What Is The Definition Of Spiritual Abuse

Churches and other places of worship should be places where adults and children can grow spiritually, emotionally, and relationally in a safe and healthy atmosphere. Many houses of worship are generally healthy and beneficial environments. Cultures in places of worship, on the other hand, can be unhealthy at times. Individuals may be harmed or damaged as a result. Child sexual abuse has gotten a lot of attention, and deservedly so.

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Adults at danger of harm have been the focus of attention in faith-based settings in recent years. The qualities of a healthy place of worship, on the other hand, as well as the psychological and emotional abuse that can occur in faith-based settings, have not been investigated. Similarly, there has been relatively little research into how to help people who have been harmed by unpleasant or abusive experiences in places of worship or faith communities. This Practice Guide begins to answer some of the most pressing questions about'spiritual abuse,' as it is increasingly referred called.

What is spiritual abuse?

When we talk about unhealthy contexts or cultures, as well as unhelpful and detrimental psychological and emotional behavior, one of the biggest issues is figuring out exactly what we're talking about. The principal recognized forms of abuse have different government definitions in each of the four UK nations. However, there is currently no universally accepted definition. Only in the last 15 to 20 years has the phrase “spiritual abuse” been used to characterize the behavior described above. It's understandable that it's frequently misconstrued.

“Coercion and control of one individual by another in a spiritual setting” is how spiritual abuse is characterized. Spiritual abuse is experienced by the target as a deeply emotional personal attack. Manipulation and exploitation, censorship of decision-making, demands for secrecy and silence, pressure to conform, misuse of scripture or using the pulpit to control behavior, requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine' position, isolation from others, especially those outside the abusive context” (Oakley & Kinmond, 2013, p21 in Oakley & Kinmond, 2013).

To begin, it's crucial to understand that spiritual abuse is a type of psychological and emotional abuse that occurs in a religious setting. Sufferers are thus subjected to control, coercion, and pressure at churches and houses of worship. It's crucial to remember that there's no proof that its proponents are out to cause harm to others. Instead, dominating and unhelpful behaviors may emerge unintentionally, and once established, the pattern will persist.

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However, as with other forms of abuse, other forms of abuse (such as sexual or physical abuse or neglect) may coexist with spiritual abuse; in some cases, symptoms of these other forms of abuse are the first to draw attention to wider spiritually destructive behaviors. The book ‘Breaking the Silence on Spiritual Abuse' provides a lot of the information in this Help! pamphlet.

What are the key characteristics of spiritual abuse?

So, how does spiritual abuse manifest itself? This is a challenging question to answer. It may be helpful to remember the acronym BADIS (Oakley & Kinmond, 2013), which enumerates the important characteristics (some or all of which may be present):

In an unhealthy environment, there is likely to be a lot of censorship. Any issues or problems that people recognize may be attributed on them. They frequently discover that they are unable to raise concerns or ask inquiries without being accused of endangering unity or causing disruption. Those who are in an unhealthy environment are often pressured to remain silent and not voice issues. Guide to Practicing “Coercion and control of one individual by another in a spiritual setting” is how spiritual abuse is characterized. Spiritual abuse is experienced by the target as a deeply emotional personal attack. Manipulation and exploitation, censorship of decision-making, demands for secrecy and silence, pressure to conform, misuse of scripture or using the pulpit to control behavior, requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine' position, isolation from others, especially those outside the abusive context” (Oakley, 2013, p. 21 in Oakley & Kinmond, 2013)

This refers to being forced or coerced into sharing personal information or involving another person in your decision-making. It's crucial to remember that accountability can be beneficial if the person involved chooses to interact with it without feeling compelled to do so.

One of the most prominent characteristics of spiritual abuse is the harm it does to the individual, which is frequently accomplished through manipulation, fear, and humiliation. Manipulation can occur when someone feels compelled to execute certain acts or behaviors. They may also be expected to be particularly dedicated to their place of worship, even if this means neglecting other obligations. People are frequently afraid of the consequences of refusing to conform. They might also be ashamed. As a technique of managing their behavior, people may experience approval followed by rejection.

A spiritually abusive person may frequently find it difficult to collaborate with others and accept differing viewpoints. Team decision-making is frequently absent.

When used out of context to compel people to behave in a certain way or make a specific conclusion. It's crucial to understand how scripture is misused since people of faith hold their sacred writings in such high regard. It can be tough to argue against passages being used to control or manipulate behavior, and this can be highly destructive in the long run. When scripture is used to support an individual's personal goal, it is an indication of spiritual abuse. Instead, it should concentrate on the needs of others and inspire people to think about and determine their own solutions.

Does spiritual abuse happen everywhere?

Spiritual abuse can occur in any religious or spiritual setting. Spiritual abuse can occur everywhere, but it does not occur in every situation.

Who are the abusers?

Although it is stated that leaders inflict spiritual abuse, it is crucial to remember that anybody can perpetrate abuse (in any form), and leaders can be spiritually abused by others in the same way that individuals without any position can.

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What helps to prevent spiritual abuse?

Spiritual abuse is difficult to prevent, as it is with all forms of abuse, but there are some tips that may be helpful. Again, an acronym could be useful. As a short reminder, ESSTA (Oakley & Kinmond, 2013) can be used:

It is critical that we enable individuals to develop autonomy within spiritual situations. That is to say, good spiritual environments empower people to grow as individuals capable of thinking for themselves and expressing disagreement or concern.

Those in paid or volunteer leadership roles at many places of worship do not receive regular oversight or support. Within spiritual contexts, supervision should be a healthy practice that allows for discussions of beneficial and unhelpful behaviors.

It is critical to provide assistance for persons who have been subjected to spiritual abuse. As people have a greater understanding of spiritual abuse, this may assist to prevent additional abuse.

Individuals must be trained in order to continue developing and implementing safer practices. Healthy teamwork should be emphasized during training, since team leadership appears to be a protective factor against spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse has to be more widely recognized because it is still poorly understood. Individuals may be uninformed of the consequences of their actions or of various options for behavior. Furthermore, people need to be more conscious of scripture and sacred writings so that they can recognize when they are being influenced.

What can I do if I think I am experiencing spiritual abuse?

If you identify with some of the information in this leaflet, rest assured that you are correct to be concerned and that you are not alone in your experience. Although there are few services for persons who have suffered spiritual abuse at the moment, there are some places where you can get aid and support, which are indicated at the conclusion of this pamphlet. What can I do to assist and support people who are being abused spiritually? Responding appropriately when people share their stories is the most crucial aspect of providing help. Many people may not realize what is occurring to them since spiritual abuse is still relatively unknown. As a result, the most important thing is to listen to the individual and reply in a supportive manner. With the person's consent, if your church has a safeguarding policy that includes spiritual abuse, you can follow the instructions in it.

Are there other forms of abuse linked to spiritual abuse?

‘Child Abuse Linked to Faith and Belief' is becoming more widely recognized. Some harmful actions toward children have been linked to cultural traditions or religious belief systems, such as witchcraft and spirit possession beliefs. In areas like deliverance and healing ministries, it's critical that we build effective practice. To safeguard both children and adults from harm and damage, this excellent practice is required. This type of abuse is frequently severe, but it has a distinct spiritual component.

What is a spiritual abuser?

There are numerous sorts of abuse, but spiritual (or religious) abuse is one you may not be aware of. Most examples of spiritual abuse, if they are acknowledged at all, involve a church elder or faith leader abusing members of the congregation, frequently by creating a poisonous culture within the church or group by shaming or dominating people with the power of their position. Spiritual abuse, on the other hand, can happen in a romantic relationship.

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Spiritual abuse isn't restricted to one faith or denomination. Spiritual abuse can be perpetrated by anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, and it can also be perpetrated by anyone. Intimate relationship spiritual abuse manifests itself when an abusive partner:

  • hinders one person from following his or her religious or spiritual beliefs
  • manipulates or shames their partner's religion or spiritual beliefs
  • requires the children to be raised in a faith that neither couple has agreed to.
  • religious texts or beliefs are used to justify or diminish abusive acts (such as physical, financial, emotional, or sexual abuse/marital rape).

Spiritual abuse is just as hurtful and difficult to bear as any other form of abuse since a person's spiritual life is so intimate. However, because many victims are unaware that they are being mistreated, it can be difficult to detect. Furthermore, the abusive partner may argue that any challenge to the mistreatment is an affront to their religious liberty.

What counts as religious abuse?

Religious abuse is any form of abuse perpetrated under the pretense of religion, such as harassment or humiliation, that causes psychological harm. Misuse of religion for selfish, secular, or ideological objectives, such as the abuse of a priestly position, is an example of religious abuse.

How do you address spiritual abuse?

Serving as a leader is a fantastic honor that comes with a lot of responsibilities. Ministry leaders provide direction, assurance, encouragement, and hope to the people they serve. Ministry leaders wield a great deal of power, and they must use it wisely.

Crossing the line from leading with authority to acting in an authoritarian manner is one area where persons in significant ministry roles can cause harm. This is commonly referred to as “spiritual abuse” in ministry circles.

Here are three methods for recognizing and addressing this growing concern among ministry leaders.


First and foremost, it is critical to comprehend what spiritual abuse is not. The authoritative proclamation of Biblical truth, strategic management, and the enforcement of institutional ethical norms are examples of things that do not come under the rubric of spiritual abuse. Appropriate exhortation, rebuke, and punishment are also not considered “spiritual abuse.”

Having stated that, it is critical to have a working definition of the problem. Authors David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen write in their book “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” that this type of 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.”

When authoritarianism rises to the surface and leaders behave from a position of power rather than humble influence, spiritual abuse happens.

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  • Without proper rationale and/or relationship, rules are accepted and implemented.
  • Unspiritual disagreement is labeled as such because it lacks a restorative spirit.
  • Substantive criticism and adequate reporting relationships are shielded from leaders.
  • The organization's and/or key leaders' public image is sanitized to an unhealthy degree.
  • When inquiries arise, side subjects are introduced to divert attention away from more pressing ones.
  • Select personnel have access to funds with no protections in place to ensure responsibility.


Leaders can be agents of change to counteract the detrimental consequences of spiritual abuse once an unhealthy dynamic has been detected. Managers who are wise create clear boundaries for personal accountability. Modeling prudent financial management and an open-door policy are other key traits to emulate.

Moreover, despite fears to the contrary, servant leadership demonstrated by individuals at the top of the org chart improves the work environment and can be suitably integrated into even high-output, strategic settings.


If you're dealing with spiritual abuse in your workplace, start with a grace-filled reaction. Even though it seems contradictory, when your leadership is questioned or criticized, take a step back and evaluate the purpose behind what is being stated.

Rather than becoming bitter or spiteful while furious, try to de-escalate the situation. Make every effort to maintain open channels of contact with people at all levels of the organization, especially those with whom you disagree or with whom you lack chemistry.

Work hard to establish an environment where genuine communication may take place in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Consider verses like Romans 12:9-21 in the Bible. Consider the consequences for the glory of One in your life and ministry.


Our A.S. in Biblical Studies and B.S. in Ministry Leadership degree programs will give you the knowledge and skills to recognize spiritual abuse, lead with positive authority, and respond in grace and truth. To learn more about this intriguing program, contact an enrollment counselor.

What are the elements of abuse?

Domestic violence is the most common kind of abuse. Three factors are frequently present and contribute to the occurrence of an abuse incident: 1) the perpetrator; 2) the victim; and 3) a catastrophe.

What does psychological abuse mean?

Psychological abuse is defined as the repeated and deliberate use of a variety of words and non-physical actions with the intent of manipulating, hurting, weakening, or frightening a person mentally and emotionally; and/or distorting, confusing, or influencing a person's thoughts and actions in their daily lives, altering their sense of self and harming their wellbeing.

The Oak Foundation financed this paper as part of their ‘Issues Affecting Women' program to conduct research on ‘psychological violence.' It was co-created with survivors and practitioners to shine light on the commonality of psychological abuse, the daily reality of individuals who have been abused, and the strategies offenders employ to threaten and control those who have been abused.

Domestic Abuse Practitioners' Experiences of Supporting Psychological Abuse Survivors – Gemma Halliwell's Blog

What does religious trauma look like?

Confusion in thinking (black vs. white, right vs. wrong), conflicts with people in your community or religious teachings, inability to make judgments, inability to trust yourself, and a constant search for clarification

Isolation, relationship issues, sexual difficulties, socially stunted and awkward conduct, being hyper-aware of others' emotional state and emotions, being hyper-aware and feeling responsible for others' internal state and emotions

Symptoms of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may also be present. This can include flashbacks, insomnia, nightmares, restlessness, a lack of enjoyment in activities you used to like, hypervigilance, avoidance, and other symptoms.

What causes religious trauma?

When a person struggles to leave a religion or a set of beliefs that has led to their indoctrination, it is known as religious trauma syndrome (RTS). Breaking free from a controlling environment, lifestyle, or religious figure is a common traumatic experience. Religious trauma can have symptoms that are similar to those of complex post-traumatic stress disorder in some situations (C-PTSD).

How is church worship abused today?

I Charging a fee for faith-healing or prayers. (ii) Dressing inappropriately for church services. (iii) Church quarrels and clashes between opposing groupings. (iii) Using the pulpit to advance a political agenda.