What are some signs of spiritual abuse, and how should I respond?

Abuse can come in many different forms and often has long-lasting and detrimental effects on the victims. While the most commonly thought of forms are physical, sexual, and verbal, spiritual abuse can be just as damaging and difficult to deal with. Spiritual abuse is especially dangerous because it has great potential to affect a person's concept of God.

There are several different ways that spiritual abuse can be inflicted, the first being by church leadership or administration who misuse their power in selfish and oppressive ways. Abuse can also be seen as overbearing legalism or church leadership attempting to exert control over congregants. Though spiritual abuse can happen in any church, it is most obvious among cults. Cult reliance on spiritual manipulation is addressed in this article. The second form of spiritual abuse is when a Christian is ridiculed, harassed, belittled, or shamed because of his or her faith—this is most often thought of as persecution. Unfortunately, each type can come from both Christians and non-Christians. Recognizing the signs of spiritual abuse and learning the Christlike response to spiritually abusive situations will be the focus of this article.

Church is meant to be a place where the Body of Christ can gather, have fellowship, be encouraged, and learn how to become more like Jesus (Galatians 5:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:18; 1 John 1:7). However, sometimes those who are in positions of authority within the church can become over-controlling of their congregations, increasingly self-seeking in their motives, and psychologically manipulative of the very people they are supposed to be helping. Spiritually abusive pastors and church leaders may reject accountability and place their own power and authority above God's. They could be unwilling to care at all for "the least of these" (orphans, widows, homeless, etc.). Legalism coming from the church leadership is another form of spiritual abuse. The most practical definition of legalism is "forced conformity to the external aspects of the Christian life regardless of the condition of the heart or inward holiness." Legalism can have many expressions: only allowing the congregation to read a certain translation of the Bible, forbidding women to wear pants or jewelry, or demanding only a specific style of music be used during the service.

The first thing to do if you are beginning to suspect that there is some level of spiritual abuse going on in your church—whether you think you or someone else is being abused—is pray. Victims of abuse are not always fully aware the situation is abusive or able to speak for themselves. So if you think someone else is being spiritually abused, it is important for you to take these steps as well (Proverbs 31:8–9). In every case, you will need the Holy Spirit to equip you with discernment for this situation (Hebrews 5:14). Ask the Spirit to lead you to Scriptures that could provide some clarity to the situation (2 Timothy 3:16). If you are an outside observer, make sure you have a clear understanding of what is actually going on in the situation (Proverbs 18:17). Take people's perspectives seriously.

In accordance with Matthew 18:15-17, it would seem the next appropriate step is to talk directly with the person you think is being spiritually abusive. Depending on the situation and the degree of spiritual abuse, such a confrontation may raise safety concerns. If that is the case, it may be wise to engage a disinterested mediator to participate in the initial conversation. Many times in cults confronting a leader is not even possible. Wisdom and discernment are needed.

If the initial discussion proves fruitless, it is time to speak with other, trusted members of your church family to see if anyone else has the same concerns. This does not mean that you are to slander, disrespect, or gossip about your pastor or whoever the suspected abuser may be; however, it is acceptable and commanded that we weigh whatever we are taught against the Word to make sure it is sound teaching (Acts 17:11; 2 Timothy 2:15). A small group of three or four can then approach the abuser. If the situation is not resolved, then it is time to take the concern to the next highest authority within the church (potentially a pastor, the elder board, or a denominational representative). The apostle Paul gave some instructions concerning how to resolve conflict between church leaders and their congregation. He wrote that we should be exceedingly careful when we present a charge against a church elder and that we should "not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses" (1 Timothy 5:19). Voice concerns with love and pure intentions.

If the situation is not resolved after taking these steps, it is time to leave that church and seek one that operates on sound doctrine and biblical principles. It may also be appropriate to seek biblical counseling to help restore your understanding of who God is and to heal from the wounds of the abuse.

At times spiritual abuse is linked with physical abuse or other illegal behavior. If that is the case, the appropriate authorities must be contacted. This should happen in conjunction with presenting the issue to church leaders. Such situations require both civil and church intervention, so do not neglect involving civil authorities. Leaving an abusive situation is appropriate, and taking steps to ensure that others are not unwittingly left in such a situation is an act of love.

The second type of spiritual abuse is when a Christian is persecuted or treated harshly on account of his or her faith. Though unfortunate, we are not to be surprised by this because Jesus said it would happen, "Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you" (1 John 3:13). Rather, we should rejoice when we are shamed for our faith, because usually that means we are doing a good job representing Jesus (Matthew 5:11-12; 2 Timothy 3:12). As Christians, we are called to lead lives that are pleasing and acceptable to God. This means that we often must go against the way of the world in order to follow God's commands (John 17:14). When we encounter people who treat us poorly on account of our faith, we are called to be loving, respectful, and prayerful toward them (Matthew 5:44).

In addition to persecution from non-Christians, those of the same faith can be judgmental and critical toward believers who may not yet be as spiritually mature. New Christians might make what can be called "rookie mistakes" as they begin their new life with Christ. Sometimes they just may not be mature enough yet to know what is the right thing to do. If this is the case, we are called to strengthen those who are "infants in Christ" (1 Corinthians 3:1) and encourage them in their faith. Spiritually abusive Christians may assert themselves as superior to new believers and criticize them if they do something wrong due to lack of wisdom or discernment. It could be extremely detrimental to a new believer to be scolded, punished, or put down because of his or her ignorance. Those who are mature in Christ should not be prideful but humble so that they can properly instruct those who need guidance (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12). Christians are warned against getting caught up in fruitless arguments and causing divisions in the church (2 Timothy 2:23-26; Romans 14; Titus 3:10).

Spiritual abuse can be manifested in a variety of ways, and it is important that we learn to recognize it in all its forms. We are called to "Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them" (Ephesians 5:11). Confronting and fighting all kinds of evil is a major part of the Christian life, and it often requires humble bravery. As we "walk in the light, as he is in the light" (1 John 1:7) we learn how to effectively handle and overcome spiritual abuse so that we can adhere to sound doctrine and be continually sanctified as we "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen" (2 Peter 3:18).

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