Identifying Spiritual Abuse

by John Kie-Vining

A pastor admits to requesting sex from some of his female staff members. A woman commits suicide after being told she was demon-possessed. A four-year-old boy dies for lack of a saving medical procedure because they were instructed by their pastor not to call a doctor, but to rely on prayer alone. Several couples in a rural community divorce because the pastor told them they were outside God’s perfect will. There is a danger of any spiritual leader, whether it be a pastor, counselor, chaplain, or an other leader in a powerful position, to use their influence to manipulate care-receivers. An entire church system spends millions on out-of-court settlements to those who claim to have been sexually molested by their priests. Some abuse, such as pat answers to life’s problems that are given to a voice further engagement into a person’s life, is done innocently, without malicious intent. Other abuse comes when a minister or counselor takes advantage of their power to manipulate the weak in order to gain something for themselves.


How do we identify spiritually abused Christians?

  1. They may develop a distorted image of God. A demanding God who is never satisfied. A mean vindictive god who delights in humiliating punishment when one makes a mistake. An apathetic God who watches people who are hurting or abused and does nothing to help. An unaware God who does not know when his people are abused. A powerless God who cannot help. A fickle God who is inconsistent in His attitude toward people. An “utterly holy” God so perfect He cannot identify with people.
  2. They may be preoccupied with spiritual performance. Going by certain formulas in order to gain God’s acceptance or to have a problem-free, orderly life. It results in legalism and promotes extreme forms of self-righteousness and shame.
  3. They have a distorted Christian self-identity. Lack of biblical understanding or awareness of what it means to be new creations in Christ. Confusion between guilt and shame. Guilt is a signal indicating wrong performance. Shame indicated that something is wrong with the person. Shame is the primary motivator of good behavior or performance. The negative understanding of self can be solved by good behavior, or doing good deeds. A high need to focus on the negative view of self in order to explain negative behaviors. For example, I am just a “sinner saved by grace,” or “I am worthless before God.”
  4. They have a problem relating to spiritual authority. Once abused, people develop ways to defend themselves from further abuse. They may become extremely compliant or defiant when under someone’s authority.
  5. They have a difficult time with grace. Being treated gracefully is not accepted. It is difficult for the abused to receive gifts from God or people without feeling a deep need to repay that person. They feel holiness is not a grace given, but is earned by doing.
  6. They may have a problem with personal boundaries. An unclear understanding about “death to self” teachings and “rights” boundaries are invisible barriers that tell others where they start and stop. Leaders who have misused their power have beaten down the boundaries of other people.
  7. They have difficulty with personal responsibility. A person may be under-responsible in their relationship with God and others. They have realized that no amount of performance will gain acceptance and love, so they opt to be undisciplined and uncaring to others. On the other hand, some will be over-responsible. They feel a personal responsibility for other people’s problems. They have a greater sense of god needing them, rather than them needing God.
  8. They may suffer from a lack of living skills. Some religious organizations develop a “bunker mentality.” This means that they are closed to the outside world and secretive to what goes on in the inside. Some are not able to function in the outside world due to this kind of teaching.
  9. They may have a hard time admitting the abuse. No one wants to confront the “man of God.” This is common because they are often told that they are the problem for confronting a leader about a problem. Admitting the abuse feels like they are being disloyal to the family, church or to God. People who have experienced spiritual abuse have lost track of what normal is. Natural human denial is often a reason people do not admit the abuse. Finally, shame keeps people in darkness. They do not admit the abuse. They do not want to admit they they were so naïve to have not recognized the abuse.
  10. They have a hard time trusting people again. Once people have been hurt by an abusive pastor, it is very hard for them to ever trust any pastor again. Those who have been spiritually abused by an abusive religious system will have a hard time trusting a healthy religious system also.


John Kie-Vining. Home Is Where the Hurt Is. Marriage Comission, pp. 139-143. Used by permission.

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