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.