Spiritual Abuse: Best Resource Recommendations on this Misunderstood Topic (2023)

Spiritual abuse in the local church is an often discussed yet misunderstood concept. In its most basic form, spiritual abuse is the misuse of power and authority to control, manipulate, or exploit people. It can take many forms, from subtle manipulation to downright bullying, and is found in many churches and religious settings.

Defining Spiritual Abuse

Dr. Michael Kruger, President of Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC, defines spiritual abuse as, “when a spiritual leader—such as a pastor, elder, or head of a Christian organization—wields his position of spiritual authority in such a way that he manipulates, domineers, bullies, and intimidates those under him, as a means of accomplishing what he takes to be biblical and/or spiritual goals.” You can find his article here.

The effects of spiritual abuse are often far-reaching and wide-ranging, from spiritual damage and trauma to physical ailments and mental health issues. In addition, victims of spiritual abuse often suffer from fear, low self-esteem, and even guilt for not meeting the expectations of those in positions of power.

Most cases of spiritual abuse in the local church occur when an individual or group of individuals take authority in a spiritual context and use it in a way that doesn’t align with the actual teachings of the church. Some signs of spiritual abuse include holding an unreasonable amount of power over the congregation, encouraging a “default of guilt” culture within the church, unfairly targeting members or groups based on their beliefs, and humiliating or shaming those who do not comply with expectations. In the worst cases, spiritual abuse can lead to the ostracization of individuals, leaving them feeling isolated and helpless.

The primary way to protect those in the local church from spiritual abuse is for lay leadership to ensure healthy boundaries are followed. Leadership should limit power and authority, demonstrate respect for others and their beliefs, and ensure that all church members are respected, protected, and treated with dignity.

Additionally, church members should be encouraged to speak up when they feel something is wrong. Educating church members about spiritual abuse can also help to prevent the problem from occurring in the first place. Taking steps early on to create a transparent and open atmosphere where anyone can raise their concerns can help protect members from potentially damaging relationships.

Finally, church leadership should provide support and resources to those members that have experienced spiritual abuse. Encouraging victims to open up and talk about their experiences in a safe, supportive environment can help them to process their feelings and cope with the effects of the abuse.

Unfortunately, what usually happens is that victims attempt to speak up and are immediately hushed or told not to speak out for fear of “dividing the church.” For the sake of pseudo-unity, all opposition is quieted and led to believe that by disagreeing with the leader, he/she is “allowing Satan/devil/enemy to use them as a tool of division,” or some similar language. Humiliated and/or fearful of causing harm to their church family, they either quietly leave, or apathetically drift away, unable to process and talk about what has happened to them.

In conclusion, preventing spiritual abuse in the local church requires effective pastoral and lay leadership that adheres to healthy boundaries, empowers members to speak up when something is wrong, and supports those who have experienced abuse. In many cases, spiritual abuse can have devastating and long-lasting consequences. Therefore, all parties involved must work together to eradicate this issue and create a safe and healthy environment.

If you, or someone you know, have experienced spiritual abuse of some kind, here are some resources I would point you toward:

Books

Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church

by Dr. Diane Langberg – 2020

Breaking the Silence on Spiritual Abuse

by Lisa Oakley & Kathryn Kinmond – 2013

Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating Healthy Christian Cultures

by Dr. Lisa Oakley & Justin Humphreys – 2019

Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church

by Dr. Michael J. Kruger – 2022

It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way: Finding Unexpected Strength When Disappointments Leave You Shattered

by Lisa Terkeurst – 2018

Authority Abusers: Toxic Leadership and Its Effects in Homes, Churches, and Relationships

by Bishop George Bloomer – 2008

the Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing & Escaping spiritual manipulation and false spiritual authority within the church

by David Johnson & Jeff Van Vonderen – 2005

Wounded Faith: Understanding and Healing from Spiritual Abuse

by Dr. Neil Damgaard – 2022

Healing Your Church Hurt: What To Do When You Still Love God But Have Been Wounded by His People

by Stephen Mansfield – 2012

In the House of Friends: Understanding and Healing from Spiritual Abuse in Christian Churches

by Kenneth J. Garrett – 2020

Articles

Spiritual Abuse: Why the Church Needs to Talk About This Problem by THOMAS HWANG

Why Does Spiritual Abuse Take Place in a Church? by Thomas Hwang

What is Spiritual Abuse? by Dr. Michael J. Kruger

Spiritual Abuse: 4 Twisted Values That Enable Churches to Hurt People by Daniel McCoy

The Dangers of Spiritual Abuse: Clinical Implications and Best Practices by Dr. Cyndi Matthews

When does conflict become spiritual abuse? Churches large and small face that question by Bob Smietana

Eight Signs of Spiritual Abuse to See If It’s Happening to You by Rick Thomas

Recognizing Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse in the Church by Beth Ann Baus

130 Signs of Toxic Church Leadership by JAMIE ATEN & KENT ANNAN

A Beginner’s Guide To Addressing Spiritual Abuse In The Church by R. Scott Clark

Podcasts

Confronting Spiritual Abuse (Nov. 2022) – Collin Hansen & Michael Kruger

The Spiritual Abuse Podcast (2021) by Eddie Wilson & Joseph Lopez

spiritual abuse

Care, Power, and Abuse in the Local Church (Oct. 2021) by Adrian Reynolds & John Stevens

Holding On to Faith After Spiritual Abuse (Nov. 2022) by Julie Roys

Dr. Diane Langberg on Spiritual Abuse, Identifying Our Own Power, and Hope by Annie Downs

The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill (2021-2022 series) by Mike Cosper & Christianity Today

Healing and Resurrection After Spiritual Trauma (2022) by Mike Cosper & Aundi Kolber

Other Resources

Spiritual Harm & Abuse Scale Inventory by Dan Koch

Conclusion

Spiritual abuse is a complex topic to discuss, and its effects can be incredibly physically and mentally damaging. While there is no quick fix for this issue, local church leaders must strive to ensure that proper boundaries are established and that victims are provided with the necessary support and resources to heal from their trauma. Only through such a collective approach can we begin to create a safe and healthy environment free from spiritual abuse.

If you need to talk or share your story of spiritual abuse, I’d love to hear from you…. my email is christopherblakewalker@gmail.com Let’s start with an email, then maybe a longer phone conversation will be needed. Love y’all! Numbers 6:24-26

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