Dealing with Spiritual Abuse – Part 2
If you’re joining us here – this is the second post in a series on spiritual abuse. I recommend that you read the first post before reading this one. To do so click on the link below.
What is spiritual abuse?
Jeff Van Vonderen, co-author of the classic book ‘The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse’, defines spiritual abuse from pastors and leaders like this:
“Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority – the purpose of which is to ‘come underneath’ and serve, build, equip and make God’s people more free – misuses that authority by placing themselves over God’s people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly godly purposes, which are really their own.”
Can Pastors and leaders get abused by congregation members? Sadly, yes they can! This does happen all too often, and I'll look at that subject in a later post, but for now let's continue looking at what constitutes abuse from a spiritual leader.
How does spiritual abuse start?
Spiritual abuse begins when leaders think that they have the right to govern however they like. It happens when they begin to place their vision first, people second, and they believe that their value and reputation is based on achieving results. Godly values and character become of secondary importance and may be sacrificed in order to get their vision accomplished. They often believe that they are truly ‘God’s man for the hour’ and that they are better than those around them. They may be threatened by other gifted people and feel the need to squash them in order to be seen as being the best. Then they will use their position to demand respect and loyalty from their congregants, often finding their sense of value in their position. These are some of the things that begin to set a leader up to becoming abusive.
In my church and ministry life I’ve encountered leaders that have stepped over the line from strong leadership to abuse. Some of these leaders have openly used people to achieve their vision, then dropped them when they no longer needed them. I’ve served under leaders who have bullied and spoken down to people, myself included, and then those same leaders have talked about people behind their back, openly disparaging them to others. I’ve heard leaders openly state that they are the ones who God will use in their city and that their vision is the one that will achieve what God wants. The same leaders have told their congregations not to go to so-and-so’s meetings because they disagreed with what was being taught. We’ve had leaders tell people not to come to our meetings because they disagree with what we teach. I’ve personally been told that I was too extreme, I was ‘new age’, I had a ‘feminist viewpoint and was therefore out of submission and covering’, that I was ‘a jezebel’, and in one church was told ‘that there was a place for my husband but not for me’, and that is just some of what has happened.
For many years I questioned myself and thought that I was out of order and that I was the problem, when in fact that wasn’t fully true. Did I have things that I needed to work through? Yes! Did my childhood wounding make me view things through lenses which were faulty? Yes! Was I sometimes unwise in what I said and how I handled things? Definitely! But many times I just didn’t fit the mould that they wanted to squeeze me into, or I didn’t agree with their viewpoints and said so. This caused me to be labelled by some as being rebellious, and even dangerous, when in fact all that I was doing was questioning. For many years I questioned myself, seeking to fit in and be acceptable, but in the end I realised that I was just seeing flaws and wrongs and speaking out against them, and that was not wrong. Sadly my childhood wounding sometimes caused me to be reactive rather than respectful in doing so, and I had to learn how to work through that. I had to learn to address things in a way that was respectful, and also learn to love God’s flawed leaders, realising that we are all human and we each have our flaws.
So you see I do have some experience in this area, having gone through it myself. It takes a lot of processing and working through when you’ve been the subject of spiritual abuse. From the realisation that it’s happened to you, to working through the feelings of betrayal, grief, anger, sorting out what your part was in it all, forgiveness and more, there is so much that happens. It took me a long time to come to a place of healing from the abuse I suffered, and I learnt so much along the way; especially about how not to treat and lead people.
9 signs of spiritual abuse
The following are 9 signs that spiritual abuse may be happening. Don’t take any of them individually to mean that abuse is definitely happening, however if there are several of them that ring true then seek some advice from a mature trustworthy Christian outside your church.
There will be…
…on leadership and respect for leadership – Spiritually abusive leaders generally have a distorted view of leadership. They often lead in an autocratic or dictatorial style, where they are the one who has control, who makes the decisions, and others are there to do what they decide. They demand respect because of their position, rather than earning it by their example and character. They will surround themselves with people who have similar viewpoints on subjects or can be manipulated to agree with their viewpoint.
…on theology – Often they will unhealthily promote selective biases in theology and push particular emphases from Scripture, such as ‘submission’, ‘end times’, ‘hyper faith’, ‘spiritual warfare’, giving sacrificially’ etc.
A culture of silence, fear, and shame
Spiritually abusive leaders end up creating a culture of silence, fear, and shame, where people feel that they can’t speak out in disagreement or ask questions of leadership for fear of being labelled rebellious, divisive, or even worse, ‘having a jezebel spirit’. If you do question them you will be made to feel that you are wrong to do so, and that the problem lies with you, not them. These leaders may use personal slander against those who speak out, and subsequent isolation on leaving the church or ministry, and a policy of non-contact with those who have left.
An authoritarian leadership style
Abusive churches or ministries often have a charismatic leader, one who often starts off well but eventually slips into believing their own hype, calling for obedience to themself, arrogance, perfectionism, and pride. They actively discourage questions about their decisions, making the person feel like they are somehow questioning God or questioning God’s appointed authority. They will try and replicate themselves in those who serve under them. When people don’t measure up to their standards then it is the people that are assumed to be at fault, rather than the leadership style. That church member will then be seen as weak or unsuitable and will be overlooked for future leadership possibilities. A true godly leader will be servant-hearted, not having dominion over others but serving in humility beside them. Jesus and the apostle Paul were great examples of this (2 Cor. 1:24)
Abusive leaders often have no one that they are accountable to, in life or ministry. They usually only respect other leaders who are as strong or stronger than they are. There is often a secretive atmosphere and they will not be open with their leadership or disclose details of their own lives to other leaders or congregation members. They often believe that a leader should not get too close to those they lead. Healthy pastors are accountable to others, open, welcome input and invite participation.
No respect for personal liberty or expression
Often in abusive situations leaders will place unreasonable demands on members. Church volunteers are often made to work long hours with unrealistic expectations of excellence, many times providing for materials from their own pocket instead of being provided for from church funds. Abusive leaders may demand that things be done their way or not at all. They will manipulate people into feeling that they must do what they are told or else they will be seen as not being faithful to the vision. Members are discouraged from having vision other than that which their leader carries. They are there to serve the leader’s vision, not to have dreams of their own. Serving visions outside their church is seen as being rebellious.
Church members will be led to believe that they are spiritually or morally superior in some way, or have better theology than other churches around them. Other churches and denominations will be frowned on and talked about as being not as good, and members will be encouraged to stay away from them. Abusive churches do not encourage their people to join in with combined church services or events, while at the same time demanding that their people be at all of their own events. People who are hurting, or seen as weak, are given little help and looked down on. Anyone who is not like the leadership, or who is disapproved of by leadership, will be made to feel ‘on the outside’ and that ‘they don’t fit’. They will sometimes even be told that they may fit better in another church.
Insecurity and pride both cause leaders to have to prove that they are spiritually superior in some way. “God told me” or, “God showed me” can often be used as an excuse to support their behaviour and to stop questions. Leaders like this don’t have godly counsellors in their life; instead they have ‘yes men and women’. Immature leaders who haven’t been properly trained will feel the pressure to pretend to be more than they are, in order to appear spiritual enough to lead.
Financial manipulation and control
There will often be a heavy emphasis and legalism around tithing and giving, encouraging people to give only to their church or to give above their ability. They will often use manipulation to encourage giving – things like pushing for people to give sacrificially and making them feel bad if they don’t. There's nothing wrong with a church asking for money; it’s needed to provide the things necessary for that church to function, but 2 Corinthians 9:7 says that giving should be done cheerfully and without compulsion.
Sometimes abusive leaders will use prophecy as a way to gather people to themselves, to lure them into their church, or to dominate or intimidate them. God hates this passionately (Jer 23; Ezek 13:4-5; Matt 7:15-20; 1Jn 4:1-6; 2Pet 2:1-3)
In the next post in this series, I’ll be looking at what to do if you suspect spiritual abuse is happening in your church or to people you know.
If you’ve found this post helpful then can I ask you to please share it by using the Facebook share button at the bottom of the post. There are so many who need the help to work through the abuse they’ve suffered and if you and I can help them do so then it’s worth taking that small moment of time to click on the button.
Some recommended books on the subject.
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse - David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen
Toxic Churches - Marc Dupont.
Faith That Hurts, Faith That Heals - Stephen Arterburn, and Jack Felton.
Breaking Free - David R. Miller.
Churches That Abuse - Ronald Enroth.
52 Lies Heard in Church Every Sunday: ...And Why the Truth Is So Much Better - Steve McVey
The Life-Giving Power of Honour - Rob Packer