I am aware that what one person calls “spiritual abuse” to another person may be no more than a disagreement. This is not to diminish or minimize genuine cases but to recognize that the diagnosis requires discernment and knowledge of sufficient facts.

Which is why we all need to turn to Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphrey’s definition in their important study of spiritual abuse called Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating healthy Christian cultures. This book, or at least one like it, should be on every pastor’s bookshelf and available to both elders/deacons and congregants.

Spiritual abuse works both ways: congregations can abuse pastors and pastors can abuse congregations and congregants. Make it more complex: congregants can abuse one another.

Today, their definition, I reformat to make it simpler:

Spiritual abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse.

It is characterized by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context.

Spiritual abuse can have a deeply damaging impact on those who experience it.

This abuse may include:

manipulation and exploitation,
enforced accountability,
censorship of decision making,
requirements for secrecy and silence,
coercion to conform, [inability to ask questions]
control through the use of sacred texts or teaching,
requirement of obedience to the abuser,
the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position,
isolation as a means of punishment,
and superiority and elitism.
Image: Cover Photo

We are aware that many will need a wise, discerning friend to help one see that that they are in a spiritually abusive situation, and many will need to spend time with a counselor. So, may I suggest if you are seeing some of this at work in your life to seek some help?

Spiritual abuse impacts people and leads to the following sorts of questions:

Who can I trust?

Who am I?

How do I cope with fear?

What do I believe?

How long does this impact last?

Who is here to support me?

What if someone comes to you with a story of what may be spiritual abuse? How to listen well? Oakley and Humphreys give nine suggestions:

Actively listen to the story, showing that you are taking it seriously. Ensure the individual telling the story knows that he or she is valued. Do not minimize, judge or defend a person or the church. Be clear about the boundaries to confidentiality. Take care of offering prayer or Scripture as a response – ensure that the individual can make a choice as to whether he or she wants this. Avoid using Matthew 18 as a first principle in responding to a disclosure of spiritual abuse. Do not rush people to a place of forgiveness and reconciliation. Discuss the risk of harm with your safeguarding coordinator/lead and consider next steps carefully. Ensure that there is policy and procedure including spiritual abuse in your church or denomination and that this is followed.