Question: “What is spiritual abuse?”
Answer: To “abuse” is to use something or someone to bad effect or for a bad purpose, especially regularly or repeatedly. Spiritual abuse happens when a spiritual authority, such as a cult leader or abusive pastor, seeks to control individuals and ensure obedience. Spiritual abuse is closely associated with spiritual manipulation and is not God’s plan for promoting spiritual growth.
A spiritually abusive group might claim that they are God’s sole channel of communication and that they alone can rightly interpret God’s Word. They might claim that salvation depends upon belonging to their church and that, since God speaks through them alone, there can be no further discussion on what the leaders say. Or the leaders might point to God’s blessing on their work—proved by increased baptisms, perhaps—and push members to contribute more generously to their expansion programs. Pushing for more money, promising that God will repay, and piling on guilt can be signs of covert abuse.
Abusive groups also place great emphasis on performance-related works—attending every meeting; volunteering to help at local, regional, and national events; and devoting required minimum amounts of time to proselytizing. Members are constantly reminded that the end of this wicked system of things is imminent and so there is very little time left to spread the “good news.” Everyone must do more in the advancement of “God’s work.” The dedication of each member is tracked and measured by the amount of time, effort, and money he or she gives to the cause. If an individual’s efforts begin to slip below expectations, it will be noticed.
Spiritual abuse can occur when church or cult leaders misuse Scripture to bolster their own authority and keep their members under their thumb. For example, a spiritual authority may use Hebrews 13:17 (“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority”) to demand blind loyalty and unthinking obedience. A leader might say, “God has given me authority over you; thus, to disobey me is to disobey God.” If members grow uneasy and think about leaving, all the leader has to do is say, “If you leave this group, you will never go to heaven, because only we have the truth.” This type of manipulation is appalling, but it occurs more often than one might think. Our loyalty is due Christ, the Head of the church (Ephesians 1:22), not a particular organization, church, or leader.
Cults and abusive churches pre-emptively insulate members from any information critical of the group. Members are taught early on to be skeptical of any negative report about the group and that the biased media only lies about them. These “lies” are identified as a form of persecution, which “proves” they must be the one true religion. So, for example, if journalists report on leaders who have been found guilty of child abuse, the organization simply tells its members they cannot believe anything the newspapers say about them—it’s all lies and smears. If simple denial doesn’t work, they move on to rationalization and wishful thinking. Spiritually abusive leaders can become so adept at thought and information control that those under their sway will actually defend their new identity over their former identity.
The more committed to the abusive church a person becomes, the more isolated he becomes from non-members, and the more he fears punishment if he tries to leave. Some people, after a lifetime of emotional investment in a religious group, simply do not know how they could survive if they left. They have no friends other than their fellow church members. They may have cut off contact with family members. They probably have no interests (social or intellectual) outside of their group. Such is their fear of being ostracized that many stay put, keeping their misgivings to themselves.
Jonestown survivor Deborah Layton wrote, “When our own thoughts are forbidden, when our questions are not allowed and our doubts are punished, when contacts and friendships outside of the organization are censored, we are being abused for an end that never justifies its means. When our heart aches knowing we have made friendships and secret attachments that will be forever forbidden if we leave, we are in danger. When we consider staying in a group because we cannot bear the loss, disappointment and sorrow our leaving will cause for ourselves and those we have come to love, we are in a cult” (Seductive Poison. New York: Anchor Books, 1998, page 299).
Peter warned us that “there will be false teachers among you” (2 Peter 2:1). As he described these false teachers, Peter points to their propensity to abuse their followers: “In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories” (verse 3), or as the KJV puts it, “They [shall] with feigned words make merchandise of you.” Those who would attempt to use the Word of God to take advantage of the church are greedy liars, and they will bring divine retribution upon themselves: “Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping” (verse 3).
Jesus’ yoke is easy, and His burden is light (Matthew 11:30). Those who claim to speak for Jesus today should not be placing heavier burdens on people than Jesus would.
A pastor is to be a shepherd. Shepherds who abuse the flock can expect severe punishment when the Lord returns: “He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers. . . . From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:46–48). With privilege comes responsibility, and those spiritual wolves who abuse their authority will have to answer to God for the harm they have done.
Question: “What is spiritual manipulation?”
Answer: To manipulate is to negotiate, control or influence for one’s own advantage. Spiritual manipulation is a technique used by some abusive churches and cults to control individuals and acquire gain, all the while giving the impression that their teachings are based on the Bible.
Some religious groups take Scriptures out of context in order to support their beliefs. They isolate “proof texts” and “cherry pick” verses to persuade the uninformed that their interpretation is right, even to the extent of claiming they alone have “the truth” and everybody else is wrong. Some have even altered the Bible and produced their own translation to support their religious bias.
Some denominations use scholastic dishonesty to manipulate. They will use partial quotations from first-century Christians and eminent Bible scholars in suggesting that they agree with their views. Take, as an example, the booklet “Should You Believe in the Trinity?,” published by the Watchtower Society. Page 7 includes a partial quote from Justin Martyr: “Justin Martyr, who died about 165 C.E., called the prehuman Jesus a created angel who is ‘other than the God who made all things.’ He said that Jesus was inferior to God and ‘never did anything except what the Creator . . . willed him to do and say.’” What’s missing from this partial quotation is significant. Justin Martyr said that the “Son, who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God.” Nowhere did Justin Martyr say the pre-human Jesus was a created angel.
Some individuals manipulate Scripture for their own personal benefit. An authoritarian husband might demand that his wife submit to him as the head of the house and quote Ephesians 5:22 (“Wives, submit to your husbands”). But that same man might purposefully overlook verse 26, which says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Instead of taking the bits of Scripture he approves of and using them to lord it over his family, he would do well to read 1 Corinthians 13 and practice the type of love that is patient, kind, protects, trust and perseveres, etc.
During a conversation between Christians, someone might say, “The Lord has told me that. . . .” This phrase essentially shuts down the conversation because it implies that, since God has spoken a word, there can’t be any further discussion. Don’t be fooled by this trick; it is a form of spiritual manipulation. Or a preacher says, “Sow into my ministry, and God will repay you. Sow, and you will reap! God is no man’s debtor.” Could such preaching simply be an exploitive appeal for money? Is the preacher trying to influence people for his own financial advantage? If so, it is spiritual manipulation.
Another form of spiritual manipulation occurs when abusive churches and cults twist Scripture to give more authority to the leadership and keep the members under their control. One example is the use of Hebrews 13:17as a basis for demanding unquestioning loyalty and obedience to the leaders. Some religious groups view questioning the leaders as tantamount to questioning God. Some leaders claim to have divine authority and approval; thus, to disobey them is to disobey God. This is perhaps the most pernicious form of spiritual manipulation, and it has no place in a true church.
Victims of spiritual manipulation seldom realize what’s happening to them. Here are some indicators of a spiritually manipulative church:
Demands for obedience
Punishment (loss of privileges, shunning or expulsion)
Emphasis on performance
Exclusivism (“we alone are right, and everybody else is wrong”)
Isolation (refusal to associate with anyone but spiritual brothers and sisters)
Humiliation of the “disobedient”
Abusive churches train members to block out any information that is critical of the group. With enough thought and information control, the leaders can get those under their control to defend their new identity against their former identity. The first line of defense is denial – “What you say isn’t happening at all.” Next comes rationalization – “This is happening for a good reason.” After that, justification – “This is happening because it ought to.” Finally, wishful thinking – “I’d like it to be true, so maybe it really is.”
A characteristic of spiritually abusive systems is that a misplaced sense of loyalty is fostered and even demanded. This is not about loyalty to Christ, but about loyalty to an organization, church or leader. Because authority is assumed or legislated, following that authority must also be legislated. This is accomplished by setting up a system where disloyalty or disagreement with the leadership is construed as disobeying God. Questioning leaders is not allowed. After all, the leader is the authority, and authority is always right. Such spiritual manipulation denies the truth of Ephesians 1:22, which says that Christ is the Head of the church. Our loyalty is due Him.
All Christians need to be alert to spiritual manipulation and follow this example from Acts 17:11: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Did the apostle Paul take offense when the Bereans researched to ensure that his preaching was based on Scripture? Of course not, because Paul knew his preaching would stand up under exhaustive scrutiny. Likewise with all teaching and preaching – we must hold it up to the light of God’s Word before we accept it. Any religious group that prevents its members from doing independent research, or from challenging what the leadership says, must have something to fear.
Jesus told His disciples they would be like sheep among wolves and instructed them to be “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). The Master’s yoke is easy, and His burden is light. He gives us rest and is gentle and humble in heart (Matthew 11:28-29). That is the Christlike example all who shepherd Jesus’ flock must exemplify.