Why Churches Can Get Away with Spiritual Abuse

"Sweeping Spiritual Abuse Under the Carpet" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward
“Sweeping Spiritual Abuse Under the Carpet” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward


In spite of the protests I get nearly every day that my focus on abuse in the church is unbalanced and unnecessary because it is so rare, I continue to address it because millions of people are recipients of spiritual abuse at the hands of their spiritual leaders and their churches. The amount of grateful messages I get far outweighs the naysaying ones, so I keep talking about it and helping those who want to escape and heal from it.

I address this topic with credentials for three reasons: I delivered spiritual abuse as a pastor; I was a recipient of spiritual abuse; and I care about the victims and do what I can to help.

I claim that institutions of any kind are breeding grounds for abuse and that the gravitational pull of organizations is toward the inhumane treatment of its members. Because preventing this tendency from occurring is such hard and relentless work, it’s much easier to ignore it, just let it happen, or use it. The immediate rewards of spiritual abuse for the church are often desired. The church is the perfect culture for spiritual abuse to sprout and spawn.

So I made a list explaining the reasons why churches can get away with spiritual abuse:

  1. The church silences abuse in order to protect their ministries.
  2. Parents entrust their children to church leaders without question.
  3. The church nurtures a victim-blaming culture.
  4. Christians tend to trust their leaders, even to their own peril.
  5. Church leaders enjoy an incredible lack of accountability.
  6. The church ghettoizes itself and presumes immunity from its critics.
  7. The church prefers forgive and forget over restitution and reparation.
  8. Criticizing and judging is explicitly unchristian and implicitly forbidden.
  9. Appealing to the secular courts is categorically unbiblical.
  10. Many Christians can’t believe a spiritual leader would harm someone.

I know this is a sensitive and triggering issue. I myself acknowledge, with sorrow, the years I practiced the spiritual abuse the system stimulates. I also regret the years I received spiritual abuse and now recognize my complicity in it. I’m not blaming myself for the abuse, but I do recognize that I was in such a place that I received it as I thought I should. Hence the ten points above. At the time, I erroneously called it spiritual discipline, submission to authority, and other things. Now I realize it was outright abuse.

Are you experiencing this? You can escape, you can be free, and you can be healed.

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11 Replies to “Why Churches Can Get Away with Spiritual Abuse”

  1. I’m 57 years old and I was raised in the church and left it 2 years ago. We spent a lot of time in what I now know we’re totally dysfunctional churches. Once I got on the outside and was able to look at the situation with a critical eye, I realized that I have been the victim of spiritual abuse for a very long time. And what was worse was that I exposed my children to that abuse as well. It is really a long and slow process to heal but I am doing it.

  2. Excellent thoughts. We spent 24 years in a church that, for the first decade of our experience, was very refreshing, flexible and open. But, as you say, “…institutions of any kind are breeding grounds for abuse and that the gravitational pull of organizations is toward the inhumane treatment of its members.” The pastor, years before, had left a very legalistic and dogmatic denomination and started our faith community with good intentions: where the Holy Spirit would be free to move and teach everyone without the constraints of tradition, rigid structures or overbearing rules. It was truly an oasis for us in the beginning. Over the course of that 24 years though, the church ended up being all that he had denounced & run away from himself when he was a young preacher/pastor. Somehow, his need for recognition, power and influence on our everyday lives took over slowly but surely. The group became so insular, arrogant and oppressive (“we are a remnant people”; “submit to spiritual authority”; anyone who leaves has immature faith, no commitment or has some secret sin.) that many more people have left. Yet the group still carries on with a small core of long time members and some newer naïve members added since we’ve gone. It’s a heartbreak listening to the stories of ex-members and knowing that those still loyal cannot/will not hear any criticism of the leadership or their system. I find it sadly fascinating how our former pastor has come back around to what he himself left and criticized in his youth. His lack of accountability to anyone and his apparent need for being in control has turned him into a dictator of his own little kingdom. Of course, he would deny, rationalize and justify any challenge to what the community has become: “The world is incapable of understanding the beauty of our obedience to God and His unfolding revelation of how our community should be governed.” Ugghhhhh!!!

  3. rare? rare? ! just google pastors arrested on sex c harges every single week. there are usually several new ones. why are they protected?

  4. “9. Appealing to the secular courts is categorically unbiblical.”

    You forgot to add the exception to that rule: “Unless you are a church leader wanting to silence your victim some more.”

  5. Hi. I just found you and immediately joined your email list. When I did, it came up with a link to a free book I was supposed to get, but the link wouldn’t open the book, and I couldn’t get it. I’d very much like to read that book before I determine my next steps of involvement. Is there any way you can send it to me via email? Thank you.

  6. Now for my comment about the article. The one thing I most agree with is that the church nurtures the victim-blaming culture. I agree with all you wrote and the list you offered in this article, but that is the one I most agree with. Even after I got out of fundamentalist evangelicalism and got in what could have been a very good Episcopal Church, I found that one ringing out. I was in a position where I held a job for them in a capacity that had me working with newcomers – and 90% of them left as fast as they came. When I talked to them about why they left, they basically all told the same story of the dysfunction they saw in the church. When I tried to communicate that to the church to resolve things, that blame the victim thing became so clear to me that I felt like I was being physically beaten with it it was so palpable. A friend who was a counselor before she retired and who knew from work one of the main problems in that church, sat me down one day and talked to me about what it had been like to work with that woman and how everyone saw that woman, and then my friend gave me this article to read that she had learned and used while she was still in practice before she retired: https://glynissherwood.com/12-steps-to-breaking-free-from-being-the-family-scapegoat/ This article speaks about family, but my friend told me it can be applied to any dysfunctional group of people. The funny thing was that as I worked hard to try to save the church, I was repeatedly told in a joking manner, “We’re just a big dysfunctional family.” giggle giggle. No freaking giggle giggle. Dysfunctional families hurt people and so do dysfunctional churches. If you are aware enough to make jokes about being a dysfunctional family, you are aware. FIX IT and stop punishing the people who have a sincere desire to fix it and stop victimizing the people who left because they were all ready victimized instead of talking about them in a way that makes it look like it’s their fault. If their story matches everyone who has left here, what do they have in common? The church who gave them all matching stories. I’m sad to admit it but after seeing this again after surviving the much worse fundamentalist evangelicalism I am truly starting to believe what you say about organizations being by nature abusive. Thank you for this article and for all you do.

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