Do you suspect that you have been spiritually abused? This is a growing problem that affects millions of people. You can let the hurt drive you away from God and the church, or you can get help from a Christian counselor to overcome it. The more you know about spiritual abuse, the more you can heal with God’s help.
What is Spiritual Abuse?Spiritual abuse occurs when a spiritual leader abuses the power they have over you. This can include pastors, lay ministers, small group leaders, Sunday school teachers, professors, or any other person who is in spiritual authority over you. Spiritual abusers take advantage of people rather than leading them as God intends.
Spiritual abuse can cause you to question your faith. It can lead you to believe things that are not in accordance with God’s Word. Spiritual abusers may entice you to give money to causes you don’t fully support. They may also demand that you give up friendships or break associations that threaten their power. You may be led to believe certain acceptable behaviors are wrong or that certain wrong behaviors are acceptable.
Signs of a Spiritual Abuser
The overriding connection among spiritual abusers is a desire for power and control. This may be overt or covert, depending on the abuser’s personality and goals. But it is always there in the background, and the abuser will use this desire for power and control to manipulate followers. If you notice any of the following signs, you may have a spiritual abuser in your presence.
Just like any other abuser, a spiritual abuser will hook you at first with a charismatic personality. They can have periods of being warm, friendly, and admirable. Spiritual abusers are usually good at public speaking. They may have natural charm or likeability that reels unsuspecting people in.
A Corner on the Truth
Spiritual abusers will claim to have the “right” view of the truth. They will be proud of their religious studies or seminary training. These abusers will resist your attempts to counter their teachings with the truth of God’s Word. They use their knowledge to condescend to you and deceive you about what is real.
A License to Be PridefulThough true Christian leaders are humble and self-effacing, spiritual abusers see their positions as a license to be prideful. They may say that God called them to their position, so no one can question it. They don’t want to be questioned, because if God put them there, who can argue against it? Spiritual abusers work hard to close the loops of repercussions against them, and pride is one of their favorite tools.
Driven by Money
Money equals power, and that’s what spiritual abusers are after. Healthy spiritual leaders should have deacons to handle the church’s financial matters, along with a strong system of checks and balances. But spiritual abusers weasel their way into controlling the money situation so they can use it to manipulate people.
Heavy on Law, Light on Grace
A spiritual abuser will use guilt, criticism, and shame to control their victims. They will tear down rather than build up with the Gospel truth. Though Jesus did not cast stones of judgment at his followers, spiritual abusers wield their power with a heavy focus on the law, or even on laws that they make up themselves.
Lack of Spiritual Maturity
A true spiritual leader will bear the fruit of the spirit as described in Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT), namely, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If you don’t see evidence of these fruits in a spiritual leader’s life, they may be an abuser. They may display the opposites such as dissension, self-pity, complaining, cruelty, worldliness, or indulgence.
Twisting the Truth of God’s Word
The truth of God’s Word is powerful and does not mix with a spiritual abuser’s tactics. The spiritual abuser may not make a bald-faced lie out of Scripture, but they may twist it to suit their purposes. You may hear false teachings on either side of the law or Gospel.
Lack of EmpathyA true spiritual leader has a kind, loving, selfless shepherd’s heart. But a spiritual abuser thinks only about his or her own wants, needs and preferences. They are selfish by nature and do not care for followers the way a true shepherd would do.
Resistance to Confrontation
Because the spiritual abuser lacks humility, he or she will not receive constructive criticism with a teachable heart. Rather, the abuser will deny, shift blame, hide behind excuses, and avoid responsibility. He or she may even turn others against you if you confront them. It’s wise to confront a spiritual abuser only after you have received wise outside counsel so you can protect yourself from further harm.
Denial of Facts
When normally robust church attendance suddenly drops, it can be a sign that a leader has gone wrong. But the spiritual abuser will deny that the plain facts are consequences of his or her actions. They will say that lower attendance or less giving doesn’t really matter. What matters most to the spiritual abuser is having a group of followers who do what he or she wants.
Get Others to Drink the Poison
Like any bully, spiritual abusers cannot operate in isolation. They need a following of people who will agree with everything they say, give without question, and turn against those who dissent. By getting a small group of key people to drink their poison, spiritual abusers surround themselves with a fortress of supporters so their agendas can be advanced.
Using Fear Tactics
A spiritual abuser may use fear tactics to keep people from dissenting or defecting to other churches. Tactics like emotional manipulation or blackmail are commonly employed to keep people under control. This is not appropriate behavior for a spiritual leader, but a spiritual abuser will resort to just about anything to keep the upper hand.
Since spiritual abusers are thirsty for power and believe themselves to be above the moral code, they may commit acts of sexual misconduct out of their inflated sense of self. Usually, this behavior goes undetected for weeks, months, or even years before it is discovered. Once out in the open, many spiritual abusers will deny the truth and cast blame on others rather than taking responsibility.
Vulnerabilities to Spiritual Abuse
Spiritual abusers know that not everyone will buy into their schemes. They intentionally look for key signs in their potential victims so they can prey upon unsuspecting people. This is in their quest to form a support group around themselves. If you have any of these signs, you may be particularly vulnerable to a spiritual abuser.
- Lack of Bible knowledge
- Fear and avoidance of conflict
- Easily intimidated by powerful people
- Unresolved past emotional wounds
- Lack of strong personal boundaries
- Too trusting
- Hungry for affirmation or recognition
If you see these signs in yourself, you can get stronger with help from a Christian counselor. People who are strong, confident and secure pose a threat to spiritual abusers. You can build up your defenses against spiritual abuse by receiving therapy from a caring counselor.
Overcoming Spiritual Abuse
If you have been a victim of spiritual abuse, you need time to heal. The counselors at Seattle Christian Counseling are willing and able to help. We will listen to your story, help you identify areas for personal growth, and give you techniques to resist future attacks from spiritual abusers.
Don’t let a spiritual abuser ruin your relationship with God. God knows all about your hurts, fears, and regrets. He walked beside you in the difficult times and will walk beside you as you heal and overcome. As you study the Bible, pray, and praise God, you will heal from your painful journey.
It’s important that you give church another chance. There are many good churches who are not led by a spiritual abuser. God doesn’t want us to give up the habit of meeting together (Hebrews 10:25), because we can encourage each other in the church. Once you are on the healing journey, you will feel confident enough to try out a different church.
To overcome the challenges you have faced, get in touch with the counselors at Seattle Christian Counseling. We offer support and practical help to overcome spiritual abuse. Give us a call today.
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