Hurt By Church: The Definition of Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse is a challenging topic for many people to discuss; it's also difficult to measure definitively because it can be subjective. But the church has the power to help or hurt people. When the church creates an environment of control, fear, and manipulation using scripture and social pressure, it's called spiritual abuse. 

The Definition of Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse can be defined as the deliberate manipulation of the beliefs and religious practices of the vulnerable by the powerful, resulting in psychological trauma. The definition is very carefully worded because the line between spiritual guidance and spiritual manipulation is very fine, but the consequences are not.

People who have been spiritually abused can feel that their relationship with God has been damaged or destroyed. Victims have a crisis of faith to the point that it affects the core elements in their life. Spiritual abuse operates like any form of abuse and by excluding people from a sense of belonging and diminishing a person's self-esteem. Abuse leaves them feeling lonely, isolated, worthless, and often hopeless.

Spiritual Abuse Research

There is a significant lack of information regarding spiritual abuse statistically. However, a research survey on spiritual abuse conducted by The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) revealed the following:
  • Most respondents experienced spiritual abuse in mainstream or nondenominational churches (69%) rather than cultic groups.
  • The average level of severity that spiritual abuse victims reported was 3.5 out of 5 (1 being minimal and 5 being highly severe).
  • Non-spiritually abused Christians want to help victims but don't know much about the subject.
Spiritual abuse is rampant in the church and is a key reason people leave the church or become unchurched.

What the Research Means

Though the study focuses on spiritual abuse within the Christian context, the results are relevant to any religious group or institution.

The fact that respondents experienced spiritual abuse in mainstream churches indicates that this problem is not limited to fringe groups or cults. The level of severity that victims reported was high, with an average of 3.5 out of 5; this means that the damage done by spiritual abuse can be significant and long-lasting.

Another significant finding from the research was that non-spiritually abused Christians want to help victims but don't know much about the subject; this underscores the importance of the problem and the need for the research to be shared with the wider Christian community.

Different Kinds of Spiritual Abuse

There are many ways Christians can hurt each other through the misuse of religion. Some examples include:
  • Using religion as an excuse to bully, humiliate or silence others. Misuse could include using faulty interpretations of the bible to exclude people or telling them they'll go to hell if they don't believe what you do.
  • Making someone feel guilty about their beliefs, thoughts, or feelings.
  • Manipulating or negatively pressuring someone into giving their money or possessions to the church. For example, saying that God won't bless someone if they don't give financially to the church.
  • Refusing medical care on religious grounds. For example, telling individuals that they lack faith if they seek medical care for an ailment.
There are countless examples, but fear, manipulation, and control are key components.

Women and Children are Likely Targets

Although spiritual abuse can happen to anyone, women and children are the most likely impacted in spiritually abusive churches. Churches will often use scriptures like "Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right" (Ephesians 6:1) and "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:22) as a means of control.

Also, the lack of spiritual development in these groups leaves them more vulnerable to the whims and abuses of those in positions of power. Evangelical Christian organizations who don't believe women should operate in leadership due to scriptures like "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man" (1 Timothy 2:11-12) leave men responsible to teach.

With men having full autonomy while women and children are left to follow their lead, there is no room for independent thinking and decision-making. Their complete understanding of God and the bible is often left to the leader, destroying the concept of a personal relationship with God for control.

6 Ways To Spot Spiritual Abuse

  1. Authoritarian, sometimes combined with charismatic, leadership styles are the norm. For example, instances where the leader acts as the physical representation of God for the organization.
  2. There is an excessive focus on following rules or covenants. Rules may include a heavy emphasis on clothing, especially women, to avoid makeup, jewelry, and wearing pants (over-the-knee skirts or dresses only). They may also have strict rules on dating and marriage, such as no dating allowed, requiring permission from the church to get married, or sometimes even permission to have children.
  3. Teachings are created to establish and reinforce strict rules. Teachings may use the bible out of context or focus on the church's rules instead of scripture.
  4. Strict silence regarding problems within the church. For example, being told not to discuss church matters with the outside world, including family and friends, even if they harm you.
  5. Former members have similar negative experiences. For example, members are shunned or restricted from participating in ministry activities for breaking underlying social rules.
  6. Hides crimes committed within the organization, including harassment and assault.
There are more why to identify spiritual abuse, but these six are very common in churches and cultic groups alike. Spiritual abuse can leave the victims feeling broken, ashamed, and completely alone. It is critical to identify the signs of spiritual abuse to reverse the damage and allow victims to heal.

The Effects of Spiritual Abuse

When the church hurts vulnerable groups, it can negatively affect individuals. Some of the most common ones include:
  • Loss of faith and trust in the institution and/or God. Groups like Exvangelicals or Ex-Fundies often lose their faith during the deconstruction process.
  • Crisis of identity, often accompanied by confusion, emptiness, and loneliness.
  • Low self-esteem, worthlessness, and hopelessness.
  • Difficulty trusting others, especially those in positions of authority.
  • Fear of the church or religious settings.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
These are just a few of the many possible effects of spiritual abuse on victims. The damage done by abusive churches can be long-lasting and far-reaching. It's crucial to become more aware of the problem so that those with resources can address it and help those affected.
In the end, spiritual abuse is about power and control. The abuser uses religion as a tool to manipulate and exploit the victim, often causing them considerable emotional harm in the process.

How to Safeguard Against Spiritual Abuse

Establishing a system of accountability can help the church avoid the risk of devolving into an abusive system. These systems can be organized inside or outside church organizations. Systems can include:
  • Organization evaluations to determine if teachings and organizational behavior are biblically founded or culturally/socially misguided attempts at control.
  • Training leadership and re-determining ministerial credentials.
  • Spreading awareness about the risks associated with spiritual abuse, what spiritual abuse looks like, and providing resources.
  • Creating a safe environment for victims to come forward. Support can be done through confidential helplines, support groups, or counseling.
While some churches have been a place of spiritual abuse, churches also have the power to help victims and unchurched individuals impacted by spiritual abuse.

Establishing Safe Havens in Churches

Through training and guidance, churches can become safe havens for those who have experienced spiritual abuse.

The Spiritual Safe Haven Network (SSHN), which operates under ICSA, provides resources to faith communities and spiritually abused individuals. For churches, members can learn about spiritual abuse and how they can help. With this information, organizations can establish their methods of receiving and supporting victims, whether through referrals, onsite support services, or the creation of an online community.

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