Spiritual Abuse, Defined and Described

Part 2 of 7

Spiritual abuse is the misuse of a position of leadership to further one’s own interests. The leader uses authority to manipulate others in order to accomplish his purposes and religiously justifies what he is doing.

There are many ways that spiritual abuse can happen in a church. What I will describe is probably more specific to abuses that happen at the leadership level because that was my experience.

When spiritual abuse occurs, it is because circumstances require that the leader take you down in order to secure or advance his position. These circumstances could be jealousy, differences of opinion, political or budget considerations threatening his position, or needing a scapegoat for problems within the ministry.

“When a lust for power in the heart of a leader is combined with pride, an insecurity that needs to control, and a constituency that is willing to follow blindly, the conditions are present for spiritual abuse.” – Rich Damiani

Whether consciously or unconsciously on the part of the abuser, all abuse is about control. The desire to dominate comes from insecurity and fear of failure or exposure. Self-preservation is a major concern of the abuser.

Manipulators and controllers will not accept differences of opinion. One of the ways they exercise control is to question the loyalty of those who disagree with them and discipline those who contradict them, branding them as rebellious.

Taking measures to ensure that it is not an equal confrontation, the leader gathers people around him who do not question the way he uses his authority. Because he is not challenged, he is able to bully his intended target.

False accusation is an effective weapon for this kind of tactic. The leader claims to know the person’s heart accusing them of wrong motives and improper attitudes. It is easy to bring false accusation against someone in an area such as this where it is not possible to produce proof of innocence.

It is a warped version of the reconciliation process. Those who have been manipulated by false accusations will not be able to submit to the process. They should not have to surrender to the leader’s false judgment of them.

The reason it is impossible to find reconciliation in this situation is because it was false from the start. If the real motivation were reconciliation, these twisted methods would not have been used. When the leader uses his position to exert control, restoration is not the intended outcome.

It is different than simply a disagreement between brothers because the weight of position and authority is brought into the picture to wield power in order to achieve a desired result. If someone is coming in peace, they will leave their sword at home.

More later…


16 thoughts on “Spiritual Abuse, Defined and Described

  1. This sounds like it could have come from David Johnson’s The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, a book I highly recommend to anyone who has been spiritually abused, or knows anyone who is going through it. It was a very helpful book for me when I first read it.

    Keep up the great work, Grace. Word is spreading; your blog is already becoming a great resource for people who need to talk about this.

    Grace and peace,

  2. Thanks Robby. I’m sure my thoughts are heavily influenced by Jeff Vondervan (coauthor of the book you mentioned) and others whose articles I have read on websites.

    At the time, I believe I visited every possible site and read every article written concerning spiritual abuse.

    There was also a site on workplace bullying that, oddly enough, was very helpful to me.

    Sadly, I am just adding my voice to the many others who have also experienced this. Hopefully, it will help someone else to read that what happened to them was wrong.

  3. Grace,

    What I find most disconcerting is how subtly this kind of abuse can take root. It doesn’t fit the stereotype of blacked cloaked villians maniacally cackling as they plot others demise. Because of this, people are apt to dismiss the victims of abuse too quickly.

    In addition, it is when the abuser is blinded by good intentions, truly believing that are doing right, that it also becomes very difficult.

    Keep up the excellent posts!


  4. Jamie- I agree. You wrote: “In addition, it is when the abuser is blinded by good intentions, truly believing that are doing right, that it also becomes very difficult.”

    I’d add that matters are complicated when the abuser justifies his/her actions with the catch all spiritual phrase “The Lord told me…, and that’s how I know what’s in your heart,” or the ever popular “God told me to ask you all to pray for ________”. I lost most of my friends through the “false prayer concern” version of gossip.

  5. I often wonder how these tyes of expereinces can be forestalled, minimized and fully halted?

    Are our accountability systems for leadership not working? Are what we call, denominations, simply not functioning?


    Are we unable to follow scriptural procedures for correction and discipline.

    I recently worked for a company, St.Arbucks, where if you had a problem with a manager, you told them. If they did not recieve your ‘feedback’ you were encouraged to communicate with the disctrict manager. This works well for providing open lines of communication.

    Is is simply that we do not allow for this in what we call, church? (sunday centric community)

    I have endeavored to flee from this type of community. If I am just ‘slotted’ in, then I set myself up for abuse. If I am embraced and an open line of communication exists between the percieved leaders and myslef, then I place proper boundries upon myself and others. If expectations are not communicated, I am in trouble.

    I wonder also if our leader are simply inexpereinced in terms of conflict management, and therefore donot understand how to deal with insecurity, inferiority, and pride issues?

    Is there something we could do to resource exisiting organizations to give them building blocks that will help them build healthy communities?


    Too much typing…

  6. Glad I stopped by here to find this great conversation going on. Your post and reader’s comments cover a topic that needs to be talked about more often…thank you.

  7. “What I find most disconcerting is how subtly this kind of abuse can take root. It doesn’t fit the stereotype of blacked cloaked villians maniacally cackling as they plot others demise.”

    What a profound statement, Jamie. When we think of legalism, we think of those absurd rules established by the Pharisees. But I don’t think they were as simplistic as they are portrayed to be. They were extremely intellectual, which means, they knew how to be manipulative without showing their cards fully. These stereotypes must go.

  8. Cindy,

    Re: the “Lord told me” lines, I couldn’t agree more. These are far better examples of using the Lord’s name in vein than saying “Oh my God!” when stubbing your toe. Sadly, it is all to common, from blatant spiritual abuse to simple over-casual glibness in speaking for God.


  9. Wow, great comments everyone!

    It might be difficult to prevent or cure because it is rooted in the heart of an insecure leader.

    The tendency of those who are insecure is not vulnerability and honesty, but rather shame and fear of exposure.

    This is what drives the need to control which results in abuse to others. It is also the reason that it stays well-cloaked.

    In our case everything unseemly was done behind closed doors and without witnesses in order for the leader to maintain his “loving” image.

  10. BRAVO- well stated!!! You have hit the nail right on the head. I felt like you are describing my current situation. My husband was let go for power purposes on the part of a corrupt and dictatorial leader.

    My only comfort at this point after being rendered bankrupt by the ministry we dedicated our lives to for 12 years, is knowing that God sees all and He will right the wrongs that have been done.

  11. This may sound odd. I wound up here trying to figure out what drives a loving husband to constently question his wifes love. Fear of cheating, accusations of cheating, I even found a key logger on my computer.

    Some of these tactics you describe are ones that have actually made me feel as if I am crazy at times. How do you defend against feelings…when any reaction gains you further disbelief. Anger, being offended, crying, denying, it is all used to further the proof that you are guilty.

    Any difference of opinion on my part is usually proof i don’t love him, or am not loyal to him. Often no matter how respectfully approached. If i disagree, it becomes, “You always have to be right, fine you win. I difference of opinion is never a simple act.

    Jamie said..”In addition, it is when the abuser is blinded by good intentions, truly believing that are doing right, that it also becomes very difficult.”

    Ah, and here is the crux of my matter also. These same people can be the most wonderful “power” for good, if only they can reach the understanding…

    What makes a leader great is doing whats best for his people, by hearing what his people need. Not one which does what he thinks is best while not heeding them.

  12. Seed of Life Kuwait is using spiritual abuse you mention here.
    Just a life saver for anyone who happen to be trapped .

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