Spiritual abuse is a real phenomenon. According to authors David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen:
"It's possible to become so determined to defend a spiritual place of authority, a doctrine or a way of doing things that you wound and abuse anyone who questions, or disagrees, or doesn't 'behave' spiritually the way you want them to. When your words and actions tear down another, or attack or weaken a person's standing as a Christian - to gratify you, your position or your beliefs while at the same time weakening or harming another - that is spiritual abuse".
(From the book: The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse).
Of course, spiritual abuse is easier to detect in kooky religious cults than it is in more mainstream churches. But that doesn't mean that this kind of abuse does not take place in a wide variety of faith communities. And, when you think about the intensity, vulnerability and transcendent nature of shared faith, it is not hard to understand how there could also be a potentially abusive "flip side" to the benefits of deep faith-oriented relationships.
What to Look For
There comes a time when those who are seeking freedom from the effects of spiritual abuse should find a healthy connection to a life-giving body of believers. There are a number of factors that distinguish healthy spiritual environments from unhealthy or abusive ones.
Three such factors are an accountable leadership, a commitment to scriptural orthodoxy and an atmosphere of grace and truth. No one particular size, style, "brand" or modality of church has the corner on these qualities. Therefore, a prospective new member of a church -especially someone who is recovering from a spiritually abusive situation -should be sure to personally interview church leaders and members about their faith community.
Accountable leaders understand themselves to be part of a larger leadership community and are accountable for their moral, spiritual and personal behavior not only in theory but in practice. When asked: "to whom, besides the Lord, are you accountable?" these leaders are able to name names. Those who are vague in their sense of accountability should be avoided. Those who revel in their "special calling" so that they are virtually entitled to a lack of personal accountability should be doubly avoided.
Scriptural orthodoxy may seem like an obvious requirement but some churches or groups only appear to hold orthodox interpretations of Scripture when, in actuality, they emphasize pet beliefs or practices that depart from "the faith once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude, v.3). A quick review of a church's published Statement of Faith is probably not enough to tell you what you need to know about what a particular church "majors" and "minors" in. But if you observe how that church uses its time, talent and treasure you will see what is truly important to that particular community.
Finally, an atmosphere of grace and truth describes the overall environment of a particular body of believers. Where there is a commitment to truth; moral and personal standards remain high. Trust is earned, not demanded and the church's sense of mission reflects the priorities of Jesus. Grace, properly understood, is not another name for "sloppy agape". Rather it is seen as both God's provision of mercy for our shortcomings and His endowment of divine energy that transforms us more and more into the image of Christ.
Over the course of my ministry and personal spiritual development I have witnessed spiritual abuse AND recovery from spiritual abuse. If you, or someone you know, needs to speak confidentially with a counseling professional about these issues, feel free to contact me at email@example.com