Spiritual abuse is a real and damaging problem plaguing the church today. Church leaders and congregants utilize coercive methods and controlling behaviors in systemic patterns to make someone do something, think a certain way, or feel a certain way. Spiritual abuse can be physical, mental, sexual, or all of the above. How can we recognize spiritual abuse in the church, and what can you do if you suspect or are being abused? What impact can it have on faith?
While the contexts of spiritual abuse can differ, it follows a pattern of systemic behavior much like other types of abuse. Some warning signs could include exploitation, manipulation, forced accountability via threats, censorship of opposing views or ideas, and the abuser suggesting that they are in a “godly” position that requires your obedience.
Abusive pastors are nothing new but seem to become more and more prevalent in the Western church. One might believe pastors can’t be abusers since their example is Christ Himself, and due to this a victim of their abuse may struggle to overcome the belief that an abusive pastor is a reflection of the faith and struggle to overturn the idea that the pastor embodies the love found in Christ. Spiritual abuse destroys present faith and erodes the chances that new disciples may turn to Christ.
The majority of pastors are not abusers, but bad apples can affect the bunch. If you’re being abused, try and fellowship with others that you can lean on for support, such as family, friends, or coworkers. If you’re afraid to speak out because you’ll be in a threatening situation, confrontation should be done with at least one other person by your side, and the proper authorities notified. Make sure you also bring abuse to the attention of other leaders or elders in your community.
What does God say about spiritual abuse? In the Bible, God states openly and clearly the expectations and responsibilities that spiritual leaders should live by in Ezekiel 34. God expects leaders to follow Christ’s example and humbly lead their flock to salvation through Christ and not selfishly into sin to fulfill their own agendas.
Spiritual abuse is a complex problem faced in the modern church. When our faith is turned against us, what hope is there? Thankfully, we can take comfort in Jesus Christ, who will guide our hearts and minds to a solution. Christian counseling offered at NuWell has counselors experienced in carrying the burdens of spiritual abuse, as many of them have suffered through it as well. Spiritual abuse can be supremely damaging to our mind, body, and spirit; NuWell Christian counselors can help you break free of the effects of spiritual abuse and heal in the light and grace of God.