Are you experiencing spiritual institutional abuse?
(PLEASE NOTE: I write this to expose the realities of spiritual abuse. I lived these realities for nearly four decades and I have met thousands of others who have been abused. I write for them. Phrases like “No church is perfect” or “But there are good churches” or “Keep your eyes on God, not people,” have been staple responses used to gaslight survivors and to minimize horrific suffering. Please don’t say these things to survivors. This post is intended to COMFORT survivors. This list is going to continue growing, I am sharing some of the most common examples that I have experienced or heard about.)
What is spiritual abuse?
From “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse” by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen:
“Spiritual abuse is the mistreatment of a person who is in need of help, support or greater spiritual empowerment. The result of weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person’s spiritual empowerment. Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being. Spiritual abuse can occur when spirituality is used to make others live up to a spiritual standard and, when not met, the individual is left baring a weight of guilt, judgement, or condemnation and confusion about their worth and standing as a Christian. It is at this point that we say spirituality has become abusive.”
I invite you to ask yourself some hard questions.
If you find yourself checking off several or many of these, you are most likely experiencing spiritual abuse.
* Is there a strong emphasis on authoritarianism, patriarchy, male headship, or silencing of women?
* Do you feel that you are never good enough?
* Do you feel that you need leadership’s permission or blessing to minister, or to make everyday life decisions?
* Does the leader/leadership call all the shots?
* Are you expected to be at church several times each week and to volunteer your time or do you feel guilty if you cannot be?
* Is there sin-leveling, spiritual bypassing or toxic positivity?
* Is the term “But for the grace of God go I” used to downplay gross and criminal offenses?
* Do others quote Bible verses to diminish or dismiss your pain?
* Have you been told that your sickness or suffering is due to sin in your life?
* Do leaders teach that suffering is the world is a result of “sin in their lives” but suffering “in house” is “persecution?”
* Does the institution emphasize what you are doing—or should be doing—for God rather than what He’s already done for you?
* Is there a mini sermon before the offering, which causes you to feel guilty if you do not give?
* Are your basic needs (shelter, food, medical, clothing, transportation, etc.) going unmet while you are being pressured to “tithe?”
* Is there a lack of disclosure/accountability of the institution’s finances?
* Have you expressed physical or financial needs and been ignored?
* Does the leader/leadership abuse those under their care (verbally, emotionally, physically, psychologically, mentally, sexually, spiritually, financially, etc.)?
* Does the leader/leadership tolerate abuse under their care (verbal, emotional, physical, psychological, mental, sexual, spiritual, financial, etc.)?
* Has the leader had sexual relations with someone under their care (whom they are not married to)? ** This is not simply “an affair,” it is spiritual and sexual abuse.
* Is sexual abuse swept under the rug, dealt with “in house,” and are you forbidden to go to law enforcement?
* Are sex offenders allowed inside the institution with a contract/chaperone, leaders are aware, but the general population is not?
* Have you been told that covering up abuse is protecting the reputation of the church/God?
* Do those who leave the institution get pegged as the problem, while leaders/leadership never admit to wrongdoing?
* Are you forbidden to discuss why members leave the institution?
* Is there a long list of former members/attendees who report being abused by the institution/leadership?
* Is marriage idolized over the well-being of individuals?
* Is divorce prohibited?
* Is marital rape tolerated?
* Is marriage counseling required where abuse is present?
* Is “in house” counseling allowed, while “outside” or “secular” counseling is forbidden?
* Are the things you shared in “counseling” used against you, betrayed, and gossiped about?
* Are the things you share in “counseling” used against you, to deem you “unworthy” of ministry?
* Are you expected to disclose personal, private, traumatic events to those who are not trained in abuse or trauma?
* Is mental illness referred to as demon possession?
* Does the institution teach that they are “God’s favorite,” and that all other institutions are lesser than?
* Is there a hierarchy/chain of command/inner sanctum?
* Do you have “spiritual FOMO,” worrying that if you miss a gathering, you will be “less than?”
* Are leaders viewed as “celebrities?”
* Is there a dress code, written or assumed?
* Is there a lack of tolerance for questioning/ wrestling with scriptures?
* It is assumed that the leader is always right and to question him/her is to question God?
* Is there an over emphasis on forgiveness on the part of victims, while accountability for offenders is lacking?
* Do you feel physically ill, anxious, or triggered when you go to the institution?
* Is God’s word used as weapon to beat you up?
* Are words like bitterness, forgiveness, submission, picking up offenses, giving up rights, and suffering used to shame/blame you?
* Are you allowed to be authentic or are you expected to present yourself as poised and put together?
If you checked off several or many of these, you are experiencing spiritual abuse.
The good news?
You are an adult.
You have choices.
You can walk away from an institution that is unsafe.
You can take your children and leave.
You do not have to stay one more day.
God sees all, hears all, and knows all.
You do not have to prove the abuse or corruption to Him.
He will go with you, He will protect you, He will provide for you.
Ladies, you are welcome to join us at Held & Healed: Christian Women Rebuilding After Abuse where we are learning, growing, and healing together.
You are also welcome to join my monthly membership group where we discussing ways to rebuild after abuse, the Held & Healed Haven.