How can we avoid unwitting spiritual abuse?

Most of the time churches are friendly, kind places where people can grow in trust because they are supportive. However, as thinking about safeguarding has developed over the past few decades, and churches have had to come to the humbling realisation that abuse of many kinds goes on in their congregations, the category of spiritual abuse has begun to be talked about. There are many definitions circulating at the moment, with some arguing that spiritual abuse is simply emotional abuse that happens within faith communities. However I think spiritual abuse is distinct from emotional abuse because it specifically erodes the victim’s ability to trust God, and we need to be on the lookout for it. 

My preferred definition is one used by Leah Shrump. (Solomon, 2021): ‘Spiritual abuse is the use of spiritual power or authority to coerce, shame or bring harm. It is an exploitation of God’s authority to manipulate or control bodies, relationships, autonomy and personhood.’ There are many examples emerging from American megachurches of pastors who have bullied or abused their staff teams and congregation members. (Christianity Today, 2021) Closer to home we have the example of John Smyth who told boys on Iwerne Christian camps that they needed him to beat their sin out of them. The ‘purity culture’ of the 1980s which taught strict abstinence from sex before marriage is now seen by many as having been very damaging, particularly to the many women who had been sexually abused as children. In my own experience, far too many Anglican curates would say they were bullied during training. And it’s not just the clergy who are at fault: I have been told by an Anglican bishop that he reckons about ten percent of church congregations are toxic to their clergy. Spiritual abuse may be less dramatic than this: forcing the gospel on someone in need without any respect for what they are actually requesting is a common example. If we pray for someone out loud asking that God will change them that may be received as abusive. It may take people years to realise they have been abused in this way, because they may assume that their confused feelings about faith are their own fault.

Those who profess Christian faith, particularly those who lead, represent God to others. If they abuse their power those watching will sub-consciously assume that God is abusive too. It is very difficult for those who have been abused this way to disentangle their picture of God from the way they were treated by church leaders. If we believe that having faith in God will help our tenants, then tolerating abuse which distorts or prevents this is awful.  

So how can we look out for this, in churches or even in ourselves? What are the signs that should cause us pause? Spiritual abuse may be operating in faith communities where questioning is frowned on, where holding different opinions is jumped on or where people are not allowed to make their own decisions. A church culture that believes only its way is the true way, that functions only for those on the inside and that scapegoats other groups needs to set our alarm bells ringing. Abuse may also be present where people are told not to trust their own emotions. This is dangerous because it teaches that people’s gut feelings that something is wrong should be ignored.

Other questions that may be relevant are – is correct doctrine or adhering to tradition deemed more important than mercy here? How diverse are those who appear on our platforms or who are involved in decision-making – are there women, people of diverse ethnic origins, people with disabilities, non-graduates, people on benefits? Is power truly shared here? What is our money used for? That tells us what and who really matters to us.  Often it is very hard to see power abuses from the inside. It may be important to ask those who have left the church recently why they left. A good question to ask is – is the use of power here building people up or keeping them down?

Jesus never forced people to comply with his teachings or even his healings. He asked them what they wanted, and allowed them to walk away from him if they wished. Having frequently been vilified for healing on the Sabbath, he had experienced spiritual abuse personally. He also frequently spoke out against abuse of their congregations by the religious leaders of his day, using very strong language. ‘Woe to you, scribes and lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.. you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and have neglected justice and mercy…you are like whitewashed snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?'(Matt 23)

We ignore him at our peril.


Solomon, M. (2021, Oct 21). Spiritual abuse-commodities and variables. Retrieved from BEMA discipleship: