Spiritual abuse takes on many forms. The insidiousness of this becomes apparent every time I talk to women who don’t realize why they think or feel the way they do. It affects not only our spiritual lives, but also our hearts, minds, and as I believe, our bodies. It can be very difficult to identify, because it looks and sounds so right. With our built-in drive to please, to pursue holiness, and be obedient to God, we become particularly susceptible to this foul element of religiosity. In my belief, there is almost nothing more that grieves the heart of God!
Let us examine some of the obvious features.
Spiritual Abuse & Religious Cults
In relation to religion, the Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English defines “cult” as:
1 a system of religious worship directed towards a particular figure or object.
2 a small religious group regarded as strange or as imposing excessive control over members.
The Random House Unabridged Dictionary’s eight definitions of “cult” are:
1. A particular system of religious worship, esp. with reference to its rites and ceremonies;
2. An instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, esp. as manifested by a body of admirers;
3. The object of such devotion;
4. A group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc;
5. Group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols;
6. A religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader;
7. The members of such a religion or sect;
8. Any system for treating human sickness that originated by a person usually claiming to have sole insight into the nature of disease, and that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific.
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 placing themselves over God’s people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly Godly purposes which are really their own.
Unfortunately, this appears not only within the “crazies” such as Jonestown or the Moonies; many churches and families also exhibit these very characteristics. Taking advantage, whether intentionally or indirectly, these institutions exploit one’s love for God and loyalty; in effect using these qualities to promote their own agenda, purposes, and beliefs. In his book Churches that Abuse, Dr. Ronald Enroth lists several distinctives that are worth considering:
- Authority and Power – abusive groups misuse and distort the concept of spiritual authority. Abuse arises when leaders of a group arrogate to themselves power and authority that lacks the dynamics of open accountability and the capacity to question or challenge decisions made by leaders. The shift entails moving from general respect for an office bearer to one where members loyally submit without any right to dissent.
- Manipulation and Control – abusive groups are characterized by social dynamics where fear, guilt, and threats are routinely used to produce unquestioning obedience, group conformity, and stringent tests of loyalty to the leaders are demonstrated before the group. Biblical concepts of the leader-disciple relationship tend to develop into a hierarchy where the leader’s decisions control and usurp the disciple’s right or capacity to make choices on spiritual matters or even in daily routines of what form of employment, form of diet and clothing are permitted.
- Elitism and Persecution – abusive groups depict themselves as unique and have a strong organizational tendency to be separate from other bodies and institutions. The social dynamism of the group involves being independent or separate, with diminishing possibilities for internal correction and reflection. Outside criticism and evaluation is dismissed as the disruptive efforts of evil people seeking to hinder or thwart.
- Life-style and Experience – abusive groups foster rigidity in behavior and in belief that requires unswerving conformity to the group’s ideals and social mores.
- Dissent and Discipline – abusive groups tend to suppress any kind of internal challenges and dissent concerning decisions made by leaders. Acts of discipline may involve emotional and physical humiliation, physical violence or deprivation, acute and intense acts of punishment for dissent and disobedience.
While they believe such groups may not be cults, perse, the authors of The Drift into Deception: The Eight Characteristics of Abusive Christianity list specific qualities of those factions which are inclined towards spiritually abusive tendencies. From page 50: “We may define an aberrant group as one which emerged from orthodox, mainstream Christianity, but differs from it in belief and practices in one or more essential ways. The word aberrant means “straying from the right or normal way; deviating from the usual or natural type.” An aberrant Christian group, then , is neither a cult nor an evangelical organization.” The following attributes are often present in such assemblies:
- Charisma and pride
- Anger and intimidation
- Greed and fraud
- Enslaving authoritarian structure
- Demanding loyalty and honor
- New biblical revelations
While all groups will not demonstrate every single aspect, or varying degrees of them, there are still alarming similarities within many churches and families that need to be acknowledged. Unfortunately however, this can prove overwhelming when it hits too close to home.
Healthy vs. unhealthy leadership
I will not attempt to exhaust every good element within healthy “religious” organizations, but I will detail a few important characteristics that are always present within balanced church groups and family structures. I believe that these distinct virtues are: humility, sacrifice, and altruism.
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. 26 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. 27 And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— 28 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
Godly religious or family authority takes on the distinct humility of Jesus, who appeared in the form of a bondservant and became obedient to the point of death. Can your spiritual leader be found figuratively or even literally on his knees, washing the feet of his disciples? Or does it seem more likely that his followers are bowed before his feet?
The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. 11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. 12 But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. John 10
Does your leader routinely lay themselves down for their flock? Or do they require unbalanced degrees of service, veneration, and loyalty?
Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. 4 Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Phil. 2
Does your spiritual leader honestly set aside his own will and desire, seeking the well-being of those within his care?
Families and church systems that lack these elements are in grave danger of not only becoming out of balance, but of grossly misrepresenting the True God to those entrusted to their care. Let’s look at some of the ramifications that Spiritual Abuse exacts upon women.
The effects on women
Spiritually abused women, who still seek healing and wholeness. . .
- often struggle with the concept of God
- have difficulty trusting those in authority
- often find themselves within unhealthy relationships
- have little or no boundaries
- dwell with extreme feelings of guilt and shame
- struggle with low self esteem, consider themselves worthless and wicked at the core
- often have health and weight issues
- battle depression
- have difficulty make decisions due to lack of confidence and trust in their abilities
- feel they never measure up to God’s standards
- do not think of themselves as autonomous beings, created in the image of God
- cannot fully comprehend the love of God
- feel disconnected from their souls, emotions, feelings, and God
I will expound upon these with greater detail in future articles, but oh, my dear friend! Those of you, who bear these burdens and feel the oppressive ache within your soul. . . my heart breaks for you! I was once afflicted, such as you are; nearly to the point of suicide and death. I grew tired of life; weary and exhausted from endlessly trying to measure up to the standards that were rigidly forced upon me. We will explore some of these issues later, but for now, let me encourage you that it is possible to be set free through the grace and sanctification of our Heavenly Father! Take heart, and know that He who is the Father to the Fatherless is with you always.
For further study, I heartily recommend The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen.