I remember vividly the first time I encountered the concept of spiritual abuse; I had stumbled in college across Donald Sloat’s Growing Up Holy and Wholly: Becoming Yourself, Keeping Your Faith. For the first time I had words for wounds I had struggled to understand—that the rigidly controlling conservative Christian environment I had been a part of most my life up to that point had in a variety of ways slid into spiritually abusive tendencies that done real damage to my capacity for self-acceptance and joy.
Since that time, the prevalence of spiritual abuse in the church has continued to fascinate me, not just for understanding my own spiritual journey but as a way into understanding the ways of thinking, either subtle or overt, that enable so many other forms of abuse in the church. Although many congregations will appear healthier than some of the most severe and clear cases of spiritually abusive environments, the temptation for spiritual authority to slide into controlling and abusive authority is one that few denominations or churches can resist entirely.
Several events in the news in the past couple years have made it clear that the church in America as a whole is confused about the boundary between a healthy, orthodox faith and a controlling and abusive one. When Mars Hill church, led by the then-wildly popular Mark Driscoll, disintegrated after years of numerous allegations of Driscoll’s abuses of spiritual authority, I noticed that significant numbers of evangelicals strongly defended and advocated for Driscoll, viewing it as too harsh for him to be forced to step down despite the long history of abuses.
There was a similar reaction by evangelicals when it was revealed that the Duggar parents, famous for their reality TV show 19 Kids and Counting, had failed to take immediate action to address their son’s confessed sexual abuses. Advanced Training Institute (ATI), the group the Duggars are affiliated with, is a cult with a history of abuse, and yet rather than responding to the scandal by noting the unsurprising consequences that come from adherence to the abusive structures typical in cults, many evangelicals again rushed to the Duggars’ defense and minimized the seriousness of their failures to protect their daughters, even launching multiple petitions for the show to remain on air.
When evangelicals rush to defend spiritually abusive leaders or institutions, this reveals that evangelicalism is too comfortable with spiritually abusive forms of Christianity, perhaps even unable to easily distinguish it from healthy and wholesome orthodoxy. This is troubling, because, as Ken Blue, author of Healing Spiritual Abuse, puts it, spiritual abuse is “the one social problem Jesus himself seemed to care about most.” If Jesus seemed to devote much of his energy in ministry challenging religious leaders whose teaching—even when sincerely held—hurt God’s people, it’s important for the church to become confident and shrewd in recognizing when a healthy use of authority descends into spiritual abuse.
Mary DeMuth’s article “10 Ways to Spot Spiritual Abuse” is a helpful place to start. Her summary of classic signs of spiritually abusive churches accurately describe the dynamics of spiritual abuse, without being so narrowly defined that only the most severe forms (ie: cults) are recognizable. Below are a few particularly central characteristics selected from her article. Abusive ministries …
- Have a distorted view of respect. Abusive leaders or organizations demand respect as a God-given right, rather than something to earn.
- Demand allegiance as proof of the follower’s allegiance to Christ. Spiritually abusive leaders or churches equate respect for the leaders and their opinions with respect for the Christian faith. In a spiritually abusive church or ministry, someone who has a different opinion from the leadership is rarely seen as simply someone with a different and valid opinion. They are instead seen as spiritually rebellious.
- Use exclusive language. Abusive ministries often articulate a sense of being the most faithful expression of Christian faith and have a dark evaluation of many Christian traditions (they are not really following Jesus, they are leading people down the “broad path,” etc.). When someone leaves that particular church it’s often viewed as nearly equivalent to leaving the faith.
- Create a culture of fear and shame. Abusive ministries usually have little room for honest admission of failure. Since the ministry has an abusively high expectation of all its members, members will often internalize a heavy burden of guilt and shame. When they fail in a visible way, members are often shamed and bullied into compliance or public admission of guilt.
- Cultivate a dependence on one leader or leaders for spiritual information. Either at the local or higher institutional levels, abusive ministries often have a highly revered authority figure who silences alternative leadership styles or beliefs.
- Hold to outward performance but reject authentic spirituality. Because a rigorously legalistic approach to faith does not lend itself to wholesome inward-out transformation and joy, spiritually abusive leaders often have secret addictions and vices behind closed doors.
These qualities of abusive ministries are so common I’d be surprised if a church situation doesn’t immediately come to mind that demonstrates these dynamics—which makes churches a ripe ground for many other forms of abuse. If Christians are comfortable with their leadership spiritually controlling and manipulating them, they are unlikely to easily see the injustice of other forms of abuse and be an advocate for survivors. Abusive ministries also are not comfortable with people who are wounded—because they challenge the effectiveness of the belief system’s implicit “salvation by works” (happiness and holiness guaranteed by adherence to the church’s rigid code of beliefs and behaviors)—so survivors of abuse are often treated to another face of spiritual abuse in the church’s eagerness to bury or deny their story (“forgive and forget,” “be more grateful,” “focus on the good God is doing here.”)
Spiritual abuse is difficult to talk about because often those who spiritually abuse have sincerely held intentions. They abuse authority out of misguided insecurities and fears—often genuinely believing that if their followers don’t adhere to their interpretation of Scripture, their souls or at least their spiritual health are on the line. So their followers, sensing sincerity in their leaders, often are eager to show them grace / “the benefit of the doubt” for patterns of spiritual abuse. But as Jesus clearly saw, the cost of a faith that is driven by fear and legalism is too high for us to ignore. Following Him means being willing to resist any expression of faith that would rob us of the freedom and joy central to the gospel.