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)
“Your sins should be pointed out and condemned publicly, so you’ll be shamed and humiliated.”
- If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. (Matthew 18:15, NIV.) Note, for those who have heard this passage used to justify harsh “church discipline,” consider the context: God wants to compassionately reclaim the lost sheep to His fold (v. 12–14), not to humiliate them.
“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? What passages of Scripture have helped in your recovery or avoidance of spiritual abuse? Any verses you'd want to add to the list?
Eric M. Pazdziora writes words and music. The music includes a brand-new album of hymns about grace entitled "New Creation," featuring his wife Carrie on vocals. To hear the music or to read more writings, visit his website at http://www.ericpazdziora.com.