristic of the literalists. I know of one local "historic" Episcopal parish that whilst embracing everything left of center it does not tolerate "pointing out a problem" especially if you are angry about it and if you do point it out or get a little mad You are the problem. In very subtle ways you will find yourself ostracized. Whether it is "a strict adherence" to orthodoxy or political correctness the institutional church is full of such manipulation.

Michael Camp said...

findingellen, you're so right about subtlety. Sometimes when I describe abuse in a church, members get defensive and say, "I've never seen anything like that." Usually it's because they are the type to never rock the boat, so never have been in a position to be abused, and/or they don't see the inner workings of the church. It's when you question or break the rules (often unwritten as you say), that abuse rears its head.

You make a good point about no disciplinary rules being more insidious. Thanks for weighing in.

Michael Camp said...

Andrew, it's sad that homeless ministries do that. Love and practical assistance isn't enough for them.

You make an excellent point. Conservative churches don't have a monopoly on this. It can happen anywhere there is a controlling person or system. In my experience, it's more likelyl to be in a theologically conservative environment because things like "Bible inerrancy," "submitting to Scripture," and "obey your church leaders," can be readily used to justify a controlling person and system.

Barb Orlowski said...

Hi Michael,

Glad to see your posted list which can be a huge help to people processing their church situation.

Glad to see that you posted about my book: Spiritual Abuse Recovery and about the Abuse Resource Network site. Wondering if you could also post about my site too?

There are many helpful articles and resources available on this site to help people who are in various stages of distress, healing, and recovery.

All the best!


Michael Camp said...

Barb, welcome to my blog, and yes, I have checked out and it is great! I will look at it more carefully later and I'd be glad to list it on this post and maybe on the blog/website list. Thanks for checking in and confirming my information is helpful. I love Ronald Enroth quote and have been saying this all along:

”It [spiritual abuse] is far more prevalent and much closer to the evangelical mainstream than many are willing to admit.”

I have my theories on why this is so and although I agree with you that it's "how one practices their beliefs" that is most important, there are some beliefs that just maximize the chances of spiritual abuse happening and attract/encourage those who have controlling personalities. And, those beliefs aren't in line with the "original path."

Someday, I would love to interact with you on this and hear your thoughts.

Barb Orlowski said...

Hey, great to make contact with you, Michael.

Where are you located?

Agreed, re Enroth's insight. Yes, mainstream and not just relegated to cults. Many people are involved in 'raising awareness' about spiritual abuse.

Yes, some church cultures put out the red carpet and probably don't get it.

You are welcome to send me an email-- that is for website contact.


Keya Brown said...

Thank you so much for your comment on the subject! It completely speaks to my experience in the PCA. I mean completely!!! It's been 4 yrs and I'm still struggling to get over what happened. Never in my life could I imagine being treated so unfairly all in the name of Jesus! You have little defense and their manipulation has you so confused and questioning your own sanity! They desire secrecy on the matter and threaten you with removal from the sacrament or excommunication if you share it. At least that's what happened to my husband and I. Madness I tell you! -I thought I was in the twilight zone! Thank God we had the will power to leave.

Michael Camp said...

Amen. Thank God you did have the will power to leave. Thanks for sharing your story.

I had the same experience when you end up questioning your sanity! You know something is wrong, you speak up, and are told you are ___________ [disloyal, unteachable, have rebellious spirit, have a problem with authority, etc.]

As I see it, the root of this is how people use the Bible. They either 1) twist scripture to fit their own control-freak needs, 2) "obey" it literally to appease their own fear of "not submitting to scripture," (they can't think for themselves) or 3)a combination of the two.

#1s are the top "Abusers" of the system. #2s are the "Enablers" of abuse (they can't speak up because that would be "disobedient").

People like you and your husband are the brave souls, the "Challengers," who eventually leave, often after being a silent "Enabler" for years and then realizing their blindness.

Welcome home, Keya.

PCA? Too many denominational acronyms to keep track of.

Jennifer said...

My church was very cautious about being too rigid - no rules of discipline, nothing in writing- actually rules changed with the pastor who is a woman. She is very authoritative and disciplined everyone and controlled all members. She also taught the opposite in that all females preach and teach while men stay passive in each family. She totally showered us with gifts and "love" in the beginning then everything changed suddenly then she chased me out of the church.

Michael Camp said...

Jennifer, interesting twist on church authoritarianism. Issue is control. If they can control you, they like you. If not, good riddance. Thanks for weighing in.

Anonymous said...

I am in a church that I feel controls its members. We are taught that "when we come to Christ, we are to die" and that I believe but it is taught in a way that everything has to be forsaken for taking care of the church. We are mandated to attend 3 services each week, and on Saturday's there is always something going on at the church that we should be in attendance. There is always some new group that the Pastor or Leadership group comes up with that we are suppose to attend, but if you do not participate in it, you are viewed as "not having the vision or the pastor's heart". All of the extra groups cost something to attend. When on ends another one starts. It is always giving, giving and giving.

When it comes to Pastor's Anniversary, members are told how much to give the Pastor each year. This year my amount is $600. We are always in a pledge drive for something and you are shunned if you do not participate or sign a pledge form, even though the Bible states that is better not to make a vowel and not pay it." If you quote that scripture, you are told that you are using that as an excuse not to pledge. This church is constantly asking members to sacrifice. I mean every service! And the scripture that is used for sacrificing is the "widow woman who gave all that she had." The scripture that is used for giving a certain amount of money is when God told the people what to bring in the Old Testament. One thing I try to point out to others is that the people had the resources and all it was was a matter of being obedient to God.

I have been a member of this church for 32 years and I have grown spiritually. It is very sound when it comes to Biblical teaching, but it is the other issues that I am concerned about. I am one who will ask questions and question those in leadership when I feel there is not Biblical example to submit to.

I am distressed because I have asked God to change the way I see things if I am wrong, and to change my heart. I do not want to be in a place where I am a hindrance to the move of God.

I realize I have been hurt in the past and continue to get hurt when I attend church. As long as I have been a member of the church, the leadership team is more adept to believe a new person who comes to the church; rather than, examine my life over the course of the years and compare it to what the person is saying. I have never been in any divisions or mess as long as I have been there. I have been tremendously hurt by the actions of leadership and members, but I continue to press my way to hear a word from the Lord. I really need some sound counsel on this matter? I do not have any one to ask without an agenda of trying to get me to join their church. Any response will be appreciated!

Michael Camp said...


Thanks for sharing. You are welcome here. Your church sounds like a tremendous burden, emotionally, spiritually, and financially. It is extremely manipulative and spiritually abusive to you and its members. It is the opposite of the love of Jesus and his commands "not being burdensome." Why do you still attend? We don't serve the church, we serve God.

>>everything has to be forsaken for taking care of the church<< CONTROL. WORSHIPING CHURCH NOT GOD.

>>If you quote that scripture, you are told that you are using that as an excuse<< No freedom to interpret, read, and think on the scriptures for yourself. CONTROL. MANIPULATION.

>>members are told how much to give the Pastor each year<< CONTROL. VIOLATING PRINCIPLE OF GIVING "WITHOUT COMPULSION."

>>It is always giving, giving and giving<< HYPOCRISY. Where is their example of giving to others? They are always receiving, receiving, receiving. They are Pharisees.

>>I have been tremendously hurt by the actions of leadership and members<< ABUSE. LACK OF LOVE.

I tell you this as a friend. You don't need a "word from the Lord" to give yourself permission to leave this church. Your heart is right for asking for change if you are wrong, BUT you know them by their fruit. From what you've shared, your assessment is accurate.

This church is a hindrance to the move of God, not you. The Pharisees also taught some things biblically, but they missed the mark wide.

My encouragement to you is to realize they have no moral authority over you. You are free. They are abusive. Don't keep harming yourself and perhaps your family. By staying, you enable them and the abuse. By leaving, you shine a light on true spirituality and love and maybe can help others gain freedom too.

I have no agenda or church I want you to join. People who do are into "churchianity," not following the Path of Christ. Think about taking a break from church for a season. It is not sin. If you think you should go to a church, for heaven's sake, find one that is not like this. One that says you're free to come or free to go. Many believers today are finding community outside the institutional church or at least, finding or forming non-controlling churches.

Thanks for sharing. I hope you find freedom and a caring community, not an abusive one. Feel free to email me further questions if you want:

Best, Michael

Dianne Rodriguez said...

This is why "religion" is not about God. It is what society has created to control people. Religion, all religions, will be the destruction of Mankind. Be it through Wars, terrorism, ect. You don't need a building to worship. You have Catholic, Protestant, Non-denominational, Orthodox running around saying the other one has it wrong. Truth is "they" all have it wrong. The word of God through the ages has been subverted, misinterpreted, and out right changed to "create " a religion that is so far off base to what it began as, that it has become more of a danger than a salvation.

Michael Camp said...

I wholeheartedly agree. :-) The trouble is, there's often enough of half-truth in religious Christianity that it keeps people inside. It takes time, and often pain and struggle, before they recognize the half that's untrue and that warps the whole thing. Thanks for weighing in.

By the way, my next book will attempt to trace what you describe. :-)

Virginia Knowles said...

Michael, thanks for writing this article. I am a former longtime SGM member, now happy in a mellow little PCA congregation. I have written a lot about spiritual abuse (including SGM issues), vintage hymns, and domestic violence at

Anonymous said...

This is to the person(s) that
said they're not sure they should leave their church even though they've been terribly abused there:
do you realize that NOT leaving an abusive church may be the wrong thing to do? If you have done everything you can and still being abused, then that may be the answer God is sending you...wipe the dust off your feet and GET OUT!!! If you are bringing children to this church then you are responsible to protect them from spiritual abuse. How they get treated in church will affect their relationship with God later on.Protection from a spiritually abusive church is no different than taking someone out of
an abusive home situation. The bible says to guard your heart.
No where does God say to attend an abusive church. Ask Him to show you a genuine church in your area.
I say this from experience...I went through spiritual abuse for years.

2tellthetruth said...

I have had spiritual abuse issues with a Vineyard church I attended, Here's a link to the story.

Michael Camp said...

Thanks, 2tellthetruth, check out my new blog and feel free to comment over there. This one is not as active. I attended Vineyard Churches too and saw some of those problems, although Vineyard tended to be more "free," they still operate under the church authority paradigm.

Anonymous said...

What is truly sad is when those in authority refuse to address spiritual abuse. Here in the Episcopal diocese of Virginia, the powers that be refused to get involved in clergy misconduct unless it involves something like rape or murder. The party line is, "That's not sufficiently weighty to the ministry of the church to warrant our attention.

Beyond appalling.

Deirdre Saoirse Moen said...

I'm ex-Calvary Chapel, though I was never a deep believer, but I wanted to give a heads up to reddit's ex-Mormon forum for those who are former Mormons. There are a lot of links to help, as well as some active in-person meetups.

Also, Mormon Stories has a ton of interviews with people who are, or have been, involved in Mormonism in various ways (and not limited to the LDS church), including their faith stories, coming out as LGBT, and the feminist movement within Mormonism.