by A. Slack – Article / Jan – March 2017

I recently became alarmed at the frequency at which I run into people experiencing a frustration with Church in some cases resulting in a withdrawal from communal worship. We all know that there is no such thing as the perfect Church because it is made up of imperfect people, but what I am about to discuss is a genuine phenomena called, Spiritual Abuse.

The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen: provides many case studies. The data has been methodically collated over twenty years of research by these two respected and established Christian psychologists. Resultantly, many people have borrowed the definition of the term Spiritual Abuse. Having read this book, I did wider reading only to realise, that the problem is deepening and widening. Subsequently, there are now help groups that specialise in restoring and healing people who have exited Church due to Spiritual Abuse.

The Research is showing that  this phenomena called Spiritual Abuse, is leaving many Christians with  emotional scars and some with mental breakdown. Their documented mental agony are a testament against this false regime called the contemporary Church of Jesus Christ, that is not built on the Biblical model laid down by the Lord Jesus Christ and the apostles. With a view to understanding this problem firstly, let’s look at how some authors define, Spiritual Abuse.

Definitions for Spiritual Abuse

According to ‘The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse’, by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen:

“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.”

These two authors go on to refine this definition:

“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 well-being. In this application, power is used to bolster the position or needs of a leader over and above one who comes to them in need.”

Examples of Spiritual Abuse

Ronald Enroth defines spiritual and pastoral abuse this way:

“Spiritual abuse takes place when leaders to whom people look for guidance and spiritual nurture use their positions of authority to manipulate, control, and dominate.”

In the book ‘Healing Spiritual Abuse’, Ken Blue compares other types of abuse with spiritual abuse:

“Abuse of any type occurs when someone has power over another and uses that power to hurt. Physical abuse means that someone exercies physical power over another, causing physical wounds. Sexual abuse means that someone exercises sexual power over another, resulting in sexual wounds. And spiritual abuse happens when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds.”

Spiritual abuse can also occur when spirituality is used to compel others to live up to a “spiritual standard.” This promotes external “spiritual performance,” also without regard to an individual’s actual well-being, or is used as a means of proving a person’s spirituality.

“Spiritual abuse is always a power issue. In order for abuse to happen, by definition, it has to come from a place of higher power to a place of lesser power. People in low-power positions can’t abuse people in high- power.”

How to Assess the Signs of an Abusive Church

It is imperative to understand what spiritual abuse is in order to make an appropriate assessment. Ronald Enroth does not want people to make a mistake in judgment, but to be aware that:

“Whatever label we apply, spiritual abuse is an issue the Christian community must acknowledge and confront. It is far more prevalent and much closer to the evangelical mainstream than many are willing to admit.”

In his bookChurches that Abuse’, evangelical sociologist Ronald M. Enroth points out Five Warning Signs:

  1. Abusive churches…are first and foremost characterized by strong, control- oriented leadership.
  2. These leaders use guilt, fear, and intimidation to manipulate members and keep them in line.
  3. Followers are led to think that there is no other church quite like theirs and that God has singled them out for special purposes. Other more traditional evangelical churches are put down.
  4. Subjective experience is emphasized and dissent is discouraged. Many areas of members’ lives are subject to scrutiny.
  5. Rules and legalism abound. For those who leave, the road back to normalcy is difficult.

Enroth also writes, “All that is needed for abuse is a pastor accountable to no one and therefore beyond confrontation.” The problem with most cases of spiritual abuse in Christian Churches is that so many abusive Christians have wrapped themselves in a robe of holiness and a cloak of righteousness. Therefore, they believe themselves to be beyond confrontation. What they think, God thinks. To disagree with them is to disagree with God. All they are doing, after all, is living by God’s Holy Word, but are they? Enroth says, “The pursuit of righteousness ennobles a person; the belief that one is righteous depraves him.” Thus, how do we protect the people of God from the tyranny of the righteous and the despotism of the saints? How do we protect people in the church from the toxic influences of those who are intoxicated with righteousness?”

Abusive Church leaders in abusive Churches are into power and control. Enroth writes, “The spiritual autocrat, the religious dictator, attempts to compel subordination; the true Christian leader can legitimately only elicit followership.” Within a Church context a legitimate leader promotes cooperation among Church members, not dominate-submissive relationships. Legitimate Church leaders have leadership rooted in trust. Enroth points out that legitimate Christian leaders lead with an entrusted authority.


John Wesley spoke of sin in terms of overreach. We sin when we overreach. The sin is not in wanting to live a holy life. The sin is putting down other people in the pursuit of one’s personal holiness. The sin is not in wanting to win the lost for Jesus. The sin is sacrificing any consideration of respect, limits, boundaries, and propriety in winning the lost for Jesus. The aims of those who abuse others in the name of Jesus may in fact be good aims. However, in striving to fulfill those aims, abusive Christians overreach and disregard other important and significant matters pertaining to the gospel.

In one sense, it needs to be recognized that there are many in Christian churches and ministries who may in fact be subjectively sincere, even while they are objectively abusive. Most of the time abusive people will change when lovingly confronted with the effects of their abuse. Here, of course, lies the responsibility of the Christian community. We need to lovingly confront those who may in fact be sincere in their Christian faith, and yet who are, nonetheless, abusive. We must not confuse Christian love with what is really in essence abuse. At times, intending to do good, Christians end up doing great harm. Christians need to recognize the harm we often inflict upon others, even when we are seeking to do the greatest good of all, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. The great challenge for Christians is to observe that ancient dictum: “In doing good, do no harm.” (Major Scott Nicloy)

If these definitions describe the situation in your church and among your church leadership, and you can be sure that this accurately describes your experience then seek help. See further reading for support groups online.

Further Reading for online readers