“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.

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.