Protect Your Church from Spiritual Abuse!

by John Kie-Vining

Abuse can occur in one-on-one relationships, in families, in institutions, and in society at large. Wherever abuse is found, it should be uncovered, repented of and rejected. It is not in keeping with scriptural relationship principles. (Ephesians 5 and 6). Family, society or church systems abuse by demeaning and degrading acts of control, threat, violence and/or power, including abuse by clergy.

How do you know if you are a part of an abusive church system?

  1. Power-posturing. This occurs when leaders spend time focusing on their own authority and reminding others of it as well. They use guilt fear and intimidation as effective means for controlling their members. Those in true leadership express their authority by their lives and message.

  2. Performance preoccupation. Abusive spiritual systems are preoccupied with the performance of their members. Obedience and submission are two important words often used. Service is often done with the goal of receiving rewards. Obedience and submission should flow out of a heart that is loving God. It is one appropriate to submit to authority when their authority comes from God and their stance is grounded in Scripture.

  3. Unspoken rules. In abusive spiritual systems, people’s lives are controlled from “the outside in” by rules, spoken and unspoken. Because they are not explicitly stated, people often do not learn of their existence until they break them. For example, no one is allowed to disagree with the pastor or openly question doctrine. The “can’t talk” rule of the statement “touch not my anointed” is another example. These rules are not known until one questions a decision of a spiritual leader. This becomes a problem because he/she questioned pastors and counselors should invite and value criticism, diversity and flexibility in their congregations. Then they are able to grow and be accountable to those they serve.

  4. Lack of balance. One kind of imbalance is extreme objectivism, in which authority is based solely on one’s level of education and intellectual capacity. The opposite imbalance is extreme subjectivism, in which truth is evaluated on the basis of feelings and experiences, giving more weight to those than to what Scripture declares. Persons should strive for balance between their thinking and their feelings.

  5. Paranoia. In the spiritually abusive church or family, there is a notion that “outsiders” will misunderstand what the group is all about and respond negatively unless they become one of the group themselves. “Insiders” share an assumption that what they say, know, or do is a result of being more enlightened than “outsiders.” Often leaders within this system when confronted with immorality by an external source will cover up their sin by focusing on this external system as an instrument of Satan. An “us againt them” mentality is common in this sytem. Understand all Christians make up the Body of Christ helps alleviate this paranoia.

  6. Misplaced loyalty. Spiritually abusive systems foster and even demand a misplaced sense of loyalty. This is not loyalty to Christ, but rather loyalty to an organization, church, or leader. This loyalty is assured by teaching that, “we alone are right.” And by using scare tactics such as, “you will be lost if you leave.” Christ is the only head of the church and teachs which rob His glory should not be accepted.

  7. Secretiveness. Secrets lead to confusion and deception. We are to walk in the light.

Here are some traits of DYSFUNCTIONAL organizations:


Performance orientation

Conformity demands


Critical and judgmental environment

Inconsistency and rigid rules

Many taboo subjects

Protection of secrets

Certain feelings considered unacceptable

Punishment, shame and guilt

Unclear boundaries


A FUNCTIONAL organization will be:




Accepting and trusting environment

Flexible rules

All subjects open to discussion

Open and honest disclosure

All feelings are accepted

Discipline-growth and responsibility producing

Clear boundaries.


Kie-Vining, When Home Is Where the Hurt Is: A Ministry Intervention guide for Trauma Victims. Cleveland, Tennessee: Marriage Comission, pp. 143-146. Used by permission.







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