the Hope of Survivors

Spiritual Abuse and How It Can Lead to Other Abuses Like Clergy Sexual Abuse—Barb Orlowski, D.Min.

Spiritual AbuseIntroduction

When looking at spiritual abuse, you often find that there is relationship with other abuses—spiritual, physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual. Where you find at least one abuse on the surface, you frequently find all the rest lurking nearby.  

This article briefly looks at how spiritual abuse specifically ties in with some of these other forms of abuse.  In order to understand the relationship with other abuses we must first define what spiritual abuse is. Here is my brief definition: 

“Spiritual abuse involves using one’s spiritual authority inappropriately and thereby violating the sacred trust of a spiritual shepherd.”

“The misuse of ecclesiastical power to control and manipulate congregants, ultimately results in damage.” 

It is, therefore, imperative to understand what spiritual abuse is in order to make an appropriate assessment.  

Brief Facts About Spiritual Abuse

1. What are some Faulty Perceptions about spiritual abuse and why people leave their home church? 

Misperception 1. Isn’t spiritual abuse what happens to people in cult groups? If people get caught up in groups that don’t preach the Gospel clearly, then they are bound to get sucked into a faulty belief system and experience being spiritually abused. That’s to be expected. 

Misperception 2. It is widely felt that people who leave church must be ‘backsliding’ or just too busy for God. People who enjoy attending church find it hard to grasp that there are valid reasons why people have faced the inevitable decision to leave their home church. 

Misperception 3. Some people think that it is a perception problem—meaning that vulnerable people seem to perceive that they have been spiritually abused. Besides, there is too much being made out of the term abuse today anyway.  It is just a matter of perception, they conclude—after some minor incident that has happened in the church. It could just be a matter of communication or it may simply be a personality conflict with a leader, or whatever. 

A Better Response. It is important to be diligent in trying to help church leaders and congregants to understand some of the valid reasons why people have made the decision to leave their home church. 

2. How prevalent is spiritual abuse? 

There are numerous incidences of spiritual abuse happening in Christian churches today—maybe more than most church or denominational leaders would like to admit. Since many people think that spiritual abuse is only found in cults or cult-like groups, it is a shocking reality to be informed that:  spiritual abuse can be found in many Bible-believing churches with orthodox doctrinal statements. It is, therefore, not so much what people believe, but how they practice what they believe that is the issue. 

More Christians are beginning to recognize the harmful effects of this leadership behavior on individuals, couples, and families. 

Ronald Enroth concludes that:  

“It [spiritual abuse] is far more prevalent and much closer to the evangelical mainstream than many are willing to admit.” 

From the number of websites that have developed that directly address spiritual abuse and sites that include specific articles on this topic, it adds up to a host of people who are trying to draw this occurrence to the attention of church leaders and congregants in mainstream Christianity. 

Furthermore, confidential family counselors are engaged by those wounded, in order to help them to process the feelings of loss and devastation. Caring pastors are sought out to provide comfort and support to those bruised by church leaders. Researchers are faced with the mounting statistics related to this dysfunctional issue in the church. Yes, these observations point to the fact that:  

Spiritual abuse needs to come to the CENTER of clergy and congregant attention. 

3. Why don’t we hear much about spiritual abuse?  

If it is supposed that it is the individual or a couple who ARE the PROBLEM, then this matter can be dealt with privately, behind closed doors. The individual takes the brunt of the situation, but the church leadership is never called into question and is seldom held accountable in any way. The organization and its leadership are rarely included as a factor that might need to be considered in these concealed situations. 

Many times, others in their church have no clue what has just happened or why these members are no longer attending. When a tale is spun about the cause of the situation being some kind of sin (that no one talks about) and church members are warned not to associate with these people, then the issue cannot be discerned as being spiritual abuse, but is considered a matter of ‘church discipline’—though very little information seems to be available. The facts are hidden from view and the situation is now considered dealt with.  

After an individual or couple have experienced harsh treatment by their clergy, they are usually so devastated that they can hardly grasp what exactly has happened to them.  Their usual posture is to go into seclusion and to try to process the extreme grief and confusion that they are experiencing. Little support seems to be available to congregants by denominational overseers. Overseers tend to favor church leaders, while those wounded in the church are left to suffer in silence without any hope of remedy. 

Linking Other Abuses

Many have factored in the obvious connection of spiritual abuse with other abuses. The reason behind the direct linkage of various abuses is related to the thinking patterns of certain groups and specifically the church leadership in groups that call themselves Christian. In church cultures where shame and silence are upheld, women particularly, especially younger women, are the most vulnerable to abuse of various kinds. These abuses include:  verbal, emotional, physical, spiritual abuse, child sexual abuse, sexual abuse, and clergy sexual abuse. 

People’s theology, that is, their belief system, shapes their behavior. How church leaders and congregants view church leadership affects their expectations of leaders. Where there is a feeling of entitlement among leadership, because of position, there may arise opportunities for unscrupulous leaders to take advantage of people by their spiritual leadership position and followers are harmed.  

In contexts where patriarchy is valued or where certain aberrant teachings abound, spiritual abuse is evident.  

When a culture puts greater value on males, as being:  

Central, Superior, and Deserving, 

the converse is that females are of lesser value in that society:  

Peripheral, Inferior, and Servants. 

In patriarchy, men are viewed as divinely mandated or authorized to hold power over women and children. So, a misuse of position in this case is actually spiritual abuse. This kind of bullying, by hiding behind spiritual authority, can occur in homes, churches, and ministries—wherever God is brought into the picture (rightly or wrongly) as the source of the leadership authority. Thus, to go against the man in authority is to go against God Himself. This faulty perception of entitlement can be used to manipulate and even beguile the unwary. 

 In thinking about spiritual abuse and the connection with other abuses, the word ‘violation’ comes to mind. Something has been violated in each of these cases. In fact, a number of things have been violated:  violation of trust, violation of the person’s dignity, a violation of the image of God, a violation of personal value and expected care for the individual, and so forth. Something that is sacred has been treated with a gross lack of respect. The person’s body, mind, and spirit have been violated and defiled by abuse. 

Just as spiritual abuse is usually ‘dealt with’ behind closed doors, so also in some churches, when domestic violence, sexual abuse, child sexual abuse, or clergy sexual abuse is identified by congregants as happening in the church, the first response is to keep these issues quiet. Whoever has brought the information forward is now marked and is usually cautioned not to divulge these facts to anyone. Certain churches feel that they have a right to deal with human sin in-house and are not obligated to alert local authorities, though this is the law. 

As stated above, spiritual abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, and sexual abuses are repeatedly treated the same way: “The individual takes the brunt of the situation, but the church leadership is never called into question and is seldom held accountable in any way. The church organization and its leadership are rarely included as a factor that might need to be considered in these concealed situations.” 


It is extremely grievous that these forms of abuse are linked and are found in the Christian church today. You would think that after all that the Church has learned from the Scriptures about living a godly and healthy spiritual life and being in a spiritual fellowship with others, that there would be robust spiritual life that would be manifested in a healthy approach to all of life. Evidence of the reign of God should be found among the people of God. This, unfortunately, is not always the case.  

There is much injury that has been done in the name of the Church and scores of God’s people have been severely harmed. Since abuse is kept hidden, abuse can thrive. It is when flawed beliefs and abusive practices have been identified and exposed that there is some hope that this scourge on the Christian Church will be remedied. It will take every serious Christian to make a difference by raising the awareness about these issues and dealing in sensible ways with those who have been harmed. 

Barb Orlowski is a Canadian who lives in Langley, B. C., Canada. Barb’s doctoral research was published in a book called: Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Dynamic Research on Finding a Place of Wholeness. As a researcher on the topic, Barb spends her time networking and ministering on the topics of spiritual abuse and recovery and biblical gender equality.

The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18