What is Religious Abuse?

When other people are being used for the personal gratification of a leader or an organization, that is religious abuse.

You may wonder what is religious or spiritual abuse?

It’s not anger at going to church when you’d rather stay in bed or learning scriptures you thought were boring or sitting through long tiring sermons. Religion can become abusive when it involves a spiritual system that has developed either around a particularly authoritarian charismatic leader or domineering spiritual authority leading a church or group of churches. When that authority is misused against a person through bullying, intimidation, manipulations and inappropriate physical touching,  that is spiritual or religious abuse.

Religious abuse can come in many forms. From what I’ve experienced, it happens when leaders and people of spiritual authority use scriptures and religious doctrines to manipulate people into obeying or performing activities that benefit the leader or the organization and not the individual’s walk with God. When other people are being used for the personal gratification of a leader or an organization, that is religious abuse.

If I can convince you that you cannot keep a relationship with God unless you come to my church and my organization, that’s manipulation. If I use —

Hebrews 13:17 – Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.

to say that disobeying me is like disobeying God, because God has placed me in authority and I make you feel that my opinion as a leader is equal with God, that is abusive.

Remember , everyone in such a system: parents, children, sisters, brothers are family units and are caught up in the throes of that system. It will affect your relationship with with your family and other loved ones.

When trust is placed in a spiritual system, and that system becomes damaging to personal development, normal growth, childhood and physical health, then that belief system is dysfunctional.

When the system does not allow you as a parent to raise your children through your own relationship and understanding with God, that system takes the place of God in your life.

When the system preaches that the only way to heaven is through their organization and their organization stops following the Bible, that’s abusive.

When the system hides and ignores wrongdoing and still preaches that they believe in moral purity, then it’s abusive to hold everyone else to a standard that the leaders no longer have a regard for. Whether a church starts out right or has right teaching is not the question. A church’s doctrine can be sound, but if it is not followed correctly or is followed in toxic way that affects people’s lives, then that is a dangerous system.

Author: Renee

I am an author and a retired minister. My passion is helping others find their sense of self and identity after so many years of losing my own. So often we go to church and are still not aware of our disconnection with our true selves. The person inside that God deeply values. My husband and I have been married for over 30 years and have 3 children. I love gourmet cooking, swimming, all kinds of music, and political and religious discussion- the two things my mom said never to talk about at the dinner table.

2 thoughts on “What is Religious Abuse?”

  1. Thank you for this perspective. Your article is well written. I never thought about these practices as abusive but I can see how they could be and are in some cases. It makes me as a teacher of God Word to walk carefully with God’s people. I never want to be guilty of abuse when people are coming for help. We as people come from so much pain that we can just get use to things feeling painful. There is a saying “Hurt people, hurt people” the longer I live the more I see of this in the secular and religious world. I’m actively endeavoring to be more self aware so I don’t perpetuate pain. How then should a person address this “abuse” when it’s not the every day norm but might show up when dealing with a situation? Religion in general is full of these situations. I’m sure long time relationships are what holds these structures together, people put up with a lot when they are in relationship with their leadership. Thanks for sharing.


    1. Sorry, this may be long but you bring up good points. I believe a person can address abuse in their church by bringing this to the attention of leaders. See whether they will correct the errors that caused the problem. When the leaders are the problem or part of it, there is not much you can do. especially if those errors benefit the leaders’ positions or their need for power and authority. You will find yourself running in circles trying to fix something that the leaders may care very little about fixing. If an abusive action happens once and is corrected that’s good. However, when those types of actions become part of a system and are deeply embedded by how a doctrine is taught, that is very difficult to remove if the authorities in your church are not supportive of making any changes. If these situations arise, I believe that the way to keep them from permeating an entire system is to address them exactly as what they are– abuse of power. I’m sure I didn’t think of certain things as abusive either at one point in my life. When a person has been taught a certain way, it’s easy to overlook things that might be right in front of you. I endeavor to say that if most people in a church thought things their leaders did as abusive, then they would leave. More often than not, people are very sure they are following the Bible, and sometimes in complete sincerity. Yet, I’ve experienced that one can be sincerely wrong. When you see the fruit of a belief, then you have to take action to make corrections based on scripture. Leaders in that system should not just look at the letter of the law, but the spirit of it as well. When anything is upheld in a harmful way and upsets the goal of winning people to Christ, this is the opposite of what the gospel is trying to accomplish. Thanks for taking the time to read the post.


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