|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 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.
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
Mars Hill Refuge
Joyful Exiles (Mars Hill Church)
SGM Survivors (Sovereign Grace Ministries/People of Destiny)
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