ABUSE & VIOLENCE IN THE CHURCH, emotional abuse, Religious Trauma Institute, Spiritual Abuse

Religious Power and Control: Emotional Abuse

Each section of the Religious Power and Control Wheel describes a tactic used by abusers to maintain power and control over their victims. According to Laura Anderson, when the tactics are combined, a system is “designed and intended to exert power and control over others by their rules, requirements, punishments and consequences for not adhering to the specific requirements of the group.”

Many who read here will be able to identify with some or all of these tactics. We discussed isolation here and minimizing, denying, and blaming here.

On the wheel, emotional abuse is described as:

*Name calling (e.g. “sinner”)
*Required to suppress parts of yourself
*Inability to trust yourself
*Reliance on external authority
*Fear of consequences for breaking rules
*Brainwashing/indoctrination
*Possible abandonment for thinking/doing/feeling different
*Devaluing of body and emotions
*Coercion
*Manipulation

Emotional abuse is tricky because we don’t see physical signs of abuse (although the body definitely harbors the abuse in other ways). Because of the lack of physical evidence, victims may minimize the behavior. I think emotional abuse is a more sinister form of abuse because it plays a significant role in physical, sexual, financial, and digital abuse.

Emotional abuse diminishes a persons value, self-worth, and dignity. This usually takes a long period of time and involves specific patterns by the perpetrator that makes the victim feel unable to navigate life on their own. Everyone is susceptible to emotional abuse because it isn’t overtly shown at the beginning of the relationship. The perpetrator (or group) will do everything in their power to be nice, caring, compassionate, or whatever it takes to earn your trust. Once that trust is gained, then behaviors such as name calling, gaslighting, and manipulation are slowly introduced to see how much you will take. By the time this happens, victims are so enmeshed in the group that the behavior is viewed as normal.

Emotional trauma can lead to depression, anxiety, suicide, eating disorders, or other forms of self-harming behaviors. Emotional abuse should not be taken lightly or diminished because it can take years for survivors to heal and recover.

What have you seen from religious leaders, family members, friends, churches, or organizations that would be emotionally abusive? If you’re comfortable with sharing, what experiences have you encountered? How did you recognize it? How did it affect you and how are you healing from it?

14 thoughts on “Religious Power and Control: Emotional Abuse”

  1. Oh my, Kathi! You have chosen a difficult and much needed topic. My anxiety level rose as I read. If I could show the drawings in my journal over the last few years, I think others would recognize the subtle abuse that robs so much from life. In respect for those who are reading your post and pondering, I will share after my thots are tempered so that it isn’t triggering for others.

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  2. In my home, my dad controlled all of us with his anger. I was very attuned to his moods-when his hand went up for silence (example: up during dinner so he could “speak” or listen to the news on the radio), muttering and swearing under his breath, kicking or hitting an object, I either disappeared (not always possible), tried to change the topic, or froze. If we didn’t respond to the warning signals, he would rearrange the house (break things, holes in walls, beating my mom, and occasionally, striking, not spanking, my sister or me). He could be on a tirade for hours. In the church with the abusive pastor, he would say things publicly (always in the 3rd person) about people who had “problems.”. Imagine having your “sinful” life as a sermon topic! The church was small enough that it was usually easy to guess who he was referring to. He turned out to be the multi-affair pastor, in several churches, always passed on to another church because he knew too much about his congregants and had no problem sharing secrets.

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  3. I feel that many Christian marriage writers require women to “suppress parts of yourself”, or expect that women aren’t supposed to express any boundaries, especially in the marriage bed.

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  4. I am currently fighting a pastor who emotionally abused me. He drew me in by flattery, giving me gifts & then threatened me. Since then he has ignored me, belittled me & then sent inappropriate texts but the leadership are covering it up & protecting him

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  5. grew up in the pentecostal movement. women were blamed for everything. mental illness was billed as demon possession or unconfessed sin. as pastors kids we quickly learned to suppress feelings and emotions and were ordered to be in perfect control in public. even now i cannot cry even when sad. needless to say my relationship with parents is surface only. waiting on them to pass so i never have to deal w/their crazy religious views again. thanks for speaking out and telling your story.

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  6. Thank you, Mary, for sharing your story. To label mental illness as unconfessed sin or demon position is spiritual abuse. I’m very sorry to hear that you were told that. Ugh . . so painful.

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  7. Harley’s Angel . . . if you need help with your situation and would like to talk privately, please send Kathi or me a note. You have experienced spiritual abuse. And I’m so, so sorry! 😦

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  8. Kate, you are right – – men have been able to call the shots for women sexually in Christian circles and that is wrong. When we look at Song of Songs, we see an equal playing field sexually between man/woman. So, something is clearly messed up by men who want to assume a Patriarchal and ownership position over their wives.

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  9. Linn, I’m so, so sorry to hear about the abuse you incurred. Wow . . to be used as a sermon topic is absolutely spiritual and emotional abuse. And of course those abusers probably never dealt with any consequences.

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  10. Such heart breaking stories to read here. Emotional abuse eats away at our core being. I’m so sorry for all of you who experienced this. As Julie Anne said, please feel free to reach out if you need support.

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  11. I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about spiritual abuse in the context of authoritarianism. It seems to me that the way that authorities establish themselves is by creating cognitive dissonance. That is, they preach a sermon that all Christians should spend all their time doing “X”, and then they preach a sermon of equal weight saying that Christians that spend all their time doing “X” are deluded and sinful. They usually have lots of examples of people who were good at it and people who were horrible.

    This emotional abuse is the equivalent of “The Emperor has no Clothes” – the pastor must be wise and holy if so many people trust him, yet what he says makes no sense. Thus the congregant believes that somehow he is spiritually inferior to others and especially the pastor.

    The other piece of authoritarianism is the hook. We are taught that we are superior Christians because all of the other churches and denominations have traded the “true faith” for “what feels good”. Therefore, the Christian life is one of the unique sacrifices that the specific denomination has decided are important. It might be picketing the local abortion clinic or coming to the evening service and mid-week prayer meeting. It might be conservative dress, homeschooling or sending your kids to the church-run Christian school. Members who follow the church-approved guidelines are then praised, and often praised in comparison to those who didn’t. For example, the impoverished family who sacrifices day-to-day so that they can save enough to attend the yearly church retreat.

    It was a rude awakening to see how much I had been sucked in and duped by the authoritarian “carrot-and-stick” system.

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  12. The mixed message that has always driven me crazy has been 1) attend carefully to the affairs of your family, raising your children in the Lord; and 2) you make an idol of your family if you don’t make Sunday am/pm, Wednesday prayer/choir/youth meetings, Friday fellowship, and Saturday soul-winning. If you aren’t making all those meetings, then you obviously have turned your family into an ‘idol” You can’t win with those double messages.

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  13. Julie Anne/Kathi:
    Please tell Laura Anderson her survey does not load. Also, what do you think about Cult Institute, ever cover his works and have not read his Book, Cults Inside and Out.
    Was telling Wretched Radio as they did a pro John MacArthur interview, they should do their research. Presented metaphorically speaking, we were all deceased what did John MacArthur truly build as don’t see James 1:27. As Mr. Justin Peters had researched Benny Hinn but not J.M. As one very famous Editor in Orange County, CA has even said and written expecting Calvary Chapel to implode due to all in-house fighting and told him maybe Smith Sr., wanted it that way as he does make Dane Phillips Book for role call of satanic pastors (bigger list); yet his wife Mrs. Smith was pivotal in PRAYER bringing about Jesus People Movement whatever happened to her and all his children as Jr., was marry homosexuals at some point in his ministry as made news? Number of Video’s on “why not to play Bethel, Hillsong and Element Music” one by Wretched Radio and one by pastor in Texas and that was one excellent presentation.
    Donald Elley is still FAITHFULLY doing his exposure of Hillsong dogma and injustices.
    Read articles that Willow Creek and Harvest Bible Church received millions of Covid-19 money and also Catholic Church, wow; as people losing their businesses, so showing the church is actually a business (comments on Blogs were rewarding them for dogma and abuses).
    Don’t expect you to post.

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  14. Gunnar – I tried pulling up the survey on the Religious Trauma Institute’s site and it loaded for me, so I’m not sure what the issue is on your end. Maybe the browser? They have an info email if you’d like to reach out and let them know of your experience: info@religioustraumainstitute.com

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