Spiritual Abuse

My counseling business name is Southlake Christian Counseling. As you can imagine, I get all sorts of inquiries about what exactly the Christian part of my business really means. People wonder, and often worry that they are going to get yet another heavy dose of religious guilt by seeing a counselor with the word ‘Christian’ in the business name. One of the best compliments is when clients say that they were nervous to see a Christian counselor but have had a great experience and not once felt like I was finger waving at them in shame.

Why is it that a lot of people are cautious about things that have to do with Christianity, even Christian counseling? Well, I think it’s because there are far too many pastors and church/ministry leaders out there running amok in the name of God and doing a lot of harm in the process. Harm to people who are trying to find God in the blur of modern life and harm to the terms Christianity and Christian. Now let me pause here and make sure every reader knows that I am not saying all pastors or church leaders are awful. I am saying that some, if not many, are miserable examples of the wonderful qualities of Jesus. How do I know this to be true? I have immersed myself in the culture of Christianity for 21 years now and have seen a lot.

I have been on church staff, ministry staff and a member of churches/ministries. I have witnessed the best of Christianity and the worst. For the last eight years, I have been counseling under the umbrella of Christian counseling. I truly think this season has taught me the most about what works beautifully within churches and ministries and what qualifies as spiritual abuse.

Yes, men and women are being abused in some churches and ministries. More light needs to shed on this area, not to embarrass the collective Church, but instead so that victims can heal and no one ever has to experience abuse in the name of God again.

What qualifies as spiritual abuse? Good question! Here are some the major forms of abuse that are happening:

1) When scripture on forgiveness is distorted to keep someone from setting healthy boundaries with a toxic person.

Boy, isn’t this a doozy. I see more clients who have sought solace and help from a pastor or ministry leader regarding a toxic relationship and instead, was given a long lecture about forgiveness and extending grace to the abuser. Do survivors have to walk through the process of healing and in doing so, be told that qualities like forgiveness and grace will surface? Absolutely. But I assure you, when a survivor initially seeks guidance from a Christian leader, they need help setting healthy boundaries with an active abuser. They do not need a leader reinforcing the concept that the abuse is the survivor’s fault. That is precisely what happens when the leader lectures the survivor to take more abuse under the guise of misapplied forgiveness and grace, instead of advising them to set boundaries.

2) Using religious guilt to keep a person in a toxic relationship when the abuser shows no true attempt in changing their behavior.

Here’s how this form of abuse works in a practical sense: let’s say a couple shows up at a pastor’s office for marital ‘counseling’. By the way, I have a hard time calling it counseling when the work is done by leaders that are not trained mental health professionals. We wouldn’t expect a pastor who lacks dentistry credentials to perform a root canal, right? I wrote on this topic if you should wish to peruse it: I Got A Root Canal At Church.

When one spouse isn’t fully invested in changing his or her ways, they often do a wonderful job of deflecting responsibility while also being highly skilled manipulators. If this is the case, there won’t be much authentic change, if any at all. Pastors and leaders will then need to focus the attention somewhere else in the room and that usually ends up on the spouse who is willing and able to be self-reflective and capable of personal growth. You can probably guess what happens next. The victim of abuse becomes the identified asset of change and religious guilt is used to keep that person trying harder to make the relationship not abusive. At that point, a truly vicious cycle has begun.

3) When wives are religiously shamed for not praying enough for their toxic husbands, but the men are held to a lower standard.

Let’s continue with the same couple as above and now make the wife the survivor and the husband the abuser. Pastors and leaders who spiritually abuse in this way do so by placing the responsibility on the wives for praying their husband into the godly man he was created to be. She is expected to have the patience of a saint, constantly turning the other cheek and enduring abuse in one or more of its forms (psychological, sexual, emotional, physical, financial). What is the husband expected to do? Not much. Sure, there may be discussions about actions the husband needs to take but things don’t really change. While in the pastor/leader’s office, the husband may even wholeheartedly agree that he has areas he can improve in. But no actual repentance and lasting behavioral changes occur, and the wife is religiously shamed when she brings the double standard up or heaven forbid, starts to speak up about not wanting to take the abuse any longer.

4) When good men are held to an unreasonable religious standard of personal responsibility for being in and fixing a toxic relationship.

When a good man is in a toxic relationship, he is often told that as the head of the household and the spiritual leader, it is his duty to continue to serve his abusive/toxic wife. Is it possible for women to be abusive? Absolutely. Some are physical by punching, pinching, slapping, pushing and other aggressive outbursts. Good men don’t want to be that guy who fights back and instead will attempt to defuse a volatile wife through humor or distraction. Good men want to shield their children from physical combativeness. Our culture seems to downplay the impact that verbal abuse can have on people too, and especially when the perpetrator is a woman. The hurtful, stinging words of toxic women harm those around them just as much as if they were spoken by a man. A good man also wants to shield himself and his children from a psychologically and emotionally abusive wife and mother. Unreasonable religious standards are often placed on men to keep the family together at all costs and love their abusive wives as Christ loved the church. What a religious burden to place on a man who truly wants what’s best for him and his children.

5) When church leaders refuse to recognize relational abuse in all forms and further the abuse by falsely blaming and shaming the victim.

Now here is where the true issue comes to light. There are many trained mental health professionals who struggle to initially recognize insidious relational abuse. As a therapist, it’s hard sometimes to truly sort through the issues that a couple or family present. Even with the education and spiritual discernment to guide us, it’s still a challenge at times. As mental health professionals, we are trained to know the full depth of relational issues and yet, we can miss the early signs of some forms of abuse. Hopefully, as counseling continues, we hone in on the core issues. If a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath is a focus in the counseling, the entire dynamic shifts and we have to fight to sort through the layers of chaos and confusion intentionally spun by the toxic person.

Many pastors and ministry leaders do not have adequate training to spot relational abuse and therefore, in their ignorance, re-victimize the victim. Other times, a pastor or ministry leader may simply not believe that abuse can be more than just physical. If this is the case, that pastor or leader is going to do an extensive amount of harm to a victim who is suffering behind closed doors. Imagine the intense isolation a victim must feel when they are abused and are told by their religious leaders that the abuse does not exist. It will leave a victim feeling “crazy” and desperately alone. Where was God and His leaders when the victim needed them both?

It’s a whole lot to take in, isn’t it? Those are the five main areas of spiritual abuse that I see from my counseling perspective. Are there more? Most definitely. But I wanted to share the ones that seem to be happening the most within churches and ministries at this time in our culture.

What should you do if you or someone you love is being spiritually abused? Keep seeking a safe place to talk about what is happening within the church or ministry and the original issue of being in a toxic relationship. I often say that people go into a pastor/leader’s office with one problem (an abusive relationship) and end up coming out with two problems (abusive relationship and now spiritually abused). It must stop.

Again, I want to say that there are amazing pastors and ministries providing excellent pastoral care. There are people being incredibly strong and encouraged by the spiritual leaders in their lives. That should always be the norm. Until it is, we will continue to shed light on this area of life as a Christian that needs to change. The change will better reflect the character of Jesus and better reflect living with true love, hope, joy and peace.