5 Signs of Spiritual Abuse
As someone who has been on the receiving end of severe, unrepentant spiritual abuse from Christian leadership, I want to begin by saying that it not only exists in the church, but that it is often empowered and propagated by other leaders and laypeople. Therefore, when you experience it for the first time, you may find yourself questioning whether you are imagining it or not, or whether you are blowing a minor incident out of proportion. Other people in your place of worship appear to either “go with the flow” or make it out to be a normal occurrence of church leadership. Let this both assure you and frighten you: it is more than likely that you are experiencing spiritual abuse.
Though this article is not exhaustive, it is a helpful checklist to help you quickly detect spiritual abuse so that you can make the wisest decision in response to it — flee or fight back. These are signs of spiritual abuse that I have witnessed in my own experience, and I pray that this may be helpful for others.
1. Spiritual Abuse Uses the Tactics of Gossip
I distinctly remember the conversation I had with a well-respected minister when he began to use the words, “Some people in church are saying X, Y, and Z about you.” He then proceeded to poke and prod at the vulnerable spot of personal reputation in order to try to silence my dissenting opinions to a poor set of leadership decisions he and others had made. He wanted to let me know that unnamed people were talking ill of me so that I would speak no further about the leadership’s gross errors.
Spiritual abusers thrive off of using gossip, slander, hearsay, and reputation damage against their victims. Instead of calling people to follow the command of Christ to come before a brother or sister privately about any (perceived) wrongdoings, spiritual abusers file away these accusations, half-truths, and exaggerations for a rainy day, when they can pull them out to beat unwanted sheep into submission or expulsion.
2. Spiritual Abusers Are Often Well-Liked
I have yet to have encountered a spiritual abuser who was heavily unliked by other Christians. In fact, many of these spiritual abusers have had some of the most charming smiles and public personalities that could make anyone want to trust them. But behind closed doors — or, more aptly in our social media world, behind private messages — spiritual abusers show a side of themselves that they never show to the watching world. We should not think of spiritual abusers like obvious culprits in a poorly rated crime detective movie. They are often more subtle and cunning than that.
3. Spiritual Abuse Thrives in Private
I can’t number the amount of times that I underwent spiritual abuse through private phonecalls, private conversations, private messages on social media, etc. Oftentimes, spiritual abusers give outwardly pious reasons to bring a public conversation into private quarters. But don’t let the appearance of holiness fool you — spiritual abuse thrives in the darkness of privacy. It is within the confines of a private phonecall that spiritual abusers can get away with unhindered verbal abuse with no witnesses. Even if you manage to record the call, it is of no real value in the eyes of a court of any sort since it was recorded without permission. It is within a private message on social media that spiritual abusers can say things that they would never say in a public thread and get away with convincing other people in the church that you forged a transcript of the interaction. Be very, very careful when someone in authority tries to bring a conversation out of the public eye and into private quarters.
4. Spiritual Abuse Twists Truth to Uphold Power
Another conversation I distinctly remember is when a minister of a church I previously was a part of told me that it was distinctly Presbyterian to agree completely with what the presbyters (the elders) of the church said without question. Knowing that many members of theologically conservative churches want to be known as “conservative,” “Reformed,” and “Presbyterian,” this minister attempted to twist Presbyterianism to uphold his power and authority and bring all dissenting opinions into shamed silence. Praise God that my own study of Presbyterianism at the time made me completely ignore his truth twisting, but many other sheep are not so fortunate. Be watchful of spiritual abusers who twist truth to uphold their power and authority.
5. Spiritual Abuse Speaks Before Asking, Always
Spiritual abusers will make assumptions about you, act on those assumptions, and treat you in light of those assumptions without ever getting your side of the story. And, in the event that you do get to provide your perspective and defense, they disregard it, belittle it, and twist it to ruin your reputation, diminish your trustworthiness before the rest of the church, and make themselves out as the hero.
Spiritual abuse is no light matter. I am a beaten sheep who only continues to be a sheep because I have a true Shepherd that will one day vindicate me and tear down these false shepherds who have not only spiritually abused me but have likely gotten away with abusing many others throughout their ministries. If you believe you are a victim of spiritual abuse, it is more than likely that you are. Pray that God would give you the courage and strength to flee or fight back and know that Jesus is on the side of the abused and never on the side of your abuser.