Spiritual Abuse in the Church – Part 1

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-29 NKJV)

Have you ever read an article or listened to messages where a fellow Christian or “former ministry member” was being shamed, ridiculed, and lambasted by a pastor or ministry leader who claims to do so in the name of “Jesus Christ”? Have you had discomfort in your spirit and wondered what crime or sin the accused brother or sister had really committed to deserve such treatment or mistreatment? Have you experienced (or know someone who has experienced) harsh and unjust treatment at the hands of a “man of God” who took it upon himself to render false judgement or punishment on you (or someone) without providing any credible evidence or following the due process that the Bible clearly prescribes and that Moses, our Lord Jesus Christ and Paul all reiterated (Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1)? Have you ever followed a man or woman of God who claimed to have direct access to God via dreams, visions, or other supernatural manifestations and you were forced to follow or fear that person, even though some of their messages or teachings were out of line with what is written in the Scriptures? Have you ever been mistreated or deeply hurt by your church or ministry to the point that you became emotionally distressed, deeply wounded, and lost peace or trust with the church or ministry, or begun to backslide in your relationship with the Lord?

If you’ve experienced any of the above scenarios, you might have been an unwitting witness to, or victim of, spiritual/religious abuse, or worse you might be witnessing a cult masquerading as a Church or Christian ministry. Such persecution could happen to you too if you declared your stand – a strong faith in God anchored on His Holy Word! (John 16:2).

Religious abuse is “abuse administered under the guise of religion, including harassment or humiliation, which may result in psychological trauma. Religious abuse may also include misuse of religion for selfish, secular, or ideological ends such as the abuse of a clerical position” (Wikipedia).

Satan uses spiritual abuse to cause apostasy and falling away of the church (1 Timothy 4:1-5). If you have been through spiritual abuse, you most likely experienced confusion and struggle to pray peacefully, read the Bible, worship God, share the Gospel, or fellowship with other Christian brethren. For sincere and humble believers in the Lord, those who love to serve God and others, spiritual abuse can be very difficult to sense at first, especially if one is afraid of confronting people in authority, or if one has never dealt directly with manipulative and controlling people. In a manipulative and abusive church environment or ministry, the pastor or ministry leaders elevate themselves (or are elevated by their followers) and position themselves in their follower’s lives such that they take the place of the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit. In other words, the manipulative and controlling ministers exert control and undue influence on their followers, often dictating and overruling their followers’ will, choices and decisions. They do this in order to maintain firm control over the church (or ministry) and their followers, in order to prevent devoted members from leaving their grip.

Examples of Spiritual Abuse in the Church and Christian Ministries

In our Christian walk, we have experienced the displeasure and disenfranchisement of spiritual abuse. While some of the abuse was institutionalized, meaning that it was pretty much part and parcel of the local church or denomination’s teaching, other forms were very subtle and it was only after several months or years that we discovered we’d been unwittingly enslaved. Examples of spiritual abuse, some of which we have witnessed or experienced, include the following:

  • Churches that teach that they are the only “true church”, and if you go to another church or ministry then you will not make it to Heaven.
  • Ministries that teach that they have received a special message that they are “approved by God” as “His Ministry” or “His Church” and that everything they say or the visions they have are therefore all from God. Such ministries will usually act exclusive and elevate themselves using words like “this is the Lord’s Church”, “this book we have written is the Lord’s Book”, “this is the Lord’s Ministry”, or “this is the Lord’s Website”. In reality, they bear bad fruit as their beliefs and/or actions contradict the Bible’s teachings.
  • Ministry leaders who demand that you have to continue giving more and more of your finances, services, and time to the ministry “because we are doing the Lord’s work”, even though you may be burned out and stressed out. When you raise objections and concerns, the ministry leaders may either respond rudely and in an accusatory manner, or ignore your pleas.
  • Ministry leaders who use the ministry as a conduit for personal gain, lying and manipulating donors to earn fame and fortune.
  • Ministry leaders who treat their members harshly and disrespectfully, but resort to sweet-talking only when they need help from these members.
  • Ministry leaders who bury their head in the sand when a spouse or married couple raises concern that their excessive involvement in the ministry activities is causing conflict or division in their marriage. Other concerns raised due to excessive ministry activities may include neglecting to take care of their families, losing jobs, incurring health problems, and children not doing well in school. Some abusive ministries will actually encourage people to drop out of school, relocate in order to serve the ministry, separate from their spouses, etc.
  • Ministry leaders who threaten, insult, and attempt to assassinate your character because you raised legitimate questions, issues, and concerns about their teachings.
  • Ministry leaders who concoct false dreams and visions against, in a bid to control, manipulate, and muzzle you from expressing dissent against their falsehoods.
  • Ministry leaders who manipulate those reading their materials online or watching their programs on TV to send money to support their ministry, imparting guilt by making comments such as, “Send money now! Delayed obedience is disobedience!”

While the abuse you endure may cause you embarrassment in the best case, we have heard of cases where spiritual abuse from ministry leaders resulted in financial ruin and serious division in marriages, including divorce.

Signs of Spiritual Abuse in the Church and Christian Ministries

As we were preparing to write on the topic of spiritual abuse in the Church, we came across an online article by Mary Demuth, a Christian author, in which she shares “10 Ways to Spot Spiritual Abuse.” We have not reviewed all her writings, and this is therefore not an endorsement of her work, but she was accurate on the signs of spiritually abusive fellowships. Her points are italicized, and we have added some comments based on our own experience (non-italicized), as well as three additional signs (11-13).

Spiritually abusive fellowships:

  1. Have a distorted view of respect. They forget the simple adage that respect is earned, not granted. Abusive leaders demand respect without having earned it by good, honest living, and commendable character. When questioned, the ministry leader views this as being disrespected and might thus threaten to punish anyone who questions him/her by disfellowshipping or demoting them (John 9:22).
  2. Demand allegiance as proof of the follower’s allegiance to Christ. It’s either his/her way or no way and if a follower deviates, he is guilty of deviating from Jesus or is accused of being disobedient to the Lord.
  3. Use exclusive language. “We’re the only ministry really following Jesus.” “We have all the right theology.” Believe their way of doing things, thinking theologically, or handling ministry and church is the only correct way. Everyone else is wrong, misguided, or stupidly naive. Some ministries believe they are the only ones who hear from the Lord and will be saved; that everyone else is lost. They may also claim that they have been specially called by the Lord and their ministry is the only true one chosen by the Lord.
  4. Create a culture of fear and shame. Often there is no grace for someone who fails to live up to the church’s or ministry’s expectation. And if someone steps outside of the often-unspoken rules, leaders shame them into compliance. Leaders can’t admit failure, but often search out failure in others and uses that knowledge to hold them in fear and captivity. They often quote scriptures about not touching God’s anointed, or bringing accusations against an elder. Yet they often confront sin in others, particularly ones who bring up legitimate biblical issues. Or they have their circle of influence take on this task, silencing critics. If you stand up to them, they will attempt to humiliate you, insult you and assassinate your character by pronouncing false judgments on you (with such words as, “You are proud and arrogant!”, or “Without this ministry, you are nothing!”, “You should not be in ministry if you are asking questions like that”, etc.).
  5. Often have a charismatic leader at the helm who starts off well, but slips into arrogance, protectionism and pride. Where a leader might start off being personable and interested in others’ issues, he/she eventually withdraws to a small group of “yes people” and isolates from the needs of others. These ministries and churches harbor a cult of personality, meaning if the central figure of the ministry or church left, the entity would collapse, as it was entirely dependent on one person to hold the place together.
  6. Cultivate a dependence on one leader or leaders for spiritual information. Personal discipleship isn’t encouraged. Often the Bible gets pushed away to the fringes unless the main leader is teaching it. The leader may also claim that he/she or their family members are receiving supernatural dreams and visions from the Lord that should not be questioned. They will often wrap or mask some Biblical references around their false teachings, dreams or visions, which now became the authoritative source, replacing the Bible.
  7. Demand blind servitude of their followers, but live prestigious, privileged lives. They live aloof from their followers and justify their material extravagance as God’s favor and approval on their ministry. Unlike Jesus’ instructions to take the last seat, they often take the first seat at events and court others to grant them privileges. They typically chase after wealth–at any cost, and often at the expense of the very people they shepherd. While they ask their members for financial contributions and enjoy instant gratification, they tell their members to wait for their blessings from God, “supernatural debt cancellation”, etc.
  8. Buffer him/herself from criticism by placing people around themselves whose only allegiance is to the leader. These leaders and churches view those who bring up legitimate issues as enemies. Those who were once friends/allies swiftly become enemies once a concern is raised. Sometimes these folks are banished, told to be silent, or shamed into submission.
  9. Hold to outward performance but rejects authentic spirituality. Place burdens on followers to act a certain way, dress an acceptable way, and have an acceptable lifestyle, but they often demonstrate licentiousness, greed, and uncontrolled addictions behind closed doors. They elevate themselves as anointed and approved by God and have a “holier than thou” attitude, but in private their true personality and character does not reflect good fruit.
  10. Use exclusivity for allegiance. Followers close to the leader or leaders feel like lucky insiders. Everyone else is on the outside, though they often long to be in that inner circle. If someone on the inner circle speaks up about abuses, lapses in character, illegal acts, or strong-arming, that insider immediately moves to an outsider. Fear of losing their special status often impedes insiders from speaking up. Those in the inner circle may also receive special, yet unbiblical, “words from the Lord” or commendations from the leader that act as incentives to discourage them from questioning the leader’s authority.
  11. Tell lies and falsely invoke the name of the Lord. Abusive ministers will often use words like “the Lord says”, “the Lord told me”, or “the Lord showed me”, in order to force their viewpoints and demands on their members, and will take Biblical verses out of context to justify their falsehoods and manipulate members. Ministry members who are not like the Bereans, diligently examining or searching the Scriptures daily to find out whether these teachings are true (Acts 17:11 NKJV), will find themselves gullible and deceived.
  12. An Atmosphere of Secrecy: There is a lack of transparency in the ministry and information is limited and carefully filtered to select individuals, often with conditions and restrictions on what can be shared and to whom. Members are given only snippets of information and leaders carefully craft a colorful image of the ministry. Relationships with other members of the ministry may be non-existent and you only know about the other members through the ministry leader or his inner circle.
  13. Shame and slander departing members. When one finally leaves an abusive church or ministry without the blessing of the leadership, he/she gets to experience the true colors of the ministry, as one will be under a creepy cloud of suspicion, shame, smear, or slander. Don’t expect to receive accolades from leadership for whatever good you did for that church or ministry; you might be treated like a cruel enemy, demon-possessed desperado, a very vile villain!

Do any of the above signs of spiritual abuse sound familiar to you? Or do these situations apply to you in your current church or ministry? If so, we shall continue to share more in Part 2 of this message, in which we will explore Biblical answers to the following questions:

  1. What are the consequences or results of spiritual abuse?
  2. Is God to blame when people experience spiritual abuse in the Church?
  3. How do you break free from spiritual abuse in the church or Christian ministry?

If you would like to have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, we invite you to start with this Prayer of Salvation. For any questions or comments about this article or our ministry, please contact us.

In Christ,

Abes and Janet.