Help, Hope, and Healing For the Spiritually Abused

(Photo by Selma Komisky)


Help, Hope, and Healing For the Spiritually Abused

By Sarah Komisky

I needed help. My mom had just been diagnosed with cancer, a long-term relationship was now over, and everything seemed to crumble at once. So where did I go? Church. I made my way up to the front to get prayer. This alone was no easy feat for anyone in pain. It took vulnerability. It took courage, especially when I would vocalize it to a an aged elder, dressed in a suit, void of expression. A little intimidating, but I pushed through my uncomfortable feelings because I was in need. He listened to me for a moment before belittling me with questions like, “Well, you have been in the church long enough; haven’t you read through the Bible at least once? You’ve done this, right?” I wanted to be honest, so I said, “No.” Instantly, I was met with shame when his eyes rolled, and he huffed in smug disgust giving me a spiritual “F” grade. His stern faced proceeded to rattle off Christianese, offering small encouragement while he finished up his lecture saying, “Maybe God is taking your training wheels off.” He then concluded with prayer. However, I don’t remember what he said.

Spiritual Abuse Stories:

Laura went on a youth mission trip. On one of the days she was serving, she was approached by a pastor’s wife to “talk.” Soon, she was isolated from the group in a downstairs room accused of being a “distraction” to her boyfriend in church leadership. Although this was not the case, she was sternly rebuked and told she should in no way deviate him from God’s calling, as he was beloved at his church and used by God. Fortunately, Laura talked to the senior pastor and this pastor’s wife was reprimanded, but Laura was subject to her shunning and silence treatment the entire trip.

Kate was in serious financial need when medical bills piled up, from trying to help her family after her dad’s sudden cancer diagnosis. She was in a dyer place and was embarrassed to ask for help but believed her church could possibly do something. When counseled by someone in leadership, she was demeaned, questioned if she truly responsible, and told she couldn’t receive financial help.

Andrew notified his friends that he and his wife were no longer attending their church and were moving on to a new location. Soon, they were harassed with countless voicemails with offers for rides and persuasions to not leave their “home,” even after they said no.

Dylan was raised by a legalist mom. She would have high expectations in relation to God and use fear tactics to remind Dylan of spiritual disciplines. Today, Dylan struggles with perfectionism and grace.

Monica loved to dance but her pastor told the church dancing was to be done in the privacy of the own home.

Kendra was mocked by her boyfriend, who called her an “angel” when she told him about her choice to not kiss in their dating relationship.

Brian was burnt-out at church because he was manipulated into thinking he was always needed. He always says yes because he is afraid to say no. When he unravels, in need of a break, a church leader reminds him of his privilege to be in leadership, so he stays. When he vocalizes his dream to go abroad, he is offered a position on staff and Brian is manipulated into serving at church.

Nicole opens up that her church says she can’t celebrate holidays. Christmas became too “commercialized” to celebrate and birthdays are an attempt to be “self-focused.” When Nicole confesses it was her church that also did nothing to help protect her from her perpetrator—a man in the church who sexually abused her—she was devastated that her cry for help was dismissed by church leadership.

Abby learns from the church that courting is the way to date someone as to be pure. The focus of her teenage years is on purity. It is emphasized more than Jesus. Evangelical purity culture tells her what to wear, what to listen to, what to watch. She even throws away her secular music in an attempt to be right with God after she reads a book by a popular Christian author who encourages readers to clean out anything that would distract from God in an attempt to be pure. When she messes up, she feels she lost her purity and is shamed.

Danielle told me recently about a church she visited in the past. As the pastor preached, he said, “You in the front, wake up! Nap time is after church!” He then called out a girl with purple hair saying, “Save that for the club—this is church.”

Sophie was in church one day and witnessed two ushers walk down the aisle and ask a young man standing up and lifting his hands, praising God, to sit down. When the behavior is questioned, a pastor in leadership responds that his act was considered “showy” by the senior pastor. When asked why, they added, “You’re putting my back against the wall.”

Melissa was always super conscious to shut her cell phone off before service started. Not because it was church time but because she was afraid the pastor would hear it and embarrass her from the pulpit as she had seen him do in service.

A Definition

Spiritual abuse can be subtle and can occur in all religions because we all are human, with the ability to choose right or wrong. Most don’t know they are victims until they are removed from the situation. As Christians, one of the most damaging aspects about it is that it introduces you to the wrong Jesus.

In an article by Dayna Drum entitled, “It’s Time to Address Spiritual Abuse in the Church,” she defined it as, “Similar to other types of abuse, but it’s committed under the banner of spirituality. It can be subtle or painfully loud—anything from unquestioned pastoral authority, to practices of shaming members if they don’t fulfill religious expectations, to badmouthing members who have left.”

The National Domestic Violence Hotline defined it this way, “A church elder or faith leader inflicting abuse on congregation members, often by creating a toxic culture within the church or group by shaming or controlling members using the power of their position. However, spiritual abuse can also occur within an intimate partner relationship.”

This can also be transferred from authority figures that represent or introduce God to us such as parents, teachers, or even those we are in romantic relationships with.

Other red flags according to “The Subtitle Power of Spiritual Abuse,” by David Johnson and Van Vonderen include:

  • Power Posturing
  • Performance Preoccupation
  • Unspoken Rules
  • Lack of Balance

Become Aware

In the wake of sexual abuse reported in the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as prominent pastors stepping down from leadership or being fired due to control, manipulation, fear, and intimidation, we need to address this issue and know how to deal with it.

Realize the Church is Not Perfect

It is important to recognize that spiritual authority figures are not perfect. They, like you and me, have imperfections with the capability to hurt. This is why we can’t put them on a platform because leaders and those in the church will disappoint us, just as we can disappoint others. They, like us, are sinners in need of grace and are capable of falling. Our job is not to seek revenge or even rejoice at their fall.

Think of King David and his perpetrator, King Saul. While the Bible does not hide Saul’s abusive actions towards David, it also highlights David’s ability to use integrity in dealing with Saul in 2 Samuel chapter 1. He does not bash Saul publicly and entrusts God to make wrongs, right.

Call It What It Is

We must acknowledge what happened was indeed wrong and not condone it in any way by making excuses for it or blaming ourselves. This does not mean sweeping injustice under the rug or staying silent when being hurt. Jesus was a perfect example. He stood up for justice and called out the teachers of the law (the Pharisees), warning his disciples to not be like them because they burdened people with rules yet did not help them at all (Matthew 23:4). To the people who were burnt-out on religion, Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentile and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” 1 John also declared, “God is love” and that His commands are not “burdensome.” God is not the author of evil or abuse. People choose right and wrong. Jesus spoke out against spiritual abuse and we should, too. We should not let fear hinder our choice to speak up or let power of authority or what others think silence us. Wrongs must be exposed to be made right. Once someone is able to identity the spiritual abuse in their lives, appropriate action must be taken.

Be Safe

Spiritual abuse is just as serious any other form of abuse. It is important to never put ourselves in an unsafe place. This is why confronting someone to end a relationship, back down from ministry, or in some cases, report abuse, must not be done alone. Have a safe person, or people, help and go with you. The important thing is having support. Reporting abuse also allows justice to be served and health to be prompted in and out of the church instead of continuing unhealthy cycles of abuse. If leadership is toxic or unwilling to take action on your behalf, find a safe person/persons who will. In dealing with toxic people in authority or those who have inflicted spiritual abuse, make sure boundaries are established and, if necessary, find a new church altogether. Use your voice to speak up about the spiritual abuse that was not acceptable for you or for others. Overall, every case is different and must be considered in prayer and with the counsel of God’s Word and godly people.

Get Honest

In order to heal, we must be honest about the pain inflicted on us. We might have bitterness, question God, or develop trust issues if those who said they loved God caused us pain. But we must make time to process honestly what happened in order to forgive and have a healthy recovery. Anger, bitterness, and resentment are symptoms of hurt. This is why it’s important to remember Jesus, who was hated and sent to die by religious people. At one of the statements on the cross, Jesus forgave his abusers. And, since Jesus forgave us, we too can ask Him for help to forgive others. To move forward, pray about who should be a part of your recovery team and seek to get healthy with their support.

Ask God to Re-Shape Your View of Him

If you have found yourself being spiritually abused, you need to know who Jesus is. He does not manipulate, shame, guilt, hurt, control, intimidate, humiliate, burden, or put-down. He is for you and loves you unconditionally—imperfections and all. God does not change. A person that has experienced spiritual abuse must take time to let God re-wire and re-establish who the true Jesus of the Bible is and who they are to Him. Since there is a lot of damage in this area, lies need to be weeded out. Man-made rules need to be let go, and the focus needs to rest on Scripture. Learning the character of Jesus based on love, not duty, is key to recovery. It’s OK to be real and be messy. Journal. Express your emotions. Read the Gospels. And then find healthy community and teaching, one that, although will not be perfect, will give you freedom to walk with Jesus and represents Him in grace, truth, love, and the soundness of His Word.

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

– 2 Corinthians 3:17