“Overemphasizing Spiritual Abuse?” a Response to Charles Clark of Patheos.com

It was recently brought to my attention that Patheos.com published an article on spiritual abuse entitled: Overemphasizing Spiritual Abuse?. There are some rather inconsistent and illogical (not to mention insensitive) information in that article. As a result I decided to post a rebuttal. It is my hope that this will serve as a reminder that battles for the war against spiritual abuse can be fought on many fronts.

I think the fundamental (no pun intended) flaw in your article, Charles, is that spiritual abuse isn’t limited to fundamentalism (which you seem to imply). Even if it were, before you can make statements such as “I would posit that Fundamentalism is a vice from which we millennials are in very little danger.” it would behoove you to define exactly what you mean by “fundamentalism”. I have a colleague who blogs about the Independent Fundamental Baptists. His website currently gets millions of hits per year to his site. I’d say that shows it’s a pretty big problem – and that’s just one of many, many fundamental traditions/denominations. And on top of that there are traditions/denominations that aren’t as overt about their status as “fundamentalists”. But even if only 1 person were abused spiritual wouldn’t that be enough to speak out against it? Just a thought.

Anytime the Bible/religion/spirituality, etc. is used in an “abusive” way that’s abuse. I know that sounds a bit broad and subjective, but that’s because it is. That’s simply a reality of spiritual abuse and a big part of why it’s so devastating. Spiritual abuse is highly subjective and we need to make sure we are being sensitive to each unique and individual experience. What’s spiritual abuse for one person may not be for another. You speak of indoctrination in terms of “domination”, but researchers/authors/experts in the field of spiritual abuse have long described it using such terms as covert, subtle, manipulative, inconspicuous, camouflaged, etc. These are terms that describe more of a covert, gradual and insidious process rather than the overt “domination” that your article seems to connote.


You say things like “I sincerely don’t mean to minimize the evils of spiritual abuse…” and “Without diminishing in any way the devastating effects of spiritual abuse in individual lives,…” yet that’s exactly what you’re doing (minimizing and diminishing) by what you wrote. Just because you say you don’t mean to do something doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing it. That’s similar to the person that says “with all due respect…” then proceed to say something disrespectful – as if saying “with all due respect…” neutralizes any disrespect that may proceed. Your statements come across the same way unfortunately which I think is sad and really trivializes a very serious issue.

I attempt to provide a definition of spiritual abuse on this website that is all inclusive and complete. But the complexities of spiritual abuse make such an effort almost impossible. We do the best we can, however, to try and make sure that we aren’t minimizing such devastating and malicious religious/spiritual practices. As a counselor it’s my perspective that we should never even risk the chance of appearing to minimize any type of abuse, especially not publicly. I cautiously agree with your assertion to Sarah that victims should be questioned so as to keep some level of accountability for those who would take advantage of the situation (which I think is what you meant to imply in your reply to her comment), but it should be done by skilled clinicians in private, not theologians and certainly not publicly. I’m afraid that articles such as yours only serve to perpetuate the stigma attached to victimization and cause people who are trying to reach out for help to second guess themselves. This can lead to more abuse and deeper spiritual wounds, and that’s abuse in and of itself.

New Book on Spiritual Abuse ~ “Lost Sheep”

Lost Sheep
Lost Sheep by Ransom Backus
Jesus and His disciples had arrived at Capernaum where they were greeted by collectors of the temple tax. They asked Peter if his teacher (Jesus) paid it. After a bit of discussion about the paying of taxes and who was responsible, who would be the greatest in the kingdom and such, Jesus taught a powerful lesson whose meaning, I believe, has been lost on the mainstream Church culture.

When asked who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus pulled a child front and center and told them, disciples and pharisees alike, in soft, gentle tones, that unless one becomes like a child, they cannot even enter the kingdom of heaven.

Now, I wish I were a 2000 year old fly that was on the wall that day. The Bible doesn’t go into too much detail about what exactly transpired, but I can see it vividly in my mind’s eye. I can see Jesus’ soft, warm facial expressions and tones flipping like a switch as His eyes light up with a fiery indignation, as He says, (as worded in the Message Bible) “But if you give them a hard time, bullying them, taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone tied around your neck. Doom to the world for giving these God-believing children a hard time!” (you can find the full story in Matthew chapter 18)

Other versions and translations report Jesus saying something to the effect of, “If you cause any of these little ones to fall away…” or “If you cause any of these little ones to sin…” (in light of the bullying and mistreatment.)

After this discourse, Jesus launches into the parable of the lost sheep. For a very long time in many denominations, it is believed that the parable of the lost sheep speaks of the sinner or the unbeliever becoming saved, and it is used as a solemn invitation to conversion to the faith. It is here, I wish to contend the misuse and misunderstanding of this passage.


Find “Lost Sheep” on Amazon.com
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In the context of Matthew chapter 18, Jesus is discussing spiritual abuse. He is discussing religious leaders bullying young, naïve, trusting believers and the consequences. After that He says defiantly, by use of the parable, that even if one falls away, He will leave the flock and go to find that one. Their worst is still no match for Jesus’ resolve to unite all of His sheep to Himself.

In short, lost sheep, in this parable are those who were harassed, bullied, lied to and intimidated by religious leaders who were corrupted by the money system. So it is with this parable I attempt to discuss an overwhelming epidemic of spiritual and religious abuse that plagues our church today.

We live in a world where there is not just one lost sheep but thousands. They are the people who have been hurt and scarred by the religious institution of Christianity and have been swept under the carpet and cast aside, falling through the cracks. Some retain some semblance of their faith in Christ, but refuse to go back to church. Others have left the faith altogether, becoming an atheist, pagan, or involved in occult practices.

Herein is the purpose of the book. In this book I discuss my own journey through spiritual and psychological abuse, exploitation and manipulation by authoritarian and controlling churches and Christian schools. In this book I relate my own account of a religious system and family filled with anger, confusion, fear, intimidation and insanity. I relate my own journey to discovering God, His love, and His restorative grace and my own wholeness.

This book is a light to shine in the dark, closed places of the hearts of believers and non believers alike, and to offer a beacon to a lost sheep generation, in hopes of exposing the deep treasures of Christ’s love, grace, and redemption, blowing off the settling dust of hype, exploitation, abuse and a poisonous “gospel” which runs rampant in many major denominations and sects, in the Christian world today.

Finally this book is written for those who may be unaware of what takes place in the name of their own religion. Perhaps you are someone who has never experienced religious abuse. Perhaps you are someone who is comfortable and happy in your faith and your church. This book is for you too, in hopes to bring a very real awareness to the body of Christ of the horrific abuses going on in the dark underbelly of the religious institution that calls itself Christianity today.

Finally, I hope that this book gives courage to others who have suffered and inspires them to speak out with their own voice concerning the atrocities done in the name of Christ. When the people speak out, the abuser and the tyrant no longer have power.

Ransom BackusRansom Backus currently lives with his wife in the Pacific Northwest and is an aspiring writer of Christian speculative fiction. He also hosts a weekly podcast show called “The Church Underground.” It can be found at ransomscave.podomatic.com.

Toxic Religion or Spiritual Abuse?

A site visitor recently wrote to me and described what she was experiencing as “Toxic Religion”. As I considered this terminology I thought it would be beneficial for readers to consider the difference between toxic religion and spiritual abuse. This may seem like a game of semantics on the surface, however, it reflects a fundamental distinction that can’t be ignored with these issues.

First, I want you to know that most of the work I personally do as a counselor in this area of spiritual abuse is limited to Christianity. I don’t have experience or knowledge about the other religions of the world. So I’m looking through that lens when I’m answering these types of questions. I don’t think that spiritual abuse is limited to Christianity and I believe that spiritual abuse and/or toxic religion happens in all religious belief systems.

Second, I think this issue is much more broad than the “misuse” of religion, scripture, etc. I think religion can be toxic when people have good intentions about teaching what they believe to be the truth when it may not be. There are a lot of unanswered questions we still have about our faith. People still heavily debate such topics as the perseverance of the saints and works based righteousness. I would add to the definition of spiritual abuse that spiritual abuse AND toxic religion is also a dogmatic, closed minded approach to faith that leaves little room for individual experiences and beliefs.

There’s no cookie cutter approach to religion and faith. It’s about as unique as our fingerprints. There are absolutes of each faith that can’t be altered without effecting the foundation of the belief system, but beyond that, all that’s left are personal convictions and personal preferences based on our own understanding of what the Bible tells us and how the Holy Spirit convict us. We often find that in our churches we are told what convictions and what preferences we should have, but that’s not how it’s supposed to be and that’s abusive.

Defining Spiritual Abuse

The term “Spiritual Abuse” has evolved (for lack of a better term) into a catchall phrase that encompasses a multitude of issues. In order to gain a better understanding of what spiritual abuse is I’d like to attempt to define spiritual abuse from my perspective.

Spiritual abuse is often thought of in narrow terms based on a person’s unique experiences. I’ve come to understand it in a broader context based on my work with many people who have suffered spiritual abuse in one form or another. Terms such as spiritual deception, toxic religion, toxic faith, bad church experiences, spiritual terrorism, church abuse, religious abuse, etc are all synonymous terminology and are often used interchangeably with the idea of spiritual abuse.

This issue can seem cut and dry on the surface, however, as we dig a little deeper into the topic we begin to realize that this is a way more complex issue then we first thought. All of the above terms are actually accurate in one way or another and can all be used to define spiritual abuse. For the context of this article, I will try not to get drawn into a game of semantics. I’d like to try and be as clear as possible while trying to encompass all the complexity and intricate details of the issue. Please feel free to add to this definition of spiritual abuse using the comments section and hopefully together we can help this idea to continue to evolve for the benefit of all.

There are two main aspects of spiritual abuse that help define what it is: the misuse of a position of power and the misrepresentation of information.


  1. I think we can start by defining spiritual abuse as the misuse of a position of power. Spiritual leaders are responsible for teaching, exhorting, counseling, instructing, educating, preaching, interpreting, etc. and have a lot of responsibilities. People make themselves very vulnerable to spiritual leaders as they seek spiritual guidance and spiritual answers to life’s problems, hurts and questions. We trust leaders to tell us the truth and to not abuse their power and influence over us. Many religious leaders, however, do abuse heir power. Some misuse their power intentionally, while others are simply following the beliefs that they were taught. There is largely an authoritarian aspect to spiritual abuse where the leaders take the role of authority figure and begin to intertwine that aspect of their ministry into their interactions with others.

  3. This leads to the second aspect of spiritual abuse which is the misrepresentation of information. Many abusive leaders approach spirituality in a dogmatic, closed minded, legalistic and/or authoritarian fashion and leave little room individual experiences and beliefs. These leaders often teach personal preferences/convictions as Biblical fact or truth which is leaves an impressionistic congregation with the wrong interpretation of scripture and spirituality. Since we carry our spirituality with us, those teachings permiate every aspect of our life and can severely distort our thinking about God, ourselves, the world around us and life in general. Again this can be done in a naive way where the leaders really believe that their beliefs are truth and honestly want to share that knowledge with others, but it can also be done in a clearly manipulative way where people are overtly deceived by manipulative and deceptive tactics.

Overall, I believe that the main ingredients of spiritual abuse are deception, toxic relationships, manipulation, and stripped individualism. There’s no cookie cutter approach to religion and faith. It’s about as unique as our fingerprints. There are absolutes of each faith (e.g., Christ died, was buried and resurrected on the third day), but beyond that, all that’s left are personal convictions and personal preferences based on our own understanding of what the Bible tells us and how the Holy Spirit guides and convict us. We often find that in our churches we are told what convictions and what preferences we should have, but that’s not how it’s supposed to be and that’s abusive.

In reality, I personally like to define spiritual abuse in more broad terms. Not only the misuse of religious teachings, scripture, etc. but also a dogmatic and/or closed minded approach to faith that focuses on traditions and leaves little room for individual experiences and beliefs. That definition is colored by my own personal experiences, but I think religion can be toxic when people have good intentions about teaching what they believe to be the truth when it may not be. There are a lot of unanswered questions we still have about our faith. People still heavily debate such topics as the perseverance of the saints, works based righteousness, eternality of the soul, the afterlife, etc. and we need to maintain an open mind and collaborate to find the elusive answers rather than develop a strict set of beliefs based on tradition or fundamentalism. Spiritual abuse can also be more overt such as the misuse of religion, scripture, or the idea of a supernatural being (God) by any person who is in leadership/authority, so that they gain control over or oppress their subordinates.

I don’t think that spiritual abuse it’s limited to one definition. It’s a very broad topic that covers a wide range of experiences and perceptions in a multitude of denominations and religions. We need to make sure that we don’t try and push our beliefs onto others and remember that spirituality is an individual and unique aspect of our life and while there are some beliefs that are essential to one’s faith, there is a very individualized aspect to spirituality that needs to be between the individual and the Holy Spirit. We perpetuate spiritual abuse when we assert judgments on others based upon what we believe to be correct.

Signs of Spiritual Abuse

The following are several signs of spiritual abuse:

  • Stating personal religious convictions and preferences as fact for everyone
  • Religious convictions and preferences are stated as black and white
  • Requirements for church attendance
  • Dress and clothing requirements (appearance is a priority)
  • Closed minded about different interpretations of Scripture
  • Misinterpretations of scripture
  • Questioning the leaders is discouraged
  • Judging others
  • Excessive gossip
  • Hostility towards “heathens” and others who are not believers
  • Only people who go to a certain church are believers
  • Only reading a certain Bible version is allowed
  • Sexuality is seen as dirty, bad, and/or sinful
  • Strict discipline standards for children
  • Promoting spanking above all other forms of discipline
  • Guilt trips for taking vacation and missing church
  • Teaching Tithing
  • Emphasis on traditions
  • Music standards
  • Performance appraisals
  • Push towards perfection
  • Required devotional or quiet time
  • Levels or degrees of spirituality
  • Focusing on the penalty for sinning
  • Emphasis on God “chastening” you
  • Looking down on people who have left the church or denomination
  • Requiring a refusal of medical services
  • Required membership
  • Discarding psychology
  • Mental health issues are considered sinful or non-existent
  • Depression/Anxiety considered a sin
  • Your not spiritual enough if something bad happens to you
  • God is judging you for sin in your life
  • Being told “You need more faith” or “You don’t have enough faith”
  • Child discipline tactics that include warnings about God’s wrath
  • Rigid black and white thinking/answers to questions
  • Too much emphasis on the spiritual and not enough emphasis on the physical
  • Fears about the punishments of God
  • Negative messages about sexuality
  • Taught to deny the apatites of the body
  • Emphasis on reading the Bible and praying heavily to appease God and avoid punishment
  • Messages that you aren’t spiritual enough
  • Your “suffering” (whatever it may be) is a result of some sin in your life
  • Your physical illness is punishment for some sin in your life



What is Spiritual Abuse

Click Here for a quick list of some of the signs of Spiritual Abuse.

Just like physical abuse is the abuse of a person’s physical body by way of hitting, kicking, biting, etc. and emotional abuse is the abuse of a person’s mind/emotions via name calling, derogatory remarks, put downs, etc. spiritual abuse is the abuse of a person’s spirituality. Spiritual abuse is similar to emotional abuse because the emotions are very intertwined to a person’s spirituality. Spiritual abuse, however, goes beyond the emotions and hits hard at the spiritual well being of the individual. It is the taking advantage of vulnerable and impressionable people looking for spiritual guidance and acceptance.

Since much of our spirituality is involved in churches or religious organizations, I like the term “Bad Church Experiences” because it gives a good word picture of how spiritual abuse often occurs. We see spiritual abuse happen when the leaders of a church or religious organization use their power and position to manipulate, control and/or coerce their congregation/followers/members, whether on purpose or with good intentions.

Spiritual abuse is a multifaceted and complex issue and often occurs in a very subtle manner. As a result, it is often difficult to define spiritual abuse in simplistic form. Sometimes it’s important to define what spiritual abuse is by looking at how it occurs and what the symptoms are.

As spiritual beings we are ever searching for truth to our spirituality. Our spirituality gives us hope as we rely on the teachings of our church to develop our belief system about our lives and the world around us. We also look to spiritual guidance to help us through life, especially during life’s trials and struggles. We often cling to the teachings of a church leader or particular religion because he/she/it offer’s answers to our struggles and questions. When we find spiritual connections we make ourselves very vulnerable to what we are being taught because we trust the church and leaders. After all they are supposed to be living what they are teaching and preaching.

There are spiritual leaders who mean well, but unfortunately perpetuate the abuse that they themselves receive. They think they are sharing the truth for the right reasons, but abuse doesn’t necessarily have to be done on purpose to be abusive. Many well intentioned church leaders have abused because they think they are doing the right thing. These leaders think that they are proclaiming the truth when in actuality they are simply passing along the abusive teachings that they have been deceived into thinking. As a result they think they are helping when in actuality they are doing harm.

There are also people who blatantly abuse, manipulate and mislead for their own personal self interests. This is an overt and blatant abuse for outright selfish financial, emotional or physical gain.

Spiritual abuse includes, but is not limited to mind-control, thought reform, coercion, manipulation, deception, legalism, authoritarianism, guilt trips, judgementalism/”Phariseeism”, holier-than-thou attitude, and a “we are right and everyone else is wrong” attitude.

Click Here for a quick list of some of the signs of Spiritual Abuse.

Spritual Abuse has turned Christianity into ‘Churchianity’ where the church and its particular traditions have become more important than or at least equal to, the Scriptures. ‘Denominationalism’ and ‘traditionalism’ find their way into the teachings and become enmeshed so that no one can tell where Christianity ends and the traditions begin.

One of the biggest problems with spiritual abuse is that it is VERY subtle. Think of the abuser as a con artist. Pastors and other spiritual leaders become adept at using Scripture to back up their subtle manipulation and control. Leaders often find ways to control, not only what happens in their churches, but also what happens in your personal life. For example, leaders in the a particular denomination of Christianity frequently communicate the need for the congregation to consult with a disciple or leader before a decision is made especially if it is a major decisions, and then expected that person to follow through with what they said as if what they say is directly from God. It’s as if their advice is equal to God’s.

Another very important factor in spiritual abuse is the issue of seclusion or us vs. them mentality. It’s communicated in manipulative ways that a particular church, denomination, religion, etc. has the truth and all others are in error. Maintaining relationships with people who have left a particular church, denomination, religion, etc. is strictly forbidden.

Spiritual abuse often leads people to question their status with God and even their spirituality. Victims become absorbed in the behavior of judging others in the church and watching them to try and find people who might not be living up to the leader’s guidelines on living. In what appears to them to be well intentioned but perpetuate the abuse by becoming obsessed with man-made rules, standards and traditions that are taught as absolute truth.

Churches that abuse promote these extra-biblical rules and standards in a legalistic fashion and equate them as doctrine or at least as absolutes of the bible, coming directly from God, with salvation and/or spirituality in jeopardy if they aren’t followed. Trivial matters are brought to attention such as the way one dressed or styles his/her hair, the music one listens to, the clothes one wears, etc. and what are supposed to be personal preferences and convictions end up being law/commands that will bring judgment from God if not follow.

Spiritual abuse victims are often depressed about their inability to live up to those rules and standards, worried that they aren’t pleasing the Lord and frustrated that they keep “sinning”. Victims often feel that they aren’t good enough and not able to live up to the expectations. The joy of a relationship with God is replaces with a fear of God as the “Cosmic Killjoy”. The unspoken requirement of perfection is unatainable and therefore the victim feels a continued sense of inadequacy. This inadequacy keeps the victim under the power of the church leaders for more teaching and discipline.

Churches that abuse often focus on the penalty for sin. They communicate the Lord as a cosmic dictator or harsh tyrant intensely waiting for you to make a mistake so that he can “chasten” or correct you. Any form of questioning the leadership is considered an act of rebellion and the person is punished for it. This “guilt trip” suppresses the normal God given intuition that something doesn’t quite feel right about the church. The leaders take advantage of this by preaching a sermon on how the authority of the leaders shouldn’t be questioned and the cycle of abuse continues as the person is reluctant to even consider that their intuition is correct. Thus the person is stuck at the abusive church, ensnared in the web of manipulation and lies. Members are taught that only God is to handle situations in which leadership may have done wrong leaving the leadership unaccountable.

So we can also glean from the above that spiritual abuse is also the misuse of a position of power, leadership, or influence. Again this may be overt or covert, but it’s abuse all the same.

This article was written in conjunction with Steve Sorenson of www.BaptistDeception.com. Copyright belongs to www.BaptistDeception.com and www.HealingSpiritualAbuse.com together.

How I Was Razed ~ by Bruce Atchison


How I Was Razed by Bruce Atchison
How I Was Razed
by Bruce Atchison
Googling “spiritual abuse” brings up many pages of links to articles about this subject. It proves that millions of people around the world have been emotionally harmed by uncaring and self-centered clergy who use their authority for their own aggrandizement.
Such was the case in the early seventies with a naive teenager named Bruce Atchison. A friend invited him to a Bible study at a house church. Atchison became captivated with the teachings of the lay minister who made outlandish prophecies and twisted scriptures far out of their contexts.
Though Atchison attended every service and Wednesday night meeting, elders harassed him during his fifteen-year membership at the church for not being healed of his poor eyesight. They accused him of having hidden sin, lacking faith, lusting for sight, and having ancestral sins. No matter how he worked up his faith and squelched all doubts, his vision actually grew worse.
Atchison became so bitter and enraged that he left that house church, turning his back on God for nine years. When he finally came to his senses and realized that those teachers taught him lies, the Lord led him to top-notch Bible teachers and church congregations who believed the truth.
How I Was Razed: A Journey from Cultism to Christianity is the testimony of the heavenly Father’s guidance of Atchison to a proper understanding of his character and the Bible. It also contains a technique for dealing with emotional baggage that can help people who suffer from the trauma of their pasts. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Virtual Book Worm Publishers in paperback and e-book form.

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