In my first post on spiritual abuse, I said I would provide a definition that would help in subsequent discussions. I’d welcome your input on this so that we can develop a clear and comprehensive definition, but here’s my suggestion to start the conversation, followed by my “exposition”:

Spiritual abuse is a sinful use of spiritual authority by Christian leaders to promote, protect, or enrich a person or a Christian institution regardless of the spiritual damage done to innocent parties and the cause of Christ.

First, the term “spiritual abuse indicates that unlike physical or sexual abuse, the primary pain is felt in the soul. Calling it “spiritual” also highlights that it is more difficult to detect because its primary weapons are usually more psychological, mental, emotional, relational, and, well, spiritual.

Second, notice the use of the word, “sinful.” There is good and proper ecclesiastical authority. God has ordained officers in his church to administer his kingdom on earth. We must not let the abuse of this by some push us to the extreme of rejecting all pastors, elders, deacons, membership standards, discipline, etc.

Some of the sinful tools used by spiritual abusers include injustice, misrepresentation, intimidation, exclusion, isolation, humiliation, manipulation, authoritarianism, demands for unconditional loyalty and obedience, shame, legalism, false accusation, self-pity, suppression of dissent and criticism, use of rules to silence, inability to admit wrong, covering up and minimizing leaders’ sins, and so on.

Third, “spiritual authority” refers to any office, role, or responsibility in Christian churches, para-church organizations, charities, conferences, seminaries, etc. It is not confined to ecclesiastical office or church courts. Spiritual abuse can take place wherever someone is given any degree of spiritual responsibility or spiritual authority over others.

Fourth, the term “Christian leaders” (plural) underlines that although there is often one person who is the primary abuser, there are usually others who cooperate with him due to fear, desire to please, personal gain, or pragmatism.

Fifth, the aim of the Christian leaders is no longer the good of souls and the glory of God but the promotion, protection, and enrichment of a person or an institution.” The leader, the church, or the organization’s existence, reputation, and wealth becomes the over-riding concern.

Sixth, this is all done “regardless of the spiritual damage” suffered by the victims, such as false guilt, shame, inability to trust spiritual leaders, draining of self-confidence, disillusionment with the church and with Christians, serious distortions in their view of God,

Seventh, damage is also done to the “cause of Christ.” The abuser’s church or organization may continue and spiritual abusers may still occupy positions of influence and popularity. But the cause of Christ as a whole is damaged, as people see the hypocrisy, the double standards, the self-centeredness.

Spiritual abuse is a sinful use of spiritual authority by Christian leaders to promote, protect, or enrich a person or a Christian institution regardless of the spiritual damage done to innocent parties and the cause of Christ.

So that’s my definition. I’m very open to correction and other suggestions.

Other posts in this series here.

  • Steven Birn

    This is a pretty broad definition, though it appears on first glance to encompass many of the problems associated with spiritual abuse. I know you initially are separating spiritual abuse from sexual or physical abuse but there are certainly times some or all of these abuses are interwoven. In reading the accusations of spiritual, sexual and occasionally physical abuse within Bill Gothard’s ATI organization (detailed extensively at it’s very clear at least within that group that the abuse started spiritually and went on from there. Had there not been spiritual abuse, it’s hard to imagine how the other forms of abuse would have been able to thrive for decades.

    Is spiritual abuse the starting point for other forms of abuses, at least within the church? Put another way, does all abuse within the church start spiritually?

    • Leonard Booth

      great question.

    • Mark Schaefer

      If you read the RG stories, you find that many of the girls who suffered abuse had already been sexually abused at home, so I don’t think it necessarily starts as spiritual abuse, but if you consider the broader realm of emotional abuse, I think that emotional abuse precedes the others.

      A non-abused person is generally going to have a healthy relationships and is going to recognize toxic people. The problem occurs only when they are deluded into questioning their own judgment, like “that elder is asking me to do things I find uncomfortable, but everyone else in the church speaks so highly of him, so it’s probably okay.” That’s why I think the church’s teaching on things like Total Depravity has to be balanced with Common Grace and even the Priesthood of all Believers. I think Reformed churches do tend to unduly focus on our sin nature, our worthlessness before God in our unregenerate state, and don’t do such a good job of how being image bearers of God means that we have basic human dignity and (dare I say) human rights.

      • Tom

        That’s a fair point, but I’d think that a proper understanding of Total Depravity would mean that you would apply that teaching not only to yourself but to the other human beings around you, which would mean that you would remember that even your elders and pastor are in the same boat as you.

  • Flora Compton

    Your definition is excellent. We have seen that discipline can be punitive and vindictive when it should be restorative. This should not be!

    It is not always easy to band together to combat such destructive discipline because members are constantly warned against gossip and divisiveness. [Some churches] ask members to vow “In case you should need correction in doctrine or life, do you promise to respect the authority and discipline of the church? ” I have been told that any criticism of excessive discipline or changes made by the leadership of the church is contumacy and Titus 3:10-11 is quoted — “Reject a divisive man..”

    I’m not just pointing fingers at [one particular church]. I’m an old woman and I have been in my life-time a member of four different Reformed churches. We are all like the Children of Israel who wanted a King. Even in our Presbyterian churches we set up ‘ Popes’. They can be ministers of large churches, Conference speakers or have written books. Everyone quotes them and even their fellow ministers become fearful of standing up to them. The adulation is not good for their own spiritual state and they stop respecting humble and godly, older men

    I have been told that we have a good system in Presbyterian churches but it
    doesn’t always work. What if your Session refuses to bring your concern to the Presbytery or Synod and you are told that it’s better that you leave? Do you have any recourse? I’m not talking about a hypothetical situation. It has happened to me.

    We are so thankful that you have the courage to try to deal with this important
    topic..We pray that the Lord will bring conviction to many and healing to those who have been so badly hurt.

    • David Murray

      Thanks for your comment Flora. I hope you don’t mind but I made two small edits to remove the name of the specific church you mentioned [marked in brackets]. I didn’t want the power of your point being diminished by a distracting debate over the specifics of one church’s practice.

  • SD

    This is a good rough draft of a definition. The purpose
    clause (starting with to), however, is perhaps too strong. One thing I think
    that it is necessary to add is the category of misapplications, overzealous,
    excessively strict, or the like of some kind of principle, program,
    discipleship model, hobby horse, and the like where the one in authority causes
    the spiritual harm or withering of those under them. Perhaps that is a second
    degree (misuse) whereas your initial definition is the first degree (abuse) which
    includes willful or more willful intentions, but the second degree still causes
    real harm. Everyone may err in this second class to some degree but there are
    also extremes in this category that are abusive. The reason the purpose clause
    is too strong is that it excludes those who really think of themselves as
    promoting a good thing and not serving their own interest or selfish empire.
    They view themselves a principled people.

    • b

      “The reason the purpose clause is too strong is that it excludes those who really think of themselves as promoting a good thing and not serving their own interest or selfish empire. They view themselves a principled people.”

      Abuse is defined by the reality of what actually occurs, despite whatever motivations or rationale that is used to justify it. That’s great that abusers might view themselves as “principled people.” It’s still abuse, and the fix isn’t to let them off the hook just because they meant well. The fix is for the abuser to repent and fix their “principles.”

      Don’t let the abusers off just because they simply clamour, “Lord, Lord…”

      • b

        “One thing I think that it is necessary to add is the category of misapplications, overzealous, excessively strict, or the like of some kind of principle, program, discipleship model, hobby horse, and the like where the one in authority causes the spiritual harm or withering of those under them.”

        Oh, never mind, I’m sorry I didn’t catch this part closely enough. Please disregard my previous comment…I think you got at the same idea.

  • Mark Schaefer

    I find the definition inadequate. It suggests that abuse is only a sinful use of proper authority to sinful ends. Instead, I think abuse is usurpation of authority not granted. The gain from the use of usurped authority is a symptom. In fact, I think you would be hard pressed to come up with an example of correct authority used sinfully. A Session is not, for example, granted the authority to excommunicate someone without a valid cause. So, even if excommunication seems, on the surface, to be proper authority, it is not proper authority in this case.

    So, the first question is what is the sphere of that authority. Our spiritual leaders, in even Reformed churches, tend to claim instant unquestioned obedience to whatever they demand. They claim the 5th commandment teaching in the Westminster Larger Catechism that we ought to obey our superiors. I was brought up where elders were to be obeyed in everything unless we had a valid reason not to.

    The second question is, what are the tools of that authority? In other words, even if the “ends” are good, is it okay to use whatever “means” seems most likely to produce the result? If a member’s sin is outbursts of anger, is isolation and humiliation, however successful it may be in eliminating the visible sin, an appropriate means to bring about change?

    So, yes, it seems that abusive systems result in promotion, protection and furtherance of leaders or a system, but I think that it starts with people who have an incorrect view of what authority they truly have, and what the appropriate use of that authority is.

    • Elle

      That’s a very good point. Some in churches (and homes) are far too quick to presume upon having authority, whether at all, or over particular people or situations. The more cynical side of me says that churches probably attract men who crave authority.

  • David Han

    Dear Professor Murray,

    I enjoyed your post about spiritual abuse. I have read various books and articles from pastors and theologians addressing spiritual abuse, but mostly these perspectives come from a non-Reformed tradition. Thus, your post is refreshing in some ways as I felt there is a need for Reformed and Presbyterian pastor/theologians who could address such issues through the lenses of Reformed theology. I was from a Pentecostal/Charismatic church before I eventually moved on to a Presbyterian Church.

    Spiritual leadership in my former charismatic church is vastly different from Presbyterian/Reformed circles. Just to give you an idea how much authority cell leaders had in charismatic circles (some of these leaders are sisters), a brother cannot approach a sister (and vice versa) to engage in courtship, unless the cell leader of that brother and the cell leader of that sister agree that courtship can take place. Other arbitrary rules include: Marriage is forbidden for those who are still studying in universities. I mentioned this to brethren within Reformed/Presbyterian circles, and they were shocked at the level of power these cell leaders had, because the actions of these cell leaders were not sanctioned by a proper understanding and application of Scripture. In fact, when I shared these experiences, my current pastor immediately questioned on what basis these cell leaders make such commands, especially the prohibitions for marriage between couples who are still studying as undergraduates. Indeed, Scripture admonishes us not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers and that we should only marry in the Lord.

    Thus, on the issue of basis, should a definition of spiritual abuse also take into consideration actions and beliefs of spiritual authority which are contrary to Scripture and sound doctrine?

    David Han

    • Erick Loh

      This is a great start to a definition – I am thankful for its careful wording and biblical exposition. However, I do echo David’s feedback as well. What constitutes “sinful” authority likely needs a more detailed explanation. I would also raise a concern about the 5th point, above: does spiritual abuse necessarily have to be for the enhancement of the individual or organization? As we have seen in the comments below, many cases of spiritual abuse were done in the name of the glory of God and the good of the individual. For example, as David wrote, someone forbidding marriage may be genuinely convinced that doing so is for the other person’s good and for God’s glory, but according to 1 Timothy 4:1-5, they would be wrong. In other words, spiritual abuse may occur even when good aims are present, particularly when good aims are undertaken through unbiblical means.

      Grateful for your willingness to tackle such a difficult subject!

      • Elle

        Very true… how careful we need to be when deciding we know what is best for someone else, or especially for God!

  • mcgirv

    That is an accurate description as far as I’m concerned.

  • Leonard Booth

    Very good, I was ex-ed, and am convinced that many preachers are lost behind the pulpit in our finest denominations across the board. Philippians 2v19-24. is not only a commendation but also a condemnation. 20 For all seek their own, not the things that are of Christ Jesus.// All is plural as opposed to one. The charge seeking their own. In my mind, that is a violation of the third commandment. “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him Guiltless who takes his name in vain.” // Note I said, In my mind, I would like it if it were in the confession or catechism. We take God’s name when we call ourselves Christian, when we use God’s name for temporal personnel gain, that would be taking His name in vain. So I would call spiritual abuse as a violation of the third commandment. Thank you professor, please tell me if I am wrong.

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  • Barnabas
    • Mark Schaefer

      Do you think that priests in the Catholic church only recently started sexually abusing children? Or do you think it is only in the last 20 years that the victims felt strong enough to stand up against it?

      The reason there is “victim mindset” is that there are victims. For all of the societal decay we see, I’m thankful that we are finally waking up to the reality of different forms of abuse and how hurt and scarred people are who suffer from abuse. I think the term “spiritual abuse” was coined some time in the 1970′s if I recall correctly.

      Even the concept of child abuse came about relatively recently, in the 1870′s when Mary Ellen Wilson was whipped and beaten daily by her foster parents. There was no legal precedent at that point for child abuse being a criminal act.

      The “victim mindset” came about in 1962 when a medical article demonstrated that symptoms of child abuse were medically diagnosable. In other words, people who are abused show signs of that abuse, kind of like how breaking a leg has symptoms.

      The backlash is now the rise of the naysayers, who think that psychological and emotional trauma can somehow be waved away with the appropriate amount of “stiff upper lip”. I’ve seen many examples from well-meaning, but deluded Christians, like, “you husband died six months ago. It’s time to move on now.”

      As Steven Birn mentioned, Recovering Grace is a great website dealing with the harmful effects of spiritual abuse, and the long process of recovery.

      • Barnabas

        Uh huh. Child molestation and violence vs authoritarianism and damaged self-esteem.

        • Mark Schaefer

          I didn’t realize you had redefined “abuser” to only mean spiritual abuse, or are you just throwing out a red herring?

  • Gil

    David Murray,

    Would you consider racism to be a spiritual abuse?

  • rdrift1879

    It is most satisfying to see this being addressed. Unfortunately, too many in the Reformed camp (especially the YRR camp) don’t seem willing to acknowledge that spiritual abuse is a legitimate term. Thank you for working toward a definition. It is most helpful.

  • Gary V

    We know someone who says he is a prophet, and then “prophesies” over people in order to manipulate them to do what he wants. That is spiritual abuse. Maybe you could add something about manipulation in your definition.

  • milkytruffle

    I am a daughter of a Reformed pastor and last year my father was “terminated” from his position at our last church after a renegade elder led a long campaign involving slander against him, backroom meetings, and general undermining of his name, character, and influence, even among those who used to be our friends. Said “friends” all turned their backs on us. The elder is a textbook “clergy killer”, and what happened to my dad was nothing other than abuse. I would tend to characterize it as spiritual abuse given the context. Calling it pastor abuse (another valid term) is too narrow because I was bullied and abandoned as well. Yet you so define “spiritual abuse” as to mean abuse perpetrated by those in authority against those under them, which would seem to rule out sheep kicking around the shepherd. I suggest a broader definition of the term, unless you have another idea of what I can call what happened to my family.

    • milkytruffle

      For anyone interested, my sister is constructing a blog documenting what happened, as the present state of things means no one in the congregation knows what happened or has heard my dad’s side (there’s a gag order on him–he loses his severance if he says anything the council might deem “disparaging”). She’s putting up many of the letters and e-mails the two of them wrote as things unfolded, official documents produced by the council and Classis that church members haven’t seen, and interacting with it all, in an attempt to make the Truth known to that little church and the “evangelical” world at large. The blog isn’t ready for public viewing yet, but if anyone would like to see it I can notify you of when it is.

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  • Travis Carden

    I think that in order to function comprehensively the definition needs to be broadened. If we consider abuse merely as the antithesis of holy use (i.e., as sinful misuse), then all that matters is what constitutes holy use. Motives can render use unholy but cannot by themselves make it holy, and consequences are immaterial to the question. As Saul of Tarsus demonstrates, authority can even be abused in good conscience, as he testifies, Acts 26:9: “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” I propose that spiritual abuse is any use of spiritual authority contrary to or unwarranted by God’s prescribed will for the use of it. That covers any transgression of or failure to conform to God’s law relative to the authority in question, whether in matter or manner, means or ends, whether the authority is usurped or validly assumed, whether abused deliberately or in ignorance, whether it has negative consequences or not. By this definition, for example, the pastor who binds a man’s conscience in a matter in which Scripture does not bind him is being spiritually abusive, even if he thinks he is helping the man learn wisdom or avoid sin and even if he does really achieve those ends by it. The definition proposed in the blog post seems to exclude this example because the fictitious pastor wasn’t building himself up and had seemingly good intentions.

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  • Luke Simmons

    Glad you’re tackling this. An overly-broad definition makes me nervous because “abuse” is such big charge and I’d only want to use it appropriately. A too-specific definition makes me nervous because abuse is such a big problem that I think it needs to be dealt with.

    I like most of this definition, but it leaves me unable to distinguish between real abuse and the appropriate times when the church leadership puts the needs of the congregation (or ‘institution’ — a much more negative word) ahead of the needs of the individual. I can imagine many individuals who might feel ‘abused’ simply because they disliked a leadership decision that was in the best interest of the whole or because such a decision left them losing power, position, or preference.

  • h

    Excellent post, and it highlights THE number one sin that is running rampant with today’s pastorate. Many engage in this spiritual abuse, which puts them explicitly in violation of 1 Peter 5:1-3; instead of seeking to be examples, they instead “lord it over” those of God’s flock whom they have been given charge.

    And the sad thing is, this spiritual abuse is doubled-down upon when the few in the congregation seek to deal with it in the Biblical way, and us Bereans are generally shut down because of the desire to “promote, protect, or enrich a person or Christian institution.”

    We need more posts like this and more repentance by today’s non-under-shepherds!

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  • Susan Brungot Nye Ferrell

    It isn’t just leaders David. It’s those who act as if they have an inside track on godliness, or that their ways in extra biblical areas are “the biblical one’s” and that all others are not. I have seen it done by women who lead bible studies, elders wives, anyone in charge of any aspect who appears to the younger, newer, weaker, tenderer plants, to be in charge or the wise older woman. I have known far too many who banter about the word “older woman” or Titus two woman as a way to sure up their invincibility and our requirement to listen to said person not just with respect due our elders and betters, but as if from the voice of God. Dominant personalities, and I myself am very enthusiastic and passionate, have to take extra care to make clear, when we are only sharing thoughts ideas opinions, and to help the younger and learning and tender shoots, see that they must prayerfull and with many counselors seek to find their way of wisdom on non-set in stone matters of Christian practice, ie, childbirth issues, nursing, schooling, parenting, wifing, and so on. Love your addressing this my old friend…please keep on! I’m sure you will hit many nerves.

    • David Murray

      Great insight Sue. I know exactly the kind of people you are talking about.

  • Monica Ruth Brands

    I appreciate David Murray’s courage here in talking about the reality of spiritual abuse in Reformed circles, which I think is very difficult to talk about without experiencing a lot of self-defensive and angry reactions. My impression is that this definition is too narrow, I find Mary DeMuth’s 10 Signs more helpful. . I notice some people commenting on their reluctance to have a broad definition for spiritual abuse out of fear that people will start labeling anything and everything spiritual abuse. I understand the fear, but we can’t talk about the most egregious forms of spiritual abuse without acknowledging the very real damage caused by more subtle forms of spiritual abuse. That argument–to not call something abuse unless it’s at a nearly egregious level–is the kind of thinking that enables abuse and enables the dismissal of abusive experiences (“you just think everything is abuse” type responses). Women in emotionally abusive marriages for example often find little or no support because the church has decided marriages aren’t *really* abusive unless someone is physically in danger. Similarly, with spiritual abuse, if you can’t call a denomination or church’s tendencies to control or manipulate abusive unless it’s at a highly severe level you will let slide the dangerous behavior and thinking patterns that lead to the most severe abuses. Survivors of spiritually abusive congregations will start to feel they are “crazy” for how wounded their experiences have made them if no one will acknowledge that the spiritually abusive dynamics were not just unfortunate but abusive and dangerous. It is possible to be completely doctrinally orthodox as far as core Christian teachings and to be spiritually abusing people with your misguided attempts to control their behavior into your interpretation of the Christian life. We should never forget the people Jesus clashed with the most were conservative, passionate, orthodox interpreters of Judaism. Growing Up Holy and Wholly is an excellent treatment of the ways in which rigid fundamentalism’s abusive leanings can often unintentionally slide into spiritual abuse where people lose any sense of self-worth.

    The temptation for legitimate authority to slide into spiritual abuse–when church leaders are genuinely incapable of distinguishing their own interpretations of Scripture and its application from actual commands of God–is one few churches or denominations resist completely, and I think we need to be more candid about musing about where our churches drift from a legitimate place of conviction into abusive attempts to control people’s thinking. Healthy institutions speak openly about the presence of an potential for abuse within their midst. I think we need to resist having such a high definition for spiritually abusive dynamics that we can’t speak honestly about the spiritually abusive dynamics I’d wager most of us have experienced at some point or other. I am very comfortable with people who realized their entire lives were controlled by their well-meaning but spiritually abusive churches identifying it as such, even if the motivation by the leadership wasn’t primarily consciously to prop themselves up, as Murray’s definition suggests. At the heart of why spiritual abuse is so difficult to address is that spiritually abusive leaders usually genuinely believe they are acting in accordance with what their faith demands.

    • David Murray

      Monica, thank you for this extensive reply and for your insights. I will weigh them carefully and think through how to adjust my own approach to this subject.

  • Mackenzi Kingdon

    Thank you for this post! This topic is very near and dear to my heart. I am a counselor focusing on spiritual abuse that happens in Seattle.

    It is nice to find content out there that addresses this.