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By On September 12th, 2013

What are the Warning Signs of Spiritual Abuse?

Yesterday I wrote the tragedy of spiritual abuse and how it is able to occur within the church. While there are an uncountable number of churches preaching the love of God and following his word, there will always be those who corrupt even the most pure of ministries and those who are corrupted by the power they wield over the congregation.

While we should be vigilant to protect our institutions from those who want to lead us astray, we should also be watching to protect those who are most vulnerable to abuse. Those who have been victimized by spiritual abusers risk severely damaging their relationship with Christ, as well as their own mental and physical well-being.

Author Mary DeMuth has dealt with these topics before and witnessed first hand some of the pain they can bring. She used her experiences and those others have shared with her to create a list of warning signs of spiritual abuse. Her list is far from comprehensive, and the deceptive and manipulative who seek to use their place in the church to hurt others will always find new ways to be abuse. However, these traits will help you know when your leaders may be taking advantage of their position, and when you or someone around you may be being abused.

  1. Distorted view of respect – Spiritually abuse ministries tend to demand respect without trying to earn it with you personally. Good leaders know their power and respect comes from the trust they have built. 
  2. Demand allegiance as proof of the follower’s allegiance to Christ – The spiritually abuse leaders also use their position to pretend to be infallible. In their eyes, going against their word is going against the word of God. Spiritual leaders are as human as the rest of us, and their word can be questioned when needed.
  3. Use exclusive language – These ministries often act as if they are trying to sell you their brand of Jesus. They will say things like, “we’re the only ministry really following Jesus.” Positive ministries are open to conversation about theology and differences in belief. The leaders will likely already have their opinions strongly decided from their extended time studying and their own relationship with God, but they won’t tell you their way is the only way.
  4. Creating a culture of fear and shame – One of the biggest weapons spiritual abusers use is fear or shame to keep those who question them in line. As DeMuth puts it, “They often quote scriptures about not touching God’s anointed, or bringing accusations against an elder. Yet they often confront sin in others, particularly ones who bring up legitimate biblical issues. Or they have their circle of influence take on this task, silencing critics.”
  5. Charismatic leader who shows arrogance, pride, and protectionism – All leaders initially seem good. That is how they gain their position, but sometimes they withdraw into a small clique that begins to ignore the needs of the rest of the congregation. If the entire organization relies on a single person, there is a problem within the community.
  6. Cultivate a dependence on one leader for spiritual information – Personal discipleship should be encouraged in healthy churches. Churches shouldn’t be based around the idea that their leader is the only one with the answers.
  7. Demand servanthood of their followers, but live privileged lives – A huge red flag should be the leader who preaches humbleness and restraint, but lives a life of opulence or extravagance. Your leader should she themselves on the same level as their congregation, not above them and especially not demanding privilege.
  8. Buffer from criticism with a loyal inner circle – These leaders often view those who bring up issues as enemies, and only those who are approved and follow the word of the leader are allowed in the inner circle. If any member brings up problems, they are immediately thrown out and villainized.
  9. Hold to outward performance by rejects authentic spirituality – Churches that demand followers act a certain way, dress and acceptable way, or have an acceptable lifestyle are ignoring the needs of their followers. It isn’t the leaders job to decide what is acceptable, but to help guide those who are troubled and may act inappropriately or have “unacceptable” lifestyles to a relationship with the Lord.
  10. Use exclusivity for allegiance – Abusive leaders often create a hierarchy that is damaging to the church community. An inner circle may validate the beliefs and behavior of those involved, but it sends a message to the rest of the church of exclusion and misplaced priorities.

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