Spiritual abuse: You don’t have to live with it

Straight Talk

The Question:

What is “spiritual abuse”? I feel a little uncomfortable at my church because it seems like everything is rules, rules, rules. Several families have left citing that as their reason. How can I tell if that is what’s going on?

– Sharon from Tennessee

The Answer
Part 1: What is spiritual abuse?
Part 2: What are the signs of spiritual abuse?
Part 3: How does a church become abusive?
Part 4: When is it time to leave?
Part 5: Life after spiritual abuse

What is spiritual abuse? (Part 1)

Have you ever heard a woman tell of being physically and emotionally beaten by her husband for years and you wonder within yourself; why didn’t she just leave? With children we understand how powerless they are but we can’t understand how a full grown adult can continue to put up with abuse.

Abuse of any kind is often like my friend Peggy who had low water pressure in her kitchen faucet. Over time it got worse and worse, going from a stream to a trickle to a drip. When she finally got a new faucet and turned on the water it almost shocked her. And then she could hardly believe she had lived with it so long. The problem was that somewhere along the line she had accepted it as normal and expected. That’s what usually happens in churches where spiritual abuse is going on.

Spiritual abuse is the control, mistreatment and manipulation of the membership through the belief system of the church. Control is the root issue. Sometimes it happens so gradually and subtly that it’s hard to put your finger on it. It may be hard to define exactly what is wrong. The members may feel guilty all the time. Rules are plentiful and rigid. Any criticism or questioning of the leadership is unwelcome and may elicit retaliation or punishment. Members constantly feel like they are towing a very narrow line. Unfortunately, often they feel the church must be in the right and they are in the wrong.

All of this is the polar opposite of the way Jesus Christ intended life to be. Listen to this: “It is for freedom that Christ set us free;” (Galatians 5:1) “You, my brothers, were called to be free;” (Galatians 5:13) and “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)

What are the signs of spiritual abuse? (Part 2)

A big sign that you are being spiritually abused is the growing sense that you are losing control of your life. If you have to pass all your major decisions past the pastor or church leadership, something is wrong. If you have to get “permission” for lots of things, watch out. When you come to Christ you surrender yourself to HIM and he is in control of your life and future. A good healthy church believes that Christ is the head of his church and supports people submitting to him but an abusive church may try to twist you into thinking that they will hear from God for you.

Spiritually abusive churches manipulate the scriptures to justify the control they impose. They may talk about God’s principles of spiritual authority or all that the Bible says about submission. Many a husband has justified abusing his wife by quoting Ephesians 5:22; “Wives, submit to your own husband, as to the Lord.” In the same way, for those who want to control their congregations, there will be plenty of misused scripture passages to back them up.

Another sign is any stringent requirements necessary to maintain membership or good standing. For instance, are you being told that you MUST tithe to your church? A good church should definitely teach the biblical principle of tithing (giving a tenth of your income to God). After that it is between you and God. A church has no business asking you to prove it or make you promise that you will tithe. I like what my Pastor does about money; he has a rule that he will never know who gives what. Since he doesn’t know how much anyone gives his ministry to people or decisions about them will never be colored.

When evaluating if you are in an abusive church keep in mind the church from the book of Acts. “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:46-47)

Does your church sound like that? Do you feel gladness and simplicity of heart? Are you joyful in praising God? Are people coming to know the Lord through your church?

How does a church become abusive? (Part 3)

Most churches do not start off with the idea that they are going to control or manipulate their congregations. Pastors usually have every good intention in the beginning to help people and serve the Lord. Well then, what goes wrong?

There is a popular saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. A spiritually abusive church often does not have any accountability or any checks and balances. It is a weakness in a church that puts all its faith in one person or just a select few. The pastor is a fellow human being and should not be elevated far above the rest of the congregation. If the people begin to treat him like a god or like he is the only one who hears from God, it’s easy for him to start believing it himself.

Here are some questions to ask yourself about your church:

  • Does all the power rest in one person or in a select few who maintain control over time?
  • Is the church/leadership submitted to anyone outside themselves who has freedom to examine the workings of the church and effect change if there is abuse?
  • Over time has the church come to feel suffocating and stifling with an overriding feeling of guilt?
  • What do you think would happen if you politely and straightforwardly voiced concern to the leadership over the atmosphere or conditions in the church?

When is it time to leave? (Part 4)

If your church is spiritually abusive you are under no obligation to stick around piling up damage to yourself and your family while you wait and hope for some change. While you need to be realistic and understand that no church you go to will be perfect you also need to draw a line in the sand and not permit abuse, control and guilt to overtake your life. You will have to decide where that line is.

One thing I suggest before you permanently leave is to start visiting other churches. Sometimes we can see things much more clearly from a distance. Assess the spiritual atmosphere of other churches and compare them to your own. I have found that congregations usually have discernable “personalities.” You want one where you feel a sense of freedom and where you can grow in Christ.

Secondly, if you are set to leave, do it the right way. That means to be honest in announcing it to the proper parties and leaving without gossip, backhanded comments or bitter outpourings. Depending on the severity of the situation you may make a written communication if you feel you would be browbeaten or experience retaliation by doing it in person.

No matter how bad things are, always leave blessing your church. “Lord I pronounce a blessing on this church and I pray that every person there would come into their divine destiny. Bless them going out and coming in. I forgive them for any offense against me just like I want you to forgive me of my offenses.” Then go – and don’t look back with any guilt or recrimination.

Next: Living with the aftermath

Life after spiritual abuse (Part 5)

You may not realize it for several months but being in a spiritually abusive church takes a big toll. Just like someone who has been brainwashed, it may take more time than you realize to purge out all the negative thoughts and emotions. You need time to debrief.

Debriefing does NOT mean stop going to church all together. Don’t take a vacation from church but you may take a vacation from involvement for a time. If you are in a healthy new church you need to soak up that atmosphere for awhile until you are healthy again yourself. You will know when it is time to plug in again. It will be when you have a genuine desire and joy in doing something and not because you feel guilty.

Never badmouth your old church but get any help you need processing what happened to you. You might need someone safe to work through all the issues. Make an appointment with your new pastor and tell him honestly where you are at and let him know what he can do to help you.

Lastly, keep the bottom line straight. Jesus Christ is the head of his church and the church is his responsibility. You are serving and worshipping him – not man or an individual congregation. Ministers and churches will never be perfect but Jesus will always be perfect. Keep your eyes on him only.


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