ABUSE & VIOLENCE IN THE CHURCH, Authoritative Preaching, emotional abuse, Meetings with the Pastor, Misuse of Scripture, Religious Power and Control, Religious Trauma Institute, Spiritual Abuse, Spiritual Authority, Women and the Church

Religious Power and Control: Spiritual 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. Earlier topics in this series: Isolation, Minimizing, Denying, and Blaming, and Emotional Abuse.

On the wheel, spiritual abuse is described as:

*Required to submit to spiritual authorities
*”God says”
*”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!

21 thoughts on “Religious Power and Control: Spiritual Abuse”

  1. Yayyyy, Kathi!!! Thanks for the post. It’s very timely considering the people coming forward from Bethlehem Baptist Church (and Seminary).

    Wow, we have 3 posts in one week on the blog after quite a long hiatus. Kathi and I are currently still moderating an online group for women in abusive marriages. She and I populate articles of interest on the blog’s Facebook page, and I frequent Twitter.

    At the moment, we haven’t decided how often we will be posting . . . maybe as the Spirit leads. The past year has been very trying for many reasons. We want to make sure that we are not wearing ourselves thin in the process of doing advocacy work.

    It’s cool to see the new activity, though, and others who are gaining support and information to learn how to deal with spiritual abuse. That’s why this blog exists.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much. I learned a lot. Wow, I’ve never heard of this and have been in many different churches. This is TERRIBLE! We’ll all stand before the Lord……

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  3. I just wanted to share this story:

    My wife and I were visiting a church for the first time. There were maybe 300-400 people in the sanctuary. After worship, one of the pastors got up and declared God was moving in the church. Then she addressed the congregation: “If you think God is moving in this church, stand up!” I turned to my wife and said, “I’m not standing up.” The entire congregation stood up except us. After the congregation sat back down, the pastor did it again! She looked directly at us and addressed the congregation: “If you think God is moving in this church, stand up!” Once again, we remained seated as the rest of the congregation stood up. Just to reiterate – this was our VERY FIRST TIME visiting the church. Needless to say, we didn’t return.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Paul K – That’s an experience! Makes you wonder how many other times people have been targeted from the pulpit.

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  5. When have you heard a sermon preached on spiritual abuse?

    About as often as you hear one preached on the forgotten archetype of The Antichrist (the Slick Deceiver, not the Fanatic Persecutor) — the subject hits a little too close to home.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. A pastor at a church we were visiting mentioned spiritual abuse during his sermon, as an example of mis-use of Ephesians 5:22 (“wives submit to your husbands”). I thought to myself, finally, here’s a pastor who gets it.

    Two years later, we’d made this our church “home.” Other stuff had put me on my guard already when the pastor quoted covid misinformation (misquoted, actually, just going to show how little he actually understood what he was talking about) from the pulpit. I emailed and politely asked for the source of said information. He was coy, at first. When pressed, he accused me of being too much in “the World” and not enough in “the Word” (funny, I don’t remember the word “covid” in my multiple cover-to-cover readings of the Bible) and, among other things, said he hoped I didn’t let “the devil become a wedge to drive between us.”

    The devil may indeed have been driving a wedge, but I wasn’t the one who invited him in.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. When someone leaves a spiritually abusive church, it can take a lot of time to heal and feel comfortable with the Bible or church.

    Indeed. Whilst I don’t think I have ever had a period being uncomfortable with the bible as such, I have certainly been there where the mere thought of darkening the doors of a church was enough to make me want to throw up. That didn’t last too long, but I have a life-long commitment now to discerning what is actually going on in a church.

    It is also true that only once you have left off attending church can you realise how much attendance is simply out of habit, not a great deal is being achieved by being there! I wouldn’t recommend too long an absence from fellowship, but where you attend is and remains imo a freewill decision.

    I have come to believe there is such a thing as an evangelical cult. The attendees might be genuine believers, but the authority structures or attitudes of the leadership are cultic, restricting, enslaving even.

    Whilst I agree that the bible can be misused by men wanting control or to enforce their pet doctrines this is a two-edged sword (as it were!). The preaching and reading of the scriptures should work against abuse.

    But because of false brethren secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage — to them we did not yield submission even for a moment, that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

    This is an important verse from Galatians for anyone old enough to remember the old shepherding discipleship submission covering doctrines out of Fort Lauderdale. It made the word ‘submission’ debased coinage in the UK for a number of years. It does give believers a general basis for not being enslaved to men and for preserving their legitimate Christian liberty.

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  8. KAS said:I have come to believe there is such a thing as an evangelical cult. The attendees might be genuine believers, but the authority structures or attitudes of the leadership are cultic, restricting, enslaving even.

    Whilst I agree that the bible can be misused by men wanting control or to enforce their pet doctrines this is a two-edged sword (as it were!). The preaching and reading of the scriptures should work against abuse.

    Great comments, KAS.

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  9. KAS, “The preaching and reading of the scriptures should work against abuse.”

    Should, yes, but when churches have an axe to grind, let’s say authoritarianism and patriarchy, those scriptures become twisted to the point that it is hard to read them and hear God’s voice rather than hearing the voice of pastors I grew up with.

    I’ll try not to be controversial, but when reading the teaching on headcoverings, the pastors I grew up under failed (failed or otherwise) to mention that the women were “praying or prophesying” which means they were taking an active part in the worship. Even Calvin acknowledges that prophesying is what we think it is, but he then accuses Paul (and by logical conclusion, the Holy Spirit) of engaging in idle speculation (if… women were to prophesy, then… they would dishonor).

    So, even reading scripture is full of minefields of hearing the echos of sermons I heard “well, it looks like that, but that’s not what it’s saying”. Or hearing, yes, Jesus did challenge the authorities in their moral failures, but that was only allowed because he’s God…

    I was told two weeks ago that “scripture is clear on what clothes women should wear”. To which I replied, “no cotton/poly blends, but I bet your legalistic friends don’t obey that!”.

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  10. Twitter threads have been hard to follow. Recently, though, they’ve become pretty much impossible for me to follow.

    Twitter changed its rules, so now only people with an account can click on subtweets or read through threads. Since I don’t have an account, all I can do is type in someone’s user name, and catch up on status updates. Kind of boring.

    Thanks for organizing all of these conversations, Kathi! It’s good to see this site still going.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Whoops! Just realized… my last comment here was supposed to be on another page. I’ve been away from SSB for so long, I got lost!

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  12. No prob, SKIJ, I figured that’s what happened 🙂 So, tell me, were you able to read the threads from clicking on the timestamp without having an account? I was wondering about that after I read your comment.

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  13. Julie Anne – I don’t have a Twitter account and I’m able to read the threads. This is my first time knowing about clicking on the time stamp, though. Thanks for the helpful info!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. @Mark
    I sure appreciated your comment thread……”scriptures are clear on what women should wear” vain philosophies. So then, scriptures are not clear on what men should wear? Smile!

    In my former abusive baptist c’hurch, there was a young woman in her early 40’s, whom was elected onto the c’hurch board and was also a deaconess; she preached and still preaches to us lower laity dogs, that we are to live as the old testament Israelites lived. In this day and age according to her, we are not to eat pork or shellfish, abiding by a few select Mosaic Laws, meanwhile ignoring the rest.

    My son is a pork producer, and works his tail end off in providing food for a hungry world. I too, love my pork chops, bacon, and ham, and would not give it up for the world, as I live under Jesus’s Covenant…..the New One! Praise Jesus for food producers!

    So my question to her was, “So then, if you are so proud that your children pick the pepperoni off of pizzas because they have pork in its ingredients, are you, as a “good mother,” making sure they are wearing clothing of only “two fibers” as prescribed by Old Testament law?

    Crickets! On her behalf!

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  15. @Katy, when the Bible becomes a weapon to beat others down, and you refuse to be convicted of what it says to you, it shows that it was never the word of God in the first place. That’s been my conclusion after finally opening my eyes to who Jesus was and what he did on the Earth. Yes, he had all authority, but he called the religious leaders out, not using authority, but using wisdom and the truth – the same tools he gave us to fight these battles.

    I think it’s obvious that the OT, for this deaconess, is not something for HER to understand and live by, but something for her to use to make up false accusations and elevate her own standing. That is not what those in church service are called to do.

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  16. Precisely Mark! “When the Bible becomes a weapon to beat down others….” as you quote, the result is a christian religion that points others to works of the flesh rather than the Holy Spirit moving amongst those whose believe and trust in Jesus. The finished Work of Jesus’ life being sacrificed on the Cross becomes vain foolishness to those who believe in works righteousness, where the flesh becomes more important than matters of the heart, mind, and soul.

    It is comforting to read about Jesus’ encounters with sinners, and the lowly people considered to be dogs by the religious people in the Gospels; totally applicable teachings for us in this day and age!

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