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Antidotes to Spiritual Abuse

By Eric M. Pazdziora. Originally published September 26, 2009; revised and expanded.

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.

22 comments:

  1. I love this. Thank you, Eric, for posting about spiritual abuse. It happens...way too often.

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  2. Thank you for this post. I believe God's word is true and I go to church but, I have a hard time reading my Bible. I will try to read these passages.

    I have only been trying to examine the way I was raised the past couple years. Before that I honestly believed I was the problem and that my parents, their church and the leadership was wrong. I have a deep sense of shame and insecurity and am a huge people pleaser. I tend to feel the need to share with everyone my flaws and issues. I remember going back after I left for college to my parents 2nd church ( a new church than the one I grew up in ) and I would cry and cry during every service when I visited their church. I still don't understand why church is such an emotional experience for me. I love God but, feel a deep sense of sadness at church services. I still go but, have been tempted to take a break. But, don't want to be a bad example for my kids.

    I want to find healing and not be confused about my upbringing. I have tried talking to my parents and my sisters but, I was very misunderstood. My parents are still married but, I'm not invited to family holiday....it feels like a divorced family and it is so confusing. My parents have told their friends how hurt they have been but, I haven't done anything direspectful or unhonoring to them or God (that I can understand). 10 year ago when my husband asked my Dad for my hand in marriage my Dad told my husband a lot of horrible things about me: 1) that I would be hard to lead spiritually 2) that I had a rebelious attitude 3) it goes on and on. My husband was surprised and confused and since he didn't see me that way decided to ignore it all and not mention it to me till a couple years ago...this is long story and if you think of it will you pray that if God wants me to be healed emotionally and spiritually that he would do it.

    Thanks for this post. ~ Ali

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  3. Ali--What a sad story! What you describe is unquestionably a case of spiritual abuse. The good news is, you've come to the right website for that. :-)

    One of the worst side effects of spiritual abuse is when it makes people wary of the Bible by association--there is so much hope and comfort there for you! Try Romans 8, perhaps. Or Psalm 27.

    "Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up." (Ps. 27:10)

    God absolutely wants to heal you emotionally and spiritually. "By His stripes we are healed." "Come unto me and I will give you rest." I will certainly pray for you.

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  4. Tears were flowing as I read this...
    thank you.

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  5. Ali,

    What you are describing in the way your family treats you is termed "scapegoating". One person gets labeled with all these negative labels and excluded from the family. The psychological reason for this is that in having someone to tsk tsk about, the rest of the family can avoid dealing with all the serious psychological issues they personally have.

    It is a heart-breaking role to be shoved into. No one willingly chooses it, and no matter how hard you try to be perfect, they may not change their minds about you.

    I am very familiar with this because it is how my family treats me. No accomplishment, no earnestness of desire to please on my part, no virtue I exhibit in my character and life will ever change the way my family labels me. They look at me through prejudiced eyes, and I can't change that. *sigh*

    Please know that God does not see you that way! The Lord looks at the heart and your earnest desire to please Him does not go unnoticed. Draw near to the Lord, and ask Him to show you the truth about your family and their relationships. He tenderly leads his sheep. He will not withhold any wisdom from you that you ask Him to provide. Jesus sees the real you, and He loves you!

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  6. Thank you Eric for using Scriptures to refute the miilions of rules legalist shove down the sheep's throats.

    Hillary- you ANGEL! Thanks for everything!

    Ali...I SO UNDERSTAND!!!! You said:
    " I honestly believed I was the problem and that my parents, their church and the leadership was wrong. I have a deep sense of shame and insecurity and am a huge people pleaser. I tend to feel the need to share with everyone my flaws and issues..."
    THAT IS ME TO A "T"!
    Abusers want you to believe that you are a "problem", "have rebellious spirit", etc.
    Constantly doubting yourself you don't have time to question their actions or examine very closely what they say or believe.
    Just to give an example: when I was thirteen years old the pastor walked up to me while I was standing in a group of my friends and told me that I allowed an "evil spirit" and it was my fault that the church service hadn't gone well that day.
    She full of that kind of garbage. (My story is on the blog "The Cult Next Door" -www.outofthesilverchair.blogspot.com- along with other stories of people who have experienced the same kind of treatment you did.)
    I can hardly put my foot inside of the door of a church, either.
    One thing that helped me process the grief and rage was counseling. I found out I had PTSD because of my experiences.

    The God that Eric has outlined with the Scriptures he quoted is the true God.
    The other god that was shoved down our throats by abusive parents and leaders is an idol created by self-serving people to enslave their victims in darkness and helplessness. However unwitting and well-intentioned their actions were Satan has used them to wound souls. May they have the good sense to find God's forgiveness for their incredible evil.

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  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  8. Ooops! SO SORRY about the double post...I will change it when I get home :)
    Meant to spell "millions" and "legalists"...
    Much bloggy love to all you great people out there!
    MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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  9. Emmanuel; I love that...
    Thank you for this post. You eloquently described and addressed the things I have experienced in Church. God has had mercy on us. :)

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  10. This really is an excellent post on legalism and how it destroys. My husband is involved in the Hebrew Roots Movement and I can tell you that almost every statement is true about him and how he thinks. His beliefs have caused him to leave us mentally and spiritually - and has destroyed my marriage. We live in the same house, but are estranged. He thinks he is so elite and set-apart and special and that our daughter and I are condemned to Hell. It's been two years since he got involved with that cult, and it has been two years of utter misery. :(

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  11. Frazikat-- I'm very sorry to hear that. I've heard very bad things about the Hebrew Roots Movement. If it might help, here is a link to a post I wrote about Galatians which similarly debunks that brand of legalism (although written before I knew about the HRM in particular).

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  12. The book of Galations is my favorite book! I've read it over and over. I'll go check out the link.
    Thanks!

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  13. Those are powerful passages, Eric..pulling down strongholds with the Truth ..awesome! There certainly are other areas of bondage..the yokes that bind and need unraveling, but I think you did a great job addressing these..they sure are the main ones that set me free when God sprang me from the prison bars of legalism. He shook the 'cell' I was in and I was set free. I find it amazing how many others knew the 'ground was shaking' and they chose to remain in their prison. Christ opened the bars when he rose from the grave, and yet so many choose to go in and stay when they don't have to.

    It was the Jews who were commanded to keep the Law..not us 'Gentiles'. We were adopted in by the grace of our Father. Legalism tries to pull the 'Gentiles' in under the Law that they were never meant to be under.

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  14. Thanks so much, Eric. It is almost a shock to see these verses related to the lies. We were taught to see these verses (if they were ever read) out of context so that we wouldn't catch the real meaning.

    How utterly joyful it is to realize that Jesus is not who we were taught! He is not the frowning disciplinarian. He welcomes us however we are and loves us into becoming who He is. And that love does not equal discipline. It equals emotional care and joyful countenance!

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  15. Even years removed from those spiritually abusive mindsets, it is still incredibly comforting to be reminded what God says on the matter. This feels like a post to tuck in my back pocket and pull out from time to time when I need a reminder (or an antidote, as you so aptly put it).

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  16. Thanks everyone for your kindness. I love God but, I struggle with knowing if he loves me personally.

    I grew up in the Local Church (Lord's Recovery) and the teachings of Witness Lee and Watchman Nee. This group had its own version of the NT that I was taught. My father was an elder in this movement. My parents were apart of this their entire marriage and only left when I was nearing college. However, hey still follow some of the spoken teaching and unspoken rules (no Christmas trees, priority of church over family life, Father led and false teachings about women, family and children).

    Have any of you any knowledge of this group? Please be discreet since this group tends to sue those who slander their teachings and group. The used to be listed as a cult but, no longer are.

    ~ Ali

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  17. Ali -- Not firsthand, but most of the major cult websites have quite a bit of information on Witness Lee's group-- for instance this one and this one. I also found an open letter from over 70 major evangelical theologians and pastors (I've met a couple of them and know most of the rest by reputation) pointing out some of the LC's doctrinal errors and calling them to repent. They cite several teachings, especially on the nature of God and Christ, that are extremely unorthodox and unbiblical.

    For a good look at real biblical doctrine that Christians believe, I've always liked R. A. Torrey. His What the Bible Teaches is an invaluable book.

    Also, and more importantly, you might like to read the article I wrote a while back called How Does Jesus Love You?

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  18. "For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears." 1 Cor. 13:9-10

    Is my internal response to anyone who claims to be the only ones to have it all right.

    Followed by "If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." Because the ones who claim to have cornered the market on truth seldom display love: patience, kindness, big-heartedness, humility, politeness, selflessness, long-suffering, and a heart that keeps no record of wrongs.

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