I interact with spiritual abuse on such a regular basis that I often forget how little it’s spoken about in the broader community.
Spiritual abuse can take many, many forms. It’s less helpful to attempt to make a comprehensive list that captures every form it can take. Instead I find it helpful to name what’s happening at the core of spiritual abuse and to evaluate specific scenarios in reference to a core definition.
What is Abuse?
Let’s start by defining what abuse is. Simply put, abuse refers to any misuse of power or authority for purposes other than what that authority was intended for. Most often when we speak about abuse occurring in relationships, families, or communities, power is typically misused as a way to control victims.
You’ll notice those terms power and control coming up frequently as a way to define most abusive dynamics. Therefore, I’ve found it most helpful to frame abuse in these terms. I’ve chosen not to illuminate this with examples, as even naming some forms of abuse can be an unhelpful trigger; for those who are victims of abuse, hearing such examples may be re-traumatizing.
How Does Abuse Happen?
Given this framework of viewing abuse as a misuse of power, it’s easy to see that the potential for abuse exists anywhere that power and authority exist. The phrase with great power comes great responsibility, though it originates from a comic book series, is quite profound for this reason. Powerlessness sterilizes the capacity to abuse others. Although that’s not to say that those who are frequently robbed of power are not capable of inflicting abuse. On the contrary, those who’ve been abused are more likely to abuse what power they have in order to combat the powerless nature of the abuse they’ve endured. This is the core of the cycle of abuse – another topic for another blog post.
Bringing it back to the topic at hand, research shows that our human nature is to abuse the power we’ve been given as a means to control others and to elevate ourselves. In my post A Christian Therapist’s Thoughts on the Current Political Climate I referenced Phillip Zimbardo’s simulated Prison Experiment. If you’re not familiar, I encourage you to read my post on the subject or to click here to read the full details of the experiment. In summary, the study found that randomly assigning participants in roles of “prison guard” or “prisoner” quickly had a devastating effect, including an abusive use of power on the part of the “guards” in order to control the “prisoners.”
My hope here is not to devolve into cynicism by saying that all power is misused to abuse those without power. Rather, I wish to humanize this dynamic that we’re all prone to. I hope to wake us up to our human tendency to hurt each other so that ultimately we might be able to honestly reflect on our own actions in our various positions of power.
So What About Spiritual Abuse?
Now that we’re aware of what abuse looks like in general, it may be easier to identify what spiritual abuse is. For the purposes of this post, I’ll describe spiritual abuse as any misuse of spiritual power as a means to control others. With that said, abuse of spiritual power can come in many forms. Here are just a few forms that I see most commonly:
Using Biblical texts as a means to subvert and control others
This includes (but isn’t limited to):
- Men have authority over women (Eph 5:22-24)
- Justification for slavery (Eph 6:5-9)
- Women don’t have equal rights (1 Cor 14:34-35)
- LGBTQ+ community doesn’t have equal rights (Lev 20:13)
- Children are powerless to their parents (Deut 5:16)
- Colonialism/Manifest Destiny (Gen 1:28)
Referencing the Bible as a means to justify unequal treatment of others is a form of spiritual abuse. The source of authority is the Bible as God’s written word. Often those who use the Bible as a means to subvert others will absolve themselves of blame: It’s not my decision, it’s God’s word. Or: It’s not by my power, but by God’s will. This leaves no room to respond or converse – who can argue against God’s word? This dynamic of not having space to respond further takes away power from the victim of this type of abuse by removing their voice.
Using “spiritual authority” as a means to control others
“Spiritual authority” can take many forms. Different religions, sects, and denominations ascribe to the idea that certain clergy within the community are somehow closer to God or hold a greater ability to hear from God, thus placing them in a higher position of authority. Although it’s tempting to only consider the worst forms of this expression of power such as some of the sensationalized cult systems of abuse (e.g., the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide of 1997), this can happen in everyday positions of power such as pastors, bishops, small group leaders, priests, prayer ministers, youth group leaders, missions workers, and more.
Anyone can claim they have some type of spiritual authority. Any family member, loved one, or community peer can pull the “God told me so” card at any time:
I was praying for you and God told me that you need to spend more time with your family rather than seeing your friends.
I get this sense from God that you need to quit your job.
I feel the Holy Spirit saying that this sickness you’re experiencing is because you’re living in sin.
Often when this type of spiritual abuse happens, the abuser is not intentionally or maliciously lying in order to get something to be their way or to help them feel more comfortable. Rather, there can be a misinterpretation of an internal feeling as “From the Lord” when it may actually be our own psyche or subconscious getting in the way and blurring things.
This topic is tricky because I don’t want to claim that God doesn’t speak to us in these mystical ways. However, any time we think we are “hearing” God we need to do a check of ourselves to see if there’s any authority or stake we have in the game and eliminate any ways we might be abusing power. It’s usually helpful to err on the side of caution.
There are a million other forms spiritual abuse can take. This is by no means a comprehensive reflection of spiritual abuse. My hope is simply to put this term on the map, maybe to help you identify when you are a victim of this type of harm, or possibly to help some of you catch yourselves in the act. We are all capable of falling into this trap of abusing our power and I hope we can all learn to proceed with caution.
“Trauma” vs. “Abuse”
What’s the difference between spiritual abuse and spiritual trauma? This could be another post for the future. But in brief summary abuse refers to the harmful action and trauma refers to the victim’s experience of the abuse. In other words, it’s entirely possible for someone who has experienced abuse to not experience it as traumatic. It’s also possible to experience a mildly abusive scenario as highly traumatic.
Trauma is too important to attempt to address in a footnote at the end of this post on abuse. I hope to be able to come back to this topic sometime in the future to elaborate further.
If you’re concerned that you may currently be in a spiritually abusive context, I encourage you to seek the help of a professional or spiritual mentor outside of your community to help you identify what’s going on and to walk you through what you might be able to do about it in a safe way.
Until next time, I wish you well on your journey.