I’m a Christian. I love God. I read the bible. I go to church…but, I’m abusing you.
The reality is, someone doesn’t have to hit you, molest you, or even shout at you to hurt you. The enemy is cunning, deceptive, and he specializes in using things God intends for good, and using them to steal, kill and destroy, to do damage to our souls, and do damage to the body of Christ.
This is going to be an uncomfortable conversation.
This is going to be an uncomfortable conversation, because although it often flies under the radar, spiritual abuse is deeply imbedded in many parts of the Body of Christ globally, as well as in our American church culture, and as believers, we are all likely guilty of it at some level.
It’s especially likely that those of us who lead in churches and ministries have allowed ourselves to exhibit spiritually abusive behaviors, and we need to recognize it, repent and install guard rails in our leadership to protect our people from our own unhealthy tendencies. So, whether you are a victim or a perpetrator, or, as is most likely, both, I pray these thoughts are truthful, helpful, and loving, and that they help us live and lead for Jesus most faithfully.
At the core of abuse we always find control.
Let’s define abuse as ‘the improper treatment of a person or people, often to gain some sort of improper benefit’. Abuse takes many forms; including physical, verbal, sexual, mental, and as we’ll see here, spiritual. At the core of abuse, we nearly always find the abuser grasping for some sort of control. In the same way that a physical abuser uses violence to instill fear and thereby control those they abuse, or a sexual abuser receives fulfillment from dominating and controlling their victims, a spiritual abuser uses spiritual things to manipulate and control their victims. Spiritual language, religious cultural tensions, shame or fear based manipulation, the threat of rejection or shunning, can all be tools of spiritual abuse.
The two primary settings for spiritual abuse, sadly, are the two most sacred gifts God’s given us as human beings, the family and the church. Many husbands and wives that love each other and love Jesus, find themselves spiritually wounding one another, attempting to do what’s right, but struggling for control and stability in their relationship. Christian parents who deeply love their children, and desire to see them follow Christ and grow in their faith, can unintentionally, spiritually wound their children, when biblical truth isn’t imparted in healthy, helpful ways.
Some spiritual abuse is unconscious, in that it naturally emerges from unhealthy patterns of doing family or doing church that we’ve learned and tend to duplicate, as we reproduce the environments we developed in. Some spiritual abuse, however, is conscious, and deliberate. Christian faith, and spiritual principles (appropriately) run deep, and can become powerful weapons, when wielded to control and manipulate and hurt those who don’t comply or obey.
Here’s a key thought…
When those who are participants in abusive patterns of living, adopt religious beliefs and values, but do not receive healing, correction, and transformation in these areas, they simply continue in the abusive patterns with ‘spiritual things’ as their new weapons of abuse and control.
Abuse can spring from a leader’s ambition.
In some church cultures, spiritual abuse and manipulation are business as usual, a way of simply getting things done. In these cultures, people are motivated by spiritual fear to give, participate or comply, while the non-compliant are shamed and rejected, further instilling the fear in those who remain. Even churches with sound theology and biblical instruction, can slip into abusive patterns, if there is not a safe environment for dialogue and a system of checks and balances for leaders. Often, churches and leaders burn those serving out, in pursuit of their goals and vision. As spiritual leaders, we are absolutely mandated by God to protect those we lead from our own ambition, anything less is abuse.
There are many ways in which spiritual abuse can manifest, and it demands that we as believers and leaders, take an honest look at ourselves, our leadership, our roles as parents, husbands, wives and friends. I pray that we can receive the healing and the growth that we need to be healthy life giving people and leaders. The good news, is that there’s healing, forgiveness, and restoration for those who have been a part of a spiritually abusive culture. The grace of God in Jesus Christ is sufficient to heal, deliver and make new the hearts and minds of those who the enemy has wounded through spiritual abuse, whether they are the victim or the initiator or both.
Power, love and self-control.
Paul told Timothy, a young man he was training to lead God’s people, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power, love and self-control.”
It’s important we recognize if we’re being manipulated by others through spiritual fear, manipulation and abusive tactics, and to then confront, establish distance and clear boundaries, but above all to get help. Reaching out to a wise friend, Christian counselor, pastor, mentor, or spiritual leader who is not involved in the abusive culture is a great place to start.
It’s also up to us as those in positions of influence in our homes, in our marriages, and in our churches, to recognize when we are leading by fear, manipulation or with abusive tendencies. It’s up to us to recognize, invite and receive correction, and cultivate health in our relationships, the souls and spiritual health of our spouses, our kids, those we lead and ourselves depends on it.
This article is the 1st in a 3 part series…look for the next 2 installments in the coming months.
Part 2 Religious Abuse vs Gospel Freedom.
Part 3 Shutting the Door on Spiritual Abuse.
Dalton and Sylvia, his wife of 16 years, live and pastor in Republic, Mo