“When people first attend a church and then continue to attend, it is usually because of some very positive things– the services, the people, the music, the message, the fellowship, or the atmosphere. Whatever it is, there is some positive element that makes people return and in time invest themselves in a church.
How shocking and unexpected it is when aspects of spiritual mistreatment or abuse then come into view! Spiritual abuse occurs when a person in a position of spiritual authority misuses his or her position. Instead of serving those being led and directing them towards God, they are used for some other end. This can include a wide variety of behaviors, from harshness to outright mistreatment, from subtly controlling everything to the advancement of an agenda of the leader or the leader’s personal prestige without regard for the well-being of the individual.
People in a church environment have a reasonable expectation that leadership will point them to God and what is right in his eyes, not to take their honest desire to serve God and exploit it to bolster the power or control of the leader or the church system and leave them empty.
Other authors have defined spiritual abuse in these ways:
Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment, with the result of weakening, undermining or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment. That’s a broad view. Let’s refine that with some functional definitions. Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being. … Power is used to bolster the position or needs of a leader, over and above one who comes to them in need. (The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen, 20-21; italics in original)
Spiritual abuse happens when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds. (Healing Spiritual Abuse, Ken Blue, p. 12)
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’ (Matthew 23:1-7)
This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down. (2 Corinthians 13:10)
Further, it is important to note that spiritual abuse can happen with or without the intent to cause harm. It is the end result that matters.
Beyond the basic characteristics, there are some very real dynamics about spiritual abuse that need to be candidly discussed. I write of these, unfortunately, from personal experience.”