Antidotes to Spiritual Abuse

wolf sheep's clothing

Newly updated and expanded for Quivering DaughtersFirst published here September 26, 2009.

Guilt, shame, and condemnation. Unspoken rules you have to live up to. Authoritarian leaders you can’t ever question. An exclusive “us-vs.-them” mentality. Subtle or not-so-subtle pressure to fit in. Barely veiled manipulation and peer pressure tactics. Fear of doing the wrong thing. Public rebuking if you do. Warnings against what will happen if you ever leave.

Does this sound like religion to you? It shouldn’t—and in healthy churches it doesn’t—but if it does, you’re not alone. There’s even a name for it: it’s called “Spiritual Abuse.” It’s well documented throughout religious groups of every persuasion, regardless of creed or doctrine. Yes, even in groups that have “sound biblical doctrine.”

The term “spiritual abuse” isn’t the main issue; the thing the phrase identifies was around thousands of years before “spiritual abuse” was coined. (See Sheep Story from Ezekiel 34.) I find the word “abuse” helpful because it combines the idea of misuse (as in “drug abuse”) with the idea of cruelty (as in “verbal abuse”). Using spirituality to beat people down is an abuse in both senses. If you aren’t happy with the term, call it something else—“cruelty in the name of religion,” maybe—and move along. The thing is real enough whatever you call it.

The main issue is this. Even without the spiritual component, being treated in such a heavy-handed way can cause long-term emotional and mental problems. But having it done to you in the name of church—religion—ministry—God—Jesus—makes it even worse. You don’t just come away feeling hurt, condemned, and worthless; you come away with the idea that God wants you to feel like that.

That’s the wrong idea.

Jesus isn’t like that.

You can’t fairly start from Jesus and the Bible and wind up with a religion that’s about hurting, controlling, manipulating, or abusing people. It’s exactly the opposite. Quoting the Bible in support of religious cruelty is a bit like quoting the U.S. Constitution in support of dictatorship: an impressive achievement in completely missing the entire point.

Jesus came to bring grace for sin. Jesus railed against religious hypocrites. Jesus offered forgiveness and love to people everyone else looked down upon. Jesus told us to love our neighbors. Jesus even specifically warned us that there’s danger from people whose religion looks just right:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15–16 ESV)

The Bible directly says that many of the practices of Spiritual Abuse are wrong, harmful, and opposed to the way God wants us to treat each other. Here is a little list of some of the teachings, in my experience, that lead to the most dangerous and abusive “fruits,” along with relevant quotations from the Bible that show their errors. If you’ve been spiritually abused, I hope it helps you find healing. If you haven’t been spiritually abused, maybe it will show you what to look out for. If you find you’ve used a lot of these statements, wear any shoe that fits.

1. On Spiritual Leadership

“We’re your leaders, so you have to submit to us whatever we say.”

  • Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. (1 Peter 5:2–4 NKJV)
  • But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25–28 NKJV)

“You may not question our teaching.”

  • Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1 NKJV)

“Everybody outside our little group is a heretic; we’re the only ones who have it right.”

  • Now John answered and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side.” (Luke 9:49–50 NKJV)

“We are justified in being harsh and strict, because we are trying to deal with sin in our followers’ lives.”

  • Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, when we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. (1 Thessalonians 2:6–7 NKJV)

“You only think you were abused because you have a ‘victim mentality’; if you realized it wasn’t such a big deal you could forgive and move on.”

  • They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14 / 8:11, NIV)

“If you ever leave this group, you are rebelling against God / something bad will happen to you / you’ll be shunned and rejected.”

  • It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1, NIV)

2. On the Bible and Doctrine

“You can’t understand the Bible apart from our teaching.”

  • Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11 ESV)

“Our teaching includes inside knowledge that can only be known by the initiates / the spiritually mature / the leaders / etc.”

  • Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.” (John 18:20 ESV)

“Our teaching is just as authoritative as the Bible.”

  • To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. (Isaiah 8:20 NKJV)

“The Bible is a list of principles for living a holy life; you have to keep all the rules in it be godly.”

  • [Jesus speaking] “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” (John 5:39–40 NASB)


3. On the Christian Life

“You are saved if you do enough good things to please God.”

  • For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9 NKJV)

“Of course we know you’re saved by faith, but you have to work to succeed in the Christian life.”

  • Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:3 ESV)
  • Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him. (Colossians 2:6, ESV) Note–the operative words here are “as” and “so.” The way we received Christ is the same way we’re supposed to live in Him.

“The Christian life consists of following God’s principles.”

  • Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:28–29 ESV)

“This list of rules (or unspoken rules) about what to do and say and wear and watch (etc.) is the commandment of God!”

  • And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment. (1 John 3:23 NKJV).

“You need to live strictly, follow the rules, and physically discipline yourself in order to overcome your sinful flesh.”

  • If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20–23 ESV) Note: read Colossians 3 to see what is of value in stopping the flesh!

“Jesus only loves people who live righteously and try to love Him.”

  • We love him, because he first loved us.  (1 John 4:19)

“You need to constantly maintain an attitude of spiritual brokenness.”

  • A merry heart does good, like medicine, But a broken spirit dries the bones. (Proverbs 17:22 ESV)
  • this is My body which is broken for you. (1 Corinthians 11:24 NKJV)

“Jesus said ‘If you love me, keep my commandments,’ so if you don’t follow every commandment on this list, you don’t really love Jesus.”

  • “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.” (John 15:12, NASB)

“We separate and isolate ourselves from other groups and people because they are fleshly, not holy like our group is.”

  • …for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? (1 Corinthians 3:3–4, ESV)

“If you can manage to follow the rules, then you’re all set: you’re one of the elite inner circle of ‘holy ones.’”

  • So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (1 Corinthians 10:12, NIV)
  • When pride cometh, then cometh shame: but with the lowly is wisdom. (Proverbs 11:2, KJV)

“If you break the rules, you’re not good enough and you will be punished!”

  • For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17, ESV)
  • Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (Romans 8:1–2 NASB). Note: You should probably just go ahead and read the whole of Romans 8.

What about you? Do you have any experience with Spiritual Abuse? What’s your story? How did you find healing? Any verses you’d want to add to the list?

For more writings by me on this subject, as well as websites about Spiritual Abuse that I recommend, see Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month. Also check out the series of articles I wrote for the website Quivering Daughters. 

AuthorEric Pazdziora

Composer, Author, Pianist

37 replies to Antidotes to Spiritual Abuse

  1. I love this nice clear list of common spiritual abuse statements and the biblical responses. I think I may link to this page on the Provender site. I do have one reaction to this statement: “You will be saved if you do enough good things to please God.” Usually, spiritually abusive groups are too subtle to come right out and say this, but their actions shout it. In our little aberrent group, it was clear that only inferior Christians bypassed the Wednesday night service. The key phrase was “sold out to Jesus.” You were sold out to Jesus if you worked hard, gave up as much as you could to do church activities and didn’t question the pastor. Great site!

    • Yes, that’s it exactly! I have heard a handful of teachers say that about salvation (scarily enough), but mostly we’ve figured out that “saved by works” is taboo so we resort to code words. Perhaps it’s a sort of cognitive dissonance–all the most legalistic people I know insist that they’re not “legalists” because they know that’s wrong.

      You have a great list of Spiritual Abuse resources on your site. Thanks for the comment and the link!

  2. the list is very well done–i too have been through that–and struggle each day with the idea of “gods” grace-personally i have been through other abuses–but spiritual abuse is the hardest for me–it rips through your inner soul in a way that is devastating–at least to me–thanks for sharing–wish i had a scripture to share–i struggle with even touching/readin a bible or scripture.

    • I definitely feel you on that. It’s one thing to believe that some people will mistreat you; it’s another thing altogether to believe that of God! Thankfully the real God as seen in Jesus is more gracious and compassionate than we can imagine. Thanks for your comment; I’ll be praying.

  3. On the same subject – Watchman Nee wrote a book called “Spiritual Authority.” In it are “ten commandments of spiritual authority.”

    1. One who learns spiritual authority as the power base for ministry must recognize the essential Source of all authority: God.
    2. God’s delegated authority does not belong to the person exercising it – that person is just a channel.
    3. The channel of delegated authority is responsible to God for how that authority is exercised.
    4. A leader is one who recognizes God’s authority manifested in real-life situations.
    5. Subjection to authority means that a person is subject to God Himself and not to the channel through which the authority comes.
    6. Rebellion against authority means that a person is not subjecting himself to God, though it may appear that the person is rejecting some impure manifestation of God’s authority through a human channel.
    7. People who are under God’s authority look for and recognize spiritual authority and willingly place themselves under it.
    8. Spiritual authority is never exercised for one’s own benefit, but for those under it.
    9. A person in spiritual authority does not have to insist on obedience – that is the moral responsibility of the follower.
    10. God is responsible to defend spiritual authority.


    • Good points– I like that they cut both ways and challenge leaders (2,3,8,9) as well as followers (5,7). #6 makes me a bit uneasy because I’ve seen phrases like that twisted by abusers (some like to say that those who try to get out of abusive situations are “rebelling against authority” and therefore “not subjecting themselves to God”!). But #4 puts it in good perspective– God is the only ultimate “authority” and the rest of us are just servants. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Eric,
    Bravo! Excellent article. It had been awhile since I visited your site and I found this gem.

    • @Donny: Thanks! I’m glad you like it; it’s one of my favorites.

  5. Thanks for linking this article-loved how you refuted wrong group mentality with Scriptures…the “us versus them” mentality was sooo strong in the cult I came out of…

    • You’re welcome! Quite right that insularity can be a huge problem wherever it comes up; I may have to write about that in the future…

  6. If you’d like to guest post on “The Cult Next Door” I would be honored…just e-mail me…

    • Check your email.

  7. I have to ask. How do you deal with John 14:21 and 15:10? I used to feel so free in Yeshua and now find that I am floundering.

    • That really almost deserves a post of its own. Short version, the context makes everything clear: John 15:12 and 17 specify exactly which “commandment” Jesus wants us to obey.

  8. All of the items you mention as spiritual abuse actually put a church outside the boundaries of Biblical Christianity. They are the very antithesis of God’s kingdom.

    • Sadly, that’s very true– you’d never get a religion that looks like that if you started with Jesus and the Bible. But just try telling the abusers that! Thanks for your comment.

  9. Eric, I wish to commend you on addressing this issue. Spiritual abuse is sort of like the little dark secret of the modern church. That’s why I love the wolf/sheep illustration, and also why I love the term “spiritual abuse”. Just like any other form of abuse, spiritual abuse is often times masked by the abuser, and also by those being abused. The more light we can shed on this issue, the better for everyone. Over the years, the church has slowly traded the love and grace of Jesus Christ for bullying tactics. Illuminating these grievances is the bast way to flush them out of the church. Thank you Eric for heeding Christs call to take care of your fellow brothers and sisters.

    • Thanks for this comment; it means a lot.

      In return, I’m very pleased to see these sentiments coming from a major Christian publisher! I’m curious if you have or are planning to publish any books or other resources on the subject.

  10. whats worse about spiritual abuse is your told ” we hear from God,God puts people in authority and your supose to submit to Gods line of authority….if there wrong then God will deal with them…but you submit no matter what unless its out and out contradiction to Gods word like go steal or murder someone…they say things like were doing it because we love you…and you want to believe that….so to get any kind of love you trust …your like a thirsty soul and their handing you a drink of water that has a parisite in it… drink it because you need it …but it ends up eating you from the inside out … until your empty…just a shell

  11. Great post. Wondering if you would mind if I put a link to your page/site on my blog? Thank you.

    • Thanks, Ellen! And links are always welcome.

  12. I was once Spiritually abused by one who heads a ministry for healing wounded believers. Talk about sheep killing. But I’m keeping my eyes on Jesus and have compassion on my abuser. One statement we make in this ministry is “hurting people hurt people, so she too must be suffering. God is raising me up to grow through such pain and my verse that matters for the going forward is 2 Cor 1:3-5, we comfort others with the comfort we have received from Jesus! No shortcuts.

    • Wow, of all the people you’d think would know better… Sorry you had that experience, but I’m glad you learned the right lesson of looking to Jesus! Thanks for your comment.

      • My true hope is that one day God will use this very evil life situation (that Satan meant for evil) for GOOD and for His glory. I may have to wait awhile, as this happened three years ago and I still am watching and waiting for He who can do anything to make good from evil.

  13. I found a link to this recently at Spiritual Sounding Board. This is really helpful. Thank you for putting it together.

    These are all useful, but one that has been very provoking to me is – “Jesus said ‘If you love me, keep my commandments,’ so if you don’t follow every commandment on this list, you don’t really love Jesus.” I’ve seen this used so many times in manipulative ways. Sometimes it isn’t said so plainly, but the idea is there.

    Another one we heard in some Baptist churches was, “Follow me, and I’ll follow Jesus.” So, if the pastor wanders off or leaves or deviates from the truth the people will too often just follow along as if they had no choice. I’ve come to only respect pastors who want their people to follow Christ themselves and not depend on him as their source of all “truth”. A wise man knows that he won’t always lead right and that he won’t always be there, and he wants to see strong Christians who know how to follow a human leader, but more importantly know how to follow the Good Shepherd when there isn’t a reliable earthly leader. John 10:27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:

    One verse that has impressed me a lot lately in dealing with some people we know who have suffered considerable spiritual abuse (and are not recovering well), is 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” This has answered to many things for me. Those who don’t know how to love other, or love God, or receive God’s love are probably suffering from fear. Also, if the church one is associated with is causing fear rather than love, there is something wrong, no matter how “spiritual” they sound. Perfect love casts out fear, and God’s love can be nothing but perfect!

  14. My experience wasn’t “in your face” but I left a spiritually abusivs church 6 months ago. My husband doesn’t consider it abusive. He still remains in contact with one of the pastors. Kind of pisses me off. The guy is highly likable, driven, successful but he runs his church very badly. He puts himself on a pedestal and the members drool over his every word. Then when you dont and bring up real problems, you are the problem. I still talk to a few people who go there and they won’t talk to me about the church. They don’t want to hear what I have to say. So I blogged about it a little bit. I don’t want to keep writing about it because I think I need to move on–not be a victim. I am not. I refuse to stay in victim mode. Instead I choose to believe what’s good and encouraging about God. I search for him. I hope in doing so I stop thinking about that place, which has no room for my thoughts or energy. I think the thing I have learned is to know God. Like to really search for him. In doing so, I don’t need a man at the pulpit to validate me.

Comments are closed.