I’ve been hearing a lot of stories lately about people who have been spiritually abused. If you’ve not heard that term, let me outline it for you.

I’m going to quote from an article on WebMD because it’s not only pretty good at defining spiritual abuse but WebMD is a fairly trusted site on the net. The article was medically reviewed by Jennifer Casarella, MD on December 18, 2022

What Is Spiritual Abuse?

“Any attempt to exert power and control over someone using religion, faith, or beliefs can be spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse can happen within a religious organization or a personal relationship.

Spiritual abuse is not limited to one religion, denomination, or group of people. It can happen in any religious group…”

The article further outlines signs of spiritual abuse.

“You may be experiencing religious or spiritual abuse if a religious leader has:

  • Used scripture or beliefs to humiliate or embarrass you
  • Coerced you into giving money or other resources that you didn’t want to give
  • Forced you to be intimate or have sex that you didn’t want
  • Made you feel pressured or obligated to do things against your will

“An abusive partner who is using spiritual abuse might:

  • Shame, make fun of, or ridicule your religious beliefs or practices
  • Prevent you from practicing your religion in the way you would like
  • Use your beliefs to manipulate or bully you
  • Demand that your children be raised with/without a certain religion
  • Use religious texts or beliefs to justify other kinds of abuse (physical, sexual, financial, etc.)

“You may be experiencing spiritual abuse if your religious leadership or intimate partner is using scriptures or religious beliefs to control your:”

  • Clothing
  • Behavior
  • Sexuality
  • Decision making
  • Choice to have children or not
  • Finances

Unfortunately, spiritual abuse is rampant but it’s not new. Religion has always been misused as a means to control, oppress, and harm others. The stories I have heard lately are from people who have been raised in fundamentalist Christian homes. That means they were raised in homes where the parents applied a strict literal interpretation of scripture, dogma, and ideology that stresses the importance of distinguishing one’s ingroup from the outgroup.

Let me share a few stories as examples.

  • Parent tells adult child that she must honor and obey her parents in all her choices, including her friend group, fiancé, clothing, et al. If she doesn’t, the parents will tell everyone in the church she is sinning against them and she will be shunned by the congregation as a sinner.
  • Adult child of a pastor who started a “home church” felt the child was being disobedient so kicked her out of the church until she repented.
  • Pastor turned a counseling relationship into an affair that he hid from his congregation until caught, abusing his leadership authority.
  • A church board buried complaints of sexual harassment and abuse and victim-shamed the complainants through a whisper campaign in the church.
  • A person was told they could not possibly be a Christian if they did not speak in tongues.

There are literally thousands of other stories out there which clearly do not represent Jesus and turn people off from meeting Him!

To help some folks understand spiritual abuse I found this interesting Spiritual Abuse Wheel from Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership Against Domestic Violence. Take a moment and look through it:

I think as true Christ followers we have a responsibility to attack this problem head-on! Just like Paul attacked Gnosticism and other false teaching, we need to shine a heavy light on those who would use our faith – especially God’s Word – to manipulate, control, and abuse others.

So, what does that mean?

First, we have to know what spiritual abuse is and be on the lookout for it!

Second, we need to show the true face of Jesus to people – the Jesus that freed us from the law and placed us under His grace.

Third, we need to help those who have been abused heal by loving them, showing them God’s grace, correcting the false teachings they have been under, and re-engaging them with Jesus.

Fourth, we need to walk the walk and show them what a true relationship with Jesus looks like – not based on performance or works but based on grace through faith.

Fifth, we need to help them set boundaries with the ones who have spiritual abused them. This is especially sensitive when the parents are the abusers but Jesus told us that our true family is the one that does the will of God! Boundaries are appropriate – even with parents – in these situations.

My heart aches for those who have been deceived through spiritual abuse. The lies they have been told result in the victims not knowing the freedom they have in Christ, the unconditional love He alone gives, and the true meaning of salvation through the blood of Jesus. I hope your heart burns as well.

I’m writing this today not to give advice so much as to make everyone aware that this issue is prevalent within our faith and must be rooted out. You all know that I am an evangelical Christian who believes in the infallible Word of God! And as such, I know full well that scripture, the Church, and its anointed leaders exist to protect, disciple, and grow the flock not beat the flock into submission.

Let me know if you have any questions about spiritual abuse or if you know people that have been spiritual abused that we could talk with to help them regain their trust in Jesus.