What Is Spiritual Abuse?
Allegations of abuse of power within the church happen much more than we would like. We would all like to think all churches are perfect sanctuaries where all are safe. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Abuse happens in all sorts of churches around the world for numerous reasons and the only way to stop it is to educate congregations about how spiritual abuse occurs and what it looks like.
As I’ve discussed before, one of the biggest supporting factors of spiritual abuse is the power of the institution. We place huge amounts of trust upon our religious leaders because they wield a large amount of power. As believers, we also believe and trust in the church, and the leaders of the church are the human face of the institution.
Because of the trust between the congregation and its leaders, many victims are unaware they are even being abused when it occurs. They feel slighted and hurt, but the belief that these leaders are always in the right makes it hard to see the abuse as it is happening. Some don’t even understand exactly what spiritual abuse is.
As noted Christian Psychologist and director of the Master’s counseling program at Biblical Seminary Phil Monroe defines it, spiritual abuse is the use of faith, belief, or religious practices to coerce, control, or damage others against their well-being. It comes in many forms from passive neglect to direct and intentional harm. Monroe offers a list of examples:
- Refusing to provide pastoral care to women on the basis of gender alone
- Coercing reconciliation of victim to offender
- Dictating basic decisions (marriage, home ownership, jobs, giving practices, etc.)
- Binding conscience on matters that are in the realm of Christian freedom
- Using threats to maintain control of another
- Using deceptive language to coerce into sexual activity
- Denying the right to divorce despite having the grounds to do so
Not only do these actions severely hurt and damage the victim’s individual relationship with their faith and religion, the way these events have often been handled hurt the church. The deceptive nature of spiritual abuse combined with the high level of trust with church leaders prevents members of congregation from seeing even some of the most obvious signs and often protects leaders from seeing real repercussions.