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.”
On the wheel, spiritual abuse is described as:
*Required to submit to spiritual authorities
*”The Bible says”
*Decisions made on your behalf or “for your own good”
*Threatening consequences for breaking group rules/sinning
*Requiring certain beliefs/thought/behavior with severe consequences for not following
*Not allowed to ask questions
*Non-adherence to social rules
*Use of holy text or position to oppress or abuse
When have you heard a sermon preached on spiritual abuse? When have you heard a church leader admit to being spiritually abusive or elders saying they endorse a spiritually abusive pastor? My guess is that you have never heard this while the spiritually abusive person is in power. It’s not until one gets out from under the control of a spiritually abusive person that members or elders will fully see the power and control an abusive pastor had over the group. And, often times the spiritually abusive person is powerful enough to create a systemic culture that enables abuse.
A couple of examples of spiritual abuse based upon personal experience: first, we were at a church where a year in, there was a search for a new pastor. My husband was on the search committee and an elder who was being considered for the position came to our house and spent two hours talking to us about how he was called by God to be the pastor. It was an exhausting evening which resulted in my husband not supporting him for the position. He ended up becoming the pastor, and we found ourselves becoming more isolated by those who were on his side.
One Sunday he preached on David and Bathsheba using sexually-explicit language while children were present during the service. The pastor stopped at one point and started yelling about the concerned looks on people’s faces. He continued yelling that he was appointed by God to preach scripture and how dare we question his judgement. The pastor also said that if anyone decided to leave the church, they were required to have a meeting with him to discuss why they wanted to leave. We left without ever having the required meeting.
A second experience we had at a different church was around how women were valued and treated. One Sunday, the church was praying for couples who were opening their homes for small groups. The men stood in the front with their wives directly behind them. The elders laid hands on the men and prayed specifically for them and their ministry to those who entered their home. While no verses were provided as to why only the men were prayed for, the church leaders set the tone and example that the women were invisible and had no influence in how they related to the guests in their own homes.
The next Sunday the preacher spoke on why women cannot be ministers by using Revelation 2:18-29 (message to the church of Thyatira). This was the first time I’ve ever heard this verse used as a reason for why women cannot be pastors. At one point the pastor paused, looked straight out at the audience and declared loudly (why always loudly?) that the church would never have women pastors and if you did not like that, you could leave. We left and never went back.
I find that spiritual abuse and emotional abuse are similar, except that spiritual abuse is done in the name of God. There are Bible verses crafted to support all rules and decisions. If you question any of the rules then you may be told you are working against God. Who wants to questions God and the person placed in position to lead in the name of God? When someone leaves a spiritually abusive church, it can take a lot of time to heal and feel comfortable with the Bible or church.
For those of you who have experienced spiritual abuse, we hear you and you are not alone!