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Seven Signs of Spiritual Abuse

Updated on May 28, 2014

There are women and men who are spiritually, emotionally and even financially trapped in abusive relationships. The abusers are often good Christian ministers and authority figures, all well respected in their communities. The victims are people from all denominations, ethnicities, economic and educational levels. Although they are not physically restrained, they are in bondage. In some ways spiritual abuse is more damaging than other types of abuse because it involves emotional, psychological and spiritual control that anchors a person’s soul through fear, shame, and other tactics meant to force them into submission.

Abuse begins with a person seeking spiritual answers. Others are hurting, lonely, or searching for relationships with like-minded believers. A ‘spiritual’ mother, father, mentor or ministry steps in to provide the answers they seek. Their quest for God and fellowship (a.k.a. relationships) gets confused with a system of works that demands total obedience to a man or woman with spiritual authority. There are thousands of examples of warnings ranging from potential "back sliding", financial ruin if they do not give a prescribed amount of money consistently, and even death or hell if a person breaks away. Questioning the system or the leader(s) is seen as 'sin' or disobedience to God. Once the person becomes enmeshed in the system, they feel it is impossible to break these ties.

How are people enslaved and why don’t they leave?

These are the same questions victims of spiritual abuse ask; "how did I get in this situation and how can I break free?" The reasons are many, but in general spiritual abuse is subtle. It creeps into mainstream religious groups and slowly seeps into seemingly ‘normal’ church life. It would be easier if abuse was as noticeable as cult-like religious sects such as the Branch Davidian's, Rajneeshees or Heaven’s Gate members with extreme rules, dress or separatist teachings that are a red flag to most people. Unfortunately spiritual abuse is wrapped in misquoted scriptures and pushed onto people by the selfish needs of a few charismatic leaders in authority.

*read the message below to find "How to Get Free"

7-characteristics or signs of spiritually abuse: each of these points can be twisted and made to seem as if they are supported by Biblical scriptures. Spiritually abusive people or ministries use shame, humiliation, outright or veiled threats, removal of relationships or ministry duties, positions and titles to force people to submit.

  1. No Rest for The Weary:

    • The church or its leaders subtly or outright shame people who request personal time away. They minimize the need for rest, family-only-events, or other activities that do not include the church/ministry. In some cases they blame the victims if there is a question of 'burn out', usually labeling this as a sign of spiritual immaturity and weakness. They may support vacations as long as they are approved through the ministry.

  2. Never Achieving:

    • Twisted scriptures that ask followers to be on a constant quest to achieve happiness in the future that doesn’t allow people to enjoy God’s presence or blessings now. The quest to 'never be satisfied' sounds acceptable at first glance, but the constant, never ending peace-less journey is stressful. It also ignores what God has already done. An ‘abundant life’ is rarely seen as attainable and joy is down played.

  3. Rules, Rules & More Rules:

    • There are written or implied rules, steps, and church laws. Some have doctrine that members are asked to memorize. These can include everything from types of clothing to wear, money required to give in order to please the ministry standards, memorizing church history and principles of the organization. Christ may be mentioned and scripture added, however the ministry, their beliefs, and even their leaders are the main theme.

  4. You Must Come Through Us:

    • Their church or interpretation of the Bible is the right way. Other denominations and ministries are not considered as spiritual or holy. This may also include shaming people or veiled insults if someone visits another church or ministry.

  5. Forced Or Manipulated Church Attendance:

    • Outright demands to attend or shaming those who miss church activities, conferences, meetings, marches and other gatherings. Participation and ‘visible attendance’ outweighs spiritual gifts as a requirement to serve in the church/ministry.

  6. Fear Mongering:

    • Continual frightful messages meant to demand submission through fear. Frequent themes that focus on pain, death, and suffering with minimal teaching of Christ's actual messages. Lessons are usually unbalanced, describe the leaders own past experiences, and don’t include real faith or grace. In fact discussions of grace are met with accusations of “sloppy agape” or other insults meant to distract from the truth.

  7. Isolation From Life:

    • Misuse or twisting scriptures that demand or imply members should not interact with people outside of their church except to invite them to church events and activities, sell items for church, or involve the church or ministry in some way

How To Get Free: Yes, people do find freedom from spiritual abuse every day

Although people can get free on their own, it helps to have a friend or counselor who is on the side of the victim, preferably one who has a firm grasp on Biblical truths as well as a non-judgmental listening ear. The victim will need encouragement and support during difficult times when they might question if it would be easier to just return, submit and conform to a legalistic system that holds them in bondage.

Freedom can be found when the person does three things:

(1) Understand the difference between a relationship with God rather than following a system of rules

(2) Acknowledge feelings they have been afraid to speak out loud. These include fear of going to hell if they cut ties, shame of being tricked into a false system of works, potential loss of relationships from those who remain in the organization, and in some cases fear of relapsing back into old behaviors, addictions and life styles if they leave the system.

(3) Begin to understand they are worthy of a real relationship with God and respectful, loving relationships with other Christians who treat them as equals.

When victims do find the courage to leave, they can experience grief, loss, and in some cases feelings of profound sadness or depression. Many victims still desire a relationship with God, just one without abusers who act as the ‘middle man’ between them and God. Victims may feel lost and purposeless for a time. This can happen when they no longer have the busy-ness of ministry or even the benefit of feeling ‘worthy of love’ when they follow the laws laid out by the spiritual abusers.

After they get free, victims might avoid joining church or any formal group for a time, no matter how kind or generous the members are. Spiritual abuse affects relationships in all areas of the victim’s life. They lose trust in their ability to discern truth from lies and develop uncertainty about who are their true friends. The most damaging effects are those similar to the message of Matthew 18:6, when people cause others to fall away.

As noted above, many people break free on their own, but a good friend can help encourage and support them. As a counselor, I have worked with people in pursuit of healing from their past hurts while learning to create healthy relationships and boundaries. There are also many self-help books written by survivors and professional counselors that help people leave behind spiritual abuse for a brighter future filled with joy and peace.

A Few Helpful Scriptures

  1. “…I will give you rest”(Matt 11:28)

  2. for it is God who works in you to will and to act according (Phil 2:13)

  3. The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent (John 6:28-29)

  4. “...cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”(Matt 23:4)

  5. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27)

  6. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Eph 2:8-9)

  7. “…Do not conform yourselves to the *standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God - what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect..” (Romans 12:1-18)

    (*number 7 is important... "standards of this world" includes 'legalism' in church)

    Emphasis is by Steffannie.


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    • steffsings profile image

      steffsings 3 years ago from Pacific NorthWest

      @Efficient Admin, thank you for commenting. Unfortunately your description of being confronted about issues that are not tantamount to salvation, is one I have heard from Christians at various denominations and churches (minus the actual car). Like you, I believe we can scare away new Christians or visitors by such legalistic and rude behaviors.

    • Efficient Admin profile image

      Efficient Admin 3 years ago from Charlotte, NC

      Number 5 - been there. I went to a church back in the 90s where I would attend Wednesday night bible study faithfully every week and then Sunday School at 9 a.m. Sunday mornings and a few times I had to miss the 11 a.m. service and I sure got a lecture from everyone for that (the preacher was real boring anyways). I only attended that church for 9 months and then moved on.

      Another time I attended a Sunday School at a baptist church but did not attend the 11 a.m. service at all because my schedule is tight and I can't stay all morning. I wish I was making this up but it's a true story -- One time I was getting into my car to leave after Sunday School and a total stranger (I've never seen this person before in my life) walked up to my car and accused me of skipping out on church. I made sure my car doors were locked.

      When I see that legalistic pathetic attitude, I can find better things to do. No wonder nonbelievers don't want anything to do with church.