Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Ponderings on the nature of spiritual abuse

Several people have posted articles in their blogs about spiritual abuse. I have been thinking about a lot of things in this area lately - have read some news articles that make me want to knock people up side their heads and ask them what they are thinking. (Example) But in the end, I think many people are completely ignorant of even the idea - the concept - of spiritual abuse. So, what does spiritual abuse look like? How can it be recognized for what it is? 

At first, I thought I would describe what abuse is, in general. Then follow up with what spiritual abuse is. All very ship shape and Bristol fashion. Then I thought, Bah! I'm just going to write from the heart - about what I have experienced and seen - and let you decide if you can recognize spiritual abuse from that. I think that abuse, in its many forms, is in essence all about control - about the need to control someone else to feed your own needs. Spiritual abuse is no exception. 

Hmm... abuse has been around since the beginning. In thinking about it, all abuse is spiritual in nature because it is an attempt to control the very essence of who someone is - their inner self - their real self - their spirit. It is when someone makes the judgment that someone is less valuable than they are and then communicates that judgment to them in some way. It is demeaning someone in order to elevate yourself. I could easily get diverted here, but I want to address spiritual abuse in the church (or home) or maybe, more accurately, religious abuse. 

I think this (religious abuse) is basically misrepresenting God in order to control someone's behavior - get them to follow you, do what you want. Hmm... I think, in a very real sense, some of the church's methods of evangelism are spiritually abusive - at least in the church I grew up in. How is telling someone what a terrible person they are not abusive?

Anyway, back to inside the church. Hmm... to teach people that God has a standard of conduct in thought, word and action, that He measures us all by and that we must strive to measure up to this or we might 'slide backwards and become heathen reprobates who hate God' is abusive. Well, they might not put it exactly like that, but it is the underlying thought - fear - programming. The truth is, I can't blame anyone who does not want to serve a god like that. I don't want to serve a god like that. Thank God, I don't. :-)

I think spiritual abuse is anything that gets in the way of our ability to have a real relationship with Jesus and our Father. There are, then, many levels of spiritual abuse. Many are not deliberate or premeditated. But some are. So, in my opinion, it is spiritual abuse when...
  • ... you are attacked and or chastised for honestly questioning.
  • ... you are made to feel inferior to the leadership of a church/ministry.
  • ... you are told that you have to follow a list of rules to be saved/make it to heaven/be favored of God and man.
  • ... you are told that you must go through a church/ministry leader in order to receive from God
  • ... you are told what you can and cannot watch/read/eat/listen to/like.
  • ... you are told that if you don't give in the offering regularly, you are not a real Christian.
  • ... you are told you need to clean yourself up before God will accept you.
  • ... you are told that anger is a sin.
  • ... you are required to do anything that you have objected to.
  • ... you are told that God wants you to have sex with the pastor/minister - that it is His will.
  • ... you are told that if you leave this church/ministry, you will be vulnerable to deception and attack.
  • ... you are told who you can and cannot be friends with.
  • ... you are told who you can and cannot marry.
  • ... you are expected to lie and cover up the misconduct of the pastors/ministry leaders against your own conscience.
  • ... you are told you have to beat righteousness into your children.
  • ... you are physically hurt in any way.
  • ... you are told that you have to submit to abuse because God's laws are more important that your safety.
  • ... you are made to feel guilty for not measuring up to the church's standards.
  • ... you are told to shun friends who have left the church.
Well, that's the beginning of a list. I think you get the idea. Fear and greed and pride are at the heart of spiritual abuse (as all abuse). Hmm... I feel like there is more to this, but it is not coming, so I will post this for now and welcome your comments and thoughts and additions to the list.


Anonymous said...

Did we forget the one that says--- spiritually abusive environments are often built on "code" words and special phrases that can be manipulated to fit the purpose of the abuser...

Jeannette Altes said...


I did miss that one. It is absolutely true - maybe even essential - for abusive religious systems to use this tactic.

Sara said...

wow . . . God's blessings on your healing.

incidentally, you won the latest round of apples to apples

Jeannette Altes said...


Thanks :)

Tracy Simmons said...

Love this line especially: "Fear and greed and pride are at the heart of spiritual abuse (as all abuse)." It made me realize how much we Christians need to learn to discern the heart of a person more than their words even, because if we see/feel/sense/know those things are there, we know to get the hell out of Dodge City, and fast!

Of course, in a spiritual abusive situation, the LAST thing they want is for you to think on your own or discern anything!

Jeannette Altes said...


Hmm... yes, and .... yes.

If you sense these things, RUN!

If you are not allowed to question, RUN!

Tyler Dawn said...

"I think this (religious abuse) is basically misrepresenting God in order to control someone's behavior - get them to follow you, do what you want."

This covers so much!!! And I have done this while in leadership, all under the auspices of being "for their own good" and telling myself that "the ends justify the means."

And that story you linked to is so tragic. Poor girl. I understand how a girl could be lured into such a relationship, we give the priests too much power and too much influence with out children (and ourselves!)

Jeannette Altes said...


Hmm... I think that the sad thing is, church leaders are TRAINED to do this.

Anonymous said...

Katherine, I have recently come out of a church that met most of the characteristics on your list. I know what you are feeling and I am sorry that you are going through this because I know how hard it is. Some days I ask myself will this ever quit consuming my mind? It's amazing and alarming how many people have experienced this same thing in churches across the world. I continually ask myself why I didn't see it before now. Now that I am out of it I see things so clear. I think a lot of people who are in these kinds of churches do get the wrong idea of who God really is - because if the leaders of the church (who are supposed to be there to help, love, and serve the people) are hurting people and abusing people, then would God do that too? The leaders use the pulpit to put others down to raise themselves up. They call other christians bad names and they put other churches down. They tell you that you can't speak to people who left the church. That does not promote love and it is certainly not what being a christian is all about. Some innocent people, especailly new christians, get so confused because the leadership in the church are supposed to be the examples for us to follow. I could go on and on. It is so sad and I am glad you are bringing these things to light. Maybe others will recognize that they need to RUN from a situation where they are being spiritually abused.

Jeannette Altes said...


I am glad you are out of that environment. That seems to be the only way to begin to really see it for what it is. I hope this does help many see.


Aida said...

I honestly believe that many who are in that type of environment initially had warning signals that they chose to ignore.

This is a great list and I believe it will help those who are beginning to ask honest questions -the type of questions that are silenced in abusive churches.

Jeannette Altes said...


Thanks. I think you're right - I know that I did...

Mark (under construction) said...

Thankyou for this post - I'm comming back here to ponder it more ... spiritual abuse, priestly power used to control people to maintain the staus quo.

Jeannette Altes said...


Welcome! Ponder as often as you like. ;-)