Spiritual Abuse: 8 Warning Signs for Churches

Churches ought to be – and usually are – places of healing and nurture. Sometimes it goes wrong – and sometimes this is for motives that aren’t in themselves unworthy. Abuse happens when people aren’t respected and valued, but are seen as a means to an end. Learning to recognise abuse is vital – and so is standing up to it when it happens.

Two-thirds of Christians responding to a survey from the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service say they’ve been the victims of ‘spiritual abuse’.


So how do we recognise spiritual abuse? The study doesn’t go into details, but here are some suggestions about what might count as abuse.

1. You’re made to feel guilty because unreasonable demands are made on your time or your finances.

It’s right that Christians join a local church and play whatever part they can in its life, including supporting it financially. But when encouragement to attend meetings or to give becomes an expectation, and when other people’s behaviour towards you changes because you aren’t doing what they believe you should, it can become a way of forcing someone to conform.

2. Your voice is silenced or your opinions are denigrated.

Every church has its own character and will teach the doctrines and beliefs it feels are right and in accordance with Scripture. Alongside that, however, ought to go a respect for people who hold different views and a willingness to hear what they say. If people regard you with suspicion because of what you believe, it’s a way of excluding you.

3. Fellowship with other Christians is discouraged or controlled.

In some churches there’s a hostility towards those who belong to different traditions because they aren’t ‘sound’. Particular doctrines – for instance on the End Times, or on the place of women in the church – might be taught as fact rather than as interpretations of Scripture, leading to those who don’t hold these views being branded as heretical. Under the pretext of ‘defending the sheep’, leaders can teach against having contact with such people.

4. Leaders exercise improper authority over you.

When church leaders try to influence your choice of friends, where you work, where you go to college or how you spend your leisure time, there might be spiritual abuse. There’s a difference between good advice that might be genuinely sought and welcomed, and an expectation that you’ll seek permission from the church before you take decisions.

6. Church is coming between you and your family.

Separating people from their families is a classic tactic. When church leaders encourage their congregations to see the church as their family and teach that worldly ties aren’t as important as spiritual ones, that’s a warning sign.

7. You’re a leader who’s being bullied by your congregation.

It’s sometimes assumed the leaders are the ones with the power. Often that’s not so. Church leaders have a strong sense of duty that members can play on to get their own way. They might make unreasonable demands on you. They might accuse you of being a false teacher because they don’t like what you say. It can be hard to resist this sort of thing, because it’s assumed ministers will always be patient and forgiving.

8. Wrongdoing is covered up in the name of protecting the church’s good name.

In the worst cases, authority-figures can ‘justify’ real physical or sexual abuse by claiming God has given them rights over their victims. If someone is being abused or taken advantage of in any way – sexually, emotionally or financially, for instance – this behaviour needs to be called out and the vulnerable protected. If leaders aren’t held accountable, those responsible are colluding with the abusers.

This survey figure comes with a health warning, partly because the respondents might have been self-selecting – taking the chance to share their stories for the first time – and partly because there’s no agreed definition of what spiritual abuse is.

Nevertheless, the study says, there are clear characteristics, including coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring, control through misusing religious texts and providing a ‘divine’ rationale for behaviour. Often it’s church leaders who do this, or people with influence in the church. And it’s not all one-sided – church leaders can be abused too.

Source: Christian Today

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