Jan 022012

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

–Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 14:18–19)

January is Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month.

(You can read all about it here.)

Spiritual what, you say? Ah, that’s why we need an awareness month. Here are a few definitions to get you up to speed:

Spiritual abuse occurs when someone in a position of spiritual authority, the purpose of which is to ‘come underneath’ and serve, build, equip and make God’s people MORE free, misuses that authority placing themselves over God’s people to control, coerce or manipulate them for seemingly Godly purposes which are really their own. — Jeff VanVonderen

Spiritual abuse is the misuse of a position of power, leadership, or influence to further the selfish interests of someone other than the individual who needs help. Sometimes abuse arises out of a doctrinal position. At other times it occurs because of legitimate personal needs of a leader that are being met by illegitimate means. Spiritually abusive religious systems are sometimes described as legalistic, mind controlling, religiously addictive, and authoritarian. — David Henke, Watchman Fellowship

Spiritual Abuse occurs when a leader, church or a belief system, whether well intentioned or not, dominates, manipulates or castigates individuals through fear tactics, mind control, or some other psychological or emotional abuse. — Spiritual Research Network

You see it in cults and in mainstream churches. You see it from televangelists and pastors and elders and priests. You hear about it on the news when another child is molested by a priest or pastor. You don’t see it in the faces of the people next to you who once heard and believed that they can’t please God unless they’re good enough. It’s there too.

It’s bad because it hurts people.

It’s worse because it hurts people and tells them they deserve it.

It’s worst because it hurts people and teaches them that God does too.

I think it’s no exaggeration to say that Spiritual Abuse is arguably the one of the most pressing moral, theological, and social issues facing the church (the followers of Jesus) today. Spiritual abuse not only leaves people emotionally and psychologically devastated, it turns them away from faith in the God who could be their source of consolation and encouragement. A church that doesn’t address the realities of Spiritual Abuse leaves its message savaged and discredited, often without even realizing it. If people associate you with the hypocrites, the manipulators, the bullies, and the abusers, why should they listen to anything you have to say on any other subject — even the Gospel itself?

Though like all abuse it’s hard to quantify, statistics seem to bear out this view. A 2010 study by the Barna group revealed that tens of millions of “unchurched” people in America — about 4 of every 10 adults who don’t attend church — “said they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people.” Guess who is the largest segment in the “unchurched” demographic? Self-identified Christians. The problem isn’t that we haven’t reached the “unchurched” with our evangelistic efforts; the problem is that we have, and we hurt them in the process. The wise words of Pogo come to mind….


The best way to learn about spiritual abuse is, as with most things, to take the time to read about it. (For a quick-and-dirty immersive experience, Provender’s “Model of Spiritually Abusive Language” is probably the most accurate primer I’ve seen of what it really looks like in practice.) Over the past few years, I’ve had occasion to write several articles on the subject. In honor of Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month, I’ve put together a list for you. First are my own articles, then are some links to other resources I’ve found helpful. Find one that looks interesting and give it a read.


Articles on Spiritual Abuse

Antidotes to Spiritual Abuse – Things spiritual abusers say vs. things the Bible says. One of these things is not like the other; one of these things just doesn’t belong.

How Does Jesus Love You? – The best treatment for spiritual abuse is to understand how Jesus really loves you. I went all out on this first guest post for “Quivering Daughters”, and it’s still probably my favorite thing I’ve ever written.

The Galatian Road out of Legalism – The New Testament has an entire book attacking the legalistic doctrine of manipulative spiritual leaders. Here’s a handy summary.

The Myth of the Lukewarm Christian – The truth behind a familiar Scripture that abusers love to quote at you.

Spiritual Abuse Files: The Untold Story of “Grace on a Snake”! – A goofy, often-overlooked story from the Old Testament shows how to respond to a king who talked about grace but got it totally wrong. If they made a movie, it might star Samuel L. Jackson.

You Might Be A Sadducee If…  – … if you thought the Pharisees were the only nasty religious people in the New Testament. Surprise!

I Have A Sign: Answering Spiritual Abusers According to their Folly – A hilarious real-life news story: Absurdist pranksters beat infamous abuser Fred “God Hates F**s” Phelps at his own game.

Godly Authority: A Flight to Topsyturvydom – Spiritual abusers often make a big deal out of “godly authority.” Jesus often made a big deal out of godly humility and self-sacrifice. Somebody must be flying upside down.

Should Christians Celebrate Birthdays? – A reader’s family canceled her childhood birthday celebrations for being “unbiblical.” What does that say about the way we view the Bible?

Broken – Does God want you to be broken… or does God want to heal you?

Sheep Story – A few thousand years before anybody ever heard the term “Spiritual Abuse,” God described it perfectly in a poem about sheep.

Just As You Received Christ – You may not believe we’re “saved by works,” but do you believe we have to live by works? Here’s why you shouldn’t.

The True Meaning of Christmas Trees: The Spiritual Abuse Connection – A religious urban legend about the origins of the Christmas tree winds up showing the true meaning of Spiritual Abuse.

Reader Question: Did Jesus Teach Legalism? – Look at a couple of frequently-quoted verses and you might think He did. Behind-the-scenes Bible study tells a different story.

20 Reasons to Abandon a Bugaboo – So you want to abandon religion because you object to all the cruelty and abuse in its name? Great! Did you know you’re agreeing with the Bible?

Turn Your Eyes Upon… – “If you focus on Jesus, you’ll become like Jesus; if you focus on worldliness—even in order to avoid it—you’ll become worldly.” Why separating yourself from the world makes you worldly.

Hypocriticism – All the most wonderful people I know are Christians; so are all the most annoying jerks I know. Will the real hypocrites please stand up?

Hypocriticism II: Blessed Are the Disillusioned – I found a hypocrite… in my mirror. Oswald Chambers suggests that this disillusionment with hypocrisy is actually a very good thing.

The Bondage of Betrothal – A sure-fire sign of a cult or high-control group is that they say they have authority over whom you decide to marry. What does the Bible say?

Garments of Salvation – Legalist doctrinaires like to make rules about “biblical principles for modesty.” What the Bible really says about clothing may completely change the way you read it.

What It’s All About – An anonymous reader’s tear-jerking comment on “Garments of Salvation” reveals why it’s so important to avoid destructive doctrines before it’s too late.

Ashamed of the Gospel? A Case Study of Teen Mania and Works-Based Doctrine – I examine a controversial youth ministry, Teen Mania’s Honor Academy, to see how a professing Christian group’s doctrine can reveal whether it actually believes in the Gospel or in a works-based relationship with God. (Spoiler: Turns out Teen Mania belongs decisively in the latter category.)

The Truth about “Effeminate Worship” – If “manly men” are staying away from church, does it prove the church has become “feminized”? Or can doctrines about gender become a pretext for religious bullying?


Other Resources

Pure Provender – An exhaustive collection of Spiritual Abuse links and resources. This will keep you busy for quite a while, but it’s probably the best place to start on the Internet.

Spiritual Abuse Awareness – Official website of Spiritual Abuse Awareness (month and otherwise). Spread the word.

ICSA – International Cultic Studies Association. Exactly what it says on the tin.

Quivering Daughters – Hope and healing for women who grew up in the controlling doctrine of the “patriarchy” movement. Don’t miss Hillary McFarland’s beautiful and harrowing book of the same title. (There’s a chapter by me in there too.)

Under Much Grace – A wealth of authoritative information on abusive and cult-like practices within “biblical” Christianity.

Recovering Alumni – Documenting and exposing the many abuses of a large Evangelical Christian youth organization (Teen Mania / Honor Academy, op. cit.). Some things will curl your hair; other things will give you hope.

Gospel Masquerade –  Abuses addressed from a Charismatic perspective by a former member of the IHOP cult.

Spiritual Abuse Recovery – Resources from Jeff VanVonderen, author of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.

Recovery From Abuse – “A practical introduction for pastors and other religious professionals.” Covers several other kinds of abuse as well; an excellent resource. (Start with this post if you’re in a hurry–Things a Church Can Do.)

How Cults Work – Informative overview of several common deceptive techniques that cults (religious and otherwise) use to manipulate people.

Recovering Grace – Analyzing, exposing, and finding healing from the pervasive teachings of Bill Gothard (Institute of Basic Life Principles).

Church Exiters – A good book and website on how to get out of an abusive church environment. (h/t Dr. Barb Orlowski.)

Battered Sheep Resources – A long list of books on spiritual abuse, conflict resolution, recovery, and related topics. I haven’t read all of them (so caveat lector), but it looks very helpful for the bookishly inclined. (h/t Jennifer.)

Joyfully Growing in Grace – Thoroughly explores, demystifies, and debunks the legalistic “Hebrew Roots Movement.”

We Are Spiritual Abuse Survivors – This powerful piece by indie screenwriter Andie Redwine explains firsthand the experience of recovering from spiritual abuse.

Spiritual Abuse – by Roger E. Olson. A respected theologian’s blog post, analyzing some right and wrong uses of the term. (h/t Jaymi.)

What Not to Say to Someone who has Suffered Spiritual Abuse – Elizabeth Esther lists ten clichés that sound pious but do more harm than good. (Also see the follow-up for some more helpful approaches.)

Spiritual Sounding Board – A popular blog offering help for those resonating with abusive conservative and reformed churches.

Wartburg Watch – A regularly updated site taking an unflinching look at “church conflict, spiritual abuse, and hyper-authoritarian polity.”

G.R.A.C.E. – “Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment.” Started by a grandson of Billy Graham, this phenomenal organization offers advocacy, investigation, and education about religiously-based child sexual abuse.