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.

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 Copyright belongs to and together.