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Spiritual Abuse

What is Spiritual Abuse?

By November 3, 2023February 4th, 2024No Comments

Spiritual abuse is a phenomenon as old as the Bible, yet the term to describe the ancient phenomenon is relatively new, so people can be unclear as to what is meant.  How is it defined?  Several Christian writers from different perspectives have offered definitions.


Perspective: Michael Kruger is president of Reformed Theological Seminary. This book was recognized as The Gospel Coalition’s 2022 Book of the Year in the ministry category.

“Spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader—such as a pastor, elder, or head of a Christian organization—wields his position of Christian authority in such a way that he manipulates, domineers, bullies, and intimidates those under him as a means of maintaining his own power and control, even if he is convinced he is seeking biblical and kingdom-related goals.” (p 24)

“We are not talking about just emotional and psychological abuse, although there is considerable overlap….the term spiritual abuse rightly highlights the core reason this abuse is so devastating to Christians—namely that it was perpetrated by the very pastor (or elder board) that was supposed to protect them. It is that dynamic that then leads to the disillusionment and distrust of church , and perhaps Christianity as a whole. “ (p. 22-23)

Bully Pulpit



Perspective:  Langberg is a devout Christian who was called to work as a psychologist  with people affected by trauma. For over 50 years, she has ministered to clients in direct practice, but also has learned to draw on the strength of Christ to minister in places such Rwanda in the aftermath of the slaughter there. She is the author of 4 books and has also trained many others to minister to people with trauma.

“Spiritual abuse involves using the sacred to harm or deceive the soul of another.” (p.127)

“Anyone in a position of power within the body of Christ who abuses a lamb or hides the abuse done to one the Good Shepherd knows and calls by name has profaned the name of our God. God stands against them as He did the shepherds in Ezekiel 34. ” (p.138)

–Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church

Responding to the question, “What is spiritual abuse?” in an interview , Diane Langberg answers:

“It is using spiritual things –which could be position, it could be a Scripture, it could be a theological premise, it could be something from the sermon, it could be all kinds of things– but using something spiritual which is always to be used for good. (That strikes the heart of God when it isn’t ) …. but [instead] using those [spiritual] things to minimize, cover-up, deny, be deceitful, shut somebody up –those kinds of things that are the purpose of that are never good.

…God is a God of Truth and Light….He will not have his name used in vain which is what’s happening with spiritual abuse. It’s being used in a wrong way to accomplish something that is not like him…  It diminishes people and makes them afraid. Confuses them.”

Interview with Glenn Scrivener, an ordained minister in the Church of England, evangelist, director of Speak Life, and writer for the Keller Center and The Gospel Coalition.  Church Abuse: Protecting Ministries, Destroying Souls About 38:12 [External link (YouTube)]



Perspective: This book approaches the topic of spiritual abuse from the perspective of academic research.  Dr. Oakley is a researcher and an international speaker on spiritual abuse. Justin Humphreys, with a background in both social work and church leadership,  is the Chief Executive of thirtyone:eight, the leading independent Christian safeguarding charity in the UK. Together, as part of the mission of thirtyone:eight, they have conducted several peer-reviewed studies on safeguarding issues in the church.

“Spiritual abuse is a form of emotional and psychological abuse. It is characterized by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behavior in a religious context Spiritual abuse can have a deeply damaging effect on those who experience it.

This abuse may include:

  • manipulation and exploitation
  • enforced accountability
  • censorship of decision-making
  • requirements for secrecy and silence
  • coercion to conform
  • control through the use of sacred texts or teaching
  • requirement of obedience to the abuser
  • the suggestion that the abuser has a “divine” position
  • isolation as a means of punishment
  • and superiority and elitism.”  (p.31)      (Reformatted. Hat tip to Pivot for reformatting suggestion.)

Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating Healthy Church Cultures



Perspective: Wade Mullen is a researcher whose doctoral thesis centered on image management in evangelical churches in response to some kind of scandal. As a pastor, he himself experienced abuse as an ally speaking up for those who were being abused at a former church.   

“When someone treats you as an object, they are willing to harm for their own benefit, abuse has occurred, and that person has become an abuser.”

“Some of the worst forms of abuse are psychological. The victim may never be physically touched, but nevertheless is traumatized by the experience of being emotionally manipulated and held captive by lies, threats, and neglect….abuse involves any action that takes power from another person in an attempt to use them. And it almost always begins with language—words that lead to confusion and captivity. “

“… language [used by an abuser] provides evil with its primary desire: power. It’s a power acquired and obtained through deception and used to harm and destroy lives. The language of abuse is, at its core, a collection of tactics for deception.”

“…these same tactics are used by abusers of all kinds to perpetuate all kinds of abuse. There is a pattern that accompanies abuse, as if abusers are somehow reading from the same playbook.”   pp 2-4

Something’s Not Right



Perspective: Chuck DeGroat is a professor of pastoral care and Christian spirituality at Western Theological Seminary in MI. He is also a therapist (Ph.D.), spiritual director, and has served as a pastor. The book grows out of 25 years of experience.

“Spiritual and emotional abuse have much in common, but spiritual abuse bears a particularly sinister twist, as principles and maxims of faith are wielded as weapons of command and control, and faith leaders abuse their power for the sake of feeding their own unmet emotional needs.

The victim feels just as perplexed and confused as one who has experienced emotional abuse but experiences it from a seemingly more authoritative source-a holy source.” (p. 125)

“Trauma theorist Bessel von der Kolk argues that ‘emotional abuse… can be just as damaging as physical abuse and sexual molestation’…” p. 122-3

When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse


This post may be updated with additional definitions.