What Exactly is Spiritual Abuse?

My husband and I were discussing what exactly defines spiritual abuse and why is it so bad? In my estimation, spiritual or religious abuse happens when religion is used, not for the spiritual benefit of the individual, but solely for the gain of the organization and its leaders. Scriptures and principles are turned on their head and used in a way to manipulate, coerce, force and extort actions out of the person being used. What is supposed to be holy, is used in a way that can result in financial, emotional, physical and sometimes psychological harm. What is so horrible about this is in the church realm is that people give a very special part of themselves (soul and spirit, not to mention time and effort they can never recover) to know more about God. The knowledge of God is tied to our eternal destiny, and many times people are willing to give up all, and open their hearts to obtain what they perceive as the ultimate prize, eternal paradise.

A very vulnerable place to be.

Because churches bestow such high honor on earthly church leaders, people that are seeking to connect with God can be led like sheep to the slaughter.

Someone asked me “if it happens once, is it abuse” and the answer is yes. It can be, depending on the actions. One wrong act can make a person lose their faith.

Personally, I think that there needs to be an overseeing, national council that people can lodge complaints with if they can prove church abuse. The church should refund all their tithes and offerings. That would make leaders think twice about some of the nonsense they perpetrate on folks.

Abuse usually happens when ambitious, overbearing, immature leaders use their authority to humiliate, shame, take advantage of, and otherwise crush the spirit of people who do not comply with their wishes or 2) when leaders, supported by their church system, believe they have a right to mistreat; ostracize and question a person’s relationship with God based on their personal likes and dislikes 3) when leaders misuse their influence to single out people and brand them causing them to feel disconnected from their church community. I’ve seen this tactic many times.


Financial Damage

For example, there’s is no problem with a Pastor teaching tithing. Some Christian churches strongly believe in this, others don’t. However, when scriptures are used to make the congregant feel that they will be singled out, exposed or judgment from God will reign down on them if they don’t, then that’s an abusive use of the Pastor’s position of authority. It could result in financial damage if the person feels compelled to give to save their reputation in that community. Not to mention the emotional damage of shaming the person.

One day I sat and listened to a Pastor from our Church of God group threaten to expose people that weren’t paying tithes properly. Saying to the congregation that he knew exactly who they were and that he would be coming to them personally. That’s blatant extortion to force someone to pay tithes with threats and intimidation. Some leaders may be more subtle. The shaming comes in letting certain influential, talkative people in the community know that, for example, the person didn’t believe in paying tithes. Thus, it becomes public knowledge without the Pastor ever making a public statement that this person believes something that the rest of the church does not believe and without realizing it, the person becomes silently marked.

Preachers may encourage believers to give $1000 dollars, promising certain spiritual blessings. Some believe this, and receive a blessing, but crossing the line is when the leader makes the person feel they are either disobeying God for not complying with his request as a man of God or that by not giving this amount, something bad will happen to them.

Scientology and their method of requiring members to pay thousands of dollars to reach additional levels of spiritual enlightenment is another example of spiritual abuse. Apparently this church constantly changes things as they go so people are constantly paying money for materials and auditing sessions.

“There is no other religion that I know of that requires two-and-a-half hours of your day, a quarter of a million dollars minimum, and at least 40 years of your life” –Leah Remini

Influence can cause financial ruin. Some people are so hooked on particular leaders that they will constantly move and leave jobs just to follow them. One woman spoke to me about her husband who followed this “Apostle” around so that they had moved to several places just to be connected to the person’s ministry. Not only was this a financial strain but it was a strain on their marriage because the wife did not belong to the ministry, but her husband felt he would go to hell for not following this person. She loved her husband and was trying to work with him. Often when the person wakes up from this nightmare, they have used retirement money, savings, college funds etc to gain spiritual enlightenment or make it to heaven. It’s very sad.

Sexual / Physical Damage

When a child, teen or a family trust a spiritual leader and that leader uses that trust to take sexual advantage of a child for their own sexual gratification, this is not only sexual abuse but spiritual abuse as well. The family and the affected child are forever touched by the fact that this came from a person that said they were representative of biblical or godly behavior. The damage that this can do to a person’s life, faith, and future relationships is devastating. I knew of one preacher in our faction of the church that had convinced a teen girl to get into bed with him by telling her that as her spiritual father, he wanted to show her how to be with a man. Very sad. Even sadder is that we told several ministers that something was wrong with him, and one of the saints wrote numerous letters asking for more help with this leader but because many of the ministers were friends, little was done before the incident.

By now, everyone knows about the abuses under Roman Catholicism to which I must say they are finally openly dealing with these issues, but other churches and denominations have been touched by sex abuse allegations as well. The Southern Baptist Convention in June released a report about sexual abuse to educate their members. This is where I fault Church of God (independent) congregations because they have created a culture of silence where if a person is saved and follows their rules, they are given a pass for wrongdoing depending on their friendship and connections. As often happens in religious setups, the person in the position will not get the same judgments rained down on them as the average pew-sitting member. Their wrong will be kept quiet and they will continue to function as if nothing is wrong. On the flip side, if you rub someone the wrong way, they will show no mercy in exposing any embarrassing information to make people shunned you. Ah yes, politics its best.

When we talk of physical abuse, some religious groups sanction severe corporal punishment for children, even to the point of exorcism of children they feel are demon-possessed. These extreme actions are often supported by the group’s interpretation of scriptures such as “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: But he who loves him chasteneth him betimes.”Proverbs 13:24.

Spousal/Domestic Abuse

Scriptures about submission are overused to make the wife submit like a child. Often resulting in not only financial damage (you cannot work unless your husband consents) but often physical and emotional damage that can go on for years under the cloak of religion. This becomes spiritual abuse when these actions are supported by church leadership and no adequate remedy is provided for the man’s misbehavior. Usually in these cases, the ministry chooses to believe the husband’s interpretation of the matter or they refuse to chastise the man. Thus “wives submit to your husbands” is singled out and applied in a one-sided fashion and held in a toxic manner that results in emotional and psychological damage to the submissive partner.

I just picked a few familiar areas as examples of when religion becomes abusive. So many people don’t know it when they see it.

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.