Spiritual Abuse Across the Spectrum of Christian Environments
ICSA Today, Volume 9, Number 1, 2018, pages 2-5
Spiritual Abuse Across the Spectrum of Christian Environments
Dr. Joost Meerloo’s The Rape of the Mind (Merloo, 1956) examined how mental coercion exploits empathy and perception to steal a person’s autonomy. In abusive religious environments, what might be called a rape of the soul and also the mind occurs. The International Cultic Studies Association’s Spiritual Abuse Resources (SAR) program defines spiritual abuse as follows:
Spiritual abuse, sometimes called religious abuse, results when individuals are deceived and or [sic] otherwise manipulated in ways that cause detrimental changes to core elements of the self, including one's relationship to God, religious/philosophical beliefs, self-determination, and the capacity to think independently. Though often associated with cultic groups, spiritual abuse may also occur in mainstream denominations when pastors or others misuse their authority or when individuals violate the ethical boundaries of proselytizing or other kinds of influence situations. (SAR, n.d.)
Although spiritual abuse can happen in almost any spiritual or religious environment, in this article I specifically examine spiritual abuse as it occurs in Bible-based groups. People who have been wounded in other belief systems, however, may find that much of this discussion resonates with their own experience.
Many examples in this article focus on nondenominational churches. However, abuse can and does happen in mainstream denominations, but the dynamics can be different. Pastors or leaders can have controlling tendencies even if they manage to stay within the framework of their denomination. Abuse can also occur when pastors are so rigid and legalistic about the doctrines of their denomination that rules and regulations become more important than individual congregants.
Most individuals experience periods of uncertainty, anxiety, or insecurity. During such times, a strong leader can make them feel that they are in a safe, nurturing environment. Not all strong leaders are abusive. Leaders who have integrity and understanding can be helpful in such circumstances. Some leaders, however, do not respond ethically to the influence—the power—that they have over others. Such leaders may unscrupulously take advantage of the needs of those in their congregation. This exploitation is the essence of abuse. When the abuse occurs within a religious framework, it may be called spiritual abuse. (For more information on the psychology of abusive leaders, see Burke, 2006; Goldberg, 2012; and Shaw, 2014.)
Factors That Affect Abuse
Where and how does spiritual abuse happen? The risk of spiritual abuse increases when (a) pastors lack accountability, (b) intense emotion or dissociative practices lead to suggestible states of mind, (c) leaders and members of the congregation display an attitude of superiority toward those outside the church and develop isolation from them, (d) pastors lack the training that would reduce the risk of abuse, and (e) pastors have inappropriate sexual relationships with congregants.
Lack of Accountability. In recent years, many nondenominational churches have sprung up. Ed Stezer, in his June 12, 2015, entry to his blog The Exchange (hosted on the website of Christianity Today, a prominent publication aimed at evangelicals), referred to data gathered in the General Sociological Survey each year from 1972 to 2014.1 Using the baseline average from 1972 to 1976, as of 2014 there had been a more-than-400 percent growth in nondenominational evangelicals. In contrast, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest evangelical denomination in the United States, had actually declined in membership.
When churches are led by men or women who have the drive to establish an independent community and who also feel they have a more direct or correct understanding of God or the Bible than mainstream communities, and when these church boards are unquestioningly loyal to the pastor, absent the accountability of a mainstream religious community, the churches have the potential to become the pastor’s “kingdom.” Another warning sign can be when a church was previously part of a denomination but then broke with the denomination. If the purpose of the split was for the leader not to be accountable to a higher authority, it is easier for that church to become abusive.
Intense Emotion and Dissociative Practices. Independent charismatic churches may be especially vulnerable to abuse. Charismatic doctrine emphasizes supernatural gifts, such as having the ability to prophesy the future; possessing words of knowledge, wherein it seems that a charismatic leader has information about other people’s lives that the people have not divulged; or speaking in tongues, in which utterances are spoken that are not in one’s own language and may or may not be a recognizable language. These experiences can be extremely emotional. They often are subjective, hard to verify, and can potentially skew individuals’ perceptions of reality and may make them less discerning about their church or group. Much importance is placed on independent spiritual experience that cannot be reasonably evaluated even by biblical standards. When, for example, a pastor or group leader says “God told me X,” how is someone to know whether the speaker is hearing from God? Is she delusional or perhaps following her own agenda cloaked in holy words? Yet the Bible is full of accounts of individuals hearing from God in unorthodox ways. These pastors may be quick to point to examples from the Bible to create the appearance of credibility.
Another circumstance in which people can potentially be exploited is when a style of worship is marked by long periods of soothingly rhythmical music, often accompanied by repetitive words, with the pastor or other leader exhorting the congregation to have a stronger spiritual commitment. This combination, too, can elicit an emotional response and even induce an altered state of consciousness. When congregants are at this place, they have the potential to be more suggestible and perhaps not employ the critical thinking that they would ordinarily use. A pastor, if so inclined, can take advantage of people in this state. (For an in-depth analysis of intense emotion and dissociative practices, see Sherlock, 2015.)
Attitude of Superiority and Isolation. Although it is natural to want to associate with like-minded individuals, a healthy church welcomes communication from those outside of the church, even if church pastors and members don’t fully agree with the outsiders’ views. Those within the church realize that they can learn much and benefit from these interactions. However, in fringe churches and cults, those outside of the church, even those in other churches, are often seen to be spiritually immature or, worse yet, totally reprobate. The more extreme the thinking of church leaders and members along these lines, the more isolated a church can become. This, too, can be a breeding ground for abuse.
Lack of Training. When pastors and leaders lack formal training, the possibility of their not fully understanding the context of events, teachings, and history put forth in the Bible is more likely. As a result, they may then teach their congregations an erroneous interpretation of the Bible, which may adversely affect the structure and functioning of the church.
Sexual Abuse. Sexual abuse unfortunately is not limited to fringe churches and cults, and has occurred with alarming frequency in mainstream denominations. The pastor may be conforming to the standards of the denomination in the way a church is run but, as an individual, is inflicting unspeakable abuse on some of the congregants. A notable example of this is the widely publicized sexual abuse perpetrated by priests in the Catholic Church. However, as Pat Wingert quotes Ernie Allen, President of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in an article on Newsweek’s website, “Priests Commit No More Abuse Than Other Males”:
We don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else. I can tell you without hesitation that we have seen cases in many religious settings, from traveling evangelists to mainstream ministers to rabbis and others. (Allen, cited in Wingert, 2010)
Unscrupulous leaders who use their positions in the church to prey sexually on those in their congregations add another layer to spiritual abuse. A victim may feel that submitting to the abuser is tantamount to submitting to God. The perception of normalcy generally associated with these dominations can make it harder for a victim to divulge what has happened to them, and they can suffer for years in silence. By the very nature of their position, clergy are inherently held in high esteem by their congregants. Thus, victims are often left even more conflicted as they try to understand not only their sexual abuse but also their own spirituality.
How Do Mainstream Churches, Fringe Churches, and Cults Differ?
There are varying degrees of abuse. On the far end of the continuum, there may be high levels of control, psychological isolation, exploitation, and manipulation. Although the abuse in extreme situations may be easier to see, other abuse may be subtle. In a mainstream church, abuse may be more difficult to identify than it might be in a fringe church. And sometimes the abuse those in a fringe church experience might be more difficult to identify than if they were in a cult. But all levels of abuse can occur in all of these situations.
A mainstream church and a fringe church might not look too different from each other on the surface, thus making it even harder to identify abuse. Because cults tend to be more obviously deviant from the mainstream, persons who leave a cult or cultic environment may find it easier to label their experiences as abusive. They feel bad, and the group was obviously bad.
Persons who leave a fringe church, in contrast, may have an uneasy feeling that they experienced abuse, but they find that abuse harder to identify. People in cults are frequently cut off from the outside society, either because of a communal lifestyle or the massive amounts of time, energy, and money required of them. Fringe churches may impose similar demands, but those demands might be couched in subtly misleading terms.
In a cult, giving money or time might be an absolute requirement; in a fringe church, however, such requests might be disguised as religious expectations. Congregants might hear, for example, “You can’t outgive God. The more you give, the more blessings you’ll receive”; or “After what God has done for you, how can you tend to your own houses while neglecting the house of God?”; or “If God doesn’t have your wallet, he doesn’t have anything.” The common thread of these kinds of exhortations is the general sense that congregants are not currently living in the fullness of God, and only deeper involvement in the church will allow them to live more in that fullness.
In a mainstream church with a controlling leader, such control techniques may be directed at targeted individuals or even at the entire congregation; but because the denomination is likely not to be abusive and extreme, abuse victims are more likely to doubt themselves than question the church’s leaders, who may use the denomination’s reputation as a cloak to hide behind. For instance, the priest-abuse scandal festered so long in part because many Catholics found it hard to believe that their bishops would allow such abuse to occur; consequently, they tended to doubt the allegations of victims and cause other victims to remain silent.
Individuals who leave less obviously abusive environments may walk around with wounds they don’t understand and for which they may not get help. They may even compare their experiences with those in extreme environments, and because their experiences don’t seem so extreme, they don’t recognize the similarities and thus cannot acknowledge just how pervasive the abuse they experienced was.
Unhealthy church environments induce feelings of shame. Persons are made to feel that somehow they are to blame for anything unhealthy that they may perceive or experience, thus shouldering blame for something that is not their fault. In The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen (1991) wrote that
People who have been spiritually abused tend to have a negative picture of self, or a shame-based identity ... Shame is an indictment on you as a person ... You feel shame even when you've done nothing wrong; you feel defective as a human being, and like a third-rate Christian undeserving of God's blessings and acceptance. (pp. 44–45)
The more elite a church is, the more likely that abuse can occur. When church leaders believe they and their church have exclusive knowledge of true Christianity in its doctrine and structure, or claim that others within Christianity are not as faithful, this attitude of elitism can be a breeding ground for other extreme forms of behavior. Especially telling is how guilty church leaders try to make an individual who is contemplating leaving feel. Leaders in healthy environments will recognize that some people need to move on in their spiritual journeys and will not try to manipulate them to stay. The more toxic the environment, the more manipulative and controlling church leaders may be, not leaving much room for those who do not wholeheartedly endorse the ideologies of the church.
In mainstream denominational churches, the effects of a domineering leader can often, although not always, be mitigated by the routines and rituals of the denomination. In many denominations, for instance, a pastor is appointed to a church for a set period of time, making it less likely that any particular church will become his or her own “kingdom.” Although mainstream churches don’t usually have the control over individuals that fringe churches or cults have, individuals unfortunately can experience harm even in these denominational churches because of the actions or attitudes of a particular pastor or other leader, and the hold that leader may have on their lives.
Counselors and clergy need to recognize and understand the underlying dynamics of spiritual abuse so that they can help people who seek out their help after having had such experiences. When these factors are not acknowledged, persons leaving a spiritually abusive situation may feel totally invalidated or, worse yet, further abused by the person from whom they are seeking support. In these cases, the counselor or clergy might not even be out to abuse them, but their lack of understanding can cause further harm. Thus, it is important to recognize the full scope of abuse that can occur in Bible-based environments so that more individuals can get the help they need, come to grips with what happened to them, and, if they so desire, continue on their spiritual journey.
 The General Social Survey (GSS) is a sociological survey created and regularly collected since 1972 by the research institute NORC (National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago. GSS results are freely made available to interested parties over the internet and are widely used in sociological research.
Burke, J. (2006). Antisocial personality disorder in cult leaders and induction of dependent personality disorder in cult members. Cultic Studies Review, 5(3), 390–410.
Goldberg, L. (2012). Influence of a charismatic antisocial cult leader: Psychotherapy with an ex-cultist prosecuted for criminal behavior. International Journal of Cultic Studies, 3, 15–24.
Johnson, D., & VanVonderen, J. (1991). The subtle power of spiritual abuse. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House.
Meerloo, J. (1956). The rape of the mind: The psychology of thought control, menticide, and brainwashing. Cleveland, OH/New York, NY: World Publishing Company.
Shaw, D. (2014). The relational system of the traumatizing narcissist. International Journal of Cultic Studies, 5, 4–11.
Sherlock, M. (2015). The church & hypnotic manipulation—Sunday morning hypnosis. Retrieved from https://michaelsherlockauthor.wordpress.com/2015/02/26/the-church-hypnotic-manipulation-sunday-morning-hypnosis/
Spiritual Abuse Resources (SAR). (n.d.). Definitional issues (para. 1). A program of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). Retrieved from http://www.spiritualabuseresources.com/spiritual-abuse-definition
Spiritual Abuse Resources (SAR). (n.d.). Spiritual Safe Haven Network. A program of the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). Retrieved from http://www.spiritualabuseresources.com/sshn
Stetzer, E. (2015, June 12). The rapid rise of nondenominational Christianity: My most recent piece at CNN. [The Exchange blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2015/june/rapid-rise-of-non-denominational-christianity-my-most-recen.html
Wingert, P. (2010, April 7). Priests commit no more abuse than other males. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/priests-commit-no-more-abuse-other-males-70625
About the Author
Maureen Griffo, MA, MEd, a former member of The Church of Bible Understanding and also several fringe churches, is Chair/Coordinator of reFOCUS, and also was one of four collaborators who established the Leo J. Ryan Education Foundation. Ms. Griffo moderated an online chat/support group for former members for many years. Currently she is spearheading the ICSA New York City Educational Initiative. She has begun a support group on spiritual abuse (Wounded Pilgrims), which meets the first Friday of each month (starting in November 2017) at St. Andrews Roman Catholic Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. She has a Master’s in Sociology with a focus on cultic practices, and also a Master’s in Education with a focus on special education. She works with children with severe emotional and developmental disabilities in New York City.