This Can of Worms Must be Opened!

Last week’s Lean In post, “Seek and Speak Your Truth,” raised the subject of spiritual abuse on leadership teams in churches and Christian organizations.

When spiritual abuse happens, the kind of open honest communication Sheryl Sandberg advocates becomes risky or, even worseimpossible.

Women who have been subjected to spiritual abuse know this consequence is just the tip of the iceberg of the damage that occurs when Christian leaders abuse their powers and privilege (sometimes from the pulpit) to intimidate, manipulate, and bully others. When this happens publicly and goes unchecked, it gives implicit permission for the same kind of behavior to go on behind closed doors and in private homes.

Like an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), spiritual abuse does damage in all directions. The perpetrator gets away with practicing soul-destroying conduct that is antithetical to what it means to be a Christian and that inevitably undermines their own ministry. Likewise, the wounds inflicted by spiritual abuse are deep and hard to heal. The toll this takes on the abused person can be spiritually and emotionally devastating and, in some cases, lasts a lifetime.

We get all worked up (as well we should) about bullying that takes place among school children. But are we as outraged about the bullying that is inflicted under the guise of spirituality by Christian leaders within our ranks?

In last week’s post, I labeled this as a can of worms that needs to be opened. Women are frequent targets of spiritual abuse. Sadly, this is not a female-only issue. Children and men also suffer spiritual abuse. Yet if we don’t speak up, we become part of a problem that has no place in any community that professes to follow Jesus.

The seriousness of the problem cannot be overstated.

Case in point is the response of Christian leaders to the current scandal involving Sovereign Grace Ministries and a lawsuit accusing C.J. Mahaney and others in his ministry of covering up the sexual abuse of children. When the judge “dismissed the lawsuit ruling that nine of 11 plaintiffs waited too long to sue under the statute of limitations,” colleagues of Mahaney’s at  The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel “broke their silence” and spoke out in defense of their friend.

This understandably created a blogosphere uproar, including a withering critique from attorney Boz Tchividjian, Where Are The Voices? The Continuing Culture of Silence and Protection in American Evangelicalism.

Huffington Post carried the story here.

No one is questioning the importance of steadfast friendship. A friend should be first in line to come alongside someone who’s in troublenot blindly to defend, but with love and honesty to challenge and call their friend to respond with truth and integrity. In the case of Mahaney’s friends, one hopes that’s exactly what happened.

But actions speak louder than words. And the actions of Mahaney’s friends have been loud and sent a dangerous message to their constituency. By continuing to give Mahaney a public platform at their conferences and featuring him on their websites instead of asking him to maintain a low profile while the lawsuit was underway, they missed a huge opportunity to demonstrate how seriously they take abuse of any kind, whether their friend is innocent or not. As a result they failed their friend and the Christian community as well.

In the few days between last week’s post and this one, I’ve heard more disturbing stories about spiritual abuse in the workplace. There’s even an example in last week’s comments of a woman pastor who spoke up when she was bullied by a fellow male staff member. Instead of confronting the question of bullying, another male staff member warned her not to “allow Satan to get a foothold”—thus multiplying the spiritual abuse.

The reprimand hit its mark. She was silenced, and the bully was protected.

Some of the patterns I’m observing are:

  • Exploitation of the power disparity between the abuser and the abused
  • The use of scripture or spiritual platitudes to manipulate, control, silence, and shame
  • Demanding unquestioned loyalty
  • Misperceptions of female submission and godliness exacerbate the problem
  • Dismissal of legitimate concerns
  • Blaming the abused for what someone else (often the abuser) has done
  • An environment where simply speaking up or voicing a point of disagreement causes disapproval and possible dismissal
  • The impact of abuse intensifies if a person has experienced abuse in the past

Two things surprise me.

First, it is often the case that neither the abuser nor the abused fully realize “spiritual abuse” is happening. This is why it is important for us to keep putting this subject under the spotlight—for the sake of both parties.

Second, that spiritual abuse happens in both complementarian and egalitarian contexts. In fact, two of the situations I heard about this week were happening to ordained women serving on the pastoral teams of churches.

Since I’m not an expert on the subject, I turned to psychologist Dr. Phil Monroe, Professor of Counseling and Psychology and Director of the Global Trauma Recovery Institute at Biblical Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. (My husband Frank becomes Biblical’s fourth president on July 1.)

Dr. Monroe was a contributor to Rachel Held Evans’ series on abuse with his post, “Proper Treatment for Sexual Abuse: 7 Questions to Consider.”

His website ( is a valuable resource worth exploring.

On short notice and with a busy schedule, Dr. Monroe graciously wrote a post on the subject:  Spiritual Abuse: What It Is and Why It Hurts.” In it he offers this definition:

“Spiritual abuse is the use of faith, belief, and/or religious practices to coerce, control, or damage another for a purpose beyond the victim’s well-being.”

He also references an article by Mary DeMuth, another expert on the subject of abuse.

What can we do to address spiritual abuse by Christians in the workplace and in other contexts? What can we do to prevent and also detect spiritual abuse in churches, Christian organizations, and in homes? Have you seen (or experienced) situations where this kind of abuse has been addressed in healthy, redemptive ways? If yes, how? and if no, why?

If you have other resources you’d recommend, please feel free to post them here. And if your comments contain questions for Dr. Monroe or Mary, I’ll make sure they see them.

Here is the complete series on Spiritual Abuse:

Dr. Phil Monroe on Spiritual Abuse:

Also by Frank A. James:  Structural Patriarchy’s Dilemma for Women
Mary DeMuth:  Spiritual Abuse: 10 Ways to Spot It
Rachel Held Evans:  Series on Abuse

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61 Responses to This Can of Worms Must be Opened!

  1. Dr. Dawn says:

    You have that right! I worked under a bully for 8 months and it did a number on me. I was so stressed and anxious all the time. Cowering like an abused animal. All the while the church leadership told me to “just deal with it.” I did- resigned and next time will not put up with abuse for 8 months…


  2. Carolyn says:

    That's a healthy response, and sometimes is the only option. In hindsight, I wish I'd quit a job where the boss was abusive. I also wish I had stood up to him. I think that would have been good for both of us.


  3. Dr. Dawn says:

    Yes Carolyn. I needed the job as my husband was unemployed at the time. But after such cruel treatment my husband and I decided we needed to trust God with our double-unemployment status. And both of us being ineligible for unemployment! Better to be hungry and at peace than to be abused and modeling/approving abuse to those who are watching. Many abuse victims think the church approves the mis-treatment of women because they believe “submission” includes abuse!


  4. Two books I often recommend as a therapist to help get insight to what is going on is Boundaries and Safe People by Cloud and Townsend. The authors of both books are Christian psychologists. Often when you are in an abusive situation, the victim starts thinking they are the crazy one instead of the abuser. These books help provide clarity and strong guidelines. The books also show how Christ set clear boundaries in relationships as well.


  5. Jolene Burgdorf says:

    I think the subtlety of spiritual abuse sets us up for abuse in our homes and in the work place as well as the church. The unquestionable authority of church leaders and the persistent message of submission to those in authority makes us sitting ducks for abuse. It takes something major to shock us to the ungodliness of the abuse. By then we are scarred deeply and it takes a long while for God to heal us. It is easy to move from one abusive relationship to another without realizing that there is something critically wrong at the bases level.


  6. Carolyn says:

    Thanks for the book recommendations Kimberly. I'm currently reading the manuscript of The Emotionally Destructive Marriage authored by Leslie Vernick, (to be released in September) which I would also recommend. Can be pre-ordered at

    Jolene, your comment is hair-raising and simply underscores the need for this issue to be out in the open and why more good people need to stand up for those who have been or are currently abused. Thanks for posting.


  7. Dr. Dawn says:

    Sitting ducks. Absolutely. I couldn't put into words what was happening at the time. I tried to call it verbal and emotional abuse but leadership felt that was harsh and I needed to use clear and concrete examples. When I gave examples they wanted proof and witnesses. Abuse isn't something a bully does with witnesses around. It is what occurs when no one else is privy to it as first hand witnesses. One does not leave the job or church they love unless it becomes intolerable. And a bully can only thrive in a place with systemic issues within the leadership context. The other problem with people who abuse others tends to be that they have a disposition that others see as”nice” or even “charismatic.” Leaving the wounded on the side of the road/ditch with no help from the established leadership group. More troubling is the amount of women leaving church and their faith behind because they do not see the church as a healthy place in which to be a woman. This is a very serious outcome that most churches have not begun to see the full ramifications of. We lose gifted and educated women and we somehow think the Body of Christ can be fully activated without these gifts God has given for the church and for his missional purposes. It may not be the woman who buried her talents, it may well be the church that buried her talents and buried the woman as well!


  8. Mary DeMuth says:

    Thank you for this well reasoned post. I have written about spiritual abuse (10 ways to spot it) here:

    And here is my post about the current SGM scandal:

    Thank you for being yet another voice crying in the wilderness.


  9. Carolyn says:

    A Facebook commenter said, “Sadly, if you try to expose the abuser, it falls on deaf ears.”

    So the question we need to ask is, “So then what? What is a person supposed to do when reports of spiritual abuse fall on deaf ears?”


  10. Dr. Dawn says:

    Carolyn, we are all waiting to hear what could be done. All I have ever found in books on bullying is that the great majority of victims either quit or are fired. No one actually give any good advice as to how to win that battle. No real help in how to expose bullies or abusive bosses or co-workers. And it is especially difficult when it is a Christian institution. Most think abused people need to give grace to the abuser. “turn the other cheek”. It gets extremely convoluted. Then add a dose of “Jesus submitted to death on a cross for sins he never committed. You are to die to self and follow Jesus to the cross.” My denomination hushed me up real quick when I claimed bullying. No one ever apologized or looked seriously into my claims and held the abuser to any accountability. So- if anyone has a good story about being bullied and then getting justice, I would like to hear about it…


  11. Carolyn says:

    Finding out what can be done is exactly why we should be talking about this. How long has this problem existed, and we're still hitting road blocks from people who should be our first line of defense—many who preach that God created men to protect women, but then they don't in the worst kinds of situations and instead protect abusers?

    When Christian leaders refuse to respond and get to the bottom of the situation, the Matthew 18 approach Jesus taught breaks down.

    I've heard stories where an abused person got justice. But all of those stories involved an outside party—a credible advocate (a counselor or eye-witness) who corroborated the complaint and wouldn't let deaf leaders off the hook. The workplace situations I'm hearing about haven't turned out like that. Most end up leaving. Some are still stuck—fearful of losing their job. I don't blame them. When I was single I stayed in an abusive job situation for that very reason.

    There are ways of standing up to an abuser—of refusing to tolerate their conduct. (A little ezer-warrior spirit comes in handy.) However, often by the time the situation becomes intolerable, the abused person is so beaten down they are unable to confront the individual who intimidates them.

    With no one standing with her, she is more alone than ever. The abuse will almost certainly continue. She needs to take care of herself, even if that means leaving the job, after all, there are worse things than losing a job, at least in a Western culture where help is available.

    I'm hoping we can get some professional advice on the subject from people who deal with these problems all the time.

    Stay tuned …


  12. Mary DeMuth says:

    Unfortunately, victims have to be relentless in their telling of the story. They can't do this unless they have support from friends or family. It does take a village to overturn a broken system, and it takes tenacious consistency.

    The problem is that the victim is usually fragile and cannot take being repeatedly misunderstood and maligned. This is where the rest of the body of Christ comes in. We can hold him/her up through the process. We can protect. We can fight on their behalf.


  13. Carolyn says:

    I fear you are right. There are no easy answers. We're in this for the long haul and need more voices in the battle. Thanks for weighing in Mary.


  14. It's an expansion of abuse of women within marriages many times, which the church typically fails to recognize much less confront even when the woman dares to speak up. A church that can't tolerate the possibility that a woman may be emotionally (much less physically) abused by a Christian man will be unable to imagine that a Christian man, especially a leader in the church, is verbally/emotionally/spiritually/sexually abusing others in that church.

    Excellent resource: Johnson & Van Vonderen “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority Within the Church.”


  15. Pat Pope says:

    “Women who have been subjected to spiritual abuse know this consequence is just the tip of the iceberg of the damage that occurs when Christian leaders abuse their powers and privilege (sometimes from the pulpit) to intimidate, manipulate, and bully others. When this happens publicly and goes unchecked, it gives implicit permission for the same kind of behavior to go on behind closed doors and in private homes.”

    Amen. This statement nails it. Having been disrespected by a few in leadership and those with unspoken authority, I know too well the response from others that was tantamount to saying, “Get over it” and “You should forgive”. But when issues are not addressed, it just allows the perpetrators to continue in their bad behavior and thus, the cycle is seemingly never broken. Broken people just cycle in and out of the church with the few loyal remaining, happy for what appears to be a flourishing ministry–that is, if you don't count the walking wounded.

    And oh, by the way, I was in leadership when this happened.


  16. Carolyn says:

    The Johnson & Van Vonderen book is new to me and looks like an excellent resource. Thanks Leslie.

    And Pat, your description of the cycling in and out of people that keeps the abuse going is sadly exactly what happens unless someone steps in and says “Enough!”


  17. Dr. Dawn says:

    Johnson and VanVonderen’s definition in their book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse of abuse:
    It’s possible to become so determined to defend a spiritual place of authority, a doctrine or a way of doing things that you wound and abuse anyone who questions, or disagrees, or doesn’t ‘behave’ spiritually the way you want them to. When your words and actions tear down another, or attack or weaken a person’s standing as a Christian- to gratify you, your position or beliefs while at the same time weakening or harming another- that’s spiritual abuse.


  18. Dr. Dawn says:

    Johnson and VanVonderen’s definition in their book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse of abuse:
    It’s possible to become so determined to defend a spiritual place of authority, a doctrine or a way of doing things that you wound and abuse anyone who questions, or disagrees, or doesn’t ‘behave’ spiritually the way you want them to. When your words and actions tear down another, or attack or weaken a person’s standing as a Christian- to gratify you, your position or beliefs while at the same time weakening or harming another- that’s spiritual abuse.


  19. Anonymous says:

    On the Sovereign Grace Ministries case–why is it that the person decided to sue the church? This was something where they should have called the police, not sue the church. Obviously, there are justice adjudicating structures in place. .. Christians need to use them. If there is criminal behavior, one must use those structures. Is this another example of “church people” not recognizing this reality? Sexual abuse is a criminal offense. .. .we've seen this so often in churches, hiding the reality and then later on suing instead of reporting and arresting?


  20. Dr. Dawn says:

    Another enlightening book on bullying and verbal abuse is The Verbally Abusive Relationship by PAtricia Evans.

    The sad part is near the end where she states, “Keep in mind that not all abusers will change. After all, they are not suffering in the way that their victims are suffering.” She goes on to say that you cannot change another person. You must set boundaries and more often than not it ends with loving and respecting yourself to remove yourself from the abusive person.


  21. Unknown says:

    So grateful for your thoughts on this topic. .. yes, I've had several friends go through “Missionary Rehab” –some for months!–because they were subjected to incredibly abusive “leaders” and “Bishops”. My heart is so heavy as even years later, they are still struggling. May the Lord have mercy.


  22. Dr. Dawn says:

    Unfortunately for me, my situation was viewed as a “conflict” and “personality differences”. Because it was framed this way, leadership had us do mediation. Totally the wrong venue for this situation. Mediation involves compromise. So the mediator was working the wrong angle, in effect asking me if I would “put up with a little less abuse” and the perpetrator to “abuse me a little less.”! A ridiculous request.

    An abusive person should not put up with abuse- just a little less. No abuse is the healthy way to live. Every person has a fundamental right to a healthy environment and a right to affirm boundaries. Evans gives these good statements:
    1. Know when you are being treated poorly, abusively, etc.
    2. Know that this person is in some way trying to control, dominate, or establish superiority over you.
    3. Know you did nothing to cause it.
    4. Know that it is not healthy to live in an abusive atmosphere .
    5. Distance yourself from the abuser by seeing him/her for what they are.
    ^. Stay aware. Abusers do not take responsibility for their actions or words. Do not get used to the behavior.


  23. wisecounsel says:

    What can be done when complaints about spiritual abuse fall on deaf ears? Several commenters raise this question. I wish I had great answers that brought justice. While it does happen, there can be no guarantee in this life (even as we have one for the next!). The options are fairly simple (though completely not simple in carrying them out):
    1. Get out, get safe
    2. Speak the truth until they put you out
    3. Decide to stop looking for someone in authority to notice but to find a friend who will listen

    If the person feels they have relative safety and can stay, it may be possible to find an angle to wake up leadership. Sadly, you may still be labeled as shrill and emotional.

    Start by finding one person who can listen well, validate your experience, and help you discern your next move.


  24. I'm so glad women are starting to speak about this silent epidemic. Recently I wrote a blog for women in destructive marriages on How to Approach their Church Leaders for Help. Sadly, many of them have experienced the same indifference, blaming the victim, misdiagnosing the true problem and invalidating her story. You can read it at


  25. Tanya says:

    What really appalls me is that the Jeff Van Vonderen book “Spriritual Abuse … ” mentioned in the other comments came out in 1991! I just got it a few days ago and read it quickly. Very good insights into this issue.

    And Steve Arterburn's book “Toxic Faith” also came out in 1991. This has been documented for more than 20 years, and it's still going on.

    Unfortunately, sin, self, ego, etc are at the core of spiritual abuse, and while they won't go away until we get to heaven, the church MUST do more now to confront and deal with these issues.


  26. Another good resource for someone who grew up in a spiritually abusive home or church is Growing Up Holy and Wholly by Donald Sloat.


  27. Julie Anne says:

    Anonymous: The reason why people did not come forward was there was a conspiracy of silence among church leaders. Civil authorities were painted out as “evil” and this was a spiritual issue that needed to be dealt with at church. Parents were told to let church leaders take care of it – to resolve the issue in a “biblical way” with confession and reconciliation. Some leaders interfered with parents from going to authorities.

    I have been covering the SGM story on my blog since before the lawsuit and have been in regular contact with a number of the plaintiffs. It is a travesty. These church “systems” work like cults with brainwashing, manipulation, and control tactics.

    Sadly, the conspiracy of silence worked in SGM's favor as now the statute of limitations has prevented 9 of the 11 plaintiffs from seeking justice they deserve.

    I have a resource page for spiritual abuse on my blog. Feel free to avail yourself.

    Julie Anne


  28. Janet says:

    Carolyn, I know you have more questions than answers already, but I have another. Why does a person abuse another? Or are the reasons so diverse as to be impossible to categorize? You mention that often “neither the abuser nor the abused fully realize “spiritual abuse” is happening.” This seems extremely important to explore. If we can start to spot small cases of abuse, then maybe we can prevent them from escalating into large-scale abuse. I’ve only brushed with abuse, but even though I can now name the behavior as abusive, I cannot paint my abuser with a black brush. He has strengths and weaknesses, and in some cases a true servant’s heart, but in other cases, his actions and words fit well the definition of abuse. I’ve distanced myself, but the question burns: how can I help him see the damage he is doing to others when I also see he is working very hard to love God and his neighbor? Slamming him with the depth and breadth of the consequences of his actions would surely only make him more defensive. I DO NOT want to excuse or tolerate abuse because an abuser has a good side. I DO NOT want to take the easy way out and label all abusers as hopelessly evil, nonhuman, and fully intentional in the damage they cause others.

    The question burns deep that if we can better understand why abuse happens than our outcries against abuse might be better heard. Might be, but even Jesus resorted to “you brood of vipers” – and better trying to understand an abuser is a good way to get yourself more abuse. Is there information out there on this? I’ve found precious little.


  29. Anonymous says:

    Jeff Van Vonderan once came to our church, to give a seminar for church leaders. I was one of the church leaders in attendance. I was also being abused by a church leader at the time. It was surreal. None of the abusers recognized themselves.


  30. Anonymous says:

    Also from Anonymous, original post 6/11, 8:59am (I'll call myself Anon2),

    To Anonymous, original post, 6/10, 8:14pm:

    Read the details of SGM and you'll see that people wanted to go to the police, and in one case did report the abuse. The mother of one abuse victim (and wife of the abuser) was told that she couldn't go to the police and remain in God's pleasure. She needed to submit to God via leadership in the church. When the police were told about one case (sexual assault of a 2yo girl), church leadership tipped off the abuser that the police were on their way with a warrant.

    All allegedly, but quite believable when you read the depth and breadth of the accounts, especially believable by those of us who have been there.

    I think that's why these things don't see the light. It's how you abuse in the first place. Subtle increases in control, over time.


  31. Becky W says:

    This is discouraging. How can abuse in the church ever stop if the leadership doesnt recognize their own abusiveness?


  32. First, thank you, Carolyn, and thank you to everyone who is commenting here. This is a can of worms that we need to keep open. It takes a lot of courage for each of us to stay with this. We need each other to keep looking at a reality that is disturbing and can often feel really hopeless. THANK YOU!

    I have experienced spiritual abuse both personally, through my in-laws, and professionally through a principal at a Christian school. I confronted both abusers with all the grace and honesty available to me. While personally, the confrontation was productive in that I owned my own dignity and found I was able to live in the tension of honesty and confrontation and love and grace for the other (at least for moments and sometimes more than that), the confrontations were not effective in those relationships. I was “let go” after my confrontation with the principal. For many reasons, I had privately already decided to leave the job and so I was not devastated and my family could love without the income. Still. Afterward, I did go to the superintendant to report my experience with this principal. He listened well, but I am not aware of any action taken. I was too fearful to make an official complaint via a letter to the board. Fearful of the social repercussions in a small community.

    Second, Janet, I am very appreciative of your comments and insistence that we try to dig more deeply into an understanding of abusers and your unwillingness to paint abusers with a black brush. I get this. If I am honest, I note my own abusive/tyrannical tendencies in relationships (say with my kids). I note my own desire for coercion or the ways I try to manipulate their behavior. Just this morning I had an honest conversation with my sixteen year old daughter about this. It helps me to share my own shame or frustration with myself about this. Confession (in a safe environment) helps. I've had to learn to provide that safety for myself. For me, this has meant a lot of work personally around self-compassion. Can I look at myself honestly and also with love and understanding? Can I refuse to dissociate from my bad behavior, but also not shame myself for it? I am learning. The way God and I are collaborating on this in just my life feels very small, and hardly like a solution for the HUGE problems that confront us, and yet I think this is a significant part of the solution. Can we learn to be safe to ourselves and tell the story of what this is like?


  33. Peter says:

    I really appreciate this article. I worked at a spiritually and verbally abusive church for three and a half years, and it's extremely validating to see someone speak on the issue. I'm putting together a book of my stories, but mostly I just wanted to comment to say, “Thank you.”

    It's sickening when verbal abuse isn't just minimized, but defended, by the powers that be and their inner circle. It was unreal — truly, UN-believable — how starkly different closed-door meetings were compared to Sunday morning service.

    Which isn't to say I was a perfect employee… so far from it… and I highlight many of my own mistakes in the book as well. In fact, I unfortunately became verbally abusive at times to those closest to me, and it's taken a LONG time to unravel and unlearn.

    Having received and given verbal abuse, I can now say, there is NO justification for abuse. None.

    Thank you for writing.


  34. Carolyn says:

    “Why does a person abuse another? Or are the reasons so diverse as to be impossible to categorize? You mention that often 'neither the abuser nor the abused fully realize “spiritual abuse” is happening.' This seems extremely important to explore.”

    Janet, you've landed on an issue that strikes at the heart of the problem of spiritual abuse and warrants further discussion. Anonymous confirms this with the comment about the seminar on abuse in the church where “None of the abusers recognized themselves.”

    This particular line of questioning is especially significant I think because the spiritual abuse that women experience not only is injurious to the woman and self-damaging to the man, it totally undermines God's kingdom strategy (Gen 1-2) for his male and female image bearers to be allies in fulfilling the mission he entrusts to us.

    So spiritual abuse goes well beyond a disastrous interpersonal incident in the damage it does.

    Like I said, “Like an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), spiritual abuse does damage in all directions.”

    The questions surfacing here are profoundly important. We have more work … and more discussing to do.


  35. Carolyn says:

    Lorilyn and Peter,

    Wow! I so appreciate your honesty and how you bring this discussion full circle for all of us by your willingness to look in the mirror. That's not exactly what I expected to find when opening this can of worms. But anyone with power has the potential to abuse, and your comments point out how we all need to think about that, especially when we've been put on notice that people who spiritually abuse aren't always aware that they're abusing. We can (and should) be angry and speak out about spiritual abuse. But there is also a need for humility and self-reflection. Thanks for that.


  36. Becky B. says:

    I’m getting into this discussion a little late, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for the past several years. I am so painfully aware of the reality of leaders who spiritually abuse people, mainly because I’ve grown up in the church and have been in ministry as a couple for at least 30 years. I literally cringe to think that in our service we may have harmed people with things that we have said. That is such a terrifying and sobering thought for me. I know God has blessed us with his grace and that really is what we want to give. I am sure we have failed at times.
    This morning the radio was on and a well-known West Coast preacher/teacher/college-sem pres. said some disgustingly abusive things to parents specifically. He used the passage in Eph instructing parents to not provoke their children; then every example he gave had to do with women and how they provoke their kids! How they are selfish and want time for themselves, while their husbands are away, etc, etc! I was aghast (again) and discouraged. I immediately began thinking back about what I may have done to my kids. Then the guilt, then the shame, then the worry. It’s so subtle and evil. It’s getting hard NOT to hear it. Is it just me listening for it? And am I constantly on the defense about it? It’s kinda scary to me. I know it’s real, because I know the grace of Jesus and I still feel times when the enemy wants to destroy me through shameful words from spiritual authorities. The question still remains in my mind about how to deal with all this. When I bring up to a friend that they need to question their thinking about something, that terrifies them. It changes their world and all they have known and feel secure in. May God give us love and patience to be in these situations with people, it could mean really living or not.
    A helpful source I have found is Dale Fincher’s work on spiritual abuse. His new blog “Free at Last” is pretty thorough work. And thank you Carolyn for this good discussion.


  37. I forgot to mention this in my last post, but I also heartily recommend the book “Healing Spiritual Abuse and Relgious Addiction” by Matthew Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Dennis Linn. I have found it to be a very helpful, very pastoral book.


  38. Carolyn says:


    Thanks for the extra information. I hope others will feel free to add more as they think of them.

    Also, I re-read your earlier comment, then tracked down the radio message you referenced. I think I misread what you were trying to say—how someone's words, no matter how well intentioned, can send a person into a downward spiraled guilt trip, which is neither healthy nor same thing as honestly reflecting on one's life.


  39. Anonymous says:

    Why is it the abused who has to submit like Jesus did on the cross? Why does the abuser not have to submit? Because he or she holds the power. But we are ALL to submit one to the other. In a healthy place, this can be done. There is way too much unhealthy within so-called Christian organizations. The Catholic church is always vilified because of the abuse that still goes on. But no other denomination is any different except, perhaps, in the manner of abuse.


  40. Laurie H says:

    Thank you for challenging Christians to action. Gods grace rescued me from a spiritually & emotionally abusive marriage. My prayer is that the church would open its eyes and extend grace & love to the victims


  41. Truth68 says:

    I am so glad these issues of abuse are finally coming out and we must not give in to this evil. I was not personally abused by the church; I did, however have a period of two years where I was spiritually challenged by false teachings and my “spiritual” bubble was fractured. I spent two years thinking I was not a child of Gods because I did not measure up in some way due to this teaching. This was allowed by my Savior to show me what is spiritual abuse and how deadly it is. I left this church and am now on a quest to stand by those who have been abused by the church and support and love them. This issue hits me to the core because your soul is the most precious of anything that we possess and the church has not properly taught the love of Jesus Christ.

    Carolyn, if you could give me any advice on how we can help those are victims I would greatly appreciate it. I did think of starting a support group; I just do not know how to go about it.


  42. Thanks for putting together this important post. I've lived through spiritual abuse, and the effects still echo (albeit far more faintly) nearly two decades later.

    I've realized that it is not only abused and abuser in this system in most churches – even congregants far removed from the situation are affected. In the wake of the SGM mess and the case of the church in VA, I put together a post that some of your readers may find helpful if they've been a part of a church where spiritual or other forms of abuse have occurred:


  43. Mary says:

    Thank you, Carolyn, for writing about this.

    LOYALTY is often placed above TRUTH in the Christian workplace. When this happens, those who are 'loyal' to the spiritual leader will do or say virtually anything to protect the one who explicitly demands their loyalty. I believe that a leader should show humility, vision, courage, and the ability to discern the gifts of others and bring them forward. But often the 'leader' simply wants power and to protect their public image. A true leader should be the same person in private as he or she is in public. Sadly, this is often not the case. The leader will use intimidation in private, in such a way that cannot be proved, and then show a different face in public.

    It is very difficult to expose this kind of abuse because human resource departments are there to serve upper management. Fear of losing one's job and income is legitimate, It is always best to turn to an outside source for help. Courage, discernment and wisdom are needed in these terrible situations. It is not that easy to simply 'tell the truth' and assume that all will be well. However, there must be a way to shed light on what is often a conspiracy of silence. Thanks Carolyn for speaking out!


  44. Carolyn makes such an important point, noting that when spiritual abuse happens, most people don't recognize it. This is definitely an issue of power…who has it and what they do with it.


  45. laukeys says:

    I used to work in a Christian organization. One of the leaders was spiritually abusing people. I wrote a letter to the board outlining the situation. They heard me and brought in other people to interview staff members. When all was said and done the leader was fired from the organization. Nothing was ever said to outsiders about why he left. They made it sound like it was something he chose to do. I was not happy about that but at least he was gone. This experience taught me I must speak up because my conscience tells me I must. I have to leave the result up to God.


  46. Carolyn, I am so glad that you are addressing this/these issues. Your writing is clear and crisp and informs the reader about the factors as well as what steps can be taken to change things on the Christian landscape.

    My ministry focus is to raise awareness about spiritual abuse in the church and para-church groups, to inform church and seminary leaders about the nature and devastation that Christians experience from it, and to be a resource for those who have experienced it.

    As someone mentioned, a number of the books on these topics were in the early 1990's. My book, entitled: “Spiritual Abuse and Recovery,” is also a helpful resource.

    It is available through contact with me using my website email:

    Church Exiters website provides a ministry to people who have experienced spiritual abuse in their church and are looking for help on the internet–in order to understand and process what they are having to deal with.

    Church Exiters provides many articles that can give people answers to their questions, confirm many of their
    hunches about this issue, and give them hope that they are not alone. Church Exiters helps people to identify strategies to cope and gives them practical help to aid in the recovery process.

    Church Exiters provides resources regarding gender issues in the church and how spiritual abuse is related to
    many other abuse issues.

    It will take an army of informed and intentional people to make an impact on traditions which do not reflect the Kingdom of God. All the best as you continue to raise your voice about these issues!


  47. Anonymous says:

    The comment by anonymous should be chilling to those of us in Reformed circles who emphasize the preaching of the Word as the primary means of discipleship. “None of the abusers recognized themselves.” These leaders were listening to one of the foremost teachers on abuse and did not recognize what they were doing. How does transformation really happen?


  48. Carolyn says:

    I agree that the most chilling fact that has surfaced in this whole discussion is the inability of spiritual abusers to recognize themselves as abusers. All of this keeps me from giving up on finding ways to raise their awareness to what they're doing. Something is desperately wrong when Christian leaders—Reformed or otherwise—can abuse others and not be troubled by their own behavior.


  49. Anonymous says:

    I actually think spiritual abuse is spiritual warfare and in our church/school situation satan has come in via the money. Many church folks are employed by the school parents (tuition) yet church parents do not send their kids to the school (can't afford the tuition), so the school is all non-believers and supposed to be a ministry but only the kids get a quick bible lesson… no parent discipleship. Lots of bullying. Current superintendent is OBSESSED with getting more kids in (tuition dollars) and cutting staff (drive hard the workers). The result is spiritual abuse but the demon possessed superintendent looks like death warmed over because he has a ponzi scheme to keep afloat! The sweet ladies at the front office (divorced and need the income) know they work for satan, but cannot help it. The kids are all foreigners (almost like orphans because the parents are so busy). There is a day care full of bullying kids too. But no volunteer help from the church people. Church people (who don't work at the school) don't come M-F and don't see the bullying and abuse and elders all get their own paycheck or have a family member who collects a paycheck from the school. But the Lord is not pleased and I predict very soon they will not be able to make payroll. We cannot serve two masters.


  50. Anonymous says:

    Dangerous Calling by Paul Tripp is a great book about how Tripp repented from being a prideful pastor. His wife said he was so angry and she would confront him.
    He does not call it spiritual abuse, but he details God revealing to him how unforgiving he was to others and how angry he had become. Another book I am enjoying to apply for myself is Accidental Pharisee by Larry Osbourne. Honestly, abuse stems from our view of God… do we really trust Him and His promises?


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