Spiritual abuse is nothing short of demonic. Claiming to speak for God, spiritually abusive leaders manipulate and coerce others to submit to their will through fear and shame, often hiding their abuse in biblical language and feigned spiritual piety.
Spiritual abuse is a distortion of discipleship that leads people away from Jesus and into some of the darkest experiences of their lives––often in the name of Jesus. This is the work of the enemy.
Tragically, spiritual abuse is not uncommon to the experience of many followers of Jesus. One study conducted in 2018 suggested that up to two-thirds of believers have experienced spiritual abuse to one degree or another.
The results have been disastrous for people’s souls, with many young evangelicals abandoning their faith in Jesus and the Church. While this crisis of deconversion has led some Church leaders to speculate that the growing number of exvangelicals are merely following a cultural trend, often downgrading spiritual abuse to terms like “church hurt,” many of those who have deconverted cite spiritual abuse as integral to their faith story.
Though not every church or spiritual leader is abusive, the problem is nevertheless rampant. Far too many Christians have been wounded by spiritual abuse. I am among them.
Nevertheless, I have not given up hope on Jesus or his Church. And while I believe there is much we need to reform in light of this reality, I’m also deeply concerned on a personal level for those who are seeking healing after an experience of spiritual abuse. Despite everything, I believe in my bones that deconversion and departure from the Church are not the answer.
While I can’t claim to be an expert, here are three thoughts I’ve found helpful in coming back from spiritual abuse.
1. Name Your Pain.
My upbringing in the Christian community was rife with spiritual abuse. As I sought to conform to the measures of obedience that I was told would make me a faithful Christian, shame was hurled upon me for every failure, with every accusation having a proof text to support it. All the while, the goal posts of faithfulness were constantly moving, always just outside my reach.
Growing up, spiritual abuse often gave way to elements of physical abuse in my home. Bruises and bible verses were bizarre, yet nevertheless common bedfellows. So common, in fact, that I sometimes don’t even realize the true nature of some of my experiences until I recount them to a close friend or loved one, only to see the look of genuine horror in their eyes. It has taken me years––and indeed it is still an ongoing process––to unravel the tangled web of abuse to see reality as it truly is.
As a young pastor, I experienced spiritual abuses that deeply baffled me. I had men in spiritual authority speak to me in vile and ungodly ways, physically intimidate me, and speak unfairly and untruly about me behind my back. These abuses were in response to my actions, which sprang from a sincere desire to spread the love and message of Jesus to a community that needed him.
As I reflect back, I understand that I was a young and inexperienced man, and my approach was not always filled with the utmost wisdom and prudence. However, the reactions I seemed to provoke were disproportionate to my alleged offenses.
But upon bringing up instances where I experienced vitriol and harassment, I was told that I was the one who is misreading the situation, taking things out of context, blowing things out of proportion, causing unnecessary division, and harboring bitterness and unforgiveness. In short, that I was the one who needed to be apologizing.
I once had a man in authority over me tell me that I needed to take control of who I let my wife be friends with, especially with regard to certain people in the church. The people he was warning me against, in my estimation, were kind, compassionate, generous, and thoughtful. They exemplified the fruit of the Spirit far more than those who maligned them and sought to minimize their influence––especially in the face of opposition and harsh criticism.
What’s more is that they were the very people that helped my wife to feel known and loved in an environment she had found quite hostile toward her from the moment she became a part of that spiritual community. But having lunch with them was now an indicator of my spiritual waywardness and failure as the spiritual leader of my household.
Each of these experiences has been both deeply hurtful and incredibly baffling. So much so that I don’t even have words to fully express the feeling of bemused indignation. It’s akin to a man who is floating on a raft in an endless ocean but has reached a point of delirium in which he actually finds his situation somewhat humorous.
In these moments, I have been struck with the fact that there is something deeply broken about the authority structures and systems within the American Church. Not only in my personal experiences, but in the stories that are multiplied throughout churches of every stripe, size, and theological distinctive.
How could it be that those of us who have experienced spiritual abuse could be, en masse, so horribly mistaken in our assessment of our experiences and the structures that contributed to them? Either we’re crazy, or we have been made to believe that we are.
I’m convinced that I’m not crazy. I’m convinced that the hurt that I’ve experienced is legitimate. I have been wronged. And while I have certainly committed wrongs both in my actions that provoked abuse and in my response to that abuse, the abuse is still not justified. It never was, and it never will be.While I have certainly committed wrongs both in my actions that provoked abuse and in my response to that abuse, the abuse is still not justified. It never was, and it never will be. Click To Tweet
2. Call Yourself Back to the Idea That the Gospel Is About Freedom, Not Control.
Spiritual abuse––along with all other forms of abuse––is marked by abusers’ need to maintain control through fear. The gospel, on the other hand, is marked by freedom through forgiveness and redemption.
As I left one spiritually abusive environment, taking a leap of faith and without a clear picture of what lay ahead in my journey, one man in spiritual authority expressed to me his concern at my leaving. As this man, who had previously slandered and berated me, shook my hand, he told me through smiling teeth, “I don’t think you know what you’re doing.” While I knew I was making the right decision, this statement rattled me with fear.
That was until the man standing next me immediately cocked his head toward the one shaking my hand and replied, “Oh, come on. This is Dale we’re talking about. He’s going to be fine.” In that moment, God spoke through that man to affirm what I already knew on a deeper level. It was going to be okay.
Nevertheless, this exchange illustrates that the use of fear is a hallmark feature of abusive control, as my seemingly abrupt departure didn’t make for great optics. In the words of the Star Wars villain Grand Moff Tarkin, “Fear will keep them in line.” And it’s true. Fear is a highly effective tool of control, seeking always to keep you from exercising your freedom, even to leave.
The good news of Jesus is that, by the power of his resurrection and the abiding presence of his Holy Spirit, he is empowering you to freely step into becoming the person that he created you to be. Abusers try their hardest to only allow you to take the steps that will make you the person that they want you to be. A person who fits within their vision for power and control. This is not the way of Jesus.
One of the major metaphors that the New Testament uses to describe our salvation in Jesus is that of redemption. In the ancient world, this term was most often used in reference to slavery. When an enslaved person was granted their freedom, usually through the generosity of someone else, the word they used to describe it was redemption. But it wouldn’t truly be redemption if the person who redeemed you, or someone who worked for them, sought to control you after your freedom had been purchased.
That’s why Paul tells us in Galatians 5:1 that it is “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”The gospel is marked by freedom through forgiveness and redemption. Click To Tweet
3. Remember That Godly Authority Is a Good Thing.
In understanding the gospel as freedom in contrast to abusive control, it would be easy to assume that authority is itself the problem. In fact, it is this conclusion that has led many to depart from the Church entirely.
But God’s vision for authority isn’t that it’s inherently wrong. In fact, it’s a good thing. After Jesus was raised from the dead, he told his apostles, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). He then exercised that authority by commanding them to make disciples in his name.
What’s more is that while Jesus is described in 1 Peter 5:4 as “the Chief Shepherd,” Peter also expresses that Jesus has granted authority to under-shepherds who have spiritual authority in the Church. Only, in order to be qualified for that authority, Paul tells us, among other things, that these leaders must be “not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:3).
An absence of these qualifications in spiritual leaders often betrays an evangelical tendency to place itself under gifted men rather than godly men. And that is perhaps why spiritual abuse is endemic to the Church experience of far too many followers of Jesus.
Even still, there exist good and godly men and women whose desire is to guide others to step into the redemption and freedom Jesus offers us. Some of them just might be the leaders at your church.
Leaders will not always be perfect. For some reading these words, this is an understatement hitherto unparalleled. And the fact that spiritual leaders are imperfect people must never be used as an excuse to minimize or dismiss abuse. But not every leader who has moments where they speak poorly, act too hastily, or even employ some of the same biblical language your abusers did, is themselves an abusive leader.
Sometimes, leaders with the best of intentions say and do things that survivors of spiritual abuse find triggering. In these cases, one of two things may be true (and sometimes both). First, this may be an opportunity for that leader to refine the way they lead in light of the experiences of those under their leadership. The fact of the matter is that many pastors simply do not understand the ocean of context you bring to the table in light of your abuse experiences. And they never will unless you graciously and lovingly help them understand.
But second, these moments are also an opportunity for you to step into healing. As harsh as this might sound in a moment of pain, the best response to your abuse might not be to burn down every part of every institution. Even though many authority structures and systems are in dire need of reform––and you can serve as a catalyst for those reforms––triggering moments are also an opportunity to once again name your pain, remind yourself of the freedom of Jesus, and invite him to foster healing within your heart.Sometimes, leaders with the best of intentions say and do things that survivors of spiritual abuse find triggering. Click To Tweet
The Path to Healing Is Not Linear.
Anyone who has experienced abuse will tell you that the journey to healing isn’t always a straight path. In fact, there are moments when you sense yourself reverting back to the emotions and thought patterns that marked the period of your life when you were being abused. But because of Jesus, there is always hope for a better path forward.
In order to find that path, you will need to accept the fact that there is growth that needs to take place within your own soul. That growth is mediated by both the Holy Spirit and the spiritual leaders that God has placed in your life.
Only, you must refuse to anchor your identity in your victimhood. While you may have been horribly victimized, and you did nothing to deserve it, the abuse you have experienced has not granted you moral perfection either. And if you choose to believe the lie that it has, you will never truly be free.
That isn’t what God wants for you. It is for freedom that Christ has set you free. So don’t return back to the yoke of slavery. God wants to use your pain to bring forth beauty, transformation, and hope. While men may have intended it for evil, Jesus can and will use it for good.