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Spiritual Abuse in the Family

**this is an updated version of an earlier post**
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, co-author of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse

Spiritual abuse is one of the most devastating crimes committed against another human soul. Using the name of God to control the life, behavior, thoughts, and even the future of another is sin. One which, I believe, causes God to weep and rage with jealous fury.

To take His name in vain, and attach it to the doctrines of men, causes them to commit idolatry.
2 Corinthians 11:2-4 For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it!
This is no light thing, and invites the wrath of God.

Thankfully, those who have experienced horrendous spiritual abuse within churches or other religious organizations have many resources designed to facilitate recovery. Tender shepherds, ministering healing to the brokenhearted within Christendom—hearts wounded in the sanctuary designed for nourishment, rest, and growth in Christ—have a special place, I believe, in the eyes of God.

But when this occurs within our homes, what then? Is it still Spiritual Abuse? Is it still as serious? Should it be addressed, or left between each family and God? What if you are biologically bound to those in leadership? If there is no evidence of mistreatment to the physical body, is it really called abuse? What about mistreatment of the soul and spirit? How do you answer when you are still a youth, told you are too young to discern truth, and to trust your elders? When questioning is treated as rebellion? How do you respond when you are a woman?

Father, Father!
Many authoritarian and patriocentric families promote isolationist ideology in an effort to withdraw from the world. The advocation of unworldliness and Christian Separation is compelling, resulting in many well-intentioned parents who become independent from the system and society—consequently, disconnected from healthy accountability. This often includes a wholesome, established church body. Acknowledging need for Biblical study and Christian exhortation and instruction in righteousness, the head of the family becomes the sole conduit for religious growth and guidance. It is a natural progression, as left unchecked and unaccountable, the role of spiritual leader becomes exploited, and grave ramifications take root.

According to David Henke who founded the Watchman Fellowship, spiritual abuse has five distinct characteristics: authoritarianism, image consciousness, suppression of criticism, perfectionistic standards, and imbalance in belief or practice. In the context of family, these features are particularly noxious, for a godly Christian family should be a haven, a place of safety. If it is not, then Jesus has strong words for those who cause others to stumble . . . "It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones." Luke 17:2

And to offend is to abuse.


Authoritarians exercise complete or almost complete control over the will of others, as well as favor complete obedience or subjection to authority as opposed to individual freedom.

In familial structure, authoritarianism happens when the parent—in patriarchal ideology, always the father—wields absolute control over his children. Thoughts, actions, decisions, desires are all subject to his will, often regardless of age. Plans for future, activities, clothing, books, even, to some extent, the food they eat, are governed by parental conviction. This may not always be carried out consistently, especially in large families—however the goal for absolute domination over the personhood of another, remains.

Many raised within an authoritarian environment—especially women—find it extremely difficult to make decisions later in life, particularly if they have been taught that their own thoughts and communication with God cannot be trusted, due to the deceptive nature of the heart. While the degree of authoritarianism is determined by such facets as personality, relationship with God and others, and personal dogma, typically authoritarian parents:
  • react rather than respond
  • are excessively demanding
  • require instant obedience and conformity, often without explanation or with a "Because I am the dad!"
  • are intimidating and become angry, animated, or forceful
  • often communicate unreasonable expectations
  • convey unspoken messages such as: you are loved and / or accepted by me only when you perform the way I demand
  • disparage and discourage the emotional needs of their children
  • are restrictive and intrusive
  • do not respect boundaries

Contrast this with authoritative parenting, where the authority of a parent is inherently established by being who they are, rather than through austere insistence. It is believed that authoritative parents are a healthy balance between authoritarian and permissive styles.

Authoritative parents:
  • respond rather than react
  • have high but reasonable expectations
  • are assertive
  • practice healthy balance between discipline and nurture
  • are sensitive to the needs of their child, including the emotions
  • respect boundaries, including those of their children
  • encourage responsible decision-making while still under protection of the home
Christianliberties.com reminds us that:

  • All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus (Matt 28:18).
  • Jesus alone is the Head of the church (John 5:26-27, Eph 1:22-23, Col 1:18).
  • God does not permit Christians to have controlling authority over other Christians in the church (see Matt 20:25-28, Mark 10:42-45, Luke 22:24-27, 1Pet 5:3, Matt 23:8-12, etc.).
  • We do not have multiple special high priests over us. There is only One High Priest, Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 3:1, 4:14).
  • We have One Master Christ and we are all brothers (see Matt 23: 8-12).
  • You cannot obey two masters; you will love the one and hate the other (Matt 6:24, Luke 6:13). You simply cannot obey Jesus as master and a pastor as master at the same time.
We must remember that all Christians, even those within an isolated family, are members of Christ—and therefore comprise the church. A father who makes himself prophet, priest and king is no less liable for his actions than a pastor for his flock. And what is done to the least of these is done also to the Lord of heaven and earth—He does not take this lightly.

Image Consciousness

Spiritually abusive families place undue emphasis on how things look. This is taken by proof-texting a popular KJV verse: Abstain from all appearance of evil. 1 Thess. 5:22 Responsive or initiative actions are weighed according to how they might appear to someone else—believer or not—regardless of actual truth. Image conscious "Christian living" counters the gospel and ministry of Christ, evidenced by the fact that Jesus Himself appeared with prostitutes, gluttons, and drunkards. Appealing to "your witness" emphasizes appearance over truth and heart. Jesus concerned Himself with heart and truth, not appearance.

Suppression of Criticism

To question
is rebellion within authoritarian, spiritually abusive families. Children, even adult offspring, who raise issues or inquiries regarding beliefs, convictions, and way of life or doctrine, are perceived as a challenge to authority, a threat to family values.

A common reason for this view is the element of influence among members of the family—specifically, brothers and sisters. For the proliferation of established creed, any challenge is detrimental, for it enables seeds of doubt or uncertainty to become planted into the minds of others. If all were to question the leader, his power and influence becomes undermined, weakened. As preventative, the challenger becomes the errant one, the problem, the black sheep, the prodigal child, the wayward one—possibly even considered unsaved, or shunned.

However, questioning is a healthy way to grow and discover what is righteous and true. Test all things; hold fast what is good. 1 Thess. 5:21

Perfectionistic standards

". . . but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” 1 Peter 1:15,16

To "prove" the success of patriocentric parenting, it is critical for mothers and fathers to have perfect children. Although verbal protests arise—"Nobody is perfect except God", for example—in actuality, families rife with unspoken messages use performance-based love as subtle coercion. "Responsible" parents dangle approval or affection before a child, to achieve desired results—thus validating the right-ness of a chosen lifestyle. In reality, this is behavior control—manipulation. But holy living—"God's way" or the "biblical way"—accumulates many regulations, so parents believe extreme control is justified as instruction in righteousness and "training up in the admonition of the Lord." The foolishness of children is taught with gusto—stark contrast, however, to the serious warning of Jesus.

Parents who demand perfect adherence to established dogma end up re-creating God in their image, laying the foundation for grave theological and relational errors in the hearts of their children. When perfection is demanded throughout formative years, children have no true example of humility, godliness, or truth. Failure is anathema—there is no grace within a spiritually abusive system, and little faith.

Appealing to fear—fear of hell, fear of disappointing parents or God, fear of the world, fear of the flesh—is another method of behavior control with attempts to ensure perfection. In addition to subtle condemnation for questioning, challenging, and other understood 'misbehavior', further error is {often silently} promoted: that the spiritual head alone hears from God and interprets truth, for those within his care are not able to accurately discern any matter which may contradict the accepted family creed. Those who do, or attempt to do so, are labeled rebellious, and humiliated.

As a result, truth is suppressed in unrighteousness, for all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.

The pursuit of holy conduct has inspired centuries of debate, reformation, creed, conviction, and judgment. Legalism has reigned through religion since the institution of religion itself. Peter teaches, however, that true holy conduct is not based on works at all.
Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

Spiritually abusive families retain severe lack of balance. Many claim a special grasp on truth, or God, that is not shared by others even within the Christian faith. Some claim to be more holy, more enlightened—perhaps not in words, but subtle inferences cast this conjecture upon others who may feel less-righteous by certain standards. Proponents suggest that this is conviction, yet true conviction is the work of the Holy Spirit and leads to salvation, whereas the sorrow of the world leads to death. It could be death of relationship, death of joy, death of spiritual growth. Imbalance, or extremism, rarely produces any godly fruit.

Other aspects of imbalance are manifested as spiritually abusive families frequently downplay the importance of evangelism, or elevate Mosaic Law despite the sacrificial work of Jesus.

Biblical Response to Spiritual Abuse in the Family

Ezekiel 34:2-4 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God to the shepherds: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock. The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them."

Authoritarianism and religious abuse never, ever, ever have a place within a true, godly home.

When your father is your shepherd, when your father does not feed you or strengthen you when you are weak, nor heal you when you are sick, nor bind up your broken places, nor bring you back when you are driven away, nor seek you when you are lost—dear sister, you have been gravely, inexorably wounded.

When your father is your shepherd-who-slaughters, a leader who weakens your heart and faith, who brings sickness to your soul, who drives you away, who makes you lose your way, who rules you with force and cruelty—you have been injured in ways that slash marks upon your heart, possibly even marks upon your skin.

When God's name is used to hurt the ones created in His image, when His name and nature, when righteousness and the Bible, are distorted, when things that are not of God are made to be so, when sacred pillars become erected in the heart, we witness the rise of idolatry. When we serve and follow anything that is not God, we sin. When your father has taken the name of God in vain, and used it against you, to control, manipulate, and to harm you, he will answer to the Lord who says it would be better for him to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

Lean not on your own understanding

We who are indwelt with the Holy Spirit have the Spirit of God leading us unto truth. We must examine our hearts, and forgive, lest bitterness take root and poison our love and faith. However, forgiveness does not make abuse okay. Forgiveness does not miraculously wipe away the pain we feel.

As adult women, we must acknowledge our Lord in all our ways, and He will direct our paths. We cannot blame our parents, our fathers, even our husbands in patriocentric families. Just as we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, and as we are able to approach the throne of grace directly, through the work of Jesus needing no other mediator, we are also responsible for our own hearts, our own attitudes, and what we do with our own hurts—the pain we feel, the abuses we sustain.

We can pursue truth, with vehemence, determination, and passion. We can seek wholeness, and understand why we struggle, why we ache, why we have wounds which need healing. We can throw ourselves at the feet of Jesus and writhe and weep and rage, for He will not turn us away or tell us we are not perfect enough. We can live, and flourish, and become His hands to the ones who come behind.

For Jesus' love is messy love. His hands are bloody and He is not afraid of darkness. He does not heap oppression on our souls or give us more to do. He Himself leaves the flock to seek us, lost in our sin, and rejoices when He finds us. He is the Healer of the Broken, who binds our wounds.

He is the good Shepherd.

What now?

For those of you haunted and wounded through a spiritually abusive family, one thing essential to understand is that God does not condone what has been done in His name. It is also important to acknowledge that true abuse has occurred; until then, denial will prevent lasting healing—for denial perpetuates falsehood and suppresses truth.

The journey to healing is as personal as we are, for God meets us in our pain and gently guides our paths. Begin with the basics—God, His Son, and the cross. Offer to Him everything else you have always believed so that He may redeem your mind, thoughts, beliefs, heart, and your years. He can separate the wheat from the chaff, even within your mind. This takes courage—for it is when we are faced with questioning—challenging—everything we have always believed, that we discover how often we place faith in things that are not living. When everything falls away, and we stand naked before our God, He can restore, renew, and rebuild the foundations of our lives. And be patient—learn to let yourself feel, for it is crucial to mourn that which is lost. God Himself feels, expressing wrath, jealousy, sadness, joy, and love. You will likely feel anger, betrayal, distrust, grief. It takes time to heal, but His mercies are new every morning.

The journey out of darkness is a pilgrimage to the true, Living God.

It is a journey to life.

John 10:9-11

I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.

For further reading:

spiritual abuse

Spiritual Abuse in the Bible?
Vampire Pastors
Leaving the Spiritually Abusive System
The Bible and Spiritual Abuse
What is Spiritual Abuse?

parenting styles



  1. Yes, I have seen this happen. It is so very real - real abuse. You are right, we must stop denying what really happened before we can heal. (For the record, my abuse was not this severe, and much of it was from sources outside my home. But healing is needed, all the same.)

  2. Thank you. You really did a great job articulating what is wrong with
    authoritarianism. Sad to say, I have many former friends caught in this trap.

  3. I've never read anything that so accurately described everything about the first 21 years of my life experience...I feel physically sick reading this and remembering. Reading this makes me acknowledge feelings and emotions still in my heart/head that need to come out. I am overwhelmed. Thank you for your post.

  4. Janice, I pray that God will heal those feelings and emotions. Let them come out and be redeemed by the Healer. Hang in there! {{hugs}}

    Paula and Sharon, this is overdue but thanks for your kind words. Blessings to you both.

  5. Thanks so much for putting this out there. I can totally identify with all of this. This is how I grew up.
    It has affected my adult life, my decisions as an adult, relationships, and my marriage. I have been married for 15 years but its been a struggle. God has blessed and I am grateful.
    God Bless you for your ministry. It has blessed me more than you know.


  6. Thanks for this article. I grew up in a repressive, authoritative, fundamentalist Christian home and grew up in a family culture that expected me to be 'perfect,' both in terms of academic performance and spirituality. Unfortunately for me, ( or perhaps fortunately), I am an independent thinker and this kind of environment has not meshed well with my personality type as I have gotten older. When my behavior defied their expectations of spiritual 'perfection,' I was threatened with being pulled out of college (even though the money for my education is from my grandparents) and would have been if not for the intervention of my campus minister and close friends. All my life they have called me egotistical, deceitful (although one of my other siblings pretended to be severely ill for five years), and rebellious just because I was being myself and had found happiness that way.

    A good academic resource for the subject of authoritarianism can be found at the following link:


    It's a free ebook that I could not put down and may help you in your writing. It helped me reach some understanding. God Bless!

  7. Estelle...thank you so much for the link. I am thrilled that others address the issue of authoritarianism and look forward to reading it.

  8. Over the past couple of years, as I've watched a family descend further and further into "Christian" separation and especially imbalance, I've wondered if those are red flags of cultic/abusive behavior. Finding this site (and especially this post) was like a big light coming on. I'll be praying for the children of this particular family, hoping that God removes the scales from their eyes and enables them to escape.

  9. I understand that many are still Christian here - but I have a great deal of respect for what this blog represents. I intend to pass it on to fellow former fundies and ex-christians. Is it alright if i say - it is okay to the faith entirely!?!

  10. Hi Christine! Welcome! I appreciate your comment and hope that the material you find and pass on will be helpful. Thank you for stopping by my blog.

  11. "When your father is your shepherd-who-slaughters, a leader who weakens your heart and faith, who brings sickness to your soul, who drives you away, who makes you lose your way, who rules you with force and cruelty—you have been injured in ways that slash marks upon your heart, possibly even marks upon your skin."

    This so accurately describes my father and the pain he inflicted.
    The church I was raised in wasn't interested in the pain we were enduring...only that we "look" right and "act" right. It certainly wasn't okay to feel what I was feeling, so I denied it and tried my best to "look" right and "act" right so I would be loved and accepted at least somewhere...

    This is helping me see and understand what has taken place.
    Sad that the church could have helped but actually made a painful situation even more painful by inflicting even more abuse...

    I am amazed and humbled at how God is leading me to heal through people he has brought into my life and through Quivering Daughters...

  12. A good way to judge how effective spiritual leadership has been in your life is to look at the fruit.

    If some one in a position of spiritual authority in your life and has positively empowered you (as many of my teachers and counselors have) then they are doing what Christ did and would do.

    On the other hand, if some one in a position of spiritual authority in your life has put you down, belittled you, said you can't do something, they have borne poisonous fruit in your life.

    Those who have borne bad fruit in your life are false prophets; and they have taken the Lord's name in vain (which is what the sin is in my book, not saying 'Oh my god'). It especially intrigues me how these false prophets tell you that your feelings do not matter unless they are 'right,' and you must submit your feelings to [their view of] God. Beware of this! This keeps many women in a prison of emotional/spiritual abuse, who do as they 'should' and not as they are capable.

    For some women, this may be getting a job, going to college, leaving their abusive church, leaving an abusive marriage, or finding a relationhip with some one who does not subscribe the system.


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