What is Spiritual Abuse?

What is Spiritual Abuse?

Spiritual abuse has been defined in a somewhat nebulous way. The term has been (over)used to cover any abuse that happens within the parameters of a church or ministry. Thus Christians tend to be defensive when spiritual abuse is mentioned.

Abuse, by definition is:

  • to use wrongly or improperly; misuse
  • to treat in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way
  • to speak insultingly, harshly, and unjustly to or about; revile; malign
  • to commit sexual assault upon.

That is four different sides of the same word. To put it in a less textbook way… Abuse is harm or threatened harm by a caregiver or someone in authority. Harm could be of a physical, emotional, sexual or spiritual nature and usually abuse is delineated into one of those four categories.

How does Spiritual Abuse differ from other forms of abuse?

When I wrote our assembly’s Child Safety Policy, offense was taken when I included the term “spiritual” under the categories of abuse. I was challenged in my usage and my definition. My response at the time was weak, but I still stand by the decision to include the term and to protect our children and all the sheep, young and old, from spiritual abuse.

The term “spiritual abuse” has been overused in our pointing out the faults of the church culture. But some things that are called spiritual abuse, are in fact other forms of abuse. As abuse, they are despicable. But, for the sake of argument, they are muddying the waters.

  • When a male or female is molested by a pastor, elder, or other person in the church or at a church function, this is abuse. It is sexual abuse.
  • When a church member uses Scripture as a basis to beat their children, this is abuse. It is physical abuse.
  • When a Christian (usually) woman reams out another about her lousy casserole for potluck, this is abuse. Emotional, verbal abuse.

These are all examples of abuse that have happened under the auspices of a church or ministry, but they are not spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is when the sheep are being harassed-verbally or emotionally-under the guise of spiritual growth or in the garb of spiritual terminology.

Spiritual abuse is the misuse of spiritual authority. But spiritual abuse can be perpetrated by anyone in the church-whether a leader or not. It’s the actions that are the abuse. Anyone can be spiritually abusive.

What Might Spiritual Abuse Look Like?

Not every negative happening in the church is spiritual abuse. The church is made up of sinners. We sin. We make mistakes. How do we discern if spiritual abuse is happening on our watch? Spiritual abuse MAY be happening….

  • If people feel free to publicly rebuke someone before ever trying to deal with the situation in private.
    • “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
  • If public confession is being required for private, previously repented of, sin.
    • The “but” of Matthew 18 represents a contrast. Confession, repentance, restoration-or not. Matthew 18 then lists the steps to take. If a brother (sister) repents between the two of you, the matter should not go any further. Not to the elders. Not before the church.
  • If extremely hurtful behavior is being excused because God used it for good. The truth is, God does use all things for good. But, refusing to deal with sin and hurtful behavior on that basis is lazy and wrong.
    • Isaiah talks about how God used Assyria as His tool to punish Israel for their wickedness. But Isaiah also shares how God punished Assyria for their cruelty and wickedness while the tool. The end does NOT justify the means. Each of us are answerable to God for our own actions. The goodness of God leads to repentance. (Romans 2:4) Not the browbeating and shaming of men.
  • If penance is being required before restoration is complete. Of course, we’d never call it penance, but if the shoe fits… Here’s what Paul says about a horrendous sin problem in the Corinthian church.
    • It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?(1 Corinthians 5:1-2). But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. (1 Corinthians 11:28). Essentially the two options are:
      • to examine, confess, repent and partake.
      • Or refuse to repent, and be put out of fellowship.
    • There isn’t the option of confessing sin, and then being made to abstain from communion for an undetermined amount of time. What is the purpose of that? To make the person pay for their sins? Ponder their wickedness? To assure us the repentance has stuck?
  • If Christians are haranguing against other denominations.
    • Truth needs presented in a balance of humility and confidence. But Christianity is not a debate and we don’t win the argument by poking holes in the false. Share the truth of Christ and the love of Christ, and let the false bear its own burden of proof.
  • If the sheep feel harassed and helpless and the thought of attending church fills them with anxiety and dread.
    • This is not Biblical. David talks regularly of the joy he had in worshiping the Lord, with the Lords people, in the Lord’s house.

These scenarios all point to some major problems. The sad thing is that these behaviors are all too often a part of normal church life. These problems will happen if the shepherds are not exercising their authority at all or in the proper way. A main shepherding role is to protect the sheep.

It is not a coincidence that these abuse prevention policies are often known as safety policies. Because if shepherds are doing their job right, the sheep are safe. They are protected. They feel secure. And they don’t leave the church en masse.

What is the remedy?

We need to pray. We need to ask God to open our eyes to see what should be seen. We should not over-react, but not ignore either. We need to be willing to see.

Bernadette Veenstra


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    In reading this, I’m reminded of the reaction a public figure had after watching a biographical film about their life. When asked about the film’s accuracy, the public figure responded that it was “accurate enough to make me squirm”. I echo those sentiments on behalf of those who have experienced spiritual abuse. Our experiences may differ slightly in the details but the common theme remains. Bravo, Bernadette.


    • Barefoot Hippie Girl

      Thanks. It was one of those really vulnerable posts. I was a bit sweaty palmed when I knew it was published. But, it is a very real problem and we need to be honest about it. That is the only God-honoring reaction.


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    As I was reading this article, I was wondering if I was going to find something that I’ve either been guilty of or am currently partaking in. When I came to the point that pretty much emphasizes the tearing down and criticisms of other denominations. This was something I never got into until I actually starting going to church. Sadly, I think this a bad habit, dare I say sin, that we all have. In reality, what we’re guilty of is tearing down THE Church, not just a specific particular denominational church. God help me, and others who continue in this. But indeed, we are to allow the Lord to root out the false, and shine the Truth.


  3. Avatar

    Spare the rod and spoil the child. Is this a last resort way to correct a child’s path. In love. What sayeth the scriptures


  4. Avatar

    I think I have seen much spiritual abuse over the years in local assemblies, often using “scare tactics” to keep people from leaving the assembly by tearing down and insulting (in a spiritual way of course) those who have left, and by tearing down other denominations. I actually didn’t believe anyone was saved outside of the assemblies until I was in my mid to late teens. Also, people would often go along with outright wrong teaching (about Christian dress, or music) just because it was taught by a more knowledgeable aggressive teacher. I too have been guilty of these things, and love that this was so well written. Helps me to see more clearly where I may be commiting the same sins in different ways. Thank you.


    • Bernadette Veenstra

      Bernadette Veenstra

      Sometimes the only recourse is to leave. It is not fun. It is harder than you’d ever imagine. But, sometimes you have to leave and find a gathering that is more healthy. Where people are growing in the Lord, without harassment from the shepherds.


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