I don’t like writing this kind of post.
It’s so sad to me that we have to even describe what spiritual abuse looks like.
When I first started serving in vocational ministry I always messed up (or so I thought). So many times I thought I wasn’t submissive. I asked God to help me be a woman of grace in the midst of my independent ideas. I begged God to make me more meek, kind, and gentle.
Then I learned that what was happening was actually spiritual abuse. Is that even a thing? No … these people that know the Word of God better than me, that went to seminary or have God-blessed platforms wouldn’t be abusive.
Dismiss the idea. Keep working on me. I must be dying to self.
If you’ve gone through spiritual abuse from someone in authority over you (or even from a dominant friend) you may feel like you are all alone. You may wonder if you are crazy, being oversensitive, or making too much of the things that rub you wrong.
You may be the only person who sees or knows the truth. If you share it, no one may believe you. But it doesn’t make it any less true. You may endure persecution. You may lose friends or even credibility.
This is especially hard when it’s a high ranking leader. They seem amazing until they are exposed or you confront them. They try to make it your fault. Or shame you into thinking you are the one who is unhealthy. And you have no one to bring it to because they don’t have anyone over them. So they are allowed to continue deceiving people. And that is so hard to manage in your own thoughts and emotions.
In the course of 4 weeks I learned about 4 Christian leaders I knew personally … or have sat under their teaching … who have been exposed in various areas of misconduct. Two were men who were more than inappropriate with their female staff. Which is terrible in itself. But the common thread is that all of them were also bullies, controlling, and manipulative with people.
That is what spiritual abuse is. Control. Manipulation. Bullying. It may be physical as well, but I’m not going to address that in this particular post.
I have had to guard my mind lately too … At my core, I am a justice person. I want to defend my friends. I want to warn others. It’s so hard to be still and know He is God in these situations. But the best thing I can do is to give you a list of warning signs.
I want to highlight 25 signs of spiritual abuse so you know you are not alone. And after this list, I will share some brief tips on how to get through it all in a way that honors God, yourself, and others.
Signs of Spiritual Abuse
- Spiritually abusive leaders twist the truth to make themselves look better. And you end up questioning if you heard them correctly or were misinterpreting something.
- Spiritually abusive leaders demand respect instead of earning it.
- Spiritually abusive leaders betray your confidence and share your information with others.
- Spiritually abusive leaders say you need to give up your free time for Jesus’ sake. And shame you if you don’t agree.
- Spiritually abusive leaders don’t allow themselves to be held accountable or corrected. And bully anyone who disagrees.
- Spiritually abusive leaders avoid your request for conflict resolution but are quick to confront you. If you try to bring up things they are twisting, you are seen as unteachable or blameshifting.
- Spiritually abusive leaders make you feel you can’t change churches or you’ll miss what God has for you.
- Spiritually abusive leaders demand their way over your free will. And scare you with threats to your reputation if you don’t comply. Or shame you by bringing up your past failures.
- Spiritually abusive leaders demand to be served instead of serve.
- Spiritually abusive leaders silence their critics by making them the bad guy.
- Spiritually abusive leaders don’t give you credit for your ideas and successes but take the credit for themselves.
- Spiritually abusive leaders bully, shame, or tease you into breaking your communicated boundaries.
- Spiritually abusive leaders dismiss you when you no longer serve their needs.
- Spiritually abusive leaders accuse you of stealing their message when you grow beyond them.
- Spiritually abusive leaders gaslight you into thinking you are crazy.
- Spiritually abusive leaders can’t admit fault but use the knowledge of other’s fault to cause fear and intimidation.
- Spiritually abusive leaders have their minions do their dirty work and isolate, intimidate, or manipulate those who don’t comply.
- Spiritually abusive leaders surround themselves with the elite and don’t interact with the sheep.
- Spiritually abusive leaders use their charisma to create a cult-like following that would defend them when they are questioned.
- Spiritually abusive leaders create a culture of a popular inner circle. If someone raises a concern they are put out of the clique and other inner circle people are afraid to speak up.
- Spiritually abusive leaders surround themselves with only people who praise them, fear them, or submit to them.
- Spiritually abusive leaders convince people they can’t understand the deep things of God and need their help.
- Spiritually abusive leaders don’t help you overcome sin in your life but discard you if you make them look like a bad leader.
- Spiritually abusive “leaders and churches view those who bring up legitimate issues as enemies. Those who were once friends/allies swiftly become enemies once a concern is raised. Sometimes these folks are banished, told to be silent, or shamed into submission.” Mary DeMuth
- Spiritually abusive leaders lie without a conscience. They see their platform as worth protecting for the sake of the gospel.
What to do if you are under spiritual abuse
My advice to those who have been seeking my counsel would fill a book. But here are a few brief things I would like to say to those who are facing these kinds of trials. I truly believe that love will win. And spiritually abusive leaders will ALWAYS be exposed – eventually.
Ask God. In some instances, it’s clear that you need to leave. In cases of sexual abuse, you need to go to the authorities. I have heard of way too many cases where criminal activity was covered up by churches and you need to know it’s ok to leave. Other than that, you need to make sure you are following the right way to confront an issue according to Matthew 18. Let God show you what He sees. Find out what is your responsibility and what isn’t.
Seek wise counsel. If you’re on the staff of a church it can be a different scenario and much more complicated. So seek wise counsel. Even with spiritual abuse, there is a right way to handle it and the wrong way. You want to be sure you are in a good place in your heart so you can approach even the spiritually abusive person in love. I’d offer one word of warning … depending on what level of abuse it is … they may not be safe to confront alone or at all.
Move on well. If you choose to leave the situation or church remember those who don’t believe you or are still supporting the abusive person aren’t those you are called to walk with anyway. End well by not gossiping or sharing your pain with those who may stay. It will only bring more division to the body. Give people who don’t understand what you went through the grace to be where God’s called them to be.
Find your inner peace. The truth always comes out. Guard your mind and don’t let it take up space anymore. Guard your words and speak the truth with humility, grace, and mercy. Give God every reason to defend you. Think upon things that are lovely and good (Phil 4). You will become what you think about so use your thoughts wisely. Don’t let bitterness take over. Forgive and find peace.
Pray for them. Remember it may not be known to the masses yet because God is still giving them time to repent. Be like Stephen and pray for those who are stoning you – they may end up converting like Saul who became the awsome Apostle Paul. And at some point – it’s ok to not pray for them at all. There is no need to stayed emotionally tied to a place God released you from.
Don’t feel bad. Be prepared that they may not repent or change … and if they are exposed … it’s not your fault. Their choices put them in that position. Not you. Even if you feel like you should’ve done more, remember God wants you to manage you. He isn’t in a pickle because you weren’t strong enough to stand up to the abuse. Because … when it comes as a surprise … no one is strong enough.
If you think you are under a spiritually abusive authority, find someone experienced to talk to. Often times confronting that person will not make it better right away and you need a strategy. You need to decide if it’s worth confronting or not. If you confront it you need to be prepared for their response. If you decide to walk away you still need to be prepared for their response. Having someone help you walk through it will benefit you in more ways than you can imagine right now.
Mary DeMuth wrote a great post about spotting spiritual abuse too. I’d recommend you go there to find some resources for healing from spiritual abuse.
You may also want to read these other posts to help you or someone you know: To the Bystanders of #MeToo or My Untold Story of #ChurchToo. Or listen to this podcast on how to Love Well.
And if you need help making some decisions about your next steps or want some Freedom Coaching®, please feel free to send me an email.
In the meantime, I’m praying for every person that finds this post. May God give you the grace to find freedom from spiritual abuse.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on jillmonaco.com.
Featured Image by Aaron Burden